December 5th, 2013
08:27 PM ET

Analysis: Pro al Qaeda militants seen as lead suspects in American teacher’s death

By CNN's Paul Cruickshank and Nic Robertson

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the shooting death of American teacher Ronnie Smith on a morning jog in Benghazi Thursday, but a leading Libyan terrorism analyst believes it was most likely the work of groups linked or sympathetic to al Qaeda.

Libya’s Interior Ministry said four unidentified assailants in a black Jeep opened fire on Smith, killing him instantly.

“You need to analyze the target,” Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, told CNN. “It was most likely he was targeted because of his nationality, and the groups most interested in doing that are al Qaeda and local Jihadists allied with them in Benghazi.”

Benotman points to a 17-minute Arabic language video released last week in which American al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn called for al Qaeda supporters in Libya to take revenge for the capture by U.S. special forces of veteran Libyan al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al Libi in Tripoli in October.

“I say to the people of Libya in particular and the sons of the Ummah in general: Do not leave this criminal cowardly act to pass without punishment,” Gadahn stated, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence group.

Al Libi's capture also prompted calls for revenge by militant outfits in Libya.  A Facebook page entitled “Benghazi is Protected by its People” reportedly called for Americans to be abducted.

Groups sympathetic to al Qaeda have a significant presence in Benghazi, most notably Ansar al-Sharia, an umbrella group that includes militant outfits suspected of launching the attack that killed four Americans in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

Earlier this week in a Libyan television interview, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, a leading figure in Ansar al-Sharia, described the attack on the U.S. consulate as “revenge” by Muslims against the West and castigated the Libyan government for "crying" over the attack, but denied the group had any role in the 2012 attack.

Since then, Ansar al-Sharia has entrenched and extended its presence in eastern Libya. According to a recent analysis by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East policy, by the summer of this year, the group had built up a presence as far west along the coast as Adjdabiya and Sirte by offering locals social welfare services.

But a backlash against the group has gathered force in recent weeks by locals tired of being oppressed, extorted, and bullied by its fighters. The residents of Benghazi and Derna have taken to the streets to protest their presence. Last week, clashes erupted in Benghazi between the Libyan army and Ansar al-Sharia after militants affiliated with the group beat a local man at a checkpoint they controlled in the city. On Sunday a clinic belonging to the group was bombed in Benghazi.

“We’re talking about a huge rejection of the Islamists. For the most part these are ordinary civilians protesting against their presence, often armed with nothing more than cell phone cameras,” Benotman told CNN.

Benotman believes it is possible Islamist militants in Benghazi targeted Smith to try to restore their popularity - and deflect attention from the growing criticism of their activities – by provoking the United States into a heavy-handed response.  “But it won’t work – people are fed up with them,” he said.

Given the weakness of Libya’s central government and army, Benotman believes that despite the recent backlash, there is a long road ahead in the battle to free eastern Libya from the grip of Islamist militias. According to his sources, after the attack on the U.S. consulate, militant groups began to move fighters and weapons away from Benghazi and Derna to the remote “Green Mountains”  between the two towns. He said jihadists currently operate six to seven training camps in the area outside Derna, which also house foreign fighters, including jihadists previously based in northern Mali.

Al Qaeda linked jihadists also have a significant presence in southern Libya, running three camps south of Sabha, according to regional security sources. Jihadists who previously operated in northern Mali, including Moktar Belmokhtar, the Algerian leader of a Saharan al Qaeda affiliate, are believed to be now present in the "Salvador Pass," the triangle border region between Libya, Algeria and Niger.

Algeria attack may have link to Libya camps

The war in Syria has energized Libyan jihadists and provided them with new networking opportunities within the broader al Qaeda network.  Hundreds of young fighters are thought to have traveled from eastern Libya to fight in Syria. Those who come back are not only battle-hardened but armed with new connections to jihadists from across the Arab world.

"It's going to take at least five years for any government to win this fight," Benotmam told CNN.

CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

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  27. martin jude

    Just as France is doing its best to drive out terrorists from its ex-colonies, the onus falls on Italy which I believe was the former colonising power in Libya. Then how about the other European nations and Canada that led the war against Gaddafi ? They are just as culpable, and need to send some security forces to stabilize this critical part of Libya so that people and do-gooders like Ron Smith can do their work without fear. My condolences and prayers are with his family. May you rest in peace, Bud !

    December 9, 2013 at 1:26 am | Reply
  28. dougjmiller

    Again an American is murdered in Benghazi. Obama didn't care about the others, I'm sure this will also be ignored. Radical Islamic terrorists are waging wars of aggression in many places around the globe. Their goal is world domination and the elimination of every religion other than their perverted version of Islam. They will kill every man, woman and child they can get their blood-thirsty hands on. They will murder every Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Atheist and even moderate or different sect Moslem they can, in order to frighten the rest of the population into submission. The good people and the decent nations must work together to defeat radical Islam or civilization is in peril.

    December 8, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  29. Jerry

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    December 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  30. Fetuilfh Kdrtjk

    The above was the 22nd coment...what is in a number...

    December 6, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  31. Fetuilfh Kdrtjk

    People are really mortal. It would seem the Internet can induce/create Mortality. It would seem that the -N S A- is a sort of new would be Prophet.

    December 6, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  32. Fetuilfh Kdrtjk

    Here is another thing: write the word Kill out of context and different people/groups asign their own meaning then may or may not act on their own personal thoughts. Remember: just the Word kill writen out of context in one language...the internet is real my friends.

    December 6, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  33. Fetuilfh Kdrtjk

    The better defined terrorist is like the unseen/unkown/unrecognized terrorist act/event its there hiding in plain sight. The practical application of the true definition by all leaders and Citizens everyplace is nessisary for Peace. There is currently a huge mostly unfocused mis-informed ill-defined mis-directed model for the Worlds would be leaders (non-terrorist supporting). "It" comes and goes and back again...balance...the criminals and the criminal acts both multiple thoughts within the context of multiple ideas including (currenly) multiple conflicts of thoughts & ideas due in part to lack of definition & complex nature of People cultures political point of view and Citizenship or lack their of...

    December 6, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  34. California

    I'm guessing we no longer have them on the run right Obama?

    December 6, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  35. Khtdfh Futreh

    Do you see the real and the imaginary...

    December 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  36. Khtdfh Futreh

    –TRY– THIS– FOR– YOURSELF:– do– a– internet– search– for– m u s l i u m– s a i n t s– then– do– a– I n t e r n e t– search– for– m u s l i u m– s a I n t s– who– teach– t e r r o r I s m–DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE...Do you see the real problem...

    December 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  37. Mgfd Fhjkkl

    Real or Imaginary & always predictable.

    December 6, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  38. Mgfd Fhjkkl

    Terrorists have more money then brains but they are the GREEDY POWER HUNGRY wind up toys they think they are just like the GREEDY POWER HUNGY MILITARYS its just one is slightly more CORUPTABLE than the other. @ best the invisable hand shakes, but too what unintended ends.

    December 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  39. Mgfd Fhjkkl

    Terrorists for hire if you will...

    December 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  40. Mgfd Fhjkkl

    Terrorists live forever just like the Military wants it.

    December 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  41. Carl J

    I thought mokhtar belmokhtar was dead? Having trouble reporting facts I guess..

    December 6, 2013 at 8:52 am | Reply
    • TJ

      It was so reported that he was confirmed alive months ago. See here: http://youtu.be/NTcsU5Xefyw

      December 6, 2013 at 9:24 am | Reply
  42. Richard M Nixon (Deceased)

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.

    December 6, 2013 at 8:03 am | Reply
  43. AConservativeEdge

    Reblogged this on AConservativeEdge.

    December 6, 2013 at 7:26 am | Reply
  44. AVP

    A person who was actually helping where help is needed through education.

    December 6, 2013 at 4:53 am | Reply
  45. Hdfgjk Ffgyk

    THE KILLING OF TEACHER IS TERRORISM; MANDELA WAS LABLED A TERRORIST: DO YOU SEE THE DIFFERENCE...

    December 5, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  46. Hdfgjk Ffgyk

    "MANDELA: OF MEN, BLACKS, THOUGHT MANY."

    December 5, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Reply

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