The deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that killed four Americans was directly tied to al-Qaida and involved a former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay prison, intelligence sources told Fox News.
The information comes as a top Obama White House official described the assault for the first time as a “terrorist attack” — and Republican lawmakers intensified their questioning of administration officials on security issues and whether consulate security personnel had communicated with extremists before the attack occurred.
The White House has long claimed the assault had been a “spontaneous” act.
“Yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said on Wednesday during a Senate hearing, Fox reports.
But Olsen echoed administration colleagues in saying U.S. officials have no specific intelligence about “significant advanced planning or coordination” for the attack.
His statement, however, goes beyond White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, saying the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate was spontaneous.
Olsen is the first top White House official to call the strike an act of terrorism, Fox reports.
Intelligence sources told Fox that Sufyan Ben Qumu is thought to have been involved — and even may have led the Benghazi attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Qumu, a Libyan, was released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2007 and transferred into Libyan custody on the condition that he is kept in jail. His Guantanamo files also show he has ties to the financiers behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Olson, repeating Wednesday that the FBI is handling the Benghazi investigation, also acknowledged the attack could lead back to al-Qaida and its affiliates.
“We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaida or al-Qaida’s affiliates, in particular al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” he said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Fox reports.
“The facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy, the attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours,” Olson said, according to Fox.
But Olsen sidestepped a question from Maine Sen. Susan Collins about whether communication had occurred between extremist elements and the local consulate guards, Reuters reports.
“I think that would be better addressed in the session that we’re going to have tomorrow,” Olsen told the Republican senator, Reuters reports. U.S. officials said the possibility of such collusion is part of their investigation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are to brief lawmakers in a closed session on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers said on Wednesday that they agreed with Libyan officials who said the attack was preplanned.
“You don’t bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to spontaneous demonstrations,” Arizona Sen. John McCain told Reuters.
“I think it was a preplanned event to have occurred probably on 9/11,” Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee chairman, told Reuters. “It seemed well-coordinated.”
He described the assault as an “al Qaida-style attack.”
There was command-and-control on the ground, with initial reports showing clearly that the attackers were moving toward specific targets on the compound, Rogers said.
“They had objectives. They had targets they were working toward. They were using military-style movements,” he told Reuters. “I just look at that and think I don’t know how you say that that wasn’t a pre-planned event when you have that kind of coordination.”
Obama administration officials say U.S. intelligence agencies had not seen any warnings to indicate the consulate was going to be attacked.
In fact, Press Secretary Carney said earlier on Wednesday that there was still “no evidence of a preplanned or pre-meditated attack,” which occurred on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“I made that clear last week, Ambassador Rice made that clear Sunday,” Carney said at the daily White House press briefing.
Rice appeared on “Fox News Sunday” and four other morning talk shows to say the attack was “spontaneous” and was sparked by an early protest that day outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, over an anti-Islamic video.
“It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States,” Rice told Fox on Sunday. “The best information and the best assessment we have today is that this was not a pre-planned, pre-meditated attack. What happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo.”
That account clashed with claims by the Libyan president that the attack was in fact premeditated, Fox reports.
Other sources, including an intelligence source in Libya who spoke to Fox on Wednesday, have echoed those claims. The intelligence source even said that, contrary to the suggestion by the Obama administration, no major protest in Benghazi occurred before the deadly attack at the U.S. consulate.
A U.S. official did not dispute the claim, Fox reports.
Meanwhile, other new details emerged on security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate, Reuters reports. Five civilian American security officers were stationed at the consulate, congressional aides said on condition of anonymity.
The State Department said it had contracted with a private security firm, U.K.-based Blue Mountain Group, to hire Libyan nationals to carry out security measures at the Benghazi consulate. Their jobs included operating metal detectors and sweeping cars for explosives.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers also pressed their questions on U.S. security arrangements in a region where weapons, including sophisticated arms looted from arsenals assembled by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, were widely available.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon said he was “really concerned about the lack of support that the ambassador had, the lack of protection.”
“We had no military personnel there” in Benghazi, McKeon said after a closed-door briefing from Pentagon officials, Reuters reports.
He said this was “inconceivable” after an attack on the compound earlier in the year.
Clinton defended the security arrangements earlier this week.
“Let me assure you that our security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely on in many places around the world,” she said on Tuesday.
Also on Wednesday, FBI investigators arrived in Libya after an initial delay over security concerns. The investigation team should reach Benghazi before the end of the week, U.S. officials said.
Their goal is to determine what happened on the ground and who was responsible.