At that rally, terror leaders called for the murder of American diplomats.
Three U.S. intelligence reports, unearthed by the American Media Institute and detailed here for the first time, offer vivid descriptions of the al-Qaida meeting.
Flying the black flag of al-Qaida, some 300 armed men gathered in Benghazi's Al-Tahrir Square on June 7 and 8, 2012. They brandished machine guns, rocket launchers and a truck mounted with an anti-aircraft cannon.
The two-day meeting, which included outdoor prayers and a parade of armed vehicles, was attended by a baker's dozen of North African al-Qaida affiliates.
"It was like a team pep rally before the game, only for jihad," said a U.S. intelligence analyst who monitors North Africa. "Organized and deadly. You saw what followed. People died."
In the face of these three reports, the State Department continued to deny requests for additional security for the U.S. ambassador in Libya.
At the same time, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans against going to Libya in August 2012.
Obama administration officials have long denied any warning before the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks.
On the campaign trail, the president insisted that al-Qaida was "decimated" and "on the run," while intelligence reports prepared for the president's advisers told a different story — that al-Qaida's menace was growing in Libya and elsewhere.
Al-Qaida itself publicly displayed its strength. Al-Qaida posted pictures of the June 2012 Benghazi meeting on its Arabic-language Facebook page and invited the Arabic-language media to cover the event, which many did.
The three U.S. intelligence reports documenting the al-Qaida gathering in Benghazi were circulated in August 2012 and earlier among Defense and State Department officials, as well as America's 16 intelligence agencies.
The country's dangers were known to stem from al-Qaida. "In April 2011, I warned Congress to watch out for al-Qaida in Eastern Libya," said counterterrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"I told them it would get violent, and I named one of the suspects in the Benghazi attack, Sufian bin Qhumu, a former detainee at Guantanamo," he added.
It is unclear whether the administration briefed Congress on the three reports. When asked whether House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., had seen the reports, Rogers spokesman Kelsey Knight said: "I'm sure he has."
Yet there was no specific briefing from White House officials on the Benghazi reports.
Spokesmen for House and Reform Committee Chairman Darryl Issa did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did representatives from three additional House committees, the FBI, or the CIA.
Yet senior State Department officials continued to deny requests for increased security for U.S. diplomats in Libya.
The U.S. sent more than $200 million in security aid to the Libyan government from January 2011 to October 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service. None of that money was spent on additional security for Ambassador Chris Stevens or his staff.
"It was Dodge City" in Benghazi, said a former U.S. government security officer who was assigned to Libya in the months leading up to the fatal Sept. 11 attacks. "Of course our people knew it was volatile. That's why they sent me there."
Sounding A Warning
A trio of intelligence reports sounded the warning — but were ignored by senior administration officials during the 2012 presidential campaign.
One report, compiled for the Irregular Warfare Support Program of the Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, predicted al-Qaida would take aggressive actions, including "selective terrorism, threats, intimidation and assassination."
The report's authors, working on behalf of the Library of Congress' Federal Research Division that produces reports for the military and intelligence community, found that al-Qaida took advantage of Libya's 2011 revolution, seizing the opportunity to establish well-armed, trained, combat-hardened militias.
Al-Qaida's Pakistan-based senior leadership ordered followers in Libya to "form a clandestine network" and "to gather weapons, establish training camps, and impose Sharia law."
"The al-Qaida clandestine network is currently in an expansion phase," the report noted.
Another report, published by the Library of Congress Congressional Research Service in August 2012, highlighted the growing dangers of al-Qaida in Libya.
"The report described the security situation in Libya as deteriorating," said Christopher M. Blanchard, a Middle Eastern specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
The August report for the Congressional Research Service was not intended to predict a specific jihadist strike, Blanchard said.
Like the intelligence community, it had no information about the time, place or type of attack — the three elements that make up what officials call "actionable intelligence."
Instead, it was the disclosure that the "Libyan military's massive small-arms and heavy weapons stockpiles have been looted and dispersed both within Libya and beyond its borders," said Blanchard.
The Library of Congress report for the Pentagon unit was culled from open sources on the Internet.
One such source was a London-based Saudi online publication describing the June rally in Benghazi.
That story in turn was picked up and disseminated by the CIA-supported World News Connection, which distributes news reports to the intelligence community.
"We all read the same stuff," the intelligence analyst said. "It gets circular, going through all the relevant government agencies. That report for the Irregular Warfare office got passed around a lot."
The report cited the June military rally in Benghazi, saying the event brought together at least 15 Islamist militias from throughout Libya.
The groups, which are thought to be "the bulk of the al-Qaida network in Libya," included the Revolutionaries of Sirt, the Free Libya Martyrs, the Agency for Protective Security, and others. Sponsoring the rally was Ansar al-Sharia, a Benghazi-based jihadist militia.
Ansar al-Sharia's role is particularly noteworthy, the intelligence analyst said.
At a time when President Obama and his allies vowed to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a former Guantanamo detainee, Sufian Ben Qhumu — the man believed to have led the Benghazi attack — was plotting to kill the U.S. ambassador.
By the summer of 2012, as noted in the report for the Pentagon unit, Ben Qhumu's group ran a thriving social media propaganda mill, and was a leading source of extremist discourse and denunciation of America.
And as the three intelligence reports warned, they were preparing to attack in June 2012. "They had a crapload of stuff," said the former security officer. "They were itching to use it."
It didn't take long for al-Qaida to strike. On June 11, 2012, four days after the rally, a homemade bomb exploded at the front gate of the U.S. mission in Benghazi, reportedly injuring some guards.
The bomb made a 40-foot hole in the perimeter wall.
A militia, Imprisoned Shaykh Omar Abdulrahman Brigades in Libya, took credit for the blast.
In a statement issued in English, the group boasted that it "targeted the Christians supervising the management of the consulate, and who were getting ready to welcome one of the heads of malevolence operating for the U.S. Department of State (U.S. Ambassador Stevens)."
The bomb attack was in retaliation for America disturbing "the purity of Libya's sky" with unmanned aerial vehicles, the group said, and for targeting an al-Qaida leader, Shaykh Abu Yehya Al-Liby, killed in a drone attack in Pakistan in June 2012.
The Abdulrahman Brigades is named for the so-called "blind sheik," an Egyptian radical who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1993 bomb plots against the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
The sheik currently is inmate number 34892-054 at the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina, a prison official confirmed.
"We don't know if his namesake group that bombed the mission was inspired by the Benghazi military rally," the intelligence source said. "But the timing is noteworthy."
"You find all these clear al-Qaida ties to the attackers," Joscelyn said. "How can you not say it's an al-Qaida attack?"
The rally remains a focus for U.S. intelligence. Investigators have been combing through rally photos seeking to identify weapons and trace their origins. They are working, too, to identify militants who attended the June 2012 rally in Benghazi.
But the work, as are many things connected to Benghazi, is slow and staggered — as other intelligence priorities continue to rain down from senior officials.
The warnings from intelligence were loud and clear.
Yet the president's campaign wanted to focus on his foreign policy successes, killing Osama bin Laden and liberating Libya.
Those three intelligence reports, one analyst said, were "an inconvenient truth" that called both of those accomplishments into question.
• Katz, a People magazine correspondent, and Miniter, a bestselling author and Forbes.com contributor, are writers at the American Media Institute, a nonprofit investigative news service that can be found at AmericanMediaInstitute.org.
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