For the first time since four American diplomats were killed during violent protests at the U.S. consulate in Libya, the White House spokesman acknowledged that the attacks were an act of terrorism.
During a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One, Press Secretary Jay Carney called the attacks “terrorism” in the sense that they fit the definition of such an act.
“It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials – that's self-evident," Carney said to reporters traveling en route to Florida, where the president participated in a forum hosted by the Spanish-language network Univision.
The mention of “terrorism” – first made Wednesday by National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen (an Obama administration official) during Capitol Hill testimony -- was a marked shift in tone for Carney, who, until Thursday, had used the less-charged word, “extremists” to refer to the perpetrators.
“There has certainly been precedent in the past where bad actors – extremists who are heavily armed in different countries, in different regions of the world, have taken advantage of and exploited situations that have developed in order to either attack Westerners or Western assets or American or American assets,” Carney said at Wednesday’s press briefing, which took place about 45 minutes after Olsen called the attack terrorism.
But President Obama did not call the attack “terrorism” during the Univision forum, sticking to “extremism.”
“The natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests,” Obama said, declining to comment on whether or not the attacks had been premeditated.
He suggested, however, that if the attack had been planned, it would have been orchestrated by a smaller organization than al-Qaida, as Olsen suggested Wednesday. Olsen said the perpetrators were likely an offshoot of al-Qaida, similar to its North African branch, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
“In Yemen, in Libya, in other of these places, increasingly in places like Syria, what you see is these elements that don't have the same capacity that a bin Laden or core al-Qaida had but can still cause a lot of damage,” Obama said.