Now leaked emails show the State Department knew of the group’s Facebook boasts shortly after the attack.

The debate continues to rage over whether the Obama administration properly responded to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which left four Americans dead. But new leaked emails show the government knew almost immediately that a militant group had claimed responsibility on social media.

The emails, acquired by Reuters and Fox News, show that, two hours after the attacks, the State Department was aware that a group named Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility on both Twitter and Facebook. The emails offer scant additional details, beyond a worrisome tidbit: the group also called for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

The State Department hasn’t officially labeled Ansar al-Sharia, which rose to power in the wake of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s death, a terrorist group. That’s despite the fact it has assassinated enemies, destroyed rival mosques, and supports Al-Qaeda.

Or, at least, militants who use the “Ansar al-Sharia” name do. That phrase simply translates to “supporters of Islamic law,” and numerous groups around the Middle East, including several in Libya, have adopted the name. That all played a role in the government’s confusion immediately after the attacks.

There’s still a debate in the U.S. over whether the acts were an act of premeditated terrorism or a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Islamist video “Innocence of Muslims.” President Obama used the phrase “act of terror” in his speech about the attacks the day after they occurred. But four days after that, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.S., was calling it a “spontaneous” act of violence.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the action to not take Ansar al-Sharia’s social media claims as gospel, telling reporters that “posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence.”

Besides, as White House spokesman Jay Carney noted, a few hours later, Ansar al-Sharia members said their group was not involved after all.

Image of Ansar al-Sharia logo via Wikimedia Commons

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