NEW YORK - Confusion reigned Wednesday as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to suggest for the first time that militants close to Al-Qaeda were linked to an attack on a US mission in Libya.
During a speech to a high-level meeting on the crisis in the West African Sahel region, Clinton warned the vast desert area was becoming a powder keg with militants moving into the lawless area and creating instability.
"For some time, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups have launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries," Clinton told the meeting, convened by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
"Now with a larger safe haven, and increased freedom for maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.
"And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi," she said.
Some reports maintained Clinton was explicitly saying that Al-Qaeda militants were behind the September 11 assault on the US mission in Benghazi, in which four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.
Clinton has already acknowledged that it was a "terrorist attack," but the State Department swiftly denied she was affirming that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was definitely linked to the assault.
"Don't read more into what the secretary said than she actually said," a senior State Department official said.
"What she actually said is that AQ in the Maghreb is working with other violent extremists to try to undermine democratic transitions under way in Africa.
"This something that we've known. This is something that we have been watching."
Questions have swirled about who was behind the Benghazi attack, with the Obama administration and the State Department initially maintaining it arose out of a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam Internet video.
The explanations about the events surrounding the attack have changed over the past several days, with the White House eventually acknowledging it was an act of terrorism.
The FBI is conducting its own investigation into the attack, and Clinton has also opened an official review into whether proper security measures were taken.
"With regard to the specific issue of who was responsible for the Benghazi attack, as everybody in the administration has said, we can't go beyond our preliminary statements until we have the results of the FBI investigation," the State Department official said.