More than two weeks after the slayings of four Americans in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, fears about the near-total...

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BENGHAZI, Libya — More than two weeks after the slayings of four Americans in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, fears about the near-total lack of security have kept FBI agents from visiting the scene of the killings and forced them to try to piece together the crime from Tripoli, more than 400 miles away.

Investigators are so worried about the security, people involved in the investigation say, that they have been unwilling to risk taking some potential Libyan witnesses into the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Instead, investigators have resorted to questioning some witnesses in cars outside the embassy, which is operating under emergency staffing and was evacuated of even more diplomats Thursday because of a heightened security alert.

“It’s a cavalcade of obstacles right now,” said a senior U.S. law-enforcement official who is receiving regular updates on the Benghazi investigation and who described the crime scene, which has been trampled on, looted and burned, as so badly “degraded” that even once FBI agents do eventually gain access, “it will be very difficult to see what evidence can be attributed to the bad guys.”

Piecing together how Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died would be difficult even under the best of conditions. But the volatile security in post-Gadhafi Libya has added to the challenge of determining whether it was purely a local group of extremists who initiated the fatal assault or whether the attackers had ties to international terrorist groups, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Wednesday may be the case.

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The Libyan government has advised the FBI that it cannot assure the safety of the U.S. investigators in Benghazi.

So agents have been conducting interviews from afar, relying on local Libyan authorities to help identify and arrange meetings with witnesses to the attack and working closely with the Libyans to gauge the veracity of any of those accounts.

So far, U.S. intelligence analysts say they think two or three fighters affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were involved.

“There are people who at least have some association with AQIM,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who added that “it’s not so direct that you would say AQIM as an organization planned and carried this out.”

Instead, U.S. officials said a lesser-known Islamist group, Ansar al-Shariah, played a much larger role in sending fighters and providing weapons for the attack.

At the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the government was waiting on the FBI investigation to determine who was responsible.

He also said the Benghazi attack was “planned” by terrorists. “As to who was involved, what specific groups were involved, I think that the investigation is ongoing and will hopefully determine that,” he added.

Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.

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