From al Qaeda in Italy to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia
Abu Iyad preaches during a rally in Tunisia in front of a flag commonly used by al Qaeda in Iraq. On the right (Iyad's left), in orange, is Sami Ben Khemais Essid. On the left (Iyad's right, also in orange), according to L'Espresso, is Mehdi Kammoun.
Two convicted members of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Italy are now senior members of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. The pair, Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, were arrested in 2001 and sentenced to several years in prison for their terrorist plotting as operatives in the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG).
They were each subsequently deported to their native Tunisia, where they were imprisoned by President Ben Ali's regime. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Essid and Kammoun were freed.
The US government has previously identified Essid as the head of al Qaeda's operations in Italy. In early 2001, Essid plotted to attack the US Embassy in Rome, among other targets.
Essid's and Kammoun's role in Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was first reported by L'Espresso, a weekly Italian news magazine. L'Espresso identified the two in a video of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia's leader, Seifallah ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyad. They can be seen wearing orange vests, flanking Abu Iyad on both sides.
The Long War Journal has found the same video online. A side-by-side comparison of a screen shot from the video and a known photo of Essid is shown below. Essid has subsequently been interviewed by an Algerian newspaper, which confirmed that he is now a leader in Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. A similar photo of Kammoun was not immediately available for comparison purposes.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia orchestrated the Sept. 14 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis. The attack did extensive damage to US interests, including a school. Several people were killed during a subsequent confrontation between the rioters and Tunisian security forces.
Sami Ben Khemais Essid. On the left, Essid attends an Ansar al Sharia Tunisia rally. On the right, Essid as pictured by the US State Department.
Former head of al Qaeda operations in Italy
Sami Ben Khemais Essid is a well-known terrorist. In its Patterns of Global Terrorism report for 2001, the State Department published a special case study examining Essid's al Qaeda role and his plotting against US interests.
In January 2001, the State Dept. reported, "Italian authorities worked with US officials to thwart an attack on the US Embassy in Rome." An investigation launched by Italy's intelligence services "resulted in the US Embassies in Rome and the Vatican City, as well as the US Consulates in Naples and Milan, being closed to the public - the first such security closure of the Embassy in Rome since the Gulf war in 1991."
Essid "directed the plot" against the US Embassy in Rome, the State Dept. noted.
Authorities found that Essid "spent two years in Afghanistan and trained as a recruiter for al Qaeda." Essid also "headed al Qaeda operations in Italy," using a firm he owned as "a front for his recruitment activity and terrorist-attack planning."
Essid wasn't the only al Qaeda operative arrested in Italy's pre-9/11 crackdown. "By April" 2001, the State Dept. reported, "five North Africans with links to Osama bin Laden were in custody in connection with the terrorist plot against the US Embassy." And in October 2001, "additional arrest warrants were issued following information obtained by police and judicial authorities confirming a 'significant' link between al Qaeda and those arrested."
Italian authorities became suspicious of Essid's network in 2000, if not earlier. They began to monitor the Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI) in Milan, which was the headquarters for Essid's operations.
Essid and his crew were not the only al Qaeda-linked terrorists who found the ICI to be hospitable. "Others who frequented the Islamic Cultural Institute included terrorists associated with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya," the State Dept. reported.
Also attending the ICI in Milan were several Tunisians who were captured after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and ended up being detained at Guantanamo. Some of those detainees remain in custody. Another current Guantanamo detainee, a Yemeni named Abd al Salam al Hilah, frequented the ICI. During a wiretapped conversation in 2000, al Hilah was overheard discussing a terrorist operation involving airplanes that the press would later say indicated he may have had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The TCG operated throughout Europe. According to the UN, the TCG was "believed to have cells ... in France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom." The UN found that Essid's Italian branch of the TCG was also "connected to the so-called Frankfurt group, whose members were arrested in December 2000." The Frankfurt cell intended "to launch a terrorist attack in Strasbourg," France on Christmas Day.
During a conversation recorded by Italian authorities shortly before his arrest, on March 14, 2001, Essid was overheard saying, "The product is better. It's more efficient because this liquid, as soon as you open it, it suffocates people." According to the State Dept., the Italians interpreted Essid's words as suggesting that his "terrorist cell was contemplating using poison gas." It is not clear whether this was aspirational or an actual plot involving poison gas was afoot.
Essid was deported to Tunisia in June 2008 and was freed from prison after President Ben Ali's regime crumbled.
Al Qaeda facilitator
Prior to his arrest in Italy in 2001, according to the United Nations, Kammoun was a member of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), which evolved into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Kammoun "was active in a GSPC cell that sent militants to training camps organized by al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
After he was arrested along with Essid in April 2001, the UN reported, Kammoun was convicted of terrorism charges and "sentenced to five years and ten months in prison for having organized a cell in Gallarate, Italy, affiliated with al Qaeda." Kammoun "was also convicted for conspiracy to traffic arms, explosives and chemical weapons, for receiving stolen goods, for making and using forged documents, and for facilitating illegal immigration to Italy."
In July 2005, Kammoun was deported to Tunisia, where he was sentenced to eight years. He also was either freed or escaped prison in the wake of the Tunisian revolution.
Opposed to the "West-Zionist crusade"
In the video showing Essid and Kammoun, Abu Iyad exhorts followers to oppose Western influence. "Our first message is directed to the West-Zionist crusade, we tell them: we are aware that you have been planning since years, and your planning has been intensified after the escape of your pawn, Ben Ali, for the purpose of removing Islam from this land," Abu Iyad says in the video. "I swear you will never be successful."
Abu Iyad continues, "You have tried in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Somalia, and have not gained except for one defeat after another." The Ansar al Sharia leader promises that the Tunisian people "are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of protecting their religion."
Abu Iyad's use of al Qaeda-style rhetoric is not surprising. In 2000, Hassine co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) in Afghanistan with help from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. The United Nations notes that the TCG was created "in coordination with" al Qaeda.
In addition to its extensive plotting in the West, the TCG was implicated in the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by two Tunisians pretending to be journalists. Massoud's assassination was a key part of al Qaeda's Sept. 11 plot, as it removed a powerful adversary from the Afghan battlefield before the American-led counterattack began. The UN says that the TCG's Belgian branch, led by Tarek al Maaroufi, "organized the travel to Afghanistan" of Massoud's assassins. Maaroufi, who cofounded the TCG with Abu Iyad, returned to Tunisia earlier this year.
According to intelligence contained in leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) files, Abu Iyad was so loyal to al Qaeda's masters that he organized a unit to fight on behalf of Osama bin Laden during the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001.
Today, Abu Iyad and other freed TCG operatives have rebranded themselves as Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia.