A media outlet for Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has released pictures purportedly showing three FBI agents who interviewed Ali al Harzi, a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The release of the pictures on jihadist forums was first noticed by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The US government had been seeking access to Harzi for more than two months, since he was arrested in Turkey and deported to his native Tunisia in October. Harzi’s lawyer told the Associated Press yesterday (Dec. 22) that the FBI had finally been given permission to interview him.
The interview last three hours and was conducted in front of the judge hearing Harzi’s case, with the help of a Moroccan translator.
According to the AP, the FBI asked Harzi not only about the Benghazi attack, but also the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis three days later (Sept. 14). Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which is headed by a notorious al Qaeda-linked jihadist named Seifullah ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), orchestrated that assault.
If the pictures are of the interviewing FBI agents, then it shows that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was stalking the Americans. Indeed, in its message announcing the photos online, the group claimed that “despite being forcefully prevented from taking pictures, we were able to take some exclusive pictures.”
Hassine’s group is using the photos to chastise the Tunisian government for cooperating with the US.
“Six American states are demanding their independence from the federal government, and the Tunisian Troike [tripartite coalition] government intends to replace them in the event of secession,” the group’s message reads, according to SITE’s translation.
The message continues: “Receive glad tidings O people, for the signs of joining have qualified FBI agents to begin investigating your sons under post-revolutionary protection.”
The release of the photos adds a new wrinkle to the investigation into Harzi’s background. Harzi initially came under suspicion after he posted information related to the Benghazi attack online. The Daily Beast first reported on Oct. 23 that Harzi “posted an update on social media about the fighting shortly after it had begun” and that this was “[o]ne of the first clues the intelligence community had about the perpetrators” in Benghazi.
During a television interview on Oct. 31, Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Laraeydh said that Harzi “is strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”
Harzi’s precise terrorist affiliation has been ambiguous in press reporting. For instance, a US intelligence official speaking anonymously to The Daily Beast described Harzi as “a member of violent extremist networks in North Africa.” Harzi was reportedly en route to Syria, a common destination for North African jihadists, when he was arrested.
Fox News reported that Harzi “is part of a North African Islamist network, with family ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremists.” Senator Saxby Chambliss (R – GA) told the cable network that Harzi “has been confirmed to be a member of Ansar al Sharia.”
Members of the Ansar al Sharia militia in Benghazi reportedly took part in the attack on the US Consulate.
But the release of the photos allegedly showing FBI agents indicates that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has taken a keen interest in Harzi. In its posting of the pictures, the group refers to Harzi as “brother.”
According to SITE, the title of the posting reads, “Exclusive Pictures of the FBI Agents who Investigated Brother Ali al-Harzi (The Case of Killing the American Foreigner in Libya).”
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia orchestrated the Sept. 14, 2012 ransacking of the US Embassy in Tunis, as well as a nearby school. The group is headed by Seifullah ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), who has longstanding ties to al Qaeda. In 2000, Hassine co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), an al Qaeda-affiliated group that participated in the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Hassine was arrested in Turkey in 2003 and deported to Tunisia, where he was sentenced to more than 40 years in prison. Hassine was released from prison in 2011, in the wake of the Tunisian revolution.
According to the Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI), Hassine eulogized Osama bin Laden after the al Qaeda master was killed in May 2011. “Let the entire world celebrate the death of one of our Ummah’s leaders,” Hassine said, “since the death and martyrdom of our leaders for the sake of this straight path … is an indication of the truthfulness of our way.”
According to MEMRI, Hassine added that the death of bin Laden and other “brothers and leaders,” such as al Qaeda in Iraq leaders Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, should compel Muslims to fight on. “This is the allegiance, and that is the promise to Allah – do not regress after the death of your sheikh [i.e. bin Laden], or the deaths of your leaders,” Hassine said. “Remain steadfast – and die for [the same cause] for which the best among you died.”
Two other Ansar al Sharia Tunisia leaders are Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, both of whom were convicted by Italian courts for their participation in al Qaeda’s operations in Italy. Essid was the head of al Qaeda in Italy before his arrest. According to the US State Department and other sources, Essid plotted to attack the US Embassy in Rome in early 2001.
After the Sept. 14, 2012 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis, the Tunisian government imprisoned numerous Ansar al Sharia members. One of them is Bilel Chaouachi, a young imam who has openly praised Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
On Dec. 21, 2012, the Tunisian government announced that it had arrested members of an al Qaeda terrorist cell who had been trained by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and “were active within” Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.