Ali Ani al Harzi. Courtesy of the SITE Intelligence Group.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, an extremist group headed by a known terrorist with longstanding ties to al Qaeda, has published a video of one of the key suspects in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The video, which was posted on the group’s Facebook page earlier this month, shows Ali Ani al Harzi being released from prison and greeted by his comrades.
The FBI questioned Harzi in December, after being denied access to him for months. But the FBI’s questioning lasted just three hours, according to press reports. Harzi’s lawyer told journalists that the FBI asked Harzi about not only the attack in Benghazi, but also the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012.
Members of a Libyan militia named Ansar al Sharia reportedly took part in the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, while Ansar al Sharia Tunisia orchestrated the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis three days later.
Despite the US government’s keen interest in Harzi, a Tunisian court freed him from custody on Jan. 7.
Ali Ani al Harzi being congratulated on his freedom by his comrades. Courtesy of the SITE Intelligence Group.
Harzi thanks God for his freedom in the Ansar al Sharia Tunisia video. “Your brothers in prison send their greetings to you all, one by one,” Harzi says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. Harzi adds: “Praise be to God, Who bestowed on us this gift of release from prison. The brothers in prison ask you: Do not forget us. They are waiting for your help and your prayers.”
This is at least the third occasion on which Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has used social media to publish an update on Harzi’s legal status.
Shortly after Harzi was questioned by the Americans in December, the group released photos of the three investigating FBI agents online. In the same posting, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia criticized the Tunisian government for allowing the US to question Harzi.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, 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).” The group claimed that “despite being forcefully prevented from taking pictures, we were able to take some exclusive pictures” of the FBI Agents.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia also released a video on YouTube in December showing a lawyer discussing Harzi’s case. The lawyer confirmed that the FBI was present for questioning. In the video, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia prayed for Harzi’s release. An introductory sentence in the video reads: “Lawyer Hafiz Ghadoun talks about the case of Brother Ali al Harzi – Allah free him – and confirms the presence of investigators from the FBI [sent there] to interrogate him.”
According to The Daily Beast, Harzi’s ties to the Benghazi attack were first discovered after US officials learned that he had “posted an update on social media about the fighting shortly after it had begun.” This was “[o]ne of the first clues the intelligence community had about the perpetrators” in Benghazi.
Harzi was apprehended in October in Turkey at the behest of US officials. He was making his way to Syria, a hotbed for jihadist recruitment and al Qaeda, at the time. During a televised interview, Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Larayedh explained that Harzi was “strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”
It was not the first time Harzi had been arrested.
In 2006, according to Magharebia, the Tunisian government arrested Harzi for “a desire to join jihad in Iraq” under a counterterrorism law. After the fall of the Tunisian government, however, Harzi was released under a “general legislative pardon,” which also freed some of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s top leaders.
Harzi reportedly sought help from one of his brothers in his ill-fated attempt to wage jihad in Iraq. That brother is believed to be Tariq Abu Ammar, an al Qaeda facilitator.
Citing US intelligence officials, The Daily Beast reported last week that Ammar is “a midlevel planner for al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq,” whose “main job” today “is arranging the travel of fighters from North Africa to Syria’s al Qaeda-linked opposition, known as the al-Nusra Front.”
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which orchestrated the Sept. 14 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis, 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.”
MEMRI noted that in the eulogy, 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. Both Essid and Kammoun were convicted in Italy of terrorism charges, deported to Tunisia for further imprisonment, but released in 2011 after the Tunisian revolution.
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.