The Pentagon said today that Ali Awni al Harzi, a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was killed on June 15 by an American airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.
The Defense Department describes al Harzi as a “person of interest” in the Benghazi attack, adding that he “operated closely with multiple ISIL-associated extremists throughout North Africa and the Middle East.” ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is the acronym the US government uses for the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that claims to rule over a caliphate covering much of Iraq and Syria.
In April, both the US State Department and the United Nations designated al Harzi as a terrorist. [See LWJ report, Benghazi suspect designated by UN, State Department.]
At the time, the State Department said that Harzi “joined Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AAS-T) in 2011 and was a high-profile member known for recruiting volunteers, facilitating the travel of AAS-T fighters to Syria, and for smuggling weapons and explosives into Tunisia.” Ansar al Sharia Tunisia works closely with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda.
Curiously, the State Department’s designation did not mention Harzi’s role in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack.
Days earlier, the United Nations (UN) added Harzi to the Security Council’s al Qaeda sanctions list. The UN’s designation page for Harzi reads: “Planned and perpetrated the attack against the Consulate of the United States in Benghazi, Libya on 11 Sep. 2012.”
Indeed, Harzi was one of the first jihadists publicly identified as a suspect in the Benghazi raid. Eli Lake, then of The Daily Beast, first reported on Harzi’s suspected involvement in the assault on the US Mission and Annex in October 2012. Harzi’s role was 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, according to The Daily Beast’s account.
Harzi was apprehended in Turkey in October 2012 at the behest of US officials. He was making his way to Syria at the time.
After being deported to Tunisia, Harzi was held for weeks.
In December 2012, FBI agents questioned him about the Benghazi attack. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization, stalked the agents. The group posted their pictures online while condemning the Tunisian government for allowing the FBI to interview Harzi. That same month, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia released a video discussing Harzi’s case and confirming the FBI’s role in his questioning.
In early January 2013, Harzi was released, despite his suspected role in the death of four Americans. Ansar al Sharia posted a video celebrating his release. Harzi made some brief comments in the video, which showed him being congratulated by his fellow jihadists.
US officials, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Brennan, who became the CIA director, were asked about Harzi’s release during congressional hearings.
In late January 2013, Clinton told senators that the Tunisians had “assured” the United States that Harzi was “under the monitoring of the court.” In February, during his confirmation process to become CIA director, Brennan claimed that the US government “didn’t have anything on” Harzi and, therefore, his release was not worrisome.
As the UN’s designation shows, however, there has long been evidence that Harzi was directly involved in the Benghazi attack. And Tunisian authorities clearly failed to keep tabs on Harzi. The US military clearly considered Harzi an active threat as well.
On February 6, 2013, shortly after Harzi’s release in Tunis, a left-wing Tunisian politician named Chokri Belaid was assassinated. Then, on July 25, another popular politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was killed. The following day Tunisian authorities claimed that Harzi was involved in both assassinations. However, neither the UN nor the State Department designations mention this allegation. Another Ansar al Sharia Tunisia member who went on to join the Islamic State (or ISIL) has boasted of his role in planning the murders.
In March of this year, the Tunisian National Guard issued an arrest warrant for Harzi.
In addition to Ali Ouni al Harzi (whose name is often spelled Ali Ani or Ali Awni in the press), the UN designated Tarak Ouni Harzi, Ali’s brother. Tarak was a known facilitator for al Qaeda in Iraq. Tarak was a “dangerous and active member of Al Qaida in Iraq” as of 2004, according to the UN, and “also active in facilitating and hosting members of Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia…in Syria.” Tarak was sentenced, “in absentia, on 30 October 2007, to 24 years imprisonment for terrorist activities by the Appeals Court of Tunis.”
Despite being wanted by international authorities, both of the Harzi brothers remained at large and went on to work for the Islamic State.