Tunisia frees Benghazi suspect

A Tunisian court has freed Ali Harzi, a key suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

US authorities initially sought Harzi’s detention after they discovered that he had posted real-time information about the Benghazi attack online, The Daily Beast first reported.

Harzi was detained in Turkey and deported to Tunisia, where he had been held for months. The FBI was first granted access to Harzi for questioning in December.

Despite his reported role in the US Consulate attack, on Jan. 7 a Tunisian judge ordered that Harzi should be freed due to a lack of evidence. Anwar Oued Ali, Harzi’s lawyer, says that his client has been “conditionally freed” and has to remain in the Tunis area, according to the Associated Press.

Press reporting on Harzi’s precise terrorist affiliation has been ambiguous. 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.

And at least one of Harzi’s brothers fought against the US-led coalition in Iraq previously. According to the Associated Press, Harzi’s father has said that he encouraged his sons to wage “jihad in the cause of God.” This raises the possibility that the Harzi family became involved with al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations. In 2005, Harzi and another of his brothers were sentenced to more than two years in prison for contacting their jihadist kin.

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 a militia named Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi took part in the attack on the US Consulate.

And there are reasons to suspect that Harzi is a member of the Ansar al Sharia group in Tunisia.

Shortly after the FBI interviewed Harzi for three hours in December, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia released pictures of the three investigating FBI agents online. The organization criticized the Tunisian government for allowing the FBI to question Harzi. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the title of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s post read: “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 also released a video on YouTube of a lawyer discussing Harzi’s case. The group prayed for Harzi’s freedom. An introductory sentence to 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.”

Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was responsible for the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012. Anwar Oued Ali, Harzi’s lawyer, told the Associated Press that the FBI asked Harzi not only about the events in Libya on Sept. 11, but also the pillaging of the US Embassy in Tunisia three days later.

Ansar al Sharia Tunisia

Ansar al Sharia Tunisia 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.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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