The US State Department announced today that it has added three chapters of Ansar al Sharia, as well as three of the groups’ leaders, to the government’s terrorist designation lists. Ansar al Sharia groups in Benghazi, Derna, and Tunisia were designated as foreign terrorist organizations, as well as specially designated global terrorist entities.
The three Ansar al Sharia leaders, Sufian Ben Qumu, Ahmed Abu Khattalah, and Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), were also added to the list of specially designated global terrorists.
Ben Qumu is described as “the leader” of Ansar al Sharia Derna, while Khattalah is “a senior leader” of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi. Seifallah Ben Hassine is the founder of Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia.
The State Department says that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia “is ideologically aligned with al Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM” (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The designation confirms The Long War Journal’s reporting on Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s connections to the al Qaeda network.
Attacks on US Mission and Annex in Benghazi, US Embassy in Tunis
All three Ansar al Sharia organizations were involved in assaults on US diplomatic facilities in September 2012.
The Ansar al Sharia groups in Derna and Benghazi were both “involved” in the “September 11, 2012 attacks against the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya,” the State designation said.
US intelligence officials have previously told The Long War Journal that some of Ben Qumu’s men took part in the Benghazi attack. The US government has reportedly issued a sealed indictment against Khattalah because of his alleged role in the assault.
Three days later, on Sept. 14, 2012, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was “involved” in the “attack against the US Embassy and American school in Tunis, which put the lives of over one hundred United States employees in the Embassy at risk.”
The State Department previously reported on Ben Hassine’s role in the Sept. 14 attack in Tunis. In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, published in May 2013, Foggy Bottom noted that Ben Hassine “was implicated as the mastermind behind the September 14 attack on the US Embassy,” which involved “a mob of 2,000 – 3,000” people, “including individuals affiliated with the militant organization Ansar al Sharia.”
Al Qaeda has praised the September 2012 assaults on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Cairo, Sanaa, and Tunis. In November 2012, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri released an audio message praising the assaults as “defeats” for the US.
“They were defeated in Iraq and they are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and their ambassador in Benghazi was killed and the flags of their embassies were lowered in Cairo and Sanaa, and in their places were raised the flags of tawhid [monotheism] and jihad,” Zawahiri said in the message, which was translated the SITE Intelligence Group.
The 10th edition of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine celebrated the September 2012 attacks. The cover picture showed a black flag, similar to those used by al Qaeda-affiliated groups, being raised in front of one of the embassies. The feature article was titled, “We Are All Usama,” a reference to the chant heard in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
None of the suspected terrorists responsible for the attacks in Benghazi or Tunis have been brought to justice. In its new designation, the State Department says the US government “is committed to taking all appropriate actions against the organizations and individuals responsible for the attacks against the US diplomatic facilities in Libya and Tunisia.”
Al Qaeda-tied biographies
Two of the three jihadists named in today’s designation, Sufian Ben Qumu and Seifallah Ben Hassine, have had strong ties to the al Qaeda network throughout their careers. Both have been previously profiled by The Long War Journal. [See, for example, LWJ reports Al Qaeda ally orchestrated assault on US Embassy in Tunis and Ex-Gitmo detainee reportedly tied to consulate attack.]
Ben Qumu was previously detained at Guantanamo. A leaked threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) includes many details about his pre-9/11 career. JTF-GTMO’s analysts concluded that Ben Qumu was one of the original “Arab Afghans,” and followed al Qaeda from Afghanistan, to Sudan, and then back to Afghanistan and Pakistan as the group relocated the headquarters for its operations.
JTF-GTMO found that Ben Qumu worked as a driver for a company owned by bin Laden in the Sudan, fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintained ties to several other well-known al Qaeda leaders. He is described as an “associate” of bin Laden’s in the file.
Ben Qumu’s alias was found on the laptop of an al Qaeda operative responsible for overseeing the finances for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The information on the laptop indicated that Ben Qumu was an al Qaeda “member receiving family support,” according to JTF-GTMO.
In August 2012, just weeks before the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi, Ben Qumu was identified in a report published by the Library of Congress as the possible “new face of al Qaeda in Libya despite” his denial of an ongoing al Qaeda role.
The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”), which was authored by the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, also noted that Ben Qumu and his Ansar al Sharia fighters are “believed to be close to the al Qaeda clandestine network” in Libya. According to the report’s authors, that same network is headed by al Qaeda operatives who report to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahiri.
Seifallah Ben Hassine has his own longstanding ties to al Qaeda. In 2000, Hassine became the co-founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), which was established with help from al Qaeda’s senior leaders. The relationship between the TCG and al Qaeda has been explained by the United Nations, which notes that the TCG was created “in coordination with” al Qaeda.
Ben Hassine reportedly met with both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And 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 assassins were given forged passports by a senior TCG member. The assassination was an integral part of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 plot, as Massoud was a key Afghan leader opposed to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Massoud’s death, therefore, eliminated an American ally from the battlefield before the fight for Afghanistan even began.
While many TCG members and leaders were designated by the US and the UN as al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists years ago, Ben Hassine somehow escaped being designated until today. Some of the other designated TCG leaders went on to hold prominent positions within Ansar al Sharia Tunisia after their release from prison in 2011.
One of these TCG leaders is Sami Ben Khemais Essid, who was the head of al Qaeda’s operations in Italy until he was arrested in early 2001. The State Department has previously reported that Ben Khemais plotted against the US Embassy in Rome. Ben Khemais is now a senior Ansar al Sharia Tunisia leader.
Continued threat to US interests
In today’s designation, the State Department connects all three Ansar al Sharia groups to a string of attacks beyond the September 2012 assaults in Benghazi and Tunis. The Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya “have been involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets, frequent assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya.”
In Tunisia, Ansar al Sharia “has been implicated in attacks against Tunisian security forces, assassinations of Tunisian political figures, and attempted suicide bombings of locations that tourists frequent.”
The State Department concludes that the three Ansar al Sharia groups continue to threaten US interests.
Ansar al Sharia “represents the greatest threat to US interests in Tunisia.”
And members of the Derna and Benghazi branches of Ansar al Sharia “continue to pose a threat to US interests in Libya.”