US captures Benghazi suspect, but most attackers remain free

Ahmed Abu Khattalah, who is suspected of taking direct part in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, has been detained by the US. Abu Khattalah was the most conspicuous of the alleged attackers. He even granted interviews to journalists from multiple media outlets since the attack.

Abu Khattalah’s accomplices have been less ostentatious, however, preferring to operate in the shadows. Dozens of terrorists who helped overrun the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi, killing four Americans, remain free.

In January, the State Department added Abu Khattalah to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists, describing him as a “senior leader” of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi. Two other jihadists were designated at the same time: Abu Iyad al Tunisi, who heads Ansar al Sharia Tunisia; and Sufian Ben Qumu, who leads Ansar al Sharia in Derna, Libya.

The State Department also added the Ansar al Sharia chapters in Benghazi, Derna, and Tunisia to the list of foreign terrorist organizations. (Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi and Derna operate under the same banner, as simply Ansar al Sharia Libya.)

Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi and Derna were both “involved” in the Sept. 11, 2012 “attacks against the US Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya,” according to State. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was responsible for the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis three days later, on Sept. 14, 2012.

Ben Qumu is an ex-Guantanamo detainee and was previously identified by US military and intelligence officials as an al Qaeda operative. According to a leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) 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.”

Some of Ben Qumu’s men from Ansar al Sharia in Derna were among the Benghazi attackers, according to US intelligence officials. Neither Ben Qumu, nor his fighters, have been detained.

Like Ben Qumu, Abu Iyad al Tunisi (whose real name is Seifallah Ben Hassine) has a lengthy al Qaeda-linked pedigree that stretches back to pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

Multiple al Qaeda-affiliated parties involved in Benghazi attack are still at large

In addition to Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi and Derna, jihadists from at least three other al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups participated in the Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi.

On Jan. 15, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its report on the terrorist attack. “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” the report reads.

AQAP, AQIM, and the Mohammad Jamal Network all established training camps in eastern Libya after the rebellion against Muammar el Qaddafi began in 2011.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are both official branches of al Qaeda and have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir. The head of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was also appointed the general manager of al Qaeda’s network in August 2013.

In October 2013, both the UN and the US designated the Mohammad Jamal Network (MJN) as a terrorist organization. The designations explicitly recognized the MJN’s ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as to AQIM and AQAP.

Mohammad Jamal is a Zawahiri loyalist who was trained by al Qaeda in the late 1980s, and served as a leader in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) in the 1990s. Jamal is currently imprisoned in Egypt and charged with plotting attacks inside the country. During trial proceedings earlier this year, he held up a picture of Osama bin Laden along with a note that read, “Al Qaeda is perched on the hearts of the believers.”

Although Jamal is imprisoned, US officials previously told The Long War Journal that the Egyptian government had denied American officials direct access to him. US officials were able to pass questions to their Egyptian counterparts, but not allowed to question Jamal directly. It is not clear if this situation has changed since The Long War Journal first reported on it in February 2013.

Some of Jamal’s fighters took part in the Benghazi attack, but there is no indication that any of them have been killed or captured. Likewise, none of the terrorists “affiliated” with AQIM or AQAP who took part in the attack have been captured.

Still other individuals reportedly involved in the assault remain free.

A Tunisian named Ali Ani al Harzi was detained in Turkey in late 2012 at the behest of US officials, who found that al Harzi had posted updates on the attack on social media. After being deported to his native Tunisia, al Harzi was questioned by FBI agents for just three hours in December 2012. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia stalked the FBI agents, posting their pictures online and criticizing the Tunisian government for allowing the Americans to question al Harzi.

The following month, in January 2013, al Harzi was released from prison and Ansar al Sharia Tunisia posted a video online celebrating his freedom. Since then, the Tunisian government has accused al Harzi of participating in an assassination ring that killed two prominent politicians. Tunisians authorities further alleged that the assassins operated under orders from Abu Iyad al Tunisi.

Another suspect in the attack is Abu Faraj al Chalabi. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal say that al Chalabi served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden during the 1990s. Al Chalabi traveled to Pakistan after the attack and intelligence officials say there is evidence that he brought materials from the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi with him. No US officials would confirm to The Long War Journal what, exactly, al Chalabi carried with him to Pakistan.

Al Chalabi was detained in Pakistan and then held in Libya. He was reportedly questioned, but the extent of the interrogations is unknown. Al Chalabi was freed in short order.

Abu Khattalah is, therefore, the first alleged participant in the Benghazi attack to be held by the US. Most of his accomplices remain free.

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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  • dan says:

    this is theater, the people that should be behind bars for Behghazi are employed by our government.

  • Abu Adam says:

    Yet another internal US politically-motivated action, which is of little benefit to the US compared to the potential harmful consequences against the US. Truly the American leadership pool is composed of the lowest of American society.
    This action has only one benefit to the US: to show the American public that their government has done something in response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
    This action changes little or nothing on the ground in Libya. If anything, it makes the enemies of the US more determined to harm and possibly kill Americans anywhere in the muslim world, and not just in Libya.
    This action also shows the lack of respect and disregard the US has for its allies’ and the sovereignty of their territory.
    The US has put its ally (the Libyan government) in a very embarrassing and awkward position to say the least, vis-a-vis its own people, friends or foes. Obviously, the US has shown no concern for this very basic concept of mutual respect. There is no question that this will have serious repercussions for the US in the near and long term, and not just in Libya.
    What is even more laughable is that the leadership in the US is neither aware nor concerned with the deterioration and very possibly the end of it prestigious position in the world.
    I guess this is what you get when country has a system that attracts the lowest people in its society to take leadership positions. American leaders are not more than a bunch of used car salesmen/women.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    So what. IF he’s convicted we will release him in a few years, with our new “catch-n-release” program. Why didn’t they just eliminate the threat, discretely of course?

  • Dave says:

    Is this guy is going to have a public trial somewhere in the United States?

  • Minnor says:

    Good point by the journal. Four people were murdered in Benghazi attack means at least four or more people should be brought to justice. Just hanging one guy is just of political use.

  • SAM says:

    So is there a and if so, where is the running list of all named suspects? Is it just Khatallah, Ben Qumu, Al Harzi, and Al Chalabi at the moment? Just to clarify, al Tunisi named here b/c he too is an actual suspect or just named here because he is a leader of the Tunisian-based Ansar al Sharia group?
    This article states that some of Ben Qumu’s men were among the Benghazi attackers. Do we have any names of any of Jamal’s fighters or those “terrorists “affiliated” with AQIM or AQAP”? I’m just wondering. Hopefully as many as possible are brought to justice and this first apprehension bears some intel fruit.

  • Nick says:

    My gut tells me that the world is revolving around Libya and Benghazi right now. There is a full scale war between the rouge Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s forces battling Islamic radicals in a fight to the death and we aren’t hearing squat from our own State Department. Where do we stand? Are we supporting General Hifter? If we aren’t, then why not?
    Why would the Egyptians limit our direct access to Mohammad Jamal? Is this their ace in the hole? Their very own ‘rainy day’ guy?
    I firmly believe that the overthrow of Gaddafi will haunt the region and our country for a very long time.


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