Family members of Mohamed al Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, say that he has died of wounds suffered during a battle last year, according to Reuters. Separately, a Libyan military leader has also claimed that Zahawi has passed away as a result of injuries “sustained in an ambush” that occurred sometime in September 2014.
Rumors of Zahawi’s demise have circulated for months, but there has been no hard evidence to back up the claim. Thus far, Ansar al Sharia has not released an official martyrdom statement or video confirming Zahawi’s death.
Zahawi has frequently starred in Ansar al Sharia’s videos. The group has featured scenes of Zahawi leading the charge against General Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Haftar and his fighters have sought to take control of Benghazi from the jihadists since the middle of last year.
Ansar al Sharia in Libya first gained international infamy after the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi, which left four Americans, including the US ambassador, dead. Ansar al Sharia fighters from both Benghazi and Derna, along with members of other al Qaeda groups, took part in the attacks.
Some of Ansar al Sharia’s propaganda videos and photos have shown Zahawi fighting alongside Wissam Ben Hamid, a key figure in the security failures surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks. [See LWJ reports, Ansar al Sharia ally a key figure in Benghazi security failures and Ansar al Sharia video features jihadist once thought to be US ally in Benghazi.]
Zahawi and Ben Hamid have both been leaders in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), an Ansar al Sharia-led alliance of jihadists and Islamists that has battled Haftar’s forces. Similar consortiums allied with Ansar al Sharia and the BRSC have been established in other Libyan cities, including Derna and Bayda.
Ansar al Sharia designated a terrorist organization, linked to al Qaeda
In January 2014, the State Department added Ansar al Sharia in Libya and two of the group’s leaders to the US government’s terrorist designation lists. However, Zahawi was not among the leaders designated. [See LWJ report, State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders.]
The UN added the Benghazi and Derna chapters of Ansar al Sharia Libya to its al Qaeda sanctions list in November 2014. [See LWJ report, UN recognizes ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya, al Qaeda.]
According to the UN, both Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi and Derna are “associated” with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda that remains loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri. They are both also tied to Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, which orchestrated the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012.
The UN added Ansar al Sharia Tunisia to its al Qaeda sanctions list in September 2014. The UN found that, like its sister organizations in Libya, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has “links to” AQIM.
There are well-established ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya and Tunisia. The UN notes in its designation that Ansar al Sharia in Libya has a “support network in Tunisia.”
In addition, the Benghazi chapter of Ansar al Sharia is tied to Al Mourabitoun, which is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM commander who established his own jihadist group. Belmokhtar is openly loyal to Zawahiri and, according to a previous designation by the UN, still works with AQIM despite his differences with the group’s leadership.
Belmokhtar commanded the terrorists responsible for the January 2013 siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the raid on behalf of al Qaeda. According to information compiled by Western governments and given to the UN, 12 of the 24 jihadists who participated in the In Amenas raid were trained in Ansar al Sharia camps in Benghazi.