A key figure in the security failures surrounding the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya is fighting alongside members of Ansar al Sharia, which is one of the terrorist groups responsible for the assault on the U.S. mission and annex that night.
Wissam Bin Hamid’s name has surfaced time and again in the investigation into the Benghazi attack. He admittedly met with American officials in Benghazi just days before the assault to discuss security, and he reportedly refused to provide assistance once the attack was underway. The post-revolution Libyan government also worked with Bin Hamid and his Libya Shield militia, which was supposedly one of the strongest “security” forces inside Benghazi.
But in recent days Bin Hamid has been pictured with Ansar al Sharia’s leader in Benghazi, as well as the group’s fighters. The pictures show Bin Hamid and Ansar al Sharia overrunning a Libyan special forces base and capturing a large amount of weaponry.
One of the pictures was posted by Ansar al Sharia on its official Twitter feed on July 22. The accompanying text reads, “The mujahid Sheikh Mohammed al Zahawi accompanied by the battlefield commander Wissam Bin Hamid - May Allah protect them both - during the course of their leadership of the invasion.” Mohammed al Zahawi is the head of Ansar al Sharia.
The pictures can be seen at the end of this article.
A declassified State Department cable dated September 11, 2012 recounts a meeting between Bin Hamid and American officials that took place just two days prior, on September 9. The cable was released by the House Oversight Committee. Bin Hamid’s name is spelled “bin Ahmed” in the cable.
The cable says that Bin Hamid and one of his fellow militiamen “discussed the very fluid relationships and blurry lines they say define membership in Benghazi-based brigades,” as they were both “members of multiple brigades.” The pair claimed to “control” the chief of staff of Libya’s armed forces, Yousef Mangoush, adding that he “often provides the brigades direct stocks of weapons and ammunition.”
In their September 9 meeting with the Americans, Bin Hamid and his colleague portrayed themselves as indispensable when it came to providing security in eastern Libya. The duo also said that they supported the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party candidate for prime minister, and they “criticized” the U.S. for supporting National Forces Alliance (NFA) leader Mahmoud Jibril. Bin Hamid and his counterpart argued that their brigades would receive significant positions in the Libyan government should the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate win, giving them “tacit control of the armed forces.” But if Jibril won the prime minister’s seat, “they would not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi, a critical function they asserted they were currently providing.”
On October 1, 2012, the Washington Post reported on an interview with Bin Hamid in which he confirmed that, along with “two officials from another [Libyan] government-sanctioned militia,” he had “met with three U.S. officials posted in Benghazi three days before the attack.” (The cable says the meeting actually took place on September 9, 2012.)
“They wanted to know who was in control in Benghazi,” Bin Hamid recalled, according to the Post. “It was like an introductory meeting. They asked us what we needed to bring security to Benghazi, what the Americans could possibly bring to help.” According to Bin Hamid’s account, he told the Americans that Benghazi was comparatively safe.
In its highly-flawed account of the Benghazi attack, the New York Times omitted key details and got other facts about the perpetrators wrong. Nonetheless, Bin Hamid was interviewed by the Times and his own testimony implicated him in the Libyan security forces’ failure to come to the Americans’ aid.
Bin Hamid “received an urgent call from” a friend of Ambassador Christopher Stevens “asking for help” that night. Bin Hamid explained he “arrived at the scene within 30 minutes after the attack began,” according to the Times. However, he did nothing to intervene.
“The situation wasn't suitable for me to go inside the compound,'' Bin Hamid said, according to the Times. ''And when the shooting stopped, we thought the Americans had been evacuated.’' The Times reported that U.S. embassy officials in Tripoli arranged for a security team to fly into Benghazi after the attack had begun. They were supposed to meet with Bin Hamid’s subordinate after they landed, but Bin Hamid himself showed up, as he was supposedly eager to assist the American team.
Bin Hamid also ran interference for another Benghazi suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was captured by American forces earlier this year. When questioned about Khattala’s involvement, Bin Hamid claimed that the pair “stood together outside the compound because it seemed too dangerous to enter.” Concerning Bin Hamid, a summary published by the Times notes: “When called to help rescue Americans in the mission, he stood outside and did nothing.”
Bin Hamid did nothing, that is, as members of several jihadist groups, including Ansar al Sharia and three other organizations that belong to al Qaeda’s international network, ransacked the American compound.
A separate account in the Times also cites Bin Hamid. The Times reported that members of his militia “escorted intelligence officers and diplomats away from the besieged villas on September 11, and later, provided protection for American investigators visiting the city in search of evidence in the attack.” The Times also speculated that “it could fall to Mr. Hamid and his men to confront commanders of” Ansar al Sharia, which Bin Hamid said he wouldn’t do.
The newly released photos show Bin Hamid meeting in Benghazi with Ansar al Sharia’s leader, Mohammed Ali al Zahawi, and leading the jihadist forces that seized a Libyan special forces compound. The Libyan army forces stationed at the base were aligned with General Khalifa Haftar, a rogue commander who launched “Operation Dignity” in May to combat the militants in Benghazi. Ansar al Sharia is operating under the umbrella of a coalition of militias called the “Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council,” which is opposed to Haftar.
While the Libyan government and its American counterparts in the country were reportedly willing to work with Bin Hamid prior to the September 11, 2012, attack, some U.S. counterterrorism analysts suspected that he was already a part of al Qaeda’s clandestine network in Libya.
In August 2012, a Defense Department outfit called the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program published a report, “Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” in conjunction with the Library of Congress. The report is based solely on open source information, but U.S. intelligence officials have told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that a classified version was produced as well. (See here for a summary of the report.)
The report provides little tangible evidence connecting Bin Hamid to al Qaeda’s network, but such ties were still suspected. The authors noted that Bin Hamid’s brigade fought “under al Qaeda’s flag” and referenced an article in a Palestinian newspaper that reported on a video of “an al Qaeda-type demonstration” in the city of Sirte. The article “pointed at” Bin Hamid as the “leader of al Qaeda in Libya” and said that Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, a notorious al Qaeda commander who has his own reported ties to the Benghazi attack, “attended the parade” as Bin Hamid’s “honored guest.” This allegation has not been independently verified, and it appears that the original article is no longer available online.
The report’s authors doubted that Bin Hamid was truly the head of al Qaeda’s presence in Libya given his high profile in the media and al Qaeda’s “penchant for secrecy.” Still, a graphic included in the report portrayed Bin Hamid and his brigade as a part of al Qaeda’s plan for Libya. And the report described Bin Hamid as "a young rebel leader who allegedly fought in Iraq,” which, if true, indicates he may have fought for al Qaeda in Iraq.
While Bin Hamid’s past remains shrouded in mystery, his present activities are plain to see. Ansar al Sharia is advertising its working relationship with Bin Hamid in pictures posted online.
The first three pictures below were first posted online at twitter.com/Morning_LY. The fourth was posted on Ansar al Sharia’s official Twitter page.
In the picture below, Ansar al Sharia leader Mohammed Ali al Zahawi is sitting on the left wearing a beige hat. Sitting on the right with his legs crossed is Wissam Bin Hamid:
Bin Hamid can be seen in the middle of this picture, which was taken at the Libyan special forces base Ansar al Sharia and its allies captured:
On the far right in this picture is Mohammed Ali al Zahawi. Bin Hamid, dressed in blue, is the first man on the left from Zahawi (that is, to Zahawi’s right) whose face is uncovered. This photo was taken at the captured Libyan special forces camp:
The photo below was posted by Ansar al Sharia on its official Twitter page on July 22:
The accompanying text reads, “The mujahid Sheikh Mohammed al Zahawi accompanied by the battlefield commander Wissam Bin Hamid - May Allah protect them both - during the course of their leadership of the invasion.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.