Debacle in Benghazi
It’s worse than an injustice; it’s a humiliation.
On September 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to reporters before a meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister. She addressed the September 11 assault on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. “What happened was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.”
Clinton’s statement was notable. It was the strongest and most direct assessment of the attacks from any Obama administration official in the first 10 days after the deaths. By calling the incident a “terrorist attack,” Clinton acknowledged what President Obama had gone out of his way to avoid.
The second part of Clinton’s comment generated little interest. Her vow to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks was the kind of perfunctory promise we expect to hear from any politician after any attack, particularly one so brazen. Of course it would be a top priority of the Obama administration and its lead diplomat to understand the attacks and punish those who committed them.
Yet four months later, Clinton’s promise is notable precisely because it has gone unfulfilled. No one has been “brought to justice”—a fact that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. “We’re not even close,” says one U.S. official involved in the investigation.
And jihadists in the region, no doubt emboldened by the lack of U.S. response to the attacks, have taken to taunting the American investigators and celebrating U.S. feebleness. Washington has very little to show for its investigation of the Ben-ghazi attacks. One leading suspect is in custody—Egyptian custody—and we’re being denied access to him. Another sipped a strawberry frappe in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Benghazi as he told a New York Times reporter that he felt no need to hide from the United States. And when a third suspect was freed from a Tunisian prison earlier this month, the U.S. government was given no warning, but extremists belonging to an al Qaeda-linked group apparently had advance notice.
If there is any urgency to the U.S. government’s efforts to “bring to justice” the terrorists, it’s well hidden. It took the FBI team assigned to investigate Benghazi nearly a month to arrive there. Later, after they had supposedly scoured the U.S. consulate, on two separate occasions reporters found highly sensitive documents on the floor—some including the names of Libyans working with the U.S. government. Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI, visited Libya as part of the investigation for the first time last week.
But nothing demonstrates the lack of urgency so much as the case of Ali Ani al Harzi, a jihadist who was detained in Tunisia for his suspected involvement in the attacks until his surprising release on January 8.
U.S. officials first became suspicious of Harzi after learning that he had “posted an update on social media about the fighting [in Benghazi] shortly after it had begun,” according to Eli Lake of the Daily Beast. That post was “one of the first clues the intelligence community had about the perpetrators” of the September 11 assault on the U.S. consulate.
Harzi did not stay in Libya after the attacks, but instead made his way to Turkey. It was there in early October, at the request of the U.S. government, that Harzi and a fellow Tunisian were arrested. Harzi was reportedly en route to join the jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s crumbling regime in nearby Syria.
In mid-October, Harzi was deported from Turkey to Tunisia. During a televised interview on November 1, Tunisian interior minister Ali Larayedh explained that Harzi was “strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”
The U.S. government, which had provided the intelligence that led to Harzi’s capture, asked the Tunisians for access to him. These requests were met with silence, then stonewalling. The State Department, apparently concerned about the stability of the country’s young, post-Arab Spring government, elected in October, did little to pressure the Tunisians for access. Republicans in Congress, led by Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss in the Senate and Frank Wolf in the House, threatened the Tunisian government with consequences for its lack of cooperation.
In early November, Graham and Chambliss announced that the Tunisians had agreed in principle to allow U.S. investigators to interview Harzi in the presence of his lawyer and a judge. But days passed, then weeks, and the FBI interrogators who had gone to Tunisia to question Harzi were not given access to him. One source familiar with the investigation tells The Weekly Standard that FBI agents spent five weeks in Tunis as the government resisted requests for time with Harzi.
Meanwhile, legislators were urging the State Department to increase pressure on its Tunisian counterpart. Wolf worked behind the scenes to encourage State to condition future aid on access to Harzi. Since the new government was established, the United States has provided more than $300 million in aid. In September 2011, Tunisia qualified for additional funds through the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Threshold Program.
The State Department responded to Wolf’s efforts by putting him off. “We are in regular contact with the Tunisian government on this case and Tunisian authorities are cooperating with us through normal law enforcement channels,” wrote Assistant Secretary of State David Adams on December 17. “As this is an ongoing criminal investigation, we cannot provide further detail.” Adams did, however, make the case for more aid to Tunisia, regardless of its lack of cooperation. “Continued U.S. support is critical to Tunisia’s successful democratic transition,” Adams wrote, pressing the need for more funds for Tunisian security forces and economic development.
The FBI finally interviewed Harzi on December 22 for three hours. Following that session, U.S. officials were divided about whether Harzi had provided valuable information but agreed that he remained an important suspect in the Benghazi attacks and a potential source of intelligence on al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Harzi has strong jihadist credentials. As first reported by Eli Lake in the Daily Beast, U.S. officials have identified Harzi’s brother as “a midlevel planner for al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq,” who arranges “the travel of fighters from North Africa to Syria’s al Qaeda-linked opposition, known as the al-Nusra Front.” The al-Nusra Front is a direct extension of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an al Qaeda affiliate that has sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. In December, the State Department revealed that al-Nusra, which has become the most lethal part of the Syrian insurgency, is under the “control” of AQI’s leader.
Harzi had tried to join his brother, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, before. In 2006, Tunisian authorities arrested Harzi under strict counterterrorism laws for showing a desire to wage jihad in Iraq. Harzi had been in touch with his al Qaeda brother, who was shuttling recruits into Iraq to fight the U.S.-led coalition. Harzi was imprisoned until after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government in Tunisia fell on January 14, 2011. Once granted amnesty and released, Harzi made his way to Benghazi by September 11, 2012.
The same day the FBI conducted its interview with Harzi, a media outlet associated with the leading al Qaeda-linked extremist group in Tunisia, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, posted online photographs purportedly showing three FBI agents who participated in that session.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s posting was first discovered by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites and online forums. The headline reads “Exclusive Pictures of the FBI Agents who Investigated Brother Ali al-Harzi (The Case of Killing the American Foreigner in Libya).” The group claimed that “despite being forcefully prevented from taking pictures, we were able to take some exclusive pictures” of the three FBI agents.
U.S. officials tell The Weekly Standard that the release of the photos was a clear attempt to intimidate the Americans and show that the FBI could not act with impunity. In its posting, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia warned the Tunisian people that their government had allowed the FBI “to begin investigating your sons under post-revolutionary protection.” In a bit of hyperbole, the group also claimed that the Islamist Tunisian government was trying to join the American union.
Shortly after the FBI’s visit with Harzi in December, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia released a video on YouTube showing a lawyer discussing Harzi’s case. The lawyer addressed the FBI’s role in the questioning. The video begins with an introductory sentence that 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.”
On January 7, a judge in Tunis ruled that there was not enough evidence to continue holding Harzi, and the Benghazi suspect was quickly released. Washington had no prior warning that Harzi would be freed, but Ansar al Sharia Tunisia apparently did.
The following day, the group posted a video on its Facebook page showing Harzi walking out of jail into the arms of his joyous supporters, who are not identified. Harzi thanks Allah for his freedom, but begs that his still-imprisoned comrades not be forgotten.
Why did the Tunisians allow Harzi to rejoin his jihadist brothers? “The government is more afraid of them than us,” says a senior congressional Republican with access to the intelligence on Benghazi. For good reason. The U.S. government hasn’t so much as issued a statement expressing regret that the Tunisians released Harzi.
There’s a reason Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has taken such great interest in Benghazi and Harzi’s case. Many of the suspects in the consulate attack are members of Ansar al Sharia—the same name used by Harzi’s cheerleaders in Tunisia—a militia based in Benghazi.
In August 2012, just weeks before the assault on the consulate, the Defense Department and Library of Congress published a report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) that discussed connections between the two Ansar al Sharia groups. The report’s authors concluded that Ansar al Sharia in Libya “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.” Moreover, the “Facebook sites of Ansar al Sharia in Libya and the group in Tunisia appear similar in design and content and also share contacts, suggesting coordination between the groups.”
On September 14, three days after the attack in Benghazi, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis. The embassy and an American school were ransacked, causing millions of dollars in property damage. An al Qaeda-style black banner was raised over the embassy where the American flag usually flies.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is headed by Seifallah ben Hassine (aka Abu Iyad al Tunisi), who has been designated an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist by the United Nations and the U.S. government. Other designated al Qaeda terrorists hold leadership positions in the group as well.
While the Obama administration has not publicly drawn a connection between the terrorist groups that assaulted the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi and Tunis, others have. In early January, for instance, Al-Hayat (an Arabic paper in London) reported that members of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia travel to Libya to receive extensive terrorist training in camps “under the supervision of” Ansar al Sharia Libya. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has seen enough evidence to conclude that the two Ansar al Sharias are effectively the “same organization.”
We are left, then, with an uncomfortable set of facts. Despite its many promises, after four months of a criminal investigation, the U.S. government has made little progress on bringing the Benghazi attackers to justice. The Obama administration, which came to office trumpeting “smart power,” has shown itself unable to produce cooperation even from governments receiving vast sums of aid from the United States without congressional threats. And now, the same terrorist organizations that supplied the attackers for the assaults on American facilities in Benghazi and Tunis are openly threatening FBI investigators and celebrating the release of one of the few suspects in the 9/11/12 attacks.
That’s not justice, it’s humiliation.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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