Debacle in Benghazi
It’s worse than an injustice; it’s a humiliation.
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.