Al Qaeda-Affiliated Group Assaulted U.S. Embassy in Tunis
10:19 AM, Jan 10, 2014 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
It is conspicuous, to say the least, that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia took such a keen interest in the fate of one of the few publicly identified Benghazi suspects.
But the story does not end there. After Harzi’s release, according to the Tunisian government, he became part of an assassination ring responsible for the deaths of two high-profile opposition politicians. Tunisian authorities have alleged that Harzi and the other assassins acted under the orders of the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.
In October 2013, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh told Reuters, “There is a relation between leaders of Ansar al Sharia [Tunisia], al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Sharia in Libya. We are coordinating with our neighbors over that.” So, according to the Tunisian government, which is fighting Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, the Ansar al Sharia groups are tied to one another, as well as AQIM.
The founder and leader of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is Seifallah Ben Hassine, who was also designated by the State Department today. It was Ben Hassine who reportedly ordered Harzi and others to assassinate the two politicians.
Ben Hassine’s longstanding ties to al Qaeda are undeniable. In 2000, Ben Hassine became the co-founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), which was established with help from al Qaeda's senior leaders. The relationship between the TCG and al Qaeda has been explicitly recognized by the United Nations, which notes that the TCG was created “in coordination with” al Qaeda.
The TCG was directly involved in al Qaeda’s assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001. The assassination was a key part of al Qaeda’s September 11 plot, as it removed one of the chief adversaries from the battlefield shortly before the onset of war. Ben Hassine’s TCG became an arm of al Qaeda in Europe and even plotted to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome before 9/11.
Other dual-hatted TCG and al Qaeda leaders have gone to become Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s leaders.
Today, according to multiple reports, Ben Hassine is likely in hiding in Libya. According to other unconfirmed press reports, Ben Hassine met with leaders of Ansar al Sharia Libya, AQIM, and Jabhat al Nusrah (an al Qaeda branch based in Syria), in September 2013. They allegedly met to discuss the pipeline of North Africa recruits being sent to Syria.
While the details of this putative meeting have not been verified, there is strong reporting on the role the Ansar al Sharia in both Libya and Tunisia play in sending recruits off to Jabhat al Nusrah – that is, al Qaeda – in Syria.
In any event, the Ansar al Sharia organizations’ role in the jihadist pipeline to Syria is an important point of operational similarity.
Even before the Benghazi attack, parts of the U.S. government had concluded that the Ansar al Sharias in Libya and Tunisia were probably conspiring with one another. In August 2012, the Library of Congress published a report in conjunction with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO) titled, “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile.” The report’s authors concluded that “the level of contact” between the groups “is not clear,” but “it is probable that Ansar al Sharia in Libya and in Tunisia are communicating, a fact that points to possible coordination between the two groups.”
According to multiple U.S. intelligence officials contacted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile” is the declassified version of a classified report. That classified report, and the intelligence accumulated since, may point to additional ties between the Ansar al Sharia groups.
Finally, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia regularly posts its counterpart’s propaganda from Libya on its social media pages. As of this writing, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s official Twitter page follows only three other Twitter feeds. One of them is Ansar al Sharia Libya’s official Twitter page. Another is Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked extremist group fighting in Syria.
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