On Monday, the Pentagon announced that Ali Ani al Harzi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Mosul, Iraq. For those who have followed the public reporting on the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attack closely, al Harzi’s name will ring a bell. He was one of the first suspects to be publicly identified by name. Eli Lake, then of The Daily Beast, got the scoop in October 2012.
A key question in al Harzi’s story remains unanswered: Why wasn’t he in custody since late 2012?
U.S. intelligence officials discovered early on in their investigation that al Harzi used social media to provide an update on the raid. It was based on this freely-available intelligence that al Harzi was detained in Turkey and deported to his native Tunisia.
In December 2012, the FBI was granted only a few hours to question al Harzi. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, the al Qaeda-linked group responsible for the September 14, 2012 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, stalked the FBI agents who questioned him. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia posted the FBI agents’ pictures on Facebook. This was intended to intimidate the FBI agents.
The following month, January 2013, a judge in Tunis ordered al Harzi released.
Senior Obama administration officials, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Brennan, who was about to become the head of the CIA, were asked about this during Congressional testimony at the time. Both of them vouched for al Harzi’s release.
On January 23, 2013, Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She told senators that the Tunisians had “assured” the United States that Harzi was “under the monitoring of the court.”
“Upon his release, I called the Tunisian prime minister. A few days later Director Mueller met with the Tunisian prime minister,” Clinton explained. She continued: “We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released, because at that time -- and -- and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length -- there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court. But the Tunisians have assured us that they are keeping an eye on him. I have no reason to believe he is not still in Tunis, but we are checking that all the time.”
During a separate hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, then Congressman Tom Cotton asked Clinton if she found “it distressing that the Tunisian government has released that gentleman [al Harzi] in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars of aid we've given them over the last two years?”
Clinton responded: “At this point, Congressman, I do not for two reasons. First, I had a long conversation with high-ranking Tunisian officials about this, as did Director Mueller of the FBI when he was there in person. We have been assured there was an effort to have rule of law, judicial process, sufficient evidence not yet available to be presented, but a very clear commitment made to us that they will be monitoring the whereabouts of the -- Harzi and we're going to hold them to that and watch carefully.”
Obviously, the Tunisians’ assurances didn’t pan out. In fact, the Tunisian government accused al Harzi of participating in the assassinations of two prominent politicians. One of them was killed on February 6, 2013, just weeks after al Harzi was released. And al Harzi was, quite obviously, able to travel from North Africa to the heart of the Middle East on behalf of the terrorist organizations he served. The Pentagon says he was working for the Islamic State at the time of his death.
In February 2013, Brennan echoed Clinton’s claims regarding the evidence against al Harzi. Brennan told Congress that the US government “didn’t have anything on” al Harzi and, therefore, his release was not worrisome.
The argument made by Clinton and Brennan – that there wasn’t sufficient evidence against al Harzi and/or the available evidence couldn’t be introduced in court – doesn’t make sense.