During a press conference on July 26, Tunisian interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou listed the suspected terrorists thought to be responsible for two high-profile assassinations in his country. Among the names was one Ali Harzi—the same name as one of the chief suspects in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. On September 12 of this year, Al Jazeera connected the dots in a piece titled “The Benghazi link to Tunisia’s assassinations.”
Early on in the Benghazi investigation, as first reported by the Daily Beast, Ali Harzi became one of the most wanted suspects because he “posted an update on social media about the fighting shortly after it had begun.” U.S. officials tracked him down in Turkey, where he was apprehended and deported to his native Tunisia in October 2012.
The FBI was finally allowed to question Harzi two months later, in December, but for only three hours. Harzi was released the following month, on January 7, 2013, when a Tunisian judge ordered him freed owing to a supposed lack of evidence.
Just weeks later, on February 6, a left-wing Tunisian politician named Chokri Belaid was assassinated. Ali Harzi was directly involved, according to Tunisian officials. On July 25, another popular politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was killed. The following day the Tunisians said that Harzi was involved in Brahmi’s slaying, too.
Ali Harzi’s story is emblematic of the U.S. government’s many failures in the wake of the attack in Benghazi. Although he was one of the only suspects in custody, his release, as even Al Jazeera noticed, “provoked a muted response from Washington.”
In late January, shortly before Belaid was killed, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton told senators that the Tunisians had “assured” the United States that Harzi was “under the monitoring of the court.” In February, during his confirmation process to become CIA director, John Brennan went so far as to claim that Harzi’s release was, in effect, no big deal because the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him.” Brennan’s claim is simply implausible. The United States certainly does have intelligence on Harzi, even if it couldn’t be presented in a court of law.
The U.S. government has struggled to explain what happened in Benghazi, but the more closely one looks at the players the more obvious the al Qaeda ties become.
The Tunisian government says that the head of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, Seifallah ben Hassine (aka Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), personally ordered the slayings of the two popular politicians.
Ansar al-Sharia has not hidden its relationship with Harzi, who was previously identified in press reporting as a member of the group. In December 2012, the group posted a video online of a lawyer complaining about Harzi’s brief detention. Ansar al-Sharia added its own criticisms of the Ennahda-led government. Then, Hassine’s group stalked the three FBI agents who were sent to Tunis to question Harzi, posting the agents’ pictures online and again lashing out at Ennahda. And when Harzi was released from prison in January, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia members were waiting to greet him, posting a celebratory video of their newly freed comrade online.
Not only are Harzi’s ties to Ansar al-Sharia obvious, so are Ansar al-Sharia’s ties to al Qaeda.
Seifallah ben Hassine is a well-known terrorist with ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. In 2000, he cofounded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) “in coordination with” al Qaeda, according to the U.N. The TCG acted as an arm of al Qaeda in Europe and also helped execute the September 9, 2001, assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. The killing of Massoud was an integral part of al Qaeda’s September 11 plot, as it removed a key enemy of the Taliban from the battlefield.
Hassine was released from prison following the Tunisian revolution, and he quickly moved to establish Ansar al-Sharia. He has not hidden his affinity for al Qaeda. Hassine eulogized Osama bin Laden after the al Qaeda master was killed in May 2011. He and other Ansar al-Sharia members have repeatedly praised al Qaeda, and his organization’s social media pages are littered with pro-al Qaeda propaganda. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has, in turn, openly praised Ansar al-Sharia, and Tunisian authorities have repeatedly said the two groups are closely linked.
In September, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia released a statement saying it has been loyal to al Qaeda and the global jihad “from the first day and we are not ashamed to renew today our declaration with a louder voice.”
Other Ansar al-Sharia leaders also have well-established al Qaeda pedigrees. One, a U.N.- and U.S.-designated terrorist named Sami Ben Khemais Essid, was formerly the head of al Qaeda’s operations in Italy, where he plotted to attack the U.S. embassy in Rome.
All of this has a direct bearing on not just our understanding of Ben-ghazi, where members of another chapter of Ansar al-Sharia took part in the attack on the American mission, but also what happened three days later in Tunisia.
On September 14, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia orchestrated an assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis. In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, published in May, the State Department noted that Hassine “was implicated as the mastermind behind the September 14 attack” on the U.S. embassy, which involved “a mob of 2,000-3,000” people, “including individuals affiliated with the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia.”
Ali Harzi’s story exposes a web of connections between al Qaeda’s global network and the twin attacks in Ben-ghazi and Tunis in September 2012. Instead of being in custody and questioned about his knowledge of these events, however, Ali Harzi continues to serve Ansar al-Sharia.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.