The State Department today designated three Ansar al Sharia organizations, as well as three of their leaders, as terrorist entities. The State Department reports that Ansar al Sharia in Derna was “involved” in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi. Former Guantanamo detainee Sufian Ben Qumu, who long served al Qaeda, is named as “the leader” of Ansar al Sharia in Derna.
These details are important for our understanding of the Benghazi attack, but there is more to the designation that is worth notice. On September 14, 2012, just three days after the assault on the U.S. Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s members ransacked the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, as well as a nearby school. The attack caused millions of dollars in damage.
Comparatively little attention has been paid to the events in Tunis. The implicit assumption in the U.S. government’s discussion of the attack is that it was unconnected to what transpired in Benghazi. We are led to believe it was just a coincidence that Ansar al Sharia in Libya laid siege to the compound in Benghazi just days before Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia did the same in Tunis.
The State Department reports that Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia “is ideologically aligned with al Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM,” or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the group “represents the greatest threat to U.S. interests in Tunisia.”
Put simply: Ansar al Sharia, a group that is “tied” to al Qaeda’s network, overran the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Others extremists were involved, but it is clear that Ansar al Sharia was the main culprit. The State Department has previously said that the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has been identified as the “mastermind” of the attack in Tunis.
Only because America’s diplomats were on high alert after Benghazi did the U.S. avoid any casualties in Tunis. The attack “put the lives of over one hundred United States employees in the Embassy at risk,” the State Department says.
And while the U.S. government now treats this as a separate incident from Benghazi, there are many reasons to suspect the two attacks are linked.
Ali Ani al Harzi
One of the first suspects publicly identified in the Benghazi attack was Ali Ani al Harzi, a Tunisian who posted updates on the fighting on social media pages. U.S. officials tracked Harzi down in Turkey in October 2012. He was detained by local authorities and then deported back to Tunisia.
The Tunisian government delayed the FBI’s questioning of Harzi until December 2012. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia protested the Tunisian government’s decision to allow the FBI to question him at all.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia released a video on YouTube that same month showing a lawyer discussing Harzi's case. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia prayed for Harzi's release. And the lawyer confirmed that the FBI was present for questioning. An introductory sentence in the video 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.”
Also in December 2012, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia released photos of the three investigating FBI agents who questioned Harzi. In the same posting, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia denounced the Tunisian government for allowing the U.S. to question Harzi.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the title of the posting 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 FBI Agents.
And then in January 2013, after Harzi was released from a Tunisian prison, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia released a video celebrating his release.
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.
The State Department’s designation presumes that the various Ansar al Sharia groups are separate entities. Foggy Bottom says that Ansar al Sharia in Derna and Benghazi were created separately. This may be true, but it is clear that they both operate as part of the same “Ansar al Sharia Libya” today. That is the common name they operate under, and they post their propaganda through the same media wing. Their joint role in the Benghazi attack is enough to connect them.
In other words, there is plenty of evidence connecting the various Ansar al Sharia groups to one another, to the attacks in Benghazi and Tunis in September 2012, and to al Qaeda.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.