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Al Qaeda-Affiliated Group Assaulted U.S. Embassy in Tunis

10:19 AM, Jan 10, 2014 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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.

Al Qaeda's flag flies over the U.S. embassy in Tunisia.

An al Qaeda-style flag flies over the U.S. embassy in Tunisia.

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.”

The State Department’s designation therefore confirms THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s analysis and reporting on Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which we long ago identified as tied to al Qaeda.  

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.

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