A Tunisian militant linked to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, reportedly was killed last week while fighting alongside the Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq. Ali Awni al-Harzi was killed June 15 in a U.S. airstrike, the Pentagon confirmed Monday.
Al-Harzi allegedly was a recruiter for the group also known as ISIS or ISIL and in charge of operations with branches across North Africa and the Middle East, military officials told the Washington Post. He is also the younger brother of Tariq bin al-Tahar bin al-Falih al-Awni al-Harzi, one of the first foreign fighters to join ISIS and who was in charge of foreign fighters and suicide bombers.
“Ali Awni al-Harzi operated closely with multiple ISIL-associated extremists throughout North Africa and the Middle East, DOD officials said in a statement released Monday. “His death degrades ISIL's ability to integrate North African jihadists into the Syrian and Iraqi fight and removes a jihadist with long ties to international terrorism.”
Ali al-Harzi was added to the State Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorist list and the United Nations al Qaeda sanctions list in April 2015. The U.S. designation did not mention his involvement in the Benghazi attack.
Al-Harzi joined al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia in 2011, where he was in charge of transporting foreign fighters to Syria. He was also accused of working with al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra. However, it is unclear when or if Ali al-Harzi left al Qaeda and joined ISIS. Some Ansar al-Sharia militants defected to ISIS in the last two years, but the group’s core leadership remains loyal to al Qaeda.
According to the State Department, Ali al-Harzi “was a high-profile member known for recruiting volunteers, facilitating the travel of AAS-T [al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia] fighters to Syria, and for smuggling weapons and explosives into Tunisia.”
The ISIS relationship with Tunisia goes back to 2013, much of it stemming from Ali’s brother Tariq, a Tunisian who was added to the U.S. Designated Terrorist List in 2014. He acted as a recruiter for foreign fighters in North Africa and Europe and was in charge of procuring weapons from Libya. Ali and Tariq reportedly worked together when it came to smuggling weapons from Libya.
There has been no evidence linking Tariq al-Harzi to the attacks in Benghazi.
Since last week, rumors have been circulating on social media accounts affiliated with militant groups that Tariq al-Harzi, also known as Abu Omar al-Tunisie, had been killed in Tikrit, Iraq. However, this has not been confirmed.
نزف اليكم خبر استشهاد الاخ الحبيب الهمام ابوعمر التونسي احد احرار سجن تكريت والذي استشهد بغاره لقوات التحالف الصليبي pic.twitter.com/bIkGjkah2I
— كاسر القيود (@mohajer_30) June 17, 2015
"The best indication that a militant has been killed, absent a DNA analysis, is when a group issues a statement saying he was martyred," said Thomas Joscelyn, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and senior editor of the Long War Journal.
Ali al-Harzi was detained by Turkish authorities in October 2012 when he attempted to cross the border into Syria. He was later extradited to Tunisia and months later was interviewed by the FBI for his suspected involvement in the al Qaeda-linked attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
In January 2013, Tunisian authorities released al-Harzi because of a lack of evidence linking him to the attack. Upon his release, Ansar al-Sharia posted a video to its social media page showing militants welcoming al-Harzi after his release.