U.S. terror designation of 3 Ansar al Shariah branches skirts some key questions

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 10, 2014 

— The State Department Friday morning designated three groups that call themselves Ansar al Shariah as foreign terrorist organizations and tied all three to violence at U.S. diplomatic facilities in northern Africa in September 2012.

But the designations of Ansar al Shariah branches in Derna and Benghazi, Libya, and the branch in Tunisia are likely to do little to enlighten the debate that surrounds the attacks on the U.S. compunds in Benghazi.

For one, while the three groups are designated together, the designation gives no hint of whether or how they work together. It pointedly says the three groups were created separately: the two Libyan branches independently of one another after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi and the Tunisian branch "in early 2011" -- meaning months before the Libyan branches. But how they might have cooperated subsequently is unstated. The details of the evidence against them are classified, State Department officials tell McClatchy correspondent Hannah Allam.

And while leaders in each group also are designated global terrorists, their roles in the Sept. 11-12, 2012, attacks in Bengahzi and the Sept. 14, 2012, assault on the U.S. embassy and American school in Tunisia aren't described.

The designation also won't do much to quiet the debate about whether al Qaida played any role in the Benghazi attacks. While the designation draws connections between al Qaida and the Tunisian group, calling it "ideologically aligned with al-Qaida and tied to its affiliates," including Al Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, no such ties are noted with the Benghazi or Derna branches.

The assertion that al Qaida was behind the Benghazi attack, without any explanation, was one of the underlying problems with the flawed "60 Minutes" report that earned CBS News correspondent Lara Logan a suspension from the show.

One thing the report does do is bolster the assertion made in a lengthy New York Times recreation that the assailants in Benghazi were some of the very people who benefited from the U.S.-backed NATO intervention that led to the collapse of the Gadhafi regime. The head of the Derna Ansar al Shariah branch, Sufian bin Qumu, was a well known jihadi and former Guantanamo detainee who served on the frontlines of the NATO-backed anti-Gadhafi revolt, as noted in Paragraphs 21 and 22 of this story, which McClatchy's Nancy A. Youssef filed in 2011 from Derna. He is now a global terrorist, under the State Department designation.

In fact, the designation of the two Libyan Ansar al Shariah branches as foreign terrorist groups raises questions about why it was a good idea to topple Gadhafi in the first place. It's worth re-reading some previous reports, such as this one based on leaked State Department cables, to appreciate how the United States had come to see Gadhafi as an ally in the fight against al Qaida by the time the NATO campaign kicked in.

Here's the State Department's release on the designations. As usual, U.S. government spellings and journalistic style differ on some names.

"The Department of State has announced the designations of Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah, and Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia as separate Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and as Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities under section 1(b) of Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.

"In addition to these group designations, the Department of State has also designated Ahmed Abu Khattalah, Sufian bin Qumu, and Seifallah Ben Hassine, commonly known as “Abou Iyadh,” as Specially Designated Global Terrorists under E.O. 13224.

"The consequences of the FTO and E.O. 13224 designations include a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with these organizations, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organization and individuals that are in the United States, or come within the United States or the control of U.S. persons. The Department of State took these actions in consultation with the Departments of Justice and Treasury.

"Created separately after the fall of the Qadhafi regime, Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi and Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah have been involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets, frequent assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya, and the September 11, 2012 attacks against the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya. Members of both organizations continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests in Libya. Ahmed Abu Khattalah is a senior leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi and Sufian bin Qumu is the leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah.

"Founded by Seifallah Ben Hassine in early 2011, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia was involved in the September 14, 2012 attack against the U.S. Embassy and American school in Tunis, which put the lives of over one hundred United States employees in the Embassy at risk. The Tunisian government has declared Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia a terrorist organization, and the group has been implicated in attacks against Tunisian security forces, assassinations of Tunisian political figures, and attempted suicide bombings of locations that tourists frequent. Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, which is ideologically aligned with al-Qa’ida and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM, represents the greatest threat to U.S. interests in Tunisia.

"The U.S. government is committed to taking all appropriate actions against the organizations and individuals responsible for the attacks against the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya and Tunisia. We remain committed to working with the Libyan government to bring the perpetrators of the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks to justice and to ensure the safety of our personnel serving overseas. Likewise, we continue to urge the Tunisian government to bring to justice those responsible for the September 14, 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.

Email: mseibel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @markseibel

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