x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Benghazi attack suspect released as probe into terror links goes on

Key suspect in assault on US consulate that killed US ambassador has been freed by Tunisian court over 'lack of evidence'. Alice Fordham reports from Tunis

TUNIS // Tunisian courts have released a key suspect in last year's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi while investigations continue into charges that he is a member of a foreign terrorist group.

Ali Al Harzi had been the only suspect still jailed after the attack in Libya that left four Americans dead, including the ambassador.

But the judge released Mr Al Harzi, 26, late on Monday because there was a lack of evidence, said his lawyer, Anouar Ouled Ali.

The release was conditional and he will be restricted to the greater Tunis area to be available for further questioning.

Yet questions remain over Mr Al Harzi's links with the hardline Ansar Al Sharia group in Tunisia, and that group's connections with the Libyan outfit of the same name, which is suspected of leading the attack in Benghazi on September 11.

Ansar Al Sharia in Tunisia announced last night that Mr Al Harzi, a Tunisian citizen whom they referred to as a "brother" accused of killing "the American coward", had been released. A video was posted on the group's Facebook page purporting to show members of the group embracing Mr Al Harzi as he left prison.

Last month, the group posted photographs of people it said it had identified as FBI agents who interrogated Mr Al Harzi last month, according to the SITE Intelligence group, an organization that tracks the online activity of terrorist organizations.

Mr Ali said last year that Mr Al Harzi was an "ordinary guy", who worked in Libya painting buildings, returning every month or so to visit his wife and infant son. He was, he said, not an extremist, praying only like an "ordinary Muslim".

Mr Al Harzi was arrested in Turkey in October. He had flown there with a friend after leaving Libya.

The lawyer confirmed that his client was sentenced to two years in prison in 2006 or 2007, when it was suspected he wanted to go and fight in Iraq with the insurgency, as a number of other Tunisians did.

His older brother, Tariq, was arrested in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, in 2006. He was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison, said Mr Ali, but escaped about a month before the Benghazi attack. There was no evidence that the two cases are linked, said the lawyer, and he does not know what the brother was charged with.

His said his client had been questioned about whether he intended to fight with militant groups in Syria, which he denied, saying he had gone to Turkey on a business trip with a friend. The case continues.

afordham@thenational.ae