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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Uncertainty over Fate of Tunisian’s Ansar al-Sharia Leader

Counterterrorism & Security

Ahmed Nadhif

Fri, 15 Mar 2019 11:48 GMT

On February 23rd, MENA Stream, an observatory specialising in monitoring extremist groups in Africa and the Sahel-Saharan states, revealed the death of Seifallah ben- Hassine, alias Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, founder of the Tunisian Ansar al-Sharia group, a designated terrorist organisation, in a raid launched by French troops in the al-Aqliya (el-Aklé) district in Mali, 300 kilometres northwest of Timbuktu, on the Mauritanian border.

France had previously announced that Jamal Okasha, a prominent al-Qaeda leader of Algerian descent, alias Yehya Al-Khamis, had also been killed, together with other leaders and eight militants, in an air raid near Timbuktu. MENA Stream did not reveal whether the Tunisian leader was killed in the same raid that targeted the Okasha convoy.

This was not the first time that news has leaked regarding the killing of the Tunisian

terrorist organisation leader. Media outlets have made different assumptions about his disappearance in spite of the continued activities of his fellow extremists within the country. Thus, the question as to where did Abu Iyadh disappeared remains unanswerable and continues to puzzle the Tunisian security agencies and public opinion in Tunisia.

Following the attack on the US embassy in Tunisia on September 12th 2012 by the Ansar al-Sharia militant group prompted by its objection to the screening of the “Innocence of Muslims” film, Seifallah ben-Hassine, Emir of the group, which has served as the umbrella for a broad sector of Tunisian extremists since 2011, disappeared, although the group did not claim responsibility for the embassy attack.

From September 2012 till August 2013, Abu Iyadh remained at liberty within the country and the security forces failed to capture him. In late August 2013, following the Tunisian government’s decision to designate Ansar Al-Sharia as a terrorist organisation, Abu Iyadh crossed into Libya at the eastern border, assisted by a Tunisian border guard. The local authorities accused Abu Iyadh and his group of involvement in assassinating leftist opposition figure Shokri Beleed in February 2013 and then Mohamed al-Barahmi in August 2013, as well as carrying out attacks against the army and the police, the most dangerous of which was slaughtering soldiers in the Jabal al-Shaanbi area, in the west of the country in July 2013.

Ever since his escape to Libya, Abu Iyadh has ceased issuing statements or audio recordings for his group and there has been no news of him. As a result of his sudden disappearance, numerous media reports surfaced but they all remain indefinite. On November 29th 2013, local and Arab media outlets, including Tunisia’s official news agency, reported news of US Special Forces, assisted by Libyan troops, capturing Abu Iyadh in Sebratha, together with a group accompanying him. Yet a US military spokesperson denied that US Special Forces had participated in capturing Abu Iyadh.

The second assumption about Abu Iyadh is that he may have died. In this connection, on July 3rd 2015 the New York Times disclosed, according to a US official, that Abu Iyadh had been killed in a raid that targeted Algerian extremist, Mohktar Bilmokhtar, in mid June 2015 in eastern Libya.

In January 2014, Washington had put the Ansar al-Sharia group, headed by Abu Iyadh, on the terrorist organisations list. However, former Tunisian minister of the interior, Najem Al-Gharsaly, said in August 2015 that his country does not have any proof that Seifullah ben-Hassine had been killed in Libya and so his fate remained uncertain.

Abu Iyadh, born in 1965, was one of the Tunisian extremists who founded the Tunisian combatant group in Jalalabad,in Afghanistan in 2000, along with Tareq al-Maroufi and Sami al-Sayd. The group was put on the Security Council’s terrorist list in 2002 due to its links with the al-Qaeda and Taliban movements, which were recruiting volunteers to receive training in al-Qaeda camps in preparaton for a return to operations inside the country. However, the 9/11 attacks in the US foiled the project and the group dispersed.

Prior to that date, Abu Iyadh was residing in London and was a disciple of the Jordanian hardliner theorist, Omar Mahmoud Othman, alias Abu Qatada, currently imprisoned in Jordan. In 2003, Abu Iyadh was detained in Turkey and handed over to the Tunisian authorities, as he was wanted there on terrorist charges. He was not released until Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime was ousted in 2011. Immediately after his release, Abu Iyadh founded the Ansar al-Sharia group, which has remained on the international terrorist organisation list since 2014.

In that year, the Security Council put Abu Iyadh on the terrorist list for his links with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and for leading a terrorist organisation. In October 2016, the Tunisian judiciary issued death sentences against 31 convicts accused of terrorism offences, including Abu Iyadh. The Criminal Chamber issued death sentences twice and also sentenced Ibu Iyadh to 36 years in prison for the attack his group carried out on the former Tunisian Minister of the Interior, Lutfi Bin Jeddo.