As the vicious Islamist group ISIS upended the status quo in Iraq, another terrorist network — Ansar al-Sharia – broke into the headlines. Although relatively few Americans recognize it by name, the organization played a key role in an event that shook the nation: the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Ahmed Abu Khattala, captured Sunday by U.S. special forces, is among leaders of the group accused of perpetrating the nearly nine-hour firefight that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, at the U.S. consulate and a nearby annex in Benghazi.
Now, with Khattala in U.S. custody and being brought to justice as an alleged mastermind of the deadly attacks, experts are re-examining the danger Ansar al-Sharia poses to America. To help Americans tune into the debate and what’s at stake,The Heritage Foundation’s authority on Middle Eastern affairs, James Phillips, answered five questions from The Daily Signal about the origins and threat of Ansar al-Sharia.
The Daily Signal: First off, who is Ahmed Abu Khattala?
Phillips: Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Libyan, is Islamist extremist charged with leading the September 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. He is a native of Benghazi who reportedly spent most of his adult life in prison because of his Islamist activities. Khattala formed his own militia during the 2011 rebellion against Libya’s ruler of 42 years, Muammar Qadhafi, who was assassinated that October.
Khattala later joined an al-Qaeda-linked umbrella group that supports Islamic law, Ansar al-Sharia, a coalition of the most extreme Islamist revolutionaries that rejected the authority of the new Libyan government.
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Although Khattala has denied leading the attack on the Benghazi mission, Libyan eyewitnesses saw him give orders to the attackers and he showed up on at least one security camera at the mission on the night of the massacre. He is described as an eccentric and charismatic fanatic who welcomed the notoriety that reports of his role in the attack gave him in the eyes of fellow Islamist extremists.
Q: What makes this group, Ansar al-Sharia, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization?
A: Ansar al-Sharia is believed to be a front organization for al-Qaeda, but its designation as a foreign terrorist organization, or FTO, was prompted by its involvement in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. The group also is suspected of assassinating Libyan officials and citizens who opposed its extremist agenda.
Q: What exactly do they hope to accomplish?
A: Ansar al-Sharia is an Islamist revolutionary movement that uses terrorism to advance its radical agenda. It is far more than just a run-of-the mill terrorist group. It also performs the functions of a militia, a charity, a social service organization, a health care provider, a source of Islamic education and dawa (proselytization).
The organization seeks to provide services to Libyans as part of a “soft power” strategy to build popular support and make the transition from a movement into an embryonic government. It also aims to drive U.S. and western influence out of Libya, defeat its political rivals, and impose its harsh interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) on Libyans, by force if necessary.
Q: With the capture of Khattala, a ringleader, is Ansar al-Sharia still a threat?
A: Ansar al-Sharia is likely to continue operations after the loss of Khattala, a senior leader of the Benghazi branch. The vacuum may be filled by Sufian bin Qumu, the leader of the Derna branch, who trained in one of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet occupation, later worked for Bin Laden in Sudan, and fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bin Qumu was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, detained at our Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, transferred to Libya in 2007, and released from prison in Libya under an amnesty in 2010.
Ansar al-Sharia will remain a significant threat to Americans in Libya and the Middle East region, as well as to Libyans. It operates a network of camps for training Libyan and foreign militants and will want to exact vengeance for the arrest of one of its leaders.
Q: Why do you think Special Forces decided to go in and capture him now?
A: Khattala was identified early on as an alleged perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, but as the leader of a heavily armed militia, his capture posed high risks for U.S. law enforcement and special operations personnel. He also lived in a Benghazi neighborhood that contained a large number of Islamist militants.
Libya is a very dangerous place. To minimize risks to U.S. personnel and reduce the chances of collateral casualties, there were strong reasons to wait until Khattala could be captured with minimal fighting. Delta Force commandos and FBI personnel carried out the raid within three days after President Obama approved it on Friday, according to the New York Times.
But what is not clear is why the president waited until Friday to approve the operation. He could have given the go-ahead long ago and allowed the military to exercise its best judgment about when to execute the operation with minimal risks.
For related analysis from James Phillips, read: