Thursday, November 22, 2012

From al Qaeda in Italy to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia

Abu Iyad preaches during a rally in Tunisia in front of a flag commonly used by al Qaeda in Iraq. On the right (Iyad's left), in orange, is Sami Ben Khemais Essid. On the left (Iyad's right, also in orange), according to L'Espresso, is Mehdi Kammoun.
By Thomas Joscelyn - November 21, 2012 - LWJ

Two convicted members of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Italy are now senior members of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. The pair, Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, were arrested in 2001 and sentenced to several years in prison for their terrorist plotting as operatives in the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG).

They were each subsequently deported to their native Tunisia, where they were imprisoned by President Ben Ali's regime. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Essid and Kammoun were freed.

The US government has previously identified Essid as the head of al Qaeda's operations in Italy. In early 2001, Essid plotted to attack the US Embassy in Rome, among other targets.

Essid's and Kammoun's role in Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was first reported by L'Espresso, a weekly Italian news magazine. L'Espresso identified the two in a video of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia's leader, Seifallah ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyad. They can be seen wearing orange vests, flanking Abu Iyad on both sides.

The Long War Journal has found the same video online. A side-by-side comparison of a screen shot from the video and a known photo of Essid is shown below. Essid has subsequently been interviewed by an Algerian newspaper, which confirmed that he is now a leader in Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. A similar photo of Kammoun was not immediately available for comparison purposes.

Ansar al Sharia Tunisia orchestrated the Sept. 14 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis. The attack did extensive damage to US interests, including a school. Several people were killed during a subsequent confrontation between the rioters and Tunisian security forces.

Sami Ben Khemais Essid. On the left, Essid attends an Ansar al Sharia Tunisia rally. On the right, Essid as pictured by the US State Department.

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