CAIRO -- Tunisian authorities on Tuesday released the only man held so far in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, according to the suspect’s lawyer, reaffirming fears that the Libyan-led investigation into the deaths is foundering.
Authorities extradited Ali Harzi, a 26-year-old Tunisian, from Turkey last fall, saying they “strongly suspected” that he had been involved in the attacks. But he was released Tuesday after a Tunisian judge agreed with his lawyer that there was not enough evidence to hold him, according to news reports from Tunis, the Tunisian capital.
Col. Abdel Salem Ashour, the Libyan official in charge of the investigation, told McClatchy that his investigators had not talked to Harzi before his release and that he had learned of Harzi’s release from news reports only after it had taken place. He said he was still waiting to learn the details of what took place from Tunisian officials.
In a statement condemning the release, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said that Tunisian authorities had obstructed the investigation, preventing the FBI from questioning Harzi until last month.
“I have every reason to believe that Harzi was involved in the attack,” Wolf said. “For months following the attack, the Tunisian government blocked the FBI from interviewing Harzi. Now Harzi walks the streets of Tunisia a free man – facing no consequence for his role in the Benghazi attack.”
“Keep in mind that, since 2011, the American government has given $320 million in taxpayer dollars to the Tunisian government,” Wolf added. “I find it morally wrong to support a country that has obstructed FBI efforts to bring these terrorists to justice.”
The FBI did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
According to Ashour, roughly 70 attackers stormed the U.S. consulate compound and set the buildings inside ablaze. But Ashour said video from U.S. surveillance cameras was not clear enough to allow positive identification of suspects. Stevens died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning while hiding in a safe room. Sean Smith, a State Department information management officer, also died in that building.
Hours later, attackers struck a CIA compound a mile away after apparently following Americans who had fled to the second location. Former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who were under contract to the CIA, died trying to fend off the attack at the second compound.
Since then, despite vows from top U.S. officials that they will find those responsible, Libyan officials have struggled to make arrests or even to conduct much of an investigation.
Ashour said that he still meets with FBI officials twice a week in Tripoli, but that investigators are months away from making arrests.
Hampering the investigation is the unwillingness of Libyan investigators to confront the militants suspected of storming the two compounds, often because they fear the reaction of the militia to whom the suspects belong. In November, unidentified assailants killed the man named to investigate the case shortly after he’d assumed his post. On Sunday, the investigator in charge of investigating that assassination was himself kidnapped.
“We are still far away from making an arrest” in the U.S. consulate attack, Ashour said Tuesday. “We don’t have anything new to report.”
In November, officials moved the investigation from Benghazi to Tripoli because Benghazi officials said they were too fearful and too inexperienced to properly investigate, McClatchy reported then.
The turmoil surrounding the investigation contradicts optimistic assessments offered by U.S. officials. Just last month, President Barack Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we have some very good leads” on suspects.
Last month, an Accountability Review Board commissioned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the Benghazi attacks condemned the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near East Affairs and found consulate security was “grossly inadequate” to handle the attack “despite repeated requests . . . for additional staffing." But it did not find that any State Department officials had been derelict in their duties. Four senior and midlevel officials were placed on administrative leave in the wake of the report, however.
A Senate Intelligence Committee review of CIA actions in relation to the Benghazi attacks is expected to be completed later this month. The CIA presence in Benghazi reportedly was larger than that of the State Department, which had dubbed the outpost a “special mission,” a status that allowed it to skirt strict security requirements required of permanent U.S. diplomatic compounds.