Tunisia's most wanted jihadist killed in air strike weeks before beach terror attack
Published 03/07/2015 | 18:49
Tunisia’s most wanted jihadist may have died in an air strike in Libya two weeks before the fatal beach attack that left 38 people, including 3 Irish tourists, dead.
Seifallah Ben Hassine, a long-time jihadist, lived in Britain in the 1990s and studied under the al-Qaeda cleric Abu Qatada.
He then fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, before founding a master-group of Tunisian hardline Islamists.
Read More: Eight more suspects arrested over deadly beach attack
It is believed he was killed in a strike near Adjabiya in eastern Libya on June 14, the Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM and the New York Times reports.
The strike was designed to kill Mokhtar Belmokhtar , a prominent al-Qaeda leader known as the “one-eyed sheikh” and “the Untouchable” for his raids across the western Sahara.
He was thought to be holding a meeting with members of Ansar al-Sharia, an umbrella group of militants in Libya and Tunisia, and while he may have escaped, at least seven others were killed.
Read More: Only daughter of tragic Tunisia attack couple spends birthday saying tearful goodbye
Ben Hassine was not among those named but the US authorities told the New York Times that they had concluded he was probably dead “after reviewing surveillance and intelligence reports, including online chatter from jihadist fighters.”
Ben Hassine followed a well-trodden path from associations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists groups as a young man in Tunisia, to service in the Islamist cause in neighbouring Algeria.
He fled to Britain in the 1990s, went to Afghanistan and was eventually extradited back to Tunisia where he was jailed.
Read More: The onus is now on Muslims to condemn jihadism
In the meantime, he had provided the two Tunisian recruits who killed Ahmad Shah Masood, the prominent American-backed leader of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, shortly before September 11, 2001.
After the overthrow of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, he was released from jail under an amnesty and founded Ansar al-Sharia.
It resisted being made illegal until 2013, arguing it was carrying out humanitarian work, even though Ben Hassine personally led the storming of the US Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012, three days after Ansar’s counterparts in Libya killed the US ambassador there in a similar attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Read More: Bullet holes and empty beaches: the bleak outlook for Tunisia's tourism
When Ansar was finally outlawed, and he was listed as a proscribed terrorist by the United States, he fled to Libya.
Since then, former Ansar supporters appear to have split, as across the Middle East, into pro-al-Qaeda and pro-Islamic State factions.