Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist militia linked to the deadly terror attack against the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, continues to operate Facebook pages and conduct fundraising and proselytize in Libya, according to U.S. officials.
Intelligence reports provided to the U.S. Africa Command earlier this month revealed that Ansar al-Sharia operates several Facebook pages, including one outlet called the Campaigns of Ansar al-Sharia for Dawa and Charity. The website was operating as late as Dec. 15 before being shut down under pressure from the U.S. government.
That social media page was connected to the Benghazi-based militia behind the terrorist attack that operated a camp in Benghazi until the Sept. 11 burning of the diplomatic compound and the killings of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens and three other Americans.
The Arabic-language Campaigns page showed photos and graphics of what it calls the charitable work of the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade, the Benghazi based jihadist group.
However, content on the page showed signs of what analysts said were apparent steps designed to deceive Western intelligence monitors into thinking the page was not directly linked to the Brigade. The deception was part of an apparent bid by the group to avoid being shut down by Facebook.
President Barack Obama promised on Sept. 12, the day after the deadly attack, that the United States would take action against those responsible for the murders and looting. “And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people,” Obama said during remarks in the Rose Garden.
So far, however, no public or covert action has been taken against the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade by either U.S. or allied military or intelligence forces. The FBI is investigating the attack as a criminal matter and agents visited the compound in Benghazi weeks after the attack, by which time most evidence had been disturbed.
A White House spokesman did not respond to emails seeking comment on why the administration has not taken action against the terrorist group.
Two suspects in the Benghazi attack were arrested in October, including Ali Harzi, a Tunisian linked to the attack. Harzi was detained in Turkey and repatriated to Tunis to face terror charges.
The Associated Press reported in October that Ahmed Abu Khattala, commander of the Islamist militia Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah, has been identified as a leader of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack, according to witnesses who were present. Abu Khattala also is a leader of Ansar al-Sharia.
The Ansar al-Sharia Brigade was linked by U.S. intelligence agencies to the Benghazi attack by electronic intercepts of group members communicating with other terrorists whose communications were monitored, the Daily Beast has reported.
The group acknowledged in a Sept. 12 published statement on Facebook and YouTube that it was indirectly involved in the attack. The statement said that the group “did not participate formally and did not direct orders to its members to participate, meanwhile engaging in some of its normal functions including the protection of some institutions [in Benghazi].”
Several dozen attackers took part in the diplomatic compound strike including terrorists armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. They burned the facility and then attacked a nearby CIA facility that was engaged in covert weapons activities in Libya.
The Obama administration is under fire for putting out misleading information for weeks after the attack by claiming it was a response to an anti-Muslim video. Several intelligence officials said ignoring reports implicating al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the assault was a politicization of intelligence.
A Pentagon report published by the Library of Congress in August on al Qaeda in Libya stated: “Ansar al-Sharia, led by Sufian Ben Qhumu, a former Guantanamo detainee, has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.” Ansar al-Sharia means “supporters of Sharia” or Islamic law.
The Pentagon-produced counterterrorism analysis said Ansar al-Sharia is believed to have clandestine links to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and has been engaged in a covert campaign to assassinate Libyan government officials. “Al Qaeda will probably refrain from using the al Qaeda name and instead may use other names, such as Ansar al-Sharia, or simply mujahedin,” the report said.
The report said Ansar al-Sharia “could be the new face of al Qaeda in Libya despite its leader’s denial.” The report said the name Ansar al-Sharia is being used by al Qaeda in the Lands of the Arabian Peninsula in areas of Yemen and by terrorist groups in Tunisia. “The Facebook sites of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and the group in Tunisia appear similar in design and content and also share contacts, suggesting coordination between the groups,” the report said.
The Ansar al-Sharia-linked Campaigns Facebook page began operating in November and carried photos of other Ansar al-Sharia Brigade Facebook pages. Photographs on the page show the logo of the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade and its media outlet, al-Raya Media Productions Foundation.
The Facebook page was used for social media connections and has been “liked” by similar Islamist groups 631 times as of mid-December. The page appears connected to the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) and counterterrorism officials believe the Libyan Ansar al-Sharia group is part of a jihadist effort to expand splinter terrorist groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen.
The page is being used for what Muslims call “dawa,” or grassroots missionary activity, as well as for fundraising.
The group’s main jihadist cleric is Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti and it is active in Egypt under the new Muslim Brotherhood regime as well as in Tunisia.
According to U.S. officials, the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade’s Facebook pages were shut down by Facebook after the Sept. 11 attack. But new pages quickly emerged after that date and continued to operate as recently as Dec. 15.
The Campaigns page was focused on promoting the terrorist group’s effort to spread its ideology in Benghazi and neighboring areas. Photos showed brigade jihadists giving out leaflets and clothes to children and villagers in poor areas.
The page also showed that Ansar al-Sharia is working with other Islamist groups in Benghazi, including the Islamic Corporation for Dawa and Reform and the al-Ansar Mosque.
The Facebook page of the Brigade’s Al-Raya Media Productions Foundation has called for the release of Libyan prisoners held in Iraq.
The group is using multiple social media outlets to expand its influence, including videos posted on YouTube.