FBI agents are arriving in Tunisia to assist in the interrogation of a Tunisian suspected of involvement in the deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in neighboring Libya, a Tunisian government official said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation team was en route to Tunis, the capital, yesterday after a Tunisian magistrate investigating suspected radical Ali Ani al-Harzi agreed to let the U.S. provide its “techniques and expertise” for interrogating terror suspects, Tunisian Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Hedi Ben Abbes said in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.
The decision to accept U.S. involvement eased what threatened to become a flashpoint between two nations. Two Republican U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, had said denying access could damage relations and might result in an aid cutoff to the North African state, where the so-called Arab Spring democracy movement began. The two lawmakers yesterday hailed the decision to allow FBI access.
Tunisia’s action reflects a broad “decision at the highest level to engage in full cooperation with the United States” in many areas, Ben Abbes, the No. 2 official at the foreign ministry and a member of President Moncef Marzouki’s secular center-left political party, said yesterday.
“Tunisians will never forget the support the United States expressed at the very beginning of the revolution when other nations were hesitant,” he said, referring to President Barack Obama’s support for the pro-democracy uprising that began in Tunisia almost two years ago.
Tunisia has also been assured delivery within one to two weeks of riot gear, other equipment and training assistance for the Tunisian police forces, said Ben Abbes, who completed two days of talks with State Department and national security officials in Washington yesterday.
“We cannot fight against international terrorism alone,” he said, adding that Tunisian police forces are understaffed and ill-equipped.
Even so, giving U.S. investigators access to question a Tunisian citizen on Tunisian soil is a sensitive issue that touches on questions of sovereignty, said Ben Abbes.
“We were a bit reluctant,” he said, explaining that Tunisian leaders and the public question whether the U.S. would permit foreign investigators to interrogate an American citizen on U.S. soil.
Under the Tunisian legal system, the decision was in the hands of the investigating judge, not the government or the minister of justice, and every effort will be made “to cooperate without making any problems,” Ben Abbes said.
Stopped in Turkey
Al-Harzi, 28, was detained in the Istanbul airport days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate and nearby Central Intelligence Agency base that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Al-Harzi had arrived in Turkey in transit between Benghazi and Syria and has a suspected history of involvement in extremist causes, Ben Abbes said in the interview.
Al-Harzi was detained traveling with another man, who was released for lack of evidence, but whom authorities are still monitoring, Ben Abbes said.
The Associated Press reported on Nov. 1 that Al-Harzi’s lawyer, Ouled Ali Anwar, said there is no solid evidence against his client, who he claimed is being used as a “scapegoat to satisfy the Americans.” Anwar said his client was told he has been charged with “membership of a terrorist organization,” punishable by six to 12 years in prison if he is convicted.
Ben Abbes said Tunisian authorities had implored the U.S. ambassador in Tunis weeks ago to share any evidence the U.S. has against al-Harzi. He confirmed that U.S. officials have said facial recognition technology identified the suspect as being at the Benghazi consulate the night of the attack.
A photograph “is not strong enough evidence” to convict someone, Ben Abbes said, so authorities will need more than facial recognition.
“Two years ago,” under the authoritarian government of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian security forces “would’ve put him in prison for ages. Now we can no longer do this” because the country has become a democracy that respects rule of law, Ben Abbes said.
Tunisian authorities have photographs of al-Harzi’s brother participating in the Sept. 14 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis, and authorities believe al-Harzi and his associates are “freelance terrorists” who travel to different conflicts and were intending to engage in violent acts in Syria.
Ben Abbes said it isn’t clear whether the FBI investigators would have direct access to question the suspect, or whether they would work through Tunisian counterparts.
Ben Abbes also expressed deep regret for the attack on the U.S. embassy and American school in Tunis. He denied that Tunisian authorities allowed the attack, or that radicals were enjoying impunity after the fact. About 150 suspects were arrested, about one-third of whom have been released for lack of evidence, he said.
Authorities were unprepared for a violent encounter and didn’t have enough police at the site, since a demonstration two days earlier against an anti-Muslim video made in the U.S. had been peaceful, he said.
It’s critical that the U.S. assist Tunisia’s democratically elected government in every possible way, including security cooperation, so the nation where the Arab Spring began can stand as a model for other democratizing nations in the Middle East, Ben Abbes said.
“We have no right to fail,” he said. If the Arab Spring “fails in Tunisia, it will certainly fail everywhere else.”