An al Qaeda operative who was dispatched to Libya by Ayman al Zawahiri was reportedly captured in Turkey and is now being held in Jordan.
Azzouz was handpicked by Zawahiri to oversee al Qaeda’s efforts in post-revolution Libya. According to the Turkish reports, Azzouz was detained in mid-November after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Turkish authorities located him in the “summer resort” area of Yalova, which is south of Istanbul. Two laptops and a fake passport were captured along with Azzouz.
According to an account by the Washington Post, Azzouz was deported to Jordan, where he is currently being held.
US intelligence officials are investigating Azzouz’s potential ties to the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. If Azzouz did have a role in the attack, during which four Americans were killed, then his involvement would be yet another strong piece of evidence pointing to the culpability of al Qaeda’s international network.
Fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), two formal branches of al Qaeda, are known to have taken part in the Benghazi attack. Both AQAP and AQIM are openly loyal to Zawahiri.
Members of the so-called Mohammad Jamal Network (MJN) were present among the attackers. The MJN, as it is known by Western counterterrorism officials, was founded by Mohammad Jamal, an Egyptian who was first trained by al Qaeda in the 1980s. Like the leaders of AQAP and AQIM, Jamal swore a bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri.
Jihadists from Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked group based in Libya, were also among the attackers. There is abundant evidence tying Ansar al Sharia to al Qaeda’s network and these ties have been formally recognized by the United Nations. [For more on the various al Qaeda groups responsible for the Benghazi attack, see LWJ reports, Senate report: Terrorists ‘affiliated’ with multiple al Qaeda groups involved in Benghazi attack and UN recognizes ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya, al Qaeda.]
Zawahiri’s man in Libya
In September, the State Department added Azzouz to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists. Azzouz “has had a presence in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and Libya.”
State noted that Azzouz “was sent to Libya in 2011 by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to build a fighting force there, and mobilized approximately 200 fighters.” Azzouz “is considered a key operative capable of training al Qaeda recruits in a variety of skills,” such as building improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The designation of Azzouz confirmed some of the details previously reported by CNN, as well as by an analysis shop in the Defense Department.
An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlights al Qaeda’s strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya, and it identified Azzouz as playing a key role in these plans. The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO).
The report’s authors noted that Azzouz had been sent to Libya by Zawahiri and has been close to the al Qaeda leader “since 1980.” Azzouz “first visited Afghanistan in the 1990s to join the mujahedin fight against the Soviet occupation.” In Libya, according to the CTTSO report, Azzouz “has been operating at least one training center” and has hundreds of men under his command. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report.]
It is not clear what Azzouz was specifically doing in Turkey at the time of his capture. Turkey is a known crossroads for al Qaeda operatives, including those dispatched by al Qaeda’s senior leadership and fighters seeking to join the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in the Levant.