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Only Suspect Held for Benghazi Consulate Attack Gets Release From Custody

January 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Dozens of people may have been involved in Sept. 11 attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but authorities have been unable to identify them from the security tapes. Gwen Ifill talk to McClatchy Newspapers' Nancy Youssef about efforts in Libya to find the attackers.
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GWEN IFILL: We return now to the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi. The only known suspect held in connection with the incident was released today in Tunisia. His attorney said he was freed because of a lack of evidence.

The attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was seen by large crowds and captured on security cameras, but the culprits have remained elusive.

Libyan witnesses have reportedly placed a local leader from the militant group Ansar al-Sharia at the scene of the attack. This week, he survived a vigilante assassination attempt and remains at large.

For more on the status of the investigation, I’m joined by Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers.

Once again, Nancy, welcome.

What do we know about this suspect? His name is Ali Harzi?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: That’s right.

He’s a 20-something-year-old Tunisian who was arrested last fall. At the time, the authorities said that they had strong suspicions that he was involved in the attack. He had been held since that time, but not questioned by either the Libyans or the FBI. The Tunisians didn’t allow for this.

And, today, surprisingly, his lawyer appeared before a judge and said there was insufficient evidence to hold him, and he was subsequently released, even though members of Congress and others have said that they believe he was involved in the attack.

And so it’s really raised questions not only about his case, but where the investigation broadly stands nearly four months after the attack. Libyan authorities say that they have had a problem arresting people, that, while they have suspects, they have — authorities — the authorities are afraid to arrest people because of their ties to the militias.

And so this case of Ali Harzi really raises broader questions about the status of the investigation into the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans.

GWEN IFILL: I want to get to those broader questions, but I — but one logistical one first. How is it that a Tunisian ends up being a suspect, and he’s being held in Tunis for an attack that allegedly occurred in Libya?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, according to the investigators we have spoken to, there were upwards of 70 people involved in that attack, and they were not just Libyans. They were Tunisians, Egyptians, Turks, Jordanians, we have heard.

And after the attack, a lot of them fled to their native countries. Many of the Libyans are in hiding. Some of them are out and openly hiding in Libya, because they don’t fear an immediate arrest. And so while this attack happened in Benghazi, there were huge militant groups operating within the country and traveling freely into Libya.

GWEN IFILL: So, if this is true that there were all — dozens of suspects, some of them, people are keeping an eye on them in different countries, who is in charge of this investigation?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, it’s a Libyan-led investigation, but the problem is that the Libyans who are in charge of the investigation, some of them have only been in security operations for a year.

And they’re not really experienced on how to conduct such a complex investigation. While they’re working with the FBI, this happened within the jurisdiction of Benghazi, and, therefore, the Libyans have the authority over the case.

And unless the Libyan can pull the case together, it makes it hard for courts in other countries like Tunisia to build a case, because it hinges on what the Libyans are able to pull together in terms of evidence, witnesses.

And all that has been exceptionally difficult in Libya. The police themselves are afraid to arrest militia people who they suspect being involved in the attack.

And then on top of that, you have a crime scene that was looted within minutes of the attack, and no real professional evidence-gathering that happened at the time.

And so all of that makes it very difficult for the Libyans to put together a proper investigation, and such that it will lead to arrests and convictions, not only in Libya, but throughout the Arab world where suspects may be hiding.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds extremely complicated.

And yet we saw the president, President Obama, in an interview not too long ago say, we have a couple of good leads or several good leads on this.

Do we have any idea what he meant by that or do you see evidence of that on the ground?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I think a number of people believe they know who may have been involved in the attack.

The problem is, they don’t have enough experience or evidence or confidence that they can make such arrests without facing reprisals, without being attacked themselves.

I have talked to Libyan officials who say, we would arrest these people, but the militiamen would come and release them, or perhaps one of our own men would tell the militiamen who we’re about to arrest, and that — our efforts would be thwarted.

So it’s very possible that there are in fact leads, but not enough evidence and confidence in the Libyan legal system to actually lead to an arrest and conviction. In Benghazi, when you travel there, there’s a lot of suspicion about who may be involved. People will point to one another and say, that person was involved, that person wasn’t.

But they don’t feel comfortable coming forward and giving a statement, because their lives are at risk. And the Libyan officials we talk to who looked at the security camera footage said that, while it captured the attack in real time, the faces are too blurry to make a positive identification of anyone.

And so when you talk to the Libyan officials, they — as I spoke to just earlier today, they say: We’re weeks, if not months away from an arrest in this case. We simply don’t have the experience to handle a case this complex, this sophisticated in such an unstable state as Libya is right now.

GWEN IFILL: Weeks, if not months. There you go.

Nancy Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers, in Cairo, thank you so much.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thank you.