Exclusive: End of the run for Tunisian Ansar al-Sharia founder Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi

Seifallah Ben Hassine, commonly known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi—one of North Africa’s most influential jihadi ideologues—is confirmed to have been killed on February 21, 2019, in northern Mali.

A senior Tunisian Al-Qaida member, Afghanistan veteran, and founder of the Islamist organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) is now confirmed to have been killed in an operation by French forces, reportedly in the area of El Aklé, nearly 300km northwest of Timbuktu, Mali, on the border with Mauritania.

[Update] However, on 13 June, 2019, French defense minister Florence Parly stated that the operation took place in Bou Djebeha, approximately 125km north of Timbuktu. Ultimately, the emir of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Musab Abdul Wadud announced in an audio message on 27 February, 2020, the deaths of Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi.

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, Abu Iyadh founded AST and mobilized tens of thousands of Islamists. In mid-August 2012, Abu Iyadh hosted late Bahraini Islamic State ideologue Turki al-Bin’ali in his hometown of Menzel Bourguiba, a month later, he commanded the assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis. The following year, two political assassinations of the opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi took place, Abu Iyad is among the primary suspects to have planned the assassinations. Abu Iyadh escaped arrest attempts twice and the Tunisian government declared AST a terrorist organization in 2013. Since then, the whereabouts of Abu Iyadh have been shrouded in mystery after he fled Tunisia for Libya. In fact, he was announced dead in 2015, although he wasn’t.

Mohamed al-Zahawi, founder of AST’s brother organization in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), sustained severe injuries during the battle of the Benina Airport in late 2014. Al-Zahawi was transported via Ajdabiya to Misrata, and received treatment in Turkey, but succumbed to his wounds. The corpse of Al-Zahawi was repatriated to Misrata for burial—Abu Iyadh present during the funeral—mourned Al-Zahawi by his side.

On June 14, 2015, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against a farm south of Ajdabiya. Both Abu Iyadh and the infamous one-eyed Algerian militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar were reported to have been killed in the airstrike. Eventually, those killed were local Ansar al-Sharia members. The farm belonged to another Al-Qaida veteran, namely al-Saadi Bukhazem al-Nawfali (Abu Abdallah) who in the early 2000s fought in Iraq as a member of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Nawfali was imprisoned upon return to Libya, although in the wake of the Libyan Revolution he became the emir of the Ajdabiya Shura Council which in 2016 became ‘Operations Room for the Liberation of the City Ajdabiya and Support for Benghazi Rebels’. The group launched an offensive in the early summer of 2016 along the axis Ajdabiya-Benghazi, briefly taking control of a couple of villages, and claiming to have downed a helicopter (other reports indicate technical failure) of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the area of Magrun, killing three French intelligence operatives (DGSE) and three Libyans who were aboard the aircraft.

Since the U.S. airstrike in Ajdabiya, not much has filtered regarding the fate of Abu Iyadh, at times said to be hiding in Derna, however, in mid-2016, the Tunisian news outlet Akher Khabar Online reported that Abu Iyadh managed to leave Libya for northern Mali, where he resided under the protection of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Ultimately, the report proved to be correct since Abu Iyadh now have been confirmed killed alongside Jama’ah Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin’s (JNIM) deputy emir Yahya Abu al-Hammam amidst a combined air-ground operation by French forces of Operation Barkhane.

Abu Iyadh is not the only Tunisian jihadist militant who has sought refuge in the Sahel. In November 2016, Nigerien security forces arrested his associate Wannes Ben Hassine Fékih and later extradited him to Tunisia. Fékih, accused of planning the Bardo attack in Tunis, was condemned to ten years in prison. Another former senior Ansar al-Sharia member, Moez Fezzani, met a similar fate in Sudan, his arrest was made possible through exchanges of intelligence between Italian, Sudanese, and Libyan authorities, and likewise extradited to Tunisia for prosecution, where he two months after his return was sentenced to thirty years in prison.