Ansar al-Sharia Libya confirmed this weekend that its leader, Mohamed al-Zahawi, had passed away from wounds sustained last year. Ansar al-Sharia is a jihadist group best-known outside of Libya for its September 11, 2012 assault on the U.S. Mission and Annex in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Zahawi was reportedly injured during an airstrike in Benghazi in October 2014 by forces loyal to the renegade general Khalifa Haftar. Ansar al-Sharia’s confirmation of his death came three months later, after Zahawi’s family informed the press of his passing.
Where was Zahawi in the months since the October airstrike? According to Libyan press reports, he spent at least some of the time in Turkey, where he received medical treatment. Zahawi may have even died in that country, only to have his body returned to Libya for burial.
If Zahawi was in fact treated in Turkey, it would fit a troubling trend of Turkish authorities turning a blind eye to the presence of al-Qaeda-allied jihadists on its soil. However, questions remain as to how Zahawi was transported into Turkey, who treated him, and how this could happen without the knowledge of the Turkish government.
The Ansar al-Sharia leader was something of a celebrity in jihadist circles, granting high-profile interviews to the press after the Benghazi attack. He has also been a fixture in the group’s propaganda campaign, including videos in which he leads the charge of fighters into battle.
In November 2014, the United Nations Security Council added added Ansar al-Sharia Libya to its al-Qaeda sanctions list and named Zahawi as its leader in Benghazi. The UN noted that Ansar al-Sharia has been training jihadists to fight in Iraq and Syria, and worked closely with the North African terrorist groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Mourabitoun, both of which remain loyal to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. After his death was confirmed, some accounts alleged that Zahawi had fought in al-Qaeda ranks in Afghanistan.
Media reports suggest that Ankara has aided Islamist factions in war-torn Libya since the fall of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. However, Turkey providing shelter to someone with Zahawi’s jihadist pedigree would suggest an even deeper and more damning level of collusion with extremists.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.