Key Terrorist in 2012 Benghazi Attack Detained by Turkey and Deported to Libya, Where He May be Released

On July 11, 2023, Libyan al-Qaeda terrorist and Benghazi attack planner Ziad Balaam was briefly detained by authorities in Turkey, where he was originally slated to be deported to Libyan National Army (LNA)-controlled Benghazi to face trial.

It appears, however, that Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh has ordered him to be deported to Tripoli, which is under the control of the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU), according to journalist Adam Housley and former CIA targeter Sarah Adams. Balaam is said to be in custody of the RADA Special Deterrence Forces, according to Atlas News sources. Currently, the GNU has not signaled any intent to charge Balaam, who is a leader among the fluid militias loosely allied to the GNU, raising fears he may be released.

Ziad Balaam

Ziad Balaam, whose full name is Farid Mohammad Muhammed Balaam, has been a career jihadist with decades of affiliation with al-Qaeda. In 2002, Balaam was sentenced to life in Gaddafi’s Abu Salim prison for his involvement with al-Qaeda in Sudan, but was broken out of prison amidst the outbreak of the 2011 Libyan Civil War. From there, he joined the al-Qaeda-affiliated Omar Mokhtar Brigade, part of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and led by al-Qaeda’s Abdel Moneim al-Madhouni, which fought against LNA forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. Following al-Madhouni’s death, Balaam joined al-Qaeda’s Malik Brigade under Ansar al-Sharia, where he played a key role in the 2012 attacks against the United States’ diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, and CIA Global Response Staff contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

From left to right, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, CIA Global Response Staff Glen Doherty, and CIA Global Response Staff Tyrone Woods.

The attack unfolded when a group of heavily armed militants from Ansar al-Sharia, as well as elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), launched a coordinated assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The compound came under gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks, leading to its partial destruction. Ambassador Stevens, along with Information Management Officer Sean Smith, were trapped inside the burning building. Despite attempts to rescue them, both Stevens and Smith died from smoke inhalation. As the attack on the diplomatic compound continued, a security team from the nearby CIA compound arrived to assist. The team engaged in a firefight with the attackers, eventually managing to evacuate the surviving personnel from the diplomatic compound to the annex.

The fighting continued for several hours when the CIA annex came under attack by a separate group of militants. During this second assault, Woods and Doherty were killed in a mortar attack, while several others were injured. The remaining staff and injured then fled to a nearby airport and about 30 Americans, including six State Department personnel and Smith’s body, were evacuated to Tripoli. Ambassador Stevens was found, still breathing, by a group of Libyans and taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead from smoke inhalation after 90 minutes of CPR.

Following the attacks, Balaam was pictured with an American M249, which is believed to have been looted from the Benghazi attack.

The Benghazi attack caused shock and outrage both within the United States and internationally. Questions were raised about the adequacy of security measures at the diplomatic compound and the response of the U.S. government to the unfolding crisis, especially in regards to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There was significant political controversy and subsequent investigations regarding the circumstances leading up to the attack, the response of the U.S. government agencies involved, and the handling of the incident. Benghazi became a major issue discussed during the 2016 presidential election.

Multiple investigations were conducted, including a congressional committee inquiry and an independent review board led by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen. These investigations sought to uncover the events surrounding the attack, evaluate the response of U.S. agencies, and make recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future. The report found the compounds were weakly defended and that there was an intelligence failure, which led to the incident. It also concluded that there was no delay in sending a rescue team. The Benghazi attack and its aftermath remain a highly debated and politically-charged topic, with differing interpretations of the events and subsequent investigations.

Balaam remained in Benghazi fighting against LNA forces until 2014, where he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. He traveled to Turkey for treatment before returning to the country to lead militant forces. By 2016, Balaam had established himself as the leader of the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), a militia that pledged its support to the GNU and vowed to retake the city from LNA forces. The summer of 2016 saw a series of offensive operations carried out by the BDB against the LNA and its allied groups in Benghazi, which ultimately ended in failure. The next year saw continued fighting against the LNA in Sidra, Ras Lanuf, and Jufra. By May 2017, the BDB, along with the GNA’s Misratan 13th Brigade, had executed more than 140 LNA fighters after capturing the Brak al-Shatti airbase.

The Jamestown Foundation described the BDB as a “dangerous and unpredictable wildcard in [Libya’s] political process,” stating that “Rather than being reined in by more responsible armed elements supporting the GNA (now GNU), the BDB appears to have entered a military alliance with the powerful Misratan Third Force/13th Brigade with the unauthorized support and approval of elements in the GNA’s defense ministry.”

“The BDB has strayed far from its initial mission of “liberating” Benghazi from Haftar’s control, and the LNA’s penetration of the Fezzan has provided the BDB with new battlefields, possibly as a proxy for external anti-Haftar actors such as Turkey,” Jamestown Foundation added.

Over the next several years, Balaam continued to lead GNU-aligned forces in Tripoli, and traveled to Turkey several times for medical treatment for injuries sustained in the fighting. During this time, Balaam faced rumors that he was helping recruit for Turkish-backed militant groups in Syria; however, this remains unconfirmed.

Balaam has an extensive history of being part of al-Qaeda in Libya, where he was a key leader in the Malik Brigade during the Benghazi attacks. From there, he established himself as a leader within GNU-aligned militias in Benghazi and Tripoli, where he would regularly go to Turkey, which supports the GNU against the LNA, for medical treatment. It remains unknown why Balaam was arrested by Turkish authorities, as he has seemingly had unrestricted access between Turkey and Libya for medical treatment since 2014. So far, the Libyan government has not confirmed that Balaam is in their custody, but his history of fighting for GNU-backed forces has raised fears he may be released to continue his leadership role against the LNA.

Joshua Paulo
Joshua Paulo
Combining a Criminal Justice and International Relations background, Josh boasts years of experience in various forms of analysis and freelance journalism. He currently spearheads a team of professionals committed to delivering unbiased reporting to provide the public and private sector with accurate and insightful information. Josh serves as Atlas's Director of News.

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