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Drone strike on Islamic State in Iraq kills Benghazi suspect, US says

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The United States has killed an Islamic State militant suspected of taking part in the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the Pentagon said Monday.

Ali Awni al-Harzi, a mid-level IS operative, was killed in a US drone strike last week in Iraq, the Pentagon said.

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He had reportedly provided an important link between the Islamic State and extremists in North Africa. Pentagon officials say his death will degrade the militant group’s ability to recruit new fighters from the region.

“We think his death is going to, at least temporarily, put a dent in their ability to get more of these North African foreign fighters,” a US defense official told The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Harzi "operated closely with multiple ISIL-associated extremists throughout North Africa and the Middle East," Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren said in a statement, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. "His death degrades ISIL's ability to integrate North African jihadists into the Syrian and Iraqi fight and removes a jihadist with long ties to international terrorism."

Col. Warren said Harzi was killed June 15 while driving a car in the city of Mosul, the IS stronghold in northern Iraq. A US military official declined to tell The New York Times how the Pentagon had received proof that he was killed, but said there was now certainty that “the airstrike struck its intended target.”

The Times reports:

In announcing the June 15 airstrikes last week, the United States Central Command said that American warplanes had conducted seven strikes, hitting two Islamic State tactical units, one fighting position, a mortar firing position, an excavator, a rocket system, a structure and a vehicle. One military official said that Mr. Harzi was in the vehicle, and that there were no known civilian casualties.

Defense Department officials characterized Harzi, a Tunisian militant in his late 20s, as one of the first foreign fighters to align himself with the Islamic State.

In April, the State Department declared him a “global terrorist” because of his role as a recruiter for the group. It had offered multimillion-dollar rewards for information leading to the whereabouts of him and three other IS leaders.

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While the Pentagon had described Harzi as "a person of interest" in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the US compound in Benghazi, his role in it remains unclear. Four Americans died in the attack, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Harzi “played an increasingly important role for ISIL as a jack-of-all-trades,” Seth Jones, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corporation, told The Times. “He recruited fighters from Europe and North Africa, helped them travel to Iraq and Syria, procured weapons and other matériel, and organized attacks. This made him an extremely dangerous enemy for the U.S. and a versatile asset for ISIL.”

The death of Harzi follows the death recently of two other leaders of Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

Over the last two weeks, US airstrikes reportedly have killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Al Qaeda branch in North Africa – though conclusive evidence is missing.