In the midst of discussions on al Qa’ida concerns with security measures and intelligence infiltrations, I would like here to discuss a bit the way al Qa’ida (and to a less extent, other jihadi groups) has been confronted to intelligence agencies and, as a result, dealt with the issue of its internal security.
For starters, it would be inaccurate to assert that al Qa’ida began adhering to strict security precautions only after the expansion of US drone strikes in Pakistan tribal areas or even right after 9/11 attacks. Actually, security measures represent a longstanding issue for militant groups in general and al Qa’ida in particular: jihadi accounts have never been short of stories on spies and intelligence conspiracies. As a result, rules, protocols and internal security requirements were established to evade detection and keep the ranks safe from within.
Before going back to some historical developments/figures, it is worthwhile remembering that security precautions are not simply a necessity from an organizational perspective, but refer to a doctrinal/legislated requirement as well. For example, in one chapter of From the fruits of jihad entitled « Precaution, Secrecy, and Concealment: Balancing Between Negligence and Paranoia », the senior Jordanian scholar Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi depicts precaution as a step of tremendous importance, as seen in the following quote: « It is clear that Allāh has ordered them to take precaution (Hithr) before His Commandment to go forth… (…) So taking precautionary steps (Asbāb) and being careful, and likewise Kitmān (concealment and secrecy) (…) in many occasions it is obligatory (Wājib). »
For jihadis, war implies tricking and deceiving the enemy through various ways to reach their desired goals and self-preservation. Here is another telling quote from al Maqdisi, stating that Allah « guided us (…) to actually use Tamwīh (artifice, falsification, forgery of facts) and Mukhāda’ah (deception, manipulation) against the enemies of Allāh. Thus, according to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the topic of precaution (Hithr) did not stop merely at the concealment of sensitive information – rather, he used to instigate division, cause chaos, and sow dissension within the ranks of the enemies, and misguide their eyes and their spies (jawāsīs). » It couldn’t have been clearer…
If we went back to the first Afghan jihad in the 1980’s, stories about intelligence services hands within mujahidin ranks were already there. An interesting eyewitness account would be Abu’l Walid al Misri’s mentioning the role of Arab intelligence agencies inside the jihadi milieu. For example, he blames Saudi Arabia and its agents for their involvement in what he calls the « massacre of Jalalabad » because they used to push the Kingdom youth to go fighting in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Abu’l Walid recalls that « Saudi agents and spies were in the guest houses spread in Peshawar (arranging death trips from Peshawar to Jalalabad) » and further notices that Saudi Arabia « sent a number of its spies in Afghanistan, who fabricated sectarian clashes with the Mujahidin. »
The damaging shadows of intelligence can also be seen through another example: in late November 1989, Pakistani authorities claimed they foiled a plot aiming at blowing a Saudi plane full of civilians. Muhtasib, a young Egyptian chemist who worked for al Qa’ida, was arrested and made responsible for it. Abu’l Walid claims that « the whole story was fabricated by ‘Abdullah al-Mani’, the director of the Saudi Red Crescent in Peshawar », also described as « one of Saudi Arabia’s top agents in Pakistan. » Apparently, Muhtasib was set up by al Mani and his entourage, linked to Saudi intelligence, and eventually arrested in Peshawar, where he was tortured to confess that al Qa’ida involvement in the plot. All in all, Abu’l Walid states that Arab intelligence had a significant presence in Peshawar, within both Arab mujahidin ranks and relief organizations working in the region.
As for Abdullah Azzam’s assassination, Abu’l Walid does not rule out the possibility of the Jordanian intelligence involvement, but adds that, given the absence of any serious investigation in the aftermath of Azzam’s death, the responsibility is difficult to prove. But even in the case of any involvement, it would not be as much important as the main players of the conspiracy, namely the US, Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (says Abu’l Walid). Without giving any name, he further evokes the alleged complicity of some among Abdullah Azzam’s entourage. According to Leah Farrall, first hand accounts she has « read over the years have often referred to the fact that it was common knowledge that the Office of Services (MAK) was infiltrated by Jordanian Intelligence ».
In addition to the Hashemite kingdom, other Arab services were eager to penetrate militant circles, including Egypt. In one correspondence, the Egyptian takfiri Abu Mus’ab Reuters claims that Egyptian intelligence succeeded in infilitrating the Maktab al Khidamat (Bureau of Services) and al Jihad group in Peshawar. According to him, this success strongly relied on an Egyptian intelligence officer named « Hilmi » who then lived in Peshawar since nearly two decades and recruited several children of mujahidin in order to use them as intelligence assets.
In relation to children recruitment, others were caught in the intelligence war against jihadis. In 1994, Mus’ab and Ahmad, two young teennagers whose fathers, Abu’l Faraj al Misri and Muhammad Sharaf, were senior al Jihad figures, were forced by Egyptian intelligence to turn against their fathers’ group after having been drugged, raped and blackmailed with videotapes of their sexual abuses. The two boys had no choice but to collect intelligence on the group, which led to a number of arrests and jeopardize the security of the organization. Once their collaboration was discovered, they were tortured at the hands of al Jihad operatives and Mus’ab notably confessed that the bag of explosives found on him was aimed at the group leadership. On a side note, al Jihad, just like many other senior organizations, had operatives specialized in security matters. The security apparatus included Hamza Rabi’a al Misri, who was said to be particularly skilled at spotting spies within al Jihad ranks. Anyway, a Shari’ah court was established to decide the fate of the boys who were eventually sentenced to death and executed. Sadly, this episode is far from being unique, as Leah Farrall put it in her excellent & thoughtful latest blogpost series (see:http://allthingscounterterrorism.com/children-jihad-agency-and-the-state-of-counter-terrorism/):« Other children have been betrayed by those who blackmail or coerce them into working on their behalf. Abominably, these practices (and not only against children) still go on. »