The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Joins the Islamic State: A Loss for al-Qa`ida?

11 Aug


After months of ambiguity, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) finally dispelled any misunderstanding about its current status by putting out a short video showing its leader `Uthman Ghazi along with his senior aides and followers at a night ceremony during which bay`a (oath) was given to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.

This has been in the making for quite some time now, and for those who would like to refresh their memory, there has been a good overview by Damon Mehl for the CTC Sentinel. Given that the IMU has often been described as an “al-Qa`ida-linked group”, I would like to go back to this relationship to assess the significance of the IMU’s declaration for Ayman al-Zawahiri’s organization.

A Longstanding Antagonism

The first contacts between the IMU and al-Qa`ida are quite old since they stretch back to the early 1990s. At that time, Muhammad Tahir “Faruq”, the future founder of the IMU, traveled from Pakistan to Sudan where he visited Usama bin Ladin and his lieutenants. When recounting this meeting, Tahir lauded the Saudi for having “left it all behind for the sake of Allah” and depicted him as one of the “role models for the [Muslim] youth.”

What these words of praise conveniently omit to mention is that Bin Ladin showed no interest in investing in Tahir’s jihad in Central Asia with the Tajik Islamist party al-Nahda (Tahir was then one of its senior leaders). Instead, Tahir and his comrades had to rely primarily on Abu al-Walid al-Misri‘s assistance for training in Afghanistan. Owing that virtually all al-Qa`ida members had left Khurasan, no real nexus was forged during this period.

Under Taliban rule, both al-Qa`ida and the IMU were based in Afghanistan, but this did not result in friendly relations, far from it. Beyond their doctrinal differences (the IMU followed the Hanafi school of thought), the two organizations came to be relentless competitors for power and influence. As Abu al-Walid al-Misri pointed out, Bin Ladin could not bear the rise to prominence of the well-organized Uzbek-dominated force outside of his control and despite the Saudi’s lobbying, the Uzbeks always refused to rally him.

Tensions almost turned bloody in early 2001 after two Russians accused of spying by the IMU escaped its custody. The two found refuge in an al-Qa`ida-run guesthouse in Kabul, pretending to have been the victims of an anti-Salafi witch-hunt by the IMU. The Uzbeks thereafter deployed an armed detachment to retrieve the fugitives in Kabul, which infuriated the Arabs and Bin Ladin, who demanded that Tahir face an Islamic court for his offense.

The weeks-long crisis prompted Mullah `Umar to intervene so as to bring back some semblance of harmony. In April 2001, the Taliban leader summoned a meeting with the foreign jihadi factions in Kandahar where he entrusted the IMU’s military head with the leadership of the al-Ansar Brigade, made of the foreign volunteers fighting in Afghanistan. The decision generated much dismay within the Arab-Afghan community, firstly in al-Qa`ida since the organization was expected to assume this role.

Internal Dissent and Full-Scale Jihad in Pakistan

The post-2001 era did not smooth things over either. There was the famous “Shah-i-Kot battle” in March 2002, where a mix of Afghan, Uzbek and Arab fighters confronted U.S. forces. Yet, despite the popular narrative, only a few al-Qa`ida figures participated in the fight. The IMU and al-Qa`ida also joined together with the Taliban in a major raid against the U.S. air base at Bagram in May 2010. That said, I suspect that it had much more to do with the personal connections and situation of Abu Talha al-Almani, who led the assault on al-Qa`ida’s behalf, than with any robust interorganizational linkage. Finally, the IMU paid tribute to Bin Ladin after his killing in May 2011, but really, who did not back then?

Apart from these limited cases, evidence indicates that relations remained strained. Both groups were careful not to publicize these divisions, even though, at times, one could still read between the lines. For instance, during a sermon in 2011, the IMU’s mufti Abu Dhar al-Pakistani urged his audience to “leave dispute (…) and division between the [groups]”. He further added: “this person is from Tehrik-e-Taliban, and this person is from al-Qa`ida organization and that person is from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. No brothers, we are all brothers.”

In April 2015, a Gulf member of the IMU named Abu Hanifa al-Bahraini challenged the status quo by outlining the disunity on his group’s website. Explaining why the two groups were at odds with each other, al-Bahraini wrote that al-Qa`ida was accused to have been instrumental in the schism within the IMU which led to the creation of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in 2002. The fact that al-Qa`ida and, more broadly, the Arab-Afghans would welcome, if not directly support, such a rift does not seem far-stretched. After all, they had attempted to hinder the group’s cohesion in Afghanistan by trying to bribe its members and foment an internal fracture.

It is also worth noticing that the Uzbeks took the issue of membership very seriously, as there was no turning back for a volunteer who had formally joined the group. This strict policy earned it much criticism from the Arab militant circles, with al-Qa`ida scolding it as “pure fascism and terrorism”.

Undermining yet again a longtime rival at this level would therefore not be surprizing for Bin Ladin’s group. Especially that, contrary to the IMU, the IJU enjoyed close ties to a range of Arab figures, including in al-Qa`ida. The revered commander Abu al-Layth al-Libi and his friends as well as the top bomb-maker Abu Khabab al-Misri proved valuable in assisting and training the group very early on. `Atiyyatullah al-Libi also appears to have maintained links with the IMU-splinter faction.

Divergences over targeting strategies came to further set the groups apart. After the Afghan emirate collapsed, the bulk of the foreign militant diaspora relocated to certain areas in South Waziristan, where they first adopted a low-profile. The IMU narrative holds that it was the sustained campaign of raids by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas that forced its hand, with the killing of Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani and Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Kanadi in October 2003 acting as the trigger. In December 2003, the IMU thus announced its “bay`a for jihad in Pakistan” which was followed by its first major confrontation with Pakistani security forces in Wana, South Waziristan, in March 2004.

The all-out war against the Pakistani state advocated by the IMU did not make consensus among the Waziristan-based jihadi landscape (not to mention their local hosts). As al-Bahraini related, al-Qa`ida “initially opposed jihad against the Pakistani army announced by (…) Muhammad Tahir Faruq”, which fuelled further controversy.

To be sure, al-Qa`ida was no bigger fan of Pervez Musharaf than the IMU, as illustrated by the Pakistan-focused audio which Ayman al-Zawahiri recorded during the first Wana battle in March 2004. In it, he evoked the same grievances which served as the IMU’s rationale for its Pakistani jihad, including al-Kanadi’s demise. The difference is that al-Qa`ida chose a less frontal approach vis-à-vis Pakistan, trying to avoid confrontation whenever possible to preserve stability in its geographical areas.

Wars in Waziristan

Local alliances were another contentious issue between al-Qa`ida and Central Asian militants. After months of clashes in South Waziristan, by early 2005, Musharaf’s regime began resorting to a “massive undercover espionage war”, according to the IMU. The spies disptached by Islamabad were, in Tahir’s words, “under the leadership of the traitor Mullah Nazir”, a senior Waziri militant figure who sheltered immigrant fighters. The feud between the Central Asian jihadis on the one hand, and regime-friendly tribal leaders, including Nazir, on the other hand, led to yet another full-on military conflict in South Waziristan in March 2007.

The IMU’s behavior spurred an additional dispute with al-Qa`ida. A Jordanian jihadi maintains that “a major rift” occured when al-Qa`ida refused to side with the IMU in its war against Nazir and its tribal allies on account that “the Uzbeks were takfiri, Khawarij and extremists”. In the same vein, al-Bahraini said that “the last straw that broke the camel’s back [for the IMU]” was the interview al-Qa`ida’s media arm granted to its sworn enemy Nazir in March 2009, in which he was portrayed as a prominent Taliban official with impeccable jihadi credentials.

Despite this, according to al-Bahraini, the IMU subsequently attempted to reach out to its Arab counterpart, but to no avail. `Uthman `Adil, who succeeded to Tahir in August 2009, sent a message to Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the then head of al-Qa`ida in Khurasan, offering him to cooperate in an expected Pakistani military offensive to root out militant presence in North Waziristan, where both groups had their bases. Al-Bahraini explained that al-Qa`ida rebuffed the suggestion, notably because of its poor view of the IMU’s rigid implementation of Shari`a rulings.

The peregrinations of Rami Makanesi and Naamen Meziche, two fellows of the “Hamburg travel group”, in Waziristan confirm this tumultuous relationship at that time. After traveling from Germany to Pakistan in March 2009, they ended up in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, where they voiced their desire to join al-Qa`ida. However, the Germans were told that, since they had arrived to Waziristan via an IMU’s facilitation network, al-Qa`ida could not afford to take them as it would only exacerbate the tensions with the Uzbeks. Also telling was a meeting between Makanesi, who by then had managed to join al-Qa`ida, and Abu Yahya al-Libi in 2010. When Makanesi told al-Libi that he had previously been with the IMU, the Libyan ideologue “covered his ears with his hands”, making his distate for the rival group very clear.

More recently, al-Qa`ida’s attitude in the face of Islamabad’s large-scale offensive in North Waziristan in 2014 was met with the admonishment of the IMU and others. Indeed, al-Bahraini claimed that the organization “chose not to confront the Pakistani army”. Prior to the military intervention, the Waziristan-based foreign jihadi groups held a council at which an al-Qa`ida’s delegate declared that they should fight under the command of their local protectors. Yet, al-Bahraini stated that the said-delegate was nowehere to be found when the fight began, just as al-Qa`ida which, before fleeing, had apparently hidden scores of weapons which would have been much needed by the militants who had stayed. Appalled by this exit, the previously-mentioned Jordanian angrily wrote: “I hold the amir of [al-Qa`ida] and everyone who beautifies and supports his deeds responsible for the evacuation of the arena.”


With that in mind, the IMU’s inclusion into the Islamic State should not be viewed as particularly damaging for al-Qa`ida’s network of partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, the IMU and al-Qa`ida never succeeded in overcoming their divergences to build up working relationships. The fact that they did so with other militant actors highlights how irreconcilable the two had become over the years. Hence, the IMU’s latest move was just the last nail in the coffin.

More than anything, it illustrates the definitive departure of the IMU from its historical standing in the region. Originally establishing itself as one of the most faithful and powerful ally of Mullah `Umar’s emirate, the last decade saw it growing much closer to the Pakistani hardliners and espousing agressive methods in the tribal areas. In light of the ongoing infighting between the Taliban and the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan, the IMU’s bay`a may portend further violent unrest within the already polarized jihadi milieu in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.


Bin Ladin’s picture on 9/11: Crazy right?

14 Nov

Ok so here’s the thing: since I’ve become interested in all things Qa’ida, I’ve stored thousands and thousands of articles, pictures and videos on my computer. My bad luck is that I also lost a sizeable part of my old archives (which I’m still trying to recover) a few years ago.

Anyway, I remember very well that among these lost documents, there was one picture. A pretty unique one actually, since it featured Usama bin Ladin listening to the radio with another bearded man sitting next to him (and wearing a black jacket if memory serves) in a room. Not impressed? There is more.

The said picture was taken from a TV screen where one can read a special mention: « Les attentats du 11 septembre » [The 9/11 attacks] (or something like that, can’t remember exactly). One can also notice that the TV wich released this was the French TV channel France 2. I don’t know when France 2 broadcasted this picture but given the 9/11 banner, I’d say that it was circa september-october 2001.

I’ve never seen this picture anywhere else nor do I know how the hell France 2 obtained it, but what I’m sure of is that it was bin Ladin and given his appearance/outfit (roughly the same as the picture I put for this post), I’d add that it was taken in Afghanistan and in the late 90’s-early 2000’s.

We know that Usama bin Ladin wasn’t able to watch 9/11 attacks on T.V, despite his willingness to do so, but listened to the radio instead. More precisely, he listened to the radio next to Abu’l Khayr al Misri, a senior figure of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who joined al Qa’ida once bin Ladin and al Zawahiri joined their forces in mid 2001.

Given the 9/11 mention on the T.V screen (which shows that this picture was sent after 9/11), the look/outfit of bin Ladin (which shows that he was in Afghanistan circa early 2000’s), the fact that he was shown listening to a radio next to a man who *could* be Abu’l Khayr al Misri (if memory serves), yes, I think you got it, I have a strong feeling that this picture has been taken on 9/11.

Again, no clue as to how France 2 has been able to get this picture (it’s not like the channel had special access to al Qa’ida) and why there has been no media hype around it, but from what I can remember, it really seems genuine (not the kind of fake dead bin Ladin picture which appeared in the aftermath of his death). Maybe I’m completly wrong on this, and that even if the picture was not a fake, it was not taken on 9/11. But the elements I’ve mentioned above make me think that it is a strong possibility and I found the absence of this picture on the web kind of weird.

One last note: when I had it on my computer, I had printed the bin Ladin picture, but only a small/poor quality one, so once I get my hand on it, maybe I will scan it so you can see for yourself.

To sum up: does that ring a bell to anyone???

« A believer is not stung twice out of the same hole »: The longstanding issue of security within the ranks. Part 3

6 Jun

The post-9/11 era has witnessed an even more tense atmosphere in terms of security environment for radical militants in general and al Qa’ida in particular: aerial strikes in the AfPak region marked the beginning of a much more systemactically lethal fate for jihadis. The most important al Qa’ida leader to have been taken off the battlefield after having been spied on has likely been Abu Hafs al Misri, surely one of the most highly significant losses in the ranks of al Qa’ida leadership. The old bin Ladin’s friend paid the full price for his physical appearance: after having finished to plan a suicide operation with a group of Palestinian jihadis in Kandahar in mid November, the tall bearded Egyptian moved to another his location (still in Kandahar) but was taken for… Usama bin Ladin himself by an Afghan informant working for the CIA who passed on the information to US intelligence. Contrary to a past unarmed drone flight winessed by Abu Hafs in September 2000, the one sent to bomb the house he was staying in time was armed with hellfire missiles, leaving him and other interesting figures dead.

At that time, the Taliban themselves were not exempt from heavy criticisms: not only did Arab fighters bemoan how the Taliban let them down by leaving the cities without prior notice, but Sayf al Adl went further by accusing « some Taliban elements of betrayal by identifying some Arab families houses in Kandahar which were later attacked with cruise missiles. »

Over the past few years, « the amounts for spying on the mujahidin and for placing the signal chips were getting higher and higher », writes the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operative Abu Adam al Almani. Additional first hand accounts corroborate this stringent concern in an area where militants have witnessed repeated losses of their brothers in arms and families caused by US drone strikes partly relying on local informants.

Among the most high-profile/publicized deaths in the tribal areas features the one of al Qa’ida leader Abu Layth al Libi, killed on January 29, 2008 in Mir Ali, North Waziristan. At Abu Layth’s funerals, a weeping Abu Yahya al Libi delivered the following speech in a rare intimate moment highliting a common desire for revenge: « God, the Great and Almighty, has taught us and told us how to deal with those criminals and traitors who do not hunt down men in the battle arenas. Rather they get to them through their cunning, they get to them through their spies. God has taught us how to deal with those. He said, ‘O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell,- an evil refuge indeed’ ». One year later, al Fajr Media Center released three videos under the explicit title of Beheadings of the spies who were behind the death of Sheikh Abu Laith al Libi. They feature the « confessions » of four alleged local agents recounting their involvement in locating and placing electronic chip at the compound where Abu Layth and others were hiding. Minutes later, US hellfires struck the place and killed the wanted Libyan leader whose head was put at 200,000 dollars.

About one year after his companion’s death, Abu Yahya al Libi finished his 149-page book entitled Guidance on the Ruling of the Muslim Spy and released on forums in late June 2009 via al Fajr Center. Besides al Libi’s pedigree, the book was sanctioned by Ayman al Zawahiri, making it sort of al Qa’ida official take on their lethal plague. The then bin Ladin’s deputy, who wrote the introduction, praises « this valuable, serious, scientific, and practical research on the Islamic judgment on spying ». As I’m trying to demonstrate, the infiltration/spy concern is not new and here is a quote from al Libi supporting this: « 13 years ago I wrote a research paper entitled ‘Guidance on the Ruling of the Muslim Spy,’ and it was published in Al-Fajr Magazine in three series. »

But in the wake of the exponential rise of US Predator strikes tipped off by informants on the ground, there was an urgent need for a reactualization of the legal ruling regarding the Muslim spy. The Libyan senior figure claims that this matter « never got enough attention and care from the scholars (…) to go in its tiny details » and he found himself « obliged to write about it however God enables me to write. the issue cannot be delayed anymore. It cannot be stopped if we don’t talk about it because (…) the situation is dangerous, the damage is massive ».

Regarding the research content, it addresses at length the definition, Islamic status and ruling of the Muslim spy who help foreign intelligence agencies in their war-efforts against terrorism. He asserts that « All consensus, deductions, conclusions, and follow-ups, firmly denote that most of the mujahidin and their soldiers were killed or captured because of the intelligence information that the infidel forces have obtained from the secret soldiers whom they recruit, like swarms of locusts from the native citizen who talk our language and pretend they are Muslims. »

Considering spying as unbelief (« conveying information about Muslims to the infidels so they could benefit from it in their war against Islam is an obvious support and a flagrant apostasy. »), Abu Yahya al Libi rules that whoever participating in spying activies should be executed. More accurately, the systematic killing (with some exceptions) is applied to all those caught while still spying before they could make any repentance. As a result, al Libi vociferously urges mujahidin « to get rid of such intelligence cancerous tumors, which provide the infidel armies with information. They have to launch merciless wars, no less than the declared war against the military forces. They have to be very boorish and rough. »

Last thing about this book: al Libi acknoweldges that in order to gain confessions from alleged spies, torture « is the most common method used by the mujahidin in almost all fronts ». Unfortunately, this comes not as a surprise but I was kind of intrigued that this information would come out in such an open manner.

In addition to having religiously sanctioned the killing of Muslim spies, al Qa’ida also keeps providing security guidance through one of its senior operatives named Abu Ubaydah Abdullah Khalid al Adam. Well, to be honest, I can’t say if he is a core figure given the lack of reliable information on him. But from what I’ve managed to gather on him, my general impression is that at the very least he operates hand in hand with al Qa’ida, wether he fully belongs to it or not. Based in Waziristan until last year (and maybe until today, who knows?), this operative has clearly been maintaining close links to al Qa’ida high command: to my knowledge, at least two of his writings were sanctioned and/or written with al Qa’ida top leaders. The first entitled Generous Memorial to the People of Jihad was foreworded by Shaykh Atiyyatullah, the late head of Qa’idat al jihad in Khurasan. The other one, Beneficial and Beautiful Effects of the Washington and Manhattan Raids (Testimony of Western Leaders and Thinkers), was writtent in collaboration with Mustafa Abu’l Yazid (Shaykh Sa’id al Misri), the predecessor of Atiyyatullah. Obviously, newbies don’t get their writings disseminated by al Fajr Center with the name of some of al Qa’ida top leaders. Among other things, his attendance at al Faruq camp further support my assumption. As for his nationality, an article in Jamestown Foundation once claimed he was Egyptian, so maybe I missed something in his writings/audios and knowledgeable people out there could help in identifying a distinct accent from his voice.

Anyway, my little focus on him can be explained by his field area (not necesseraly the only one by the way): Abu Ubaydah is specialized in security matters. So I guess that puts him into the long security figures line, busy with keeping the organization/members safe by spotting traitors within their ranks and teaching the blessings of security to future generations. So far, he has recorded 29 lessons from a course called the Creating terrorism program and released by al Fajr Media Center. His teachings stress on the importance of security procedures for any mujahid who embark himself in the path of jihad, using both historical examples and what he saw/heard troughout his life. Abu Ubaydah’s lessons deal with all things security, including its definition/importance in Islam, its general principles, how to recruit, the security for documents, communications, travel, training, etc. In order to maintain the resilience of the jihadi work, the presence of a security apparatus in the group is deemed a necessity by Abu Ubaydah: any organization eager to achieve successes and avoid « the blows of the enemy » must rely on heavy security measures which will eventually prevent infiltration.

The audio tapes are quite interesting in the sense that it offers both a glimpse into the jihadi milieu and Abu Ubaydah’s own career. The influence of Abu Zubaydah is crystal clear in view of the number of quotes and old memories Abu Ubaydah gave throughout the audio series. Among Abu Zubaydah’s basic teachings: « Any work which does not have strong security basis, this work is doomed to failure. » I can’t think of how many times the security mentor is mentioned in a very intimate/detailed manner, underlining their close ties. Abu Ubaydah mentions how Abu Zubaydah used to talk about the blessings of security and established himself as a master in the art of disguise. The two fled out of Afghanistan together and settle in Pakistan. But while Abu Zubaydah and his crew were arrested/killed in a series of raids in Faisalabad on March 28, 2002, Abu Ubaydah managed to escape, making him the only survivor of the raids today.

Besides Abu Zubaydah’s influence, the security operative also seems to have maintained close relationships with the late amir of al Qa’ida in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi. He recalls that, before settling in Herat, the Jordanian sent members of his small group of followers to al Faruq camp and that they remained masked during the training so as not to be recognized. Besides a small anecdote involving al Zarqawi in Iran, he discloses his ties with him by mentioning the correspondence they got while the Jordanian was in Iraq.

Aside from his personal relationships, his course includes many snippets of information such as:

-His lesson on documents security features an interesting claim: Abu Ubaydah says that in the midst of the Taliban regime downfall in late 2001, he, along with others, made sure to burn all sensitive documents related to al Qa’ida and then pour water so as nothing remains behind. As a result, he dismisses the accuracy of reports based on primary material found in al Qa’ida camps, guesthouses, etc.

-In relation to document security issues, he also claims that when the house sheltering an al Qa’ida cell in Gujrat (Pakistan) was surrendered in late July 2004, its members, including « brother Abu’l Haytham al Kini » (Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani), were divided in two sections: some would focus on shooting while others would burn all valuable documents (computers, passeports, etc). It is noteworthy that Ghailani and his companions were busy with forging passeports and other papers for al Qa’ida operatives’ travel arrangement.

-Abu Ubaydah knew the two killers, known as as Abu Sahl al Tunisi (Rachid el Ouaer) and Abu Ubaydah al Tunisi (Abdul Satar Dahman), of Ahmad Shah Mas’ud, whom he labeled « the son of France ». When Abu Sahl was still alive, he confessed to Abu Ubaydah al Adam that he had seen a « wonderful vision » in which a voice was urging him to swear allegiance to « Shaykh Usama », which he exactly did right after his dream. Abu Ubaydah precises that Abu Sahl had told him not to tell anyone about this, but given that he was now dead, there was nothing wrong with this revelation.

-Information are also given as to how Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was caught. As in, but before The Hunt for KSM, Abu Ubaydah mentions a Balush informant (with the mention of the UAE background again) working for the CIA who led to the arrest of the then al Qa’ida chief of external operations after he pretended to have one hundred thousand dollars to donate to KSM. The latter took the bait when he agreed to meet him and left Peshawar, where he was living, to get in touch with the informant in Rawalpindi. The tip was then passed on to intelligence, which ended up in the capture of one of the most wanted terrorists on May 1, 2003. I didn’t read The Hunt for KSM yet but I’d be very interested in seeing how the two versions of his arrest match.

-Abu Ubaydah bemoans the technical mistakes made by some brothers like Abu’l Haytham al Yamani, an al Qa’ida explosives expert trained at al Faruq camp, who was droned in May 2005 in Mir Ali (North Waziristan) after having used his satellite phone for too long.

-He remembered how Hamza Rabi’a al Misri survived several attempts against him before being killed.There was this time when a Pakistani colleague of him was captured and tortured by local authorities who forced him to set up the head of al Qa’ida external work. A meeting was then arranged between the two after a phone call was made. But the Egyptian was a prudent operative and didn’t fall into the trap: he did not go straight to the meeting place and eventually discovered the trick before fleeing the area. A close one was also when a US drone bombed his house in Mir Ali in early November 2005, leaving his wife and sons dead. He did not survived the second strike: after a devices was placed by a spy into his location in North Waziristan, a US aerial strike bombed him and associates, including his deputy. Abu Ubaydah adds that the informant responsible for the Hamzah’s death was later arrested and received a « fair punishment »… Oh and, no surprise here, he also mentions the Egyptian responsibility in the 7/7 bombings in London.

-Not surprinsgly given Abu Ubaydah’s background, several lessons provides stories about spies roaming around Pakistan’s tribal areas. For example, he explains how some spies pretend to go to the bathroom in order to kill themselves with poison (if memory serves); how informants are recruited after intelligence used their « weak point », namely women (he describes the same old method: using women, recording the whole scene and then blackmailing the future informant); the way Waziristan-based spies use devices embedded inside pens to film the mujahidin and then send the images to intelligence. Back in the days when the Taliban were in power, Abu Ubaydah remembered the fall of a network of spies recruited in Pakistan by US intelligence and aiming at carrying out several operations against al Qa’ida and Taliban leadership.

-Small anecdotes/mentions related to well-known senior figures such as Sayf al Adl (whose work on security and intelligence is mentioned), Abu Khabab al Misri (« our teacher in the science of explosives ») and Abu Hajar al Muqrin (« a big loss for the jihad in the Arabian Peninsula »), the late amir of al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.

-And last but not least, he mentions the name of a man supposedly involved in Abdullah Azzam assassination working for Mossad (and caught in Egypt I think it was): Azzam Azzam.

 One caveat though: Abu Ubaydah’s account clearly appears to be a mix of what he saw first hand and what he heard from others. Obviously, he didn’t witness all what he recounts and does rely on stories told by others. Nevertheless, his audio tapes are still valuable in that they offer insight into what kind of stories are passed on within the jihadi milieu in the AfPak region.

Nowadays, the situation on the ground reflects the steady prudence and concern with intelligence penetration expressed by al Qa’ida. Accounts from foreign volunteers attest the continuing presence of al Qa’ida security apparatus and mistrust for new-comers. At their beginnings in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the American operative Bryant Vinas and the Belgian-French group led by Mu’iz Garsallawi were viewed with high suspicions by militants in the tribal areas. As for the Germany jihadi Rami Makanesi, he has been grilled two times on his background by some among « the group’s intelligence branch », a term likely referencing to a sub-section of the security committee mentioned earlier. Makanesi’s account also notices the fear of local informants tipping off US intelligence on militants’ hideouts: « Agents walk around with chips … and stick them to cars or throw them in houses and then they are hit with dronesdator spies », echoing many other primary material I’ve read elsewhere. This explains the tight security protocols followed and the strong lack of freedom of movement/communication with the outside world.

The issue of security would deserve a much longer post given the number of jihadi materials dealing with it. I could have adopted a more in-depth approach as to what were the teachings taught by the likes of Abu Zubaydah or Abu Ubaydah. Also, I would have liked to talk a bit about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan security apparatus spotting spies from Uzbekistan, Russia, Uzbekistan and even Saudi Arabia during the Islamic emirate reign and how the group publicized its war against collaborators in Pakistan’s tribal areas (see the « Josus Killer » series). The numerous spy stories contained in the second part of Harun’s memoirs could have been good too. But this is an already way too long post. Hope you enjoyed it.  

« A believer is not stung twice out of the same hole »: The longstanding issue of security within the ranks. Part 2

5 Jun

Regarding al Qa’ida heyday in Afghanistan, Abu Jandal, a former member of bin Ladin’s security apparatus, provides an insightful first hand account of the increasing security problems faced by al Qa’ida following the 1998 US embassy bombings in his French memoirs Dans l’ombre de Ben Laden (In the shadows of Bin Ladin). The former Yemeni bin Ladin’s bodyguard devotes a specific chapter on this issue entitled « La chasse aux espions est ouverte » (The spies hunt is on). He recalls that Sayf al Adl distributed warning tracts focused on security matters which were spread in guest houses and other al Qa’ida facilities, including its Shari’ah Institute in Kandahar, in Autumn 1998. Precautions included not to talk about jihadi work and to be careful even with family and relatives. Among other things, al Adl used to give detailed advice to al Qa’ida members traveling outside Afghanistan, including: do not wear your watch on the right wrist , do not travel with your wife, shave your beard before leaving, etc. « Lessons of the past needed to be learned », writes Abu Jandal, to avoid being infiltrated by « traitors ».

As a result, the organization established an « internal intelligence service », which would daily report on camps activities. Abu Jandal claims up to « fifty brothers » skilled at intelligence were trained by Sayf al Adl and then dispatched into various sections of al Qa’ida. Partly to detect potential spies, foreign volunteers were detaily grilled upon arriving in Afghanistan and had to fill out background check papers. Once a new-comer was suspected, he was detained and interrogated.

As you have noticed, Sayf al Adl was quite quite involved in security matters for al Qa’ida. This should not come as a surprise since the Egyptian leader assumed the responsibility of heading the security committee of the organization. A leading figure in counter-intelligence and security protocols, he was in charge of holding security reports and data/archives on al Qa’ida members. Structurally, the committee he run fell under the military committee leadership , then headed by Abu Hafs al Misri, one of al Qa’ida founders, who was also involved in security matters. Among other things, the al Adl-led committee was « responsible for providing the necessary security for the operations, the leadership, installations and personnel » and subdivised into several sections, including one focused on « espionage & infilitration ». As such, al Adl was assigned to the personal security of Usama bin Ladin. His security guidance later featured in al Battar magazine, issued by the military committee of al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, and compiled into the booklet Security and Intelligence.

As an aside, al Adl was not the only Afghan-Arabs involved in security procedures in Afghanistan. One of the most notorious figures would undoubtedly include Abu Zubaydah al Filistini, one of the two leading figures of the Khost-based Khaldan camp. His former students forming the « Abu Zubaydah Centre for Mujahidin Services » describe the Palestinian instructor as a specialist in «Al-‘Amal Al-Jihādī Al-Amnī (security planning of Jihādī activities and operations) ». The institution made sure that its master’s legs would never be forgotten by pusblishing The Encyclopaedia of Security, a manual outlining the fundamental security precautions a mujahid must take upon taking the path of jihad. The book notably stresses that « taking the proper security and precautionary measures is something needed from the very first time you take a Jihādī step, even when you are not yet part of a group or organization. »

According to Abu Jandal, the al Qa’ida intelligence section managed to arrest several spies of various nationalities. Among them was Abu Mubtasim, a Jordanian informant whose mission consisted in collecting information on al Qa’ida leadership whereabouts, its chemical capacity, its plans for Jordan, its guesthouses, etc. A veteran of the first Afghan jihad, he was recruited after having been videotaped by Jordanian intelligence during a sexual intercourse with a woman sent by them. As a result, he was dispatched to Afghanistan in late 1998. But he quickly drew the suspicion of some, including Abu Jandal, and eventually blew his cover by calling his assigned agent while being monitoring by Abu’l Hasan al Misri (a senior al Qa’ida figure) and Abu Samah (born Thirwat Salah Shahata, then al Zawahiri’s deputy in al Jihad group). The two Egyptians then reported to Abu Muhammad al Misri, in charge of al Qa’ida external operations/camps, and Sayf al Adl. While Abu Mubtasim was detained in a camp in Loghar, a clash erupted between Abu Muhammad and al Adl after the latter brought a group of mujahidin who were eager to take revenge on the spy: Abu Muhammad viewed them as « criminals » for their role in the execution of Ahmad and Mus’ab in Sudan in 1994. Small anecdote here: Abu Mubtasim had interrogated Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi when the latter was detained in Jordan. The Arab-Afghan milieu being as small as it is, al Zarqawi then helped the al Qa’ida investigation on Mubtasim by giving information on his background.

After having been handed over to the Taliban on bin Ladin’s orders (who feared accusations of being « a state within a state »), he was eventually released following a campaign led by both his relatives and some militant figures (Jalauddin Haqqani and Abu’l Harith al Urduni). The lenient decision he benefited outraged many jihadis. And Abu Jandal to conclude this episode: « Had he had remained in our hands, we would have killed Abu Mubtasim ».

Other intelligence assets were caught, like Abu Jihad al Suri, Mu’az al Ta’ifi, Abu Islam al Iraqi and an unnamed spy from Oman whose mission, according to Abu Jandal, was to put dirty bombs around the Kandahar compound (Tarnak farms). Most of them were said to have been turned over to the Taliban. It appears that some of these were recruited through blackmail from intelligence agencies: the Syrian Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al Janko could be one of them. Apparently, he began spying on United Arab Emirates behalf after he was videotaped during a « sex party ». On a side note, it was said among militant circles that most of spies arrested by al Qa’ida security committee were recruited in UAE because of the large presence of US intelligence there. In early 2000, after some time at al Faruq camp, al Janko was detained in several prisons in Kandahar and interrogated/tortured by Abu Hafs al Misri and Sayf al Adl. The accusations against him featured espionage and sodomy. Weirdly, his interrogation videotape where he confessed his spying activity has later been portrayed by John Ashcroft (then the attorney general) as one of « five martyrdom videos », which also featured Ramzi bin al Shibh and Muhammad al Umda (Gharib al Ta’izi).

The senior al Qa’ida operative Fadil Harun provides additional insight into the war raging between al Qa’ida and foreign intelligence. The chapter « Spies » in his manuscript Al Harb ala al Islam (War against Islam) discusses the increasing security concern expressed by al Qa’ida after multiple attempts of penetration. According to Harun, the year 1999 was a troubled one for al Qa’ida security committee: while the organization had raised its stature in the aftermath of the 98 bombings/US retaliation, there was a serious need of self-preservation in regard to infiltration of potential spies among the Muslim youth coming from various countries.

In this atmosphere where the issue of espionage was rising, Harun recalls, a spy named Abu Mundhir al Urduni was taken off. Echoing the case of Abu Mubtasim, it seems almost certain that Harun refers to the Abu Mubtasim interrogated by Abu Jandal. In addition to the timeline, many elements of the two stories are strikingly similar. Harun describes Abu Mundhir as a Jordanian who was recruited by intelligence to monitor Abu Hafs al Misri and others, among other things. He too was spotted by Abu Samah al Misri and Abu’l Hasan al Misri, who were in the communications center in Kabul and heard a man speaking in Arabic who was giving information to someone abroad. As with Abu Mubtasim, the information was passed on to Abu Muhammad al Misri who transfered the Jordanian into custody for interrogation, with Sayf al Adl involved.

Harun writes that without the use of coercitive techniques, Abu Mundhir revealed that his mission was to gather information on operatives invovled into the East Africa bombings & senior al Qa’ida leaders in Afghanistan as well as monitoring the camps activities. Instead of being killed, he was handed over to the Islamic emirate before being judged by a Shari’ah court (according to the doctrine of Abu Hanifa, says Harun, which is followed by the Taliban) at a trial attended by his lawyer and relatives. Mulla Muhammad Umar eventually pardoned him and the Jordanian was released. Stressing that « justice is important to us », this case enables Harun to put forward that even spies are not killed summarily and are tried according to the Shari’ah and Islamic principles, contrasting with what happened to the Guantanamo prisoners. Harun further talks about al Qa’ida emergency plan for the Kandahar compound following this episode: they expected strikes or a surprise attack aimed at kidnapping bin Ladin. Security measures were taken to protect the compound where families resided. Living in « very difficult circumstances », he remembers, al Qa’ida gradually gained more and more experience.

Abu’l Walid al Misri’s account echoes those of Abu Jandal and Harun by raising the issue of intelligence infiltrations during the late 1990’s. In his book Salib fi sama’ Qandahar (Cross over the sky of Kandahar), the Egyptian mentions « Arab spies sent by the American agencies to penetrate among the Arabs, especially al Qa’ida », with the collaboration of other Arab agencies, including Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. There was thereby an awareness about the « seriousness of the security issue » and the need for Arabs to respond in a centered manner to protect both their ranks and families, partly given the Islamic emirate lack of capacity in terms of security within the Afghan territory. It was then about forming a centralized and self-managed Arab structure to manage their internal affairs.

But given the competition/dissenssions raging within the Arab-Afghan community, nothing as such happened. According to Abu’l Walid, the various Arab factions were worry about bin Ladin’s rising status with the increase of al Qa’ida followers/money. While bin Ladin advocated jihad against the US/West, the other Arab organizations focused on domestic fronts against the apostate regimes and were opposed as to bin Ladin taking control of their agenda/program. Human potential or financial capacity for the unification entreprise were not to be blamed here. The problem was that the only thing the Arab groups wanted was to benefit from the Saudi’s funds as well as the Afghan safe haven but without any engagement on their part. This led to an epic failure to establish unity at any level within the Arab community, be it economic or organizational. Even building a school was problematic and required endless talks because of disagreements on educational programs. This fractured environment, especially in terms of competition for new recruits, ended up in the lack of an unified Arab security apparatus too. With such a competitive milieu for the recruitment of new immigrants, Arab and non-Arab spies had seen their penetration eased.

By the way, the influx of new human ressources led the Taliban regime to establish the « Arab-Taliban liaison committee » in the early 2000’s. As Brynjar Lia put it in his book Architect of Global Jihad, the purpose was to impose upon all new volunteers « to contact one of the liaison committee members in order to receive a written confirmation of their identity and requirements, which in turn should be used as an application for entering the Islamic emirate. » The Arab figures of this committee included Abu Mus’ab al Suri and Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi.  

« A believer is not stung twice out of the same hole »: The longstanding issue of security within the ranks. Part 1

1 Jun

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:« 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. » 

Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi under influence: one mentor?

15 May


When talking about the path of radicalization of the deceased amir of al Qa’ida in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi, the same name keeps coming up again and again: Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi. This senior Jordanian jihadi scholar is almost systematically portrayed as the « spiritual mentor » of al Zarqawi, a characterization refering to the close ties they had after they first met in Peshawar back in the early 90’s.

And here is the problem: by focusing solely on the Jordanian cleric, other influences are kept in the shadows while they might turn out far more significant to understand how al Zarqawi has become the al Zarqawi we all know, namely the « Shaykh of the slaughterers » in Iraq. What I’m saying is that al Zarqawi, like other jihadis, went through successive stages in his life, each of them having specific repercussions on the shaping of his personality/views. Then, if the relationship between the two Jordanians can be accurately defined as a mentor-student one, it was only during a restricted period of time. Putting an emphasis on this figure only is hence not enough to have the full picture of the evolution of al Zarqawi. As he himself once put it: « So just as I benefited from Sheikh Maqdisi, may Allah reward him many times over, I have also benefited from other righteous scholars. »

When al Zarqawi migrated to Afghanistan after having been released from Jordanian cells in March 1999, the harmony between the Shaykh and his student had been strained by various frictions and divergences. As for al Zarqawi and other young Jordanians leaving their home country, al Maqdisi was deeply concerned about this move on various levels, including their lack of a clear program.

Regarding al Zarqawi, moving away from his home country enabled him to further emancipate from al Maqdisi’s shadow. His new environment among the Arab-Afghan community led him to be more suceptible to new influences. He would find these new beliefs in the person of Abu Abdullah al Muhajir, born Muhammad Ibrahim al Saghir.

If his name/kunya don’t ring a bell, no worries: compared to others, he is far from being a very popular jihadi scholar online nor are his writings/audios widespread & well-known on forums (I don’t even know what he looks like). The available material which can offer us a glimpse at the teachings he gave in Afghanistan is not that numerous. To my knowledge, there are at least 7 series of lectures, all of which dealing with pretty common topics:

  • The governance.

  • Ahl al Sunna wal Jama’a (Sunnis) faith/characteristics.

  • An introduction to the al Wala’ wal Bara’ (loyalty towards Muslims & disavowal towards unbelievers) concept.

  • The jurisprudence of jihad.

  • Western civilization.

 As for his writings, he authored two books, respectively entitled The jurisprudence of jihad issues and The pioneers of spreading the Sunnah in the landmarks of the victorious sect. From all the sources I’ve come across, these two documents are the only available writing material you could find.

However, his low online popularity largely contrasts with his stature among militant circles. Illustrating al Muhajir’s affiliation to the prestigious milieu of « scholars of jihad » (ulama al jihad), Ayman al Zawahiri puts him among the « ulema who are still alive who have been useful to the mujahidin with their counsel, who support jihad and the mujahidin, or those who actually take part in jihad » (The Exoneration).

Very little is known about his early background. We know that he emigrated from Egypt to fight against the Red Army troops in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. According to al Zawahiri, he « graduated from the Islamic University in Islamabad » where he apparently got a master degree in Shari’ah. Contrary to many other Arab mujahidin at that time, he seems to have remained in Pakistan after the Soviet withrawal, until security concerns related to the Egyptian embassy bombing (caveat: not sure about that) in Islamabad (November 1995) prompted him to settle in Afghanistan during the course of 1996.

There, he established himself as a major figure of the Khaldan camp in Khost by becoming its Shari’ah official (mas’ul shara’i). As such, he oversaw lessons focusing on shar’ih matters. The theological sessions he hold for his students dealt with governance issues and beliefs of « the enemies of the religion » among other things. This cycle of sessions was said to be of significant importance within the training process.

The Institute for the Faith Brigades (ma’had kata’ib al iman) was created under his leadership, a project he had longed for quite some time. According to a former student, the Institute, annexed to the Khaldan camp, consisted of a large room where the seekers of knowledge were sleeping, a small adjoining room for the Shaykh and his library and another rooms in which he helds his lectures on doctrinal issues (al Wala’ wal Bara’, jihad issues, sects, etc). The seven series of lectures I mentioned above are part of what he taught in the Institute he once ran. Its establishing was for two purposes: to solidify the doctrinal foundations of the mujahdin so that they can act upon before undertaking jihadi actions (meaning Shar’iah-compliant operations); to create groups of various nationalities so they would fight the apostate regimes in their respective countries (there were also plans aiming at the wealth of Western countries).

As a leading jihadi scholar, the Egyptian taught his Islamic lessons to many seekers of knowledge from various parts of the world. They were of course Arabs: most of the students of his Institute were from the Maghreb. Among them was Talha al Maghribi, who arrived in Afghanistan during the 1996 summer after having fled Sweden where he had supported the Algerian jihad. He would later be known as Abu Qaswarah al Maghribi, the amir of the north for the Islamic State of Iraq.

But it is worthwhile noting that students were not necessarily from Arab countries: members of Islamic Party of Turkistan (IPT), including its leaders/commanders, used to attend courses in Khaldan. These would include Shaykh Bilal al Turkistani, who studied Islamic jurisprudence under al Muhajir’s supervision. Abdul Haq al Turkistani, the late amir of IPT, recalled: « I went to the military base, along with some Arab brothers, one of whom was Sheikh Abu Abdullah Al-Muhajir, who was in charge of the Shari’a academy on the base (….) During that time I studied the jurisprudence of Jihad, and the fundaments of faith according to Ahl Al-Sunna Wal-Jama’a, from Sheikh Abu Abdullah Al-Muhajir ». 


During his time at Khaldan, the Egyptian scholar was a strident opponent to Usama bin Ladin and known as being among the top adversaries of al Qa’ida agenda. Actually, he was representative of a broader landscape: the takfiri faction in Afghanistan. Khaldan & co were labeled as such within the Arab-Afghan milieu because of their particularly stringent manhaj (doctrine) (see: While bin Ladin has showed pragmatism regarding alliances with other groups, Arab-Afghan takfiris castigated this flexibility for being too moderate and not enough concerned by religious purity which they consider the cornerstone for any cooperation. Their hardline doctrine led them to refuse any alignment with the Taliban regime. They deemed the latter as puppets in Pakistani services hands and viewed their so called Islamic legitimacy as a fraud. As Abd al Hamid (a Syrian takfiri whose real name is Baha’ Mustafa Jughl) delicately put it: « We differ with our people here about the Taliban regime; they see them as God’s righteous saints, while we view them as heretics and apostates. » (see: Their strong revulsion over the Taliban revolves around several grievances, including:

-Grave-worship (quburiyah) and other local practices which amounts to shirk (polytheism).

– Seeking a seat at the United Nations, viewed as an idol besides Allah.

-Their soft attitude towards apostate Arab regimes.

Their extremism led them to apply the same hostile verdict for those partnering with the deviant Afghans and fighting under their banner. As a result, the students at the al Muhajir’s Institute began to expose what they see as deviances from bin Ladin. Aside from his alliance with Afghan polytheists (the criticism was a bit rich when you look at the complexity of al Qa’ida-Taliban nexus), the Saudi was harshly criticized by al Muhajir and the takfiris around him for his former ties to the un-Islamic Sudanese regime (as you can see, being truly Islamic is pretty hard to takfiris’ eyes), his support to Nawaz Sharif to harm Benazir Bhutto and because some of within al Qa’ida Shari’ah committee, including his responsible Abu Hafs al Mauritani, were accused of following deviant schools of thought. Such doctrinal violations led al Muhajir to run a session dealing with the legitimacy of the fight at his Institute.

This hostile attitude caused sharp tensions between Khaldan & the Institute on one side, and the Taliban and their supporters (inside and outside Afghanistan) on the other. Since it allowed the opening of the Institute, Khaldan administration faced heavy pressures from both bin Ladin’s followers and the Taliban regime to close this source of embarrassment. On a side note, it’s always funny to see Khaldan being labeled an al Qa’ida camp when you know the vehemence of the tensions between the two and that, according to a takfiri account, the camp administration once even refused to allow bin Ladin to get access to the Khost-based training facility.

Controversies surrounding the Taliban/their legitimacy led to a number of fatawa/treatises/booklets issued by each camp to refute the others’ arguments. An active pro Taliban camapaign was carried out by several leading Arab figures, such as Abu Layth al Libi, a member of the Shura council of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and Abu Mus’ab al Suri, who authored Afghanistan, the Taliban and the battle for Islam today in which he argues that the Afghan regime represents a true Islamic state. Other works boosting the legitimacy of Mulla Muhammad Umar’s movement include those of the leading scholar Abu Qatada al Filistini, who issued several writings denouncing the takfiri tendency.

 As a result of this activism to calm anti Taliban sentiments, some among Khaldan radicals began to change their views about the legitimacy of jihad alongside the Taliban. At the forefront of them was al Muhajir. His stance on the Taliban/al Qa’ida having changed, he then joined bin Ladin in Kandahar and working for his organization. Illustrating this new relationship, he continued his involvment in the religious/jurisprudencial field but this time in the Shari’ah Institute and the Arabic Language center, both in Kandahar and founded by Abu Hafs al Mauritani.

 Hurt by this turn of events, a number of North African radicals decided to leave the Institute, whose number decreased gradually until its closing, and relocated to Jalalabad, where they set up their own guesthouses. These Algerian/Tunisian factions were known as the most extreme of the Arab Afghan community. As Abu’l Walid al Misri put it: « the most tolerant of them saw the Taliban as infidels…Their stance was the most easily comprehensible, simple and contrarian; it began with excommunicating (takfir) the Taliban and ended with excommunicating everyone in their vicinity, from Arabs to the residents of Afghanistan » (see: But the conflict didn’t stop raging with the closing of the Institute: the North Africans hardliners were still pressured by bin Ladin’s supporters and others, such as Abu’l Harith al Urduni, a notorious Jordanian military commander, who warned them: « Either you fight (with the Taliban) or leave Afghanistan! ».

The radicality of the takfiris proved to be their downfall. For starters, the repeated conflicts left the takfiri minority pretty isolated. Abd al Hamid bemoans what he sees as an unfair marginalization: « the situation in general is bad, our relation with the people here is very bad, while we treat them with kindness they in return treat us badly, we advise them in a friendly manner they treat us with vilification, and accuse us of bad things. » Secondly, besides the closing down of the Institute, the Taliban regime decided to take care of Khaldan for good by shutting it down too in the mid 2000, making al Qa’ida wish come true (see:

This whole divisive development let deep bitterness among al Muhajir’s former companions. As opposed to al Qa’ida attitude, the takfiris are quite outspoken and inclined to vocally air their dirty laundry. Vociferous, they can’t help themselves when it comes to criticize those seen as not following the pure monotheism. Therefore, even after the closing of Khaldan/the Institute, those among the takfiri elements who never recanted kept openly condemning the Islamic emirate and its foreign mujahidin allies. In 2003, Asharq al Awsat newspaper reported the publication of a book authored by Abu Bilal al Ruwayni, a senior takfiri figure, soberly entitled Is bin Ladin from the callers at the gates of hell? (referring to the following hadith: « [A time will come] when there will be people standing and inviting at the gates of Hell. Whosoever responds to their call they will throw them into the fire). Issued on radical forums by the Ansar al Mahdi group (a group of takfiris based in Peshawar), the book constitutes, no surprise here, a scathing attack against the misguided (i.e. Taliban & their Arab supporters) whose actions are against the true Islam. Exposing them being a duty, al Ruwayni nominally slamed al Muhajir for having deviated from the right path and turned into a turncoat. Revealing his side of the story, he bewails that after having denounced the Taliban as outside the Islamic fold, al Muhajir ended up issuing a fatwa supporting jihad alongside them, after which some of his students were killed on the frontlines.

Besides his new involvment in favor of al Qa’ida in Kandahar, al Zawahiri recalls that al Muhajir also « instructed the mujahidin in Kabul », where a large Arab community (compared to other areas in Afghanistan) lived. After that, he passed on his doctrinal legs in Herat to al Zarqawi and his Levantine group. It is here whorthwhile remembering that before getting along with al Muhajir, al Zarqawi had always been against suicide operations. That was his position both during his first stay in Afghanistan and when he went back to Jordania. Given how later al Qa’ida in Iraq heavily relied on this method, it is safe to say that this encounter has been a major step in his radicalization trajectory. Al Zarqawi explained that he changed his mind after having « discussed the matter of martyrdom » and listened to several tapes of the Shaykh (he also said that he read what he deemed « an excellent paper » by al Muhajir on this issue). He further remembered that after that, « Allah has expanded my breast to accept his position on martyrdom operations. Not only did I see that they (martyrdom operations) are permitted but I was convinced that they are desirable. I proceeded then to arrange for Sheikh Al-Muhajir to give a 10-days work shop in Hirat Camp to explain the legality of these operation to the brothers there- this had a very positive impact on the brothers. » According to a takfiri militant, the suicide operations issue was one of the various topics which have been dealt with during the Institute heyday, during a course on jihad.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan in late 2001, al Muhajir fled the country and relocated to Iran, along wtih al Qa’ida leadership & other Afghan Arabs. I, for one, can’t tell the level of weight he had within al Qa’ida once he got into its fold, but the very knowledgeable Leah Farrall once said that he was a very influencial al Qa’ida cleric. Given Leah’s carefulness when choosing her words, I’m thereby inclined that he was instrumental in the ideology field & doctrinal issues for the organization. And due to his takfiri background and what Leah said about al Qa’ida inclusion of takfiri material in its ideology after 9/11 (see:, I’d hazard to guess that he may have carried weight on building these new ideological foundations (based on the primary material I’ve come across, I’m quasi sure of the identity of at least one Iran-based senior figure involved in this evolution and who might have been in contact with al Muhajir there).

The significance of al Muhajir’s relations with al Zarqawi doesn’t seem to have vanished when the latter went to Iraq. A telling first hand account is provided with a book authored by Shaykh Maysarah al Gharib, a Shari’ah Committee official of al Qa’ida in Iraq. According to him, al Zarqawi was eager to bring his hard line Shaykh alongisde him on the Iraqi frontlines and adds: « Every piece of evidence available indicates that if he had come to Iraq, [Zarqawiwould have appointed him in charge of charge of the Shariah Council [of Al-Qaida in Iraq].» (see: He also recalls how willing al Qa’ida in Iraq amir was to make his Shaykh’s teachings taught to young militants fighting in Iraq. This explains why his two books, namely The Pioneers of Spreading the Sunnah in the Landmarks of the Victorious Sect and The jurisprudence of the blood (better known as The jurisprudence of jihad issues), were spread among/taught (notably by al Gharib) to militants of al Qa’ida in Iraq. Regarding the second book, al Gharib claims that al Zarqawi had studied it with al Muhajir « four years ago », i.e. 2003 (note of caution: he is not sure of the exact date). The Syrian al Qa’ida official adds that « many photocopies were made of it under the title ‘The Jurisprudence of Jihad Issues’ » and defines it as « a good, strong book, worthy of explaining and teaching it to the mujahideen brothers. »

Even if al Zarqawi has never publicly talked at length about al Muhajir, he mentioned him several times: when al Maqdisi openly questioned the legitimacy of fighting Iraqi Shi’a as a whole, his former student put al Muhajir among the « righteous scholars » who had declared that the ordinary Shi’a are unbelievers, hence fighting them was legitimate. Also, reacting to the Jordanian scholar discouraging would-be volunteers to go to Iraq, al Zarqawi answers by saying that this statement contradicts the opinion of other jihadi leaders/scholars, including al Muhajir.

And if you’re still not convinced by al Muhajir’s importance within al Zarqawi’s life, I’ll just quote what the Jordanian said privately to his inner circle. Here, Abu Azzam al Iraqi, a late senior al Qa’ida in Iraq figure, quotes his Shaykh Abu Mus’ab: « I was not influenced by anyone I met among seekers of knowledge in my whole life like (as I was by) Shaykh Abu Anas al-Shami (may Allah accept him) and Shaykh Abu Abdullah al Muhajir (may Allah protect him). »

After having been detained by Iranian authorities, nothing was heard from him for years (to my knowledge at least). But things changed in May 2011, when forums announced that the Shaykh had been freed from Iranian prisons and that he was on his way back in his home country. This news was confirmed by an article in Asharq al Awsat in late August 2011. According to Muhammad Yasin, a senior figure of al Gama’a al Islamiyah: « He telephoned me [from Turkey], and we made calls for him to the Foreign Ministry. God be praised, he came back about a week ago. He is now in Port Said with his Jordanian wife and his three children. There are no judgments against him in Egypt. » He adds that al Muhajir « telephoned me from Iran, and I told him to go to Turkey, because the Egyptian embassy in Turkey was cooperative and good. He did in fact go to the embassy. Travel documents were prepared for him, and he and his wife returned. I met him at the airport. He had a problem — more exactly, an old proceeding against him in Port Said and against Ayman al-Zawahiri and others. He was released by the office of the prosecutor for state security and the proceeding in Port Said was suspended. »

Well, this was my two cents on al Zarqawi’s influences issue. It goes without saying that, while I chose to focus on Abu Abdullah al Muahjir because I had the feeling that too much credit was granted to al Maqdisi, others influences exist as well. Abu Anas al Shami could definitely be included in the list: when asked about the « three most important individuals who had influenced his life », al Zarqawi mentioned his beloved companion. I’ll leave others to dig in, but my point was just to give a more balanced view of al Zarqawi’s extremism shaping.

Last thing: my little talk was about human influences, but obviously, there are other factors to take into account when pondering about path to radicalization. 

Mystery solved

25 Apr




Remember the first super production of as Sahab, the media foundation in charge of producing al Qa’ida propaganda material, named The destruction of the American destroyer USS COLE (aka The State of the Ummah)? This video tape (a six month project), produced at the initiative of al Qa’ida leadership for recruitment purposes in the aftermath of the USS Cole attack in October 2000, gathers up the main doctrinal points/grievances of the organization. To me, it remains one of the most well-built al Qa’ida propaganda tape to this day and I can’t think of how many times its footages have been rehashed by other jihadi productions or in the media.    

Anyway, this as Sahab brainchild features, among other things, some of the known al Qa’ida leadership figures, namely Usama bin Ladin (amir of al Qa’ida), Ayman al Zawahiri (his future deputy) and Abu Hafs al Misri (bin Ladin’s deputy and military commander). 

During the « Al Jihad » part of the tape, there is this well-known footage of bin Ladin at the Kandahar airport (aka Tarnak farms) shooting with his AK-74 at an unidentified target. To my knowledge, this is the only moving images where he can be seen using his personal assault rifle. And here is where it gets interesting: surrounded by a small group of followers while shooting, he can be seen casually talking and smiling at an unknown senior jihadi, who shoots next to the Saudi while lying down on the ground (and who seems to have some difficulties when it comes to unlocking the safety notch of an AK). From all the men in the scene, he is the only one (except bin Ladin, obviously) who can be recognized. But the thing is that there is no clue in the tape as to who he is. Therefore, the old red-bearded individual has remained a mystery to me and many others since the release of the tape. Well, not to intel services I guess, since the main producer of the tape, Abu Anas al Makki (Ali Hamzah al Bahlul), had been in custody since December 2001. But as for the rest of us, speculations were rife on this elder (from Abd al Majid al Zindani to Yunus Khalis) and no clue was given in open sources until recently.  

Finding out who he was has been of particular interest to me: not only does he appear in the first major al Qa’ida production, but being singled out next to bin Ladin in a branded al Qa’ida video tape is not that common. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there are only three usual suspects: al Zawahiri, Abu Hafs and Sulayman Abu Ghayth, the then official spokesman for the organization. Those were the regular ones. Only a tiny number of other jihadi militants have already stood publicly next to the Saudi amir in official productions, such as Rifa’i Ahmad Taha, the former head of al Gama’a al Islamiyah Shura council, or Ramzi bin al Shibh and Mustafa al Hawsawi, key 9/11 figures. Hence, it was natural that the famous shooting footage raises questions.   

Anyway, I did find out who this mysterious elderly jihadi was by reading Fadil Harun’s magnum opus entitled Al Harb ala al Islam (meaning War against Islam), which, in terms of who’s who within al Qa’ida, is the best thing I’ve ever read. In his memoirs, the late confidential secretary of al Qa’ida solves the mystery by identifying our enigma as Shaykh Abu’l Husayn al Libi. There can be no confusion since Harun points him out as the one who shoots alongside bin Ladin in the well-known scene taken at the Kandahar airport. Described as « the oldest among al Qa’ida », he was above 60 during the first Afghan jihad in which he participated. Harun, who got to know Abu’l Husayn during the fight against the Soviets/communist regime, remembered him as a « very wise » man. Famous for his henna-dyed beard, he is married to Umm al Husayn al Misri (she was said to be far away from him during the Afghan jihad). It seems that he has followed the classical pattern for any historical al Qa’ida member: as I said before, he participated in the fight against Soviet troops. Then there is this mention by Harun that Umm al Husayn was living with other al Qa’ida families in Sudan and that she used to get along with his wife, so it is more than likely that al Qa’ida grandfather was there too. And finally, he features next to bin Ladin in Kandahar so he must have followed al Qa’ida when the organization relocated to Afghanistan in 1996. 

On a side note, I got to confess that I was first confused by the kunya of Abu’l Husayn al Libi’s wife, i.e. Umm al Husayn al Misri. Since I was used to « restricted » women’s kunyas (namely Umm + name of the first son, but without the nationality), I was wondering if she had anything to do with Abu’l Husayn al Misri. After some discussions with Aaron Zelin, I then came to the conclusion there were no family ties and that she was actually Egyptian, which explains the « al Misri » mention after the « Umm al Husayn ». 

Anyway, this confusion made me want to share an anecdotical, but quite interesting story I read in Harun’s autobiography involving the other Abu’l Husayn, the Egyptian one. He was an al Qa’ida member who having been part of a small team of operatives whose mission was to explore and find alternative hiding places for the organization leadership. To be more precise, Harun recounts that during the course of the year 2000, as the preparation for the 9/11 attacks was on its way, he was chosen by the leader of the mission, Sayf al Adl, a Shura council member and head of the security committee, to accompany him for a « very secret trip » to Jalalabad, to the point that the Comorian operative was not informed of the purpose of the mission. He then learned that it was meant to find new suitable safe havens into which the high command could hide if « things go wrong » (in expectation of the forthcoming big attack and the troubles it might get al Qa’ida into). Those who joined were Shaykh Abu’l Husayn al Misri, « a specialist in the relations with the tribes » and a fluent Farsi speaker, according to Harun, as well as an unnamed « Algerian brother », married to a woman of Waziristan. In Jalalabad, the crew payed a visit to Yunus Khalis, a well-known and powerful Afghan mujahid commander, who assured his foreign guests of his unfailing support (the Khalis’ protection granted to al Qa’ida would turn out to be critical during the organization’s escape in eastern Afghanistan following the US invasion).  

It also has to be mentioned that Abu’l Husayn al Misri was part of the media crew working at the al Qa’ida media office in Kandahar. « Abu Hussein al-Masri » mentioned by Abu Anas al Makki said that he was an al Qa’ida media operative but I believe Abu Hussein and Abu’l Husayn are one and the same (you still have to be cautious when talking about jihadis: you can easily mix up their kunyas, which are sometimes very similar or even identical).   

Back to our main guy, I would just add that contrary to what he does for many other al Qa’ida senior figures, Harun is pretty sparing with biographical details on al Qa’ida dean: he’s mentioned only twice in the book and no clue was given as to what was his formal group rank, if any. My assumption would be that given his longevity/seniority within the organization, Abu’l Husayn al Libi had solid ties with the high command and even if he did not have a top organizational position, he was at least respected and heard among his peers.      

Same thing for his current status: because of the absence of mentions such as « May Allah protect him » or « May Allah have mercy on his soul », I can’t say if he is dead (either killed after US invasion of Afghanistan or dead due to natural causes, after all, he was very old), in custody or free as bird somewhere in the AfPak region (or in another region). Maybe there is other primary material mentioning the old Shaykh, so let me know if you have further details on him.