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.