Archive | June, 2012

« 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. »