« 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.  

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