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Updated: 1 week 17 hours ago

Trial of jihadist cleric expected to highlight ex-Guantanamo detainee's al Qaeda role

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 14:44

Abu Hamza al Masri and a masked follower.

The trial of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known as Abu Hamza al Masri, began this week in New York with jury selection. Abu Hamza preached in Britain for years. He has well-known ties to various al Qaeda operatives and openly praised the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

In 2004, British authorities detained Abu Hamza on terrorism charges. But he was not extradited to the US to stand trial until October 2012. He is charged with supporting al Qaeda, attempting to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon, and assisting a hostage-taking operation in Yemen in 1998, among other allegations.

Saajid Badat. Image from the BBC.

In the weeks leading up to Abu Hamza's trial, federal prosecutors from the US Department of Justice moved to have their star witness, Saajid Badat, testify via closed circuit television instead of in person. Badat was slated to take part in a shoe bomb attack identical to the one Richard Reid failed to execute in December 2001. Badat later backed out of the plot, however, and was convicted in Britain on terrorism charges.

Prosecutors argued that Badat's testimony is "essential" to the government's case, as his testimony will connect Abu Hamza to other al Qaeda actors, including a former Guantanamo detainee named Feroz Ali Abbasi.

The court subsequently granted the prosecution's motion and Badat is expected to testify, which means that a New York jury will likely hear about Abbasi at length.

US officials have accused Abbasi of agreeing to take part in al Qaeda's attacks against American and Jewish targets. Despite being deemed a "high" risk at Guantanamo, however, Abbasi was transferred to Britain on Jan. 25, 2005.

Badat's expected testimony to the court implicates Abbasi

Feroz Ali Abbasi.

The court received a preview of Badat's testimony on March 5, when the DOJ submitted a filing outlining the reasons why he should be considered a credible and important witness.

The central issue in the DOJ's filing is Abu Hamza's alleged role in sending Abbasi "to receive jihad training in Afghanistan in support of al Qaeda." Badat has repeatedly explained this relationship during interviews with American and British officials.

Another witness, who is not named in the DOJ's filing and identified only as cooperating witness number one ("CW-1"), corroborates parts of Badat's testimony. According to CW-1, Abu Hamza "directed CW-1 to travel with Abbasi from London to Afghanistan," where he was "to deliver Abbasi to Ibn Sheikh al Libi ('Ibn Sheik'), another of the [Abu Hamza's] co-conspirators who was associated with al Qaeda."

CW-1 failed to follow through on Abu Hamza's instructions because he was separated from Abbasi in Pakistan, and only saw Abbasi later in Afghanistan. (Ibn Sheik al Libi would later die while in custody in Libya.)

According to the DOJ's prosecutors, "Badat's testimony will essentially begin where CW-1's testimony ends." Badat "will testify that, in early 2001, he met Abbasi, who was accompanied by Ibn Sheik at the time, in Kandahar."

Upon Ibn Sheik's request, Badat looked after Abbasi, taking him to a guesthouse "run by al Qaeda." During another meeting in Afghanistan, Badat says he saw CW-1 and Abbasi together at al Qaeda's al Farouq training camp, which admitted only those "trusted by al Qaeda." Badat says that Abbasi's training at al Farouq included "weapons, such as AK-47s, explosives, and navigation."

Badat is expected to tell the court that he also acted as a translator during a meeting between Abbasi and "two of al Qaeda's most senior leaders," Abu Hafs al Masri and Saif al Adel. Abu Hafs was al Qaeda's military chief until he died in an American airstrike in late 2001. Saif al Adel remains a senior al Qaeda leader to this day.

The pair of al Qaeda leaders asked Abbasi whether he "would be willing to engage in attacks against American and Jewish targets outside of Afghanistan." According to the Justice Department, "Badat will testify that Abbasi responded affirmatively" to the al Qaeda leaders' request.

Badat will testify about other matters as well, including his "explosives training" under the tutelage of Abu Khabab al Masri, a known al Qaeda trainer. He is also expected to testify regarding his first meeting with Saif al Adl in 1999, when the two discussed the arrest of Abu Hamza's son in Yemen.

The DOJ says that Badat "first provided information about Abbasi's role in a conspiracy with [Abu Hamza] in 2004." And Badat has provided consistent testimony several times since then.

Abbasi's statements to the FBI at Guantanamo corroborate Badat's account

In its filing with the court, the DOJ argued that Badat's account is credible for multiple reasons, including because it is consistent with Abbasi's own statements.

During interviews with FBI agents at Guantanamo in early 2002, Abbasi "provided detailed, inculpatory statements about his time in Afghanistan, all of which are consistent with Badat's prior statements and proposed testimony." To support its case, the Justice Department cites the FBI's 302 forms summarizing the interviews with Abbasi.

Abbasi admitted meeting with Ibn Sheik near Kabul. Ibn Sheikh "then took Abbasi to Kandahar and checked Abbasi into the Institute for Arabic Studies (IAS)," which was also known as the "House of Pomegrantes." Abbasi admitted staying at the guesthouse for a few days, "before attending the al Farouq training camp, where he received military-style training." Abbasi admitted that Ibn Sheikh "outlined ... a two-year training course for him" and that the IAS "was run by al Qaeda."

Abbasi also told FBI agents that he met a man known as "Abu Issa," which was the alias used by Badat.

Perhaps most importantly, according to the DOJ's filing, Abbasi admitted to FBI agents that "Abu Issa" (Badat) had "translated for Abbasi during his meeting with Abu Hafs" al Masri. It was during this meeting that Abbasi was allegedly asked about his willingness to attack American and Jewish targets.

Leaked JTG-GTMO file

A leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, dated Nov. 11, 2003, contains some of the same details included in the DOJs filing. The JTF-GTMO file contains additional details about Abbasi's ties to Abu Hamza and other al Qaeda actors as well.

Abbasi "called" Abu Hamza, who is a "known Islamic extremist and al Qaeda member," the file reads. Abu Hamza "invited" Abbasi "to attend Friday's prayer at the Finsbury Mosque [in London] for instructions on how to join the jihad." The file indicates that Abbasi attended training at al Farouq before being selected for more "advanced training."

After training, Abbasi traveled to Kandahar, where he met with Saif al Adel (whose name is misspelled in the JTF-GTMO file), which is consistent with Badat's and Abbasi's testimony outlined above. But according to JTF-GTMO, Abbasi also met with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and David Hicks, an Australian who was held at Guantanamo after training with Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda. If this is accurate, then Abbasi's al Qaeda connections go beyond the details in the DOJ's filing.

Abbasi was then selected to attend "an information collection course that taught him how to select targets for terrorism." After this, he was asked if he would take part in a "martyrdom mission." He replied, "Yes."

JTF-GTMO considered Abbasi to be a "confirmed member" of al Qaeda, who had "pledged to martyr himself in Jihad against the West and the United States in particular."
Abbasi was also deemed "a high threat to the US, its interests and its allies." JTF-GTMO even considered Abbasi "a candidate for prosecution as a terrorist" in a military court. It was recommended that he be "retained under" the Department of Defense's control.

Instead, less than two years later, Abbasi was transferred to Britain, where he was freed. Abbasi's transfer goes to show that the US government has transferred detainees from Guantanamo who are strongly suspected of being tied to al Qaeda's senior leaders. The evidence against Abbasi is considered so strong, in fact, that it is being cited by the Department of Justice in legal filings more than a decade after Abbasi was first interviewed by the FBI.

And now the man who allegedly sent Abbasi to Afghanistan for training in the first place stands trial in New York.

Al Nusrah Front official explains al Qaeda's strategy, conflict with former branch

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 06:44

Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a high-ranking sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has released a video explaining the group's ongoing conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Al Qaeda's general command disowned ISIS in early February after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS, repeatedly disobeyed orders.

Sulayman was an extremist preacher in Australia until he relocated to Syria sometime last year to serve as a mediator in the intra-jihadist dispute. He recently joined several other jihadist ideologues in calling on Ayman al Zawahiri to issue a more detailed condemnation of ISIS.

While parts of Sulayman's video rehash old ground, including ISIS' unwillingness to settle its differences with other groups, the video also covers new areas. Sulayman offers a substantive discussion of al Qaeda's strategy and "hierarchy."

Al Qaeda's organization scheme and Baghdadi's insubordination

Sulayman says that the relationship between al Qaeda and ISIS was the same as "an emir with his [group]." According to Sulayman, the predecessor to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was a loyal branch of al Qaeda's international organization. Sulayman also says that Baghdadi had sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri, and he dismisses attempts by ISIS leaders to portray this oath as anything less than a "completely binding" pledge of obedience to al Qaeda's senior leaders.

Sulayman explains how Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), prior to its expansion into Syria, fit into al Qaeda's organizational scheme.

Al Qaeda "draws up its plans and its strategy based on what we call al Qalim, or locations," Sulayman says. And a leader is chosen to oversee each of these locations. For example, Nasir al Wuhayshi (the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda's overall general manager) is al Qaeda's representative in the Arabian Peninsula, and Abu Musab Abdul Wadud (the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) oversees the Maghreb. The "same goes for each of the locations, or al Qalim," according to Sulayman, and Zawahiri is the emir above all of them.

The head of each location swears a bayat to al Qaeda "that binds them to the group" and means that they owe "allegiance in the matters of jihad," because the oath "ties them to one unity, one group called" al Qaeda.

Sulayman's interviewer, an English-speaking member of the Al Nusrah Front, asks if Zawahiri is "really the head of the hierarchy." Sulayman scoffs at suggestions to the contrary, saying "it's quite strange that there's all this confusion about this particular topic" and the administration of ISIS "knows very well the rank they had in" al Qaeda.

Continuing with his description of al Qaeda, Sulayman says there is "someone [who] overlooks all of these different locations," called Masul al Qalim. The locations al Qaeda chooses are not based on Western boundaries, such as those drawn up by the Sykes-Picot agreement, Sulayman explains. Instead, "it is a purely strategic decision based on Islamic principles and goes in line with these Islamic guidelines," as "has been the policy of al Qaeda since its establishment."

This is intended as a direct rebuttal to ISIS' claims that al Qaeda adhered to Western boundaries when it ordered the group to leave the jihad in Syria and return to Iraq.

Baghdadi was named the al Qalim of Iraq, Sulayman says, but he did not have the authority to establish an Islamic state beyond its borders. Each leader of one of al Qaeda's locations, or al Qalim, has a "certain authority." But announcing the creation of an Islamic state "is not one of" the authorities each leader has.

Sulayman points to Shabaab ("our brothers"), al Qaeda's official branch in Somalia, and says that they "never established a State," nor did they announce a merger "with their neighbors in Yemen," because "they don't have such authority." They "must go back" to the al Qaeda "hierarchy to receive such permission."

Sulayman says that Shabaab did not merge with AQAP even though this "would be much, much easier than the" attempt by ISIS to do the same. Here, Sulayman is likely referring to the rumors that surfaced online saying that the ISIS was going to merge with AQAP. No such merger has taken place. ISIS has also been attempting to collect its own pledges of bayat to Baghdadi, but few have been forthcoming thus far. Sulayman says that al Qaeda's "hierarchy is precisely why we don't see [leaders] from different areas giving bayat to Sheikh al Baghdadi." The emir in each location swears bayat directly to Zawahiri.

Al Qaeda's "first mediator"

During his time in Australia, Sulayman was known as an extremist preacher, but he was not publicly identified as an al Qaeda member. His latest video suggests that he has long played a role in the organization. Sulayman says he was the "first mediator" between ISIS and Al Nusrah. It is unlikely that this position would be given to anyone other than a trusted member of al Qaeda. Sulayman adds that he served in this role alongside an "Iraqi brother" whose name is not mentioned "for security reasons."

To date, all of al Qaeda's mediation efforts, including those spearheaded by Sulayman, have failed. But Sulayman argues that the Al Nusrah Front was willing to compromise in pursuit of a resolution. Abu Muhammad al Julani, the head of Al Nusrah, was even willing to work alongside Baghdadi and ISIS under the banner of al Qaeda in Syria. But this would have required the annulment of ISIS, something Baghdadi would not agree to.

Earlier this year, Julani issued an ultimatum to ISIS that would have expanded the infighting between the groups if ISIS did not agree to Julani's demands. Julani backed down, however, and Sulayman explains why. Sulayman says that Al Nusrah abides by the "scholarly opinions and the rulings given by the sheikhs who are well-grounded in Islamic sciences and are known for their Islamic positions," such as Abu Qatada, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, and Sheikh Sulayman al Alwan. Two of these three clerics advised Al Nusrah "not to widen this battle and conflict" with ISIS, so Al Nusrah is responding "as necessary, and only in the areas where [ISIS'] transgression is clear."

Qatada and Maqdisi are both imprisoned in Jordan, but have been been actively commenting on the dispute between Al Nusrah and ISIS. The two clerics have been highly critical of ISIS, and have been publicly advising Al Nusrah on how to handle the ongoing dispute.

Even after months of infighting and heated arguments, al Qaeda still wants ISIS to submit to a common sharia (Islamic law) court to settle its disagreements with other groups. Sulayman says that while ISIS has "clearly caused the biggest rift in the global jihad" since the fall of the Caliphate in 1924, Al Nusrah will answer ISIS' transgressions only "until they come back to the truth" and "are willing to succumb to an Islamic court wherein they are not the judge and prosecutor."

"I'm sure that there are many good brothers, good-hearted, sincere brothers in" ISIS, Sulayman says. Al Qaeda still wants the infighting to end, according to Sulayman, but ISIS will not oblige.

Jihadist ideologues call on Zawahiri to detail problems with former al Qaeda affiliate

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 12:57

A group of jihadist ideologues, including a sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, have called on Ayman al Zawahiri to address the specific problems that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has caused inside Syria.

The message, which was obtained by The Long War Journal, is being disseminated on Twitter. A photo of Zawahiri next to a sealed envelope, shown above, as well as a hashtag are accompanying the message. Oren Adaki, a research associate and Arabic language specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has provided a translation of the missive.

The ideologues argue that the infighting has led the jihad in Syria astray.

They continue: "And due to our keenness on this blessed jihad and so that it should lead to fealty along the lines that Allah desires and would be satisfied with, we ask our Sheikh, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri - may Allah keep him - to speak that which is good for the jihad and the mujahideen about the current situation and specifically about what relates to ISIS before the announcement of the expansion and after it, and the issue of allegiances (bayat), and the disputed arbitration between the adversaries."

The three areas the ideologues ask Zawahiri to specifically address are all hot button issues in the dispute between ISIS and the other jihadist factions, including the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

In a previous message, al Qaeda's general command addressed the first issue, making it clear that the organization's most senior leaders had not been consulted before the Islamic State of Iraq decided to expand into Syria. Afterwards, the group was rebranded as ISIS and its leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to subsume the Al Nusrah Front under its command. The latest message implies that there may be more to the story, however.

The issue of ISIS' bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri has also been contentious. Al Nusrah Front officials have alleged that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS, had sworn bayat to Zawahiri and, therefore, pledged to obey Zawahiri's orders. Al Baghdadi has repeatedly disobeyed Zawahiri's command. If it is true that he had sworn bayat, then al Baghdadi has violated the terms of his oath.

To date, Zawahiri has not spoken publicly on this issue despite its importance to the conflict between ISIS and Al Nusrah.

Finally, the message's signatories call on Zawahiri to discuss "the disputed arbitration between the adversaries." Multiple attempts have been made to mediate the differences between ISIS and other groups. ISIS has repeatedly refused, however, to submit itself to a common sharia (Islamic law) court. Al Qaeda's leaders and others have advocated for the establishment of such a court.

As part of the propaganda war between Al Nusrah and ISIS, Al Nusrah produced several videos featuring leading members of al Qaeda, all of whom said that ISIS had refused to settle its differences.

Signatories in Zawahiri's camp, but want more pointed criticism of ISIS

The signatories on the message are listed as: Dr. Tareq Abd Al Haleem, Dr. Hani Al Sibai, Dr. Iyad Quneibi, Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, Sheikh Mohammad Al Hassam, and Dr. Sami al Uraydi.

Uraydi is a sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front. On his personal Twitter feed, he has tweeted and retweeted posts praising Zawahiri as the "sheikh of the mujahideen." Uraydi also reposted the latest message addressed to Zawahiri on his Twitter feed earlier today.

Quneibi is a preacher in Jordan whose sermons are commonly uploaded and linked to on Salafi jihadist pages, including those run by al Qaeda ideologues.

Sibai is a longtime member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a group run by Zawahiri that merged with Osama bin Laden's venture prior to 9/11. Sibai heads a jihadist media shop, Al Maqreze Center, that produces an online radio program. The message addressed to Zawahiri was posted on Al Maqreze's Twitter feed today.

Muhaysini is a popular, al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric who relocated to Syria in late 2013. On Jan. 23, Muhaysini released a reconciliation initiative that was intended to bring ISIS back into the fold. ISIS rejected Muhaysini's proposal, which followed a message from Zawahiri, and was then disowned by al Qaeda's general command.

While the signatories are clearly in Zawahiri's camp, they appear to be unsatisfied with the al Qaeda master's messaging on Syria thus far. Zawahiri has discussed the infighting in mainly general terms and has avoided addressing the specific allegations being hurled back and forth.

For instance, in his recent statement eulogizing Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri did not mention ISIS by name even though he criticized the group's practices. Al Suri served as Zawahiri's main representative in Syria and was also a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, one of the leading groups in the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups. Al Suri was killed in a suicide attack on Feb. 23. The attackers were most likely dispatched by ISIS.

"The situation can no longer bear a delay, and it is no secret to anyone who follows the jihad in Syria," the signatories write in their message to Zawahiri, adding that their request is consistent with Islamic teachings.

They add: "We want from our Sheikh [Zawahiri] - may Allah keep him - to detail for us in a statement and direct us to what will make the matter clear and reveal it to us, for perhaps Allah is fit to advise him and direct him on the situation."

Al Qaeda shura council member addresses infighting in Syria

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 11:26

Abu Khalil al Madani, a senior member of al Qaeda's shura council, has released an audio message addressing the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria. The message was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Despite ongoing mediation efforts, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) has continued to clash with other jihadist groups, including the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

Al Madani says the factions are "required to form a High Shariah Committee in field of jihad, and this committee is to be led by a group of the knowledgeable ones, those known for success, those who are aware and understand the reality and the condition of the mujahideen."

"The members of this committee should be taken from the best available from every active group in the field," al Madani continues. "Among the tasks of this committee is to collect the word for the general interest; advise and direct; fix matters between each other; bring in viewpoints; and determine the reason for the defeat of the opponent."

Al Madani's suggestion in this regard is similar to past proposals. In a message released online on Jan. 23, al Qaeda's emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, argued that the jihadist groups should "establish a sharia arbitration committee" capable of ruling "among different factions on all the accusations leveled by any group against its" jihadist brethren. Hours later, Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a popular Saudi cleric who has relocated to Syria, released his own reconciliation initiative, which included the same type of committee.

The ISIS rejected these efforts, however, and was subsequently disowned by al Qaeda's general command.

In addition to the "High Sharia Committee," al Madani says that a "security committee" should "be formed that belongs to the Sharia Committee, and is led by the people of experience and specialty, those who are aware of the situation and the condition."

Al Madani continues: "All the active groups will participate in this committee, those present in the field, to deter and reveal the enemies and the conspiracies that are plotted against jihad and the mujahideen, and to reveal those without knowledge."

Although al Madani does not explain why such a security committee is necessary, it may be because ISIS figures frequently claim that other jihadist groups have been infiltrated by the West or other outside parties. Such a security committee could be intended to allay such concerns among the jihadists.

Al Madani also criticizes unnamed Islamic "scholars," saying that they are not doing enough to support the jihad in Syria. The al Qaeda ideologue claims that the infighting in Syria has persisted because more scholars have not relocated to the front lines, where they can supposedly provide direction.

"Among the reasons for the success of the Taliban in their blessed jihad in Afghanistan is that the scholars were present on the frontlines of the fight and they managed it, and therefore the blessing descended on their jihad," Al Madani says.

Al Madani has made few appearances through the years. In July 2013, he released an audio message arguing that the community of worldwide Muslims is weak because it supposedly lacked faith. Prior to that message, he last appeared in an al Qaeda production in July 2008.

Ansar Jerusalem releases video of December bombing in Mansoura

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 16:57

The Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) today released a video about its Dec. 24, 2013 suicide car bombing attack outside the Daqahliya security directorate in Mansoura. The group, which was designated yesterday as a foreign terrorist organization by the US, had previously claimed responsibility for the Mansoura attack, in a statement released on Dec. 25, 2013.

In the video, Abu Maryam, the suicide bomber in the attack, is described by Ansar Jerusalem as a "heroic martyr," according to a translation by Oren Adaki of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "He had many intrepid braveries against the apostates in Egypt," the jihadist group says. In addition, he was "wounded by gunfire during the Ramses incidents," likely a reference to August 2013 clashes between Egyptian security forces and Islamists in Cairo's Ramses Square.

Ansar Jerusalem's video also accuses Egypt's security forces of "killing in cold blood," "terrorizing children," and "aggression against Muslim women," among other offenses. The issue of assaults against women has been mentioned in a number of other statements from Ansar Jerusalem as well as from Ajnad Misr. For example, in November 2013 Ansar Jerusalem said its killing of Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Mabrouk, a senior national security officer, was in response to the arrest and interrogation of Muslim women by Egyptian security forces.

After accusing Egypt's security forces of these offenses, the video plays a clip from former Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Omar al Baghdadi. "We are not those who shed tears, and sit crying like women, this was not and will not be our path," Baghdadi says. Ansar Jerusalem had previously used a clip from Baghdadi in its video about its attack in October 2013 on the South Sinai Security Directorate in el Tor.

Following this, a speech from Abu Maryam is played. In it, the jihadist says: "The path to establishing the religion is not solely by da'wa as some people have said, but it is da'wa and jihad." "You do not raise a weapon and they fight you. So what [would happen] if you raised a weapon?" he asks.

He goes on to say that "the enemies of Allah ... are plotting against us, plotting against Allah's religion." In addition, he denounces Egyptian security forces for acting as "protectors of the Jews." According to Abu Maryam, "He who proceeds and dares to kill Muslims, we do not advise him with words, rather we kill him as he has killed them."

Ansar Jerusalem says "security reasons" prevented it from filming the explosion in Mansoura. Similarly, in a November 2013 video about its attack on the South Sinai Security Directorate in el Tor, the jihadist group had claimed that "security reasons" kept it from filming the actual bombing. In February, however, the group released a video showing its Dec. 29 bombing of a military intelligence building in Anshas.

The video from Ansar Jerusalem concluded with a 2007 clip from Abu Hamza al Muhajir (also known as Abu Ayyub al Masri), a deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader, in which he calls on Muslims to protect the honor of their women.

Taliban's shadow governor for Kunar reported killed in US airstrike

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 01:45

Noor Qasim Sabari, the shadow governor for Kunar province, from a Taliban video released in 2012.

The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's domestic intelligence service, claimed that the Taliban's shadow governor for Kunar province and several senior commanders were killed in an airstrike three days ago. The Taliban commander's death has not been confirmed.

The NDS issued a press release stating that Noor Qasim Sabari, the shadow governor of Kunar, was killed in an airstrike that targeted "a gathering of the senior Pakistani and Afghan Taliban leaders" on the evening of April 7, Khaama Press reported.

Sabari appeared in a video by the Taliban that was released in 2012. In that video, which is titled "The Ghazi of Ghaziabad," the Taliban welcomed two Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers suspected of killing US and Afghan soldiers in insider or green-on-blue attacks earlier in 2012. [See Threat Matrix report, Observations on Taliban video 'welcoming' rogue ANA soldiers.]

The airstrike, which would have been launched by the US military or the CIA, also reportedly killed Qari Osman, the shadow district governor for Shigal; Qari Nasir Gajar, the chief suicide attack coordinator; Mullah Bashir Gajar, the IED coordinator; Qari Sherin, an assassination squad leader; and senior commanders Qari Zubair, Qari Latif, and Qari Tari. It is unclear which of the senior commanders or attack coordinators, if any, are Pakistani Taliban members. Additionally, nine Taliban fighters are said to have been killed.

The Afghan Taliban has not released a martyrdom statement announcing the deaths of Sabari or the other commanders on its website, Voice of jihad. An inquiry on the NDS report that was sent to the Taliban by The Long War Journal has gone unanswered.

The International Security Assistance Force has also not commented on the reports of the airstrike in Kunar. ISAF stopped issuing press releases on its operations against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as of June 27, 2013.

For years, the rugged, remote Afghan province of Kunar has served as a sanctuary for al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba cells has been detected in the districts of Asmar, Asadabad, Dangam, Ghazibad, Marawana, Nari, Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Shigal, and Watahpur; or 11 of Kunar's 15 districts, according to press releases issued by ISAF that have been compiled by The Long War Journal. The Taliban and al Qaeda are closely allied in the province.

The US appears to be continuing to hunt for senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in Kunar, despite its withdrawal from much of the province and the end of its counterinsurgency campaign there. Last year, two wanted senior al Qaeda and Taliban commanders were reported to have been killed in US airstrikes.

In mid-October 2013, Qari Dawat, a Taliban commander in Kunar who has been hunted by US forces for years and has vowed to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden, was reported to have been killed. And in mid-August 2013, US strike aircraft reportedly killed Qari Zia Rahman, dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban leader who operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and who trains female suicide bombers. The deaths of Dawat and Rahman were never confirmed.

State Department adds Ansar Jerusalem to terrorist designation lists

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 10:50

The State Department today added Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, or ABM) to the US government's lists of designated terrorist entities.

Based in the Sinai, ABM was founded in the aftermath of the uprisings in Egypt in 2011. The group attracted early attention by conducting attacks, including daring guerilla-style raids, in Israel and against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai. Following the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, ABM has escalated its attacks inside Egypt, including in the country's urban areas. As the State Department notes, ABM has also expanded its targets to include foreign tourists.

The State Department's designation follows a similar move by the British government, which designated ABM as a terrorist entity earlier this month. The designations are intended to prevent citizens in either the US or the UK from supporting the terrorist organization.

ABM attacks consistent with al Qaeda's global jihad

The State Department says that "ABM -- who shares some aspects of AQ [sic] ideology, but is not a formal AQ affiliate and generally maintains a local focus -- was responsible for a July 2012 attack against a Sinai pipeline exporting gas to Israel." But it is not clear what aspects of al Qaeda's ideology the group does not share. It is also not known, based on publicly available information, whether or not ABM is an unannounced branch of al Qaeda. It may not be, but other groups, such as Shabaab in Somalia and the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant in Syria, have operated within al Qaeda's sphere of influence long before any formal announcement of allegiance was made public.

ABM's "local focus" is also entirely consistent with al Qaeda's priorities. Both seek to impose a harsh version of sharia law within Egypt. And ABM has frequently portrayed its attacks, both against Israel and inside Egypt, as being a part of al Qaeda's global jihad. In turn, al Qaeda's most senior leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, has repeatedly praised ABM's attacks. The July 2012 attack on the Sinai pipeline mentioned by the State Department is a good illustration of this point.

ABM released a video on July 24, 2012 in which it claimed responsibility for 13 pipeline attacks. The video is peppered with clips of Zawahiri praising the pipeline bombings, which he has heralded on several occasions. Zawahiri provides an economic justification for the attacks, saying they damage Israel's economy. "The greeting goes to the heroes who blew up the gas pipeline and who represent the dignity of the Egyptian people," Zawahiri says in one clip used in the ABM video. "May Allah bless them, until they see the Islamic Caliphate ruling over the countries of Islam. I ask Allah to grant them patience and determination, and to reward them in the best way in this life and the hereafter."

Other high-profile ABM attacks have been portrayed as consistent with al Qaeda's global jihad as well.

On Sept. 21, 2012, as the State Department noted in its release, "ABM militants attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing one soldier and injuring another." In a statement released the following day, ABM justified the attack as an act of retaliation for the video Innocence of Muslims. The group falsely claimed that Jews were involved in the video's production. In reality, this was merely a pretext, not a true motivation. ABM had attacked Israeli interests before the video became an issue, and continued to do so long after.

As The Long War Journal has documented, other al Qaeda-linked groups similarly used the video as a pretext for assaulting American diplomatic facilities in September 2012. And ABM portrayed its Sept. 21, 2012 attack as part of this wider, anti-American effort. "America, the head of disbelief, was the one who produced the film on its land and under its protection," ABM said in its statement claiming responsibility for the attack, "so Muslims rose against it and surrounded and stormed its embassies, lowered its flags, and raised their banners of tawhid (monotheism) high instead of its flags."

In a video released on Jan. 11, 2013, ABM once again claimed that the Sept. 21, 2012 attack in Israel was retaliation for Innocence of Muslims. The group cited Osama bin Laden as its inspiration. "If the freedom of your expression has no limit, then your chests should bear the freedom of our actions," bin Laden says in the ABM video. This quote, or a similar one, was used by jihadists with known al Qaeda ties, including Ayman al Zawahiri's younger brother, to justify the protest-turned-assault on the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. The ABM video contains footage from that pro-al Qaeda event.

Another ABM attack mentioned by the State Department is the Sept. 5, 2013 attempted assassination of Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. On Oct. 26, 2013, ABM released a video dedicated to the suicide bomber responsible for the operation, a former major in the Egyptian army named Walid Badr. The video begins with an audio clip from Ayman al Zawahiri and ends with a video of Zawahiri. In the closing scene, Zawahiri says that the conflict in Egypt is not "a struggle between political parties, but a struggle between Crusaders and Zionists on one side and Islam on the other side." Thus, ABM considers the assassination attempt to be part of al Qaeda's global jihad.

Walid Badr, the would-be assassin, was clearly a global jihadist. The ABM video celebrating his "martyrdom" says he traveled to Afghanistan and participated "with his brothers in deterring the Crusader campaign against the proud land of Khorasan." This is a reference to the America-led campaign in Afghanistan that began in late 2001. Badr attempted to fight in Iraq as well, but failed to do so and eventually returned to Egypt. Badr traveled to Syria to fight Bashar al Assad's regime, only to return to Egypt once again and become a suicide bomber. This sequence of events shows that Badr fought in three different theaters for jihad -- Afghanistan, Syria, and Egypt. Other ABM members have reportedly fought among rebel ranks in Syria, including the Al Nusrah Front, which is a branch of al Qaeda.

There are still additional details in Badr's story that connect him and ABM to the al Qaeda network. Egyptian officials alleged that he was trained by Muhammad Jamal's organization, which is clearly a part of al Qaeda's global network. In a previous designation, for example, the State Department pointed to Jamal's direct ties to al Qaeda's senior leadership, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Jamal is a longtime subordinate to Ayman al Zawahiri and was in direct contact with the al Qaeda leader in 2011 and 2012. In his letters to Zawahiri, Jamal explained that he had established multiple groups in the Sinai.

And in late October 2013, Egyptian security sources arrested Nabil al Maghraby, whom they described simply as "a key al Qaeda operative." Al Maghraby had been imprisoned for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, but was freed by a presidential pardon from Mohamed Morsi in 2012. Egyptian authorities described al Maghraby as "a close associate" of Badr.

There is much we still do not know about ABM's leadership, organizational structure, ties to other jihadist groups, and financing. But ABM's "local" attacks are precisely what al Qaeda's senior leadership wants, both against Israel and inside Egypt.

Notes: All quotes from ABM's videos were translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. Parts of this article are adapted from written congressional testimony.

ISIS' 'Southern Division' praises foreign suicide bombers

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 01:11

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham's "Southern Iraq Division" praised eight foreign fighters who conducted suicide attacks in the province of Babil.

Images of the eight foreign suicide bombers were published on the Twitter feed of the ISIS' Southern Iraq Division. The eight suicide bombers included "three Moroccans, two Tunisians, one Jordanian, one Saudi, and a man who was unidentified," according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which obtained the images. "No information was provided about their operations, or biographical data other than their country of origin," SITE stated.

The ISIS has previously recently released similar propaganda that lauds foreign suicide bombers. In the beginning of March, the ISIS' "Baghdad Division" published the photographs of 30 suicide bombers, including 24 foreigners from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The short martyrdom statements for the fighters included the dates of their deaths as well as the operations in which they were involved. [See LWJ report, Dane, Uzbek among 30 suicide bombers eulogized by ISIS.]

ISIS' wilayats

The Southern Division and the Baghdad Division are two of the ISIS' 16 wilayats, or provinces or administrative districts, that span both Iraq and Syria.

A map of the ISIS' administrative areas, including the 16 wilayats, was published earlier this year. The ISIS map was obtained by The Long War Journal.

A legend (in the blue area in the bottom left hand corner) reads "Areas of presence or control; The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham." The map details the 16 administrative districts, which are divided largely along existing provincial boundaries in both Iraq and Syria.

The Southern Division, which released the images of the eight foreign suicide bombers, is based in Babil province, located just south of Baghdad.

The Anbar Division is the largest in Iraq, and one of the most active. The ISIS controls Fallujah and other cities and towns along the Euphrates River Valley. Just recently, the ISIS held a parade that included captured Iraqi military hardware in Abu Ghraib, a city only two miles outside Baghdad. [See LWJ report, ISIS parades on outskirts of Baghdad.]

In Syria, the ISIS' seat of power is in Raqqah province. Top ISIS leaders, including Abu Bakr al Baghdadi a.k.a. Abu Dua, are known to have visited the city of Raqqah, the provincial capital.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham's 16 wilayats:

In Iraq:
Southern Division
Diyala Division
Baghdad Division
Kirkuk Division
Salahuddin Division
Anbar Division
Ninewa Division

In Syria:
Al Barakah Division (Hasaka)
Al Kheir Division (Deir al Zour)
Al Raqqah Division
Al Badiya Division
Halab [Aleppo] Division
Idlib Division
Hama Division
Damascus Division
Coast [Al Sahel] Division

Jordan rearrests ex-Gitmo detainee once deemed a 'high' risk

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 09:52

Jordanian authorities have arrested nine members of the Salafi jihadist trend, including a former Guantanamo detainee named Osama Abu Kabir, according to The Jordan Times.

Kabir was first captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and transferred to Guantanamo in June 2002. He was detained there until November 2007, when he was transferred to Jordan and released. Kabir is known to have resumed his terrorist activities after his release.

According to the US State Department, Kabir was the leader of a terrorist cell in Jordan that plotted "attacks in Israel in retaliation for the Israeli incursion into Gaza." The cell was broken up in 2009 when Kabir and his associates were arrested. Kabir was reportedly sentenced to 15 years in prison, but for some unknown reason was at large until his recent arrest.

Late last year, Al Jazeera reported on its Arabic website that Kabir was wanted by Jordanian authorities once again. At the time, the Jordanians were cracking down on members of the Salafi jihadist trend. One of the members of the trend arrested in the security sweeps is Raed Hijazi, who served time in prison for his role in planned attacks inside Jordan at the turn of the millennium.

Kabir has also been identified as a member of the Salafi jihadist trend. The specific charges against Kabir have not been made public, but his arrest seems to be tied to Jordan's concerns about the jihad in Syria.

One of the other eight members of the trend recently arrested has "alleged ties" to the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

The leader of the Salafi jihadist trend has also claimed that the arrests are linked to the fight in Syria. "This campaign of arrests is the latest step by the state to intimidate and prevent Jordanians and other Muslims from defending their brothers in Syria," Mohammed Shalabi (a.k.a. Abu Sayyaf) told The Jordan Times.

Shalabi is well known for his longstanding ties to al Qaeda's operations in Iraq and Syria. He was previously accused of plotting to attack American targets in Jordan.

A "high" risk

The Long War Journal profiled Kabir in 2010 using declassified files prepared at Guantanamo. [See LWJ report, State Department: Former Gitmo detainee led terror cell in Jordan.]

A subsequently leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment provides additional details.

In the JTF-GTMO assessment, dated Aug. 11, 2005, Kabir is described as a "high" risk, "as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies." Despite being deemed a threat, JTF-GTMO recommended that Kabir be transferred to the control of another country as long as an acceptable transfer agreement could be reached.

More than two years later, on Nov. 2, 2007, he was transferred to Jordan.

In the JTF-GTMO threat assessment, Kabir is described as "a possible member of al Qaeda" who "decided to go to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad against Coalition forces."

Tied to "experienced al Qaeda member"

Kabir traveled from Pakistan to Afghanistan alongside "an experienced al Qaeda member named Muhammad Aslam Bin Khan aka Muhammad Islam Barasi" in November 2001. The pair "fought on the front lines" before retreating to "set up their own ambush." But they were detained later that same month.

During his time in custody, according to the JTF-GTMO file, Kabir admitted that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the US. He did not hide his intent even when he was interviewed by the press in late 2001.

On Dec. 2, 2001, the Sunday Telegraph (UK) published an article detailing a visit by its reporters to a detention facility in Kabul. Kabir was one of the inmates the Telegraph interviewed. "I hate Americans - in the last 10 years they've shown what's in their hearts towards Islam," Kabir said during the interview. He went on to justify the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Kabir's companion in Pakistan and then Afghanistan, Muhammad Aslam Bin Khan, was an especially well-connected operative who had helped plot international terrorist attacks.

Aslam is described in the JTF-GTMO threat assessment as "an explosives expert" and member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al Qaeda-affiliated group based in Southeast Asia. Aslam had "ties to senior al Qaeda operational coordinator and JI founder, Hambali."

Prior to his own capture in 2003, Hambali worked closely with the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Hambali provided shelter to two of the 9/11 hijackers in January 2000, when they attended a key planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After 9/11, Hambali continued to plot attacks in Southeast Asia on behalf of al Qaeda.

The JTF-GTMO file indicates that Aslam was interviewed by the British Secret Intelligence Service after he was captured with Kabir. Aslam said he met Kabir in Pakistan and the duo went to Afghanistan to fight.

Aslam's terrorist career long predated his trip to Afghanistan in late 2001, however.

In 1996 and 1997, according to JTF-GTMO's file, Aslam was trained at an al Qaeda camp in the Philippines. "Between the summer of 1998 and his departure in 2001," Aslam "cased three potential bombing targets in Singapore." The "potential targets were the US Naval Port Facility in Singapore, the Singapore Water Pipeline, and nightspots frequented by US servicemen."

Aslam is of Pakistani descent but also a citizen of Singapore, where authorities first learned of his plotting after 9/11. According to a document released by Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs, one of Aslam's fellow Singaporeans told officials that Aslam had bragged about knowing Osama bin Laden and fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The government of Singapore then started closely tracking Aslam's movements, but in early October 2001 he suddenly departed for Pakistan.

Aslam's detention inside Afghanistan the following month, alongside Kabir, then triggered a series of arrests in Singapore. The Ministry of Home Affairs says that officials were concerned that the news of Aslam's arrest would make members of his cell flee the country as well. Twenty-three people were detained in December 2001, and 13 of them were determined to be actively plotting against American interests.

More than a dozen years have passed since Aslam and Kabir made their way into Afghanistan to fight American forces.

In the years that followed his release from Guantanamo, Kabir has continued to seek ways to wage jihad.

Zawahiri's longtime deputy reportedly arrested in Egypt

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 15:00

Thirwat Salah Shehata, an Egyptian who long served as one Ayman al Zawahiri's top deputies, has reportedly been arrested in a suburb of Cairo.

Unnamed Egyptian officials who spoke with Agence France Presse and the Associated Press say that Shehata had traveled to Libya and Turkey before returning to his home country, where he was arrested.

Shehata was among the senior al Qaeda leaders who were sheltered inside Iran for much of the post-9/11 period.

In early 2011, Shehata released a statement supporting the Egyptian uprisings. He called on the people to "remain steadfast" and reject any economic concessions from then president Hosni Mubarak. "Indeed, the Pharaoh and his rotten party must depart," Shehata said in the statement, which he reportedly released from inside Iran. [See LWJ report, Ayman al Zawahiri's deputy releases statement in support of Egyptian opposition.]

Egyptian officials say Shehata was training militants in Libya

Sometime after his 2011 statement, Shehata left Iran. It is not clear when he left, but The Washington Post reported in February that US officials believed he had traveled to Libya. Egyptian officials have now confirmed Shehata's previous presence in Libya.

A former US official told the Post that Shehata is suspected of meeting with other senior al Qaeda leaders inside Libya in 2013. Among them are Abu Anas al Libi, who was detained by US forces in Tripoli in early October, and Zubayr al Maghrebi. Al Libi was wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and had also fled to Iran following 9/11.

According to the AP, Egyptian officials say Shehata "has been training militants in eastern Libya." These same officials say that he is currently being interrogated.

Al Qaeda has established an extensive presence in Libya.

For instance, a report released by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January referenced multiple intelligence reports documenting al Qaeda's activities in the country. One such report, authored by the CIA on July 6, 2012, noted that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Muhammad Jamal Network have all "conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya." [See LWJ report, Senate report: Terrorists 'affiliated' with multiple al Qaeda groups involved in Benghazi attack.]

Senior al Qaeda leaders such as Shehata have played a role in these efforts.

An "experienced operational planner"

Shehata is a veteran Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and al Qaeda leader. The EIJ was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri and merged with Osama bin Laden's operation prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Shehata was a member of the EIJ's Shura council. According to the United Nations, Shehata also headed the EIJ's security committee, which "maintained information about individual members and how to reach them, documenting physical, psychological, academic and religious information about each member and determining the type of work he could do."

US intelligence officials have long tracked Shehata, and worried about his role in plotting international terrorist attacks.

In his book, At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explains that US intelligence learned Shehata was in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad in 2002. This was prior to his relocation to Iran.

There was "credible information" that Shehata "was willing to strike US, Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future," Tenet writes. Shehata was also "linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs."

Years later, US intelligence was still on Shehata's trail. A classified intelligence file written in 2008 that was leaked to The Washington Post described Shehata as an "experienced operational planner" who is "respected among al Qaeda rank and file."

Zawahiri eulogizes al Qaeda's slain Syrian representative

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 13:52

The video accompanying Zawahiri's message shows a clip of Abu Khalid al Suri walking alongside Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri at the Al Farouq camp in Afghanistan in 2000.

Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, has released an audio message eulogizing Abu Khalid al Suri, who served as Zawahiri's representative in Syria until he was killed by a suicide bomber on Feb. 23. Al Suri was also a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, a powerful militant organization that helps lead the Islamic Front, which is a coalition of several rebel groups.

Al Qaeda has released a video accompanying Zawahiri's verbal message. The video contains images of other al Qaeda actors, but Zawahiri himself is not shown. Zawahiri's message and the accompanying video were translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) is not mentioned in the production, the video and Zawahiri's message are clearly aimed at the group, which was disowned by al Qaeda's general command in early February.

Top jihadists have accused ISIS of killing al Suri, and the group remains the most likely culprit in the slaying.

The video opens with a clip of Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who served as al Qaeda's general manager before he was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011. Rahman discusses the sanctity of Muslim blood and the importance of avoiding Muslim casualties while waging jihad.

Rahman's message, recorded long before ISIS became a player in the Syrian war, reflects al Qaeda's sensitivity to the criticisms the group has faced within the Islamic world. Al Qaeda has killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims in its campaign of terror. Here, however, Rahman's words are intended as a rebuke of ISIS.

The video then cuts to footage of Abu Khalid al Suri walking alongside Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri at the Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan in 2000. Al Qaeda's propagandists zoom in on footage of al Suri at the camp.

A longtime al Qaeda operative

Zawahiri says he knew Abu Khalid al Suri "from the days of the jihad against the Russians" and he knew al Suri "until his capture in Pakistan" approximately a decade ago. Abu Khalid al Suri "was a colleague of the professor of the mujahideen, Sheikh Abu Musab al Suri, may Allah release him very soon, Allah willing."

Abu Musab al Suri is a major jihadist ideologue whose teachings continue to influence al Qaeda's thinking. The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, openly follows Abu Musab al Suri's teachings. There are conflicting reports concerning his status in Syria, with some accounts saying he has been freed from Assad's prisons.

However, Zawahiri's message is the third instance in which senior al Qaeda leaders have used the phrase "may Allah release him" in reference to Abu Musab al Suri. This is a strong indication that he remains imprisoned.

Zawahiri re-established contact with Abu Khalid al Suri after the Syrian revolution. Zawahiri says the "last message" he received from Abu Khalid al Suri, prior to his capture in Pakistan, "was nearly ten years ago ... stating that he supported a speech I gave, where I said that victory is but the patience of an hour." After al Suri was captured "[c]ommunication was cut off between us, until the outbreak of the blessed Syrian revolution."

According to Zawahiri, Allah then "facilitated the communication between us after Allah relieved him and spared him from being captured by" Assad's forces. "He was to me and my brothers such a great advisor," Zawahiri says.

Abu Khalid warned Zawahiri that he sees in Syria "the seeds of sedition, which he experienced in Peshawar" -- a reference to jihadist infighting in the past, which al Qaeda ties to ISIS' actions in the present. Indeed, al Suri was a strong critic of ISIS and did not hide his rejection of the group's practices.

"This sedition that Abu Khalid saw and was warning about, Allah willed that it make him a martyr," Zawahiri says.

Without naming ISIS, Zawahiri calls on Muslims to reject any group that behaves like the former al Qaeda affiliate. "Every Muslim and mujahid must disavow all those who refuse arbitration" by an "independent" sharia court, Zawahiri says. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have repeatedly called on ISIS to submit itself to arbitration in a common sharia court, but ISIS has refused to abide.

"Every Muslim and mujahid must not be involved in the blood of the mujahideen," Zawahiri says, according to SITE's translation. "And for this, he must refuse to blow up their headquarters or kill their sheikhs." In addition, "[a]ll Muslims must not help whoever blows up the headquarters of the mujahideen and sends to them car bombs and human bombs, and stop supporting them in any form."

This is precisely how al Suri was killed.

Jihadist infighting in Syria reminiscent of the past

Zawahiri says that the infighting inside Syria reminds him of Algeria in the 1990s. Veteran jihadists within the Armed Islamic Group (commonly known by its French acronym, GIA) turned on one another and also indiscriminately slaughtered Muslims. Zawahiri says the GIA's infighting led first to the "spiritual death of that group, followed by [its] physical death."

In an effort to rectify the GIA's excess, in the late 1990s al Qaeda helped form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known as the GSPC) as an offshoot of the GIA. The GSPC then evolved into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a branch of al Qaeda. Zawahiri personally oversaw AQIM's official merger with al Qaeda in 2006.

Zawahiri references a meeting he had years ago in Peshawar with Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, an influential jihadist ideologue now imprisoned in Jordan who has issued criticisms of ISIS' actions from his prison cell. According to the story, which the al Qaeda emir calls "funny yet sad," Zawahiri said that some had labeled him a disbeliever because he refused to "brand the Afghan mujahideen as disbelievers." To this Maqdisi allegedly replied, "You do not know that they [this same group] branded me a disbeliever because I did not brand you a disbeliever."

ISIS today labels everyone who does not agree with the group a disbeliever, including Abu Khalid al Suri.

Former Guantanamo detainee killed while leading jihadist group in Syria

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 01:24

Ibrahim Bin Shakaran, a Moroccan who spent more than three years at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility before being released to Moroccan custody, has been killed while leading a jihadist group that fights Syrian government forces.

Bin Shakaran, who is also known as Abu Ahmad al Maghribi, Abu Ahmad al Muhajir, and Brahim Benchekroune, was "martyred, Insha'Allah, in battles for Hilltop # 45 in Latakia," according to Kavkaz Center, a propaganda arm of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate.

Bin Shakaran led a jihadist group known as Sham al Islam, which is based in Latakia and is comprised primarily of fighters from Morocco, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Bin Shakaran created the group "not only to recruit fighters for the Syria war, but also to establish a jihadist organization within Morocco itself."

Sham al Islam has been fighting alongside the al Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, as well as Ahrar al Sham and the Army of the Emigrants and Supporters in an ongoing offensive in the coastal province of Latakia.

Sham al Islam was one of several rebel groups that fought in another offensive in Latakia in August 2013 in which major human rights abuses were committed. While Human Rights Watch noted that Sham al Islam was present during the offensive, it could not confirm if the group was involved in the atrocities committed. The group's allies, the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, Ahrar al Sham, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (or Army of Emigrants and Helpers), and Suquor al Izz, were directly implicated. [See Report highlights al Qaeda affiliates' role in Syrian atrocities, from LWJ.]

Bin Shakaran is the second former Guantanamo Bay detainee from Morocco reported to have been killed in Syria while waging jihad for Sham al Islam. The other ex-Guantanamo detainee, who was known as Mohammed al 'Alami, was killed last year.

A December 2003 leaked threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) identified Bin Shakaran as a "high-ranking member" of the theological commission of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization. According to the assessment, he traveled to Afghanistan in November 2000, "attended basic and advanced training at the Al Farouq training camp," a known al Qaeda facility, "from January to May 2001," and then "rotated to the front lines near Kabul" in October 2001 after the US invaded Afghanistan.

Bin Shakaran fled Afghanistan as US forces pressed al Qaeda. He passed through the Afghan province of Logar, then to Pakistan's Waziristan tribal area, then to Bannu, and after that to Lahore with "two Pakistanis, three Arabs and a Turkmenistani."

The 2003 JTF-GTMO threat assessment recommended that Bin Shakaran remain in custody as he "poses a high risk as he is likely to pose a threat against the US, its interests, or her allies."

Despite the assessment, the US transferred Bin Shakaran to Moroccan custody in July 2004, and he was released shortly afterward by Moroccan authorities.

Bin Shakaran immediately returned to the fight. The Defense Department reported in 2008 that Bin Shakaran and another freed Guantanamo detainee known as Mohammed Bin Ahmad Mizouz were involved "in a terrorist network recruiting Moroccans to fight for Abu Musab al Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq." Zarqawi's group was responsible for killing and wounding thousands of US soldiers in Iraq.

"Recruits were to receive weapons and explosives training in Algeria from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has since become al Qaeda in the Lands of the Maghreb [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], before going to fight in Iraq or returning to Morocco as sleeper cells," the Defense Department noted.

Moroccan security forces arrested Bin Shakaran, Mizouz, and other members of the cell. Both men were convicted in 2007 for their roles in the terror recruitment cell; Bin Shakaran received a 10-year sentence and Mizouz only two years.

Bin Shakaran served only six years of his 10-year prison sentence. Shortly after being freed from a Moroccan prison, he was killed while waging jihad alongside al Qaeda and its allies in Syria.

Terrorism in the Caucasus and the threat to the US homeland

Thu, 04/03/2014 - 15:38

Salahuddin al Shishani (left), a Chechen commander who leads the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Abdul Karim al Ukrani (center), a Ukrainian, sitting behind an Imarat Kavkaz flag while in Syria.

Editor's note: Below is Bill Roggio's testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on the threat posed by the Islamic Caucasus Emirate and the implications for US homeland security. If you wish to view the testimony with footnotes included, download the PDF by clicking here.

Chairman King, Ranking Member Higgins, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here to discuss the terrorist threat emanating from the Caucasus. Unfortunately, as we saw nearly one year ago today at the Boston Marathon, the jihad in the Caucasus has already impacted lives here in the US.

There is still much we do not know for certain about Tamerlan Tsarnaev's travels in Dagestan and Chechnya, but we do know that, at a minimum, he was sympathetic to the jihadists operating there. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother were, of course, responsible for the attacks on the Boston Marathon. As a report by the House Homeland Security Committee noted just last month, it "is reasonable to assume that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was at least inspired by" the "activity and ideology" of jihadists fighting in the Caucasus and he was "driven to take part in the vision of global jihad which they share with al Qaeda." Indeed, the Imarat Kavkaz or "IK" (otherwise known as the Islamic Caucasus Emirate) does have links to al Qaeda. And Tsarnaev is known to have sympathized with the IK and its fighters.

The IK has openly proclaimed itself a threat to the US and the West, and we should take these threats seriously. The US State Department certainly does. In May 2011, the State Department officially designated the IK as a terrorist organization. "The designation of Caucasus Emirate is in response to the threats posed to the United States and Russia," Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's Coordinator for Counterterrorism, said at the time. "The attacks perpetrated by Caucasus Emirate illustrate the global nature of the terrorist problem we face today," Benjamin added. In June 2010, the State Department added Doku Umarov, who was then the emir of the IK, to the US government's list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. And in May 2011, Foggy Bottom offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to Umarov's location. In both its June 2010 and May 2011 announcements, the State Department noted that Umarov and the IK pose a threat to the US and other countries. Indeed, Umarov described the IK as "a part of the global Jihad" in a July 2013 statement in which he called for further attacks aimed at disrupting Russia's plans for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Despite the fact that Umarov was recently killed, there are good reasons to suspect that the IK will continue to pose a threat to American and Western interests both in and outside of Russia. As with other al Qaeda-affiliated groups, the IK will continue to spend most of its resources waging insurgencies, both inside Russia and elsewhere. Still, in my testimony today, I will highlight several key reasons why the IK poses a terrorist threat to the West. Those reasons are:

Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda helped transform the insurgency in Chechnya from a nationalist one into part of the global jihad. Al Qaeda's senior leadership established its influence within the Caucasus long ago. While al Qaeda was headquartered in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, Osama bin Laden maintained a network of training camps and other facilities that shuttled fighters to several jihadist fronts, including Chechnya. During the 1990s al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) funneled cash and other support to Muslim rebels in Chechnya through a charity in Baku, Azerbaijan. Ayman al Zawahiri himself, then the head of the EIJ, as well as second in command of al Qaeda, set out for Chechnya in late 1996. He was accompanied by other dual-hatted al Qaeda-EIJ operatives. Zawahiri was arrested in Dagestan before he reached Chechnya and spent several months in prison. Zawahiri's trip to the region underscores, from al Qaeda's perspective, the importance of supporting the jihad in Chechnya.

Al Qaeda's efforts in Chechnya have clearly borne fruit. Two highly influential jihadists in Chechnya became closely allied with al Qaeda's senior leaders. Shamil Salmanovich Basayev (a Chechen) and Ibn al Khattab (a Saudi) established the Islamic International Brigade (IIB). "In October 1999," according to the United Nations Security Council committee responsible for sanctioning al Qaeda and Taliban affiliated groups, "emissaries of Basayev and al Khattab traveled to Osama bin Laden's home base in the Afghan province of Kandahar, where Bin Laden agreed to provide substantial military assistance and financial aid, including by making arrangements to send to Chechnya several hundred fighters to fight against Russian troops and perpetrate acts of terrorism." Also in 1999, bin Laden "sent substantial amounts of money to" Basayev, al Khattab and other jihadists in Chechnya. The money "was to be used exclusively for training gunmen, recruiting mercenaries and buying ammunition." By the end of 2002, IIB leaders "had received several million dollars from international terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda." Al Qaeda continued to raise funds for the IIB after the 9/11 attacks.

By 1995, the UN notes, "Arab Afghans" - that is, men from throughout the Arab world who traveled to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s - accounted for a "substantial" number "of those fighting against Russian troops." Al Qaeda not only supported the jihad inside Chechnya, but also made sure to integrate Chechens into its operations in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's elite "055 Brigade," which fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, "included a number of Chechens, many of whom were believed to be followers of" IIB leaders. In October 2001, al Khattab supported al Qaeda's fight against coalition forces by sending "additional fighters to Afghanistan" and promising "to pay the volunteers' families a substantial monthly stipend or a large lump-sum payment in the event of their death."

Fighters from the Caucasus are present in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to this day. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has identified "Chechen" fighters in Afghanistan as recently as May 2011, when it noted that a foreign fighter network in Kunduz "facilitates foreign suicide bombers including Chechens and Pakistanis throughout the province." A group calling itself the Caucasus Mujahideen in Khorasan announced its presence in October 2011, saying it was in direct contact with its "brothers" in Russia. The UN has noted that Umarov, the deceased head of the IK, supported both the Islamic Jihad Group and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Both groups are based in South Asia and closely allied with al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda has repeatedly highlighted the fighting in Chechnya in its propaganda videos. After the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, Osama bin Laden ordered his media committee to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the Cole bombing, as well as footage from Chechnya and other jihadist hotspots. The plight of Muslims in Chechnya remained a theme in al Qaeda's messaging in the years that followed. And al Qaeda continues to present the fighting in Chechnya as part of its global jihad. In January of this year, Ayman al Zawahiri praised Chechen fighters, saying that the "fighting for Chechnya is another page of the pages of eternal jihad to as to achieve true justice in the name of Allah." Zawahiri asked if other jihadists would be willing to follow the Chechens' example: "Are we, as Muslims, ready to take the path of the Chechens, and enroll in the ranks of the fight in the name of Allah?" Zawahiri called on Muslims in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to follow the Chechens' lead in rejecting democracy and waging jihad.

The jihad in Chechnya has been used to recruit terrorists - including a number of the 9/11 hijackers - who were repurposed for attacks against American interests. As the 9/11 Commission reported, al Qaeda's Hamburg cell traveled "to Afghanistan aspiring to wage jihad in Chechnya," but al Qaeda "quickly recognized their potential and enlisted them in its anti-U.S. jihad." The Hamburg cell included the terrorists who flew the hijacked planes on 9/11. Some of the muscle hijackers from Saudi Arabia initially wanted to fight in Chechnya. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of 9/11, also attempted to join the ranks of the main jihadist leader in Chechnya, Ibn al Khattab. And in August 2001, French authorities provided evidence to the US government that Zacarias Moussaoui, who was slated to take part in a follow-on attack after 9/11, had his own ties to Khattab.

The IK has adopted al Qaeda's tactics, including the use of suicide bombers in attacks against civilians. The organization has developed expertise in committing mass casualty terrorist attacks. Since the formation of the IK in 2007, the group has executed multiple suicide attacks against security forces, government officials, and civilians. The attacks have not been confined to the Caucasus region of Russia; IK has struck in the heart of Moscow several times. Two of the most deadly IK attacks in Moscow over the past several years are the January 24, 2011 suicide attack at the Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow that killed 35 people and wounded scores more and the March 29, 2010 suicide attack by two female bombers, or Black Widows, who killed 39 people in the Moscow metro.

Other major suicide bombings include the June 22, 2009 attack that wounded Yunus Bek Yevkurov, the President of the Republic of Ingushetia and suicide attacks on Oct. 21, 2013, Dec. 29, 2013, and Dec. 30, 2013 that targeted transportation nodes (a bus, a train station, and a trolley respectively) in the city of Volgograd. All of these attacks were executed by the suicide teams of the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs (RSRSBCM), a unit that predates the IK and was responsible for attacks such at the school siege in Beslan, the destruction of commercial airlines, and the theater siege in Moscow. The IK is closely linked to the RSRSBCM.

The IK's threat against the 2014 Olympics in Sochi was real, despite the fact that no terrorist attack materialized. In June 2013, Doku Umarov called on his supporters to use "maximum force" to stop the 2014 Olympic Games. "Today we must show those who live in the Kremlin ... that our kindness is not weakness," Umarov said. "They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahideen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us."

The Russian government erected substantial security barriers in order stop terrorists from striking the Olympic festivities. It is likely that these measures either stopped an attack from occurring, or dissuaded the IK from attempting one. If the opportunity for an attack had presented itself, there is little doubt that the IK would have taken it. And the IK would not have discriminated between Russian government officials/civilians and others who were visiting the games from abroad. That is, the IK's threat against the Olympic Games was not just a threat against Russia, but was in fact a threat against the international community.

The IK operates as part of al Qaeda's global network. As we've learned over the past several years, the terrorist threat against the US can come from any part of al Qaeda's international network. The IK is integrated with this network. Today, this can best be seen in Syria, where multiple IK commanders and other affiliated fighters have joined the insurgency against Bashar al Assad's regime.

Jihadists from the IK play a pivotal role in the fighting in Syria, and leaders from the Caucasus command large numbers of Syrian and foreign fighters in several jihadist groups operating in the country. Those groups include the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria; the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or ISIS, an al Qaeda splinter group; and the Islamic Front, an Islamist alliance that is allied with the Al Nusrah Front. Both the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS are on the US government's list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities.

Fighters from IK originally fought in the Kateeb al Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Brigade of the Emigrants and Helpers. This group was formed in February 2013 and was led by Omar al Shishani (a Chechen). Kavkaz Center noted that the group "includes volunteers from the Caucasus Emirate." In March 2013, the group expanded and rebranded itself the Jaish al Muhajireen wa Ansar, or Army of the Emigrants and Helpers. Syrian jihadist groups merged with Abu Omar's forces at this time.

The Army of the Emigrants and Helpers served as the vanguard for jihadist forces in Syria. It was spotted at the tip of the spear during the fighting at nearly every crucial battle in 2013. The group launched joint assaults with the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS to overrun Syrian military bases. The Army of the Emigrants and Helpers has shot down a Syrian helicopter with a surface to air missile and used a captured BMP armored fighting vehicle as a suicide car bomb in order to penetrate the perimeter at a Syrian military base.

The Army of the Emigrants and Helpers splintered in the fall of 2013 as ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front clashed over a leadership dispute and the former's unwillingness to submit to sharia courts. Abu Omar al Shishani took a faction of fighters and joined the ISIS. Three commanders, known as Saifullah al Shishani, Muslim al Shishani, and Abu Musa al Shishani, joined the Al Nusrah Front. Salahuddin has even been photographed in Syria sitting in front of an IK flag. And another commander, known as Salahuddin Shishani al Shishani, reformed the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers and remained independent from, but allied with, the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS.

The prevalence of IK fighters and leaders on the Syrian battlefield has serious, long-term ramifications for the global jihad. IK members are interacting with and sharing their tactical skills with Westerners and others. For instance, a jihadist who identifies himself as an American and is known as Abu Muhammad al Amriki has been seen in photographs with Omar al Shishani. He is also seen fighting alongside IK fighters and even speaks in Russian.

Thank you again for inviting me to testify today, and I look forward to answering your questions.

Ajnad Misr claims Cairo University bombings and 3 other attacks

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 16:00

In a statement released to its Facebook and Twitter accounts, a jihadist group known as Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) claimed responsibility for today's bombings near Cairo University. The attacks, which killed at least one police officer, wounded about half a dozen people.

Ajnad Misr said the bombs targeted "criminals that were known to have committed massacres," according to a translation by Oren Adaki of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In its statement, Ajnad Misr said that slain Brigadier General Tarek al Mergawi was targeted for his involvement in the "killing of innocents, trespassing of honors, and participation in the Nahda massacre."

The group noted that today's bombings follow an increase in arrests of women. "If only the soldiers of tyranny knew that behind these women are men that will seek retribution, and that they have heroes that will seek revenge for what they dared to do to our women and for their trampling on our honor and for the prisons overflowing with our girls," the communique warned.

According to press reports, the first two bombs detonated almost simultaneously, and the third went off nearly two hours later. In its statement, Ajnad Misr said its fighters delayed the detonation of the third bomb due to the crowd of civilians in the area. The group further stated that it has canceled operations in the past that it believed would have harmed civilians.

In addition, Ajnad Misr claimed that it has previously carried out attacks in which the amount of explosives used was reduced to prevent harm to civilians. According to the group, this occurred on March 4, March 11, and March 29.

Ajnad Misr, which formally announced itself on Jan. 23, has said it is engaged in a campaign to target "criminal" elements of Egypt's current regime. Prior to today's statement, the group had claimed responsibility for seven attacks, all of which took place in the Cairo area.

The group, which was described by the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) as "our brothers," last claimed an attack on Feb. 7, 2014.

Muhajireen Army releases video of Syrian training camp

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 11:52

A screen shot from a video of a Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar training camp in Aleppo, Syria. A jihadist wires a circuit board for a homemade bomb.

Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters, or Muhajireen Army), a group of foreign fighters led by commanders from the Caucasus, has released video of a training camp in Syria. The video includes footage of a bomb-making class.

Russian text at the beginning of the video states that the camp is located in the "Provence of Aleppo" and the video was recorded in "March 2014."

The video, which was published on YouTube on March 31 by Akhbar Sham, a Russian-language website that promotes the Muhajireen Army, shows the group's fighters training for various attacks against the Syrian military. The video was also promoted by Kavkaz Center, a propaganda arm of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Caucasus Emirate.

Shortly after the video was published, YouTube removed it for "a violation of YouTube's policy on depiction of harmful activities."

In the video, fighters, who are dressed in camouflage uniforms and have their faces covered, are seen shooting automatic assault rifles and machine guns at a range as an instructor issues orders in Russian. The instructor appears to be teaching the fighters to fire as a team, having some of the team members shoot while the others reload in order to have a continuous volume of fire on the target. In another scene, a fighter is given instruction on firing a sniper rifle.

Afterwards, an instructor fires live ammunition as a fighter low-crawls through an obstacle course. Another fighter is seen jumping over a wall.

And finally, the video shows fighters in what appears to be a bomb-making facility. Bomb-making supplies and tools, including solderers, circuit boards, electronic components, and what appears to be explosive materials, are seen as the camera pans across the room. The fighters are shown wiring a circuit board.

Explosive powder is placed into a small tin can, and then the fighters take small bomb out into a field, set the fuse, bury the bomb, and detonate it.

The video of the Muhajireen Army training camp was released just two weeks after the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, announced that it is running two training camps in Syria. The Ayman al Zawahiri Camp is located in the city of Deir al Zour and is named after al Qaeda's current emir. The other camp, whose location was not disclosed, is called the Abu Ghadiya Camp and is named after the leader of the al Qaeda in Iraq facilitation network that was based in eastern Syria.

Historically, al Qaeda has used such camps to train fighters to wage local insurgency, selecting some recruits at the camps to conduct attacks in the West.

The Muhajireen Army is led by Salahuddin al Shishani, a Chechen. The group is closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front; Ahrar al Sham, another al Qaeda-linked group that is part of the Islamic Front; and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.

A screen shot from a video of a Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar training camp in Aleppo, Syria. Jihadists practice firing as a team .

US drone strike hits AQAP training camp in southern Yemen

Tue, 04/01/2014 - 20:20

The US killed three suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in the first drone strike in Yemen in nearly three weeks.

Today's strike targeted an AQAP training center in the Al Mahfad area of Abyan province, Xinhua reported. The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired three missiles at "two huts and a site used as a training center," killing three fighters and wounding four more, some seriously.

AQAP fighters collected the wounded and drove them to Azzan in Shabwa province, according to Barakish. The site that was targeted was recently featured in an AQAP propaganda video.

The Al Mahfad area is a known stronghold for AQAP. In the spring of 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters and leaders regrouped in the Al Mahfad area after being driven from cities such as Zinjibar, Jaar, Lawdar, and Shaqra during a Yemeni military offensive that began in the spring of 2012 [see Threat Matrix report, AQAP regroups in Abyan province]. AQAP controlled the cities in Abyan, as well as other cities and towns in neighboring Shabwa province, after launching its own offensive in 2011.

AQAP remains entrenched in the Al Mahfad area despite several Yemeni military operations that attempted to dislodge the terror group. The US launched three drone strikes in the Al Mahfad area in 2013; one in May, one in June, and one in July.

Today's strike is the first in Yemen since March 12, when US drones killed a local AQAP commander and his bodyguard in the northern province of Al Jawf.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

The US has launched eight strikes in Yemen so far this year. Four of those strikes took place in March, and three in January.

The pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013 versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The plot led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The plot involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda's general manager.

Between July 27, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt the plot and take out AQAP's top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP's emir for Al Baydah province, during that time period.

For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 - 2014.

ISIS parades on outskirts of Baghdad

Tue, 04/01/2014 - 01:50

Video of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham's military parade in Abu Ghraib on March 20.

Less than two weeks ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or ISIS, held a military parade in Fallujah and another parade in Abu Ghraib, a city in Anbar province that is just two miles from the capital of Baghdad.

Video of the two ISIS parades, which are thought to have taken place on March 20, was published on YouTube today. In the video of the Abu Ghraib parade [above], scores of assorted vehicles filled with ISIS fighters, waving al Qaeda's black banner and brandishing assault rifles, pass by a man as he records the event. No Iraqi Army or police presence is seen during the eight-minute video.

The vehicles parading down the busy street in Abu Ghraib include several up-armored HMMWVs, which were issued by the US to Iraqi security forces, as well as what appear to be double-cab pickup trucks issued to Iraqi security forces. Several pickup trucks are mounted with heavy machine and antiaircraft guns. And one large truck with what appears to be an artillery piece mounted on the back also passes the camera (beginning at 5:56 into the video).

The video of the ISIS march in the city of Fallujah [below] is nearly identical to that of the video taken in Abu Ghraib. Much of the same military hardware paraded in Fallujah on March 20 appears in the Abu Ghraib parade. The ISIS is thought to have driven the vehicles first in Fallujah, then traveled down the highway to Abu Ghraib.

The city of Abu Ghraib serves as the western gateway to Baghdad and is abutted by Baghdad International Airport. The prison at Abu Ghraib holds hundreds of jihadists who are loyal to the ISIS. Just 10 miles west of Abu Ghraib lies Karmah, which remains under ISIS control after falling to the terror group in early January.

The ISIS has retained control of the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, after storming both cities at the beginning of January. Several other cities and towns in Anbar, including Saqlawiyah, and Khaladiyah are also controlled by the ISIS.

The ISIS moved to take over large swaths of Anbar in early January after executing a complex suicide operation that decapitated the leadership of the 7th Iraqi Army Division in the town of Rutbah in December 2013. The 7th Iraqi Army Division is primarily responsible for security in Anbar. In the Rutbah attack, the ISIS laid a trap that killed the commanding general and 17 members of his staff and security detail.

After the attack, the ISIS took advantage of the political dispute between Sunnis and the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. As soon as Maliki ordered the Army to withdraw from the population centers in Anbar, the ISIS moved forces into Fallujah, Ramadi, and other cities and towns. The Iraqi government has been hesitant to launch a military operation against the ISIS in Anbar since its takeover of most of the province, and is instead encouraging the Sunni tribes to battle the al Qaeda group.

Across the border, in Syria, the ISIS controls territory along the Euphrates River Valley all the way to the provincial capital of Raqqah. Despite an ongoing dispute that has often broken out into open warfare with the Al Nusrah Front and allied Islamist groups such as the Islamic Front, the ISIS remains a formidable forces on both sides of the border.

Video of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham's military parade in Fallujah on March 20.

AQAP welcomes Sana'a prison fugitives

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 11:50

Al Malahim, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's media wing, released a new video over the weekend titled "The First Rain," which documents the welcomed return of operatives freed during the terrorist organization's attack on the central prison in Sana'a in February. The video includes statements from several of the escaped prisoners as well as from senior AQAP members such as al Qaeda's general manager, Nasir al Wuhayshi, and Ibrahim al Rubaish, a leading AQAP ideologue and theologian.

In the video, the welcoming party, held in an undisclosed location in Yemen, is shown with a large crowd of al Qaeda militants and supporters numbering at least 100 in attendance. Masked armed fighters flank the reception holding al Qaeda's black flags and singing songs in honor of the returning AQAP members.

The video begins with the testimony of AQAP member Munir al Boni, one of the February fugitives, who says that as soon as he was transferred into the central prison in Sana'a he began planning an escape with the other imprisoned militants, especially Saleh al Shawish, Mansour al Dalil, and Mobarak al Shabwani. The fighters decided on the weapons that would be needed for the attack from inside the prison, which included 10 hand grenades.

Next, Saleh al Shawish, an admitted al Qaeda bomb maker, describes the assault on the prison and says that the major explosion occurred precisely at the gate leading to their cells, facilitating their escape. He emphasizes the ease of the operation, saying, "The way out was simple, as soon as we left, we turned right and the guys were waiting for us at the end of the street."

Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of AQAP who was appointed al Qaeda's general manager in August 2013, gives an impassioned speech to the crowd of al Qaeda members and escapees.

"The journey of jihad continues and the trials on this path are always present," he says. Then he refocuses the attention of the crowd beyond the closer and lesser enemy, the Yemeni authorities, to the more important enemy beyond.

"We must remember, oh brothers, that we are fighting the greater enemy - the leaders of disbelief. We must bring down their leaders. We must eliminate the cross ... the bearer of the cross is America!", he states.

In a poetic speech after Wuhayshi's, AQAP's spiritual leader, Ibrahim al Rubaish, also reminds the crowd of the unfinished jihad despite the joy of recent successes. "On this day, happiness is mixed with sadness," he says, "we are happy for our brothers and we are sad for the rest of our brothers." He cites the imprisonment of al Qaeda "brothers" in Guantanamo, and in the Saudi prisons of Ha'ir and Dahaban, as well as in Palestine.

Mohammad al Sa'adi, another of the February fugitives, thanks Allah for his release and rejoices over his "complete freedom." In the same breath, he asks that Allah allow them to "slaughter the tyrants." Al Sa'adi also sends a message to "the brothers in the land of the two holy mosques," in reference to al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia: "Be patient, we will not forget you." Another freed AQAP member, Omar al Marwani, pledges that the group will not forget those members still remaining in Yemeni prisons.

The 15-minute video includes a famous jihadi song playing in the background throughout, titled "As long as the prisons endure." The lyrics to this song assert that "[a]s long as the prisons endure, as long as they plot against us, we have made a promise, we will annihilate all the strongholds." The song continues, "We swear, oh Jerusalem we will not kneel nor be humiliated, we proceed in our jihad and we will be firm in our promise! Know, oh Jews, that we are the lions of demise, the love of jihad runs in our soul and in our eyes."

Some of the AQAP members at the welcoming party who escaped the central prison in Sana'a.

Turkey's ISIS problem

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 02:06

On March 27 an audio tape recording of high-level Turkish officials discussing Turkey's Syria strategy was leaked on YouTube. The meeting was held between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Yasar Guler, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT).

The leak went viral on social media due to Fidan's alleged proposal to stage an attack to justify future Turkish military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Syria. President Abdullah Gul condemned the leak over national security concerns, and YouTube was banned in Turkey after the leak.

Tensions between Turkish security forces and ISIS have been on the rise, particularly in the past couple of weeks. In mid-March, the Turkish press reported that ISIS fighters had surrounded the Suleyman Shah tomb, which is located in northern Syria, 15 miles outside of Turkey's border, but is officially considered Turkish territory under the 1921 agreement with France. ISIS had taken control of the town of Jarablus near the tomb in January. Foreign Minister Davutoglu had responded to the reports with vows that Turkey would retaliate should there be an attack on the tomb, no matter which group the attacks came from.

Davutoglu's statement was followed by two key events. The first was an attack on March 20 by three militants against Turkish security forces manning a checkpoint in Turkey's Nigde province. Two security force members and police officer were killed, and the suspects were arrested. Prime Minister Erdogan and Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay immediately attributed the attack to groups operating in Syria.

According to Interior Minister Efkan Ala's statement, the three attackers carried ammunition and hand grenades, spoke Arabic, and are of Albanian and Kosovar origin. It was determined that the attackers were ISIS fighters from the ISIS-controlled Atmeh region in Syria and belonged to the Interpol's 1470-person al Qaeda list. Reportedly they had entered Turkey illegally from Hatay, a Turkish province on the Syrian border that has been increasingly exposed to the extremist actors in the Syrian opposition such as the Al Nusrah Front and Ansar al Sham.

The second event occurred the following day. In a video message published on YouTube on March 21, ISIS allegedly threatened to attack the Suleyman Shah tomb, giving Turkey three days to withdraw from the territory and bring down the Turkish flag. The tomb sits on approximately 2.5 acres and is symbolically protected by 15 Turkish soldiers. The video was later removed from YouTube and its authenticity was never verified. Although the deadline has passed, there have been no attacks on the tomb.

As tensions escalate along Turkey's border with Syria and the composition of extremists within the opposition diversifies, Turkish leaders are becoming uncomfortable. The 15-minute discussion on the leaked March 27 recording revolves mainly around ISIS and the tomb of Suleyman Shah. Throughout the meeting, all four officials repeatedly voice their concerns over the growing national security threat.

Although the whistleblowers who leaked the audio recording have emphasized that the plan proposed by Fidan involved staging purported ISIS attacks on Suleyman Shah, the recording may also be interpreted such that the plan was mentioned to illustrate the scope of the already existing ISIS threat. Fidan repeatedly raises the point that such a plan to defend the tiny Turkish territory from an alleged ISIS attack would be unnecessary and that the threat of extremism to Turkey reaches well beyond the Suleyman Shah issue.

Under the latter interpretation, the facts that there are ISIS fighters so close to Turkey's border, and that there have been ISIS attacks inside Turkey already, are sufficient justification for Turkey to conduct operations against ISIS inside Syria. The other people in the room also appear to agree with Fidan on this; they are simply saying that Turkey should seize the opportunity (the threat against the tomb) to act now if it is ever going to act against ISIS. When the foreign minister warns them about international law, Sinirlioglu says that in terms of international law, Turkey would be fine, because no one is going to condemn Turkey for wanting to protect itself against an al Qaeda-linked group.

As the conflict in Syria grinds on, Turkey's bordering towns are increasingly becoming hubs for Syrian extremists and militants. Turkey is being used as a transit country for international jihadists going to Syria, including those coming from Europe. Turkey has sent back 815 Europeans who have tried to cross from Turkey into Syria to join radical groups to their respective European countries, and 655 people were put on a search list.

Although Turkey has been a staunch supporter of the opposition since the beginning of the crisis, as the nature of the war in Syria changes, Turkey's national security is falling under the threat of radical groups. Turkish military and police have reportedly stepped up their border control efforts and particularly intensified checks in Gaziantep, the Turkish province across from the ISIS-controlled Jarablus.

Mervé Tahiroglu is a Research Associate and Turkey Specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Egypt announces arrest of Ansar al Sharia members linked to shooting attacks

Sun, 03/30/2014 - 19:00

Egypt's Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim today announced the arrest of members of Kataeb Ansar al Sharia fi Ard al Kinanah (Brigades of Ansar al Sharia in the Land of Egypt). The jihadist group, which first announced itself in early March, had taken credit for more than a dozen separate shooting attacks in the governorates of Sharkiya, Beni Suef, and Giza in a statement released on March 17.

During the press conference, Ibrahim said that the group "included military cadres," Aswat Masriya reported.

Ibrahim also noted that Ahmed Abdul Rahman Abdu Hassan, also known as Abu Basir, was a member of the group. According to press reports, the jihadist was killed during clashes with Egyptian security forces on March 9. In its March 17 communique, Ansar al Sharia identified him as one of its commanders and asked that "Allah accept him."

A video confession aired during today's press conference had one of the Ansar al Sharia members saying he had been tasked by Abu Abdullah of Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) to form the new group. The only known Ansar Jerusalem member with the name Abu Abdullah is Tawfiq Mohammed Freij, who died on March 11.

Prior to his death, Freij oversaw a number of Ansar Jerusalem's attacks in the Egyptian mainland, including the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim on Sept. 5, 2013.

It is still unclear whether this new Ansar al Sharia has any connections, aside from its similar name, to the Ansar al Sharia that threatened attacks in early July or the Ansar al Sharia that was founded by Ahmed Ashush.

Meanwhile, one soldier was killed and three policemen were wounded when their bus traveling in North Sinai was attacked by gunmen earlier today. Separately, Egyptian media reports said that Ansar Jerusalem fighters had started to target people suspected of being associated with the planned construction of a wall in the el Arish area of North Sinai.

On March 27, the Sinai-based jihadist group warned those who may help with the construction of the wall around el Arish that its fighters "will not relent in targeting you" and "will spare no effort in deterring and preventing you." Egyptian security officials have told AFP that reports of a full wall being built around el Arish are misleading as authorities are only planning "to build a wall south of the town to secure the airport and nearby agricultural fields used by militants as hideouts."