Al-Qaeda’s First Military Emir

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 5 February 2018

Moments after the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya on 7 August 1998 (picture source: UPI)

Ali Amin al-Rashidi (Abu Ubayda al-Banshiri or Abu Ubayda al-Panjshiri) was the first head of al-Qaeda’s military committee until his death in an accident in 1996.

Al-Rashidi was profiled by the Counterterrorism Centre (CTC) at West Point. Born in May 1950 in Egypt, al-Rashidi was a police officer until the early 1980s when he was caught up in the crackdown that followed the murder of President Anwar al-Sadat, CTC records. In 1983, al-Rashidi married the sister of Abd al-Hamid Abd al-Salam, a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who was among the conspirators who killed al-Sadat, and shortly thereafter al-Rashidi was drawn into jihadism. CTC says that al-Rashidi moved to Saudi Arabia a few months later to work on a construction project owned by Usama Bin Ladin and soon moved on to Pakistan, where he met Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and now al-Qaeda’s leader. Subsequently introduced to Bin Ladin, al-Rashidi got involved in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Al-Rashidi “was one of the first foreign jihadists to engage in true combat with the Soviets, and one of the only to fight alongside the Afghan mujahidin as well as the foreign jihadists”, CTC report. Al-Rashidi’s belief in unity and overcoming the ethnic and ideological differences that separated much of the Afghan resistance from the Arab jihadists led him to fight alongside Ahmad Shah Masud, the “Lion of Panjshir” who was later the bête noire of al-Qaeda as the leader of the Northern Alliance. It was al-Rashidi’s combat in the Panjshir Valley that led to his best-known kunya. Al-Rashidi took part in the battle at Jaji in early 1987 against retreating Soviet troops, which gained wide coverage in the Arab world (p. 78), and Bin Ladin’s participation helped transform his image from that of a financier to warrior. The battle included a number of other key figures in the foundation of the jihadi movement, including Abdullah Azzam and Muhammad Atef (Abu Haf al-Masri).

Al-Rashidi was involved in the formation of al-Qaeda from al-Maktab al-Khadamat (The Services Bureau). In 1992, al-Rashidi moved from Pakistan to Yemen and remained there for ten months, CTC writes, before moving on to Sudan, where al-Qaeda integrated itself with the National Islamic Front (now National Congress) regime, formally led by Umar al-Bashir, with the powerful Islamist ideologue, Hassan al-Turabi, behind him.

Once in Sudan, al-Rashidi, Atef, and two related Sudanese citizens, Muhammad Sulayman al-Nalfi and Jamal al-Fadl, planned for operations in Somalia against the U.S. humanitarian mission. The U.S. indictment of Bin Ladin names eight men (pp. 16-17)—al-Rashidi, Atef, Muhammad Saladin Zaydan (Sayf al-Adel), Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri), Muhsin Matwalli Atwa (Abdurrahman al-Muhajir), Fazul Abdullah Muhammad (Fadil Harun), Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali (Shuayb, Abu Islam al-Surir), Muhammad Sadeek Odeh—who “in or about early spring 1993” began “provid[ing] military training and assistance to Somali tribes opposed to the United Nations’ intervention in Somalia”.

By the research CTC compiles, it appears al-Rashidi functioned as the executive leader of al-Qaeda’s operations in east Africa between approximately 1993 and 1996. Part of al-Rashidi’s role was as a fundraiser for al-Qaeda, CTC reports. In 1993, al-Rashidi sets up Taheer Ltd. to launder funds from the “blood diamond” trade. With Atef and Odeh, al-Rashidi established a fisheries business in 1994, according to CTC, and in the year or two after al-Rashidi worked with Wadi al-Hage, a Lebanese citizen who once served as a Bin Ladin bodyguard and was at this time working as al-Qaeda’s chief facilitator in Kenya, to set up front companies to trade in precious gems. Al-Rashidi and al-Hage also used charities like Mercy International Relief Agency and Help Africa People to bring in funds for al-Qaeda.

Al-Rashidi was deeply involved in, and a strong advocate for, the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, which had been operationally in the works since at least January 1994 (p. 68). While al-Rashidi oversaw (p. 68) the Embassies plot, “he was constantly on the move” so Bin Ladin dispatched Khalid al-Fawwaz (Abu Umar al-Sebai) to “serve as the on-site manager” in Nairobi (al-Fawwaz was replaced by al-Hage in 1997). When Bin Ladin, Sayf al-Adel, and the core of al-Qaeda relocated (chapter 12) from Sudan to the Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan on 18 May 1996, al-Rashidi remained (p. 65) “in Kenya to oversee the training and weapons shipments of the cell set up some four years earlier”. The teams for the East African Embassy attacks came together around the time (p. 69) Bin Ladin issued his 23 February 1998 fatwa in the name of the “World Islamic Front” calling for the murder of Americans and Jews all over the world, and the attacks took place on 7 August 1998, massacring more than two-hundred people.

Al-Rashidi was not alive to see the Embassy bombings take place. Al-Rashidi was aboard the MV Bukoba ferry when it sank in Lake Victoria on 21 May 1996, and was among the nearly 1,000 people who perished. Atef replaced al-Rashidi as head of the military committee.

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