Credible reports over the last few days indicate that Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead, and there are even clearer reports that two of his most senior deputies have been killed. The terrorist network itself, however, will survive. Al-Qaeda has, in the last ten years, survived the killing of its charismatic founder Usama bin Laden, the upheaval of the “Arab spring”, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS)—all of them greater challenges than whatever short-term turbulence might attend the succession process. Continue reading
The main issue with that Nine Lives has to overcome is the one that has attended Aimen Dean (a pseudonym) since he went public in March 2015 with an interview he gave to the BBC, claiming he had been a British spy within Al-Qaeda between 1998 and 2006. That issue is overcoming the doubts about his story. Nine Lives goes a long way to solving this by bringing in Paul Cruickshank, the editor-in-chief of CTC Sentinel, one of the premier academic resources in the terrorism field, and Tim Lister, a terrorism-focused journalist with CNN, as co-authors. As well as helping structure the book from Dean’s memories, the two co-authors note they had been able to “corroborate key details” that convinced them: “In the years immediately leading up to and following 9/11, Aimen Dean was by far the most important spy the West had inside al-Qaeda”. Continue reading
At the beginning of September, New America published a paper, based on recovered al-Qaeda documents, which concluded that there was “no evidence of cooperation” between the terrorist group and the Islamic Republic of Iran. New America’s study lauds itself for taking an approach that “avoids much of the challenge of politicization” in the discussion of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. This is, to put it mildly, questionable.
A narrative gained currency in certain parts of the foreign policy community during the days of the Iraq war, and gained traction since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, that Iran can be a partner in the region, at least against (Sunni) terrorism, since Tehran shares this goal with the West. Under President Barack Obama, this notion became policy: the US moved to bring Iran’s revolutionary government in from the cold, to integrate it into the international system. Continue reading
Muhammad Atef, best-known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, but who also went by the names Taseer Abdullah or Taysir Abdullah and Subhi Abu Sitta, was al-Qaeda’s military leader between 1996 and 2001, and one of the three people most responsible for the terrorist attack in the United States on 11 September 2001. Continue reading
The new book by the investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, charts the career of al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, up to the day he became a household name—11 September 2001—through his downfall in 2011, to the end of 2016, when al-Qaeda was more powerful than ever. It is a thoroughly absorbing account, bringing to light vast tranches of new facts, including many intricate details of how al-Qaeda operated on a human, day-to-day level, and of those states and para-states that shielded the terror network, collaborated with it, and enabled it—and still do.
The gathering of the Bin Laden network in Sudan and then in the Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan in the 1990s is a familiar story, but the splits and debates among the Arab jihadists around Bin Laden, including the opposition of significant numbers of them to the 9/11 massacre, is perhaps less well known. The authors trace out how Bin Laden manipulated his own quasi-institutions to get his way. First, Bin Laden took on the plan of a man, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), who was not even a member of al-Qaeda, and then, ahead of the crucial vote, packed the shura (consultation) council with ultra-zealous Egyptians by engineering a merger between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Continue reading
Last night it was reported that al-Qaeda’s overall deputy, Abu Khayr al-Masri, had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition in Syria with a drone strike. This was soon seemingly confirmed by pro-Qaeda channels, and Abu al-Khayr was said to have been buried this morning. Though the emphasis on targeting jihadist leaders can be overdone, the demise of Abu al-Khayr is an important development, and one with significance beyond itself.
Abu al-Khayr’s career is demonstrative of a few interesting trends within the Jihadi-Salafist movement, primary among them the willingness of the Iranian revolution to work with the Sunni jihadists, al-Qaeda very much included, when it suits its purposes, particularly in undermining Western interests. Abu al-Khayr also elucidates the changed nature of al-Qaeda, where the “centre” (AQC) could now be said to be more in Syria than the Afghanistan-Pakistan, and where al-Qaeda operates both an overt and covert presence to try to secure a durable foothold in the Levant, which might in time be a base for attacks against the West, currently suspended only for tactical reasons. Continue reading
UPDATE: It has subsequently become clear that the “Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir” who was killed in Syria on 18 November 2016 was not Muhammad al-Saghir, who is profiled below. The slain man, like al-Saghir a veteran of the war get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and an Egyptian jihadist with close links to al-Qaeda, also used the kunya “Abu Afghan al-Muhajir”.
A week ago, it became clear that the air war being waged by the U.S.-led Coalition, which primarily targets the Islamic State (IS), was going to expand its campaign against the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria. In the evening of 18 November 2016, the Coalition killed Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, whose real name is Muhammad Ibrahim al-Saghir. Al-Saghir also uses the name Abd al-Rahman al-Ali. This killing would appear to be part of the Coalition’s new effort.
Al-Saghir has a long record as an important jihadi religious ideologue, though his exact relationship with al-Qaeda’s network remains unclear. Al-Saghir’s most lasting contribution to jihadi-salafism is as a key guide to the founder of IS, Ahmad al-Khalayleh. Continue reading
Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri) was an al-Qaeda veteran, close to the organization’s leadership. The United States killed Mabruk in Syria on 3 October 2016 in a drone strike near Jisr al-Shughour in northern Syria. This is the second time in a month the U.S. has killed off a senior al-Qaeda jihadist, and sheds some light on the strength of the U.S. policy in Syria. Continue reading