The recent counterterrorism raids in Libya and Somalia highlight a fundamental flaw in the U.S. Government’s analysis of al Qaeda. A common misconception is that there is a distinct, fixed “core” of terrorist leaders in Pakistan and the al Qaeda franchises elsewhere are something entirely different in kind.
“With fragmentation, core al Qaeda will likely be of largely symbolic importance to the movement,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee last year. But “regional groups, and to a lesser extent small cells and individuals, will drive the global jihad agenda both within the United States and abroad.” The DNI made it clear that when he spoke of “core” al Qaeda, he meant “the Pakistan-based group” formerly led by Osama bin Laden.
This paradigm for understanding al Qaeda is widely accepted, yet it does not square with the evidence. The “core” of al Qaeda is not confined to South Asia. And al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) continues to “drive the global jihad agenda.”
Consider the biographies of the two accused terrorists targeted by American forces on October 5.
In Tripoli, U.S. forces seized an alleged senior al Qaeda member known as Abu Anas al-Liby, whose real name is Nazih Abdulhamad al Ruqai. According to the U.S. government, Al-Liby is as “core” as they come, having served al Qaeda’s most senior leaders since the early 1990s, when he personally performed surveillance on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Liby’s surveillance was reportedly used to execute the 1998 embassy bombings, al Qaeda’s most successful operation prior to 9/11.
In more recent years, al-Liby has apparently been pursuing the agenda AQSL set for post-Gaddafi Libya. In August 2012, the Library of Congress published a report titled “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” in conjunction with the Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO). The report’s authors identified al-Liby as the “builder of al Qaeda’s network in Libya” and noted that AQSL has “issued strategic guidance to followers in Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the Libyan rebellion.” Al-Liby is “most likely involved in al Qaeda strategic planning,” the reported continued, “and coordination between AQSL and Libyan Islamist militias who adhere to al Qaeda’s ideology.”
The Library of Congress report outlines a series of steps that al Qaeda has taken to build up its clandestine network inside Libya. And al-Liby was apparently not the only “core” al Qaeda member overseeing this effort.
The report identified another longtime alleged al Qaeda operative, Abd al-Baset Azzouz, as one of al-Liby’s key co-conspirators. Azzouz was “sent to the region…by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the report said. Azzouz, who has been close to Zawahiri since the 1980s, is “operating at least one training center.” This description of Azzouz’s role as Zawahiri’s man inside Libya is consistent with other reporting.
Meanwhile, in Somalia, U.S. Special Forces attempted to capture an accused terrorist known as “Ikrima.” His full name is Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir and he reportedly serves as the external operations chief of Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia. “External operations” include spectacular terrorist attacks that are planned outside of Shabaab’s home base.
Ikrima has not achieved the same degree of international infamy as al-Liby, but there is compelling evidence that he, too, has been doing AQSL’s bidding.
After the horrific siege of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September, a report by Kenya’s National Intelligence Service was leaked to the press. According to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the report, Ikrima “is listed as the lead planner of a plot sanctioned by al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan to carry out multiple attacks in Kenya in late 2001 and early 2012.”
One of Ikrima’s “close” associates, according to CNN, is an American known as Jehad Serwan Mostafa. The former resident of San Diego appears to be no small fish in al Qaeda’s pond. In March, the U.S. government announced a reward of $5 million for information leading to Mostafa’s capture. The FBI has described Mostafa as an emissary for Zawahiri in Somalia.
In the past, Ikrima also apparently worked closely with two other experienced terrorists who took orders from al Qaeda’s senior leadership: Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, both of whom became infamous for their roles planning large-scale attacks before they were killed. The pair took part in the 1998 Embassy Bombings, which al-Liby allegedly helped plot, as well as a string of other attacks.
The twin raids in Libya and Somalia are not the only fresh evidence of AQSL’s tentacles stretching far beyond Pakistan.
On October 7, the State Department announced that an Egyptian named Muhammad Jamal and his network had been added to the list of designated terrorists. Jamal had been imprisoned multiple times inside Egypt, but was set free after Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power, only to be jailed once again late last year.
During the 1990s, Jamal was a leader in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a terrorist organization headed by Zawahiri that merged with al Qaeda. After his release from prison in 2011, Jamal seems to have quickly got back to work, establishing training camps in Libya and the Sinai. Some of Jamal’s trainees took part in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi.
Jamal was busy during his nearly two years as a free man. He “developed connections with” AQSL, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) leadership, according to the State Department, which adds that AQAP “provided funding” for Jamal and helped him “smuggle fighters into training camps.”
When Egyptian authorities captured Jamal in November 2012, they found a treasure trove of intelligence on his computer, according to the State Department. Among their discoveries: Jamal had been in contact with Zawahiri.
At least two of the letters to Zawahiri have been published in the Egyptian press. One letter was written in late 2011 and the other is dated August 18, 2012. In them, Jamal fawns over his old boss in the correspondence. Jamal tried to visit the al Qaeda master in Pakistan, he writes, but had to send an emissary instead. Jamal also seeks direction on how to best proceed in Egypt and elsewhere. While we do not know what Zawahiri’s responses entailed, the letters make it clear that Jamal is operating within al Qaeda’s orbit.
In his letters, Jamal takes special pride in his role as “teacher” to the jihadists who would go on to become AQAP’s senior leaders. Among Jamal’s students in the 1990s was a Yemeni allegedly hand-picked by Osama bin Laden to serve as the al-Qaeda CEO’s aide-de-camp: Nasir al Wuhayshi, who eventually became the head of AQAP. Jamal reconnected with Wuhayshi in more recent times, according to the State Department.
This past summer, Zawahiri apparently promoted Wuhayshi to the position of al Qaeda’s general manager, a “core” role that gives Wuhayshi power far beyond his base in Yemen. As The Daily Beast first reported, Wuhayshi’s appointment was announced during a “conference call of more than 20 far-flung al Qaeda operatives.” This communication also revealed that Wuhayshi was planning a major attack, leading the U.S. government to shutter more than 20 diplomatic facilities in August. That episode, like so many others, demonstrates that AQSL is still very much an active force.
Some imagine that AQSL is on its last legs, desperately trying to avoid a final death blow in Pakistan. There is no doubt that AQSL’s leadership losses, including the death of bin Laden, have greatly hurt the organization.
But the game is far from over. The closer one looks at the evidence the easier it is to find examples of AQSL’s enduring role in guiding a global network of terrorists, including inside Syria, where al Qaeda has built a guerrilla army. Al Qaeda’s leaders and their allies have built a durable international network, with “core” operatives and other loyal terrorists serving far from Pakistan.