Monday, June 19, 2006
New Details on Al Masri
Guest post by Alexis Debat, terrorism consultant for ABC News, a senior fellow at The Nixon Center and a contributing editor to The National Interest
The mystery man named again today by US authorities as a successor to Abu Musab al Zarqawi is an Egyptian with close ties to Osama Bin Laden's number two, Ayman al Zawahiri. Jordanian intelligence officials say that Abu Ayyub al Masri (aka Abu Hamza al Muhajir) is in his late thirties, and was born and raised in Egypt, were he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (aka "al Jihad") in the 1980s. There, according to the same sources, he operated alongside Ayman al Zawahiri, who was also a member of "al Jihad", and eventually became one of his protégés. Beginning in 1989, Zawahiri co-opted dozens of former EIJ militants into Al Qaeda, where they often held significant positions. Two such lieutenants, Muhammad Atef (aka Abu Hafs al Masri, killed by US forces in late 2001) and Saif al Adl (aka Muhammad Makkawi, now believed to be in Iran) held critical operational positions in Al Qaeda in 2001.
The same Jordanian sources add that when Abu Musab al Zarqawi joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after his release from prison in Jordan in 1999, he was "taken under the protection of Zawahiri, Atef and Al Adl, who despite Osama Bin Laden's strong animosity toward the Jordanian, trained and financed his nascent terrorist organization, then named "Jund as Sham". One of the militants in charge of this training was Abu Ayyub al Masri, then a senior aide to Muhammad Atef and an explosives expert at Al Qaeda's al Farooq training camp near Kandahar (where al Masri also trained Mukhtar al-Bakri, one of the indicted members of the "Buffalo cell" here in the US).
After the US intervention in Afghanistan in November 2001, al Masri and Zarqawi both crossed into Iran via South Waziristan and Baluchistan in Pakistan), along with Saif al Adl and several other fellow Egyptians close to Zawahiri, including Abdallah Muhammad al Masri, Abu Muhammad al Masri and Abdel Aziz al Masri.
According to Jordanian intelligence sources, these individuals were highly instrumental in setting up Zarqawi's network in Iraq in 2002. Abu Ayyub al Masri, for example, was reported by the US military to have set up Zarqawi's first cell in Baghdad in mid-2002. This Egyptian group, led by al Masri, is reported to have played a critical role in Al Qaeda in Iraq, which cell structure and modus operandi are almost identical to those of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1980s.
While he only publicly surfaced in February 2005 on the margins of an Iraqi government list of "most wanted" criminals (he only has a $50,000 bounty on his head), al Masri is reported to have played a very important role in Al Qaeda in Iraq.
European intelligence sources indicate they believe that sometime in 2004 al Masri was put in charge of some of Zarqawi's international networks. He sent "envoys" all over the Middle East, North Africa and even Europe, where he struck an informal relationship with the Algerian GSPC, to raise money and recruit international volunteers for the jihad in Iraq. In one such case, Algerian security services arrested in July 2005 a man named Yasser al-Misri, who they believe was on such a recruitment mission for Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Al Masri is also strongly suspected of having played a key role in the bombings in Egypt's Sinai peninsula in 2004, 2005 and 2006, all of which were reported to have been instigated by Egyptian elements close to Zarqawi.
The emergence of Abu Ayyub al Masri as a successor to Abu Musab al Zarqawi could be extremely significant. The new leader's nationality, ideology, skills, and past responsibilities within Al Qaeda in Iraq will greatly impact the organization's operational focus. It is likely, for example, that the terrorist organization will be more closely managed by "Al Qaeda global" and Ayman al Zawahiri, who publicly vented his frustration with some of Zarqawi's tactical choices (such as his focus on anti-Shi'a operations). And considering both Zawahiri's broad strategic goals and al Masri's past responsibilities in Al Qaeda, the latter will most likely put a greater emphasis on operations abroad. But whoever takes charge will have to significantly reorganize Al Qaeda in Iraq's the command structure and modus operandi, as well as find new sources of funding for an increasingly cash-strapped organization (in the past 12 months volunteers from abroad were asked to join the organization with their own cash, usually by selling all of their belongings prior to cross into Iraq). This crisis, as well as the succession, presents the US and Iraqi governments with a significant window of opportunity to score decisive - and potentially definitive- points against the jihadi phenomenon in Iraq.
Remember, one of Zarqawi's biggest victories was to convince the Sunni community in Iraq that he was their best bet, that he was their only bargaining chip at the negotiating table with the Kurds and the Shia. Remember, the Shia have the oil and a numerical advantage; the Kurds have a little bit of oil and the threat of secession. What do the Sunnis have?
Zarqawi was very successful at convincing the Sunni community that he was their only asset, that the only thing that they could bargain away, the only thing that would make them exist in the great political reorganization of post-Saddam Iraq.
So what is happening now supposedly is that there is a break-up among all of these Sunni factions. And leading members of the Sunni community, especially some tribal leaders, are turning against the foreign fighters and al-Qaida in Iraq and basically breaking off from that strategy, realizing that it didn't bring them anything, it brought them very little, and maybe choosing another route, maybe a more peaceful, more political route.
It's very likely that al-Masri will break away also from that strategy and, again, focus on operations against the Americans and operations abroad and be a much smaller player on the Iraqi political scene.
And this is actually very significant, because this brings out a lot of opportunities for the U.S. military to turn the Sunni community against the foreign fighters, which they've been trying to do for the past three years.
Iam Masri, now in Indonesia. See me in: