Pakistani commandos detained a high level leader in al Qaeda’s paramilitary army during a raid last February after prodding from the US.
Commandos from the Special Services Group stormed an al Qaeda safe house in the southwestern city of Quetta on Feb. 24 and captured Abu Sufyan al-Yemeni, the chief logistical and facilitation officer for the Shadow Army, or the Lashkar al Zil.
The raid was conducted after the CIA provided intelligence on Abu Sufyan’s location. He is currently in the custody of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, The New York Times reported. The US is now relying on foreign governments to detain and interrogate al Qaeda suspects in the wake of the controversy over the treatment and legal status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other US facilities.
Abu Sufyan kept in close contact with al Qaeda cells worldwide and facilitated in the movement of terrorist operatives into Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal areas. He was “a conduit for communications between Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and cells in East Africa, Iran, Yemen and elsewhere” and “helped arrange travel and training for Qaeda operatives from various parts of the Muslim world to the Pakistani tribal areas,” the Times reported.
A Pakistani official said Abu Sufyan was one of “the top 20 Qaeda operatives” wanted by both the CIA and the ISI. But US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal disagreed.
“He is important, but I wouldn’t place him in my list of top 20,” a senior US military intelligence official who closely tracks al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan and Pakistani theaters said.
“Abu Sufyan is a senior staffer in the Shadow Army and we’ve learned plenty about its structure and operations, but he’s not a top 20 al Qaeda leader,” another official told The Long War Journal.
Sufyan aided in al Qaeda’s external operations
Abu Sufyan worked closely with two senior al Qaeda operatives based in Iran. Al Qaeda uses Iran as one of the primary points of entry for operatives to enter Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mustafa Hamid, al Qaeda’s emir and “ambassador to Iran” and the primary point of contact with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Dhahak al Yemeni, al Qaeda’s logistical chief in Iran, both worked closely with Abu Sufyan, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. Both Hamid and Abu Dhahak were designated as terrorists under Executive Order 13224 by the US Treasury Department in January of this year.
Abu Sufyan also has aided operations in Yemen and in Somalia, where al Qaeda-backed Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have gained considerable ground against the weak Somali government, an intelligence offical said.
The capture of Abu Sufyan in Quetta may be the direct result of the US Predator campaign that has targeted al Qaeda and the Taliban’s network in northwestern Pakistan. Abu Sufyan is believed to have shifted to Quetta to escape the Predator strikes, which have killed several senior al Qaeda commanders operating in the tribal areas.
Quetta serves as the hub for the leadership of the Taliban. Mullah Omar, the overall leader of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, is thought to shelter in Quetta, while the Shura Majlis, or executive council, is based in the city. Earlier this year, senior US leaders mulled over the expansion of the Predator campaign into Quetta and the greater Baluchistan province, where the Taliban maintain numerous camps and stage operations into southern Afghanistan.
Background on the Shadow Army
The Shadow Army is al Qaeda’s elite paramilitary army [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army’]. The unit has its roots in the 055 Brigade, which fought conventional battles against the Northern Alliance and US forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and a host of Pakistani jihadi terror groups have joined forces to battle both the Pakistani military in the Northwest Frontier Province and the NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. The Shadow Army contains fighters from each of these terror groups, and trains in camps in the Northwest Frontier Province and the tribal areas.
The Shadow Army is commanded by Abdullah Sa’id, a Libyan national. He is thought to have formal military training; however this has not been confirmed. Many senior al Qaeda military commanders have served in their country’s military.
Sa’id succeeded Khalid Habib as the leader of the Shadow Army. In October 2008, Habib was killed in a US Predator airstrike in a region in South Waziristan controlled by Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud.
Sa’id recently laid out al Qaeda and the Taliban’s strategy to advance in Afghanistan and Pakistan and restore the greater Khorasan [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s Shadow Army commander outlines Afghan strategy].
The Khorasan is a region that encompasses large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. Much of northwestern Pakistan, including the Swat Valley, is part of this region. Khorasan is considered by jihadis to be the place where they will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle is to take place in the Levant – Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.