Earlier this month, The Associated Press disclosed that the Obama administration is debating the addition of an American member of al Qaeda to its list of operatives to be targeted for assassination. [See Threat Matrix report, Who is the American the US seeks to target with drones?.] The unnamed American in the AP report was involved in producing and deploying IEDs, or roadside bombs, against US troops in Afghanistan. He was said to be based in Pakistan.
Today, The New York Times provided more information on the American jihadist. His full name has not been disclosed, only his nom de guerre, Abdullah al Shami, which indicates that one or both of his parents are from Syria:
Born in the United States, possibly in Texas, he moved with his family to the Middle East when he was a toddler. Obama administration officials declined requests to provide biographical information about Mr. Shami such as his real name and age — saying that the information is classified — or any specific information about where he was born or where he traveled after leaving the United States. But his nom de guerre has a familiar ring for jihadists: An operative of Al Qaeda named Abu Abdullah al-Shami escaped with three other people from the American military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005 and was killed in a drone strike three years later.
He came to the attention of the American authorities in 2008, around the same time that another American, Bryant Neal Vinas, was getting Qaeda training in Pakistan, one former counterterrorism official recalled. The authorities worried at the time that a surge of people with terrorism training and Western passports might be coming to the United States. Mr. Vinas was later captured and brought back to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.
The F.B.I. investigated Mr. Shami and determined that he had been born in the United States, but that he had left as a young child and had not maintained any ties to the country. In the years since then, Mr. Shami worked his way up the ranks of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, his ascent aided by his marriage to the daughter of a top Qaeda leader. Last year, he appears to have risen to become one of Al Qaeda’s top planners for operations outside Pakistan, including plots against American troops in Afghanistan.
“We have clear and convincing evidence that he’s involved in the production and distribution of I.E.D.’s,” said one senior administration official, referring to improvised explosive devices, long the leading killer of American troops in Afghanistan.
Keep in mind that up until two weeks ago, Abdullah al Shami was unknown to everyone except those within the government involved with identifying him and dealing with adding him to the target list. Numerous times in the past we didn’t know the identity of important al Qaeda leaders and operatives until their names were leaked to the press or they were killed or captured. There are scores if not hundreds more al Qaeda leaders and operatives who operate beneath the radar.
For this reason (and many others, such as narrow or incomprehensible definitions of al Qaeda), we here at the The Long War Journal object to the theory pushed by Obama administration officials and even some in US intelligence circles that al Qaeda’s “core” consists only of Ayman al Zawahiri and he is hiding in a cave in Pakistan, the group has been “decimated” and defeated, and such.