Thirwat Salah Shehata, an Egyptian who long served as one Ayman al Zawahiri’s top deputies, has reportedly been arrested in a suburb of Cairo.
Shehata was among the senior al Qaeda leaders who were sheltered inside Iran for much of the post-9/11 period.
In early 2011, Shehata released a statement supporting the Egyptian uprisings. He called on the people to “remain steadfast” and reject any economic concessions from then president Hosni Mubarak. “Indeed, the Pharaoh and his rotten party must depart,” Shehata said in the statement, which he reportedly released from inside Iran. [See LWJ report, Ayman al Zawahiri’s deputy releases statement in support of Egyptian opposition.]
Egyptian officials say Shehata was training militants in Libya
Sometime after his 2011 statement, Shehata left Iran. It is not clear when he left, but The Washington Post reported in February that US officials believed he had traveled to Libya. Egyptian officials have now confirmed Shehata’s previous presence in Libya.
A former US official told the Post that Shehata is suspected of meeting with other senior al Qaeda leaders inside Libya in 2013. Among them are Abu Anas al Libi, who was detained by US forces in Tripoli in early October, and Zubayr al Maghrebi. Al Libi was wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and had also fled to Iran following 9/11.
According to the AP, Egyptian officials say Shehata “has been training militants in eastern Libya.” These same officials say that he is currently being interrogated.
Al Qaeda has established an extensive presence in Libya.
For instance, a report released by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January referenced multiple intelligence reports documenting al Qaeda’s activities in the country. One such report, authored by the CIA on July 6, 2012, noted that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Muhammad Jamal Network have all “conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.” [See LWJ report, Senate report: Terrorists ‘affiliated’ with multiple al Qaeda groups involved in Benghazi attack.]
Senior al Qaeda leaders such as Shehata have played a role in these efforts.
An “experienced operational planner”
Shehata is a veteran Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and al Qaeda leader. The EIJ was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri and merged with Osama bin Laden’s operation prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Shehata was a member of the EIJ’s Shura council. According to the United Nations, Shehata also headed the EIJ’s security committee, which “maintained information about individual members and how to reach them, documenting physical, psychological, academic and religious information about each member and determining the type of work he could do.”
US intelligence officials have long tracked Shehata, and worried about his role in plotting international terrorist attacks.
In his book, At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explains that US intelligence learned Shehata was in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad in 2002. This was prior to his relocation to Iran.
There was “credible information” that Shehata “was willing to strike US, Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future,” Tenet writes. Shehata was also “linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs.”
Years later, US intelligence was still on Shehata’s trail. A classified intelligence file written in 2008 that was leaked to The Washington Post described Shehata as an “experienced operational planner” who is “respected among al Qaeda rank and file.”