Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) featured one of its founding members for the first time in a video released earlier this month. Ibrahim Abu Salih (also known as Abu al Hassan al Hashimi) has been a jihadist for more than 35 years, but AQAP’s “Guardians of Sharia” is the first production he has starred in.
Abu Salih’s decision to come out from the shadows demonstrates that al Qaeda maintains a deep bench of leaders, many of whom remain unknown to the public more than 14 years after the 9/11 attacks. In Abu Salih’s case, he has been a known al Qaeda leader for years, and narrowly escaped death in the past. But he has shied away from jihadi media appearances.
According to a biography published on AQAP-affiliated social media sites, Abu Salih studied theology at Al Azhar University in Cairo before joining the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) group in 1979 or 1980. The EIJ, which was responsible for a string of attacks in Egypt and elsewhere, was led by Ayman al Zawahiri, who eventually folded the organization into al Qaeda.
Abu Salih worked with some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders throughout his career. When he joined the EIJ, Abu Salih was “with Sheikh Mustafa Abu al Yazid” and the two were imprisoned together in the 1990s, according to AQAP’s biography. Yazid, who went on to serve as al Qaeda’s general manager and was close to Osama bin Laden, was killed in a US drone strike in 2010.
In 1989 or 1990, Abu Salih traveled to Afghanistan, where he “met with Sheikh Ubaydah al Banshiri and a number of the jihadi leadership.” Banshiri was one of bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants until his death in 1996.
However, Abu Salih didn’t stay in Afghanistan. In the early 1990s, Zawahiri and Banshiri ordered him to move to Yemen, where he “spread the jihadist thought to confront communism and secularism.”
After another trip to Afghanistan, Zawahiri ordered Abu Salih to return to Yemen in 1992 or 1993. Zawahiri commanded Abu Salih to oversee “the administration” of al Qaeda’s “affairs” in Yemen, “opening public relationships with all the students of knowledge and the notables and the tribal sheikhs.”
Years later, Abu Salih helped found AQAP and he is currently “the security official for the group.” He is also a member of AQAP’s elite shura, or advisory, council.
AQAP’s biography for Abu Salih is intended to buttress his jihadist credentials, so that his audience will know he speaks with authority. Indeed, Abu Salih is likely not just a spokesman for AQAP, but also a key figure in al Qaeda’s global organization.
In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Al Qaeda relocated much of its management team to Yemen and Syria. AQAP’s leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was named al Qaeda’s overall general manager, giving him power far outside of Yemen. And Wuhayshi’s lieutenants also served as al Qaeda’s deputy general managers.
In “Guardians of Sharia,” Abu Salih discussed the history of jihadism and al Qaeda’s war with the West. He emphasized the importance of “righteous” ideologues who can lead the masses.
“The most important thing that the West was eager to strike during the past decades was the position of knowledge and its people,” he said just one minute into the video, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. “They were eager that the ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] be without a righteous imam or scholar that the ummah could rally behind.”
Abu Salih (also known as Ibrahim al Banna) portrayed al Qaeda’s jihad as a war against Christian and Jews, saying the “scholars” of the past, including the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, would “not accept silence on the occupation of Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, the Qiblah of Muslims [a reference to Mecca and the direction Muslims should pray in] or that Al Andalus remains under the authority of Christians.” These same jihadist thinkers “could not tarry while Muslim lands are being governed without the sharia [Islamic law] of God.”
Al Qaeda seeks to restore the Islamic Caliphate, which was formerly dissolved in 1924. According to Abu Salih, Islamic armies failed to achieve victories in “most of the wars” since then, because the “religion was not present nor was the ulema [scholars].” During the war of 1967, he argued, the Egyptian Army was motivated by the songs of a popular musician “instead of being motivated by Koranic verses and the hadith [sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed].” The “army owned armored vehicles,” according to Abu Salih, but “it lacked faith.”
Abu Salih credited several thinkers for reviving the spirit of jihad, including Abdullah Azzam (Osama bin Laden’s mentor and the godfather of modern jihadist ideology), Yunis Khalis (a mujahideen leader in Afghanistan the 1980s), and Jalaluddin Haqqani (the founder of the Haqqani Network, which is closely allied with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.) These three men “incited Muslims by giving sermons, lessons, fatwas and writing,” Abu Salih said. They all “stirred still water, returning the compass towards the rightful path.”
The US has led a war of attrition against al Qaeda for more than 14 years. Dozens of key leaders have been killed or captured. But how many veterans, such as Abu Salih, remain on the battlefield? And how many new leaders have risen to take the place of those who have fallen? These questions are seldom asked, let alone answered.