US drones kill 4 'militants' in first strike in Yemen in a month
US drones launched the first strike in Yemen in a month, killing four "militants" in an attack on a vehicle carrying explosives in a southern town plagued by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers launched several missiles at a truck "carrying grenades and explosive belts" in the Al Mahfad area in the southern province of Abyan on Friday night, AFP reported. Four suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were killed in the airstrike.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters and leaders have regrouped in the Al Mahfad area after being driven from cities such as Zinjibar, Jaar, Lawdar, and Shaqra during a Yemeni military offensive that began in the spring of 2012 [see Threat Matrix report, AQAP regroups in Abyan province]. AQAP controlled the cities in Abyan, as well as other cities and towns in neighboring Shabwa province, after launching its own offensive in 2011.
Since losing control of large areas of Abyan and Shabwa, AQAP has spread out into the provinces of Aden, Al Baydah, Al Jawf, Damar, Hadramout, Hodeida, Ibb, Marib, Saada, and Sana'a. Of the 29 drones strikes recorded by The Long War Journal over the past 11 months, 25 have taken place in the provinces of Aden, Al Baydah, Al Jawf, Damar, Hadramout, Hodeida, Ibb, Marib, Saada, and Sana'a.
The US has launched nine drone strikes in Yemen so far this year. The last strike took place on April 21 in the Wadi Abida area of Marib province; two AQAP operatives were reported killed.
In 2012, the US launched 42 drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia. The previous year, the US launched 10 drone and air strikes against the al Qaeda affiliate.
Although five senior AQAP operatives were killed in strikes in Yemen in 2012, the group's top leadership cadre remains intact. In January, the Yemeni government claimed that Said al Shihri, the deputy emir of AQAP, died following an attack last fall; AQAP has not confirmed his death, however, and recently released a statement that hinted he may be alive.
The US has targeted both senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, and low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the Yemeni government. This trend was first identified by The Long War Journal in the spring of 2012 [see LWJ report, US drone strike kills 8 AQAP fighters, from May 10, 2012]. Obama administration officials have claimed, however, that the drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland, and not those fighting AQAP's local insurgency against the Yemeni government.
For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 - 2013.
ISAF targets al Qaeda facilitator in eastern Afghanistan
During a raid in Nuristan province on May 15, Afghan and Coalition special operations forces targeted a senior Taliban leader who is known to assist members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, according to the International Security Assistance Force. The mention of al Qaeda by ISAF is the first since the end of January.
The ISAF report comes as members of Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, a group with ties to al Qaeda, conducted a suicide attack that killed six Americans in Kabul. Security forces also arrested two insurgent leaders with ties to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan earlier in the week.
The targeted leader is the "top military official" for the Taliban in Nuristan's Waygal district, according to ISAF. He is reported to be "responsible for facilitating the movement of al Qaeda terrorists" in the district. He is also known to erect and enforce "illegal checkpoints" and to kidnap Afghan officials, in addition to directing attacks against security forces.
One insurgent was wounded during the raid; ISAF told The Long War Journal that he was an Afghan national affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Furthermore, ISAF said there are indications that he is affiliated with Arab foreign fighters. These are also likely members of al Qaeda.
Yesterday's mention of al Qaeda by ISAF is the first in its press releases since Jan. 24, when the military command announced that Wali, an al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader who coordinated the two groups' operations in the province, was killed during an operation in Dangam district in Kunar province. The day before, on Jan. 23, ISAF announced that it targeted another al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader during an operation in Ghaziabad district in Kunar.
ISAF has not explained the lack of reporting on operations against al Qaeda, and has declined a request by The Long War Journal to discuss the terror group's operations in Afghanistan.
Curiously, when asked by The Long War Journal about three separate operations in Nuristan province in the beginning of May, ISAF began to reveal the existence of "Arab"-linked insurgents. In one of those operations, Saleh Abd al Aziz Hamad al Luhayb, a Saudi operative, was killed in a raid in Waygal district. Luhayb was listed by Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry as one of the 47 most wanted terrorists in 2011, a strong indication that he was a member of al Qaeda. ISAF refused to assocate Luhayb and the other "Arab"-linked fighters to al Qaeda, however.
Both Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province are known hotbeds for al Qaeda activity in Afghanistan. Their border with the tribal regions of Pakistan makes them strategically situated for funneling weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Additionally, Coalition forces have largely withdrawn from Nuristan following deadly attacks on US Army positions in the province.
Waygal district has seen some of the most intense fighting in Afghanistan. In 2011, the Taliban overran the district and expelled the Afghan government. US troops withdrew from the district in the summer of 2008 after a deadly assault by a joint force of 200-400 fighters made up from the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, and al Qaeda's Shadow Army assaulted a small combat outpost as it was being built. Based on a study by The Long War Journal, it appears that Afghan and Coalition forces have targeted al Qaeda-linked fighters twice in the district this year.
Raids against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Also reported this week were two operations in Burkah district, Baghlan province in which members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al Qaeda-linked group, were arrested. Both targets, identified as Afghan nationals of Uzbek descent with ties to Uzbek foreign fighters, were detained on the same day. The first, an IMU leader, was an IED expert who constructed, distributed, and planned IED attacks, ISAF says. He also directed suicide bombing operations in the district.
The second target was identified as a "senior insurgent leader" with ties to both the Taliban and the IMU. He is reported to command a group of fighters responsible for "a wide range of insurgent activities" including kidnapping Afghan civilians for ransom, robbing local businesses, and collecting taxes to fund insurgent operations. He also facilitates the movement of weapons and suicide vests in the local area. One other insurgent was captured during the raid, but he was not identified.
Burkah district, like Waygal district in the east, has served as a stronghold for insurgents. So far this year, Afghan and Coalition special operations forces have launched 11 raids in Burkah targeting the IMU and insurgents with ties to the group. Last week, five operations were conducted against the IMU, including two in Burkah.
The IMU has been heavily targeted by Coalition and Afghan forces. So far in 2013, ISAF has reported 27 raids against the IMU's network in the Afghan north.
Uzbek national in Idaho arrested, charged with supporting the IMU
The Department of Justice arrested an Uzbek national living in Idaho today and charged him with supporting the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and possessing an "unregistered destructive device," or bomb. Fazliddin Kurbanov faces charges in both Idaho and Utah, and is accused of conspiring to train others to purchase components to assemble a bomb.
Kurbanov is "legally present in the United States" at the time of his arrest and is currently living in Boise, Idaho, the Justice Department said in the press release that announced his arrest. He has been charged with "conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization," the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and "to terrorists," as well as "possessing an unregistered destructive device."
The Idaho indictment alleges that between August 2012 and May 2013, Kurbanov conspired with others, "both known and unknown," to provide funds and computer software to the IMU. These items were "to be used in preparation for and in carrying out an offense involving the use of a weapon of mass destruction."
Additionally, he "possessed a destructive device consisting of a combination of parts intended for use in converting any device into a destructive device could be readily assembled." Those parts included "a hollow hand grenade, hobby fuse, aluminum powder, potassium nitrate and sulfur."
The Utah indictment claims that Kurbanov trained others to "make explosive devices."
Kurbanov "showed internet videos, conducted instructional shopping trips, provided written recipes and gave verbal instructions on where to obtain the necessary components to construct and use improvised explosive devices." The Justice Dept. said that the bombs were intended to be used "at a place of public use, a public transportation system or infrastructure facility; or destroying a building in interstate commerce."
It is unclear if Kurbanov was in direct contact with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's network in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or in Central Asia.
The IMU has sought to conduct attacks in the West in the past. In 2009, a Mumbai-styled plot in Europe that was ordered by Osama bin Laden was foiled by Western Intelligence services after an IMU operative was captured in Afghanistan.
The US has heavily targeted the IMU in Afghanistan this year. So far, there have been 27 raids in 2013 against the IMU's network in the Afghan north. The IMU has integrated its operations with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin suicide bomber in Kabul kills 6 Americans, 9 Afghans
This morning in Kabul, a suicide bomber in an explosives-packed vehicle blew up a two-car American military convoy, killing at least 15 people. Six Americans died in the attack along with nine Afghan civilians, including two children. The attack also injured 42 others, of whom 39 were Afghan civilians.
The attack took place during morning rush hour near the diplomatic area of the Afghan capital, according to Dawn.
The International Security Assistance Force issued a press release which stated that "[t]wo International Security Assistance Force service members and four ISAF contracted civilians died following an improvised explosive device attack in Kabul, Afghanistan today." Afghan and ISAF officials confirmed that the ISAF members killed in the attack were American.
Today's attack, which damaged a number of residences and left some civilians so badly burnt they were unrecognizable, is the worst terror attack in Kabul since March, when a suicide bomber killed nine Afghans during a visit by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Pajhwok Afghan News reported that the powerful blast in a Kabul residential area destroyed dozens of houses and 30 vehicles, including two belonging to foreigners.
The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, has stated that the NDS thwarts a large number of attacks on the capital every week, however.
The attack was claimed by the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, whose spokesman Haroon Zarghoun told Reuters that the group had targeted American military advisers. "We planned this attack for over a week," he said. He identified the suicide bomber as Qari Qudratullah from central Logar province, Pajhwok reported.
Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) is a breakaway faction of the Hizb-i-Islami, which has joined the Afghan government. HIG is a radical Islamist group that is aligned with al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2006 and is closely tied to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. In recent years, Hekmatyar has reached out to the Afghan government to conduct negotiations to end the fighting. [See LWJ report, Taliban, HIG infighting leads to split in Afghan insurgency in the North.]
Hizb-i-Islami, along with other terrorist groups, is known to have bases in the tribal regions of Pakistan and to support suicide bomber facilitation inside Afghanistan. On Sept. 18, 2012, a female HIG suicide bomber killed 12 people, mostly foreign workers, in an attack on a bus near Kabul International Airport. Like today's attack, that attack was claimed by Engineer Haroon Zarghoon, a spokesman for the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin faction of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Female suicide bomber from Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin strikes in Kabul.]
On Feb. 7, ISAF reported that its forces captured a senior Taliban leader who worked closely with the militant group Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) during an operation by Afghan and Coalition forces in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province. The commander is believed to facilitate suicide operations and "manages the recruitment, training and movement of insurgents to conduct attacks." He is also accused of using his "village leadership position to recruit suicide bombers and insider attack facilitators" from the local high school.
Today's attack indicates that the Taliban are back to targeting ISAF soldiers. Since the April 28 start of the group's spring offensive, 18 ISAF troops have been killed. Announcing this year's offensive, the Taliban said the campaign would focus primarily on the "foreign invaders," or Coalition forces operating under the command of the International Security Assistance Force, and stressed that suicide and insider attacks would be used. [See LWJ report, Taliban promise suicide assaults, 'insider attacks' in this year's spring offensive.]
Al Nusrah Front's emir to be added to US terrorism list
Banner of the Al Nusrah Front. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
The US State Department will add Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in a decision to be announced formally tomorrow. A statement in the Federal Register notes that Julani, also known as al Fatih, is designated pursuant to Executive Order 13324. The addition of al Julani to the US's list of global terrorists takes place just one month after he reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda's emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, and confirmed that his group is part of the global terrorist network.
The US government added the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in December 2012. Additionally, two senior Al Nusrah Front leaders, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab, were added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists the same day that the Al Nusrah Front was named as an FTO. Al Juburi and Khattab are both al Qaeda in Iraq operatives.
In the December 2012 designation of the Al Nusrah Front, the US said that the group is "a new alias" for al Qaeda in Iraq and is under operational control of AQI's emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi, or Abu Dua.
Last month, a public dispute emerged between Abu Dua and al Julani after the former announced the merger of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Al Nusrah Front. The new entity, called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, was to replace all previous brands used by al Qaeda's affiliates in Iraq and Syria.
One day after Abu Dua made the announcement, al Julani rejected the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and said he had not been consulted about the official merger. Al Julani indicated that the official announcement was premature, and said his group would continue to operate under the banner of the Al Nusrah Front.
But while he rejected the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, al Julani noted that he was renewing both his and his fighters' allegiance to al Qaeda's emir.
"This is a pledge of allegiance from the sons of the al Nusrah Front and their supervisor general that we renew to the Sheikh of Jihad, Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him," al Julani said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. "We give a pledge of allegiance for obedience in good and bad in emigration and jihad and not to dispute with our superiors unless we see clear disbelief about which we have proof from Allah."
Since the public dispute between Abu Dua and al Julani, the Al Nusrah Front has not released official propaganda. The disagreement between the two emirs is said to be being mediated by al Qaeda's central leadership council.
The Al Nusrah Front was created in late 2011, and immediately began to impact the fight against the government of President Bashir al Assad. Leveraging the expertise of al Qaeda in Iraq, the group has launched suicide bombings and assaults, IED attacks, and conventional and guerrilla operations against the Syrian military and government.
Earlier this year, the US government estimated that the Al Nusrah Front has more than 10,000 fighters under its command. Since that estimate was issued, more than 3,000 fighters from the supposedly secular Free Syrian Army are said to have joined the Al Nusrah Front.
The group has overrun several major military bases and is in control of vast areas of eastern Syria, including the provincial capital of Raqqah. The Al Nusrah Front is administering sharia law in areas under its control.
The Al Nusrah Front has claimed credit for 57 of the 70 suicide attacks that have been reported in Syria since December 2011, according to a tally by The Long War Journal (note that multiple suicide bombers deployed in a single operation are counted as part of a single attack). So far this year, 17 suicide attacks have been reported in Syria; Al Nusrah has claimed credit for 14 of them.
For more information on the Al Nusrah Front, see the following LWJ reports:
US adds Al Nusrah Front, 2 leaders to terrorism list
Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front emerge as rebranded single entity
Al Nusrah Front leader renews allegiance to al Qaeda, rejects new name
Free Syrian Army fighters defecting to Al Nusrah Front
Free Syrian Army commander praises Al Nusrah Front as 'brothers'
Tensions continue to escalate in Tunisia
Almost two months after Tunisia's prime minister and the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, an al Qaeda-linked organization, traded barbs in the press and online, tensions have escalated once again. Tunisia Live reports that there were "clashes between Tunisian police and Ansar al Sharia" this past weekend.
This prompted a response from Seifullah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), the founder and head of Ansar al Sharia, on the group's Facebook page. Hassine's statement was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
"What you are passing through now is a test and a trial by which the honest will be distinguished from the liar, and the one who is truly steadfast from he who claims steadfastness," Hassine says, addressing "the youth." Hassine implores Ansar al Sharia's members to move forward and "not to back and let go of the gains that you achieved."
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has been building up its ranks through countrywide proselytizing, but the Ennahda regime's recent actions have interfered in these events and threatened the group's designs.
In addition, Ansar al Sharia may not be permitted to hold its third annual congress, which would serve, as in the past, as its signature recruiting and propaganda event. "We haven't decided yet regarding the meeting of Ansar al Sharia," Minister of Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou said on Friday, according to Tunisia Live.
In response, Hassine tells his followers to be "steadfast" and warns the Tunisian government.
"To those tyrants who are covered by Islam, and Islam has nothing to do with them, know that today you commit many foolish acts that speak about you expediting the battle," Hassine says, according to SITE's translation. "I say to you, by Allah, you
aren't fighting youth, but you are fighting a victorious religion helped by Allah and no force on Earth no matter how strong can defeat it."
Hassine connected Ansar al Sharia Tunisia's struggle to the work of Tunisian jihadists abroad. "I am just reminding you that our youth that exhibited heroic acts in defending Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and the Levant will never hesitate to sacrifice for their religion in Tunisia."
"America, the West, Algeria, Turkey and Qatar whose help you seek will never help you when the swords rattle, the arrows are ready, and sword edges strike other sword edges," Hassine adds.
Hassine's use of the word "tyrants" to describe the Ennahda government is especially inflammatory. As Ansar al Sharia Tunisia spokesman Seifeddine Rais explained during a radio interview earlier this week, "The term 'tyrants' is used to refer to those who are ruling without using Sharia (or Islamic law), which is the case of Tunisia. The government said they are not going to apply Sharia."
Another leading member of Ansar al Sharia, Sami Ben Khemais Essid, has also responded to the Ennahda government's recent interference in his group's activities. According to Magharebia, Essid criticized interior minister Ben Jeddou.
"He has declared war on Muslims in Tunisia," Essid said of Ben Jeddou. Essid vowed that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia's third annual congress will be held as planned on May 19. However, Essid said, the group's leader will not be in attendance.
"Abu Iyad (Hassine), a leader of Ansar al-Sharia who is wanted by the security forces, won't attend the third annual congress of the group," Essid said, according to Magharebia. "The only reason for that is that he loves Tunisia and doesn't want to confuse his supporters if he gets arrested by the security forces before them."
Essid is the former head of al Qaeda's operations in Italy and was arrested in early 2001 for plotting against the US Embassy in Rome, among other terrorist activities. [See LWJ report, From al Qaeda in Italy to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.]
Essid was convicted of terrorism charges and imprisoned in Italy for several years. He was deported to Tunisia, where he was again imprisoned, only to be freed in the wake of the Arab Spring. The United Nations and US Government have designated both Hassine and Essid al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.
The flare-up in tensions between the Tunisian government and Ansar al Sharia is hardly surprising. In late March, Tunisian prime minister Ali Larayedh harshly criticized Hassine's group in press interviews. Ali Larayedh accused Ansar al Sharia and Hassine, in particular, of spreading violence. "Abu Iyad is deeply involved in issues of violence and arms trafficking," Larayedh claimed.
Hassine responded with an "Urgent Letter to the Wise [Men] of Ennahda" on Ansar al Sharia's Facebook page and web site.
"To your wise men we say: Keep your sick [or diseased] ones from us, or we will direct our war against them until their downfall and their meeting with the dustbin of history," Hassine warned. "Know that we will not delay in saying that the answer is what you see, not what you hear... If you do not rectify your situation." [See LWJ report, War of words escalates in Tunisia.]
Nearly two months later, the threat of increased violence has not abated.
IMU suicide bomber targeted top police commander in Quetta
"Ali," the IMU suicide bomber who attacked a Pakistani police general in Quetta. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan claimed credit for yesterday's suicide attack in Quetta that targeted the chief of police in the southern Pakistani city.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan took credit for the attack, in a statement that was released on a jihadist forum earlier today by Yahya Hikmatiy, the group's "formal spokesman." Hikmatiy confirmed that the target of the attack was Inspector General Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Eight Pakistanis were killed and nearly 100 more were wounded in yesterday's attack, which occurred in a high-security area in Quetta, the provincial capital of the southwestern province Baluchistan. The IMU suicide bomber targeted Sukhera's convoy as he was entering his quarters. The blast was so massive that power in the city was knocked out, and many nearby buildings were badly damaged. The IMU claimed that "2 tons" of explosives were used in the bomb.
The suicide attack in Quetta was "carried out as the answer to the helicopter attack of Pakistan Army against IMU's madrasa for young children, named after Abdullah ibn Zubair, 25 days ago," the IMU spokesman claimed. One IMU student, a 12-year-old boy, was killed and 10 people were wounded.
Hikmatiy said the attack was carried out by "Ali," who was described as "a member of IMU" and a "52 year-old mujahid brother." Hikmatiy added that Ali's daughter also carried out a suicide attack last year.
"In addition, we would like to remind you the istishhadiyyah [martyrdom-seeking] operation of shahida Ummu Usman, daughter of shahid brother Ali, against the murtad (apostate) Pakistan Government last year," Hikmatiy said.
Although Hikmatiy did not identify the suicide attack that Ali's daughter executed, there was only one such bombing reported to have been carried out by a female last year. The attack took place in Mohmand in November 2012, and targeted Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the former emir of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Ahmed is known to support the Taliban. No group claimed credit for the Mohmand suicide attack.
The al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is based in Pakistan's tribal areas, and has a strong presence in North Waziristan. In Afghanistan, the IMU has integrated its operations with the Taliban in the northern provinces, and is also known to operate in eastern Afghanistan.
Egyptian interior minister: Al Qaeda cell plotted suicide attack against Western embassy
Egypt's interior minister announced today the arrest of three members of an al Qaeda cell who were plotting to attack a Western embassy. "The interior ministry was able to direct a qualitative blow to a terrorist cell which was planning to carry out suicide attacks against vital, important and foreign establishments," Mohammed Ibrahim said at a press conference.
Ibrahim did not name the embassy that the trio was targeting, but he did say that they eyed targets in Cairo and Alexandria.
According to BBC News, Ibrahim "gave details about the discovery of 10kg (22lbs) of explosive material, a computer with files containing information on bomb-making and a flash memory with instructions on how to build rockets."
Ibrahim's surprise press conference was televised on Cairo's Channel 1 Television. Ibrahim named the suspects as Amr Muhammad Abu-al-Ila Aqidah, Muhammad Abd-al-Hamid Himidah Salih, and Muhammad Mustafa Muhammad Ibrahim Bayyumi.
One of the three had contacted al Qaeda in Algeria, and also traveled to Iran and Pakistan for "military" training, Ibrahim said. According to a summary of Ibrahim's television appearance obtained by The Long War Journal, Ibrahim added that the cell had online contacts with an al Qaeda member in Pakistan and a terrorist "responsible for receiving terrorists on Turkish borders." One of their al Qaeda contacts is named Al Kurdi Dawuud al Asadi, who may be the same individual.
Ties to Nasr City Cell
Ibrahim said the al Qaeda operatives had previously taken direction from the so-called Nasr City Cell, which has numerous ties to Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and al Qaeda.
According to Ibrahim, one of the cell's members was ordered to contact Muhammad Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed) and Tariq Abul Azem, a former Egyptian Army officer. Both al Kashef and Azem have significant al Qaeda ties and were imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak's regime, only to be released in the wake of the Egyptian revolution.
Al Kashef and Azem were rearrested in Egypt late last year after authorities launched multiple raids against the Nasr City Cell. Egyptian authorities conducted their first raid against the cell in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo on Oct. 24, 2012.
According to multiple press accounts, al Kashef's trainees took part in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Some of the Benghazi attackers were trained in al Kashef's camps in eastern Libya.
During the Nasr City Cell investigation, the Egyptian Interior Ministry discovered Al Kashef's correspondence with al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. Some of al Kashef's letters to Zawahiri have been published by the Egyptian press. [See LWJ report, Communications with Ayman al Zawahiri highlighted in 'Nasr City cell' case.]
The first letter published by the press from al Kashef to Zawahiri was written in late 2011 and the second is dated Aug. 18, 2012.
Al Kashef is extremely deferential to Zawahiri in the letters, in which he requests further assistance for his operations and says he received funding from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al Kashef also writes that he served as part of Zawahiri's security detail in the 1990s and trained AQAP's top leaders.
Al Kashef's letters also read like a current status report, in which he summarizes his operations stretching from the Sinai to North Africa and Mali.
Ibrahim said that the al Qaeda cell now under arrest had contacted one of al Kashef's colleagues in the Sinai.
In his letters to Zawahiri, al Kashef outlines his efforts in the Sinai. Al Kashef explains that he has worked to "recruit elements who are not known in Egypt to form groups in Sinai, the next confrontation arena with the Jews and the Americans." Al Kashef also writes that he has "form[ed] groups for us inside Sinai."
Cairo's Al Yawm al Sabi, which published one al Kashef's letters to Zawahiri, reported that Egyptian authorities consider al Kashef an al Qaeda member who managed communications between al Qaeda's central leadership and the Nasr City Cell.
Panjwai district chief of police: 'Pakistan has been trying to bring Afghanistan under its control'
District Chief of Police Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad listens to speakers during a land shura in Panjwai district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
Security in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province has improved significantly this year. While there were some 30 Afghan casualties evacuated from the district headquarters between November and February, the pace slowed dramatically in March, with only two medevacs in about a month's time. Additionally, the frequent small arms engagements experienced by US patrols have tapered off to getting shot at "about once a week," according to one April assessment by a US infantryman who patrols the notoriously difficult Zangabad area. And a number of Taliban commanders have been killed or captured, including the killing of Taliban's district shadow governor by Special Operations Forces on March 31.
The change is attributed to factors beyond the expected seasonal lull in Taliban attacks: a grassroots uprising against the insurgency has bolstered the ranks of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which has enabled intelligence gathering and allowed the ISAF-ANSF alliance to hold on to cleared territory; and the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad, Panjwai's energetic new district chief of police (DCOP), has driven progress.
As DCOP, Mohammad is responsible for recruiting and managing both the minimally trained ALP militia and the Afghan Uniform Police, a more trained national police service. While Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) units also operate in Panjwai, the ALP and the AUP are widely acknowledged as the most effective security forces in the district. The reasons: local knowledge of the enemy and the terrain, and local leadership; Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad is originally from Panjwai and he is an Achekzai tribesman. The DCOP has used his relationships to capitalize on local disaffection with the Taliban by engaging local leaders who have made a stand against the insurgents. Hajji Abdul Wudood, the man acknowledged as sparking the local uprising in the village of Pehinagan and driving cooperation with the police, is Mohammad's distant cousin and a fellow Achekzai.
Despite the recent success of the police, there are drawbacks to the force relative to other security forces. While US advisers and Afghan government officials and security personnel state that corruption and abuse in Panjwai do not rise to the worst levels in Afghanistan -- those that tend to drive civilians into supporting the Taliban -- they do exist, and are more prevalent among the police than other forces. Local cops more often tax individuals on the roads, for example, taking money or more often simple items like cigarettes and food. One Afghan soldier speculated that the cops are forced to confiscate supplies from civilians because the local police are not provided enough to eat through official channels.
An internal ISAF assessment of Mohammad compiled when he was the district chief of police in nearby Maiwand district lends credence to the assertion, mentioning that "the DCOP is ... accused routinely by his soldiers of withholding money from checkpoints that is meant to be spent on food." The report provides context for these accusations, however, by noting that "he also provides logistical support for the [Afghan Local Police], and this food could simply be being spread among more checkpoints than it was designed for." Given both the regional penchant for low-level corruption and the lack of adequate logistical support from the Afghan government to its security forces, either explanation is plausible.
The police chief's local ties also have a mixed impact on grassroots efforts against the Taliban. Mohammad's Achekzai tribal lineage and his familial relationship with General Abdul Razziq, the famed warlord and current police chief of Kandahar province, present a challenge to unifying all of the district's tribes against the insurgency. When Razziq was a highly effective colonel in the border police and the de facto strongman in Spin Boldak, a district to Panjwai's southeast which contains Afghanistan's second-largest border crossing with Pakistan, Mohammad was Spin Boldak's district chief of police. Razziq is widely known to have profited immensely from illegally taxing border traffic, selectively allowing smugglers to pass through the border, and conducting his own trafficking operations, some of them inevitably related to the drug trade flowing from Afghanistan.
Internal ISAF reports imply that Mohammad, "rumored to be Razziq's cousin," was party to similar activity as police chief in Spin Boldak, noting that "he was subject to allegations of corruption." In May 2011, after Mohammad "came under pressure from both the [Afghan Ministry of Interior] and the Taliban," Razziq moved him to the police chief position in Arghistan district, followed shortly by an appointment to police chief of Maiwand district. Notably, Maiwand is the opium breadbasket of Kandahar province, and "several unconfirmed reports" indicate [Mohammad] took money from drug smugglers while in that position.
Nevertheless, Mohammad was a successful district police chief in Maiwand. ISAF reports rated him as "aggressive, professional and effective" and judged that he was responsible for significantly improving security. He was eventually moved south to his current position In a bid to improve security in the hotly contested district, a move that the DCOP was reluctant to make. Beyond any political and business arrangements that he may have been forced to leave behind in Maiwand, Mohammad claimed reluctance to work in Panjwai because of his local ties to the area; as a hometown boy and Ashekzai, he feared he would be forced to fight family members, according to one senior US Army officer.
A more prominent reason for Mohammad's hesitance may be the history of bloody intertribal rivalry in the district, however. In 2006, Canadian forces enlisted the help of then Colonel Razziq and his border police to assist with anti-Taliban efforts. Razziq gathered his men, largely an Achekzai tribal militia, rolled up from Spin Boldak to Panjwai in force, and wound up killing both Taliban and civilians belonging to the rival Noorzai tribe, according to histories by both Dr. Antonio Giustozzi and the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran. In fact, the Achekzai-Noorzai feud has much deeper roots, as Taliban-allied Noorzai tribesmen were responsible for killing Razziq's uncle and driving many members of his Achekzai tribe from their homes and across the border into Pakistan during the rise of Taliban to power in the 1990s.
Thus, Mohammad's local tribal ties, as well as his relationship to Razziq, complicate his efforts in the district. As the district police chief attempts to establish the ALP and AUP as trusted forces in Panjwai and organize local disfavor with the Taliban into a security movement, members of the Noorzai tribe resist joining with the police due to the long-running feud. This infighting presents a steep challenge to spreading and solidifying the grassroots movement against the Taliban, especially after ISAF forces draw down.
The Long War Journal interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad on March 25 at his sitting room in the Panjwai District Police Headquarters.
The Long War Journal: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, your public service, where you're from?
District Chief of Police Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad: My name is Sultan Mohammad. I am from Kandahar province, Panjwai district, Zangabad area. Shabozo village. My tribe is Achekzai. I am 48 years old. For the first year after [the American invasion in) 2001, I was a soldier, then I became a police officer for the past 10 years until now.
Before the US invasion ... my brother and I were both mujahedeen fighting against the Russians, and also during the Taliban regime we had a relationship with the Americans. We traveled [and made our home] back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I fought against the Taliban [before 2001] as well; from [Panjwai], they pushed us to Helmand, from Helmand they pushed us to Delaram. From Delaram they pushed us to Farah ... and all the way down to Herat.
LWJ: Why did you fight the Taliban? What about the Taliban organization caused you to fight them?
DCOP Mohammad: The first time when the Taliban came trying to take over Kandahar province they took over some parts of Kandahar ... we heard from them that they are very good people, they said they would be respecting all of the Muslims. Soon though, we saw how they were treating our mullahs, our religion. We also saw the (Pakistani) ISI in Kandahar City, and that's when we started fighting against the Taliban. Because there was ISI from Pakistan with them and they came to our country. Everyone knows who they are and where they came from. Everyone knows, the foreigners [ISAF forces] know, Iran knows that the ISI came to Afghanistan with the Taliban.
LWJ: You've been DCOP since January. How was security when you got here, how is it doing now, and how has it been trending?
DCOP Mohammad: Before I got here, the security situation was not good in the bazaar, which is very close to here. At that time, the insurgents were attacking often, and it was a bad situation. After I'd been here a while - and you can ask the Americans how the security situation was before me - nowadays it's getting very, very good. One man can even travel alone on a bike in the evening for 30 kilometers. Or one to four of my guys can jump in a truck and travel anywhere, even if it's dark.
[Opens a folder and displays a series of photographs of captured weapons and explosives caches] This is from the village of Kaklan, my [US] mentor already knows about these caches of IEDs that we found there. We have found 2,729 of these kinds of IEDs, since January.
LWJ: How have you been so successful in finding these bombs?
DCOP Mohammad: The reason for the success is because while I have been away from the district for the past 11 years, a lot of people were asking me to come home. When I got here, I went to the villages and talked to the people and the elders, and I was very respectful. Then one of the elders showed me 75 IEDs in one day; Hajji Mohammad from Sperwan showed me 45 IEDs, and a lot of other people are helping me to find the IEDs.
I will tell you there are three [important] things: our country, our God and our job. If we are doing these three things honestly, everything will be good. Also, [we have to do right by] these people who have raised up against the Taliban. I am very disappointed by our government, because these people are expecting some support from the government. And they never received anything from the government.
LWJ: Are they starting to get any support from the government?
DCOP Mohammad: The only support they got from the provincial governor was some (agricultural assistance); wheat and flour and cooking oil. The governor spent like 400,000 Afghanis for that. And it's not enough. Also, Special Forces help the people a little - and Zangabad is not the only area we need to support. We need to support [the villages of] Talakan, Mushan, Sperwan.
LWJ: Do you have hope that more assistance will come from the Afghan government?
DCOP Mohammad: They have promised assistance. General Merwis, the 205th Corps Commander and governor and General Razziq have promised they will support the uprising. We are also getting help from public health, they opened a clinic for the women, and also the minister of education will open up some schools as well.
LWJ: How many police officers do you have, and along with the support you get from the Afghan Army, do you feel like you have enough forces to secure the district?
DCOP Mohammad: I have 450 police officers, 60 NCOs , about 30 officers and 300 ALP. All the time whenever we do an operation we coordinate with ANA, ANCOP all together and do joint operations. Sometimes if we need help from our counterparts, we are asking them for medical services, air support they are helping us, but we aren't asking them for help in our operations.
LWJ: Do you think you will be able to sustain these operations at the same pace after the Americans are gone?
DCOP Mohammad: If the Americans leave, we will go forward, and we will be doing the same things that we are doing now. But we still need American support; our government is weak, we don't have enough income we don't want what happened when the Russians were here to happen again. When the Americans supported us, once we defeated the Russians, they disappeared; the Americans went home and left us. I don't want this to happen again, so still we need their support.
LWJ: But most troops are leaving in 2014? So will financial support, and Special Forces support be enough?
DCOP Mohammad: I guess if the Americans leave the Special Forces in each province and district to support us, along with financial support, it will work because our government is weak and they can't bring us supplies on time. So they can help us with fuel or ammunition, things like that.
LWJ: Can you describe who the enemy is, who the insurgents are right now? What are their motivations and why are they fighting the government and attacking your men?
DCOP Mohammad: During the Russian times, when we were fighting the Russians, our homes were in Pakistan. We were living there and fighting here. Then the Mujahedeen who were here later, after the Taliban came (president Karzai etc.) -- I came with them from Pakistan. Everyone knows the enemies are from Pakistan. They are living there and getting support from Pakistan. When Karzai was elected President, his house was in Pakistan and he moved back to Afghanistan. [Former Kandahar provincial governor] Gul Agha Sherzai when he became the governor of the province he left Pakistan for Afghanistan.
LWJ: But you are saying the enemy is also from Pakistan?
DCOP Mohammad: We don't have any more enemies from Afghanistan. The only enemies we have are from Pakistan. There are many groups that work under the ISI of Pakistan. And some of our Afghans are there, being trained by Pakistan, who sends them here.
LWJ: Do you think their motivation is religious, or is it otherwise?
DCOP Mohammad: If it's really religious, then why don't they attack all the Americans when they are getting supplies from Karachi, Pakistan? The Taliban don't do anything over there [as the supplies are] on the way, but once they enter Afghanistan they are attacking and burning their vehicles. The Pakistan Higher Scholars Shura, their chief in Pakistan was saying suicide attacks and attacks on the Afghans are permitted. The chief of the Afghan scholars asked back, 'Why is it only legal in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan?' We have it in Afghanistan a higher religious scholars shura - Pakistan has the same people, they were saying it is legal to do [attacks in Afghanistan].
LWJ: So what is their goal with the attacks?
DCOP Mohammad: It's not a new thing - the past 4 years Pakistan has been trying to bring Afghanistan under its control. When Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, Pakistan did not tell them what to do because they had a good relationship with them but once this government took over and we tried to prevent them from controlling Afghanistan, that's why they send those suicide attackers and other attacks.
LWJ: Different topic: everyone farms here. Farming is a big part of the economy, and poppy farming is a big part of the farming economy, but [poppy] is illegal. So when government forces destroy the [poppy] crop, how do they avoid angering local farmers who grow it to make a living? How do you win the cooperation of the people if you take away a source of income? Does [the poppy eradication] cause tension?
DCOP Mohammad: We know it is illegal growing poppy anywhere, before me the DGOV (District Governor) told the local people to not grow poppy and if they do, they will destroy it again. They grow it anyway. If the DGOV puts out the order to not grow it and they continue to grow it, it means they aren't listening. Whenever someone put an order to not grow it, they grow it anyway.
The other problem is that the US Embassy or foreigners are spending a lot of money from the department of counternarcotics; they are giving them GPS, trucks, fuel, tractors, everything to eradicate the poppy. The problem is, they give an estimated target for each district; for example, for Panjwai district 300 hectares need to be eradicated. For Zhari district, 600 hectares, for Meiwand, 700 hectares need to be eradicated. But these [farmers] are expecting , "OK, mine is not going to be included in these 300 hectares. Hopefully, they will leave my poppy to grow."
So once they are eradicating, some parts of the poppy are staying because they only have permission to do 300 hectares. So this is the problem: if you order farmers not to grow poppy, everyone should stop growing poppy and people should listen; instead [the government] just says "we will eradicate 300 hectares, and leave all the others." This gives the farmers hope that "it won't be mine" that is destroyed. Also, if they make them a bridge, roads and the water dam and irrigation canals for the farmers, I don't think they will grow just poppy because when the irrigation system is working well, they will hopefully be growing some other crops.
LWJ: What do you think of the US soldiers working here in the district?
DCOP Mohammad: They are doing a good job. Whatever they are responsible for, they are doing their best jobs; both Special Forces and regular army, they are doing their jobs. They are having a lot of different meetings with the locals and politicians; they have not caused any problems for the local people here in Panjwai since I've arrived here. In some other districts, maybe they have caused some problems, but I don't know.
LWJ: You haven't heard of Americans causing problems since you've gotten here. Before you arrived, 17 murders that happened in two villages that were attributed to the American Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. How has local opinion reacted to that incident, and what is their opinion now? Have they forgiven it, do they accept it, are they still angry?
DCOP Mohammad: Can you give me information about the guy who did these murders?
LWJ: He is accused of killing 17 civilians in two villages a year ago.
DCOP Mohammad: My relative Mohammad Nayeeb, Mullah Wazir, a couple of members of their family were killed. So the Americans took them to the United States, now they are back and they told me that the guy who did the murder, he is not an American, he is not an Afghan; he did it to put distance between Afghans and Americans to keep our relationship separate. Now the relatives are back [from the US] and they are happy he is in jail. They went to America to testify in court, and also the Americans paid $50,000 per family member who was killed. So now they are happy the guy is in jail.
[Note: The interview was cut short after running into the call to prayer, after several delays due to a green-on-blue incident that evening.]
Bill Ardolino's forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, will be published by Naval Institute Press on May 15. The book has received a 'starred' review from Publishers Weekly. All of the author's proceeds from the first edition will benefit the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.
Follower of Mohammed al Zawahiri dies in attack in Mali
Members of al Qaeda's Shumukh al Islam forum announced on May 4 that four Egyptian jihadists died in a "martyrdom-seeking" operation in Mali, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. One of the Egyptians, Abu Obeida Sharif Khattab, had previously appeared in videos with Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
The Shumukh al Islam forum participants apparently did not provide any details of the attack. The same day as their announcement, however, four terrorists were killed during an attack near Gao, which is where Khattab died. Two Malian soldiers were killed and several others were wounded.
The Malian army said that a suspicious individual riding a motorcycle was at first stopped. Three militants in a car then opened fire on the Malian soldiers, according to the Associated Press. "That was when the jihadist on the motorcycle set off the bomb that he was wearing," explained Lieutenant Colonel Souleymane Maiga, who heads public relations for the Malian army.
Sharif Khattab was a member of Shumukh al Islam who posted as "Abu Obeida al-Maghribi," according to his fellow forum members. Khattab had tried to join the jihad in the Sinai, Yemen, and Iraq, but was unsuccessful. One member of the forum said that Khattab did make his way to Libya after being released from prison. It is not clear why Khattab was imprisoned.
"After Allah graced him with coming out of the apostate prisons, and the market of jihad opened in Libya, he quickly went there, and Allah did not will that he complete his journey there," a forum member posted. "Then he returned with his determination higher and his longing for jihad increased, until Allah destined him to emigrate."
"After the French invasion of the new home of Islam in Azawad, our brother fought a fight deserving of praise from his brothers, until he was granted martyrdom," another forum member wrote, according to SITE's translation.
Two videos with Mohammed al Zawahiri
Before achieving his "martyrdom" in Mali, Sharif Khattab appeared in at least two videos with Mohammed al Zawahiri, who leads the Salafi Jihadist Movement in Egypt. One of the videos was posted as part of a montage on Shumukh al Islam. The other video was produced by Al Faroq Media, an Egyptian jihadist propaganda outlet that is openly pro-al Qaeda and regularly promotes the younger Zawahiri's work.
The video montage spliced together images of Khattab with pictures of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's black flag. The video shows Khattab after he was released from prison. Mohammed al Zawahiri is standing behind him with a hand on Khattab's shoulder.
Abu Obeida Sharif Khattab is in the middle, squatting. The man in grey with his hand on Khattab's right shoulder is Mohammed al Zawahiri. This photo was taken after Khattab was released from prison. Courtesy of the SITE Intelligence Group.
The Al Faroq Media video shows several shots of Khattab with Mohammed al Zawahiri and Zawahiri's inner circle. One shot, captured by SITE, shows Khattab standing in front of Zawahiri as he walks arm and arm with Sheikh Adel Shehato. Like Mohammed al Zawahiri, Shehato was an Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leader who was imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak.
Abu Obeida Sharif Khattab can be seen in the lower left foreground of this photo. Mohammed al Zawahiri is in the middle. To Zawahiri's left is Sheikh Adel Shehato.
After Mubarak's fall from power, both the younger Zawahiri and Shehato were released from prison. Shehato was subsequently arrested by Egyptian authorities and charged with being a leader of the so-called Nasr City cell, which has numerous ties to al Qaeda. The Nasr City cell was reportedly planning terrorist attacks inside Egypt and also had ties to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. [For more on Shehato, see LWJ reports, Egypt arrests pro-al Qaeda jihadist tied to Benghazi suspect and Old school Egyptian jihadists linked to 9/11 Cairo protest, Benghazi suspect.]
Another scene from the Al Faroq video shows Khattab sitting with Zawahiri, Shehato and Murjan Salim, who also served in the EIJ. Salim was the head of the EIJ's Sharia committee and reportedly served in other roles as well.
Mohammed al Zawahiri is in the middle of this screen shot. To Zawahiri's left is Murjan Salim, who can only be partially seen because Khattab is kneeling in front of him.
The longtime head of the EIJ is Ayman al Zawahiri, who merged his organization with al Qaeda and succeeded bin Laden as the terror network's head after the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In post-Mubarak Egypt, many of Ayman al Zawahiri's EIJ subordinates, who are brazenly pro-al Qaeda, operate in the open.
The Al Faroq video featuring the EIJ leaders and Khattab has been used by As Sahab, al Qaeda's official media arm, in its video productions.
Mohammed al Zawahiri and his compatriots have repeatedly denounced France's intervention in Mali. In January, Zawahiri led a protest in front of the French Embassy in Cairo. Pictures of Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden were featured on banners hung outside the embassy. [See LWJ report, Mohammed al Zawahiri threatens West, condemns Mali intervention.]
During the protest, Mohammed al Zawahiri threatened the West and called on Muslims to support the jihadists in Mali.
"As Muslims, and not only Salafist Jihadists, we must do everything we can. He among us who can speak will speak, he who can act with his hands will also," Zawahiri said. "This is aggression. Will I stay quiet as someone comes to attack and kill me? That is unreasonable and unacceptable. France lit the fire, it started the war and if this continues the first to burn will be Western people."
Abu Obeida Sharif Khattab heeded Zawahiri's call to action.
Tunisian indicted in New York linked to Canada terror plot
Today authorities in New York, including the NYPD, FBI, and US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the arrest of Tunisian national Ahmed Abassi for links to a terror plot to destroy a passenger train traveling between the United States and Canada. On April 26, press reports had indicated that US authorities were expected to announce the arrest of additional individuals tied to a the plot.
According to today's Justice Department press release, Abassi fraudulently applied "for a work visa in order to remain in the United States to facilitate an act of international terrorism." Abassi was arrested on April 22, the same day that authorities in Canada exposed the plot, the release stated. Canadian authorities have alleged that the plot is linked to al Qaeda elements in Iran.
Abassi previously lived in Canada, but in March 2013 he traveled to the US. While in the US, Abassi "was under surveillance by law enforcement agents at all times, maintained regular contact with an FBI undercover officer (the "UC"), and also met with Chiheb Esseghaier in New York City," the Justice Dept. said.
The press release appears to indicate that Abassi met with Esseghaier on a number of occasions, as it stated that Esseghaier was radicalized by Abassi. While under surveillance, Abassi is said to have "discussed his desire to engage in terrorist acts against targets in the United States and other countries, and his intention to provide support and funding to organizations engaged in terrorist activity -- including the al Nusrah Front ... and to recruit other individuals for terrorist plots." One plot suggested by Abassi, but dismissed by Esseghaier, included "contaminating the air or water with bacteria in order to kill up to 100,000 people."
The indictment against Abassi charges him with two counts of visa fraud, involving making false statements "in an application to the immigration authorities for a green card and work visa." According to the indictment, Abassi stated "that he intended to remain in the United States for employment, when in fact he sought to remain in the United States to facilitate an act of international terrorism." Each count has a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
Canadian media reports indicate that Abassi arrived in Canada in 2010 and spent time as a graduate student at Laval University in Quebec City. He had originally been rejected by the Université de Sherbrooke, according to the National Post.
On April 22, Canadian officials said the plotting of Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser to destroy a passenger train as it traveled between the United States and Canada was linked to al Qaeda's network inside Iran.
The two suspects had received "support from al Qaeda elements located in Iran" in the form of "direction and guidance," said Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Assistant Commissioner James Malizia. Iran's Foreign Minister called Canadian officials' claims linking the plotters to al Qaeda operatives in Iran "ridiculous."
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, was born in Tunisia, and is believed to be the mastermind of the terror plot. Esseghaier, a doctoral student at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Montreal, holds a bachelor's degree in Industrial Biology and a master's degree in Industrial Biotechnology, according to his LinkedIn page. Esseghaier's LinkedIn page also displayed an image of al Qaeda's black flag, which was first used by al Qaeda in Iraq but has been adopted by other al Qaeda affiliates.
During his court appearance on April 23, Esseghaier, who has been in Canada only five years, denounced the court's authority. "This criminal code is not a holy book," he said, and declined a court-appointed lawyer. In court documents, Esseghaier was listed as homeless, and he "was granted permanent residency under Quebec's skilled worker program" in 2012, according to the National Post.
Esseghaier's behavior has drawn the ire of some in the past, according to Canadian press reports. At some point after 2010, Esseghaier ripped down posters at INRS that included a picture of a woman. In another incident, he reportedly told another Muslim from Tunisia that they should not pay taxes to Canadian authorities. Prior to his eviction in December, neighbors complained that Esseghaier "prayed loudly and at all hours of the day" in his apartment. And last spring, Esseghaier reportedly engaged in erratic behavior during a flight to Mexico, which was monitored by undercover surveillance officers, according to CBC News.
On April 25, US officials revealed to Reuters that Esseghaier had traveled to Iran at least once in the past two years. According to Reuters, Esseghaier's time in Iran "was directly relevant to the investigation of the alleged plot." Additionally, sources involved in the investigation told the Toronto Star that prior to arriving in Canada in 2008 on a student visa, Esseghaier had met with an al Qaeda operative.
Raed Jaser, 35, was born in Abu Dhabi but never obtained UAE citizenship, and he reportedly travels on a Jordanian passport. In 1993, the Jaser family arrived in Canada on false passports after claiming they had been "terrorized" by anti-immigration groups in Germany, where they had been living for at least two years. Although his parents were not given refugee status, according to the National Post, through Canada's "deferred program" they were allowed to stay and eventually obtained Canadian citizenship.
Raed Jaser did not obtain citizenship, however, due to a criminal record that included five counts of fraud, among other charges. In 2004, Canadian authorities tried to deport Jaser, but "as a stateless Palestinian, he could not be sent to any other country," the National Post reported.
Eight years later, Jaser was granted permanent resident status. Around the same time he was given the new status, a death threat conviction from 2001 against Jaser was pardoned, the National Post stated.
In 2011, according to the Globe and Mail, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) received reports that Jaser "was spreading extremist propaganda to youth in Toronto." Press reports suggest that Jaser's father, Mohammed, approached a Muslim leader in the community between 2009 and 2011 over concerns of his son's "understanding of Islam."
ISAF launches multiple raids against IMU as fighting season heats up
Since the beginning of May, Afghan and Coalition forces have launched five operations targeting the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the northern province of Baghlan. Raids against the terror group have increased steadily as temperatures have warmed in Afghanistan, and are currently the highest rate since the war began. Based on a study of International Security Assistance Force press releases by The Long War Journal, the number of raids this year against IMU members and insurgents affiliated with the group currently stands at 26.
On May 6, special operation forces targeted the Taliban's ranking military official for Nahrin district in Baghlan. According to ISAF, the targeted official coordinated suicide attacks with local IMU groups and commanded a cell of insurgent fighters who "have conducted a campaign of assassinations in the district." He is known to have collected illegal taxes from local civilians and "participated in multiple attacks against Afghan and coalition forces." The target also is reportedly "instrumental in training and familiarizing new fighters in the area." One insurgent was killed during the operation but has not been identified.
ISAF also reported two raids in Baghlan province on May 5 that targeted insurgents with dual ties to the IMU and the Taliban. In neighboring Baghlan-e Jadid district, an insurgent commander identified as Khialuddin was killed by Afghan and Coalition forces. Khialuddin, who was also known as Shahbudin or Karwan, directed IED operations targeting senior government officials and security forces in multiple districts throughout Baghlan province. ISAF reported that he "worked directly with Taliban senior leadership to disseminate information to low-level fighters" and was vital in the funding and arming of insurgent groups in the area.
Meanwhile, to the east in Burkah district, an IMU hotspot, another "senior insurgent leader" was captured by Afghan and Coalition forces. The unidentified leader had "operational control" over a group of fighters responsible for multiple attacks, ISAF said. He is also believed to be important for the supply of weapons to insurgent fighters, particularly the supply of rocket-propelled grenades.
The targets of the operations on May 5 and May 6 indicate the high level of cooperation between the Taliban and IMU in the region. The IMU is known to have integrated its operations with the Taliban in the Afghan north and maintains its base of support across the border in Pakistan. IMU leaders have also served in the Taliban's shadow government in the north. ISAF further told The Long War Journal that they were all Afghan nationals of Uzbek descent with some affiliation to Uzbek foreign fighters.
However, ISAF's increased operations have come at cost. A member of a German special operations team that was supporting Afghan forces in Baghlan was reportedly killed over the weekend. However, it is unclear if he was participating in one of the raids on May 5.
Apart from the three raids this week, ISAF announced that two more operations occurred in Baghlan on May 1 and May 3.
On May 3, a "senior insurgent leader" named Jamal was killed during a raid in Burkah district. Jamal, also known as Mullah Zabiullah, was the second highest-ranking insurgent in Burkah and served as an important link between the IMU and Taliban in the province. Insurgents under his command are said to be responsible for "a significant number of attacks, including suicide bombings, against Afghan civilians throughout Baghlan and Takhar provinces." Jamal was also "personally responsible for recruiting and training Afghans in insurgency operations and targeting Afghan officials for kidnappings and executions." Three other insurgents were killed during the raid and two were detained.
The May 1 operation targeted a Taliban IED cell leader with ties to the IMU in Baghlan-e Jadid district. The unnamed leader directs IED operations against senior government officials and security forces throughout neighboring Kunduz province. ISAF also reported that the target has the role of disseminating information to low-level fighters, similar to that of Khialuddin who was killed on May 5. The May 1 raid was likely targeting him, however ISAF would not confirm if this was the case.
Again, as with this week's targets, ISAF told The Long War Journal that Jamal and the Taliban IED cell leader, who may be Khialuddin, are Afghan nationals of Uzbek descent with affiliations to Uzbek foreign fighters.
Baghlan a base for IMU in Afghanistan
Baghlan province has been the center of Afghan and Coalition efforts against the IMU this year, with 12 raids, according to The Long War Journal's study. The vast majority of those raids have occurred in Burkah district, whose border proximity to Kunduz and Takhar provinces allows the district to serve as a key staging point for attacks in the region. Kunduz province, which in previous years saw the most operations targeting members of the al Qaeda-linked group, is now the second most active. So far this year there have been six raids in Kunduz; in 2012 there were 16 raids; and in 2011 there were 18. Takhar province has seen four operations this year; there were five last year; and eight in 2011. Beyond those strongholds, operations against the IMU have also been conducted in Balkh, Samangan, and Jawzjan provinces this year.
Alhough it is too early to say if Afghan and Coalition forces were successful in dislodging IMU fighters from their stronghold in Kunduz, it is clear that Baghlan has emerged as key base in the country. ISAF is likely to continue to focus its efforts in the province during the 2013 fighting season, which at its current pace, could prove more active than previous years.
Danish jihadist killed while fighting for Muhajireen Brigade in Syria
The Muhajireen Brigade, a unit made up of foreign jihadists who fight in Syria, has announced that a fighter from Denmark was killed while battling the Syrian government in early March. More than 500 Europeans are thought to be fighting with the rebels in Syria.
In a video released on jihadist forums yesterday, the Muhajireen Brigade (Emigrants Brigade), which is allied with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, announced the death of Danish citizen Kenneth Sørensen. The video was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence group.
Sørensen, who was also known as Abu 'Aisha al Dinmarki and Abdul Malik al Dinmarki, was killed on March 3. He had "an appointment with martyrdom to attain what he wished for in the countryside of Latakia, in a fierce battle between the heroes of Islam and the soldiers of the regime," the video said, according to SITE.
"Our brother Abu 'Aisha stood bravely and charged head on and didn't run away, until he passed," the video continued.
The Muhajireen Brigade recounted that Sørensen had traveled to Yemen, Lebanon. Egypt, and Libya before deciding to join the group. He was reportedly "detained in Yemen and Lebanon, because he frequented mosques and religious scholars." Sørensen had claimed he was tortured while in custody, and the Muhajireen Brigade said that a Danish television channel did a story on his detentions.
While in Yemen, Sørensen attended the radical Imam University in Sana'a, which is run by Abdulmajid al Zindani, who is on the US's list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists for his ties to Osama bin Laden. The US Treasury Department has described Zindani as a "bin Laden loyalist" who has provided crucial support to al Qaeda. Anwar al Awlaki, the American who served as a key leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also lectured at Imam University.
According to Morten Storm, who claims to have served as a double agent for Denmark's intelligence service and to have helped the US kill Anwar al Awlaki in a drone strike in 2011, Sørensen was not given access to Awlaki as he "was considered too boisterous and problematic by the Islamists," The Copenhagen Post reported last November. Storm and another Dane, known as Allen H., are said to have met with Awlaki.
Sørensen lived in Egypt for three years, then moved with his family to Libya as its civil war raged. Once Syria's civil war broke out, Sørensen "left his wife and four children in Libya and deployed to the Levant and joined the ranks of the Muhajireen Brigade and rose to fight the apostate Nusayri [Alawite] gangs."
Sørensen is one of hundreds of Europeans believed to be fighting in Syria. According to SAPO, Sweden's intelligence service, over 500 Europeans are thought be battling against the Syrian government; many are thought to be fighting for the Muhajireen Brigade and the Al Nusrah Front.
The Muhajireen Brigade is commanded by Abu Omar al Chechen, a jihadist from Russia's Caucasus region. The group is known to fight alongside the Nusrah Front and has participated in overrunning several Syrian military bases.
At the end of March, Abu Omar al Chechen announced that the Muhajireen Brigade had merged with several Syrian jihadist groups and formed the Muhajireen Army. The group has "more than 1,000 Mujahideen, Muslim volunteers from different countries, including the Caucasus Emirate," stated Kavkaz Center, a propaganda arm of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Caucasus Emirate.
Taliban claim bombing at political rally, name new emir of Kurram
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan claimed credit for a bombing today at a political rally in the tribal agency of Kurram that killed at least 18 people. Additionally, the Taliban named a new emir for the tribal agency.
The Pakistani Taliban group, which is closely linked to al Qaeda, claimed credit for the attack that targeted Munir Orakzai, a candidate for the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl political party. Orakzai escaped the blast unhurt, but 18 people are said to have been killed and 42 more were wounded.
The Taliban claimed credit for the attack in an email received by The Long War Journal from Ihsanullah Ihsan, the top spokesman for the group. Ihsan said Orakzai was targeted "not due to his current political affiliation with JUI," but because he aided the Pakistani government in turning over "arab mujahideen," a clear reference to al Qaeda operatives, to the US. Ihsan accused Orakzai of turning over al Qaeda operatives who fled the US offensive during the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001.
"We attacked him because of the crimes he committed against Islam and mujahideen," Ihsan said. "He handed over dozens of Arab mujahideen to America, now suffering in Gitmo. He worked with full zeal with ANP, MQM, and PPP [Pakistani political parties] for last five years in shedding blood of innocent tribesmen."
"We will never forgive him nor leave him alive," Ihsan also said.
Last week, Ihsan urged Pakistanis to "rebel" against the government, railed against democracy in Pakistan, and communicated the group's affinity for al Qaeda.
"We appeal to the Pakistani nation to save themselves from American puppets, " Ihsan said last week. "We appeal to the Pakistani public to boycott the election and rebel against this system, which has exploited the real aspirations and wishes of Pakistani public. We dedicate all our activities for the next decade to Sheikh Osama bin Laden and name this operation after him."
Over the past several weeks, the Pakistani Taliban have conducted several attacks against political candidates, party headquarters, and political gatherings. But the Taliban said they would not attack members of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl party.
The leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, Fazl Rehman, is widely credited with creating the Afghan Taliban by training many of its members in madrassas in Baluchistan province and northwestern Pakistan. Fazl led the opposition in parliament from 2004-2007. Despite his overt support for the Taliban, which continues to this day, he remains a free man in Pakistan.
A new Taliban emir for Kurram
In addition to explaining why Orakzai was targeted, Ihsan also said that the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has named a new leader for the tribal agency of Kurram.
"Hafiz Dolat Khan alias Hafiz Ahmed has been appointed as emir of Kurram Agency by TTP shura and the above mentioned operation was his first achievement," Ihsan concluded.
Khan replaced Maulvi Noor Jamal, who is also known as Maulvi Toofan and is considered a ruthless and bloodthirsty commander. Jamal is at the forefront of the sectarian war against the Shia population in Kurram. In early 2010, Jamal denied rumors that he had taken control of the Pakistani Taliban after Hakeemullah Mehsud was reported killed in late January 2010. In fact, Jamal claimed Hakeemullah was still alive.
In 2011, Jamal's forces clashed with Fazal Saeed Utezai, a former Taliban commander who defected to the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The fighting between the two groups quickly died down and Kurram has been relatively quiet since.
ISAF kills 2 'Arab'-linked commanders in Nuristan
Saleh Abd al Aziz Hamad al Luhayb. Image from Saudi Arabia's Ministry of the Interior.
Coalition and Afghan forces killed two "Arab"-linked insurgent commanders, a wanted Saudi and an Afghan, during two separate raids in the Waygal district of Nuristan province over the past week. The International Security Assistance Force is not linking commanders identified as having "Arab involvement" to al Qaeda or affiliated groups despite the fact that Saudis holding top al Qaeda leadership positions have been known to operate in Afghanistan.
Saleh Abd al Aziz Hamad al Luhayb, who was also known as Abu Sulayman and Salman, was killed in the first raid, which occurred on May 1. ISAF originally identified him as a "senior insurgent leader," a "known mortar and explosives expert," and a "key liaison and trainer to local insurgent commanders in Waygal district. Al Luhayb "led efforts to establish a permanent foreign fighter presence in the area," ISAF continued.
The term "foreign fighters" is defined by the US Department of Defense as "those fighters who have travelled to Afghanistan from outside the Afghanistan/Pakistan region," according to its December 2012 report on Afghanistan.
Al Luhayb was a "Saudi/Arab" who was affiliated with "foreign terrorists," ISAF later told The Long War Journal. But ISAF refused to identify al Luhayb as a member of or affiliated with al Qaeda. Instead, ISAF would only say "there are indications of Arab involvement."
When asked by The Long War Journal if "indications of Arab involvement" is a reference to al Qaeda, ISAF responded that "saying 'there are indications of Arab involvement' is as specific as we can get at this time."
Luhayb was listed by Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry as one of the 47 most wanted terrorists in 2011, which is a strong indication that he was a member of al Qaeda. Some of al Qaeda's top leaders are on Saudi Arabia's wanted lists [see LWJ report, Saudi Arabia names 47 most-wanted terrorists].
Saudis are known to hold top leadership positions within al Qaeda's network, and are also known to operate in neighboring Kunar province. ISAF has killed several top Saudi al Qaeda leaders in Kunar. Al Qaeda's leader in Kunar and Nuristan province has been identified as Farouq al Qahtani, a Saudi citizen. Another senior al Qaeda leader known to operate in Kunar is Azzam Abdullah Zureik Al Maulid Al Subhi, a Saudi who is better known as Mansur al Harbi [see LWJ reports, Senior al Qaeda leader, facilitator killed in airstrike in Kunar and ISAF captures al Qaeda's top Kunar commander].
Al Luhayb's death was first reported in the Afghan press on May 1. The governor of Nuristan told TOLOnews that an "Arab" fighter was killed in a NATO drone strike; the name of the Arab who was killed was not given, however.
When The Long War Journal inquired with ISAF about the reported drone strike that killed an Arab, ISAF denied that such an attack took place.
After ISAF reported al Luhayb's death in a press release, The Long War Journal inquired if he was killed in an airstrike or a ground raid. ISAF responded that "due to operational security we do not discuss our tactics and cannot detail the type of operation it was." However, in the past, ISAF has provided specific details of raids against insurgent targets in numerous press releases.
"Arab"-linked Afghan insurgent commander killed the next day
The second "Arab"-linked commander was killed in the Waygal district just one day later. ISAF identified the commander as Mohammad Issa, who was also known as Emirati. Issa was "a senior leader with ties to the Taliban and other terrorist networks" and was "in charge of training Taliban fighters and leaders responsible for attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces."
In addition to training and leading fighters, Issa "had a history of hosting transitory international terrorist in his home prior to them engaging in terrorist activities."
ISAF told The Long War Journal that Issa was an Afghan national and, like al Luhayb, "there are indications of Arab involvement."
ISAF obscuring links to al Qaeda
One other time this week, ISAF mentioned that it targeted an insurgent commander with links to Arabs. Prior to this week, however, ISAF has not used this terminology to describe leaders linked to the activities of foreign fighters.
On May 1, a "senior insurgent leader" with links to the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the Haqqani Network, and Arabs operating in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar was the focus of a joint raid by Afghan and Coalition forces. The leader also commands suicide bombers and runs a training camp in an undisclosed location along the Afghan-Pakistan border. ISAF told The Long War Journal that the commander is an Afghan and is associated with "Arab involvement."
ISAF has not mentioned a raid against al Qaeda's network in Afghanistan since Jan. 24, when it announced that Wali, an al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader, was killed during an operation in Dangam district in Kunar province. Wali served as both an al Qaeda facilitator and a Taliban commander; he coordinated operations between the two groups.
The only other reported raid against al Qaeda's network this year took place on Jan. 23, in the Ghaziabad district in Kunar. ISAF has reported on raids this year against al Qaeda-affiliated groups, however, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
In April, The Long War Journal identified the trend toward a lack of reporting on operations against al Qaeda and requested that ISAF discuss the terror group and its network in Afghanistan. A senior ISAF public affairs official said that ISAF "won't be able to support your request regarding the presence" of al Qaeda [see LWJ report, ISAF operations against IMU in 2013 at highest rate since war's start].
Most US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal were reluctant to discuss ISAF's current policy on discussing al Qaeda. But one senior official described the military command's position as "pure dissimulation on the part of ISAF."
The official said that senior officers at ISAF are uncomfortable with the fact that al Qaeda has maintained safe havens in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan after US forces withdrew from large areas of the provinces in 2009 and 2010 as part of the military's population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. US forces pulled out of remote locations in the two provinces even as ISAF was reporting that al Qaeda was running training camps there [see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda's top Kunar commander].
"This is everything to do with IJC [ISAF Joint Command] not wanting to publicly admit that there is an al Qaeda sanctuary in Kunar-Nuristan, even though the official Pentagon reports on the topic admit as much," the official said, referring to the April 2012 and December 2012 releases of the biannual Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan. The April 2012 report specifically mentioned that al Qaeda is trying to maintain safe haven in Kunar and Nuristan, while the December 2012 report more generally mentioned "the northeastern region" of Afghanistan. Additionally, a classified US military assessment based on prisoner interrogations that was leaked to The New York Times in February 2012 said that al Qaeda maintains "a small haven" in Kunar and Nuristan.
The official also said that Arabs in these areas are either members of al Qaeda or affiliated with the global terror group.
"Arab involvement doesn't always mean AQ [al Qaeda], but it does mean AQ affiliated," the official stated. "Sometimes Arab fighters belong to other groups, but all of those fighters are part of or closely affiliated with AQ."
"We do not want to admit this outside of the throwaway lines about al Qaeda having a safe haven in Kunar-Nuristan because to do so would place a whole host of decisions including the original withdrawal from Kunar-Nuristan in doubt and allow for the failure of our most bare bones remaining objective in Afghanistan," the official concluded.