Yesterday’s Men

The arrest of Abu Farraj al-Libbi has already produced results. Well over two dozen al Qaeda operatives have been arrested based on the intelligence gathered from interrogations. Thirteen other al Qaeda members, including 10 Uzbuk, Chechan and Afghan nationals, have been arrested in the Bajaur Agency, but it is claimed these arrests are not related to al-Libbi’s capture. The Pakistani security forces have put a dent in several al Qaeda cells, and all is not as quiet as claimed in Pakistan’s western tribal areas.

The status of al-Libbi’s detention is uncertain at this time as the Pakistanis have not decided whether or not he will be turned over to the United States. A controversy has brewed over the importance of al-Libbi’s role within al Qaeda’s leadership. Dan Darling reports that Saif al-Adel is al Qaeda’s third in command, and that al-Libbi is the commander of al Qaeda in Pakistan, holding the same rank as Zarqawi does in Iraq. Agence France-Presse, however, claims to have viewed the CIA’s classified listing of al Qaeda’s hierarchy and al-Libbi is ranked at number three.

Perhaps the most uninformed account of al-Libbi’s importance comes from the Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad, who states al-Libbi is not an important figure in al Qaeda as he does not personally carry out attacks:

Al-Qaeda is a very different type of organization from, for instance, Palestinian groups, which promote champions such as Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal, who carried out repeated acts of terror.

Al-Qaeda does not encourage “heroes” in this manner. Instead, previously unknown people are picked for attacks, and only then do they come onto the radar of intelligence agencies and become wanted figures.

Take for example Ramzi Binal Shib, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Mohammed Atta, all involved in September 11, and dozens of others. They are set up for one event, and that’s it. At best, they subsequently become facilitators, or yesterday’s men.

While this may be true for Mohammed Atta, the tactical commander and a pilot of the 9-11 attacks, this is not the case for Ramzi Binalshib, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad or a host of al Qaeda’s most experienced operatives and commanders. Atta and his cohort’s mission specifically called for sleepers with no record of terrorist activity (some of the hijackers did have a record, however, indicating “clean” agents are in demand). Both Binalshib and KSM are responsible for multiple terrorist attacks and unfulfilled operations. Ramzi Binalshib was involved several incidents prior to the planning of 9-11:

Intelligence officials say Mr Binalshib may also have been involved in two other operations blamed on al Qaeda.

One was the suicide attack in Yemen on the USS Cole, an American destroyer, in which 17 sailors died in 2000.

The other was the attack on a Tunisian synagogue earlier this year, in which 14 German tourists were killed.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was also involved in numerous acts of terrorism, was the head of al Qaeda’s military committee and established numerous contacts and networks world wide:

He is believed to have masterminded the suicide-hijackings in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and is regarded as one of the most senior operatives in Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

Sheikh Mohammed has not yet been charged in connection with the events of 11 September, in which more than 3,000 people died.

However he has been indicted, since 1996, with plotting to blow up 11 or 12 American airliners flying from south-east Asia to the United States in January, 1995.

The self-proclaimed head of al Qaeda’s military committee has also been linked to

• the kidnap and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002

• the 2002 suicide bomb attack on a Tunisian synagogue in which 21 people died

• a plot to assassinate the Pope during the Pontiff’s 1995 visit to the Philippines

Al Qaeda is very selective in choosing its members, only the most trusted and ideologically pure are allowed to enter the inner circle of al Qaeda’s leadership. Men like al-Libbi, Binalshib, KSM, Atef and Zarqawi do not achieve status within al Qaeda based on one-and-done operations. They achieve their status by patient work, building contacts in the Islamists circles, establishing networks with regional Islamist terrorist groups, recruiting, training, raising money for al Qaeda’s operations, and planning and excuting successful missions. Al Qaeda emphasizes their purpose over the glory of the individual.

The reason Ramzi Binalshib, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Farraj al-Libbi and a host of al Qaeda operatives are “yesterday’s men” is because they have been detained or killed.

Image Problems:

Arthur Chrenkoff notes that angering the United States is bad for the stylish terrorist’s image.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Dave Schuler says:

    I think you may have got it backwards. I suspect that the arrest of Abu Farraj Al-Libbi (hate these dopey Al-Qaeda nommes de guerre) enabled the Pakistani authorities to arrest guys who had previously been in their sights without tipping their hands. I doubt that these arrests resulted from new intelligence garnered from Al-Libbi (or materials seized with him). It’s too early.

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  • Bill Roggio says:

    The Papers are the ones claiming the intel from the interrogation was used to round the latest batch. Is it possible this is bad information? Of course, but it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to me. We have seen similar quick results in the past (the capture of Zarqawi’s laptop and aides led to some pretty quick arrests).
    What we do not know is how long al-Libbi was in custody (my guess would be about a week), what “methods” the Pakistanis used or threatened to use, and how much of these “methods” al-Libbi can take. al-Libbi knows he was a very wanted man in Pakistan based on his role in ordering Musharraf’s death. No doubt there is some squirming going on in the ISI and military over what al-Libbi might divulge.
    Agreed on the al Qaeda nommes de guerre. Agreed.

  • Dan Darling says:

    On Saif al-Adel being the real #3, you may want to look at this (login “biased” and password “biased”).

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  • Enigma says:

    I’m curious about something. How does AFP get to see a classified CIA listing? Any thoughts?

  • Enigma says:

    I had a thought similar to Dave’s. Is it possible the additional arrests were based on earlier intelligence—timed to make al-Libi appear as the source—and the real intelligence payoff is soon to come? Just wondering.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    The DoD and CIA seem to have zero problems leaking classified materials these days. Shameless.
    Concerning the last point, anything is possible in the world of spycraft. The challange I have is to try to cut through the reports to see what is going on. Sinc ethe claim that they were arrested based on info obtained from al-Libbi is reasonable, and I have nothing available to discount this, I accept it until something disproves the info. I do think that sources need to take care to not lie to the media at every turn. They may slip in false info now and then, but I doubt it is commonplace.


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