Al Qaeda’s #3 misidentified again

Ahmad Siddiqui, the German-Afghan at the heart of al Qaeda’s latest plot against European cities, has reportedly fingered a previously unknown terrorist as al Qaeda’s number three. According to Der Spiegel, Siddiqui has told his interrogators at the detention facility in Bagram that Sheikh Younis al Mauritani (“the Mauritanian) was both al Qaeda’s external operations chief and third in the chain of command, behind only Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

However, US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal denied that Sheikh Younis al Mauritani is as senior as Siddiqui has reportedly claimed. Sheikh Younis is involved in al Qaeda’s plotting against the West, these officials said, but he is not al Qaeda’s number three.

In fact, it is likely that no such position (a so-called number three, or third in command) even exists within al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda does have an external operations chief, but his name is presently unknown. Al Qaeda does not publish organizational charts, of course. So, much of the organization’s internal structure remains obscured from public view. From what US intelligence officials have been able to piece together, al Qaeda’s external operations committee – that is, its committee devoted to executing attacks in the West – has a full-time staff comprised of propagandists, theologians, trainers, engineers, operational security personnel, and other positions.

Sheikh Younis al Mauritani is a senior member of this staff, according to US officials, but he is not in charge of the whole operation.

He is not the first al Qaeda leader to be mistakenly called al Qaeda’s number three, either.

Who’s number three?

Numerous al Qaeda leaders have been described as the third in command, and the reports have often contradicted each other. For instance, media reports have claimed that the ideologue, strategist, and military commander Abu Yahya al Libi was al Qaeda’s third in command. Yet when Saleh al Somali, al Qaeda’s last positively identified external operations chief, was killed in December 2009, he was described as number three.

Earlier this year, FBI officials identified Adnan el Shukrijumah as al Qaeda’s external operations chief. This conflicts with Der Speigel‘s report. El Shukrijumah is not the head of al Qaeda’s external operations committee either, according to the US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal.

Instead, el Shukrijumah is al Qaeda’s operations chief for North America. In this role, el Shukrijumah is akin to a subject matter expert since he lived inside the US for years. After the Sept. 11 attacks, senior al Qaeda leaders in US custody identified el Shukrijumah as the terrorist most likely to lead a next round of attacks on American soil. An international manhunt was launched, making it exceedingly difficult for el Shukrijumah to personally lead an attack.

Today, el Shukrijumah is in northern Pakistan, where he is a member (although not the head) of al Qaeda’s external operations committee. The former Florida resident shares his knowledge of America, and potential targets therein, with operatives. El Shukrijumah had previously cased targets inside the US, including in the New York area, for senior al Qaeda terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He helped train the al Qaeda operatives who intended to attack New York City commuter trains and subways in 2009. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda sleeper agent tied to 2009 NYC subway plot.]

Another example of the number three myth is Sheikh Fateh al Masri, al Qaeda’s leader of forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Masri was described as al Qaeda’s number three when he was killed earlier this month. His predecessor, Mustafa Abu Yazid, was also called al Qaeda’s number three.

Bekkay Harrach, a member of al Qaeda’s external operations committee

The recent plot against European cities has strong ties to al Qaeda operatives inside Germany and, in particular, to the Taiba mosque in Hamburg. The mosque was previously known as Al Quds and was the meeting ground for al Qaeda’s notorious Hamburg cell. Given the ties between al Qaeda in Germany and this most recent plot, one name to look out for is Bekkay Harrach, who goes by the alias Abu Talha al Almani.

Harrach has been a member of al Qaeda since March of 2007, according to the German Federal Public Prosecutor. Harrach worked part-time at the Muhadshirin Mosque in Bonn, where he was recruited by al Qaeda scout Aleem Nasir, and received a letter of recommendation that opened doors to the terror network’s training camps. He is known to have received military training in an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Abu Ubaidah al Masri, al Qaeda’s external operations chief until his death in early 2008, assigned Harrach to his branch. Harrach quickly rose through the ranks and became a member of the external operations council, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal in October 2009.

Harrach has also become a senior propagandist for al Qaeda. In September 2009, Harrach released several propaganda videos that focused on the German elections. In one video, Harrach threatened to conduct attacks in German cities.

[For more information on Bekkay Harrach, see LWJ report, German al Qaeda leader sanctioned by US Treasury.]

Other al Qaeda leaders involved in overseas operations

While al Qaeda’s true external operations chief remains unidentified to the public, numerous senior terrorists are known to have been involved in planning operations. Al Qaeda’s leadership in Iran has been tied to operations inside not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the Persian Gulf states and North Africa.

On April 11, 2002, al Qaeda operatives bombed a Jewish synagogue in Tunisia, killing 19 people. The attack was reportedly ordered by Saif al Adel, a senior member of al Qaeda’s military committee; and Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son and presumed heir. Both were sheltered inside Iran at the time.

Then, on May 12, 2003, al Qaeda bombed three apartment buildings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 35 people. It was after the Riyadh bombings that the Iranians placed Saif and Saad under a loose form of house arrest.

More recently, there are reports that both men made their way to northern Pakistan, where Saad may have been killed in an airstrike. Saad’s death has not been confirmed and US intelligence officials caution he could still be alive. It is possible that Saif al Adel and Saad bin Laden are both involved in al Qaeda’s current external operations, given their past involvement in plotting overseas attacks.

A deep bench

Al Qaeda has a deep bench inside Pakistan and relies on highly-skilled operatives from other like-minded jihadist organizations in plotting against the West. Members of various terror groups allied with al Qaeda, including Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), work with al Qaeda’s external operations committee.

Al Qaeda shares a safe haven in northern Pakistan with these groups, and this allows the organization to regenerate its external operations network despite being heavily targeted by the covert US air campaign in the tribal areas.

No terrorist better typifies this phenomenon than Rashid Rauf. A senior member of JeM, which was founded by the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, Rauf has a long pedigree in Pakistan’s terror circles. He is a relative of Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of JeM. His father founded Crescent Relief, a Muslim charity that collected funds for earthquake relief and is currently under investigation for funding the failed 2006 London airliner plot.

Rauf and senior al Qaeda leader Matiur Rehman were the architects of the 2006 London airline plot. The foiled attack, which has been called the “son of Bojinka,” was modeled after the 1995 Bojinka plot devised by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his nephew Ramzi Yousef. Rauf also assisted Adnan el Shukrijumah in training the al Qaeda operatives who planned to attack trains in the New York City area last year.

[For more information on Rashi Rauf, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda operative Rashid Rauf survived US strike.]

Ilyas Kashmiri, like Rauf, is a good example of how al Qaeda fills leadership voids by hand-selecting members from allied terror groups. Kashmiri is one of al Qaeda’s top military leaders and the architect of al Qaeda’s terror assaults utilizing coordinated suicide attack teams in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Kashmiri is the operational commander of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI), a terror group backed by Pakistan’s military and Inter-Service Intelligence directorate. He is also the leader of Brigade 313, al Qaeda’s military organization in Pakistan. His training camp in Miramshah is hosted in a region administered by Siraj Haqqani, a top Taliban and al Qaeda leader.

Kashmiri has organized multiple attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, including the November 2008 terror assault on the Indian city of Mumbai, in collaboration with the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He has also attempted to execute attacks in the US and in Denmark, and was indicted by the US in 2009 along with David Coleman Headley, his point man. In Pakistan, he masterminded the assassination of the former commander of the Pakistani Special Services Group, and organized attacks on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters and Pakistani police headquarters in Lahore.

[For more information on Ilyas Kashmiri, see LWJ report, US adds Ilyas Kashmiri to list of designated terrorists.]

No number three

In all likelihood, al Qaeda has no number three per se. Instead, the organization relies on an extensive roster of individuals to carry out its bidding. And although it is clear that al Qaeda has an external operations chief – the group has long filled that position with senior terrorists – his identity remains hidden from the public for now.

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

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  • Tyler says:

    This is something that has nagged me for years. Anytime KSM or his various supposed replacements were called ‘Al Qaeda’s #3’ when for the most part they probably all ranked well down on the hierarchy behind the many members of Al Qaeda’s Shura Council.
    Though I would suggest that the man who perhaps came closer than anyone was Mustafa Yazid. I would not rule out that he was the de facto leader of Al Qaeda Central with Osama and Zawahiri so deep in hiding. Overseeing finances, personnel, AfPak operations, and operations in the West.

  • Paul says:

    Surely we must have CIA agents/Special Ops working on the ground in North Waziristan because this is where the Camps/ALQ central is?

  • jayc says:

    “Senior German al Qaeda operative thought killed in Predator strike in Pakistan”
    Bill, you wrote this about Harrach on 22 Sep. Do you now think he is still alive?


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