Online jihadists discuss fate of al Qaeda operative held by Saudi Arabia

In recent days, prominent online jihadists have used Twitter to discuss the fate of Saleh al Qarawi, who is reportedly being held in Saudi Arabia. Al Qarawi was a senior leader in the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanon-based group that has claimed responsibility for rocket attacks in Israel as well as the July 28, 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

Al Qarawi reportedly suffered extensive injuries during a drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan in 2012. His wounds were so grave, according to Asharq al Awsat, that he was forced to return to his native Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment. Al Qarawi was one of the kingdom’s 85 most-wanted extremists when the Saudis reportedly arrested him on June 9, 2012.


Saleh al Qarawi, from the Saudi Interior Ministry’s list of 85 most-wanted terrorists.

More than one year later, pro-al Qaeda jihadists are agitating for al Qarawi’s release and denouncing the Saudis for supposedly reneging on an agreement not to hold him in custody.

One of these jihadists, according to BBC Monitoring, is Siyasi Mutaqa’id, “who was among the first to break the news about al Qarawi’s return to Saudi Arabia” in 2012. Mutaqa’id claims that the Saudis struck a deal with al Qaeda that would lead to al Qarawi’s freedom. In a series of tweets in late June, Mutaqa’id also claimed that al Qaeda may seek to retaliate against the Saudis for their violation of this supposed agreement.

Another jihadist, Al-Wathiq Billah, alleged in tweets on June 22 that the spies who betrayed al Qarawi’s location are being hunted down, with the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan) taking the lead. According to BBC Monitoring, Billah levied an even more sensational charge, claiming that Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayif struck the deal that led to al Qarawi’s return. In Billah’s telling, bin Nayif broke his agreement by jailing the Abdullah Azzam Brigades leader.

Still others have promoted al Qarawi’s cause on Twitter and the Ansar al Mujahidin website.

It is not possible to verify the jihadists’ various accusations, including the Saudis’ supposed broken promise. At a minimum, their posts demonstrate that al Qarawi remains a popular figure, similar to other jailed al Qaeda operatives and jihadists who have inspired calls to action. Leading online jihadists, such as Abu-Sa’d al-Amili, have weighed in recently to lend their support to al Qarawi’s cause.

Saudis claimed that al Qarawi operated inside Iran

When the Saudi government released its list of the top 85 most-wanted jihadists in February 2009, anonymous officials made a special effort to highlight al Qarawi’s role. Saudi officials cited by The New York Times explained that al Qarawi “has been operating from Iran for three years,” or since 2006.

The Times summarized comments made by a “Saudi security official,” who explained that al Qarawi was “in charge of leading Al Qaeda’s operations in the Persian Gulf and Iran, and of bringing new members into Afghanistan.” This same official added that al Qarawi was “believed to have more than 100 Saudis working for him in Iran, where they move about freely.”

A leaked State Department cable, dated Feb. 11, 2009, provides an additional detail concerning al Qarawi’s Iran ties. The cable notes that he “received explosives training in Iran.” The State Department added that al Qarawi “provided finds and recruits to late head of al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al Zarqawi” and “worked to unify various branches of al Qaeda.”

When the State Department designated al Qarawi a global terrorist more than two years later, on Dec. 15, 2011, the Iran connection was not mentioned. But the State Department confirmed that al Qarawi had “fought against US forces in Fallujah, Iraq” and worked with Zarqawi. In fact, al Qarawi has explained in propaganda messages that the Brigades started as an outgrowth of Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq.

Some of the online jihadists who have recently commented on al Qarawi’s detention have bristled at the notion that he worked inside Iran, calling the accusation a Saudi lie.

Abdullah Azzam Brigades threatens Iran, Hezbollah

In addition to attacking a Japanese oil tanker and Israeli civilians, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades “has repeatedly articulated its intent to carry out attacks against Western interests in the Middle East,” according to the State Department. “In 2010, for instance, the group expressed an interest in kidnapping US and British tourists in the Arabian Peninsula.”

In more recent days, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades has also threatened Iran and Hezbollah over their participation in the Syrian war.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the Brigades released a message titled, “A Statement about the Aggression of the Party of Iran,” on June 15. Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a Lebanese jihadist who has spoken on behalf of the Brigades, had previously posted excerpts from the statement on his Twitter feed.

The Brigades claimed that Iran and Hezbollah are waging a war “against Sunnis” and shedding their blood as part of their expansionist goals. The group also accused Hezbollah of spilling Muslim blood in Syria but refraining from attacking Israel.

“We on our side challenge Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s leader] and his fighting elements to fire one bullet at occupied Palestine and claim responsibility for that bullet, whether from their areas in Lebanon or through their brigades in Syria, which fired thousands of shells and bullets upon unarmed Sunnis and their women, elderly and children, and destroyed their homes on top of them,” the statement reads, according to SITE’s translation.


Majid bin Muhammad al Majid, from the Saudi Interior Ministry’s list of 85 most-wanted terrorists.

The Brigades have long supported the Syrian uprising. In a video message released on June 19, 2012, the group named its new emir as Majid bin Muhammad al Majid, who replaced al Qarawi as the group’s leader. Like al Qarawi, al Majid was also included on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list in February 2009.

In the video, al Majid said that the Syrian people should support the uprising against President Bashir al Assad’s regime and additional rebellions against Muslim governments would follow. [See LWJ report, Abdullah Azzam Brigades names leader, advises against attacks in Syria’s cities.]

The group’s latest statement is consistent with its rhetoric since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, as it has repeatedly threatened Iran, Hezbollah, and Shiites in general. Whereas the Brigades’ leadership reportedly received safe haven inside Iran for several years, the terrorist organization and the Iranian regime are now on opposite sides of the fight for the Assad family’s former stronghold.

Similarly, other al Qaeda-linked jihadists have called for attacks inside Shiite-led countries as retribution for the ongoing fight by Iran and Hezbollah against Sunni forces inside Syria.

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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  • mike merlo says:

    Why did the Saudi’s allow Qarawi to return in the 1st place? This sounds like Qarawi ‘cut’ some kind of a deal with the Saudi’s. Most likely the Saudi’s are ‘quarantining’ Qarawi for his own protection. Besides if his “injuries” were as enfeebling & threatening as ‘we’ve’ been led to believe then Qarawi probably isn’t too keen on leaving the hospital or whatever hospice or ‘confines’ he’s ‘R&Ring’ at.

  • Nolan says:

    Thanks for clearing up that mystery. The Saudis have continued to list Qarawi as wanted on their Interior Ministry website, and it’s interesting that they would hide the fact that he’d been arrested. Afterall, they announced that Adnan al-Sayegh, one of the former Guantanamo detainees on their 85 most wanted list, had surrendered a month after Qarawi’s arrest. Anyways, I had wondered why Majid was named the head of a group that was clearly under Qarawi’s hand, and I assumed it was because latter’s movements were somehow restricted in Iran. The article you cited says he lost his legs, a hand and an eye in the drone strike, so I’d say even if the Saudis did give him back, he’d be of no use. I also sincerely doubt Prince Mohamed made any sort of “deal.”

  • Taq says:

    ” The group also accused Hezbollah of spilling Muslim blood in Syria but refraining from attacking Israel.”
    Seems to me that Hezbollah has done plenty of attacking of Israel. Al Qaeda has plenty of catching up to do (not that I want them to). Hezbollah has fired how many rockets, kidnapped how many soldiers, and otherwise fought how many battles?
    Islam does have rules for Muslims fighting Muslims. Peace treaties are encouraged, are suppose to last 10 years and are not be be broken. Any peace treaty made with an infidel can be broken before the ink is dry if it would give a Muslim an advantage.
    This is crying over spilt milk. They are reaping the whirlwind and the karma is delicious.

  • Mr T says:

    Sounds like they can only get back half of Al Qarawi from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has the rest of him.

  • Nolan says:

    I doubt Qarawi cut any sort of deal, but one has to think that if he did it would be to give up the locations of compatriots. Or to keep him out of an interrogation chamber because of his past associations with Zarqawi and the Iranian al-Qaida pipelines. I give alot of credit to the Saudis in their efforts against militants in the past decade, but they are way too lenient and willing to declare “rehabilitation” for some. I think if Qarawi were a candidate for any sort of deal or said rehabilitation, we’d never have known he received treatment in the Kingdom. They are keeping him because he is too valuable to give up. Either because he can give them individuals or intelligence they desire OR because he can give us that intelligence. My thoughts are that Prince Mohamed is just leading the Interior Ministry in a much more secluded and secretive direction than his father Prince Naif ever did. Prince Naif left the operations against militants within and outside of the Kingdom relatively open, but since his death we have seen information become much more sparse. There was a report in September of a wanted militant surrendering, but his name was never released. Also, just before that instance, two more Saudi wanted were reported as in custody, yet their names were not released. I only deduced their identities from the Interior Ministry records. This kind of secrecy was never the case in the early parts of the last decade. Qarawi is a prime example of this theory. With such a significant militant being taken into custody and it not being officially reported, coupled with the idea that he’s been offered a deal, the assumption is easy to make that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades or al-Qaida as a whole is receiving preferred treatment. I don’t believe that is true; rather the secrecy of pre 2003 Saudi Arabia is creeping back in. Therefore conspiracy ideas arise. The Saudis, I believe, are only fearful of the perception of being too lenient on militants. Yet again.

  • mike merlo says:

    When have the likes of Qarawi & his “Fellow Travelers” not “cut a deal?” That’s a Standard Operational Tactic repeatedly employed by the aforementioned which is also well documented.


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