State Department designations target al Qaeda’s international network

The US State Department announced a series of designations today. Several of the newly-designated terrorists are part of al Qaeda’s international network. At least four of them have been tied to the jihad in Syria. And the State Department reports that one of these operatives has been involved in planning attacks in Europe.

In addition to the jihadists tied to al Qaeda’s operations in Syria, the US government designated an al Qaeda operative named Abd al Baset Azzouz, who “has had a presence in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and Libya.”

State notes that Azzouz “was sent to Libya in 2011 by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to build a fighting force there, and mobilized approximately 200 fighters.” Azzouz “is considered a key operative capable of training al Qaeda recruits in a variety of skills,” such as building improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The designation of Azzouz confirms some of the details previously reported by CNN, as well as by an analysis shop in the Defense Department.

An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlights al Qaeda’s strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya, and it identified Azzouz as playing a key role in these plans. The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO).

The report’s authors noted that Azzouz had been sent to Libya by Zawahiri and has been close to the al Qaeda leader “since 1980.” Azzouz “first visited Afghanistan in the 1990s to join the mujahedin fight against the Soviet occupation.” In Libya, according to the CTTSO report, Azzouz “has been operating at least one training center” and has hundreds of men under his command. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report.]

Tied to al Qaeda’s jihad in Syria

Mohammed Abdel Halim Hemaida Saleh, who was also designated today, may be tied to al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan group,” which the US struck in a new bombing campaign earlier this week. US officials say the group was planning to launch attacks in the West, including possibly inside the US.

According to the State Department, Saleh is a “member of al Qaeda” and was arrested by Egyptian authorities in May 2013 for plotting to attack Western embassies in Cairo.

Egyptian officials have said that the operatives responsible for the 2013 plot against the Western embassies were in contact with a senior al Qaeda official known as Dawood al Assadi. This is one of the aliases used by Muhsin al Fadhli, who is a leader in the Khorasan group. An Egyptian official also said that the cell was in contact with a terrorist “responsible for receiving terrorists on Turkish borders,” who may have been Assadi. This fits with what is known about al Fadhli’s relocation to Syria in early 2013.

Therefore, Saleh may be connected to al Fadhli.

According to the Egyptian government, Saleh’s cell had ties to the Muhammad Jamal Network, which was run by one of Zawahiri’s loyalists, as well.

Saleh “believed in conducting attacks against American and Israeli interests,” according to State. And, as of mid-2013, Saleh “had been recruiting suicide bombers to send to Syria and had been planning terrorist activities against unspecified targets in Europe.”

Another jihadist designated today is Muhannad al Najdi. Foggy Bottom describes al Najdi as a “Syria-based al Qaeda facilitator of Saudi nationality.”

“Prior to traveling to Syria in 2013,” according to State, “al Najdi was involved in facilitation and operational planning in support of attacks in Afghanistan.” State adds that al Najdi “has also been involved in the development of improvised explosive devices for use in Afghanistan and Syria” since at least 2010.

Two other individuals included in US government’s designation today have also operated in Syria. Nusret Imamovic is described as a “Bosnian terrorist leader operating in Syria.” He is “now believed to be fighting with” the Al Nusrah Front, which is an official branch of al Qaeda.

Finally, State says that Abdessamad Fateh (a.k.a Abu Hamza) “is a member of a Scandinavia-based network of extremists allegedly linked to al Qaeda, and has traveled to 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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