AQAP profiles slain media operative tied to Ayman al Zawahiri’s brother

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Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released a short biography of Mustafa Ali (a.k.a. Humam al Masri), a jihadist who served in the group’s media department before he was killed in a US drone strike in late 2013.

The AQAP biography was released on Twitter. It was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Ali was imprisoned for five years under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, according to AQAP. He was released in the wake of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Ali then emigrated to Yemen at the beginning of 2012 in order “to join his mujahideen brothers in Ansar al Sharia.”

The biographers point out that Ansar al Sharia, which is a political front and alias for AQAP, ruled “over large areas in Abyan and Shabwa provinces in southern Yemen” at the time of Ali’s emigration to Yemen. Ali then “joined the Sharia and military training courses.”

“Due to [Ali’s] specialty in studying the media, and mastering the work with picture programs, design, and graphics, our martyr was chosen to be a member of the media department,” AQAP explains, according to SITE’s translation.

Ali moved from the media department to AQAP’s military department, but was then killed in a US drone strike in the Hadramout province.

Sought “knowledge” from Mohammed al Zawahiri while imprisoned

AQAP’s biography of Ali contains an interesting note concerning his imprisonment in Egypt. “He invested his time in prison in seeking knowledge and meeting with the experienced mujahideen such as sheikhs Mohammed al Zawahiri and Abdul Hakim Hasaan, may Allah preserve both of them and release them,” SITE’s translation reads.

Mohammed al Zawahiri is the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The younger Zawahiri was himself imprisoned in Egypt for years, only to be released after the uprisings against the Mubarak regime.

After his release from prison, the younger Zawahiri became a prolific advocate of al Qaeda’s ideology. He publicly denounced Western democracy and espoused al Qaeda’s supposed virtues while preaching in Tahrir Square, as well as during appearances on Egyptian television and radio programs. He also did interviews with Western journalists.

Mohammed al Zawahiri’s activities garnered additional scrutiny following the protest outside of the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. Zawahiri and several other al Qaeda-linked jihadists helped instigate the event, which was pro-al Qaeda from the first and led to the embassy’s walls being breached. The American flag was torn down and replaced with an al Qaeda-style black banner as protesters chanted, “Obama, Obama, we’re all Osama [bin Laden]!”

Four months later, in January 2013, Mohammed al Zawahiri orchestrated a less eventful protest outside of the French Embassy in Cairo. Banners of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri were flown outside of the embassy, as protesters objected to France’s intervention in Mali. Zawahiri repeatedly threatened France and the West at the time.

Despite his overt support for al Qaeda, Zawahiri claimed he was not really a member of his brother’s organization. Evidence collected by Western intelligence officials told a different story. Mohammed al Zawahiri was connected to jihadists across al Qaeda’s international network, and he reportedly helped Egyptian terrorists contact his older brother. One of his followers was killed during an attack on Malian soldiers in May 2013.

Mohammed al Zawahiri was rearrested by Egyptian authorities in August 2013. But during his time free from prison he was a prominent speaker at events hosted by Ansar al Sharia Egypt, an organization that advocated the imposition of al Qaeda-style sharia law. Ansar al Sharia Egypt was founded by a longtime comrade of the Zawahiri brothers.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Mustafa Ali would be drawn to Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, where al Qaeda first used the Ansar al Sharia brand in the post-Arab Spring world.

AQAP says in its biography that Mustafa Ali was influenced by another imprisoned jihadist known as “Abdul Hakim Hasaan.” That same alias is used by a senior al Qaeda official more commonly known as Sheikh Issa al Masri, but it is not clear if AQAP was referring to Sheikh Issa or some other jihadist. There have been conflicting reports about Sheikh Issa’s status, with some accounts placing him in custody. Sheikh Issa was operational throughout much of Mustafa Ali’s time in Egyptian custody.

Drone strike in Hadramout on Nov. 19, 2013

AQAP did not specify which US air strike killed Mustafa Ali, but indicated that the bombing took place sometime in late 2013. It is likely that Ali was killed in the Nov. 19, 2013 drone strike in Hadramout. Reports at the time indicated that 3 AQAP fighters had been killed, but the slain jihadists were not publicly identified. [See LWJ report, US drones kill 3 AQAP fighters in Yemen airstrike.]

It is not known if the US was targeting AQAP media operatives, military figures within the group, or both. While AQAP’s biography indicates that Ali had worked for the Al Malahem Media Foundation, the group’s propaganda arm, it also says that he had moved on to the “military department.”

Drone strikes in Yemen have killed both AQAP military commanders as well as media operatives. In September 2011, for instance, the US killed Anwar al Awlaki, the American propagandist, ideologue, recruiter, and operational commander, and Samir Khan, an American who ran Inspire Magazine, in an airstrike in Al Jawf province.

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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