One week after the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, France, a senior al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official claimed responsibility for the massacre on behalf of his organization. Newly released documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011 reveal that the same AQAP official, Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, was previously appointed to the role of deputy general manager within al Qaeda’s global hierarchy.
US officials often talk about al Qaeda as if there is a “core” in South Asia, and al Qaeda leaders who belong to this cadre are not stationed elsewhere. By any reasonable definition, however, al Ansi is a “core” al Qaeda leader. And so is his immediate boss, Nasir al Wuhayshi, a protégé of Osama bin Laden. Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor, appointed Wuhayshi to the role of al Qaeda’s global general manager in 2013.
This position gives Wuhayshi authority across al Qaeda’s global network, far afield from his headquarters in Yemen. Wuhayshi’s deputy general managers have never been publicly named. But it is highly likely that al Ansi continues to serve as a deputy general manager, given that he was first appointed to that role in 2010.
The recently-released bin Laden letters, which discuss al Ansi’s role, were introduced as evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer, who is alleged to have taken part in al Qaeda’s plotting in Europe and New York City.
The correspondence includes exchanges between bin Laden and Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager prior to being killed in a US drone strike in August 2011, and reveal details concerning al Qaeda’s restructuring. We learn that bin Laden created new positions within the al Qaeda hierarchy, including additional deputy managerial positions, even as his organization tried to find suitable replacements for leaders killed in the US drone campaign.
One letter from Rahman to bin Laden, dated July 15, 2010, discusses the virtues of a jihadist known as ‘Abd-al-Jalil. That is the same nom de guerre used by Nasser bin Ali al Ansi.
Indeed, the Al Wasat newspaper in Yemen published an interview with al Ansi in November 2013. His interviewer, Abd al Razzaq al Jamal, is a journalist with well-known ties to Yemeni jihadists. Al Jamal provided a biography for al Ansi, noting that he was called ‘Abd-al-Jalil during his time in Afghanistan and had worked for bin Laden. In 1998, according to the biography, bin Laden appointed al Ansi to serve as al Qaeda’s emir at a guesthouse in Kabul. Later, bin Laden assigned al Ansi to a secretive mission in the Philippines. Al Qaeda has since released a virtually identical biography for al Ansi.
Al Ansi is, therefore, an al Qaeda leader who has long served the upper echelon of the organization.
In his July 15, 2010 letter, Rahman cites a previous missive from bin Laden, in which the al Qaeda master asked Rahman “to provide the names of some brothers who are ready, one of whom will become your [Rahman’s] deputy” general manager.
Rahman writes that he does not believe anyone other than Abu Yahya al Libi, a senior al Qaeda leader who succeeded Rahman in the role of al Qaeda’s general manager before being killed in an airstrike in June 2012, is “fully prepared” for the role. Rahman notes that al Libi has been the second deputy “since you [bin Laden] sent the order to create the second deputy position.” This underscores the degree to which bin Laden personally oversaw his group’s inner workings.
Rahman complains that al Qaeda is “short in staff and leaders…because people are deserting and the like.” (Other parts of the files indicate that bin Laden’s subordinates took active measures to replenish their leadership ranks. In addition, capable jihadist leaders, including al Ansi, who have survived the drone campaign are identified in the correspondence.)
Bin Laden’s confidant also worries out loud that the role he is asked to serve in is too much for him. “I ask God to make it easier for me, and to find someone better than me to take over this mission,” Rahman writes. Despite his protests, Rahman accepted the position.
The July 2010 letter then includes a summary of the al Qaeda leaders available to serve as Rahman’s deputies at the time. Some of the jihadists mentioned have since been killed, while others remain active. When summarizing the al Qaeda talent from the Arabian Peninsula, Rahman first mentions an Abu-‘Uthman, but quickly concludes “he is not suitable for this.” Al Ansi is, however.
“We have others who are better; a brother named ‘Abd-al-Jalil who came during the last days of the [Taliban’s] Emirate,” Rahman writes. “He was among those who were imprisoned in Kabul by [Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s] people and then released.”
According to Rahman’s letter, Al Ansi was imprisoned alongside Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman (“Saif”), the son of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (a.k.a. “The Blind Sheikh”), and Azzam al Zahrani.* The junior Rahman was killed in a US drone strike in October 2011.
Al Ansi (‘Abd-al-Jalil) is “a good brother and may be qualified in the future,” Rahman writes. “We might try to make him a deputy now and I will look into that matter. I [will] investigate him and let you know in another letter.” Rahman then reminds bin Laden that al Ansi had been recommended to him before. “If you remember, he [al Ansi] is the one Al Hafiz suggested to you earlier to become spokesman of al Qaeda.”
Based on a close reading of other files used in a New York courtroom, the “Al Hafiz” mentioned by Rahman is Mustafa Abu Yazid, who served as one of bin Laden’s closest advisors until he was killed in a US drone strike in May 2010. Rahman discusses the circumstances surrounding Yazid’s demise in another letter introduced as a court exhibit. That Yazid personally recommended to bin Laden that al Ansi serve as al Qaeda’s spokesman speaks volumes about how highly regarded al Ansi is within al Qaeda.
While al Ansi was not named al Qaeda’s spokesman, his current role includes many of the same duties, as he offers commentary on events around the world. And there is a good reason why he is so entrusted: Osama bin Laden himself approved al Ansi’s appointment to the role of deputy general manager.
In a letter dated Aug. 7, 2010, bin Laden told Rahman that al Ansi could serve as his “second deputy.”
And in a previously released letter, dated Oct. 21, 2010, bin Laden elaborated on his order to Rahman. “Appoint him [‘Abd-al-Jalil/al Ansi] as a second deputy if you need to for a year from the date of the arrival of your letter to him with the possibility for renewal,” bin Laden wrote.
On Nov. 23, 2010, Rahman penned another letter to bin Laden and again counted al Ansi among the jihadists fit for a senior leadership position. The letter was introduced as evidence in the Brooklyn trial. Rahman listed ‘Abd-al-Jalil (al Ansi) as being among the “brothers who are prepared for responsibilities in the future.” By that point, however, bin Laden had already granted permission for Rahman to name al Ansi has one of his deputies.
Although the information contained in the letters is nearly five years old, there are many indications that al Ansi continues to serve al Qaeda as a deputy general manager. His media profile has been consistently amplified since his relocation to Yemen in 2011. And al Qaeda has relied on al Ansi to comment on the most significant issues within the jihadist world, including its rivalry with the Islamic State.
In lengthy videos produced by AQAP, al Ansi also discusses matters that only a fully made man within al Qaeda would be allowed to address, including the contents of Osama bin Laden’s files.
Al Ansi says Abbottabad documents are “true,” but US hasn’t released all of them
Throughout al Ansi’s many public appearances, the senior al Qaeda official consistently cites Ayman al Zawahiri as being an active authority across al Qaeda’s international network.
When al Ansi claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack, for example, he said it was planned in “compliance” with the “command” of Allah to support his messenger, as well as the “order of our general emir, the generous Sheikh Ayman bin Muhammad al Zawahiri,” and the “will” of Sheikh Osama bin Laden. Al Ansi has also frequently argued that AQAP’s approach to waging jihad inside Yemen is consistent with the guidelines Zawahiri has issued.
In an AQAP-produced interview released in January, al Ansi was asked about Zawahiri’s supposed “loss of control over the branches of [the] al Qaeda Organization.” Al Ansi quickly denied that this is true. While conceding that Zawahiri’s communications are hampered by al Qaeda’s strict security protocols, al Ansi argued that Zawahiri is still in charge of al Qaeda’s branches and issues guidance to them.
During the same interview, al Ansi answered a question concerning the documents and files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound. One questioner wanted to know if the files are authentic. Al Ansi said the files were “true,” but “not all the documents were revealed.”
“We must take into consideration that some of these documents were merely discussions on a number of issues. The Americans did not reveal the letters completely,” al Ansi said, according to a translation of the interview obtained by The Long War Journal. Al Ansi then added that all Muslims should study the bin Laden files because they “incorporate important guidelines on political, sharia, methodical, [and] media aspects” of waging jihad.
Al Ansi could have added that the files say much about how own career, including his rise through al Qaeda’s ranks.
*Note: The identity of the Azzam al Zahrani is not clear, but the letter refers to him as being deceased. Originally, this article identified Zahrani as Mansur al Harbi, who is alive. That identification has been removed from the article.