As the so-called “Arab Spring” swept through the Muslim-majority world in 2011, some US officials and counterterrorism analysts proclaimed that al Qaeda had been left “on the sidelines.” However, the limited selection of publicly-available documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011 tell a different story. The al Qaeda chieftain and his subordinates saw an opportunity.
Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager, discussed the political upheaval in a letter written to bin Laden just weeks before the al Qaeda CEO was killed in his Abbottabad, Pakistan safe house. Rahman’s letter was 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. Just months after penning it, Rahman was killed in a US drone strike in northern Pakistan.
“We are currently following the Arab Revolutions and the changes taking place in Arab countries,” Rahman wrote. “We praise you, almighty God, for the demise of the tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Rahman mentions the “situation” in countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, explaining that he has included “some of what” he “wrote to some of my brothers concerning these revolutions.”
“In general,” Rahman argued, “we think these changes are sweeping, and there is good in them, God willing.” Rahman wondered if bin Laden had considered putting out a speech on the uprisings, noting that al Qaeda’s CEO had “not made any statements as of now,” as “hopefully” bin Laden was “waiting for these revolutions to mature and reach stability.”
Rahman wrote that “it might be good for” Yunis al Mauritani, a key figure in al Qaeda’s “external operations” (or international terrorist operations) who was subsequently captured in Pakistan, to “send his brothers to Tunisia and Syria and other places.” Bin Laden’s general manager believed that the “Syrian brothers would have to wait a little for the revolution in Syria to succeed in taking down Bashar Assad’s regime, and for the country to become degenerated and chaotic.”
His conclusion proved to be wrong. Al Qaeda groomed an official branch in Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, to battle Assad’s government and its allies. And al Qaeda’s senior leadership later sent a cadre of officials to Syria to help guide this effort, as well as to plot attacks in the West.
The Tunisian with Yunis “could travel straight to Tunisia now,” as “he could easily enter the country, and then some of our people could travel there and get in,” Rahman wrote. The “three Syrians” will “hopefully” be able to get into their home country. There is no clear indication of who these Syrians and the Tunisian are, or what happened to them. Some of Yunis’ men were eventually captured alongside him, while others likely remained free.
But the bin Laden files give some details with respect to Libya.
Freed members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)
“The changes that have taken place in the Arab region are enormous, and many other things must change with them,” Rahman wrote. “Take Libya as an example. The last thing we have heard from the brothers in Libya is that they have started to arrange their affairs. They are engaging in activities and they have a role there, praise God.”
Rahman’s words confirm that early on in the Libyan revolution al Qaeda’s senior leaders were communicating with their “brothers” in the country. He goes on to note the role played by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al Qaeda-linked organization that gave bin Laden some of his most trusted lieutenants.
“Brothers from the Libyan Fighting Group and others are out of jail,” Rahman wrote. “There has been an active Jihadist Islamic renaissance underway in Eastern Libya (Benghazi, Derna, Bayda and that area) for some time, just waiting for this kind of opportunity. We think the brothers’ activities, their names, and their ‘recordings’ will start to show up soon.”
It is interesting to note that Rahman seemed encouraged by the release of the LIFG members, despite the fact that some of the group’s imprisoned leaders in Libya had previously rejected another LIFG faction’s decision to formally merge with al Qaeda. That rebuke of al Qaeda, issued in September 2009, was made while the LIFG jihadists were stills detained by Muammar al Qaddafi.
Rahman was right to be bullish with respect to the jihadists’ prospects in Libya. In their 2009 revisions, the detained LIFG leadership said they had given up on their quest to dethrone Qaddafi. But when the opportunity arose less than two years later, LIFG veterans became key rebel leaders in the fight against the regime. And while the LIFG evolved into multiple factions, some of its committed jihadists continue to fight against anti-Islamist forces to this day.
LIFG veterans who had previously joined al Qaeda, such as an ex-Guantanamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu, were among the jihadists who returned to the fight. Ben Qumu went on to become a prominent figure in Ansar al Sharia in Derna, which has worked with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of of al Qaeda, and other al Qaeda groups in Libya. On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, some of Ansar al Sharia in Derna’s fighters took part in the assault on the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya.
Another LIFG veteran, Salim Derby, leads the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB) in Derna. In December of 2014, the ASMB established the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an alliance of jihadists in the city. The MSC was set up in opposition to General Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
The “brothers’ enthusiasm” for jihad in Libya
The newly-released bin Laden files show that al Qaeda operatives requested to relocate to Libya in 2011 and Rahman approved their request.
“Still on the subject of Libya, because of the brothers’ enthusiasm and the opportunities that provides for the Jihad there, as well as how much the brothers want to engage in Jihad against the tyrants there,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden, “Brother Anas al-Subi’i al-Libi and others have sought permission to go to Libya.”
Anas al-Subi’i al-Libi was the nom de guerre of Nazih Abdul Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai’i, who is more commonly known as Abu Anas al Libi. US forces captured Abu Anas in Tripoli in late 2013 and he was transferred to a prison in New York, where he died awaiting trial last year. Federal prosecutors, who charge Abu Anas with helping to plan al Qaeda’s 1998 US embassy bombings, had planned to use bin Laden’s files in the trial. Excerpts in the recently released documents are consistent with previous reports about the files’ contents. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Osama bin Laden’s documents pertaining to Abu Anas al Libi should be released.]
Rahman explained to bin Laden that Abu Anas had written a letter to Abu Yahya al Libi (Rahman’s deputy at the time), and Abu Anas was upset with Rahman for not responding sooner. The letter from Abu Anas was apparently attached to Rahman’s own missive to bin Laden.
“He is upset with me for taking so long to answer,” Rahman wrote. “Of course, the reason for my delay is very objective; praise God, I can be excused, God willing: it is because I have been away, under cover, in hiding, and I have had little contact or movement during this time. The letters he is indicating only just made it to me.”
Rahman forwarded onto bin Laden the reply he sent to Abu Yahya. “In short, I gave him [Abu Anas] permission to go to Libya,” Rahman explained.
Al Qaeda had concerns about Abu Anas though. “He (Anas) has been in bad shape psychologically since he came to us from Iran,” Rahman wrote. Abu Anas had sent his family away. “When he came here he was very agitated, showing signs of anxiety and depression,” Rahman noted. “He normally has problems with interpersonal issues and mood swings.” Therefore, Abu Yahya and “our aids” took steps to make Abu Anas “feel more comfortable.”
Even so, Abu Anas broke al Qaeda’s security protocols. Rahman fumed: “He was in touch with his family in Libya, even though he knew we had prohibited all communications, and even though it was known that he is a dangerous man and wanted by the Americans, and so on, he contacted them by telephone repeatedly!”
Despite al Qaeda’s concerns, Abu Anas was reintegrated into the organization’s chain-of-command. A previous letter from Rahman to bin Laden, dated June 19, 2010, notes that Abu Anas was assigned to al Qaeda’s security committee. “I directed him [Abu Anas] to work with the brothers in the security committee,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden. “I told them to sit with him and introduce to him the work and the world etc. It is normal for any person after a long absence, especially in jail, that he needs some time to figure out how things work.” Rahman added that Abu Anas was seeking “reassurance” about bin Laden. “We reassured him and told him about your letters and that you follow his news through us.”
In August 2012, more than one year after Abu Anas moved back to Libya, analysts in the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO) published a report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) that analyzed al Qaeda’s covert plan for the country. Abu Anas was identified in the report as the “builder of al Qaeda’s network in Libya.” The CTTSO surmised that Abu Anas is “most likely involved in al Qaeda strategic planning and coordination between AQSL [Al Qaeda Senior Leadership] and Libyan Islamist militias who adhere to al Qaeda’s ideology.” [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report.]
‘Urwah al Libi in direct contact with AQSL
The bin Laden files reveal new details concerning AQSL’s ability to communicate with operatives in Libya.
Abu Anas was drawn back to his native country by the uprising against Qaddafi and the role that his al Qaeda brethren were playing in it. In particular, Abu Anas’ zeal for the jihad was fueled by the experience of his comrade, ‘Urwah al Libi.
Rahman wrote to bin Laden in 2011 that Abu Anas had learned the “brother ‘Urwah al Libi (who had been in prison with him [Abu Anas] in Iran) had traveled and gotten [into] Libya.” ‘Urwah al Libi “contacted Anas and encouraged him to come, telling him the roads were good and travel was easy.”
‘Urwah al Libi is also identified as Abu Malik al Libi in Rahman’s letters. Rahman described ‘Urwah as “an outstanding combatant” who decided to stay in Iran after his release from detention rather than rejoin AQSL in Pakistan.
“About a month ago he traveled to Libya; he made it there safely, praise God, and got in touch with some of our brothers there,” Rahman wrote. “We are in contact with him on the net, and we are waiting for some messages from him. He is an important brother for field work, and we anticipate him playing a role in Libya.”
Although Rahman had high hopes for ‘Urwah, it was not meant to be.
In April 2011, around the same time Rahman wrote his letter to bin Laden, Al Hayat reported that ‘Urwah had been killed in an ambush by Qaddafi’s forces. ‘Urwah was described as one of the LIFG’s “prominent leaders” in Al Hayat’s account. The paper’s sources said ‘Urwah’s “weight” in the LIFG could not “be disregarded,” as he was held in high regard by the LIFG’s leadership in Libya prior to his demise.
An alleged proposal from the British
Before joining the jihad in Libya, and while he was still in Iran, ‘Urwah sent Rahman an email saying that “some of the Libyan brothers in England had talked to him about” an alleged offer.
According to Rahman’s summary of the email, which he relayed to bin Laden, the British wanted to cut a deal. “British Intelligence spoke to them (these Libyan brothers in England), and asked them to try to contact the people they knew in al Qaeda to inform them of and find out what they think about the following idea: England is ready to leave Afghanistan [if] al Qaeda would explicitly commit to not moving against England or her interests.”
Rahman told ‘Urwah that AQSL would consider the proposal. “He [‘Urwah] may have told the Libyan brothers by now, and they may have told the British,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden. “I do not have any confirmation, of course, and he (‘Urwah) might provide something in his next message, though he will be very busy in Libya now. This is what happened, and we ask God to bless us with his guidance.”
Additional evidence is required to evaluate this supposed proposal. The information contained in Rahman’s letter is, at best, thirdhand. It was passed from the “Libyan brothers” in the UK, to ‘Urwah, and then finally to Rahman.
Al Qaeda’s response to the “Arab Spring”
A previously released letter from bin Laden to Rahman, dated April 26, 2011, appears to be the al Qaeda emir’s reply to the issues addressed above. For instance, bin Laden mentioned the putative offer from the British. Bin Laden believed that the British were close to defeat, so he did not want to “enable them on that.” By the same token, bin Laden wanted to decline the supposed proposal “without slamming the door completely closed.”
Bin Laden also enclosed a statement on the revolutions, just as Rahman had requested, and asked that it be sent to the Al Jazeera television network. Indeed, much of bin Laden’s reply is devoted to the uprisings.
The head of al Qaeda believed that Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, would be the primary winners in the new political order, and the jihadists should not seek conflict with them.
“It would be nice to remind our brothers in the regions to be patient and deliberate, and warn them of entering into confrontations with the parties belonging to Islam, and it is probable that most of the areas will have governments established on the remnants of the previous governments, and most probable these governments will belong to the Islamic parties and groups, like the Brotherhood and the like,” bin Laden wrote. “[O]ur duty at this stage is to pay attention to the call among Muslims and win over supporters and spread the correct understanding,” bin Laden continued, “as the current conditions have brought on unprecedented opportunities and the coming of Islamic governments that follow the Salafi doctrine is a benefit to Islam.”
“The more time that passes and the call increases, the more the supporters will be of the people, and the more widespread will be the correct understanding among the coming generations of Islamic groups,” bin Laden believed.
As the rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda became a central issue in the jihadists’ world, Islamic State officials and their supporters increasingly accused Zawahiri of taking al Qaeda down a deviant path by not advocating armed jihad in all Arab countries at all times. But Zawahiri’s approach to the countries affected by the political tumult was broadly consistent with that advocated by bin Laden in one of his final letters.
Bin Laden thought, for example, that there was “a sizable direction within the Brotherhood that holds the Salafi doctrine, so the return of the Brotherhood and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time.” Accordingly, bin Laden wrote that the “more attention paid to explaining Islamic understanding, the sooner their return is, so preserving the Muslim movements today and adjusting their direction requires effort and attention, keeping in mind the necessity of being kindly to the sons of the nation who fell under misguidance for long decades.”
Bin Laden’s words show he had a more nuanced approach to political Islamists than is widely believed. Even though al Qaeda has harshly criticized the Brotherhood, bin Laden still saw its rule as a “half solution” that was better than the previous regimes. Of course, in Egypt and elsewhere, events did not transpire exactly as bin Laden had hoped.
Regardless, in the wake of the political revolutions, Bin Laden approved Rahman’s request to allow certain al Qaeda operatives to return to their home countries. He told Rahman that he had previously written of “the necessity of sending some qualified brothers to the field of the revolutions in their countries, to attempt to run things in a wise and jurisprudent manner in coordination with the Islamic powers there.”
While we only have a small subset of bin Laden’s internal correspondence, the letters we do have show that al Qaeda was much more keen to exploit developments throughout the Arab world than some Western analysts believed. In addition to Abu Anas al Libi and ‘Urwah al Libi, al Qaeda dispatched other trusted lieutenants to Libya to lead its efforts.
In 2011, Ayman al Zawahiri sent his own emissary, Abd al Baset Azzouz, to Libya. Azzouz had approximately 200 fighters in his al Qaeda group at one point. Azzouz was reportedly captured in Turkey late last year.
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