Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official regional branch of al Qaeda’s international organization, has released a statement eulogizing a “commander” who was killed while traveling between the Libyan cities of Derna and Benghazi. The group describes the slain jihadist, Hamid al Sha’iri, as the “master” of a “squadron” that is among the best formed in the “land of heroism and sacrifice,” meaning Libya.
The eulogy for al Sha’iri and his men was posted on the official Twitter feed for the Al Andalus Establishment for Media Production, which is AQIM’s official propaganda arm.
Al Sha’iri and his men perished “as a result of a treacherous ambush laid by the soldiers of the tyrant,” General Khalifa Haftar, according to AQIM. They had left Derna to “aid their people in the city of Benghazi,” but Haftar’s men intercepted the jihadists before they could reach their destination.
AQIM says that al Sha’iri and other members of his “squadron” are the “progeny of Omar al Mukhtar,” who led a guerrilla-style insurgency against Italian forces in Libya in the early 20th century. (Other al Qaeda branches have celebrated Mukhtar’s legacy as well.)
AQIM offers its “condolences to the families of the martyrs,” as well as to “all of our mujahideen brothers in Derna and Libya,” for the deaths of the “knight” al Sha’iri and his comrades.
According to Al-Wasat, a Libyan publication, al Sha’iri led a battalion that was also part of Ansar al Sharia Libya, which is backed by AQIM. Although this detail isn’t confirmed, it would not be surprising to learn that it is true.
In October, AQIM issued a similar eulogy for Mansur al Shalali (aka “Harun”), who was Ansar al Sharia’s military commander. AQIM indicated at the time that al Shalali was a veteran jihadist who had fought for several years in Algeria, presumably as part of AQIM. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb honors Ansar al Sharia’s slain military commander.]
Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia in Libya
Prior to its eulogy, AQIM did little to advertise Hamid al Sha’iri’s role in Libya. Al Qaeda regularly hides the extent of its organization in various countries, operating clandestinely or through front groups when possible. This was the strategy al Qaeda employed in Libya from the first days of the revolution against Muammar al Qaddafi’s regime.
The public often does not learn key details about the jihadists in al Qaeda’s network until they are dead.
For example, both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri eulogized Mohammed al Zahawi, the first overall leader of Ansar al Sharia in Libya, earlier this year. Zahawi died in either late 2014 or early 2015.
AQAP revealed that Zahawi personally met with Osama bin Laden in the Sudan during the 1990s and adopted bin Laden’s “methodology” at the time. Zahawi never discussed these details in public, however, preferring to hide his al Qaeda pedigree.
In an audio message released in early September, Zawahiri passed along his “condolences” to his “mujahideen brothers in the Ansar al Sharia group in Libya for the martyrdom of their emir, Sheikh Mohammed al Zahawi.” Zawahiri continued by asking Allah to compensate Ansar al Sharia for the loss of Zahawi with a “good replacement.” Zawahiri also asked Allah to “grant them success…until sharia prevails all over the blessed Libya.” That is, Zawahiri’s goals for Libya are the same as Ansar al Sharia’s. Zahawi’s replacement was ultimately named as Abu Khalid al Madani, yet another jihadist whose background is shrouded in mystery.
Ansar al Sharia Libya’s ties to AQIM have been recognized by international authorities. In November 2014, for example, the UN added Ansar al Sharia Libya to its al Qaeda sanctions list, noting that the group is “associated” with AQIM and had hosted Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s fighters in its Benghazi training camps. Some of those same fighters went on to take part in the January 2013 siege of a natural gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria. Belmokhtar runs his own al Qaeda group, Al Murabitoon, and is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri. The UN also reported that AQIM has backed Ansar al Sharia’s suicide operations.
Ansar al Sharia Libya’s tight relationship with AQIM is no secret inside Libya.
The Islamic State’s “province” in Libya, which is opposed to al Qaeda and its front groups, has even complained about the “closeness” of the two organizations’ leaders. During its “Wanted Dead” social media campaign, the Islamic State’s Libyan arm revealed additional details about the AQIM members in Ansar al Sharia’s ranks.
AQIM has consistently backed the Islamic State’s pro-al Qaeda rivals in Derna, where al Sha’iri was based.