A screen shot of Shaybat al Hukama’s Twitter feed.
An al Qaeda media operative known as Shaybat al Hukama returned to Twitter on Feb. 15. Hukama’s account has been shuttered several times, only to reappear under a new handle after each suspension. Hukama has used his social media accounts to provide new information about al Qaeda’s operations in the past. And this occasion has been no different.
Hukama has tweeted clues concerning the whereabouts of Saif al Adel, a senior al Qaeda leader who has long been wanted by the US government for his alleged role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
On Feb. 25, Hukama wrote that Al Adel (seen on the right) will be one of the reasons why Russia is defeated, just as Khattab helped cause the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Khattab is a legendary Saudi jihadist who was backed by al Qaeda and organized Chechen jihadists to commit attacks in Russia.
Hukama did not explicitly say that Al Adel is in Syria, but that may be the implication of his tweet. Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, is battling Bashar al Assad’s regime, which is backed by Russian forces. President Vladimir Putin deployed Russian soldiers to Syria last year and he recently announced that they will begin to withdraw.
Al Qaeda has sent a number of veteran figures to Syria to help lead Al Nusrah in its fight against Assad. If Hukama’s tweet means Al Adel has relocated to Syria, then the Egyptian jihadist is one of them. Other published reports have similarly placed Al Adel in Syria.
Al Adel and four other al Qaeda leaders were reportedly released from custody in Iran last year. The details are murky, but press accounts indicated that the five jihadists were exchanged for an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped in Yemen. [See LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leaders reportedly released from custody in Iran.]
Al Qaeda released several publications by Al Adel last year. The writings were apparently intended to reintroduce Al Adel to al Qaeda’s rank and file. One of the works that was posted online deals with guerrilla warfare and revolutions. Al Adel has a reputation in jihadist circles as a sharp military strategist, and the release of the pamphlet was likely intended to expose his thinking to a wider audience.
Unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda has pooled its resources with other rebel groups in the fight against Assad’s regime. Early last year, Al Nusrah and another al Qaeda-linked group, Ahrar al Sham, cofounded the Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) alliance, which quickly overran the northwestern Idlib province. It is possible that Al Adel is now helping to guide Al Nusrah’s guerrilla warfare strategy, including al Qaeda’s relations with other Syrian rebel organizations.
In late August 2015, Al Adel’s eulogy of Abu Khalid al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who served as both a senior figure in Ahrar al Sham and as Ayman al Zawahiri’s representative in Syria, was also released. Al Suri was killed in February 2014 by fighters dispatched by the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s jihadist rival. Al Suri was assigned by Zawahiri to broker a truce between Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization and Al Nusrah Front, but his efforts failed. Al Suri was one of the Islamic State’s harshest critics at the time of his demise.
In his eulogy, Al Adel described al Suri as the “lion of Jihad Wahl,” a training camp in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Al Adel remembered al Suri’s time training the “youths,” helping them to “build their bodies” and “teaching them target practice.” Al Adel also reminisced about al Suri’s time yelling at the new recruits with his peculiar voice. Years later, al Suri would serve the same role in Ahrar al Sham, training the organization’s new members. A video released by Ahrar al Sham in July 2015 included a short snippet of al Suri instructing Ahrar’s recruits. And Ahrar al Sham’s own eulogy in 2014 confirmed that al Suri “supervised” its “training camps.”
Al Adel’s eulogy contained an implicit criticism of the Islamic State, as he wondered who could possibly dare “to kill a sheikh among the sheikhs of the mujahideen,” meaning al Suri. Al Adel described al Suri’s killers as having “twisted” and “perverted” thoughts.
Other leadership details
Shaybat al Hukama is a nom de guerre meaning “the eldest of the wise.” The alias is likely a tribute to Ayman al Zawahiri, as al Qaeda’s overall leader is often referred to as the “wise man” of the Muslim nation. The pseudonym is also intended to convey the jihadist’s familiarity with al Qaeda’s thinking at the highest levels. [For more on Shaybat al Hukama see LWJ report, Well-connected jihadist tweets, then deletes, explanation of al Qaeda’s oath to Mullah Omar.]
Indeed, Hukama has tweeted statements attributed to Zawahiri. On Feb. 21, for instance, he posted a letter by Zawahiri discussing the appointment of Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar as the emir of Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. Abu Ubaydah became Shabaab’s emir in September 2014. Hukama said the letter included the “recommendations of the wise man,” meaning Zawahiri, to “the mujahideen’s emir in Somalia” (Abu Ubaydah).
In the letter, Zawahiri approved of Abu Ubaydah’s appointment, saying he is now “in charge of preaching and jihad” in East Africa. Zawahiri urged Ubaydah “to establish the sharia court system and enforce its rule over all” and to “use shura [consultation] as the basis and foundation of his work.”
Contrary to the widespread belief that al Qaeda doesn’t seek to conquer territory, Zawahiri referred to Ubaydah’s duties as a ruler in East Africa.
Ubaydah “should exercise patience and forgiveness, since both are great supports to the emir and wali [governor] in their respective territories,” Zawahiri wrote. The al Qaeda leader also enumerated Abu Ubaydah’s duties, explaining that he should “strive” to provide for the “mujahideen brothers…and their families,” care for the “widows and orphans of martyrs and prisoners,” ensure that the schools are strongholds for the jihadist ideology, and make certain that the “preachers and scholars” have “decent” lives so they can focus on proselytizing.
In other posts, Hukama has underscored the close relationship between Taliban emir Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour and al Qaeda’s senior leaders. For example, one of his tweets included a passage in which Mansour praised Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, for their opposition to the West.
Hukama has also explained that al Qaeda’s leadership is no longer confined to South Asia, as the group now has senior operatives in the Khorasan (meaning Afghanistan and Pakistan), Yemen and Syria. Zawahiri’s man noted that this makes it more difficult for the US to hunt them down, a fact he was all too happy to trumpet on social media.