The US Treasury Department announced terror designations for six jihadists yesterday. Five of them allegedly serve al Qaeda’s international organization, while the sixth is a key figure in the Islamic State’s operations in Libya and the Sinai.
The details reported by Treasury underscore the degree to which both al Qaeda and the Islamic State maintain international networks stretching across multiple countries.
Two of the newly designated jihadists are based in Kuwait, but funnel financial and other support to Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
A third jihadist, commonly known as Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, was an extremist preacher in Australia before relocating to Syria, where he became a senior figure in Al Nusrah. The Long War Journal first profiled Abu Sulayman in Mar. 2014 and has written about his al Qaeda role in multiple articles since then.
Two others added to the US government’s designation list live in Yemen, where they are helping Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) pursue its long-term strategy of seizing parts of the country.
Kuwait-based supporters of Al Nusrah
Treasury describes both Abdullah Hadi ‘Abd al-Rahman Fayhan Sharban al-‘Anizi and Abd al-Muhsin Zabin Mutib Naif al-Mutayri as Kuwait-based supporters of Al Nusrah Front.
Al-‘Anizi’s work isn’t limited to al Qaeda’s operations in Syria, as he has also allegedly worked on behalf of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has even served as a “communications conduit for al Qaeda senior leadership.” In addition to sending money to Al Qaeda in South Asia and the group’s arm in Syria, Al-‘Anizi has provided funds to move al Qaeda “members from Pakistan” and also “made plans to solicit funds from donors to help move al Qaeda extremists from Pakistan to Syria.”
Al-Mutayri has likewise funneled funds to Al Nusrah, “collecting money for the group from other Gulf-based facilitators” and using “charities to raise money for the terrorist organization.” Al-Mutayri’s has assisted “individuals” seeking to travel from abroad to Syria, where they can join Al Nusrah’s ranks.
A “senior AQAP official” and “an AQAP leader”
Nayif Salih Salim al-Qaysi and Ghalib Abdullah al-Zaidi have both furthered AQAP’s goal of acquiring territory, according to Treasury. Al-Qaysi is described as a “senior AQAP official,” while al-Zaidi has “served as an AQAP leader” since 2015.
Treasury’s announcement hints at the political games AQAP is playing inside Yemen.
Al-Qaysi has “used his position as an al-Bayda Governorate, Yemen, political leader to facilitate the expansion and settlement of AQAP in the governorate.” He has supported AQAP fighters in al-Bayda with “money and weapons,” while also helping to plan “AQAP’s militant operations” and financing the al Qaeda branch’s training camps. Al-Qaysi’s fundraising has been helped by unnamed “benefactors” and “parties” who are “outside” of Yemen, Treasury notes.
Al Qaeda always keeps an eye on the long game in Yemen, seeking to procure tribal support for its efforts. In addition to AQAP’s jihadists, Al-Qaysi has funded and armed “allied Yemeni tribal forces” in their common fight against Shiite Houthi rebels. As of 2014, Treasury adds, al-Qaysi “routinely encouraged Yemeni tribesmen to avoid confrontation with AQAP.”
Al-Zaidi is based in Marib, a province in central Yemen known for its energy resources. Al-Zaidi has “helped AQAP expand into parts of Marib,” serving as AQAP’s leader there since 2015. An indication of his importance within the al Qaeda branch can be seen in fact that other “operatives” have pledged “loyalty to him.” Al-Zaidi has provided “weapons, funding, and recruits” for the jihadist’s war, including its “operations against the Houthis.” Treasury describes his “compound in Marib” as a “staging ground for AQAP operatives.”
From Australia to Syria
Treasury provides few details on Mostafa Mahamed, who is a far more interesting character than the US government let on in its announcement. One of his known aliases is “Abu Sulayman al Muhajir.” In March 2014, he was introduced in an Al Nusrah Front video under that assumed name. The video focused on Abu Sulayman’s criticisms of the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The jihadi transplant said he relocated to Syria to take part in al Qaeda’s attempt to mediate the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah Front. A key aspect of that dispute involved Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s sworn fealty to al Qaeda’s leaders, or lack thereof. Baghdadi’s supporters claimed that he never really swore a binding bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda’s leaders, so he was free to do with his organization as he willed. Al Qaeda disputed this version of events. Indeed, there is evidence that Baghdadi operated under al Qaeda’s auspices until he and his men went rogue. (After Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, for instance, Baghdadi issued a eulogy in which he told al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri that he had “faithful men” inside Iraq.)
During Abu Sulayman’s mediation efforts, some alleged that Baghdadi’s oath to Ayman al Zawahiri was not a “full” bay’ah, but instead a bay’ah for “love and support” only. Abu Sulayman explained in his Al Nusrah Front debut that this didn’t make sense and Baghdadi had supposedly confirmed his loyalty in a conversation between the two. Baghdadi supposedly told Abu Sulayman: “I seek refuge in Allah, I have a true binding bay’ah to Sheikh Ayman [al Zawahiri], to hear and obey, in hardship and in ease!” This, according to the Abu Sulayman, “affirmed to us what we already know, that [Baghdadi] is a soldier in the command of al Qaeda and that he listens and obeys like the other [leaders] of other regions.”
However, Baghdadi never did acquiesce to al Qaeda’s demands, which included an end to his men’s operations inside Syria.
In another video released in 2014, Abu Sulayman demonstrated his clear knowledge of al Qaeda’s international structure. He explained that al Qaeda has established regional branches around the globe and that the emir, or head, of each regional branch swears bay’ah (allegiance) to al Qaeda’s overall leader.
Treasury says that Abu Sulayman “occupies a senior leadership position in” Al Nusrah Front, has recruited Australians for the jihad in Syria and has also “solicited funds” to finance the group’s “terrorist activities.” This description is consistent with how Al Nusrah has promoted him in its media. Al Nusrah has featured him in some of its highest-profile productions, including its 2015 video, “The Heirs of Glory.”
Abu Sulayman has been active on social media at times, even threatening the US and soliciting donations in his tweets. His Twitter feed has been suspended on multiple occasions.
An Islamic State facilitator in Libya and the Sinai
The only one of the six designated jihadists who works for the Islamic State is Salmi Salama Salim Sulayman ‘Ammar. Treasury describes ‘Ammar as one of the so-called caliphate’s “critical facilitators operating in North Africa.”
As of early 2015, ‘Ammar was a “representative” for the Islamic State’s Sinai province in Libya. ‘Ammar has transferred “hundreds of thousands of dollars from Libya to” the Islamic State’s self-declared province “in the Sinai Peninsula.”
‘Ammar was in Syria in late 2014 when he “pledged allegiance” to the Islamic State “on behalf” of the Sinai province. The Islamic State’s Sinai branch grew out of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which was part of al Qaeda’s global network until it defected to Baghdadi’s cause in Nov. 2014. Treasury says that ‘Ammar was “representing” ABM in Libya prior to the group switching camps and “continued serving as its agent in Libya after ABM’s pledge to” Baghdadi. ‘Ammar “has helped move money, weapons, and ammunition to the Sinai Peninsula throughout 2014 and into 2015.”
Like the five al Qaeda members and supporters identified in Treasury’s latest designation, the brief dossier provided for ‘Ammar demonstrates the the jihadists operate facilitation networks spanning across multiple countries. The intelligence cited by Treasury frequently highlights the interconnected nature of today’s global jihadist organizations. [See, for example, LWJ report: Treasury designations target al Qaeda’s international fundraising and facilitation network.]
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.