State Department designates founding member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

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Ibrahim al Banna, who co-founded al Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula, has been a jihadist for more than 35 years.

The US State Department announced yesterday that Ibrahim al Banna, who has served as one of al Qaeda’s most senior security and intelligence officials in Yemen since the 1990s, has been designated as a terrorist. State’s Rewards for Justice program has offered a bounty of up to $5 million for information on al Banna’s whereabouts since 2014, but he wasn’t officially added to the US government’s terrorist designation list until this week.

Al Banna was targeted in a US drone strike that killed Anwar al Awlaki’s son in 2011. But the veteran Egyptian jihadist survived and has continued to play a major role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) operations ever since. Awlaki, who was a major al Qaeda ideologue, was killed in a separate airstrike just weeks earlier.

Al Banna was originally a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organization, which he joined in 1979 or 1980. The EIJ officially merged with Osama bin Laden’s enterprise prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But the EIJ was closely cooperating with bin Laden by the early 1990s, when members of the group helped perform surveillance that was later used in the Aug. 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In Dec. 2015, al Banna appeared in an AQAP video entitled, “Guardians of Sharia.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, An al Qaeda commander comes out from the shadows.]

AQAP media operatives also distributed an image with highlights from his biography. The image can be seen on the right.

In “Guardians of Sharia,” al Banna discussed the history of jihadism, al Qaeda’s war against the US and his group’s quest to resurrect an Islamic caliphate. Although Al Banna has long been known to Western counterterrorism and intelligence officials, Dec. 2015 was the first time he had shown his face in years. AQAP lost several senior leaders in 2015, so it is likely that the group decided to reintroduce him to the public to remind followers that veteran figures remain in place.

In 2010, AQAP’s Inspire magazine published an article attributed to al Banna in which he praised the 9/11 hijackings. “The American people need to think long about this great event that changed history; this strike that hurt America militarily and economically, and exposed the lies of the American media,” al Banna wrote. “We will not let you enjoy peace as long as we do not live it in our lands and in Palestine.”

Worked alongside co-founder of the Islamic State of Iraq

Al Banna was temporarily detained in Yemen sometime in 2010. That November, Al Jaridah, a Kuwaiti publication, published a partial transcript of what al Banna purportedly told authorities during interrogations.*

If Al Jaridah’s transcript is accurate, then al Banna’s account provides a fascinating window into how Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) evolved out of the EIJ’s first efforts inside Yemen. Al Banna emphasized that throughout his entire career in Yemen he answered to Ayman al Zawahiri. And he claimed to have worked closely, in Yemen, with the jihadist known as Abu Ayyub al Masri, who went on to lead al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Masri took over AQI after its founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was killed in June 2006. Masri and his compatriots established the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the forerunner to the current Islamic State, in Oct. and Nov. 2006. At the time, Masri described the ISI as “the first cornerstone of the Islamic caliphate project.”

Al Banna provided an intriguing background story for Abu Ayyub al Masri, who went by several names and aliases. Al Banna claimed that Masri’s real name was Abd-al-Mun’im al-Badawi and that he had forged a passport for him sometime around the year 2000, before Badawi traveled to Afghanistan. Al Banna allegedly told authorities that he helped Badawi adopt the nom de guerre (Abu Ayyub al Masri) and identity of a jihadi who was already imprisoned in Egypt. This was no doubt part of their attempt to confuse authorities.

Al Banna claimed to have handpicked Badawi to train “newcomers” in Yemen. He was so impressed with Badawi’s skills that the two jointly led the EIJ’s training program in Yemen. The pair, working under orders from Ayman al Zawahiri, trained cadres of jihadists in “espionage and intelligence.” Al Banna claimed that Badawi’s success in this regard helped him eventually take over the leadership of AQI.

According to Al Jaridah’s transcript, al Banna even “nominated” Badawi to be AQI’s emir. Al Banna also claimed that Badawi was a major figure in al Qaeda’s global intelligence apparatus at the time of his ascendancy inside Iraq.

The Egyptian jihadi veteran told Yemeni authorities that he first relocated to their country in 1993. At the time, the Egyptian government was hunting down members of the EIJ and the Vanguards of Conquest, which were implicated in attacks against officials, including a failed assassination attempt targeting Prime Minister Atef Sedky.

Al Banna explained that two jihadists were responsible for receiving and hosting him and his compatriots in Yemen. One of them was Muhammad al Zawahiri, Ayman’s younger brother. Muhammad al Zawahiri was “responsible” for organizing the Egyptian youth and integrating them into Yemeni society, according to al Banna. (The junior Zawahiri has been imprisoned multiple times, but was reportedly released from custody last year.)

Other notable Egyptian jihadists who worked with al Banna in Yemen included Abu Faraj al Masri (also known as Ahmed Salama Mabrouk), who went on to become a leader of Al Nusrah Front in Syria. Mabrouk was killed in an airstrike late last year.

Ayman al Zawahiri traveled to Yemen in 1994 to directly oversee the Egyptians’ efforts, according to al Banna. The leadership of the EIJ in Yemen was first entrusted to Ahmad al-Najjar. But Zawahiri replaced Najjar in 1996, handing over leadership of the organization to al Banna and Badawi (Abu Ayyub al Masri). The pair ran the EIJ’s Yemeni branch for two years.

Al Banna described how he and Badawi worked with the tribes in southern Yemen as well as Houthi rebels to achieve their objectives. Their dealings with the Houthis were generally restricted to arms sales, al Banna said. But the Egyptian jihadis would also ask for the Houthis’ assistance in transporting and sheltering members of their group. Al Banna said they purchased weapons from both Sudanese and Yemeni dealers after receiving money from Zawahiri. Beginning in 1998, when al Banna and his companions formally joined al Qaeda, bin Laden began to fund the arms transfers. Some of the weapons were sent to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri established the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders” in Feb. 1998. And al Banna began to officially operate under al Qaeda’s umbrella around that same time. According to the transcript published by Al Jaridah, al Banna described the relationship as a natural fit, as the EIJ and bin Laden’s operation were very “similar” and the merger generated new funds and more access to training facilities in Afghanistan for the EIJ. Indeed, much of the EIJ had already become a de facto part of al Qaeda years earlier, when bin Laden was based in Sudan. Regardless, in 1998, al Banna said he and others called for all jihadists to unite behind bin Laden “in order to intensify jihadist action against Israeli and American interests worldwide.”

The merger led al Qaeda to reshuffle the jihadis’ leadership inside Yemen. The Egyptians would no longer hold the top spot in the country. Ayman al Zawahiri allegedly told al Banna in 1998 that Muhammad Umayr al Awlaqi would be taking over inside Yemen because he had the resources and contacts to grow the jihadi presence. Al Qaeda apparently wanted someone with local roots, like al Awlaqi, to lead its efforts.

However, al Banna and Badawi continued to oversee the organization’s “military and intelligence” efforts and also arrange for weapons shipments. Awlaqi led al Qaeda’s Yemeni enterprise until 2006, when Nasir al Wuhayshi and a cadre of his men escaped from prison. Under Zawahiri’s orders, al Banna and his men immediately swore allegiance to Wuhayshi after he took over as al Qaeda’s emir in Yemen. Al Banna said that Wuhayshi was the jihadi who was most qualified to lead the charge, and he also confirmed that Said al Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee, was Wuhayshi’s deputy from the start. (Both Wuhayshi and Shihri were subsequently killed in American bombings.)

At some point, Badawi (Abu Ayyub al Masri) left Yemen for Afghanistan. Al Banna said that he traveled with Muhammad al Zawahiri and, upon arriving in Afghanistan, the two became al Qaeda’s best sources on what was going on inside Yemen. As an intelligence expert, Badawi supposedly had incredible information on events and personalities throughout the Muslim-majority world. Bin Laden even called Badawi “the legend” due to his superior abilities, according to al Banna.

Al Banna claimed to be in contact with Badawi (Masri) right up until the day before his “martyrdom” in April 2010, when AQI’s leadership was decapitated by US-led forces. Al Banna said he communicated with Badawi and others via the internet. Along with his Yemeni wife, Badawi had relocated to Iraq sometime in 2002. The CIA collected intelligence on his activities inside Baghdad. Al Banna was even asked about a story that another jihadi in custody told about Saddam Hussein supposedly negotiating with Badawi to move to Yemen after the US-led invasion of Iraq. “This is totally false,” Al Banna said, according to Al Jaridah.

Al Banna was asked about al Qaeda’s goals inside Yemen, and he freely admitted that the jihadis wanted to overthrow the existing government in order to establish an Islamic caliphate on Yemeni soil, replacing man-made laws with al Qaeda’s draconian sharia.

Al Qaeda’s goal is to “eradicate these laws and reformulate them after the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate on the soil of Yemen, so that all the laws will be based on the Book and the Sunnah,” Al Banna said, according to a translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal.

*Note: The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor previously published a summary of the interrogation logs printed by Al Jaridah. See here and here. The summary of Al Jaridah’s reporting provided in this piece is based on the author’s own reading of the articles, as well as a translation that was obtained.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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