Al Qaeda’s alleged ‘representative in Syria’ previously freed from US Custody in Afghanistan

On Mar. 14, the US Treasury Department announced its decision to impose sanctions on Kuwaiti national Muhammad Hadi al-‘Anizi, saying he is “a terrorist facilitator and financier based in Kuwait.” Treasury stated that in mid- to late-2014, al-‘Anizi was appointed as al Qaeda’s “representative in Syria by AQ senior leadership.” As FDD’s Long War Journal noted, al-‘Anizi’s appointment came shortly after the Feb. 2014 assassination of Abu Khalid al Suri, whom Treasury had also described as al Qaeda’s representative in Syria.

The Treasury Department stated that al-‘Anizi (pictured on the right*) has supported al Qaeda since at least 2007. But his ties to the international jihadist organization may go back even further.

Al-‘Anizi was taken prisoner in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001. He was just 15 years old at the time. He was repatriated as a result of intensive efforts by the Kuwaiti government and, years later, joined al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Traveled through Iran to Afghanistan

Exactly one month after al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, al-‘Anizi departed for Afghanistan via Iran with his father Hadi, who had retired at the age of forty as a lieutenant colonel in the Kuwaiti security forces. Hadi, who had previously fought alongside American troops during the First Gulf War, supposedly told his wife that he and his son were just going to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. According to the London-based Arabic news site Elaph, sources closely linked to Muhammad said that Hadi had also considered bringing his other sons to Afghanistan, but was dissuaded from doing so by prominent local Islamists.

Muhammad’s older brother Abdallah was sanctioned by the US government in 2016 on charges of working to fund al Qaeda in Syria and Pakistan. According to Treasury, Muhammad provided financial support to his brother Abdallah prior to 2014, which the latter used “to fund terrorist operations.”

According to Al Jazeera, Muhammad was the first Arab prisoner freed from Afghanistan after the 2001 American invasion. In an interview with Al Jazeera just after his 2002 repatriation, Muhammad credited several Kuwaiti officials with helping to secure his release, first thanking Sabah al Ahmed Al Sabah, who was Kuwait’s foreign minister (FM) in 2001 and is now the country’s ruling amir.

On Dec. 23, 2001, Agence France-Presse (AFP) cited reports in a local paper saying a deputy to the foreign minister told Muhammad’s family that he had been moved to an American military base in Afghanistan. Two days later, FM Al Sabah said the government was cooperating with the US Embassy in Kuwait in an effort to bring Muhammad home, according to Kuwait’s state news wire. Upon Muhammad’s Feb. 2002 return to his native country, he reportedly expressed his thanks to FM Al Sabah, as well as to the country’s then-ruler and crown prince, according to Elaph.

It seems quite clear that the Muhammad Hadi al-‘Anizi who was designated by Treasury this month is the same Muhammad Hadi al-‘Anizi who was captured in Afghanistan and repatriated to Kuwait. Both men were known to have a brother roughly two years older named Abdallah. Articles by Elaph in 2001 and 2002 listed his date of birth as May 27, 1986, only one day later than the birth date listed for him by the Treasury Department in 2017. Lastly, a recent article by the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai stated that the Kuwaiti individual designated by Treasury this month was previously held prisoner in Afghanistan by US and Afghan forces at the age of 15 before being repatriated to Kuwait.

What was Muhammad al-‘Anizi doing in Tora Bora?

Muhammad told Al Jazeera that he was captured in Tora Bora, a mountainous area of eastern Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden made his headquarters. Muhammad added that he was injured and his father killed by an American helicopter strike during the US-backed assault on the area by Northern Alliance forces, who took him prisoner.

Muhammad’s explanation for how he ended up in Tora Bora was somewhat puzzling. He claimed to Al Jazeera that he and his father traveled to Kabul to provide “relief and assistance,” but when the city fell they departed for Jalalabad because somebody told them that was where all the other Arabs and Taliban members were going. He stated that after Jalalabad fell to the Northern Alliance, the two of them fled to Tora Bora, since “there was no place for us to go” and they hoped to cross the border into Pakistan.

Others attribute a more violent motive to Muhammad and his father’s activities in Afghanistan. Kuwait’s state news wire reported in late 2001 and early 2002 that Hadi “died in the American strikes against al Qaeda positions” and that Muhammad was arrested “after fighting side-by-side with al Qaeda fighters.” Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal, who interviewed Muhammad’s uncles and brother Abdallah, wrote in Dec. 2001 that the assertions they went to Afghanistan to provide relief instead of joining Osama bin Laden were “highly unlikely considering the circumstances of Muhammad’s capture in Tora Bora.”

That same month, Elaph reported that sources “closely linked” to Muhammad said his father had escorted him there “to fight in the ranks of al Qaeda.” AFP also cited a local paper that said sources claimed Hadi and his son had gone to Afghanistan “to join jihad (holy war) against the United States.”

Trofimov also noted that relatives of Muhammad had placed a quarter-page ad on the back of a local newspaper to declare that family members “joyfully announce to the Islamic nation the news about the martyrdom of their mujahed, hero Hadi al Enezi, who died in the holy month of Ramadan while supporting the weak and in defense of the faith and Islam in Afghanistan.”

Regardless, in early 2002, a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s foreign ministry announced that Muhammad, a minor, would be released due to “humanitarian considerations” and his “lack of involvement in any terrorist acts.” He was flown home in Feb. 2002 on a Kuwaiti military aircraft, according to the Associated Press. After interviewing Muhammad in his home country, AFP reported that he “did not think he would be prosecuted in Kuwait, although he would spend the next two days being debriefed by authorities.”

An early member of al Qaeda’s arm in Syria

Several weeks after al Qaeda’s Nusra Front announced its formation in Jan. 2012, the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm cited jihadist message boards as saying that an Abu Hudhayfa al-Kuwaiti was among the first foreign jihadists to reach Syria since the start of that country’s civil war. According to the Treasury Department, Abu Hudhayfa al-Kuwaiti is one of Muhammad al-‘Anizi’s aliases.

Treasury also reports that in late 2015 Muhammad “sought assistance from AQ financier and US and UN-designated terrorist Sa’d al-Ka’bi to facilitate the travel of AQ-associated individuals.” The timing of this reported activity would be somewhat unsettling, since Qatar had supposedly shut down al-Ka’bi’s activities the previous year. There is no indication that Qatar ever arrested al-Ka’bi or charged him with a crime related to terror finance, despite the international sanctions against him.

It remains to be seen whether Kuwaiti authorities will take effective and visible action against Muhammad al-‘Anizi since the Treasury Department’s declaration that he funded al Qaeda and was appointed as al Qaeda’s “representative in Syria” by its senior leadership. The Kuwaiti paper al-Rai reported that sources close to Muhammad emphasized he would take legal measures to refute his designation by Washington, which they called unfounded.

Kuwait was described in 2014 as “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” and a “permissive jurisdiction” for terror finance by Treasury’s then-Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. Just last month, Treasury’s former Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser revealed that designated terror financiers are still “operating openly and notoriously” in both Qatar and Kuwait.

*This photo of Muhammad al-‘Anizi from 2002 was published by Al Jazeera in 2005.

Note: Mr. Weinberg is the author of a recent monograph on Qatar’s negligence toward funders of al Qaeda’s powerful branch in Syria.

David Andrew Weinberg is the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington Director for International Affairs.

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