Ever since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a transatlantic commercial airliner on Christmas Day 2009, public attention has been firmly fixed on al-Qa`ida’s latest regional franchise based in Yemen—a focus that has only increased in intensity following a subsequent cargo bomb plot thwarted in late 2010. Unbeknownst to many Americans, there is another prolific and deadly Yemeni terrorist network within al-Qa`ida that is operating far beyond the confines of the Arabian Peninsula. This network includes skilled bomb makers, martyrdom operatives, and senior commanders tightly ensconced with al-Qa`ida’s top leadership in the rugged terrain on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. During the past year, these individuals have demonstrated their remarkable ingenuity, tech-savvy, and deadly precision. They have been linked to some of the most serious attacks to take place in the Afghan-Pakistani region, including the dramatic suicide bombing in late December 2009 that killed seven agents from the Central Intelligence Agency and a Jordanian intelligence officer at an Afghan forward operating base near the border with Pakistan.
The significance of the Yemeni terrorist network based in North Waziristan has gradually come into view during the past year due in large part to their public communications on internet web forums. Although these men range in age from their early 20s to late 40s, and despite the fact that they come from a country that is hardly known for its extensive web connectivity, these Yemeni nationals have taken to the online world with an unusual gusto, employing jihadist-themed social networking forums to broadcast biographies of “martyred” militants, to appeal for assistance and technical support, and to send messages back to al-Qa`ida fighters who are still based in Yemen.
This article profiles three operatives part of this network: Ghazwan al-Yemeni, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani and Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani. The lesson of their stories is that despite the recent flurry of plots emanating from the Yemen-based al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the threat from al-Qa`ida’s core network in the Afghan-Pakistani border region remains just as potent, in part due to the ongoing role of Yemeni operatives in South Asia. Perhaps the only positive note is that many of the most prominent Yemeni personalities operating in South Asia are now dead, having been quietly removed in an unrelenting torrent of U.S. drone missile strikes and mysterious explosions.
The real danger posed by this expatriate Yemeni al-Qa`ida faction was only exposed in the aftermath of the December 30, 2009 suicide bombing targeting CIA agents at Camp Chapman—an attack carried out by a former jihadist web forum administrator from Jordan known as Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani (also known as Humam al-Balawi). While the CIA believed it had turned al-Balawi into a key and trusted asset, in the months leading up to his death the Jordanian was instead confidently reassuring his online friends, “when the love of jihad enters the heart of man, it will not leave him even if he wished it to…Can any sane person accept that? Not me.” During a scheduled meeting with his handlers at Camp Chapman to discuss the whereabouts of al-Qa`ida’s deputy commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Balawi detonated a suicide bomb and single-handedly wiped out some of the CIA’s most experienced personnel in the region.
Although the devastating attack was immediately claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, which produced a video of al-Balawi sitting alongside top Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the Camp Chapman bombing nonetheless appeared to bear the telltale fingerprints of hard line foreign jihadists. The CIA quickly vowed to take revenge for its losses, and soon missiles began raining down from U.S. drone aircraft circling over Pakistan’s tribal regions at an unprecedented rate. Early in the evening of March 9, 2010, a group of suspected militants who had gathered at a mujahidin base near the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan became the next target of the CIA’s wrath. A barrage of Hellfire missiles struck the compound, inflicting numerous casualties—including a Yemeni national in his early 30s with the name Saddam Hussein al-Hussami, better known under the pseudonym Ghazwan al-Yemeni. According to a senior U.S. official cited by the Associated Press, al-Yemeni was an al-Qa`ida leader who had “specialized in suicide operations” and was “believed to have played a key role in the bombing of a CIA post in Afghanistan last December…[He] is considered an important al-Qaida planner and explosives expert who had established contact with groups ranging from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to Afghan and Pakistani Taliban militant groups.”
Less than four days after he was killed, tributes to Ghazwan al-Yemeni began pouring into online social networking forums frequented by jihadists. On March 13, administrators from the notorious Falluja Islamic Network issued a statement confirming that “the brave mujahid commander” had actually been a registered participating user in its own web-based chat forum. The archived messages posted by Ghazwan al-Yemeni on the Falluja Islamic Network—the same online social networking venue preferred by CIA bomber Humam al-Balawi—offer an unprecedented inside look into his activities on the battlefield in Afghanistan. In early October 2009, al-Yemeni had posted a flurry of requests via the chat forum on behalf of “the Jalaluddin Haqqani Organization in the Shadow of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” In one such message, he appealed, “we, your brothers from the Jalaluddin Haqqani Organization, have encountered some problems in regards to the subjects Tawheed and Aqeedah, and we want the email or website of the renowned shaykhs in this field so we can direct to them our questions and seek fatwahs.” Another post from Ghazwan al-Yemeni highlighted an urgent need for translating “Shari`a and military guides printed in the Russian language…into Arabic. If you can assist me, whether with software, websites, or translators, may Allah reward you generously.”
Fellow mujahidin comrades of Ghazwan al-Yemeni from the frontline on the Afghan-Pakistani border added their own voices to the chorus of discussion. On March 12, 2010, a registered user on the Falluja Islamic Network calling himself “Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani in Waziristan” offered a first-person biography of the late Yemeni al-Qa`ida commander:
“We were not able to recover the first body until midnight, and our mujahid brother Ghazwan al-Yemeni [was one of the dead]. He had not even completed his third year [in jihad]. His journey with jihad and martyrdom began when he was captured in al-Haramain along with his traveling companion Azzam al-Yemeni, due to their activities and communications with their mujahidin brothers. He was in prison in Sana`a for a long period of time and then he was released…He turned his gaze towards the precious land of…Afghanistan, passing through a third country where they stayed for a lengthy period awaiting entrance visas to Iran. Eventually, Allah permitted for them to enter, and from the first day here, they enrolled in the training camps…I remember the first time I saw him in Wana and he came to learn about explosives from an expert in the Afghani field—in fact, the expert of all aspects of jihad, as they were all the students of Abu Khabab al-Masri…eventually, he went back to North [Waziristan] and…settled in Miran Shah, where he organized and trained the Taliban and assisted in making preparations for many of their military needs.”
By all accounts, Ghazwan al-Yemeni had served as a key liaison and conduit between a variety of local armed jihadist factions, including al-Qa`ida, the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, and the up-and-coming Pakistani Taliban.
Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani
Less than two months later, mujahidin online chat forums again began to light up with discussion of the latest Yemeni national “martyred” in North Waziristan—Mohammed Naqaa al-Hamli, also known as Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani. Indeed, the same voices who had expressed such personal grief over the passing of Ghazwan al-Yemeni stepped forward once again to acknowledge the fate of his brother-in-arms al-Hamli. Falluja Islamic Network user Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani issued an announcement on March 9 to “the members of the Falluja forum [about] the joyful news regarding the martyrdom of your brother from the forum, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani, may almighty Allah have mercy upon him and…allow him to join his fellow brethren. The brother was preparing himself for a martyrdom operation in Kabul.”
A follow-up statement posted later that day by another user, “al-Qairawani,” repeated that “Abu Hatem Mohammed Naqaa’ Qaed al-Hamli al-Yemeni (Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani) has…passed away in the evening due to his severe injuries. These were caused by the premature detonation of an explosive device he was preparing to roast the flesh of Allah’s enemies, the crusaders and apostates.” Al-Qairawani claimed to have
“participated with him for three years in actions and operations, and I only knew him to be a brave, heroic man, and a roaring lion who had no fear of death. May Allah have mercy on him, he specialized in the science of explosives and he mastered it to the point that he became a reference to all the brothers in this regard. In this field, he demonstrated a degree of ingenuity that distinguished him and was of great benefit to the mujahidin. He also worked to spread this art and teach it to the rest of the mujahidin, and he left behind him, praise to Allah, a number of brilliant Taliban students.”
In an interview with the online jihadist media outfit “al-Balagh” only days before his death, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani introduced himself as “from the children of Hijja province, the municipality of Khiran bani Hamla; a graduate from Sana`a University, and a teacher at the Ministry of Education. I studied Shariah education at al-Iman University, which is headed by Shaykh Abdulmajid al-Zindani…I am married and I have one daughter and two sons.”
He insisted that “thoughts of my family and children” would not cause him any hesitation in carrying out a “martyrdom operation”:
“No, as my trust in Allah is very big…I phoned my wife and I asked her to keep praying to Allah to grant me martyrdom, moving on and not returning, and she promised me she would do that, may Allah reward her goodness…No, there’s no part of me feeling hesitation or weakness, but…to the contrary, I feel saddened in putting it off any further…We promised the infidels, when our brother Ghazwan al-Yemeni was killed, that we would strike back twice as hard in response, and this operation, Allah-willing, will be an unforgettable lesson to the infidels.”
Just like Ghazwan al-Yemeni, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani was also a prolific contributor to web-based jihadist social networking forums, particularly the Falluja Islamic Network. In January 2010, he posted a lengthy open diatribe addressed to his former mentor, Shaykh `Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, in Yemen. At first, the message took a respectful, if not congenial tone:
“I give you the good news that we are here on the land of Khorasan (Afghanistan)…Every day we excel in power and number and equipment while our enemy is humiliated and degraded. I assure you about the conditions of my comrades, the students from al-Iman University; they are in the frontline on the battlefields against the cross-worshippers. Your students here and in Iraq are leading the mujahidin with their Shari`a knowledge, which they learnt from you…You were cautious to raise young men who support this religion and sacrifice for its sake, and here is the land of Afghanistan which can testify to that.”
Despite these rather friendly opening words, Abu Dujanah then suddenly veered into a sharp and personal attack on al-Zindani’s credibility as a Muslim leader:
“My Shaykh, I was preparing explosive devices in order to kill Allah’s enemies—the cross-worshippers and their apostate puppets—when I heard on the radio that the well-known activist Abdulmajid al-Zindani has declared that any American interference in Yemen is considered occupation, and in a speech he calls for jihad [only] when an American force invades Yemen!…Are you still ignorant and unaware that America invaded the Arabian countries a long time ago and first of all in Yemen?…You did not do a thing! Excuse me my shaykh, you have reached an older age so when will you leave politics…Please, stand with yourself and redeem yourself before it’s too late, and we are ready to support you with people and equipment; O’ shaykh, be devout to Allah and come to the frontline to fight the enemies of Allah.”
He continued to demand that al-Zindani “besiege the American Embassy” with a group of his followers, further suggesting that “a group of brothers [should] take control over the airbase in Sana`a,” “besiege the Republican Palace in Yemen,” “carry an operation against the apostates in the Gold Mohur [Hotel] in Aden,” and “storm the Ministry of Interior and kill the apostates there and the Interior Minister.” He closed with, “This is what we wish for and want to see in the faith and wisdom valleys of Yemen…Your brother, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani (Afghanistan).”
The Yemeni bombmaker was much more approving in his web commentary when it came to the merits of recent military operations carried out by al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). When al-Qa`ida attempted to assassinate the British ambassador to Yemen in April 2010, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani posted a public message of solidarity with his Yemeni brothers-in-arms: “O’ lions of jihad, even if the British dog escaped from your swords this time, don’t slacken in your persistent efforts against the infidels and apostates so that they will receive their share of your arrows…and that day will be coming soon…from Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani in Afghanistan.”
As for the military operations taking place on the battlefield where he was based, Abu Dujanah informed his online audience in March 2010 that “what is mentioned in the news is just the tip of the iceberg, and our enemies are reeling from their successive defeats, praise be to Allah. In Pakistan, the government retreats each day under the painful blows of the mujahidin, and the same is true in Afghanistan.” He warned of “armed drone aircraft…dispatched by the enemies of Allah…which fly across the sky of Waziristan, and an army of spies on the ground in the tribal areas as well, seeking to obtain intelligence data on the location of the mujahidin…and so, the infidels were able to kill many of our fighters, especially those of Arab origin and other non-Arab foreign fighters.”
Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani
Perhaps a testament to the deadly effectiveness of U.S. drone missile strikes, by this past November even those above Ghazwan al-Yemeni and Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani in the hierarchy of al-Qa`ida’s Yemeni expatriate contingent found their lives in jeopardy. Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani was not only a registered user on the Falluja Islamic Network, but was also a 45-year-old Yemeni national who had spent “half of [his life] in the fields of jihad.” Al-Qahtani reportedly first arrived in Afghanistan during the late 1980s and “fought the communist Russians during the days of the Soviet invasion—and after the order came for mobilization after the American Crusade attack…he went back to the land of Khorasan to fight the Americans just as he fought the Russians before.”
Despite being relatively older, al-Qahtani was nonetheless sharply attuned to the value of internet-based communications, and relied on web chat forums to disseminate news updates and recruitment calls carefully crafted to target an online audience. In February 2010, he took pains to emphasize that a “major operation” had recently taken place in North Waziristan which “included a number of beloved users from the jihadi forums—among them, your brother ‘Abu Kandahar [al-Zarqawi],’ brother ‘Ansar 13,’ and brother ‘Khattab al-Lubnani.’ All of them send you their greetings and salutations, and [advise you] not to forget them in your prayers.”
On the evening of November 16, 2010, in the midst of Eid celebrations, more missiles fired from a U.S. drone demolished a makeshift mujahidin encampment on the Afghan border, killing several fighters—including Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani. According to a statement posted on jihadist web forums, “Allah awarded them to spend Eid there in the highest levels of Paradise, with their beloved ones and brothers Ghazwan al-Yemeni, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani, and Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani. Just as He gathered them in life, He has gathered them in the afterlife.” The author of the statement confessed that in being tasked to “bring you the glad tidings about the martyrdom of our brother Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani al-Yemeni…I write and the words refuse to come out of heart; as it is not easy to mourn your beloved, and it is not easy to receive like this news without your body shaking and your emotions disturbed.” For anyone still unclear, he again confirmed, “Brother Abu Abdelrahman was the one together with us on the Falluja [network].”
Networking with European Fighters?
In a rather disturbing twist, al-Qa`ida’s Yemeni expatriate faction based in North Waziristan has also apparently been working closely on the ground with high-profile European exiles who have likewise traveled to the region in hopes of joining al-Qa`ida and the Taliban. The web statement announcing the death of Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani advised “those who seek more information about the martyrdom of the brother” to “correspond with my beloved brother al-Qairawani”—who is, in fact, the same online forum user who previously had helped spread details about the untimely passing of Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani in an accidental explosion. Al-Qairawani has indicated, in separate posts, that he is currently fighting with the mujahidin in Afghanistan and “used to live in Europe.” He has further acknowledged that “my family and a number of our brothers were on trial in Brussels.” In one case, he vividly described to fellow online jihadists how he was “rushing to reach one of the call centers before they closed, because I was hoping to learn some news from one of the internet websites” about the progress of the trial taking place back in Belgium. Based on the rather specific personal details and hints volunteered over time by al-Qairawani, his real identity appears to be that of most-wanted Tunisian national Moez Garsallaoui, an extremist who left Belgium for Pakistan’s tribal areas in late 2007. Garsallaoui is the husband of the notorious “black widow” Malika el-Aroud, who reportedly posted a statement on the web on his behalf in September 2008, urging Muslims in Europe that “the solution, my brothers and sisters, is not fatwas but boooooooms.”
There are a number of important lessons to be learned from the cases of Ghazwan al-Yemeni, Abu Dujanah al-Sanaani, Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani, and their various other contemporaries within the Yemeni mujahidin network perched on the Afghan-Pakistani border. The degree to which these hard line foreign fighters have become closely intertwined with local allies from the Pakistani Taliban and the Jalaluddin Haqqani network could be quite problematic in the long-term, especially if the United States hopes to scale back its military forces deployed in the region.
It may be tempting in the wake of Abdulmutallab’s attack and the most recent cargo jet bomb plot in late 2010 to shift attention away from the activities of al-Qa`ida operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan to their ambitious ideological cousins in Yemen, or other regional hotspots. Yet just like AQAP, the Yemeni expatriate network in South Asia is equally dedicated to the principle of launching pinpoint strikes on their enemies—on a global scale—and have mobilized extensive resources to actualize their mission, including networking with European recruits and spreading their viral message on sympathetic internet social networking forums. These men hardly fit the popular stereotype of bedraggled buffoons hiding in remote mountain caves. Defanging this evolving terrorist threat will require the U.S. government to maintain an aggressive tempo of action, including the use of controversial-but-demonstrably-effective tactics such as drone missile strikes. Although the Yemeni al-Qa`ida contingent has undoubtedly suffered a series of debilitating losses during the past 12 months, if focus should start to stray, it is only a matter of time before a new group of fresh recruits will step forward to help fill the void.
Evan F. Kohlmann is a Senior Partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based security consulting firm. He is the author of Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network.
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