Saturday, November 27, 2010

Concerning bomb makers

As you may have heard AQAP tried to blow up two cargo planes in late October and may have suceeded in bringing one cargo plane down in early September. Two bombs hidden in toners were found on airplanes heading to the US on October 29th. On November 5th AQAP issued their claim of responsibility for the two bombs as well as for blowing up a cargo plain in Dubai on September 3rd. Last week (November 20th) AQAP's al Malâhim media released a special edition of their English language magazine "Inspire" describing the plot in detail.

There were some things in that magazine that caught my attention. One article I found especially interesting, namely "Technical details" by 'Ikrimah al Muhâjir, member of "the explosives department". The two last pages and some pictures are interesting too but what really hit me was a question posed on page 6:

"Isn't it funny that America thinks that AQAP has only one major bomb maker?"

Immediatly after the first round of rumours and the usual al 'Awlaqî is THE AQAP mastermind media blitz some informed people brought up the name of the person they think (or know?) is the bomb maker who designed the bombs: Ibrâhîm al 'Asîrî. And pretty soon he looked like the next one on the to be killed by drones list, right behind al 'Awlaqî.

The question AQAP poses is in my opinion totally justified. I mean al 'Asîrî is 28 years old, those people in Yemen have been active since at least the late 90's. Wouldn't they have some other good bomb makers, older ones who are more experienced and therefore better? Or is al 'Asîrî some bomb maker wunderkind?

I believe al 'Asîrî's rise to prominence is linked to the fate of his younger brother 'Abdullah. While both of them were listed on the S'aûdî most wanted list of 2009 they first grabbed the worlds attention when the younger one ('Abdullah) became the suicide bomber who tried to assassinate the S'aûdî Deputy Interior Minister on August 27th 2009. This made both of the 'Asîrî brothers propaganda gold mines for AQAP.

The connection between the Interior Ministry suicide bomber and AQAP's alleged master bomb maker has often been mentioned but the short appearance of Ibrâhîm in a recently released video by AQAP's al Malâhim media seems to have gone unnoticed. The brothers are shown hugging each other and saying their last goodbye in the propaganda film "By the Lord of the K'abah I have succeeded 2" that was released on October 5th (See 50:48 - 51:12).

'Abdullah and Ibrâhîm al 'Asîrî in AQAP's al Malâhim media release "By the Lord of the K'abah I have succeeded 2" (released October 2010), the Arabic caption reads: "Witness the last goodbye with his shaqîq (means full brother, as in has the same parents, the word akh - brother - could refer to every male Muslim) Ibrâhîm."

If Ibrâhîm al 'Asîrî is indeed the man behind the cargo plane bombs the timing of this release MAY be interesting. I mean it is almost right between the September 3rd Dubai plane crash and the October 29th attempt. This MAY have been planned as a media coup introducing the mastermind of an ongoing plot to the target audience. That would have been a novelty. I doubt my own theory though as the face of Ibrâhîm is blurred out thereby stealing some of the possible thunder.

On a side note I don't understand why they blur out his face while they do identify him by name. I mean his photo is known; it appeared on the most wanted list in February 2009. They obviously don't want to hide that he was there (that would be one reasonable explanation) and I doubt that he had plastic surgery (that would be another one). 

So, what about droning Ibrâhîm al 'Asîrî? 'Ikrimah al Muhâjir says it won't help. On page 14 of the new Inspire (no. 3, released November 20th 2010) he writes:

Another suggestion is that the bomb maker needs to be killed. I and my brothers in the explosives department are from among the blessings of Abu Khabab al-Misri and Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir who were killed in Afghanistan. Do you think that our research will only be used by al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula and won't be shared with other mujahidin?

Abû Khabâb al Misrî was a bomb expert linked to Egyptian Jihâd and later on al Qâ'idah. He carried out experiments with toxic gas in camps in Afghânistân and his name was mentioned in conjunction with dirty bombs that AQ may have wanted to use. As far as I know he was THE bomb maker trainer in the time of the camps and apparently he kept his job even after 2001. He was killed in a drone strike in late July 2008 somewhere in Wazîristân. AQ second in command Ayman al-Dhawâhirî confirmed his death in a video speech released in late August 2008.

Ayman al-Dhawâhirî announcing the "martyrdom of Shaikh Abû Khabâb and his companions", the man with the red beard is Abû Khabâb al Misrî (video released in August 2008, just days after his death)

In late September 2009 a video was unofficially released on the forums showing a small bomb making training camp somewhere in Pâkistân. The publisher said that Abû Khabâb had been the trainer and could be seen in the video. For more on this video see this post by Leah Farrall of All Things CT.

According to the publisher of this video the standing man who is averted to the camera is Abû Khabâb (released 2009)

So we know that Abû Khabâb trained scores of bomb makers in a time period of more than 10 years. While it is unlikely that anyone of his students is as competent as he was I believe it is safe to say that it is impossible to "drone" all these bomb makers trained by Abû Khabâb out there. 

The second mentioned bomb maker is to my knowledge not Abû .. but just 'Abdul Rahmân al Muhâjir also known as Ibrâhîm al Muhâjir (it seems even AQ guys sometimes fall into the Abû trap). 'Abdul Rahmân al Muhâjir is no other than one of the masterminds and the bomb maker of the Kenia and Tanzania bombings in 1998. His name last appeared in context of Ahmad Khalfân al Gilânî's recent sentencing.

He was referred to as the one "who played the largest part" in the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by fellow AQ member Abûl Hassan al-S'aîdî (Shâkirullah al Misrî) in the 2008 al-Sahâb video "Jihâd wa Istishhâd" (Jihâd and Martyrdom - showing Abûl Hassan giving an interview on AQ's history and his suicide bomber last will). To my knowledge this was the first time that AQ admitted the death of 'Abdul Rahmân.

AQ field commander Abûl Hassan speaking about the 1998 embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania - released 2008

He died sometime in 2006 - cause of death: drone in Pâkistân. Coincidently he appeared in a video released on October 27th. He is shown in al-Sahâb's (AQC media) video release "Rîh al Jannah 5" (Winds of Paradise 5), a video series that deals with AQ's "martyrs" in the AfPak region. We get to know that he was big in creating car bombs in the AfPak zone. The interesting thing is he is not the one eulogized in the video, it's one of his successors - Abû Salamah al-Najdî - who got into car bomb making after 'Abdul Rahmân's death. 

The standing man is 'Abdul Rahmân al Muhâjir, the caption reads Ibrâhîm al Muhâjir (an alias) - released October 2010

As far as I know nobody ever noticed a decrease in capabilities of local AQC to bomb things in the AfPak region while some of the major bomb makers were killed. AQ seems to constantly train new bomb makers who may not be as experienced as the killed ones but who are capable enough to blow things up (Camp Chapman comes to mind).  

The mentioning of these two particular bomb makers could be a hint that there are in fact alumni of AQC bomb making training camps in Yemen. Gregory Johnsen of Waq al Waq in a different context got the impression that AQC guys are coming to Yemen. If so one can't rule out that among the new talent are/have been bomb makers too.

Concerning the capabilities and background of bomb makers Clint Watts of Selected Wisdom described the bomb maker of AQAP as following:

AQAP’s bombmaker, however, is extremely rare.  Only real world practice and survival in Iraq and Afghanistan allows one to master these devices.

We know that some of AQAP's men are Irâq veterans (Muhmmad al-Râshid comes to my mind first), but I feel the hint concerning the two AQC bomb makers points to Afghânistân. Otherwise mentioning of AQ in Irâq's deceased commander Abû Hamzah al Muhâjir who was a bomb maker too would have fitted better.

This brings us to the question: who is this 'Ikrimah al Muhâjir? He seems to have detailed knowledge of the making of the device and he obviously isn't one of the English speaking crew (note the translated by al Malâhim above the article). Could he be the bomb maker? Is he an Afghânistân alumni? Or is the whole article just a smoke screen ...

Partial screen of page 13 (Inspire 3), notice the "Translated by al-Malahem Media" (released November 2010)

Concluding I do believe that al 'Asîrî is only one of AQAP's bomb makers, singled out because of possible propaganda value by AQAP and killing him wouldn't change much. We have seen AQC bomb makers come and go and know that the two AQC bomb makers mentioned above trained a number of people who were by and large able to replace them after their demise (at least in local bomb manufacture). I suppose that AQAP has other competent bomb makers than al 'Asîrî who may be training others the time I write.


On a side note concerning the magazine "Inspire 3" and Anwar al 'Awlaqî Thomas Hegghammer of Jihadica identifies al 'Awlaqî as the Head of AQAP's Foreign Operations based on the article "The objectives of Operation Hemorrhage" (Inspire, no. 3, released November 20th 2010, p. 7). The article finishes with mentioning the book Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book that al 'Awlaqî read in prison and posted about on his now defunct blog after his release nearly three years ago. Another point that links the article to al 'Awlaqî is according to Hegghammer the reference to Muslim Spain.

I personally am not fully convinced by this. Everyone who read his blog (certainly most of the Inspire crew) can plant this hint and there are more Andalus obsessed people other than al 'Awlaqî (An Incomplete History: Muslims in Andalus anyone?). To me this whole Inspire thing is directed to the CT community as well as to English speaking jihâdî's. See page 23 for example:

Screen of page 23 (Inspire 3), showing the use of "Wordle" (released November 2010)

This seems to be a shout to Jarret Brachman who has been in dialogue with English speaking jihâdî's for some time. In one of his posts he used a technique called "Wordle" and it looks like the Inspire crew did the same. Well, this is no proof that Jarret Brachman is with AQAP. In fact I strongly doubt it.

I don't rule out that al 'Awlaqî is indeed with AQAP and maybe he is operational and even  responsible for the cargo plane plot but from what I have seen I don't see enough proofs to get him jailed in court.

Therefore to me he is still a person linked to but not necessarily a member of AQAP. He is certainly supportive of them with his speeches but again I haven't seen a hard proof for his membership. Especially his recent video that was not released via AQAP's al Malâhim media is in my eyes an indication that he is somewhat independent from them.

Like Aaron Zelin of Jihadology I could imagine al 'Awlaqî as a supportive scholar to AQAP just like Abû Muhammad al Maqdissî was for AQI.  Still Thomas Hegghammer may have information that I don't have. Let's see how all this evolves ...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Zadrân and the American

This week (October 24th or 23rd) a new video from Afghânistân was posted to the usual forums. The film is produced by Manba al Jihâd - the media group loyal to the Haqqânîs.

The Haqqânîs are a Tâlibân faction led by Jalâluddîn Haqqânî and his sons, foremost Sirâjuddîn. Jalâluddîn has been active in the 1980's war against the Soviet's and belonged to the Hizb Islâmî Khâlis prior to joining the Tâlibân in the mid-nineties and becoming a minister in their government. The Haqqânîs operate in Eastern Afghânistân (especially Greater Paktiâ), have safe havens in Pâkistân's Tribal Areas (especially North Wazîristân) and are responsible for many of the high profile attacks that shook Afghânistân in recent years.

Jalâluddî Haqqânî in 1991 - the screen is taken from the latest Manba al Jihâd video (released October 2010)

To my knowledge Manba al Jihâd operates since late 2007. In the years since they have released parts 1-8 of their series Da Ghâziânô Kârwân - Caravan of Fighters (ghâzî is difficult to translate, I personally learned that word as a term for someone who HAD fought jihâd and came out alive).

Well, as you may have guessed their newest release is part 9 of their series. As usual it shows news footage overlaid with a voiceover denouncing Hâmid Karzai and the US as criminals, attacks on NATO and ANA forces (IED's, ambushes, suicide bombings) and here and there a glimpse of their leaders.

But this time I was surprised to see an American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl who somehow got into the hands of the Tâlibân in late June 2009. He has been shown on video by the Tâlibân on three occasions. The first came right after his capture - in July 2009. The Tâlibân produced a video that was meant as proof of life and seems to have been made under time pressure. Instead of one of the official and semi-official media groups of the Tâlibân the video just showed the seal of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghânistân" (the official title of Afghânistan under the Tâlibân and still used by them).

Bowe Bergdahl in a Tâlibân video (released July 2009)

In December 2009 they followed up with a highly polished propaganda video by one of the big media groups: al Imârah. The video release was timed to hit the American headlines on Christmas, but it was overshadowed by that incident in Detroit.

Bowe Bergdahl in a Tâlibân video (released December 2010)

The third video was published in April 2010. Again it was not marked by usual media groups. This time it was obviously meant to create pressure on the US and thereby getting a prisoner exchange.

Bowe Bergdahl shown in a Tâlibân video (released April 2010)

The recent video release shows Bergdahl and to his right is the man who is believed to be his captor: Sangîn Zadrân, a very important military commander who belongs to the Haqqânîs. His official Tâlibân job is military commander of the Paktîkâ province.

Bowe Bergdahl (l.) and Sangîn Zadrân (r.) in the recent Manba al Jihâd release (released October 2010)

Additionally he is one of about a handful of actual (as in Afghâns who hold high official Tâlibân positions) commanders who gave an interview to al-Sahâb, al Qâ`idah's media front. I believe this shows that he is nearer to AQ than other commanders who are either camera-shy or rather talk to the professionals from al Jazîrah or western media.

Sangîn Zadrân giving an interview to al-Sahâb (AQ's media) in 2009

When I saw that interview with al-Sahâb I got the impression that they tried to mirror their interview with Dâdullah Akhûnd (visiting training camp, shooting RPG etc.). Dâdullah was the major Tâlibân military commander in Southern Afghânistân and on top of that he was extremely media savy. Most times it wasn't al-Sahâb but al-Jazeera who interviewed him. Additionaly he appeared in Tâlibân productions, sometimes he did beheadings in front of a camera. All of this he did unveiled and thereby became something like the face of the Tâlibân, the "Zarqâwî of Afghânistân" till his death in 2007.

I think to jihâdists in 2010 Zadrân is the best known active - as in still alive, not in jail and did not surrender - (unveiled) face of the Tâlibân. The only other active Tâlibân commander who appears unveiled is to my knowledge the commander of Nûristân: Dôst Muhammad.

Anyway, none one them has yet made that step with the Western media but the Bergdahl capture could lead to Sangîn Zadrân becoming famous and infamous in the West.

Bowe Bergdahl and Sangîn Zadrân in the recent Manba al Jihâd video (released October 2010)

Besides, for all those who claimed that Bergdahl deserted and/or is giving training on IED's to the Tâlibân (which is absurd on its own) he doesn't look particularly happy next to Zadrân, it is more the other way round.

UPDATE: 05 June 2014

Bergdahl has been exchanged for five high ranking Tâlibân members who had been jailed in Guantanamo on May 31st. Many newspapers are running articles on him using a variation of the photo seen above. 

Interestingly I have not seen one reference to who the guy next to him is. While Sangîn Zadrân was of huge importance to the Tâlibân in Afghânistân and Pâkistân - for example he allegedly was the first trainer of the late Tehrîk e Tâlibân Pâkistân Amîr Hakîmullah Mehsûd - he never got famous in western media. To reiterate Zadrân was the most important field commander of the Haqqânî Tâlibân who were added to the US List of Foreign Terrorist Organization in late 2012.

A move that in my mind does not make sense as the Tâlibân are not designated as such and the so-called Haqqânî Network in my opinion is nothing but an unofficial sub-group within the Tâlibân. Jalaluddîn Haqqânî joined the Tâlibân in the mid-nineties and his so called network is right that - a network. a network built on personal connections, mostly of tribal character (Zadrân clan) and not an organisation in its own right. So, as the Haqqânîs are a designated FTO and were the ones holding Bergdahl the US did in some way deal with terrorists.

But what happened to Sangîn Zadrân? Last year in late summer he was killed in a drone strike in the Pâkistânî tribal area of North-Wazîristân. Photos of his funeral were later on released to jihâdist forums.

Sangîn Zadrân shown at his funeral in summer 2013