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 ...


  1. Dear Mr.Orange,

    I'm a French student who is currently studying History at Nanterre University.

    First of all, a big shout out for your blog and things you write on it. I'm really impressed by your knowledge and details you focus on.

    Regarding your post, I, just like you, was particularly interested in the little snippet of information given by Ikrimah al Muhajir, related to the common background of the explosives department of AQAP and both Abu Khabab al Misri and Ibrahim al Muhajir. I emailed Leah Farrall about this claim of Ikrimah just after I read it, so I was particulary pleased to see that I was not the only one fascinated by this.

    I completely agree with what you said regarding AQC great capacity in terms of finding new skilled bomb makers, given that the masters always have several students who are ready to replace them.

    Regarding the master/student issue, here comes to mind some (now deceased) great bomb makers in the AfPak region like Ghazwan al Yamani or Abu Jamilah al Kuwaiti. These two were former students of the legendary Abu Khabab. And it's obvious from what can be read about them that they left behind them many students eager to avenge them and practice what they have learnt.
    Also in the crew was Abu Dujaanah al San'ani, a former student of... Ghazwan al Yamani (notice that Abu Dujaanah embarked himself on a suicide mission to avenge the death of his former master, Ghazwan). And these two yemeni commanders were close to Abu Dujaanah al Khurasani. So we clearly see with these examples that the knowledge of the master bomb makers is never lost, and that their students are very capable and can do an impressive job, like the Camp Chapman proved it.

    Also it would be very nice of you if you could provide me with the translation of the book « Martyrs in a time of alienation » written by Abu Ubaydah al Maqdisi as well as the arabic book written by Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, entitled al Harb ala'l Islam.

    Here is my e mail:

    Keep up with the good work!


  2. Hi Kévin,

    thank you for the kind words and your interest. Oh, and sorry for the late reply.

    Your observations are spot on and I agree fully. Thanks again for these additions, I just didn't think about that cluster which Abû Dujânah was part of in this context.

    It's especially interesting that two of those you mentioned were Yemenis fighting in AfPak. I suppose if there was a shortage in bomb makers in Yemen such people would be the ones to be send home.

    I suppose you saw Flash Point's chart?

    As of now we can add a picture of Abû Qandahâr. Let's see if the bomb makers of tomorrow are linked to them.

    I would be very interested in Leah Farrall's take on this but I think the chances aren't high that she will say something she may know about 'Ikrimah.

    As for the books I am very sorry but I have neither of them. You may ask here:

    for the first one but I take that you read that already.


    Mr. Orange

  3. Dear Mr.Orange,

    Thanks for the answer and as for the website making sense of jihad, yep, I already read its summary of the book.

    Same thing regarding the chart (you're right, an update would be nice here since four new pictures of Abu Kandahar are now out)

    Oh and one more thing about Ibrahim al Muhajir. We know that only two pictures of him are known: the one released by US authorities and the other in Winds of Paradise 5.

    Well, I've just reread his bio written by Abu Ubaydah al Maqdisi(through Google translator... not so fun), in which it is said that the last martyrdom operation he engineered was the one against the American consulate in Karachi carried out by the Pakistani Abu Uthman in march 2006.

    Out of curiosity, I rewatched the video featuring Abu Uthman to see if I could find al Muhajir on it, since we know thanks to the As Sahab release what he looked like when he was in AfPak.

    And I'm pretty sure (I say "pretty" because since his face is not visible, I cannot be 100% sure)that I found him! Why? Well, it's simple:

    Just like al Muhajir, the man I found has a pretty dark complexion and a beard colored with henna.

    Furthermore, we know that al Muhajir was behind the engineering of the car bomb for this operation(and more generally, he has a central role in making car bombs in AfPak as you noticed).

    And that is where my assumption makes sense: the man with colored beard can be seen supervising details of the car bomb and involved in its engineering, so there is little doubt that the partially-hidden man was indeed Ibrahim al Muhajir.

    I know, I'm a details freak and I spend too much time watching jihadi videos, but since we don't have many pictures of him, not to mention moving images, finding out that he was featured on a video while doing his job is pretty fascinating to me.

    Appearances of (the alleged) Ibrahim al Muhajir: 20:10, 22:05,...

    What do you think? Likely? Unlikely?

    Also, it would be nice of you if I could have your e mail.



  4. Hi again,

    you are worse than me in details - in the best meanings :D

    I just checked the book and the film and your observation is amazing. It is certainly possible that the person is Ibrâhîm al Muhâjir. The similarities are indeed striking. It is not uncommon though to sport red beards and a darker skin in Pâkistân, it could be just an ordinary local, as you said we can't be sure until AQ says so. So 65-35 that it's him from my place.

    Yet you fell for the Abû trap, as far as I know the suicide bomber was named 'Uthmân :D

    And don't miss that new thing concerning Abû Khabâb on the forums!


    Mr. Orange