New Evidence on Ansar al-Sharia in Libya Training Camps

Over the past few years there have rumblings about training camps in Libya that are run by jihadi entities such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in southern Libya as well as ones by Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), the organization most likely responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. It has been difficult to confirm these camps due to the secretive nature of these groups and the lack of self reported evidence by these groups. For the first time, though, on August 6, 2013, credible sources within Libya have confirmed such camps exist.

On Facebook, Moaoya EL Wrffli, posted two videos of two separate Tunisians that had been detained by locals in the Darnah region and later interrogated. The two videos below provide fascinating insights into Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and its non-publicized activities as well as facilitation networks as it relates to the war in Syria. Based on the information given in the these videos, even though they were just posted online, it is likely that they are from late spring/early summer 2012. Highlighting that ASL was already at that point very active with training fighters for Syria as well as other likely nefarious activities in light of what we know would eventually happen in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

First Detainee:

The first individual mentions that his name is Usama al-Jufayr and admits that he is of Tunisian descent. Says he entered Benghazi, Libya in May 2012 and his purpose was for training to go fight in Syria. al-Jufayr states that the group running these camps is Katibat Ansar al-Sharia, which was the name used by ASL prior to consulate attack and only changed it afterwards for rebranding purposes. The detainee claims that the regime in Tunisia needs reform, but the set up in Libya is “al-hamdullilah,” suggesting good or permissive to the activities they are undertaking. It is likely that al-Jufayr is indeed a jihadi because he notes that parliamentary systems are contrary to the Islamic sharia, which in his eyes is the only acceptable system of governance. Further, he notes that those training with him had not been involved in military jihad previously and come from civilian backgrounds. The program takes twenty days and only included up to that point weapons training and no religious schooling.

Second Detainee:

The second individual does not give his name, but claims he is Tunisian as well. This man entered Benghazi, Libya by plane on April 20, 2012 and also joined the ASL camp in Benghazi. He notes that it is more like army training than police training. He also highlights that he was recruited to this camp by a man named ‘Abd al-Rahman from Tunis and had previously not known about it. Unlike al-Jufayr, the second detainee suggests that there is other types of training noting that he had been involved with learning guerilla warfare, booby traps, and surprise attacks. This training was supposed to last for about a month. In the end, his goal was to go to Syria and fight with the Free Syrian Army, illustrating that he might not be a jihadi and wanted to join up for more altruistic reasons, though, it is impossible to know for sure.

These two videos show that although ASL’s public image has been tied to its da’wa (missionary work) over the past eleven months, it is likely that they are also still active in training individuals to fight in Syria. Moreover, it shows in the case of the second detainee that there are active facilitation networks between recruiters in Tunisia and training camps to get fighters prepared for Syria before they head off to the front lines. These two videos likely only scratch the surface. While some might be skeptical of these videos, based on the level of detail, and what we generally know about how these groups and networks operate, I am confident that they are legitimate. That being said, more information is definitely needed to fill gaps in what we know about all these types of activities. Hopefully, this is the first of other leaks that uncovers more information related to the nexus of  these jihadi recruitment and facilitation networks.

Thanks to Adam Heffez, a research assistant at the Washington Institute, for helping with some of the translations of the Libyan/Tunisian Arabic. 

 

The Ghosts of Sinjar in Tripoli and Benghazi

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A month ago, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Benghazi (The Supporters of Islamic Law; ASB), on its official Facebook page via its official media outlet al-Rayyah Foundation for Media Production uploaded a poster (see above) promoting a demonstration on Sunday December 16 in Tripoli and Benghazi. The demonstration is in support of Libyans currently imprisoned in Iraq. In the past few months there have been other protests in support of Libyans in Iraq, too. Similarly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) has also held demonstrations in the past for Tunisians that are imprisoned in Iraq. What’s fascinating in this case is that the promotional poster contains names of ten individuals. At the suggestion of the blogger/tweeter that goes by the name of Around the Green Mountain I cross-checked these names with the Sinjar Records to see if there were any matches.

For background on the Sinjar Records see the Combating Terrorism Center’s description in their report that first analyzed these records: “In November 2007, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point received nearly 700 records of foreign nationals that entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007 … The records contain varying levels of information on each fighter, but often include the fighter’s country of origin, hometown, age, occupation, the name of the fighter’s recruiter, and even the route the fighter took to Iraq.  The records were captured by coalition forces in October 2007 in a raid near Sinjar, along Iraq’s Syrian border.”

When the raw data was checked, four out of the ten names were a match (or had a part of the name): ‘Adil Jum’ah Muhammad al-Sha’lali, ‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi, Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad, and Muhammad Saqr Muhammad. Some information about them:

  • All created their own kunyas: Abu ‘Umar, Abu Umar, Abu al-Qa’qa, Abu Hudayfah (listed in same order as regular names above)
  • Three were from Darnah while the other did not list a city of origin;
  • Three listed date of birth: 1981, 1982, and 1985;
  • Two of them mentioned when they arrived in Iraq: October 2006;
  • The same two brought with them 500 and 300 lira respectively;
  • And a different set of two of them stated the work they wanted when joining the Islamic State of Iraq: martyr (which has not obviously come to fruition yet)

Two of the individuals also contained pictures in their Sinjar application for the Islamic State of Iraq. Below, you can see a comparison of the application photo from 2006 on the left and what I am assuming is a relatively recent photo of the same individual in Iraqi custody, which is from the above flier. There are slight differences due to aging and likely poor conditions in Iraqi prisons and the second picture looks closer in similarity to the before and after than the first one. For those reading, what do you think (leave a comment below)?

Untitled

‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right) 

Untitled 3

Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right)

It is likely that the other six individuals that ASB is calling for their release were also fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq, but joined at a different time period or were not part of the registration/orientation in Sinjar. Reports from the official Libyan news agency LANA suggest that after the most recent protests, Baghdad has been in negotiation with Tripoli to return the prisoners and have them serve out their time in Libya. Based on the current security dynamic in Libya, if these prisoners, among others I’m sure, are returned can their sentences in prison be preserved? There is a good chance that due to the unstable nature swirling in the country that these individuals could be broken out of jail or even worse are let free once back on Libyan soil due to the weakness of the government in the face of Islamist militias. Time will of course tell.

The above highlights that although some parts of the history of the jihadi movement and US understanding/interaction with these sources seems somewhat dated, as Leah Farrall always notes ‘what’s old is new again.’ In other words, trends/older players return to the fore even if forgotten by analysts. This is especially the case in the post-Arab uprising societies where individuals from the 1990s scene have once again gotten back on the stage. All of this of course illustrates the importance in understanding the history, context, and evolution of the jihadi movement. Only focusing narrowly on the most recent developments will rob many of appreciating how and why events are occurring or repeating themselves.

Is al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib Gaining Influence in Libya?

One of the biggest questions and worries the past year in Western counterterrorism circles has been about how the MENA uprisings would affect al-Qa’ida. Many pointed to the uprisings as evidence that the citizens of the MENA were not only shedding off the yoke of tyranny, but also discrediting al-Qa’ida. On the other side of the debate were those that believed that it would provide the impetus for jihadis to take over. Throughout the past ten months I have maintained that one would see something more in between these two visions and that one should focus on the internal dynamics of each country. The three countries that have worried me the most are Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Gregory Johnsen has done a great job keeping everyone updated on al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s evolution and advances in Yemen. Additionally, I have a forthcoming post at al-Wasat about the potential for jihadi penetration in the Syrian theater if the country does indeed devolve into a civil war. This post will therefore only focus on Libya and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib’s (AQIM) outreach to Libyans since the beginning of the Libyan uprising in February.

Co-editor of al-Wasat and specialist on AQIM and North Africa, Andrew Lebovich, has written some excellent pieces related to AQIM, the Libya conflict, and the seizing of weapons, which you can read here (4/4/11), here (6/19/11), here (9/8/11), and here (9/27/11). Lebovich’s two main arguments stated:

It is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011 … AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad. (4/4/11)

The place where these weapons really could make a difference is northern Algeria, where AQIM has conducted a persistent IED campaign for years against Algeria’s army, police and gendarmerie. (6/19/11)

Indeed, I believe Lebovich’s argument has many merits, yet it is only one aspect of the broader picture. It is also worth noting AQIM’s media strategy since the beginning of the Libyan conflict. It is also necessary to re-visit and reassess how the Iraq jihad played a role in the Libyan jihadi community. Although AQIM is known for its history in Algeria and its attempts in recent years to infiltrate and gain influence in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger since the beginning of the MENA uprisings AQIM has zeroed in on Libya as if they smell blood in the water. Prior to the MENA uprisings AQIM (to my knowledge) never released anything dealing with Libya specifically. Since the beginning of the MENA uprisings, AQIM has released seven statements and/or videos related to the uprisings. Four of which dealt with Libya, two on Tunisia, and one related to Algeria (see chart below). It is crucial to point out that the releases on Tunisia and Algeria were all published in January. Therefore, all of AQIM’s focus on the MENA uprisings since late February — when they released their first statement on the then impending Libyan civil war — has solely dealt with Libya. This shows a genuine interest by AQIM in the Libyan theater and potentially, though not definitely, a calculation that they could make inroads.

At first, I had trouble accepting that AQIM could possibly make any inroads in Libya. One of the main reasons has to do with the Algerians’ checkered past with the Libyans during the 1990s in the age of the local jihad. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into detail about it, but I would suggest reading Camille Tawil’s excellent book Brothers In Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists, which provides rich detail of the issues between the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) and the LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) during the Algerian civil war. To put it mildly the Libyans had a bitter taste in their mouth toward the Algerians. Another reason that led me to initial skepticism was that the LIFG underwent revisions in the latter half of the previous decade, which to a certain extent moderated the leadership and members who were jailed in the group.

It also does not also necessarily account for Libyan foreign fighters in the Iraq jihad, though. According the Sinjar Records, which should be taken as a random sample of foreign fighters at the height of the Iraq jihad, the average age of the fighters were 24‐25 years old and the median age was 22‐23 years old. This would suggest that the Libyan fighters that survived the fight and did not become a suicide bomber or die in battle and returned to Libya were too young in the 1990s to get caught up in the arrests and sweeps against the LIFG. It would also suggest that the LIFG did not necessarily have sway ideologically on this new generation of Libyan jihadis. Moreover, the revisions were done with explicit coordination with the Qadhafi regime, which in the current environment calls into question those that engaged with that regime. It will also test al-Qa’ida’s current amir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s theory that the revisions by the LIFG as well as others in Egypt and elsewhere were insincere based on pressures from various regimes. Either way, it could be argued that two ideological trends were taking hold simultaneously within the Libyan jihadi community. The first generation of Libyan jihadis were “moderating” their doctrine while the second generation was exposed to the virulent ideology of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. This twin phenomenon would have been masked by Qadhafi’s suppressive policies, which have only been exposed since his fall.

It should be noted that this does not necessarily provide wholesale proof that there is going to be some type of jihadi takeover of the Libyan government. That said, there are new data points that should be analyzed in light of the previous paragraph. It was pointed out to me Sunday on Twitter by al-Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom that the admin of the official Facebook page of the Libyan uprising (17 February Intifada) posted AQIM’s most recent video message from Shaykh al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi. This is no doubt a worrying sign.

       Additionally, this past Friday a picture in Benghazi that showed the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq flag hanging over a court building raised some alarms in the media. My initial reaction was that it most likely was a souvenir from the Iraq jihad and that it may not seem as much of a provocation as many would think since it has the shahdah (Muslim testament of faith) on it, which could signal the renewal of Islam in society. On Sunday the jihadi forums posted two videos of a caravan of cars and then marchers carrying similar flags as well as others linked to AQ. This made me rethink my initial reaction to the flag controversy, which led me to what I believe is a more nuanced take in the paragraph above that outlines how Libyan foreign fighters were exposed to AQI’s ideology. Although the LIFG’s trajectory following the Libyan uprising appears to conform to their moderation during their revision process since they have changed their group name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, the second generation of jihadis now that Qadhafi is dead are slowly flexing their muscle in a society rife with violence, revenge, and potential tribal war. There are still many blind spots and it is too early to conclude anything definitive, but further influence of AQIM should be watched closely.

AQIM and Libya’s missing weapons

It is a frightening thought; an al-Qaeda franchise in the heart of Africa which has sworn to target European and American interests in the region, not to mention local governments, equipped with a growing arsenal of heavy weapons and even surface-to-air missiles. Two reports have recently suggested rather strongly that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had acquired truckloads of weapons from abandoned army stocks in Eastern Libya, including SA-7 missiles. This news has caused concern among commentators and officials, especially in the wake of NATO supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis’ testimony last week that U.S. intelligence had detected “flickers” of al-Qaeda among Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels, news that several Islamist former militants and a former employee of Osama bin Laden in Libya are playing key roles in Libya’s rebellion, and as writers dig back into the “Sinjar Records” documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq that showed an unusually high percentage of foreign fighters came from Eastern Libyan cities like Benghazi and Darnah, epicenters of the current rebellion. Yet before things get out of hand and people draw the worst conclusions about the admittedly real threat from AQIM to the region, these latest reports of weapons acquisition require a careful look, to determine not only what the impact of AQIM acquiring these weapons might be, but also if these reports can be trusted at all.

First, to the Reuters report citing an unnamed Algerian security official that eight truckloads of weapons from Eastern Libya had traveled through Chad and Niger before ending up in Northern Mali, including SA-7 “Strela” missiles (the same missiles used to target an Israeli airplane in Kenya in 2002), as well as “RPG-7s, FMPK (Kalashnikov heavy machine guns), Kalashnikovs, explosives and ammunition.” The official continued, saying, “we know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing.” An interview nearly two weeks ago with Chad’s president Idriss Déby similarly asserted that AQIM had acquired SAMs in Libya and brought them back to northern Niger, and was becoming “a real army, the best-equipped in the region.”

If true (and I’m really not sure about this) the news is interesting and worrisome, but not for the reason many people think. While the specter of an al-Qaeda affiliate getting their hands on SAMs brings to mind the failed 2002 attack, the scenario described in the two stories imply instead that AQIM is hoarding the missiles in isolated strongholds in the Sahel (the Ténéré region in Niger and likely the Timétrine in Northern Mali) far from any high-profile airline targets. And while it’s not impossible that these weapons would be redeployed or re-sold, the effort that would have gone into transporting these weapons across several countries and thousands of miles of difficult terrain just to send them elsewhere.

Instead, as I told journalist Paul Cruickshank last week, it is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011, where French forces rapidly deployed and attacked fleeing AQIM forces in Mali in a failed attempt to rescue two hostages seized 12 hours earlier in Niger’s capital of Niamey. This possibility also makes some sense alongside an interesting piece of information from North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, who wrote in an article for the CTC Sentinel in February that AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had bought a .50 cal. DSHK (or “dushka”) anti-aircraft weapon. AQIM has become militarily more aggressive in the Sahel in recent years, and heavy weapons would indicate an increased desire to expand its operations, especially as its forces becomes increasingly isolated in northern Algeria.

What is also interesting about the possibility of AQIM purchasing weapons taken out of Libya by smugglers (as the Reuters piece implies) is that it shows that despite releasing several audio tapes in support of the Libyan revolt (and despite reports of a limited AQIM presence in Libya), AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad.

That is, of course, if these reports are even true. Despite the widespread attention this news has received, the claims about AQIM seizing weapons come in large part from two sources, Idriss Déby and an anonymous Algerian intel officer. While Déby’s concern about AQIM may well be genuine, he has also developed a very close relationship with Qaddafi in recent years, to the point where, in the same interview with Jeune Afrique where he said AQIM had seized the SAMs, he also said he has been speaking with Qaddafi every day.

As for the other source, it is silly to think that a senior Algerian official would speak about such a sensitive issue, and in such detail, without official sanction. And Algeria has taken a strong stance against foreign intervention in Libya, likely out of a calculation that more revolutions in North Africa are bad revolutions, as well as Algeria’s traditional opposition to foreign military involvement in conflicts in they’re back yard. Indeed, after telling the Reuters journalist about AQIM’s newfound weapons, the Algerian concluded that, “If the Gadhafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya — in terms of a country which has watertight borders and security and customs services which used to control these borders — which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.” The official concludes then that to prevent this eventuality, Qaddafi’s regime must be preserved, with or without Qaddafi.

It is quite a reach to assume that AQIM is in any real way involved in the fighting, let alone that AQIM would be able to use the vacuum left by Qaddafi’s fall to take over a large swath of North Africa, especially given the fact that no estimate that I have seen puts AQIM’s numbers in the Sahel at more than several hundred, hardly enough to control swaths of territory that are far more populated than AQIM’s area of operations in the Sahel, all with hostile NATO forces watching closely and rebels who may not take too kindly to al-Qaeda stepping onto their turf for any other reason than to fight Qaddafi. Instead, that final quote casts some suspicion on the earlier missile claims, raising the possibility that the Algerian government is inflating or at least heavily advertising an AQIM involvement in Libya in order to discredit efforts in the West to overthrow Qaddafi or support the rebels.

Additionally, this new information follows on what appears to be a rather crude attempt to forge an AQIM statement claiming that AQIM fighters were killed in a NATO air raid last Friday, analyzed quite thoroughly by al-Wasat co-editor Aaron. As Aaron points out, not only do the details of the statement appear to be inconsistent with standard AQIM statements, but it was released directly to the Algerian news outlet Tout Sur l’Algérie, and has not appeared on any jihadist forums or been confirmed by news reports. All told, this is more than enough to be suspicious of claims of AQIM of involvement, especially given the organization’s near-total radio silence on Libya over the past two weeks; no images of AQIM fighters alongside Libyan rebels, no testimony from Libyan AQIM fighters, no biographies of “martyrs” killed in combat, and thus far no video of seized weaponry.For an organization that generally produces astute media products, the failure to capitalize on clear openings to generate more credibility and support is a glaring failure.

None of this is to say that the disparate reports of AQIM’s growing arsenal are false or staged. Such eventualities are entirely possible, and AQIM would certainly love to get their hands on more weapons. And AQIM’s recent silence could be an attempt to lie low in the face of Western pressure, for fear of being snuffed out or hunted before securing either a better role in the insurgency or a victory against Qaddafi. But the context surrounding the limited evidence of AQIM involvement in the Libyan rebellion or benefiting from its chaos is enough to make me seriously question these stories, as we wait for more concrete evidence.

AQIM Statement Hoax?

Last night, Tout sur l’Algérie published an article titled “Aqmi affirme que ses éléments ont été tués dans ce raid” (“AQIM confirms that its members were killed in raid”). The article stated that they received through anonymous sources a new statement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that said that some of AQIM’s fighters were killed in an accidental NATO airstrike on rebels this past Friday. Although it is quite possible that this occurred, there is reason to be skeptical. First, the statement has still not been released to the forums (at least sixteen hours have passed as of 1:25PM US Central Time). I also do not recall a time when AQIM released a statement to anonymous sources in the past. Second, the article provided a screen shot of the top of the statement and it did not conform to the normal style, color, and font of previous AQIM statements.

Screen shot of Tout sur l'Algérie's screen shot of AQIM's statement

The top part with the black text (the basmallah) and the golden text (AQIM’s name in Arabic) are normal. The green text below it, though, is where the authenticity of the statement comes into question. In the past, AQIM has never used that font or green color for its statement titles. Rather, they have used red. Here are some examples of previous officially released AQIM statements:

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Based on the above examples and when one compares it to the one posted by Tout sur l’Algérie one can see a clear difference. Further, the green text appears to be photoshopped on top of the alleged AQIM statement.

There are other indications that it is not real. The first line of green text states the basmallah again, which does not make much sense since it is already articulated above, which suggests the individual who created it and tried to pass it off as real did a poor job trying to copy previous AQIM statements. The second line is the alleged name of the statement and translates to “Obituary of the Mujahidin in the Battle of “Bariqah.” Using the word obituary appears off and does not sound similar to jihadi lingo. One would think they would use the word shuhadaʾ (martyrs) instead.

This raises the question then, who and why would one want to perpetuate such a poorly executed hoax? Three countries came to mind: Algeria, Libya, and France. I asked al-Wasat’s co-editor Andrew Lebovich, a specialist on France and the Maghreb who works for Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation, in a private conversion what his thoughts were and who might be behind it. Lebovich does not believe the French passed the information along since they would have no reason to do so. With regard to Algeria, Lebovich stated that the Algerians are not too happy about the intervention because an unstable state next door is not good. He continued: “I think they are in a tough bind; their lives would be better with Qaddafi gone, but for the sake of their own internal security I think they would like to avoid more revolutions.” That said, he is still skeptical that they would forward such information because “if anyone should know what these [AQIM] documents look like, it’s the Algerians.” Lastly, Lebovich suggested that the Libyans may be behind it since “they’re smart, and know the Algerian press would take a statement like this.”

Since there is no clear evidence of who is behind this alleged statement and it has not appeared on the forums nor has AQIM released a statement refuting the information in the Tout sur l’Algérie article, at this point it would be unwise to point fingers. That said, based on what we know about AQIM there is strong evidence that the statement being trotted out was not actually from AQIM.

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