Hammami’s Plight Amidst Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda’s Game of Thrones

For those of you who are interested in al-Shabaab (an issue I usually leave my co-blogger Christopher Anzalone), Clint Watts and I have an article out today with George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute on what the confused fate of American jihadist Omar Hammami might say about divisions within al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda:

American al-Shabaab commander Omar Hammami, known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, on Friday sat alone in front of a flag commonly associated with al-Qaeda and said that the organization for which he’d fought for much of the last five years, al-Shabaab, might be trying to kill him. The video, the first public message from Hammami since last October, caught many counterterrorism analysts off guard.

The release is an unprecedented public admission of fear and weakness from a jihadist figure. But it has brought to the fore a game of thrones occurring in Somalia as rival al-Shabaab factions compete for power and eliminate their rivals, even as the organization has more tightly joined itself to al-Qaeda’s global jihad. Hammami’s video confirms not only a power struggle within al-Shabaab, but may also point to a larger battle for leadership supremacy in a post-Bin Laden al-Qaeda.

Counterterrorism analysts promoting Hammami as the clear successor to Anwar al-Awlaki were off the mark. Recent machinations should serve as reminders to analysts and commentators alike that jihadist groups–like other militant organizations–are rarely unified, and are often subject to a number of internal and external pressures.

You can check out the rest of the article here.

The End of a Romance? The Rise and Fall of an American Jihadi: Omar Hammami’s Relationship with Somalia’s Al-Shabab

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

In a 1:10-minute video posted on YouTube on March 16, Omar Hammami, until now the most prominent non-Somali foreign member of the Somali insurgent-jihadi movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth; Al-Shabab/Al-Shabaab), issued an “urgentmessage (sic)” to “whoever it [the message] may reach among the Muslims” in which he said that he feared for his life following a dispute with Al-Shabab following “differences” over matters of “shari’a and strategy.”   Sitting in front of the black-and-white flag emblazoned with the Muslim testament of faith (shahada) that Al-Shabab uses, Hammami, who is referred to in transnational Sunni jihadi (hereafter “jihadi“) circles as “Abu Mansur al-Amriki [the American],” does not elaborate on the nature of his dispute with Al-Shabab or whether the dispute was with the movement’s leadership generally or specific members of the insurgent leadership cadre, in which they are also reportedly divisions and disputes over several issues including the response to the famine threatening the Horn of Africa and local or glocal versus full-fledged transnational militancy. The room appears to be the same one, or similar to the one, in a photograph of Hammami that was posted to jihadi Internet forums in December 2011, though it is impossible to tell for sure.

The release of this video from the American citizen who is perhaps most famous for his terrible hip hop songs such as “Send Me a Cruise” and “Blow by Blow” has caused considerable consternation among segments of the cyber jihadi community.  The dispute appears to be genuine has become stronger with the release of multiple messages via Al-Shabab’s official or affiliated media outlets earlier today.  Given the potential importance of this news, it is worth reviewing Hammami’s lengthy relationship with Al-Shabab.

Hammami (b. 1984), a native of Daphne, Alabama and son of a Syrian Muslim father and a Protestant Christian American mother, traveled to Somalia in late November 2006 from Egypt.  According to his former best friend Bernie Culveyhouse, he likely traveled to the East African country because of a desire to aid the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an umbrella movement that, in 2006, brought the first real semblance of law and order to civil war-torn Somalia  since the fall of dictator Siyaad Barre in 1991.  It is believed that Hammami joined Al-Shabab, which formed part of the UIC’s military wing.  In 2007, wearing a kuffiya scarf over his face and only showing his eyes, he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera Arabic and made an appeal to Americans to heed the example of Somalia.

Hammami became most well known, however, following his starring role in Ambush at Bardale, a 31-minute video released in late March 2009.  The video, produced by Al-Shabab’s media department, then simply referred to as such, documents an ambush by insurgents led by Hammami against an Ethiopian military convoy near the city of Baidoa, capital of the Bay region, in western Somalia in early August 2008.  In the video Hammami, speaking in English, lectures a group of Al-Shabab fighters on hadith, the Qur’an, and strategic and ideological matters concerning the movement’s “jihad” and standing in “ribat,” or guardianship over Muslim lands.  Ambush at Bardale also includes Hammami’s first two hip hop songs, “Blow by Blow” and “Hum Hum,” which feature him and a second unidentified English speaker. Hammami later addresses the camera in Arabic.

Despite his very public persona in the news media, particularly in North America, Hammami’s exact position and role in Al-Shabab has largely been the subject of speculation.  According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s designation of him as an international terrorist, Hammami is (or was) a “military tactician, recruitment strategist, and financial manager” for Al-Shabab.  The designation also accuses him of being involved in the planning of an October 2008 suicide attack in Puntland carried out by U.S. citizen and Al-Shabab fighter Shirwa Ahmed.  Open source material with regard to his role, particularly insurgent primary sources, is generally ambiguous.  In the three official Al-Shabab videos that he’s appeared in, he has been referred to as “shaykh” and “the brother (al-akh).”  The first title is traditionally an honorific title describing either a societal or religious leader though jihadi groups use the term so frequently that the term’s meaning is often of limited use with regards to determining an individual’s specific role.  The second is a term of endearment used by Muslims generally to describe a fellow male Muslim.  In the statement reporting the Hammami-led ambush of Ethiopian forces at Bardale, the Daphne native was referred to as a “field commander” (al-qa’id al-maydani).  His exact role, if any, in the upper echelons of Al-Shabab’s leadership cadre is unclear, at least in open source materials.

In January 2008 the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a shadowy jihadi media outlet and distribution network that has for years facilitated the distribution of Al-Shabab’s statements and other media material online, released a 5-page essay penned by Hammami and addressed to “the mujahideen in particular and the Muslims in general.”  In the essay, he criticized the UIC and discussed the differences between it and Al-Shabab.  Whereas the former restricted itself to the “boundaries placed by the Taaghoot [Taghut; tyrant-rulers],” Al-Shabab had “a global goal” that included the formation of a jihadi caliphate, a transnational state, in “all parts of the world.”  Hammami criticized the UIC’s poor treatment of foreign fighters, the “muhajireen” (emigrants) who traveled to aid their Somali Muslim brethren.  Toward the end of his essay, the American discusses Al-Shabab’s purported program or “path” (Minhaj).  How definitive in terms of guidance his discussion of the movement’s program was, however, is unclear.  Al-Shabab’s Somali leaders and more important non-Somali foreign leaders and affiliated Al-Qa’ida Central operatives, such as the late Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhan and Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad, were likely more influential on the formation of the movement’s ideology.  If continuous reports about purported internal divisions are true, Al-Shabab’s leaders are divided on a number of issues, though this cleavages have not yet precipitated the actual break-up of the movement.  Currently Al-Shabab has a leadership cadre that includes a number of prominent Somali preacher-ideologues, including some who have lived in diaspora communities such as Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf and ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min.  Together with political leaders such as the movement’s amir Ahmed Godane, spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), Robow, and Aweys, these individuals have likely been more influential over the construction of Al-Shabab’s ideology as a movement than Hammami.

Hammami has appeared a number of times at public Al-Shabab functions including a celebration for the children of the movement’s “martyrs” in 2009 or 2010.  His most high profile appearance was at a lengthy conference entitled “We are All Usama” held by Al-Shabab in the Lower Shabelle region south of Mogadishu in mid May 2011 following the killing of Al-Qa’ida Central founder-leader Usama bin Laden by U.S. forces earlier that month in Pakistan.

In photographs released by Al-Shabab and affiliated/sympathetic media outlets, Hammami was pictured alongside a number of senior Al-Shabab leaders including Rahanweyn leader Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, Hasan Dahir Aweys, Lower Shaballe governor Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, preachers ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole,” and Banaadir governor Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman.  In Ambush at Bardale Hammami also appeared alongside Robow planning the ambush against Ethiopian forces.  In that footage and in photographs and video footage from the conference dedicated to Bin Laden.two appeared quite friendly with one another.  It is purely speculative, but it is possible, if rumors of a rift among Al-Shabab leaders is true and the evidence is mixed and not concrete, that the row has been caused by a faction attempting to isolate Robow, who has had a longstanding relationship, based on insurgent media, with Hammami.  Robow is one of the leaders who, according to reports of leadership divisions, is opposed to a fully internationalized militancy, instead favoring a more Somalia and Horn of Africa-centered vision, at least for the medium term.

The amount of media attention that Hammami has attracted is likely disproportionate to his actual role and importance to Al-Shabab.  This is not to say that he was not important to the movement’s recruitment efforts, particularly among English-speakers.  It is interesting to note that Al-Shabab had already recruited dozens of mostly Somali youth in the U.S., Canada, and Britain before its public video unveiling of Hammami in Ambush at Bardale, though this fact does not discount the possibility/likelihood that he was involved prior in an advisory role.

Hammami, as mentioned previously, has appeared in three official video releases produced by Al-Shabab’s media wing, Ambush at Bardale, the September 2009-release Labbayk Ya Usama, and an April 2010 release about a celebration held for children of killed insurgents.  In Labbayk Ya Usama Hammami’s makes a brief non-speaking appearance and is shown observing and directing training of Al-Shabab “special forces” and meeting with other Al-Shabab commanders.  He speaks at the celebration for the children of the “martyrs,” though the children seem more interested in their toys and food, alongside ‘Ali Rage.  Hammami’s hip hop songs, both those released independently (or at least unbranded by) of Al-Shabab’s media department and the two featured in Ambush at Bardale, were branded as being from “Ghaba Productions.”  His most recent lecture, “Lessons Learned,” appeared on YouTube and the Ansar al-Mujahideen English jihadi Internet forum on October 7, 2011 and was subsequently released on other web sites including the predominantly Somali language al-Qimma al-Islamiyya (Islamic Summit) forum.  The latter link was later not working and was possibly removed by forum administrators.  In November, the lecture was translated from English into Arabic by the al-Masada (Place of Lions) Media Foundation, the media office of the Shumukh al-Islam (Islamic pride/glory) Internet forum.  Comparisons made by some of Hammami with Anwar al-‘Awlaqi are, frankly, bordering on the absurd.  Unlike Hammami, al-‘Awlaqi had some semblance of religious legitimacy, at least prior to his public embrace of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and militancy.  While Hammami was able to speak a caricatured youth slang, it is unlikely that his religious arguments for jihad or even his personal life story carried the same authoritativeness and weight of al-‘Awlaqi’s, since the latter gave up a successful public life and leadership role in the U.S. in order to embrace “true Islam,” at least according to the American-Yemeni preacher’s self-image and the image constructed by AQAP and other jihadis.

The open question is why would Hammami make such a public break with Al-Shabab now?  Speculation in some media coverage and on social media networks, primarily Twitter, has been that the dispute may be related to the movement’s formalizing of its affiliation with Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC) in early February.  This is certainly a possibility.  Praising the charismatic persona of Bin Laden is still a step below being an actual member of an AQC affiliated movement or group, which perhaps Hammami finds undesirable, if only for reasons of personal safety particularly after the U.S. government’s targeted killing of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi on September 30 of last year in Yemen.  Given Al-Shabab’s public embrace of the decision to formally affiliate with AQC, demonstrated by a number of high profile public celebrations in regions under insurgent control that have been attended by many but not all of its senior leadership (at least based on insurgent photographs), the reverse seems unlikely, that is that Hammami broke with Al-Shabab because he supported the affiliation while insurgent leaders opposed it.  The possibility that some Al-Shabab leaders are not as supportive of the affiliation remains.  Robow and Aweys, for example, were not in photographs of insurgent-organized public celebrations in Lower Shabelle and other regions and they have only just begun to reappear in insurgent-affiliated media following the announcement by Godane and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The exact reasons for this, it should be noted, are unclear. It is possible that the break between Hammami and Al-Shabab’s leadership, if true, is unrelated to the affiliation and concerns other issues, such as the insurgent movement’s application of its particularly harsh and philistine interpretation of shari’a.  Al-Shabab has actively promoted its own version of law and order, a harsh one for sure, and has attempted to establish its control over local shari’a courts through its Office of the Judiciary, which has held “training sessions” for judges from all the regions under insurgent control.

Others suggest that the break may be related to suspicions by Al-Shabab’s domestic leadership with regard to “foreign fighters.”  It is important to remember that there are several different types of such fighters in insurgent ranks.  First, there are those, likely the smallest number, who, like Hammami, are non-Somalis.  This group includes Arabs, South Asians or those of South Asian descent, possibly from Horn of Africa countries, Americans, and Europeans.  Second, there are ethnic Somalis from the diaspora.  Third, there are non-Somalis from in and around the Horn of Africa.  Available evidence, including from insurgent media, is that this group remains welcome by Al-Shabab’s leadership and indeed is increasingly the target of insurgent recruitment efforts.  This includes the affiliation of Ahmad Iman ‘Ali and the Muslim Youth Center in Kenya and the appearance of Swahili-speaking Al-Shabab fighters in insurgent videos, particularly since the November 2010 release of Message to the Umma: And Inspire the Believers.

Al-Shabab today, in a series of Tweets via its Arabic and English-language Twitter accounts and in an official statement released on jihadi Internet forums, denies that Hammami’s life is endanger and says that he still enjoys the “benefits of brotherhood” with themujahideen.”  The Arabic Tweets were posted after the English ones and essentially mirror them in meaning.  The affair will remain purely the subject of speculation until more concrete information emerges.

UPDATE (March 18, 2012): For the time being Hammami seems to have achieved his short-term goal, gaining the attention of a variety of audiences including jihadis with his SOS call.  Al-Shabab, or at least its Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation, has felt pressured enough by the uploading of his video to publicly respond in an official statement and Tweets on its Twitter accounts.  After assuring their supporters that Hammami is not at risk of harm from them, the insurgent movement has, to some degree, boxed itself in.  If Hammami is killed later by them, Al-Shabab will have to either formulate a strong argument as to why they went against the assurances offered in their statement or, perhaps as likely, make his death look either like the doing of another group such as AMISOM, the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government, Kenya, Ethiopia, or one of their allied Somali militias like Ahlu Sunnah Wal-Jamaacah, or an “accident” which they facilitate, as some analysts have alleged insurgents did with Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad (though actual concrete evidence of this thus far has not surfaced.)

Comments left on Hammami’s uploaded video on YouTube include the copy-and-pasted text of the HSMPress English Tweets, by user “golbourne1234,” (another commenter posts the main Arabic text of Al-Shabab’s official statement) and  the bemoaning of “fitna” (social discord) by user “missizx2,” who writes, “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh, Fitna is everywhere, also on the Ard ul Izzah, my brother I dont think Mujahideen would kill their own brother only because of differences in opinion or understanding, have sabr and keep trust in Allah. And if they execute you because they have a reason according to Shariah (for example like the execution of Ebuzer in Khurasan) then may Allah accept you from among the Shuhada.  ‘Verily, with hardship there is relief ‘(Qur’an 94:6).”  The latter comment, even with the prayer for Hammami to be accepted as a “martyr” if Al-Shabab executes him in a shar’i (legal) fashion, is unlikely to comfort the American.

Quick Thoughts on the Failed Hostage Rescue in Nigeria

This post originally appeared at the Sahel Blog.

Last May, two Europeans were kidnapped in Kebbi State in Northwestern Nigeria. News of the victims after their disappearance was always scanty – a video and other rumors purported to link the kidnapping to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or another Al Qaeda group, but the evidence of Al Qaeda’s involvement never seemed conclusive to me. Then, yesterday, tragic news broke that the two men had died during a failed rescue attempt in Sokoto (Sokoto State borders Kebbi State). That attempt was apparently led by British special forces.

When the news broke, speculation began immediately that the rebel sect Boko Haram was behind the kidnappings. Many also see the kidnapping as evidence of a tie between Boko Haram and AQIM. This would mark the first kidnapping in Nigeria where Boko Haram’s involvement was proven. Kidnapping Westerners is a frequent tactic of AQIM.

British officials have stated their belief that Boko Haram was indeed responsible for the kidnapping, and one official has suggested that AQIM was also part of the operation:

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, and a senior British government official said the kidnappers appeared to be from an al-Qaida-linked cell within Boko Haram, but not within the group’s main faction.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has also stated that Boko Haram was behind the kidnapping. Arrests of alleged Boko Haram members followed the gun battle during which the hostages died.

Excellent coverage of news surrounding the kidnapping has been provided by the BBC and by former BBC correspondent Andrew Walker at his blog.

I have only three thoughts to offer on this event. The first is that any doubts about whether it really was Boko Haram that kidnapped the Europeans – doubts that stem from the facts that Kebbi is far outside Boko Haram’s normal zone of operations, that Boko Haram never seems to have kidnapped a Westerner before, or that communications from the kidnappers never seemed to fit with the style of either Boko Haram or AQIM – may be swept aside as the narrative takes hold that this kidnapping was a Boko Haram operation, full stop. There are, indeed, many possible explanations that deserve consideration, ranging from the possibility that the kidnappers were opportunistic criminals to the possibility that they were copycats to the possibility that it was Boko Haram itself, or a splinter group. Those complexities, uncertainties, and nuances may now be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, the idea – or the reality (because I really don’t know) – that Boko Haram is kidnapping Westerners will play into larger narratives about what kind of threat the group poses to Nigeria and to the West. See one example here. If those narratives are built on shaky assumptions, they will skew outside understandings of the situation in Nigeria.

My second thought is more of a question: Are armed rescue attempts worth it? Armed rescues have succeeded elsewhere, but their recent record in the Sahel is one of tragedy. In that vein, this article from the BBC, “Italian anger at UK over rescue bid,” is worth reading.

And my final thought is that the deaths of these Europeans bode ill for the German engineer kidnapped in Kano in January. He was kidnapped the day that I left that city, and he has been in my thoughts. I hope that he is alright, and that he will be free soon. But yesterday’s events cast a shadow over his captivity.

Big Happenings in a Big Desert – Updated

The last 24 hours have seen an unusual amount of activity by and involving terrorist groups in the Sahel. This morning a suicide bomber detonated a Toyota truck filled with explosives at the gates of the Gendarmerie in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, an attack swiftly claimed in a phone call to the AFP in Bamako by the AQIM “splinter group” MUJWA – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The attack came just hours after AQIM freed a Mauritanian gendarme kidnapped in a cross-border raid in December, Ely Ould Elmoctar. And reports circulated today that MUJWA had also freed an Italian humanitarian worker kidnapped in the Polisario-run camps at Tindouf in October, Rossella Urru. Oddly enough, a source close to the negotiations for Urru and two Spaniards taken from Tindouf told the AFP today that MUJWA wanted $30 million for the hostages, including Urru.

This flurry of activity will doubtless lead to questions about the lingering effect of instability in the Sahel and the spreading reach of AQIM and linked groups in the region. But more importantly, the events of the past 24 hours, taken in conjunction with other incidents that have recently taken place lead me to believe not only that AQIM is gearing up for further actions in the area, but that we now have enough evidence to conclude that the creation of MUJWA last fall marked not a splintering of AQIM, but rather a reorganization of men and resources.

An attack most unusual

First, let’s deal with today’s suicide bombing in Tamanrasset. The attack, which the Algerian daily El Watan said was almost certainly conducted by a “subsaharan,” wounded 23 people and caused major damage to the Gendarmerie. The Mauritanian news site Agence Nuakchott d’Information (ANI), which has published AQIM statements in the past and has good contacts with the group, has tentatively identified two men they say conducted the attack, Abou Anass al-Sahraoui (denoting either that he is from the Western Sahara or has links to Sahraouis) and Abou Jendel al-Azawadi (signifying he is likely from northern Mali).

A number of things are unique about this attack. While AQIM has in the past conducted suicide attacks in northern Algeria and Mauritania, this is the first major attack by a jihadist group that I can recall taking place in Tamanrasset in the past few years, and certainly the first suicide attack. Despite the growing instability in the Sahel, southern Algeria is generally considered a safe zone, and Tamanrasset in particular boasts a large security presence, given the city’s important role as a desert waypoint for travel and trade, both licit and illicit.

This attack demonstrates the continued availability of suicide bombers in the region, as well as the presence of high explosives, a likely consequence of the massive flow of weapons and explosives into southern Algeria and the Sahel as a result of the instability in Libya. And AQIM in particular has been increasingly active in southern Algeria, and not just in smuggling – Algerian forces engaged AQIM members in a firefight near the Malian/Algerian border town of Tin Zaouatine last month, and other AQIM members were reportedly the target of an airstrike in the country’s south days later.

Yet the fact that the attack was claimed by MUJWA – and not AQIM – should raise eyebrows. After all, when MUJWA came onto the scene in December, its members stated that MUJWA’s goal was to spread jihad and shariah to West Africa, citing as inspiration historical militant leaders in the region, including Usman Dan Fodio and El Hajj Omar Tell. Yet as Algerian blogger “7our” pointed out on Twitter this morning (my translation), “The only 2 actions of MUJWA, who want to ‘spread jihad in West Africa,’ have targeted Algeria.” Even as a “dissident” group, MUJWA still seems to be fighting AQIM’s jihad.

I have never been comfortable with the reports that MUJWA had truly “broken off” from AQIM. For one thing, as noted above, it is odd that despite having ostensibly split from AQIM, MUJWA has still chosen to target Algeria in such a serious fashion. And even before the Tamanrasset attack, MUJWA has behaved and spoken much as AQIM does, with the group’s leader Kheirou even declaring war on France – a favorite AQIM propaganda target –  with attack in a video released in December. We also should not forget that Kheirou spent several years under the command of key AQIM figure Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as Khaled Abou al-Abass).

Moreover, the very reason for supposedly founding the group was for Mauritanians and others to break away from AQIM’s Algerian-dominated leadership. Yet this is odd, given that despite AQIM’s many failures as a jihadist organization, it has arguably been more successful than any other al-Qaeda affiliate in recruiting a diverse group of people, including Malians, Mauritanians, Tuareg, Senegalese, Guineans, and more. Indeed, Kheirou himself appeared in a 2010 video produced by the group explicitly for the purpose of showing its diversity.

This diversity does not mean, of course, that some members of AQIM were not unhappy with the group’s leadership. Yet Kheirou’s long involvement with AQIM at a high level, combined with the persistent similarities between AQIM and MUJWA, leave open the possibility that the “split” between the two was not as definitive as some analysts believe. The circumstances surrounding the liberation of Ely Elmoctar and Rossella Urru lend some credence to this theory.

And the truth (or a deal) shall set you free

On the surface, the liberation of Ely Ould Elmoctar and Rossella Urru appear to be separate events. Elmoctar’s kidnapping was claimed by AQIM, and appears to have been the work of Mauritanian AQIM commander Khaled es-Chinguitty. AQIM demanded the liberation of two prisoners held by Mauritania in return for Elmoctar, whose disappearance prompted protests in Mauritania and solicited the attention of opponents of President Ould Abdel Aziz. Elmoctar’s liberation came on the day AQIM promised to kill him if the group did not get what they wanted; it is reported that the Malian Abderrahmane Ould Medou, involved in the kidnapping of two Italians in 2009 in Mauritania and arrested by Mauritanian authorities, was freed as part of the deal for Elmoctar’s freedom.

Urru, whose kidnapping was claimed by MUJWA last December, was almost certainly freed in exchange for a ransom payment. We don’t know yet why the unnamed negotiator publicized the price for Urru and the two other victims on the day Urru was freed. However, it is possible that a) he was one of multiple negotiators competing to win the hostages’ freedom (as well as a cut of the ransom payment), as has happened in other cases, or b) that the announcement was simply a means of indicating to the Spanish government the price for their two citizens who remain captive. I do not think the timing is accidental, given the arrival in Bamako today of Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo to “inquire about the fate of the three Europeans” taken from Tindouf.

That said, there are other aspects to the two stories that seem too convenient to be mere coincidence. Looking simply at the facts of the case, we have two kidnappings by two ostensibly separate (but related) terrorist organizations, with hostages from each case freed on the same day and both sent back simultaneously to Bamako. The simultaneous liberation and return to Bamako of the hostages implies either coordination between the groups that kidnapped Elmoctar and Urru, or that the same negotiator worked out both arrangements.

A shared negotiator linked to the Mauritanian government seems likely, given the conveniently-timed meeting last week between Ould Abdel Aziz and an Italian envoy, Margueritta Bonivar. However, it defies credulity to think that the release of the hostages held by two separate groups could be conducted simultaneously without a certain level of cooperation and coordination between MUJWA and AQIM. It is thus not illogical to suspect that the two were released as part of the same deal.

Things aren’t always what they seem

It is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from incomplete and circumstantial evidence, especially given the opaqueness of AQIM’s structure and operations and the relative lack of reporting on the group and the region in which it operates. And there is much that we do not know and may never learn about today’s bombing and hostage releases.

However, the events of the last 24 hours provide some indications of coordination between AQIM and MUJWA. Additionally, the fact that both groups appear to be increasingly active in Algeria and in targeting the Algerian security forces show the remarkable similarities between them, especially given MUJWA’s stated mission of moving the jihad south, not north.

The question is, given the sudden uptick in movement by both groups, what does this all mean?

As I previously noted, any conclusions drawn on such thin information are likely to be incomplete. But this morning’s attack, as well as the increased attempts by AQIM members to infiltrate southern Algeria from the group’s safe haven in northern Mali, could indicate a concerted effort by both MUJWA and AQIM to increase the pace of operations in Algeria proper.

This move north could be a reaction to the increasingly tenuous situation in northern Mali, given the ongoing Tuareg rebellion there and increased Malian military presence near key parts of the Adrar des Ifoghas, where AQIM commander Abou Zeid is known to operate. But it could also mark the start of a new and more deliberate campaign against Algerian forces. And if, as I believe, MUJWA is less a breakaway faction of AQIM and more of a partner or sub-unit, then it would appear the jihad in West Africa will be on hold for sometime to come.

UPDATE: It appears I wrote too soon. ANI, which initially reported not only that both Elmoctar and Urru had been freed but that both were expected to arrive in Bamako, reported today that in fact Elmoctar was still being held by AQIM. It seems like the negotiations were very close to being concluded, but then for reasons as yet unknown were suspended. This could explain the premature reports of their release.

The ANI article is still interesting for what it reveals – while it says two separate negotiation channels were at work for the release of the two separate hostages held by two separate groups, the ANI report suggests that both AQIM and MUJWA agreed to seek the release of Abderrahmane Ould Meidou. According to the same report, AQIM leader Yahya Abou Alhamam (who has been reported dead several times in the past) in particular sought Ould Meidou’s release, as did MUJWA leader Sultan Ould Badi, who along with other MUJWA members has “social relations” with Ould Meidou.

The fact that Elmoctar and Urru may not have been released yet takes away some of the support for the argument I laid out in the post above. Due to the evidence available and other things that I have heard or suspect, I still stand by my analysis. That said, I think that if the above story valid – though we must be careful about all reports where we can’t ascertain for ourselves the sourcing – we can still see the close personal and social links that likely exist between MUJWA and AQIM. Though this should be of no surprise whether MUJWA is a “splinter” group or simply a reorganized part of AQIM, the report would indicate that the groups are in contact and willing to work with each other in some capacity. Either way, there’s much more to this story, and we will hopefully have better information in the days to come.

The Call to Islam: Hitin Urdu Magazine Interviews al-Qa’ida’s Head of Da’wah Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan

Over the past year or two, with the death of many senior leaders as well as al-Qa’ida’s longing for religious legitimacy, Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan (Abū Zayd al-Kūwaytī) has risen in the ranks and has been described by Jarret Brachman as “Zawahiri’s in-house version of Awlaki” and by Christopher Anzalone as part of al-Qa’ida’s “missionary vanguard.” I would simply describe al-Husaynan as al-Qa’ida’s head of da’wah (the call to Islam/proselytization). Surprisingly, little has been written about al-Husaynan.

With the rise of Abu Yahya al-Libi from 2005-2008 many saw al-Libi as a potential Bin Ladin successor or at least al-Qa’ida’s main religious mouthpiece. Indeed, al-Libi has touched upon religious areas and performed al-Qa’ida’s khutabahs for ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al-Adha, but al-Libi has also been a figure that discussed political issues just as much as religious ones. In contrast, al-Husaynan more or less has stuck to purely religious topics, not mixing his lectures with political overtones. This is important to note because many in the Muslim and non-Muslim world have questioned al-Qa’ida’s Islamic character (and not to mention the fact that 9 in 10 individuals al-Qa’ida has killed over the years have been Muslims) and bona fides. As such, one could argue that al-Husaynan is al-Qa’ida’s answer to its critics by showcasing a purely religious side of its media releases. In 2010, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, al-Husaynan released twenty-eight lessons related to religious life that one should ponder during Ramadan. Similarly, in April 2011, al-Husaynan began a series of “Da’wah Lectures” dealing with similar purely religious topics. For instance, the most recent was “Lecture 12: The Virtues of the Night Prayer.”

Besides his lectures though, not much is known about al-Husaynan’s background besides that he is from Kuwait and was a religious teacher employed by Kuwait’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs. As such, Issue #7 of Hitin’s Urdu Magazine (translated by Flashpoint Partners into English) that interviewed al-Husaynan sheds more light on his background, religious upbringing, reason for joining al-Qa’ida, and general worldview.

Background and Education

To begin the interview, Hitin Urdu Magazine describes al-Husaynan as “responsible for the religious training and the salvation of the soldiers of the al- Qa’ida network.” This provides a little more knowledge, besides his online media releases, what his actual role is in al-Qa’ida Central. The magazine then asks about al-Husaynan’s background. He was born in 1966 putting al-Husaynan at the age of 45 or 46 depending what month his birthday is in. In terms of key jihadi events, al-Husaynan was in his teens during the anti-Soviet jihad, early twenties during the Gulf war, and in his mid-thirties during 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war. Al-Husaynan continued by stating:

[I was] raised in such a household that gave special attention to the knowledge of religion. Our father regularly trained us to pray in a congregation. This was the time when I was admitted into a madrassah that was superior to others when it came to the education of Islamic laws. Then I went to the Arabian Peninsula where I completed my religious studies from a famous institution.

Al-Husaynan does not mention the specific institution, but he later remarks that he started his religious studies in 1986 and focused on Islamic theology and jurisprudence. He mentions he studied under Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymin for three years. Therefore, al-Husaynan most likely attended Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University, which was where al-Uthaymin was on the faculty of Shari’ah. Al-Uthaymin, along with ‘Abd al ‘Aziz ibn Baz and Muhammad Nasir ad-Din al-Albani, all three of whom passed away between 1999 and 2001, are considered three of the most eminent Salafi scholars of the modern era. Additionally, al-Husaynan stated he also studied for three years under Shaykh Sulayman bin Nasir al ‘Alwan, who is considered a favorite cleric of individuals that sympathize and support al-Qa’ida’s worldview. In the second edition of “A Mujahid’s Bookbag,” a collection of works that are recommended for jihadis to read on the online forums, al ‘Alwan’s works were listed in it 101 times, making him one of the top five ideologues in the “bookbag.” On a side note, al-Husaynan only had three works listed in the second edition (released in December 2009), while he had forty-three in the third and most recent edition (released in June 2011), further illustrating al-Husaynan’s rise in significance over the past few years (in contrast, Abu Yahya al-Libi went from 25 to 32 to 45 works listed in the three editions). As such, al-Husaynan was schooled in the orthodox Salafi school of thought by al-Uthaymin, as endorsed by the Saudi state, but was also exposed to more radical interpretations of Salafism when studying under al ‘Alwan.

Teaching Back in Kuwait

The Hitin Urdu Magazine interview then moves onto questions related to his time back in Kuwait when he begins to teach. Al-Husaynan states his main motivation for calling individuals to Islam is based on this saying from God: “Who else has better words to say than the one who invites people towards God, do good deeds and say, no doubt, I am from amongst the Muslims.” His style in teaching is also touched upon. Some have noticed and described al-Husaynan in his video lectures for al-Qa’ida as cartoonish. Based on the interview, he believes it is a helpful way to grab the attention of the youth (emphasis mine):

The main focus of our proselytizing and training were the youths. And because most of the youngster do not come to masjid (mosque) to offer their prayers, we would go to the colleges and universities to deliver sermons there. We would present to them incentives and deterrents in the style, which Qur’an adopts. To get their attention and in turn change their thinking we would first make them get familiar to us. For this purpose, we would joke and get funny during our speeches. And the truth of the matter is that once a person starts loving someone, he accepts what he is told and is also influenced easily. That’s why we would converse with them in an exciting way. We would make them laugh and kid around with them. Thank God this method was very effective on the youth.

During his time in Kuwait, al-Husaynan also states that he prepared pamphets for da’wah, providing some examples: (1) More than 1000 day-to-day practices of the Prophet; (2) More than 1000 day-to-day prayers; (3) Answers to 1000 problems of the women; (4) How do we get to the destinations of Allah’s people; (5) This is how good and pious are supposed to be; and (6) How are you preparing for your reckoning?

Entering the Fields of Jihad

According to the interview with Hitin Urdu Magazine, al-Husaynan decided to go to Afghanistan to join with the “mujahidin” sometime in 2007 (1427 H). He felt obliged and points to this edict from God that finally pushed him:

Oh Prophet [Muhammad], tell them that if you fear for the loss of your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your families, the goods that you earned and your trade, and if these are the things that are more dear to you that fighting in the way of your God (jihad fi sabil Allah) and His Prophet [Muhammad], then wait until calamity from God arrives on you. And God does not bring unrighteous to the right path.

Al-Husaynan further explains his reasoning for going to Afghanistan: “jihad in the name of God is more important to me than anything else. And these can’t be achieved through talk, sermonizing or listening to sermons, but by illustrating through sacrifices, self-giving, migration and jihad.” Therefore, although he felt his teaching methods were reaching the youth of Kuwait, apparently it was not enough. Moreover, al-Husaynan believes that “jihad is the shortest way of reaching heaven so we give our lives for it, and become martyrs in the path of God. With these thought I opted for the way of jihad and came here.” Thus another aspect for joining the “mujahidin” was to attain martyrdom and securing his spot in heaven.

The Take Away

The Hitin Urdu Magazine interview concludes with more politically oriented questions and boiler plate answers, which if one is interested in reading can be read in the above link to the interview. More importantly, the interview points to al-Husaynan having some legitimate religious bona fides compared to Abu Yahya al-Libi’s, which are still shrouded in some mystery. It is no surprise then that al-Qa’ida is primarily using al-Husaynan in the role of the head of its da’wah (or religious outreach). Whether it will help with recruitment and recapturing its image as well as portraying itself as a truly Islamic movement that remains to be seen. For once in al-Qa’ida’s history, though, it has an individual in al-Husaynan that has the educational experiences and knowledge that could provide it at least nominal religious credibility. The jury is still out on if the damage has already been so excessive that it does not matter anymore. That said, in light of potential openings in Yemen and Syria, as well as the possibility of disappointment from failed expectations in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, al-Husaynan could provide al-Qa’ida the religious swagger it needs to gain sympathy from some newly or future disillusioned youth.