FORMER AQAP INTELLIGENCE CHIEF DESCRIBES EGYPTIAN ROLE IN AL-QAEDA
A Kuwaiti daily recently published a transcript of the interrogation of Shaykh Ibrahim Muhammad Salih al-Banna (a.k.a. Abu Ayman al-Masri), the Egyptian former intelligence chief of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who was arrested in early August (al-Jarida, November 4; almethaq.net, August 16). The interrogation, conducted by Yemeni authorities and copied to Egyptian security services, contained many details about the role of Egyptian militants in creating both core al-Qaeda and AQAP.
As a member of the militant Tala’al al-Fateh (Vanguards of Conquest, a branch of Egyptian Islamic Jihad – EIJ), al-Banna found himself pursued by police in 1993 after the group attempted to assassinate Egyptian Prime Minister Atif Sidqi. Al-Banna and a number of other militants forged travel documents and escaped to Yemen, where they found refuge with a community of EIJ members in Abyan led by Muhammad al-Zarqawi, brother of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptians began organizing and moved to Amran governorate in northern Yemen, where Ayman al-Zawahiri arrived in 1994 to take over command of the group.
Using funds supplied by Ayman al-Zawahiri and later Osama bin Laden, the group began making large purchases of arms from Yemeni suppliers and a “chieftain of a large tribe in Darfur” who al-Banna identified as “Chief Dardiri,” but failed to identify the tribe. According to al-Banna, these arms were shipped by fishing boat to Yemen before being delivered to the group’s farm in Amran.
Al-Banna selected one of his Egyptian students, Abd al-Mun’im bin Izz al-Din al-Badawi (a.k.a. Abu Ayub al-Masri; a.k.a. Abu Hamza al-Muhaijir) to take over training recruits in intelligence work. As al-Badawi’s patron in al-Qaeda, al-Banna was able to recommend the young Egyptian intelligence expert as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq: “Abd-al-Muni’im had reached a stage when he knew what was happening inside the palaces of the Arab amirs, kings, and presidents. He was a powerful leader of the intelligence faction and Bin Laden used to call him ‘the legend’ due to his superior ability to find out news and gather information with utmost precision.” Al-Banna’s sponsorship and training of al-Badawi has been confirmed in the interrogation of other AQAP suspects (al-Watan [Kuwait], August 16).
Al-Badawi left for Afghanistan with documents forged by al-Banna in 2000. He would later succeed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq on the basis of al-Banna’s recommendation to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Badawi was killed during a joint Iraqi/American raid last April.
Al-Banna claims al-Qaeda established ties with Huthist rebel leaders in northern Yemen and “all the chieftains of the southern tribes,” as well as enlisting in its ranks “a very large number of Yemeni tribesmen, mujahideen and fugitives from Yemeni security.” According to al-Banna, the Huthists made “hundreds” of purchases of all types of arms from al-Qaeda.
Al-Banna says the number of Egyptians in AQAP decreased after Nasir al-Wuhayshi took command in 2006 following his escape from a prison in Sana’a. Al-Wuhayshi was al-Zawahiri’s choice as leader, due to his knowledge of the Yemeni tribes and his close ties to youth groups and adolescent mujahideen.
The fall issue of AQAP’s English language e-magazine, Inspire, contained an article by al-Banna entitled “Obama’s Ploy and the Peak of Islam.” After describing the 9/11 attack as “a virtuous act,” al-Banna went on to say President Obama is deceiving the American people and warned the latter, “We will not stop targeting you on your soil and elsewhere as long as you are occupying our land and bombing our homes and killing our children, women and elderly, and as long as you are supporting the Jews in their occupation of Jerusalem.” If al-Banna is the true author, the article must have been written before his arrest in early August.
Al-Banna’s apparent arrest and confession came despite the Yemen Interior Ministry’s earlier claim that he was killed in a missile strike on his vehicle in January, a claim quickly denied by AQAP (AFP January 16; al-Jazeera, January 18; Saidaonline.com, January 16).
There appears to be much in al-Banna’s interrogation report that is questionable. While providing an insider’s detailed information on many issues, al-Banna appears to know nothing of matters that might implicate him in any actual al-Qaeda operations subject to severe punishment. Though he asserts he and al-Badawi played major roles in recruiting, arming and training al-Qaeda personnel, al-Banna professes no knowledge of the 9/11 operation, saying, “I do not have any information about it and I do not know who executed it.” The Darfur arms connection sounds improbable, at best. Darfur tends to import rather than export arms, and it seem unlikely that a Darfuri tribal chief could contribute much to the “thousands of shipments” of “all types of light weapons, rocket launchers, hand grenades and land mines” that al-Banna says were forwarded to al-Qaeda command in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The well-stocked arms market of Yemen would seem a much more likely source for such arms.
Much of al-Banna’s confession seems to implicate the southern secessionists and the Zaydi Shiite Huthist rebels of north Yemen as willing associates of al-Qaeda, a claim long advanced by the Yemen government with varying degrees of acceptance. Al-Banna’s claim to have never actively participated in any operations or to have any knowledge of who was involved is likewise suspect.
IS LEBANON’S HEZBOLLAH EQUIPPED WITH NEW IRANIAN DRONES?
As Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) continue on what seems an inevitable path to a new round of open conflict, a report has emerged claiming Hezbollah’s armed wing has recently received a number of Iran’s most advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), courtesy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (al-Siyasah [Kuwait], November 6).
The report claims that sources close to high-ranking members of Hezbollah’s military force have revealed the movement has taken possession of three types of Iranian-supplied UAVs. These include Chinese-made drones, Iranian-made Ra’d (“Thunder”) drones and, most importantly, the Iranian-made long-range Karrar drones, introduced on August 22. According to the sources, these weapons are being kept in the Bekaa Valley of east Lebanon.
The Karrar (“Striker”) is a turbojet-powered drone capable of long-range reconnaissance and attack missions with a flight range of 1,000 km at low or high altitudes and a flight speed of 900 to 1,000 k/p/h, according to Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi (Defense Update, August 24). The four meter-long drone can carry two 115 kilogram bombs or a guided missile of 227 kilograms and can be deployed on the back of a truck to a ground-launch position where it can be fired with the aid of a jet-fuelled take-off system. Mobility is an important consideration for Hezbollah, all of whose territory is within easy range of Israeli aerial counterstrikes. The response time of Israeli warplanes to mobile missile launches during the 2006 conflict was typically less than ten minutes, leaving little time for launch crews and equipment to clear the area. The Karrar can be retrieved by its operators through the deployment of a rear-mounted parachute.
Iran opened two new production lines in February for the manufacture of Ra’d and Nazir (“Herald”) short-range, low-altitude UAVs with reduced radar-detection signatures. The Iranian Air Force also reports the development of its first stealth drone, the Sofreh Mahi (“Manta Ray”) (Press TV, February 8; Fars News Agency, February 8).
Israel is preparing a multi-level missile defense system, with the new Iron Dome system expected to provide a defense against short-range rocket attacks. The Iron Dome system, however, is very complex and training its military operators has proven a larger challenge than anticipated, causing a delay in deployment. Its manufacturer, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, has developed a cheaper and simpler version of the system called “Iron Flame.” This stripped-down surface-to-surface missile system can carry a variety of different warheads for various missions (Defense Update, November 10). The Israeli press quoted senior Israeli military sources as saying Iron Dome will now be deployed only in the case of massive rocket attacks from Gaza or south Lebanon (Jerusalem Post, November 8). The disparate cost between the complex Tamir interceptor missile used in the Iron Dome system and the cheap Qassam or Katyusha rockets it is meant to destroy is a major concern in deciding when and where to deploy Iron Dome.
Should reports of Hezbollah’s new drone be accurate, the question is whether these weapons have been supplied for Hezbollah’s use in retaliation against a new Israeli offensive or whether their deployment is intended to make them available in response to an Israeli or American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It is important to note that this latest report suggests that, as in the case of earlier Iranian supplies of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, the new UAVs remain under the control of the IRGC trainers assigned to their management and cannot be used without the direct authorization of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Hoseyni Khamene’i.
Al-Siyasah is a firm opponent of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It has reported in the past that the core al-Qaeda leadership is based in Iran and that Hezbollah is stockpiling Iranian-built chemical weapons (al-Siyasah, June 7, 2010; September 3, 2009). Neither allegation has been confirmed.