Al-Qaeda’s late-May naming of Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid as the “general leader” of the group’s activities in Afghanistan shows that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri believe that helping the Taliban win the Afghan war is a top priority. It also suggests that the al-Qaeda chieftains think that the path to victory in Afghanistan is set solidly enough that Abu al-Yazid can manage the organization’s Afghan affairs while they turn to other aspects of the jihad outside Afghanistan.
Who is Abu al-Yazid?
Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid was born in Egypt’s al-Sharqiyah Governorate in the Nile Delta on December 17, 1955, and in his youth he became a member of the country’s radical Islamist movement. Abu al-Yazid was somehow involved in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he spent three years in prison after being convicted and at some point he became a member of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He has been convicted in absentia in several trials in Egypt, and has been sentenced to both life imprisonment and the death penalty. According to Interpol, his pseudonyms include Sheikh Sa’id al-Misri, Mustafa Abu Yazid, Sa’ad Abu Shayama, Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad and Said Uthman. He appears to be best known in al-Qaeda circles as “Sheikh Said” (al-Hayah, November 13, 2003; Lahore Daily News, December 18, 2004).
Abu al-Yazid left Egypt for Afghanistan in 1988, and he is reported to have been a founding member of al-Qaeda in the same year. He accompanied bin Laden from Afghanistan to Sudan in 1991 and while there he served as the accountant for bin Laden’s Sudan-based businesses—including his flagship company Wadi al-Aqiq. He also may have arranged the funding for the failed June 1995 assassination attempt by Egypt’s Islamic Group against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. Abu al-Yazid apparently returned to Afghanistan with bin Laden in 1996. By that time, he was a confidant of bin Laden, a senior al-Qaeda leader, a member of its Shura Council and a continual key manager of the organization’s finances. Abu al-Yazid is reported to have supplied the requisite funding for Muhammad Atta—the leader of the September 11 attackers—and to have received from Atta the return of surplus funds just before the attacks occurred. In 2002, the U.S. government placed Abu al-Yazid’s name on the list of terrorists and organizations subject to having their financial accounts frozen (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 29; Agence France-Presse, May 29).
Despite having been involved in jihadi activity for nearly a quarter century, few personal facts about Abu al-Yazid are known; indeed, his first media appearance occurred in May in a 45-minute interview produced by al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab media group after he was named the “official in general charge of the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan” (World News Network, May 26). Based on his financial duties for al-Qaeda, it is fair to speculate that he may have had schooling in economics or business management, and several reports claim that he received military training in Afghanistan but has never had responsibilities as an al-Qaeda military leader (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 29). The Lahore Daily Times reported in December 2004 that Abu al-Yazid had some unspecified duties in maintaining the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Abu al-Yazid also appears to have some talent for clandestine international travel. He is reported to have arranged the financing for the September 11 attacks from the UAE and Qatar, and the veteran Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir recently said that Abu al-Yazid had just returned to Afghanistan from a two-year “jihadi mission” in Iraq. Given Abu al-Yazid’s skill set, he probably assisted al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the nascent Islamic government of which it is a part, in strengthening their logistical, financial, media and administrative systems (Lahore Daily News, December 18, 2004).
Abu al-Yazid is reported to be a man of “noble character” who is trusted by al-Qaeda’s different national and ethnic groups, as well as a person who is trustworthy, displays fine manners and is amiable at all times. He is said to have a large family consisting of “two wives, sons and daughters,” and is one of the few senior al-Qaeda lieutenants who has lived along both the Pakistan-Afghanistan and Iran-Afghanistan borders. One of his daughters married the son of the incarcerated Egyptian Islamic Group spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman. The daughter and her husband, Muhammad Abd al-Rahman, were captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in early 2003 (al-Hayah, November 13, 2003).
The Significance of Abu al-Yazid’s Appointment
The appointment of Abu al-Yazid underscores the importance to al-Qaeda of reestablishing a Taliban government in Afghanistan. As an al-Qaeda founder and a member of its Shura Council, Abu al-Yazid brings great prestige to the group’s support for the Taliban, and—like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri before him—he pledged personal allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar as the “Commander of the Faithful” in his first as-Sahab interview. Abu al-Yazid’s stature in al-Qaeda also will cause his appointment to be viewed among Islamists as a complement to the Taliban and Mullah Omar. This is a direct effort to ensure that the insurgency is seen by the traditionally insular Afghans as being led by Afghan mujahideen and not by “foreign Arabs.” In essence, it is the same kind of keep-the-locals-in-the-lead effort that al-Qaeda undertook after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had broken with al-Qaeda’s locals-first doctrine by behaving as the foreign leader of Iraq’s Sunni insurgents.
The installation of a financial and logistics manager like Abu al-Yazid clearly suggests that Mullah Omar, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri believe that the mujahideen are well on the way toward defeating the U.S.-led coalition. In his as-Sahab interview, Abu al-Yazid made clear that his job would be to help manage the overall war effort. He said that rank-and-file manpower was not a problem for the mujahideen—there being plenty of Afghan and Arab fighters—but that they needed more money for insurgent attacks and suicide bombings. “So funding is the mainstay of jihad,” Abu al-Yazid said, and indicated that much of his time would be spent in fundraising, which, as noted above, has long been his forte . He also said that he would seek to acquire Arab specialists to assist the Afghan insurgency “in all spheres: military, scientific, informational, and otherwise”—a goal that is reminiscent of bin Laden’s successful effort to bring Arab economic, agricultural and managerial specialists to assist the Taliban in governing the country in the late 1990s.
From al-Qaeda’s perspective, the assignment of Abu al-Yazid must be seen as a move that keeps a strong, talented and respected hand managing the organization’s activities in Afghanistan and one which simultaneously allows bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and other senior leaders to devote more thought and time to projects elsewhere in the world. With their Afghan program in a steady-as-she-does mode, bin Laden and his associates will turn to the more direct management of al-Qaeda’s already expanding reach from Iraq into the Levant, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula as well as preparations for the group’s next attack inside the United States.
1. Public statements by al-Qaeda leaders that stress shortages of money should always be taken by Western analysts with a large grain of salt. Al-Qaeda’s chiefs are completely familiar with the U.S. and Western fixation on “terrorist finances,” and the Western assessment that Islamic militancy and violence can be suppressed by governmental actions that prevent the flow of money to the mujahideen. Indeed, Abu al-Yazid is intimately familiar with this Western strategy as he himself is on one of the U.S. government’s list of terrorist financiers. In the current case, the immense oil profits currently accruing to the mujahideen’s traditional donors and the accelerating pace of the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies—in each of which al-Qaeda is a full participant—tend to make Abu al-Yazid’s claim of a funding shortfall looks more than a bit like disinformation.