Abu Ghaith and al-Qa’ida’s Dissident Faction in Iran

With the recent arrest of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (Abu Yusuf Sulayman Jasim Bu Ghayth), al-Qa’ida’s former spokesman and Bin Ladin’s son-in-law, there has been much speculation in the press about a group of senior al-Qa’ida figures who have spent much of the last decade in Iran. In this post I will revisit the writings of these men, all of whom appeared online in unusual circumstances at the end of 2010, and the light that their writings shed on the Iranian sojourn of this group of al-Qa’ida’s pre-9/11 senior leadership. Taken together, these sources suggest that these men constituted a dissident faction within al-Qa’ida, one which in recent years had become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and the direction that the latter had taken al-Qa’ida since the September 11 attacks. It also emerges that Abu Ghaith, while not a member of this faction at the beginning of this period, had by 2010 joined this group in their efforts to correct the errors of al-Qa’ida’s ways.

In a 2007 study of al-Qa’ida’s leadership schisms, I discussed how disagreements over the advisability and religious permissibility of the 9/11 attacks had split the historical leadership of al-Qa’ida into two camps. Following the attacks and the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan in October of 2001, the pro-9/11 group, including Bin Ladin and Zawahiri, fled to Pakistan, while the anti-9/11 group ended up in Iran, where they were placed under house arrest by Iranian authorities. There were a couple of outliers to this explanation of the various trajectories of these leaders, however. Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (Shaykh Sa’id al-Masri) is described in the 9/11 Commission Report as having been among those opposed to 9/11, though he joined Bin Ladin and Zawahiri in Pakistan and eventually rose to the rank of commander of al-Qa’ida’s operations in Afghanistan and spokeman of the al-Qa’ida “General Command” before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in May of 2010. The other outlier was Abu Ghaith, whose appearance in two famous videos released by al-Qa’ida via al-Jazeera following 9/11 left no question as to his support for those attacks, yet who ended up in Iran along with the most senior members of al-Qa’ida’s anti-9/11 faction.

The most important members of this latter faction were Sayf al-‘Adl, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, and Abu’l-Walid al-Masri. Sayf al-‘Adl (Muhammad Salah al-Din Zaydan al-Masri) was in charge of al-Qa’ida’s training operations in Afghanistan during the 1990s and, following the death of Abu Hafs al-Masri (Muhammad ‘Atif) in November of 2001, became the head of al-Qa’ida’s military committee, theoretically in charge of all of al-Qa’ida’s kinetic activities. In June of 2002 he sent an angry letter to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (addressed here as “Mukhtar”) regarding the disastrous consequences that the 9/11 attacks had brought upon the organization and calling for an immediatie cessation of external activities.

Abu Hafs al-Muritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid) was the pre-9/11 head of al-Qa’ida’s shari’a committee, responsible for determining the religious legitimacy of its actions. According to the 9/11 Commission Report he presented Bin Ladin with a brief, backed by Qur’anic citations, arguing that the attacks would violate Islamic law.  More recently he has stated that in late 2001, after his objections were overridden by Bin Ladin, he submitted his resignation to the al-Qa’ida chief several weeks prior to 9/11 (on which more below).

Abu’l-Walid al-Masri (Mustafa Hamid) is something of an unusual case, as he was never a formal member of al-Qa’ida. An Egyptian journalist who joined the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in 1979, Abu’l-Walid was close to the al-Qa’ida leadership from the beginning and taught at al-Qa’ida camps in the 1990s, though he had been critical of Bin Ladin’s leadership abilities since at least 1989. He has been credited by two other senior al-Qa’ida figures with having helped convince Bin Ladin to redirect al-Qa’ida’s stategic focus from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy” – the United States – an issue I discuss most fully here (at p. 97f). Though not privy to al-Qa’ida’s internal disputes about the 9/11 attacks in late 2001, he has expressed nothing but the utmost contempt for those attacks in the years since, first as a grievous strategic blunder that played into the hands of the US and Israel, and more recently along the lines of “truther” conspiracy theories.

These three men, then, along with Abu Ghaith, several members of Bin Ladin’s immediate family, and a number of mid-level al-Qa’ida figures have until recently all been living in Iran, though there is conflicting information regarding the extent to which their freedom of movement had been restricted by Iranian authorities. (The most detailed account of their early conditions of confinement comes from Abu’l-Walid’s former wife Rabiah Hutchinson, who fled Afghanistan to Iran before leaving her then-husband and being repatriated to Australia in 2003). Up to 2009 little to nothing had been heard from any of them, though Sayf al-‘Adl’s operational activities popped up on the radar, so to speak, on a number of occasions during the 2000s, as mentioned here. The senior al-Qa’ida leaders among the group in Iran – Sayf, al-Muritani and Abu Ghaith – were entirely absent throughout this period from official al-Qa’ida messaging and propaganda production. As far as the rest of the world was concerned they had gone silent – until, that is, they all appeared on Abu’l-Walid’s website in late 2010.

According to his former wife, at the beginning of his stay in Iran Abu’l-Walid was under house arrest and denied any phone or internet access, but these restrictions must have eventually been relaxed, since in 2007 Abu’l-Walid began posting some of his older writings to an obscure blog. Abu Hafs al-Muritani has recently told al-Jazeera that their confinement in Iran went through several stages, with “the last stage being not house arrest but rather hospitality, albeit with some restrictions.” Beginning in 2009, Abu’l-Walid expanded his online activities, becoming a regular contributor to the Taliban’s Arabic-language online magazine al-Sumud. He also returned to issuing withering critiques of al-Qa’ida and its strategic and ideological failings, often cross-posting these essays to jihadi forums – much to the dismay of al-Qa’ida’s cyber-loyalists.

If the e-jihadis hadn’t liked what Abu’l-Walid had to say up to this point, in mid-November of 2010 he dropped a bombshell. In the middle of that year Abu’l-Walid had migrated his online activities from the blog to a new website, the now defunct mafa.asia. On November 15 he posted to the forums, as a mafa.asia exclusive, a lengthy new book by none other than al-Qa’ida’s former spokesperson Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, with an introduction by the former al-Qa’ida religious leader Abu Hafs al-Muritani. Entitled “Twenty Counsels on the Path of Jihad,” the text created a great deal of online consternation. Here were two of the most senior members of the organization’s historical leadership, who hadn’t been heard from in years, all of a sudden issuing new messages via the website of one of al-Qa’ida’s most notorious jihadi detractors.

And it wasn’t simply the method of distribution that caused alarm. Though not naming any names, Abu Ghaith’s book and al-Muritani’s introduction were clearly part of the genre of “revisions” or “recantation” texts (muraji’at), a growing body of literature by major jihadi figures offering mea culpas for former errors and diagnosing the ills besetting contemporary jihadi activism. Introducing the text as part of a planned “revival of jihadi education” series, Abu Hafs al-Muritani explains:

“I saw that after the last three decades [of jihadi experiences around the world], the jihadi arena lacked sufficient educational guidance, and was in great and dire need of this. There is nothing aside from what the martyred mujahid shaykh ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam left in some of his audio tapes and books … but this is not enough…. So it has become necessary to issue the like of this series of educational essays to correct the path, direct the activity, treat the illnesses, apply balm to the wounds, refine the hearts, and provide the field [of jihad] and its members what they need in terms of guidance to remind and assist them and to raise them to a level that befits them.”

Here is a man best known as having been among the most senior figures in Bin Ladin’s organization saying that no worthy guidance for jihad has come out since the days of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, who was assassinated in 1989 – not quite a ringing endorsement of al-Qa’ida’s more recent leadership capabilities, to say the least. That he would choose to launch his effort to “correct the path” from the opposition press, as it were, is a pretty clear indication that the Iranian faction had lost any hearing within al-Qa’ida central.

The book by Abu Ghaith that these remarks introduce is quite lengthy, extending to over a hundred pages, and it sounds the same notes as al-Muritani. At first glance it appears as a straightforward pamphlet of moral maxims and general operational rules of thumb for Islamist militants, illustrated with apposite anecdotes from Islamic scripture – something like a “Twenty Habits of Highly Effective Jihadis” self help book. But one need not read too closely between the lines to see the implied criticism of al-Qa’ida’s leaders. In its first line Abu Ghaith says that in his book “I have set forth the most important topics of guidance on which I feel that giving sincere advice (tanasuh) is a matter of grave importance for the jihadi leadership and members.” Sincere advice (nasiha) is a technical term in conservative Islamic discourses for formal criticism, often of a political nature; Bin Ladin’s early broadsides against the Saudi royal family in the 1990s were issued under the name of an “Advice (nasiha) and Reform Committee.” Nor is it difficult to connect the specific issues about which Abu Ghaith offers “sincere advice” to some of the more controversial aspects of Bin Ladin’s and Zawahiri’s leadership. The book speaks of the pitfalls of love of power, autocratic leadership, overemphasis on media activities, sectarian divisiveness, ideological fanaticism, and an unwillingness to work with a broader set of Islamist actors, including non-violent political groups (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood). The journalist Jamal Isma’il pointed to some of the more obvious implied criticisms in an article in al-Hayat about Abu Ghaith’s book. Isma’il writes: “In a manner unprecedented in al-Qa’ida or the militant groups loyal to it, a new book by Sulayman Jasim Bu Ghayth … offers scathing criticism of al-Qa’ida leader Usama bin Ladin – without mentioning him by name – and the acts of jihadi groups, writing that ‘it is not permissible for one man to use the blood of others to experiment in what seems to him to be rightousness’.”

One month later, on December 17, 2010, Abu’l-Walid issued his own piece of sincere advice, though his was characteristically more direct. The title of the essay says it all, really: “Disbanding al-Qa’ida is the Best Option before Bin Ladin.” He again posted this on mafa.asia and the jihadi forums, though Shumukh, the forum most closely aligned with al-Qa’ida’s leadership, banned him from the message board and deleted his posts a week later. This was followed at the end of that month by a series of new messages from Sayf al-‘Adl – again, the first time that this al-Qa’ida leader had directly addressed the public since 9/11 – a series that I discussed at the time here. All of this was quite remarkable – a bloc of al-Qa’ida’s old guard emerging from years of silence only to undermine the legitimacy of their former employers – though it all unfolded to almost no notice in the West.

Since issuing these critiques in late 2010, this entire cast of characters has, so far as we know, left Iran. Sayf was reported to have been released from Iran in a prisoner swap arranged by the Haqqani network for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan, though the details surrounding that affair are still rather murky. Abu’l-Walid was repatriated to Egypt at the end of August of 2011. Abu Ghaith, as we now know, left Iran in January of this year. The last member of the faction, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, was transferred to Mauritanian custody from Iran in April of 2012 and released from jail in Mauritania last July.

Last October al-Muritani sat down for two lengthy interviews with al-Jazeera (parts one and two), shedding further light on the Iranian exile of al-Qa’ida’s dissident faction.  There is much of interest in this interview, but I will only highlight some of the statements that bear upon this post. In his interview, al-Muritani first directly addresses and confirms the 9/11 Commission Report’s characterization of him as having opposed the 9/11 attacks. When asked about his “revision” or “recantation” – i.e., the texts published by Abu’l-Walid in 2010 – he denies that his current position is a revision, stating that he had always objected to takfir (declaring other Muslims heretics) and indiscriminate violence. Aligning with other insider accounts, such as the autobiography of Fazul ‘Abdallah Muhammad, al-Muritani says that the debates within al-Qa’ida about the 9/11 attacks were not about the details of the operation – these were not known, even to the upper-level leadership – but rather over the idea of a violent attack on US territory itself. He also says that Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior member of al-Qa’ida’s military committee and also believed to be or to have been in detention in Iran, was of the faction opposed to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Muritani says that his objections to 9/11 were purely on religious grounds, and that ultimately it was due to the autocratic nature of Bin Ladin’s leadership that all the various objections expressed by his inner circle were dismissed and the attacks carried out. He says that he does not approve of the tactics of the branch of al-Qa’ida operting in northern Mali, saying that what they are doing is not the right way to establish an Islamic state. Regarding his stay in Iran, he says that an arrangement was made with the authorities whereby al-Qa’ida members committed to carrying out no attacks from within Iran, and he says that overall the treatment by the Iranians was good, though it had its ups and downs. Al-Muritani says that no Western or Arab governments were given access to him or other al-Qa’ida refugees, nor were they interrogated during their stay in Iran. He reiterates the criticisms from the “Twenty Counsels,” saying that the jihadi movements are wrong to denounce the political Islamist movements and that jihad means nothing if it is not the struggle of the community as a whole. He also repeats the criticisms of indiscriminate killing and sectarian devisiveness, saying that while holding some heretical views the Shi’a are nonetheless Muslims, contrary to the view taken by al-Qa’ida in Iraq under Zarqawi.

As with the statements issued through Abu’l-Walid’s blog in 2010, al-Muritani’s interview was not well-received by the online jihadi community. One of the main platforms of salafi jihadi pronouncements, the Minbar at-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad website, posted a lengthy denunciation of Abu Hafs for his “recantation,” refuting at length the “heresies” uttered by him in the interview (such as that the Shi’a are Muslims).  Ultimately, though, the interview simply confirmed what many on the forums had already suspected: that a group of the most famous leaders of the historical al-Qa’ida had soured on Bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and some of the more extremist tendencies of post-9/11 jihadism.

Finally, I would note that there was speculation in some of the initial reports about Sayf al-‘Adl’s release in 2009 that the Iranian diplomat prisoner swap had also included the release of Abu Ghaith and Abu Hafs al-Muritani at that time. Since we now know that wasn’t the case, it raises further questions about the current whereabouts of Sayf al-‘Adl. He, and his colleague Abu Muhammad al-Masri, may very well still be in Iran, or only recently released. I would imagine that it is the fates of these men that the US government is most eager to learn details of from Abu Ghaith, now that he is in custody.

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3 Responses

  1. Fascinating post. The one issue I have is that according to Saajid Badat’s account, Saif al Adl was very involved in the operational direction and preparations of his and Richard Reid’s shoe bomb plot. How does that mesh with his anger to ‘Muktar’ post-9/11?

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