Earlier this week we learned that the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaida had formally merged. The release of Sada al-Malahim on Monday was accompanied by an extract from an interview with AQY leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who said the Saudi mujahidin had pledged allegiance to him and agreed to form a united organization under the old name “al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula.” In another development, Friday’s New York Times reported the rise of former Saudi Guantanamo detainee Sa’id al-Shihri to the deputy leadership of al-Qaida in Yemen.
The two stories came together in a fascinating video released on the forums yesterday. The video, entitled “From here we begin and in Jerusalem we will meet”, featured Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Said al-Shihri, Qasim al-Raymi and Muhammad al-Awfi seated side by side, each giving a 4-minute statement. The video served at least three purposes. The first was to tap into popular outrage over Gaza. The speakers presented their campaign as part of the struggle to liberate Palestine, since Israel and the Crusaders are one. They also cited the famous hadith according to which “an army of 12000 men will come out of Abyan to help God and his messenger”, and showed footage from a training camp as if to suggest that al-Qaida is currently building that army. (Incidentally, President Salih allegedly also proposed training volunteers for combat in Gaza). The second purpose was to display the union between the Saudi and Yemeni mujahidin. The seating arrangement (Yemeni-Saudi-Yemeni-Saudi) and mutual praise signalled a happy marriage. The third aim was to humiliate Saudi authorities, who have let al-Shihri and al-Awfi, both former Guantanamo detainees (ISN# 372 and 333 respectively) and graduates of the famous rehabilitation program, slip away. Unless al-Shihri and al-Awfi are agents (which I doubt), their appearance is indeed extremely embarrassing for Saudi authorities.
The video provides several clues about the background for the merger and the state of al-Qaida on the Peninsula. It seems clear that the unification was prompted by the arrival of al-Shihri and al-Awfi in Yemen. They must have arrived relatively recently, because they were only repatriated from Guantanamo on 10 November 2007 and spent at least a few months in the rehabilitation programme. There have been several indications in the past year that Saudi al-Qaida has withdrawn to Yemen. Why does the formal merger come now? One reason is that AQY has consolidated itself. Another reason is that al-Shihri and al-Awfi are the most senior Saudi jihadists to make it across the border so far. Previous Saudis in al-Wuhayshi’s ranks, such as Nayif al-Qahtani, have probably been considered too junior to represent the Saudi branch.
It is unlikely, though, that al-Awfi and al-Shihri represent anybody but themselves. They were in Guantanamo during the Saudi insurgency and did not spend much time in the Kingdom before leaving for Yemen. This is probably why they were so busy namedropping legendary Saudi jihadists in the video (I counted no less than fifteen names). They also showed a passage from the old QAP film Badr al-Riyadh from January 2004 featuring al-Muhayya compound bomber Ali Ma‘badi al-Harbi. The two fugitives clearly wanted to convey the impression that they had been part of the inner circles of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia.
The merger speaks volumes about the weakness of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia. Here you have the alleged leadership running away from home and submitting to a Yemeni emir. Add to this the deafening silence from al-Qaida in the Kingdom itself in the past couple of years, and it seems clear there is little substantial organizational infrastructure left.
Since al-Awfi and al-Shiri are not bringing a big fighting force to the table, the merger is probably not going to have any immediate consequences for al-Qaida’s capability. However, it does say something about intentions: it basically removes all doubt that al-Qaida now intends to use Yemen as a launching pad for operations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf.
A point on personalities: The video offers the first live images of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and I must say he comes across as surprisingly weak and uncharismatic, especially compared to Sa’id al-Shihri. I suspect al-Shihri will have considerable influence in the new organization, which further increases the likelyhood of operations in Saudi Arabia.
In the short term, though, most operations will probably focus on Yemen, where the group is clearly thriving, despite clashes earlier this week. The current state of AQY is reminiscent of that of Saudi al-Qaida in 2003, except that AQY enjoys an even more secure environment. Media production continues and increases in sophistication (as it did in Saudi). Open-air training with over 20 individuals is or has recently taken place – this did not happen in Saudi after February 2003. Journalists are able to conduct interviews with the leadership – this never happened in Saudi. Foreign fugitives well known to Saudi and US intelligence are able to find and join the top leadership – this didn’t happen in Saudi after May 2003. Finally, the top leaders have been around for three years – contrast with the short lifespan of Saudi leaders in 2003-2004. We will undoubtely hear more from al-Qaida in Yemen in the coming months, so stay tuned.
Update (26 January): In response to the video, Saudi authorities rearrested nine Guantanamo returnees yesterday, while al-Shihri’s father publicly disowned his son and provided interesting details on the latter’s recent trajectory.