Sunday, April 9, 2017

How a US citizen became a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda

You will only get this kind of stuff from The Long War Journal.

How a US citizen became a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda

Ahmad Abousamra, a US citizen who graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, became one of the Islamic State’s top propagandists and “chief editor” of its English-language magazine. His story is told in the the eighth edition of the Islamic State’s Rumiyah (“Rome”) magazine, which was released online in several languages earlier this week. He is identified as “Abu Sulayman ash-Shami” and “Shaykh Ahmad ‘Abdul-Badi’ Abu Samrah” in Rumiyah. The cover of the publication, seen above, features him.

Abousamra was apparently killed in an airstrike near Tabqa, Syria in January. Press reports previously indicated that he was killed in mid-2015. But if Rumiyah is accurate, then he survived and continued to serve Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s cause for nearly two more years.

Before his demise, Abousamra rose to become one of the so-called caliphate’s most prolific English-speaking propagandists. And Abousamra was tasked with another especially important mission. He was one of the chief architects of the Islamic State’s anti-al Qaeda messaging.

Abousamra’s family is originally from Syria, but he was born in France on Sept. 19, 1981. Rumiyah begins his story much later, with his graduation from UMass Boston, where he studied computer science.

Dissatisfied with life in America, Abousamra decided “to go forth in the cause of Allah with some of his friends.” 

“So they left as muhajirin to Allah, not coordinating their journey with anyone,” Rumiyah’s profile continues. “They roamed between Yemen, Pakistan, and Iraq, hoping to meet someone who would bring them to the mujahidin. But once they became weary of finding the way, and as they feared inciting the suspicions of intelligence agencies, they returned to America, asking Allah to guide them towards their goal.”

After returning to his home country, Abousamra “decided to try and make America itself the frontlines for his jihad and the place for his martyrdom.” He and two of his friends “planned…to carry out an operation that would target Americans in their own land.” So “they drew up their plans for their desired operation, including the seizure of some weapons from the Crusaders, which they would then use for an attack behind enemy lines that they hoped would cause the killing of a large number of mushrikin [polytheists].”

Their “plot was discovered just days before the operation’s appointed time,” according to Rumiyah. However, Allah supposedly “saved” Abousamra “from falling into captivity, allowing him to leave America before the FBI could gather sufficient information to release an order for his arrest at the borders and airports.” The FBI’s Most Wanted poster for Abousamra, offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to his capture, can be seen on the right. The FBI announced the reward on Dec. 18, 2013, years after Abousamra absconded from the US.

Abousamra returned to “the birthplace of his fathers” in Syria, living in Aleppo for a “few years, seeking knowledge, calling his family and friends to tawhid [monotheism], and anticipating his next chance to wage jihad,” according to Rumiyah.

The university-educated jihadist “was keen to avoid the eyes of the intelligence agency and avoid sitting with the evil scholars who were allied with the tawaghit,” meaning Bashar al Assad’s regime, during this time.

Interestingly, Rumiyah avoids any mention of one of Abousamra’s earliest co-conspirators: Tarek Mehanna. Unlike Abousamra, Mehanna did not escape capture. Mehanna was arrested, tried and convicted on terror-related charges after joining Abousamra on a trip to Yemen in 2004. The pair unsuccessfully tried to join the jihad. After a week in Yemen, they were still unable to locate a training camp, so Mehanna returned to the US. Abousamra pressed on to Iraq and eventually elsewhere.

Mehanna didn’t give up, however. He began translating and posting al Qaeda videos on the Internet. In 2012, he was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison on terrorism-related charges. Federal authorities found that Mehanna lied about his own trip to Yemen and the activities of another one of his co-conspirators, Daniel Joseph Maldonado. In 2007, Maldonado pleaded guilty to separate charges in a US Court, “admitting that he had traveled from Houston to Africa in November 2005 and then on to Somalia in December 2006 to join the Islamic Courts Union and elements of al Qaeda to fight against the Transitional Federal Government to establish an independent Islamic State in Somalia.” Maldonado was subsequently sentenced to a decade in prison.

Meanwhile, Abousamra remained free.

An Islamic State loyalist who fought Assad’s regime

Abousamra joined the fight against the Assad government after popular uprisings swept through Syria in 2011. He was “wounded in a battle against the Nusayriyyah [a derogatory term for Assad and his supporters] in a neighborhood of Halab [Aleppo],” according to Rumiyah. He then joined Al Nusrah Front, which was an arm of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) at the time, and “met with” Al Nusrah’s “leaders.”

Rumiyah emphasizes that Abousamra knew Al Nusrah was initially comprised of Baghdadi’s “soldiers.” This is one of the key themes in Rumiyah’s story, because he would remain loyal to Baghdadi even after Al Nusrah broke away from the ISI and announced its direct allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s overall emir.

Al Nusrah allegedly denied Abousamra’s request for transfer to Iraq, and also did not “allow him to execute an istishhadi [martyrdom] operation against the Nusayriyyah.” So he continued to work in Aleppo, “participating in raids against Nusayri [Assad regime] positions.”

Rumiyah portrays Abousamra as an unwavering Baghdadi loyalist who opposed Al Nusrah’s “treacherous” emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani. Until 2013, Julani was one of Baghdadi’s lieutenants. But he took Al Nusrah in another direction, disobeying an order from Baghdadi to fall in line. After Julani announced his direct allegiance to Zawahiri in Apr. 2013, the greatest rivalry in the history of modern jihadism broke out. Baghdadi’s enterprise mushroomed into the current Islamic State, challenging al Qaeda’s authority within the jihadist community everywhere from West Africa to Southeast Asia.

Abousamra “criticized” Al Nusrah’s men “for their betrayal of the Islamic State and their violation of their covenant and bay’ah [oath of allegiance] to Amir ul-Muminin [‘Emir of the Faithful’] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” Rumiyah’s propagandists write. “He began exposing the truth of the situation to other soldiers, showing them that [Al Nusrah Front] had been trying to hide their original allegiance to the Islamic State, and he explained to them that it was not permissible to stop obeying Amir ul-Muminin or retract their bay’ah as long as they did not see blatant kufr [disbelief] from him.”

At this point, Al Nusrah supposedly “sought some way to get rid of him,” finally giving Abousamra approval for a martyrdom operation. But Abousamra was hip to their alleged scheme, so he left “their ranks in order to renew his bay’ah to Ami rul-Muminin [Baghdadi] and his status as one of his soldiers.”

“Chief editor” of Dabiq

Abousamra still sought to kill himself in a suicide bombing, but in the name of Baghdadi’s state, not Al Nusrah. The Islamic Sate finally picked a target, “a large group” of Bashar al Assad’s “supporters” in the “heart of the Nusayri regime-held areas inside the city of Aleppo.” He was going to “sneak into the middle of a gathering and detonate his explosive belt.” But Allah supposedly intervened once again.

Abu Muhammad al Furqan, one of the Islamic State’s most senior leaders, discovered Abousamra and concluded that his talents were best put to use elsewhere. Another jihadist was sent to carry out the suicide bombing. “It was then decided to bring [Abousamra] to the Media Diwan of the Islamic State, which Shaykh Abu Muhammad was striving to enhance by widening its activities and supporting it with cadres of qualified scholars and technicians,” Rumiyah’s editors write.

Under Furqan’s command in the media department, Abousamra organized the “foreign languages team,” which was created by Furqan “to inform Muslims in the east and west about the Islamic State and to urge them to perform hijrah to it.” Abousamra “worked on various videos” released by Al Hayat Media Center, one of the group’s main media arms, and translated materials into English.

Eventually, these efforts evolved into the English-language Dabiq magazine.

Dabiq is a town in Syria that has been at the center of the jihadists’ apocalyptic mythology. It is supposedly a key location where the jihadists’ enemies will be vanquished. Furqan chose Dabiq as the publication’s name “in order to frustrate the Crusaders of Rome and convey to them their inevitable end – by Allah’s permission – just as Allah’s Messenger explained.” Every issue of Dabiq carried the words of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, which evolved into more than one jihadist group, including the Islamic State and Al Nusrah. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” Zarqawi said.

The editors of Rumiyah do not highlight for readers the fact that their end-times predictions for Dabiq fell flat. The town was captured by Turkish-backed forces last year. The Islamic State likely knew that Dabiq would be lost for some time. Earlier in 2016, Dabiq magazine was renamed Rumiyah (“Rome”). And Zarqawi’s quote was replaced by another from Abu Hamza al Muhajir, who succeeded Zarqawi as leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and established the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Each edition of Rumiyah now includes the following line from Muhajir: “O muwahhidin, rejoice, for by Allah, we will not rest from our jihad except beneath the olive trees of Rumiyah [Rome].”

The group does not explain how it is going to conquer Rome, if it cannot even hold onto Dabiq.

Regardless, Abousamra helped establish this English-language propaganda publication, becoming its “chief editor” and leader “of all the foreign language teams.”

He wrote “many articles for the magazine, review[ed] what his fellow editors wrote, and scrutinize[d] any materials that were translated for publishing, spending a great deal of time and effort doing so,” Rumiyah’s editors explain. Abousamra worked closely with Furqan, who had “many responsibilities as a general caretaker of the Islamic State,” a role Furqan was appointed to by Baghdadi himself. Therefore, Furqan likely held one of the most senior positions in the Islamic State under Baghdadi.

Because Furqan was busy with many matters, he relied on Abousamra for help “in drafting treatises and articles which would clarify the methodology of the Islamic State and expose its enemies.” Rumiyah’s editors claim that Furqan, who was killed in 2016, was impressed by the “quality” of Abousamra’s writing and his knowledge of sharia law.

Writing under another alias, “Abu Maysarah ash-Shami,” Abousamra became one of al Qaeda’s most strident critics.

A staunch opponent of al Qaeda

Abousamra’s fierce opposition to al Qaeda is peppered throughout his writings in Dabiq. The cover story in the sixth issue of the online magazine was written by a purported al Qaeda defector known as Abu Jarir ash-Shamali. The piece was a harsh critique of al Qaeda’s operations, but also revealed some details about the structure of Zawahiri’s group, including how the committees within its hierarchy have been reshuffled over time. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, The Islamic State’s curious cover story.]

That same issue of Dabiq included a lengthy article by Abousamra, writing under his pen name, “Abu Maysarah ash-Shami.” A screen shot of the piece can be seen on the right.

Weeks earlier, in November 2014, Baghdadi announced the expansion of the Islamic State, declaring that the group’s wilayah (provinces) now existed in several countries outside of Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi also claimed that existing jihadist groups in these countries had been nullified, due to the presence of the caliphate. All Muslims owed their loyalty to the Islamic State’s wilayah, Baghdadi claimed.

One of the affected nations was Yemen, where Baghdadi’s network has a branch to this day.

Naturally, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which rejected Baghdadi’s caliphate gambit, took exception to his declaration. After all, Baghdadi had implied, or even outright stated, that AQAP was no longer legitimate now that the caliphate operated on its turf.

Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior ideologue, was among the AQAP officials who objected to Baghdadi’s declaration. (Nadhari was subsequently killed in a drone strike on Jan. 31 in Yemen.)

And in the sixth issue of Dabiq, Abousamra took it upon himself to blast Nadhari. Abousamra criticized Nadhari, “who is blinded by his spite,” for issuing a lengthy rebuttal to Baghdadi, adding that some of the AQAP man’s words “trickle with blood, forebode evil, and contain wickedness.” Abousamra claimed that Nadhari had fallen “into a bizarre contradiction” by emphasizing his continuing loyalty to Zawahiri. The Baghdadi loyalist argued that Zawahiri “doesn’t make takfir on the Rafidah [Shiites] to begin with,” as the al Qaeda emir excuses them “due to their ignorance.” Abousamra was referring to one of the key doctrinal differences between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, with the latter excommunicating all Shiites from Islam.

Abousamra added that Zawahiri “does not make takfir of the supporters” of the regimes throughout region, “except for those officers who torture Muslims and belong to some specific departments of National Security.” In other words, al Qaeda’s emir is supposedly soft on the jihadists’ foes — an accusation never hurled at the Islamic State, which is known for its us vs. the world mentality.

Abousamra believed he found a contradiction in Nadhari’s stance, as AQAP is warring with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and Zawahiri has forbidden the use of violence against Shiite civilians. But in reality, AQAP has attempted to put limits on its fighting. With some exceptions, AQAP confines its operations to predominately military and security targets manned by the Houthis and its other enemies. AQAP has also distanced itself from the Islamic State’s deliberate targeting of civilian areas. This is consistent with Zawahiri’s “General Guidelines for Waging Jihad,” a policy that was adopted by al Qaeda’s branches around the globe, but rejected by Baghdadi and his men, as they have fetishized attacks on Shiites.

Still, once one goes down the jihadist path, the dividing line between permissible and impermissible violence can become murky. And Abousamra complained in Dabiq that AQAP “never” has a “problem cooperating” with groups such as the Islah party, an Islamist political group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. A leading figure in Islah is Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani, a longtime al Qaeda ally in Yemen.

In some areas of Yemen, Ansar al Sharia, an AQAP front group, fights “side-by-side with the apostate army” of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and “the Bankrupt Brotherhood against the Houthis,” Abousamra complained. Their forces are even “transported between the frontlines in the vehicles of the apostate army.”

In his Nov. 2014 speech, Baghdadi took a swipe at AQAP, saying that if the Houthis had been confronted by real Muslims, then “their evil would not have become exacerbated.” (The Houthis began a largely successful offensive in Yemen months earlier.) Abousamra defended Baghdadi’s dig at his rivals, arguing that if AQAP hadn’t adhered to Zawahiri’s guidelines and engaged in “Zawahiri-style” fighting, which treats the Houthis “as a Muslim faction that is to be fought with the least amount of force required to repel its aggression,” then the Houthis would not have gone on the march. Only after the Houthis rose did Nadhari bless a broader war on their forces, Abousamra claimed, and by then it was too late.

Abousamra also critiqued al Qaeda’s bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to the Taliban, noting that Mullah Omar’s group had called for and enjoyed good relations with nations such as Qatar and Iran. Such diplomacy is unthinkable from the Islamic State’s uncompromising perspective.

As Baghdadi and his self-declared caliphate rose in prominence throughout 2014, al Qaeda marketed Mullah Omar as the true caliph. Osama bin Laden himself named Omar as the Muslims’ rightful ruler, al Qaeda reminded jihadists. There was just one problem: Omar was already dead at the time.

And by late 2014, when the sixth issue of Dabiq was written, Abousamra seems to have heard that Omar was no longer among the living. The UMass grad explained that he had heard from others that “senior commanders in Afghanistan and Waziristan…doubt that Mullah Omar is still alive and are convinced that he was either killed or imprisoned, as none of them has seen him since the start of the modern crusader campaign against Afghanistan” in late 2001. He faulted the Taliban for issuing statements in Omar’s name with “clear deviation from the truth” in them, but recognized “it’s possible that these expressions…came from someone other than” Omar.

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