Al Qaeda's top ranks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been seriously depleted – partly by losses in battle and US missile attacks and partly by the reassignment of combat strength. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources reports the command gaps are being filled by new faces more extreme and ruthless than their predecessors.
According to US and European intelligence updates, at least 15 top al Qaeda commanders were killed in recent weeks in the Afghan-Pakistan arena, including three or more heads of its overseas ops section. This has led some Western intelligence experts to assume that al Qaeda's ability to carry out large-scale multiple attacks in the United States and Europe has been seriously degraded. However, our counter-terror sources point out that Osama bin Laden's cells and networks in North Africa (al Qaeda in the Maghreb), the Arabian Peninsula and Europe remain as potent and dangerous as ever.
To restock the Pakistani/Afghanistan command, al Qaeda has just pulled in a dozen or so high-profile operatives from Iraq, Chechnya and the Caucasus. They have taken up command duties in the Pakistan border region of South Waziristan, where the bulk of the jihadi fighting men are concentrated.
Our counter-terror sources name their new top chief as a Chechen known only as “Abu Zaar” – Father of the Pearl. He serves under the new Commander-in-Chief of all al Qaeda forces In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abu Hafez, whose real name is Mustafa Abu Yazid.
Abu Hafez is a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who served as al Qaeda's “finance minister” for the last 10 years. The very fact that a senior bureaucrat was given a key combat command attests to a shortage of experienced, professional field commanders.
Money man proves to be a killing machine, too
Nonetheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources report, his al Qaeda superiors were surprised to find in Abu Hafez an efficient combat tactician as well as administrator; so too were US commanders in Afghanistan.
In short order, the Egyptian got his 2,500 fighters organized, good working relations set up with the Chechen Abu Zaar, and his manpower deployed for effective combat on two fronts: US and British military forces in Southern Afghanistan and the Pakistani army in Waziristan.
His effectiveness in the face of a constant drain on his resources has impressed Western observers
The German-speaking al Qaeda spokesman Bekkay Harrach, who threatened Berlin with a wave of terror this week (see previous article), is known by German and other Western European intelligence agencies to be based near or even at Abu Hafez's headquarters. This lends credibility to al Qaeda's massive terror threat.
The apparently shifting sands within al Qaeda's top echelons are also arousing concern.
According to some intelligence experts, the jihadist organization has transferred between two and three thousand fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to other arenas. The exception is the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), whose commander Tahir Yuldashev, transferred its fighting strength to Northern Afghanistan (as reported in our last issue: “Al-Qaeda is back fighting in Northern Afghanistan”.)
But most of the Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian combat elements in this arena have been repatriated to boost the strength of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Many Saudi and Yemeni jihadis are now fighting with the Iranian-armed rebels against the US-Egyptian-Saudi-backed Abdullah Salah government in Yemen.
Intelligence experts on Islamist terror are divided over the reasons for this massive desertion, whether it was ordered by al Qaeda's high command as part of its next strategic moves, or the result of internal dispute.
Al-Qaeda debates: How much brutality is too much?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources recall that for the last three years, radical Islamist ideologues have been arguing over the level of brutality permitted in terrorist attacks and, above all, whether they are permissible when they cause large-scale Muslim deaths.
The debate was sparked by the mass-casualty operations staged in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi against the Shiite population and its shrines in an effort to ignite a denominational war. (Zarqawi was killed by US troops backed by Kurdish intelligence on June 7, 2006)
Some prominent clerics within al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in the Middle East, especially Egypt, find nothing wrong with massacres of non-Muslims, especially Christians, Hindus and Jews. But before putting Muslims at risk, they demand the right to approve such attacks in advance and a chance to weigh their legitimacy in the light of their religious standards. This would confer on the clerics veto power over every al Qaeda attack in terms of its victims and participants (suicides).
The views of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri on the subject have never been aired. However, when the Iraq war was raging, the former in a series of video-taped pronouncements backed Zarqawi's vicious campaign of mass murder by means of hundreds of bombing attacks, kidnappings and beheadings.
In recent months, al Qaeda watchers have noted a more temperate manifesto. In bin Laden's last tape, released on Sep. 14 for the Muslim month of Ramadan, he does not threaten terror or any other violent action – unlike his deputy, Zawahiri, who is as radical as ever and appears to be the jihadi movement's senior champion of such savageries as the use of trucks loaded with hundreds of tons of explosives to maximize casualties.
A contrasting note of moderation has just been picked up in Libyan jihadist circles by counter-terror observers, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources. Their spokesmen in Libya and other arenas are now saying they accept the viewpoint of the clerics who urge some restraints on terrorist operations and are suspending their participation in excessive attacks.
It is hard to tell how far this view has spread within al Qaeda's rank and file.
Zawahiri is not just a powerhouse alongside bin Laden, but the head of the violent Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, al Qaeda's partner-in-jihad terror. The group's new rising star in Waziristan, Mustafa Abu Yazid aka Abu Hafez is himself an Egyptian who grew up in that violent movement. Therefore, the most hard-line facet of al Qaeda's creed is expected to find expression on his watch – especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.