The high-profile arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the man responsible for al Qaeda’s operational planning and execution in Pakistan, captured headlines around the world.
(See HOT POINTS: “Abu Faraj al-Libbi Arrest in Pakistan Points to Young al Qaeda”)
In contrast, the killing in late April or early May of another key al Qaeda figure, Hisham Hinawi, passed unnoticed.
Hinawi, better known by his underground name Abu Sahal, served as deputy to Osama bin Laden‘s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources believe his death contributed far more to the global war against terrorism than the capture in Pakistan. Whereas Abu Faraj’s command was limited to one country, Pakistan, Hinawi’s range was cosmopolitan. He was constantly on the move from base to base – often on the run between them. Abu Sahal’s job, our sources reveal, was to orchestrate the terrorist networks deployed globally by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda’s primary operational arm. Hinawi operated in Chechnya, Dagestan, Azerbaijan and the strategically-located Central Asian Ferghana Valley which spills over into China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The peripatetic nature of his mission partly explains the baffling circumstances of his death. The enigma appears to have been politically charged enough to further sharpen the abrasiveness marking the summit held by presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in Moscow Sunday, May 8.
It is still not clear to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s investigators who liquidated this high-ranking al Qaeda operative, or exactly where – except for the likelihood that it happened somewhere in Russia. Suspicion appears to be divided between Russian special forces based in the Caucasus or Chechnya, and US special forces based in the former Soviet republic of Georgia who may have crossed the Russian border into Chechnya to reach their quarry.
Washington and Moscow exchange glares instead of intelligence
Washington would be fuming over a putative Russian commando liquidation. The Americans believe that since 2002 the Kremlin has stopped sharing its intelligence input with the United States, thus keeping them in the dark on threats to homeland America. At the very least, they would have demanded access to a high-quality asset like Abu Sahal before he died.
The Russians would be equally resentful over a suspected American or Western hit on their doorstep in Georgia or, worse, on their own soil in Chechnya. It would confirm Russian intelligence services’ complaint that Washington was holding back from Moscow information in its possession on al Qaeda’s activities inside Russia. The personal affront to Putin would have been aggravated by the US president’s Tiblisi visit on May 10 and his words to a wildly cheering Georgian audience after their summit in Moscow.
Whether Hinawi was liquidated by the Russians behind American backs or by a US commando team, neither will dare go public on the deed, which accounts for the dense screen thrown over its circumstances.
Abu Sahal alive would have been an invaluable source of information on the elusive top two of al Qaeda. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts, he was close enough to his boss, Zawahiri, to be kept abreast on his whereabouts more than any other high ranking operative. He would also have had better channels of communication to both bin Laden and Zuwahiri than al-Libby.
Migration as a jihadist aid
Hisham and his brother Hani Hinawi were among the founders of the violent Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1970s. While Hani remained in Egypt – and constantly in and out of jail, Hisham embraced the philosophy expounded by Sa’id Haww, a leading Syrian Islamic luminary in a book titled The ABC’s of the Vision of Movements in Islam.
It is Haww’s contention that migration must be an essential mode of action for Islamic groups, practiced for tactical ends rather than as a permanent habit. Islamists who travel outside the borders of their native lands are really drawing on inspiration from the Koranic verse: “God’s land is made expansive so that you may roam the earth”. Their peregrinations share the rationale of the Prophet Mohammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina. If the faithful are subjected to wrongs and injustices in the land where Muslims reside, they are obliged to go and live in safer places and new lands that would be their launching pads for propagating the message of Islam.
Abu Sahal was an exemplary practitioner of the Haww dictum. He was ever on the move, more often on the run from countries that got too hot for him.
In 1984, Hinawi flitted from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. There, behind a business front in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, he set up a center for the recruitment of Saudis to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Two years later, he moved to Afghanistan, joining the combatants serving bin Laden and Zawahiri as bodyguards. Hinawi returned to Saudi Arabia in 1991, hoping to establish al Qaeda cells – possibly against the US troop presence in Operation Desert Storm. When Saudi security forces began breathing down his neck, he bolted to Sudan, leaving his wife and children behind.
Abu Suhal’s next exploit took him Addis Ababa in 1995 as part of a failed attempt to assassinate Mubarak. He was not caught, but his family paid the price. The Saudis handed them over to Egypt where they were kept under house arrest for years.
Setting up base in Hong Kong
Next, Hinawi made his way to Hong Kong – the only known al Qaeda Arab leader known to have run a regional terror base from that city. No one knows exactly how he stole into the British colony, but he stayed long enough to set up the al Qaeda networks which are currently at large in parts of China and Southeast Asia.
This upgraded the infrastructure built in the region in the 1990s by Ramzi Yousef, later convicted for masterminding the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and a plot to hijack and blow up 12 US airliners in Asia in 1994.
The first elements of the September 11, 2001 airborne suicidal attacks in New York and Washington were thus in place six years earlier. It was then that al Qaeda decided to use American commercial airliners to wreak death and destruction on American cities.
While the Yousef terror networks struck root in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and the western region of Southeast Asia, his successor Hinawi built an organization of jihadists anchored in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which he visited posing as a Singaporean businessman.
That done, the much traveled al Qaeda global operator sensed it was time for another move. He discovered the Chinese authorities had become curious enough about the “Singaporean businessman’s” activities to put a tail on him.
Some time in 1997, Hinawi fetched up in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts, this was the moment that his deep, personal relationship with Zawahiri first came to light.
No sooner had Hinawi installed himself in the Black Sea oil city – presumably with funding from Saudi Arabia and Gulf emirates – when Zawahiri joined him, accompanied by a third high-placed Egyptian Jihad Islami diehard, Salma Mabrouk..
The trio lived and worked out of Baku for 18 months until the fall of 1998. They managed to operate under the radar of intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies while making occasional trips to Afghanistan, Iran, Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya and Dagestan.
Top al Qaeda trio taken hostage!
In one of the most bizarre episodes in al Qaeda’s history, Zawahiri, Hinawi and Mabrouk were actually kidnapped in Dagestan, southern Russia, by a band of local Muslim bandits. They were held for six months against a multimillion dollar ransom for each man. Finally, bin Laden personally ordered the Egyptian Islamic Jihad to negotiate and pay for their release.
According to our best sources, US intelligence agents and special forces units present under cover in the region may have known about the abduction. If they did, President Bill Clinton, his national security adviser Sandy Berger and secretary of state Madeleine Albright were given a rare opportunity to try and grab Zawahiri themselves or buy him from the kidnappers. But by the time the US administration got around to a decision, the moment had passed; the Egyptian Islamic Jihad had bought the men’s freedom.
Weeks later, CIA agents managed to lay hands on Mabrouk. After a brief interrogation, he was flown to Egypt and has been held ever since in Cairo’s Tora prison.
Zawahiri left Baku for Afghanistan, where he remained at bin Laden’s side up until the US invasion in October 2001.
Hinawi moved to Chechnya, using it as a command post to retain command over his far-flung Asian terrorist networks. He was always in close contact with bin Laden and Zawahiri.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has located Abu Sahal’s son, Hamza, in custody in Egypt. He is locked away in the high-security wing of Abu Zabal prison near Cairo, a fate escaped by his dead father.