Blog Note: The ‘escape’ of Abu Yahya al-Libi is difficult to explain. Why was he kept in Afghanistan in the first place?
On the night of July 10, 2005, an obscure militant preacher named Abu Yahya al-Libi escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan and rocketed to fame in the world of jihadists.
The breakout from the Bagram Air Base by Mr. Libi and three cellmates — they picked a lock, dodged their guards and traversed the base’s vast acreage to freedom — embarrassed American officials as deeply as it delighted the jihadist movement. In the nearly three years since then, Mr. Libi’s meteoric ascent within the leadership of Al Qaeda has proved to be even more troublesome for the authorities.
Mr. Libi, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, is now considered to be a top strategist for Al Qaeda, as well as one of its most effective promoters of global jihad, appearing in a dozen videos on militant Web sites in the past year, counterterrorism officials said. At a time when Al Qaeda seems more inspirational than operational, Mr. Libi stands out as a formidable star whose rise to prominence tracks the group’s growing emphasis on information in its war with the West.
“I call him a man for all seasons for A.Q.,” said Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is now research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “He’s a warrior. He’s a poet. He’s a scholar. He’s a pundit. He’s a military commander. And he’s a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement.”
The secrecy that envelops Al Qaeda’s leadership structure makes such estimates speculative, other analysts noted. But one Islamist insider said that in addition to youth and charisma, Mr. Libi possessed one skill that Al Qaeda’s leaders had been lacking: religious scholarship. Perhaps with this in mind, Al Qaeda is featuring Mr. Libi, who spent two years in Africa studying Islam, in as many of the videos as the group’s top leaders, Mr. bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
“Bin Laden is an engineer and Zawahri is a medical doctor,” said Dr. Muhammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident who lives in London. “So it is important that they also present someone who has the role of scholar.”
The varied roles that Mr. Libi plays in these videos, from recruiter to ideological enforcer, also shed light on Al Qaeda’s shifting tactics. In recent months, those tactics have come to include defensive maneuvers aimed at defusing the media counteroperations of the United States and its allies.
Mr. Libi delivers his message with a preacher’s cadence. His black turban drapes down his chest, and he alternates between white Arabic robes and camouflage jackets.
“O Muslim youth in the East and West, who listen to God calling you: ‘Go forth to war, whether it be easy or difficult for you, and strive hard in God’s cause with your possessions and your lives,’ ” he said in a video sermon released this year.
But increasingly, Mr. Libi uses his videos not to expand Al Qaeda’s base, but to shore it up. He has lashed out at moderate Muslim scholars who accuse Al Qaeda of using false interpretations of the Koran to justify jihad. He has mocked Saudi Arabia’s efforts to persuade jailed militants to give up the fight.
In a 93-minute speech released last fall, Mr. Libi urged supporters to brace themselves for a surge in psychological warfare loaded with false propaganda. He cited a rumor that Al Qaeda’s constitution calls for killing anyone who breaks from the group: “Al Qaeda and its leaders are too noble and pure to descend to the rotten level of such nonsense.”
These and other frank communications by Mr. Libi have led intelligence analysts at the West Point center and elsewhere to pore over his videos like Kremlinologists looking for operational clues to Soviet intentions.
Mr. Libi began as a militant on a scholarly path, according to a Libyan man who says he knew him. His older brother, now imprisoned in Libya, had been a crucial figure in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose members went to Afghanistan to help defeat the Soviet Union.
Mr. Libi, who went to Afghanistan in the early 1990s, was sent back to northern Africa to study Islam in Mauritania. When he returned two years later, Afghanistan was no longer a battleground for militant Libyans, but rather a haven: the Taliban controlled most of the country.
Mr. Libi’s training in warfare was minimal, and his early work as a preacher rarely touched on militant action, according to the Libyan man who said he had met Mr. Libi in Afghanistan, and who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns. “He started to visit training camps and talk about Shariah,” or Islamic law, this man said in a telephone interview, about “morals, etiquette, how to act.”
Then a year after 9/11, Mr. Libi was seized by Pakistani authorities and turned over to American authorities, who eventually put him in the Bagram prison.
In one video produced after their escape in 2005, Mr. Libi and his fellow fugitives recounted their breakout, crediting God with distracting their captors. A new version now circulating on jihadist Web sites re-enacts some of the escape with dramatic flair.
Mr. Libi, who has also used the names Hasan Qaiid and Yunis al-Sahrawi, is assumed to be in the Afghan-Pakistani border area.
He appears to have worked his way quickly into Al Qaeda’s inner circle. He was among the leaders who sent letters of rebuke to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant leader who was killed in Iraq in 2006, who they felt was undermining the group’s global strategy by killing too many civilians.
“I share with you your great jihad,” he wrote in a letter dated Nov. 20, 2005, according to a translation obtained from the West Point group. “I hope that you will lay open your heart for the acceptance of what I say.”
In subsequent video appearances, Mr. Libi cast himself as a utility man for Al Qaeda. He rebutted Muslim scholars who criticized suicide bombers in Algeria; he urged Muslims to carry out attacks in Europe in revenge for the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Asked to assess Mr. Libi’s stature, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, Dell L. Dailey, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant general, said in an e-mail message, “Abu Yahya is a senior Al Qaeda member, a top strategist for the group, and trusted and presented as one of the group’s most effective promoters of jihad.”
He has also become the leader of a Libyan contingent of fighters in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, particularly after the death this year of another key militant who went by the name of Abu Laith al-Libi, said Evan F. Kohlmann, an analyst who testifies as a government witness in terrorism trials. (The two Mr. Libis were not related.)
Abu Yahya al-Libi’s most frank discussion of Al Qaeda’s information war with the West came in the video released last fall, “Dots of the Letters.”
In assessing the state of Islamic militancy worldwide, Mr. Libi dwelled on “defectors” who have denounced violence, internal spats among militants and fatwas or Islamic legal pronouncements, from moderate Muslims who seek to criminalize jihadists. He went so far as to specify six ways that the United States and its allies might try to exploit this disharmony through psychological warfare.
Efforts by the Pentagon to undermine Al Qaeda have intensified in recent months in Iraq, said military officials in Baghdad, including using imams to meet with American-held detainees for religious talks before they are released and publicizing militants who disavow their violent ways.
In his video last fall, Mr. Libi sought to brace Al Qaeda’s adherents for tactics like this, which he said would fail. The retractions of captured militants would be particularly ineffective, given their prisoner status, he argued.
“Tell me,” Mr. Libi said, “what do you expect from someone who sees the sword above him, the rug in front of him and the sheik dictating to him the proof and evidence for the obligation of obeying the ruler?”