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Key Al-Qaeda Terrorist Leader Arrested!

Interesting Article: "Egypt arrests Islamist close to Al Qaeda's Zawahiri" by AFP, Cairo, Published April 7th 2014.

An interesting article mentioned that Egyptian police have arrested a senior Islamist militant close to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Thirwat Salah Shihata was arrested in a Cairo suburb, the sources said, adding he had been sentenced to death in absentia in the 1990s for an attempted assassination of a minister. Shihata was reportedly detained in Iran following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in 2001, which routed Al-Qaeda and forced its leaders into hiding. The Egyptian officials said he had been in Libya and then Turkey before returning to his homeland. The arrest of Thirwat Shihata is now one of the closest mechanisms foreign intelligence units have of finding Zawahiri. Would you like to know more?

With the arrest of Thirwat Salah Shihata comes the ever more important need to extract actionable intelligence from him. His arrest is key to breaking through in finding the leadership of Al-Qaeda and eliminating them.

To show emphasis of his position, let me break down who he sits under, and who sits under him; first it is important to note that Shihata is the deputy for Al Qaeda chief
Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri is a trained surgeon who joined forces with Osama bin Laden in the early 80's during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. As of May 2, 2011, he became the leader of al-Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden. This was confirmed by a press release from al-Qaeda's general command on June 16 and on several of their websites on June 16, 2011. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri's whereabouts are unknown, but he is generally thought to be in tribal Pakistan.

The last communication from Zawahiri was in April 2014, where he called on Muslims to kidnap Westerners, particularly Americans, who could then be exchanged for jailed jihadists including a blind Egyptian cleric convicted in 1995 of conspiring to attack the United Nations and other New York landmarks.

Shihata is 53-year-old Egyptian, who ran Egyptian Islamic Jihad before he formally joined forces with Osama bin Laden in 1998. “Shihata is among the few remaining members of al-Qaeda’s old guard,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. His ties to Zawahiri extend back decades, as both men cut their teeth in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. . . . Shihata has kept a low profile in recent years, but there’s no question that he’s one of the more seasoned terrorists at large today.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, including some senior personnel, fled to Iran. It has never been clear how much freedom of movement they enjoyed while in the country, but for some the welcome appears to be over. In the past two years, up to a dozen notable figures have left Iran, and two — Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, accused in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman — have subsequently ended up in U.S. custody.

There was information that while in Libya in 2013, Shihata possibly met Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, and Zubayr al-Maghrebi, another al-Qaeda figure who has left Iran. U.S. forces captured Ruqai in Tripoli, Libya, in October and questioned him on a U.S. warship for days before moving him to New York to face trial on federal charges that he helped plan the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. Ghaith was arrested in Jordan while trying to connect to a flight to his native Kuwait, and he is also facing trial in New York on terrorism charges.

Shihata was found in an apartment in a suburb of Cairo. He is currently being interrogated for his alleged involvement in the death of several Coptic Christians and for organizing militant groups in Egypt and Libya. One of the Libyan groups, Ansar al-Shariah, has been blamed for the Benghazi attacks in 2012, which left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead. Shehata was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group that assassinated former President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and was sentenced to death for the assassination attempt in the 1990s.

It is believed also that underneath him sits Nasir al Wuhayshi,the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who was recently appointed (by Zawahiri) to also serve as al Qaeda's general manager. The appointment effectively thrust Wuhayshi, a Yemeni national, into the No. 2 position in the global al Qaeda terrorist network, a position previously held by the Libyan Abu Yahya al Libi before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012. Nasir al Wuhaysi who is known by his fighters as "Abu Basir," has a long pedigree in the global jihadist movement despite only being 36 years old. He is seen within jihadist circles as somebody with the credibility and charisma to one day fill Osama bin Laden's shoes as al Qaeda's paramount leader.

Wuhayshi was bin Laden's private secretary during the time al Qaeda was based in Taliban-run Afghanistan and, according to former al Qaeda insiders, he rarely left his side. After the U.S. military offensive to topple the Taliban, Wuhayshi fled to Iran, where he was arrested and eventually extradited to Yemen in 2003. He was subsequently imprisoned in a high security jail in Sana'a with several other al Qaeda operatives who had been arrested in a crackdown on the group in Yemen after 9/11. But in February 2006, Wuhayshi and several other al Qaeda operatives escaped from the prison by digging a tunnel. Over the next several years Wuhayshi and the other escapees rebuilt al Qaeda's operations in the country and began launching attacks on Yemeni security services and foreign tourists.

Wuhayshi's overriding focus, according to a former group insider, has been toppling the government in Sana'a and creating an Islamic state in Yemen. Wuhayshi himself set up his headquarters in the town of Jaar in Yemen's southern tribal areas. For 16 months, al Qaeda effectively governed the area, taking on responsibility for electricity, water and other utilities, but also inflicting brutal medieval justice on those it judged to have broken Islamic law. According to former group insiders - in much the same way as bin Laden - he was extremely popular with rank and file al Qaeda fighters. He projected the same softly-spoken humble air as his mentor.

The Yemen-based AQAP has been the most active al Qaida chapter in recent years in attempting attacks on U.S. targets. In 2008, it launched an assault on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa and was responsible for the failed 2010 Christmas Day plot to detonate a bomb hidden a passenger’s underwear aboard a plane landing in Detroit. But the organization is under increasing pressure. AQAP recently acknowledged the death in a January drone strike of its deputy leader, Said al-Shihri, and many in Yemen expect AQAP to try to avenge his death. In addition, a U.S.-backed government offensive against Ansar al Shariah, an AQAP-affiliated militant group, has pushed the group from its strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces though it still retains its bastion in Abyan’s mountainous district of al Mahfad. Analysts say they believe the promotion of AQAP’s head to a major position in the core al Qaida franchise is likely to increase pressure on the group to strike out.

Based on actionable intelligence, it is clear that most of Al-Qaeda's leadership sits in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with leaders like Wuhayshi operating in Yemen (more along the front lines)  but their exact location is hard to come by.

In 2001, many of Al-Qaeda’s fighters fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where a bulk of them sit. According to Zahid Hussain, one of Pakistan’s most noted security specialists, drone strikes have killed many of its leaders, but have had “little effect on the group’s operations.” Analysts have speculated (though never proven conclusively) that al-Qaeda was behind three attacks on Pakistani nuclear facilities in 2007 and 2008, and that the group helped orchestrate a massive jail break last summer in northwestern Pakistan that freed Taliban militants. Hussain also believes that the group has gained a steady stream of new recruits from Pakistan’s urban middle class. This makes sense, given two troubling discoveries allegedly made by Pakistani police last year: one, an al-Qaeda cell at Punjab University in Lahore, and the other, an al-Qaeda safe house in Islamabad (admittedly, this latter discovery was not widely reported, suggesting it may be a fabrication).

Given this “Pakistanization” of al-Qaeda, it’s wholly unsurprising that so many Pakistani and Afghan militant groups have connections to the group. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization responsible for the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, offers a case in point. Documents found in Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound reveal that Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed enjoyed long-standing ties to Bin Laden—and that the latter even helped plan the Mumbai attacks. When high-ranking al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda was discovered in Pakistan in 2002, he was staying at a Lashkar-e-Taiba safehouse.

With the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014 looming, al Qaeda is on the cusp of outlasting its US actions and possibly gaining increasing room to operate in an Afghanistan that will be free of a significant American presence. The relatively diminished capabilities of U.S. drone and special operations forces that will remain behind will then likely be unable to avail of even the occasional help they currently receive from Pakistani intelligence in hunting down al Qaeda operatives.
For 2014, if we dismiss it as a group of has-beens, we do so at our own peril. Therefore it is important that we understand that Shihata's arrest is the key to assist finding and eliminating Al-Qaeda leadership and bring enough destabilization techniques to their organization that they will have no time to plot and execute another 9-11.




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