Is North African militant new face of al-Qaida?

A grab released 25 March, 2007 by IntelC
Abu Yahya al-Libi, an al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan who escaped from Bagram prison in July 2005, is seen in a video posted on the al-Qaida-linked as-Sahab Media Web site. The video entitled "To the Army of Difficulty in Somalia" is the second this week from al-Libi. - / AFP - Getty Images

He is the new face of al-Qaida, someone who is now seen as often in the terrorist group’s videos as Ayman al-Zawahiri, and much more than Osama bin Laden. But is Abu Yahya al-Libi — who released a 45-minute video attacking Saudi leaders Wednesday — merely a propagandist or a new generation of leader?  

Private and government counterterrorism experts believe he is both and that he represents several different aspects of the changing face of al-Qaida, particularly its increasing reliance on North Africans.

The 44-year-old Libyan (thus the nom de guerre “al-Libi”) has appeared in six al-Qaida videos distributed on the Internet this year, the same number as Ayman al Zawahiri, the group’s No. 2. Bin Laden has not been seen in a video since October 2004. 

Ben Venzke, who tracks al-Qaida video on his Intel Center Web site, says al-Libi is becoming popular among jihadis, among whom he is known for his fiery rhetoric, derived from his religious training. Most of the videos are set outside, giving the impression that he is a fighter, living on the land, say counterterrorism experts. He is believed to be living on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. 

“Abu Yahya al-Libi is now the most visible face of al-Qaida, surpassing even Ayman al-Zawahiri in actual video appearances,” says Venzke. “Even within the broader global jihadi community, Abu Yahya's face is more visible in jihadist videos then any other current jihadi figure.”

And that is likely to continue, Venzke notes.

“As-Sahab, the al-Qaida video production outlet, is currently averaging a release every three days, double the rate of releases in 2006. This rate is continuing to accelerate and on track to reach one every two days in the coming months if current levels are sustained.”

Just this week, both Yahya and American al-Qaida operative Adam Gadahn have been seen on the Internet threatening the United States, the West and Middle Eastern and South Asian regimes allied with the United States. But while Gadahn is seen infrequently, Yahya is now seen regularly.

“He has been on several times, going back to 2005,” says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “He has played a key propaganda role for al-Qaida. He is a dedicated militant who has attacked Hamas and ‘apostate’ governments in the region.” He has also called on Islamists to blow up the White House in a video last October. 

Yahya began as an operative with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, one of bin Laden’s earliest supporters among national jihadi groups, but he also has strong links to the Taliban and al-Qaida in Iraq, said the official.

“He is favorably viewed by militants. Is he important beyond his role as propagandist? It’s a natural leap to being a key al-Qaida leader, a high-ranking leader, but we don’t know about any formal position ... but there is no sense he is No. 3.

“Still, he is of high interest to us and our allies.”

Adding to his bona fides is that he is one of four al-Qaida militants who escaped from a U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in mid-2005. “He speaks frequently about it,” the official noted.  Three of the four remain at large. 

The emergence of Yahya also shows the increasing importance of North African jihadis in al-Qaida operations. 

“What this is demonstrating is that the North Africa has risen in prominence within al-Qaida,” notes Roger Cressey, former deputy director of counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush White House. “Al-Qaida is evolving from Saudi and Egyptian leadership into one that is increasingly a broader operation, that places North Africans in positions of prominence, both operationally as well as in propaganda roles.”

The U.S. counterterrorism official agrees.  “Clearly, al-Qaida and North African extremist groups have been strengthening relationships for some time.”

Both point to the prominence of three Libyans in recent al-Qaida operations. Until he was captured in May 2005, Abu Faraj al-Libi was the organization’s director of international operations — essentially the group’s No. 3 position.  In addition, Abu Laith al-Libi is believed to be director of al-Qaida operations in Afghanistan, where he works closely with the Taliban.

As for the increasing frequency of the al-Qaida videos, Cressey says it is a good news/bad news equation.

“The good news is that they have failed to succeed in any number of their attack plans in the past few years and propaganda is the only way to maintain their visibility,” says Cressey. “But in the past, an up-tick in the tempo of messages indicated that an attack was on the way.” 

U.S. officials say that as of now, they believe the former is more likely than the latter.