In recent days, prominent online jihadists have used Twitter to discuss the fate of Saleh al Qarawi, who is reportedly being held in Saudi Arabia. Al Qarawi was a senior leader in the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanon-based group that has claimed responsibility for rocket attacks in Israel as well as the July 28, 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
Al Qarawi reportedly suffered extensive injuries during a drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan in 2012. His wounds were so grave, according to Asharq al Awsat, that he was forced to return to his native Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment. Al Qarawi was one of the kingdom’s 85 most-wanted extremists when the Saudis reportedly arrested him on June 9, 2012.
Saleh al Qarawi, from the Saudi Interior Ministry’s list of 85 most-wanted terrorists.
More than one year later, pro-al Qaeda jihadists are agitating for al Qarawi’s release and denouncing the Saudis for supposedly reneging on an agreement not to hold him in custody.
One of these jihadists, according to BBC Monitoring, is Siyasi Mutaqa’id, “who was among the first to break the news about al Qarawi’s return to Saudi Arabia” in 2012. Mutaqa’id claims that the Saudis struck a deal with al Qaeda that would lead to al Qarawi’s freedom. In a series of tweets in late June, Mutaqa’id also claimed that al Qaeda may seek to retaliate against the Saudis for their violation of this supposed agreement.
Another jihadist, Al-Wathiq Billah, alleged in tweets on June 22 that the spies who betrayed al Qarawi’s location are being hunted down, with the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan) taking the lead. According to BBC Monitoring, Billah levied an even more sensational charge, claiming that Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayif struck the deal that led to al Qarawi’s return. In Billah’s telling, bin Nayif broke his agreement by jailing the Abdullah Azzam Brigades leader.
Still others have promoted al Qarawi’s cause on Twitter and the Ansar al Mujahidin website.
It is not possible to verify the jihadists’ various accusations, including the Saudis’ supposed broken promise. At a minimum, their posts demonstrate that al Qarawi remains a popular figure, similar to other jailed al Qaeda operatives and jihadists who have inspired calls to action. Leading online jihadists, such as Abu-Sa’d al-Amili, have weighed in recently to lend their support to al Qarawi’s cause.
Saudis claimed that al Qarawi operated inside Iran
When the Saudi government released its list of the top 85 most-wanted jihadists in February 2009, anonymous officials made a special effort to highlight al Qarawi’s role. Saudi officials cited by The New York Times explained that al Qarawi “has been operating from Iran for three years,” or since 2006.
The Times summarized comments made by a “Saudi security official,” who explained that al Qarawi was “in charge of leading Al Qaeda’s operations in the Persian Gulf and Iran, and of bringing new members into Afghanistan.” This same official added that al Qarawi was “believed to have more than 100 Saudis working for him in Iran, where they move about freely.”
A leaked State Department cable, dated Feb. 11, 2009, provides an additional detail concerning al Qarawi’s Iran ties. The cable notes that he “received explosives training in Iran.” The State Department added that al Qarawi “provided finds and recruits to late head of al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al Zarqawi” and “worked to unify various branches of al Qaeda.”
When the State Department designated al Qarawi a global terrorist more than two years later, on Dec. 15, 2011, the Iran connection was not mentioned. But the State Department confirmed that al Qarawi had “fought against US forces in Fallujah, Iraq” and worked with Zarqawi. In fact, al Qarawi has explained in propaganda messages that the Brigades started as an outgrowth of Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq.
Some of the online jihadists who have recently commented on al Qarawi’s detention have bristled at the notion that he worked inside Iran, calling the accusation a Saudi lie.
Abdullah Azzam Brigades threatens Iran, Hezbollah
In addition to attacking a Japanese oil tanker and Israeli civilians, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades “has repeatedly articulated its intent to carry out attacks against Western interests in the Middle East,” according to the State Department. “In 2010, for instance, the group expressed an interest in kidnapping US and British tourists in the Arabian Peninsula.”
In more recent days, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades has also threatened Iran and Hezbollah over their participation in the Syrian war.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the Brigades released a message titled, “A Statement about the Aggression of the Party of Iran,” on June 15. Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a Lebanese jihadist who has spoken on behalf of the Brigades, had previously posted excerpts from the statement on his Twitter feed.
The Brigades claimed that Iran and Hezbollah are waging a war “against Sunnis” and shedding their blood as part of their expansionist goals. The group also accused Hezbollah of spilling Muslim blood in Syria but refraining from attacking Israel.
“We on our side challenge Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s leader] and his fighting elements to fire one bullet at occupied Palestine and claim responsibility for that bullet, whether from their areas in Lebanon or through their brigades in Syria, which fired thousands of shells and bullets upon unarmed Sunnis and their women, elderly and children, and destroyed their homes on top of them,” the statement reads, according to SITE’s translation.
Majid bin Muhammad al Majid, from the Saudi Interior Ministry’s list of 85 most-wanted terrorists.
The Brigades have long supported the Syrian uprising. In a video message released on June 19, 2012, the group named its new emir as Majid bin Muhammad al Majid, who replaced al Qarawi as the group’s leader. Like al Qarawi, al Majid was also included on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list in February 2009.
In the video, al Majid said that the Syrian people should support the uprising against President Bashir al Assad’s regime and additional rebellions against Muslim governments would follow. [See LWJ report, Abdullah Azzam Brigades names leader, advises against attacks in Syria’s cities.]
The group’s latest statement is consistent with its rhetoric since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, as it has repeatedly threatened Iran, Hezbollah, and Shiites in general. Whereas the Brigades’ leadership reportedly received safe haven inside Iran for several years, the terrorist organization and the Iranian regime are now on opposite sides of the fight for the Assad family’s former stronghold.
Similarly, other al Qaeda-linked jihadists have called for attacks inside Shiite-led countries as retribution for the ongoing fight by Iran and Hezbollah against Sunni forces inside Syria.