Center for Strategic Communication

Family members of top al Qaeda ideologue Abu Hafs al Mauritani have confirmed that he was freed this past weekend. Abu Hafs was transferred from Iran, where he had lived since late 2001, to Mauritania earlier this year. Citing his brother, Sidi Ould Walid, The Associated Press and CBS News reports that Abu Hafs “was released after renouncing his ties to the terror network and condemning the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.”

US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal are skeptical of the deal. These officials point out that Abu Hafs is a longtime al Qaeda ideologue who, despite disagreeing with some of the group’s tactics, is unlikely to truly foreswear his violent past.

Abu Hafs was one of several key al Qaeda leaders who reportedly objected to the Sept. 11 attacks beforehand. Afterward, however, he openly praised the attacks in interviews with the press.

Despite his disagreements with deceased al Qaeda master Osama bin Laden, Abu Hafs is a longtime ideologue who has been trusted to carry out sensitive missions on al Qaeda’s behalf. Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Abu Hafs ran the Institute of Islamic Studies in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The institute was a major ideological center used by al Qaeda to indoctrinate would-be martyrs.

US intelligence officials, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of this matter, explained that Abu Hafs could set up shop once again.

One official pointed to nearby Mali, which borders Mauritania and is home to a growing Islamist insurgency, as a possible destination for Abu Hafs. In addition to controlling parts of Mali’s north, Islamist rebels have destroyed Sufi graves and defaced other Muslim holy sites deemed to be impure.

Jihadist family members

At least some of Abu Hafs’ family members, including his cousin, have served al Qaeda as well. And leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) files implicate one of Abu Hafs’ brothers in al Qaeda’s operations. [For more on Abu Hafs and his family, see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda ideologue leaves Iran for Mauritania.]

Mohamedou Slahi, who is currently detained at Guantanamo, is described in a leaked JTF-GTMO file as both Abu Haf’s cousin and brother-in-law. Slahi is also described as Abu Hafs’ “probable former assistant.” Ironically, despite Abu Hafs’ objections to the Sept. 11 attacks, Slahi helped recruit al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell, including the pilots who would go on to carry out the hijackings. Slahi, according to a threat assessment prepared by JTF-GTMO, was also connected to the cell that carried out al Qaeda’s failed millennium plot against the LAX airport in California.

During his time in custody, the JTF-GTMO file indicates, Slahi explained that Ayman al Zawahiri “directed Abu Hafs to establish [a] counterfeiting operation.” The laundered money was to be funneled through the home of Abu Hafs’ brother in Mauritania. The brother is not named in the file.

Time in Iran

The Iranians placed Abu Hafs, along with other senior al Qaeda leaders, under a loose form of house arrest in 2003. They had been allowed to operate relatively freely until that time. The Iranians detained the al Qaeda members only after American and Saudi officials complained that they had been tied to terrorist attacks in Riyadh and Morocco.

Since 2003, however, the Iranians have allowed some al Qaeda operatives to move about freely even while others have lived in detention complexes. Despite repeated appeals from foreign governments, Iran has consistently refused to turn over senior al Qaeda leaders.

The State Department has repeatedly pointed to Iran’s intransigence in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. “In 2010,” the report for 2011 reads, “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda (AQ) members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.”

The report continues: “Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its AQ detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial.” Similar language was included in previous reports.

Suddenly, after years of being unhelpful, Abu Hafs was extradited from Iran to Mauritania. The transfer was immediately suspicious.

Why would the Iranians agree to free him from custody after all these years? Why would Abu Hafs, if he agreed with the move, risk being detained in a potentially more restrictive and less hospitable environment? It turned out that Abu Hafs’ detention in Mauritania was short-lived. And that has some US intelligence officials concerned.

Abu Hafs is the latest senior al Qaeda leader to leave Iran after receiving a form of safe haven there for years. In 2008, Osama bin Laden’s son, Saad bin Laden, left Iran for northern Pakistan. He was subsequently killed in a US drone strike.

Saif al Adel, a senior member of al Qaeda’s military committee, reportedly left Iran in 2010. While there were reports that al Adel relocated to Pakistan, his current whereabouts are not publicly known. Al Adel has long worked with the Iranians and received training from Iran’s chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, in the 1990s. That training was used to plot al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Also in 2010, Osama bin Laden’s former spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was freed from Iranian custody. Abu Hafs wrote the introduction to a book Abu Ghaith released in late 2010. The book provides advice for jihadists.

Earlier this year, Mohammed Islambouli, the brother of the terrorist who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, returned to Egypt, where a military court acquitted him. Islambouli had long been sheltered inside Iran, too.

Islambouli has been close to al Qaeda’s leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri, for more than two decades. He was set free even though Egyptian authorities have long known that he was involved in terrorism. Islambouli’s story is similar to Abu Hafs’ in that both men left Iran for their home countries, where they could have been imprisoned, and were set free.

The Iranians and al Qaeda have not always seen eye-to-eye. Although the Iranians prevented the senior al Qaeda leaders in their custody from being brought to justice, al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan became frustrated when the Iranians would not release them. In late 2008, al Qaeda orchestrated the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat, who probably doubled as an intelligence operative, inside Pakistan. The “diplomat” was only freed after the Iranians agreed to speed up the release of senior al Qaeda members.

The tensions over the prisoner exchange do not accurately reflect the whole relationship between Iran and al Qaeda, however. The two have long colluded against their common enemies despite their disagreements.

And top leaders like Abu Hafs al Mauritani were able to escape the wrath of American drones flying over northern Pakistan by staying inside Iran. Today, Abu Hafs and several of the al Qaeda leaders who fled with him to Iran after the Sept. 11 attacks are on the loose once again.