Ramzi Mawafi. Image from Al Arabiya.
The State Department today added Ramzi Mawafi, a longtime al Qaeda operative who was close to Osama bin Laden, to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists.
Mawafi “is an Egyptian national and long-time al Qaeda member best known as the former doctor to Osama bin Laden,” the State Department says in its announcement. Mawafi “also served as an explosives expert for al Qaeda.”
Mawafi “escaped from an Egyptian prison in 2011, and is now believed to be in the Sinai Peninsula coordinating among militant groups and helping to arrange money and weapons to support violent extremist activity.”
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal say that Mawafi rejoined al Qaeda’s hierarchy after his escape from prison three years ago. Al Qaeda maintains a clandestine bureaucracy that exists above regional groups in the terrorist organization’s pecking order.
This can be seen in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, where events have exposed some of the personalities in al Qaeda’s senior leadership. For instance, Nasir al Wuhayshi is the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a regional branch of al Qaeda, but also doubles as al Qaeda’s global general manager, a role that gives him authority far outside of Yemen. Al Qaeda’s deputy general managers serve underneath Wuhayshi in Yemen, holding positions in both AQAP and in al Qaeda’s global hierarchy.
Senior al Qaeda leaders were also dispatched to Syria, where they assumed roles within the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official regional branch in the Levant. A jihadist known as Sanafi al Nasr, for instance, heads an al Qaeda strategic planning committee in addition to serving as a senior official within Al Nusrah. Seasoned al Qaeda leaders have assumed roles in other jihadist groups in Syria as well, including those that are not official branches of the organization.
US intelligence officials say that Mawafi holds a position within al Qaeda’s covert international enterprise similar to his counterparts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
As recognized by the State Department, Mawafi is “coordinating among militant groups” in the Sinai. The most prolific of these is Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), also known as Ansar Jerusalem, which is connected to al Qaeda’s global network. Mawafi has worked with ABM, as well as other jihadist groups, US intelligence officials say.
Al Qaeda’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula
Although jihadists have announced al Qaeda’s presence in the Sinai on multiple occasions, US officials say the group is hiding the full scope of its organizational ties and other details of its operations. Mawafi has been publicly identified as the head of al Qaeda in the Sinai on multiple occasions, but he does not appear in videos or claim credit for jihadist operations. [See LWJ report, Former bin Laden doctor reportedly heads al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.]
Ayman al Zawahiri has repeatedly praised the jihadists in the Sinai in al Qaeda’s propaganda. And groups such as ABM have returned the favor, portraying their terrorist acts as consistent with al Qaeda’s call to arms. (There are also reports that some ABM jihadists are tied to the Islamic State, a former branch of al Qaeda’s organization that has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.)
A group calling itself “Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” distributed fliers outside of a mosque in Al Arish in the summer of 2011. The fliers called for the establishment of an Islamic state and said that the “group was planning attacks on the police stations and security forces,” according to CNN.
In Dec. 2011, Ansar al Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula announced its formation, vowing to “fulfill its oath” to slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The following month, in Jan. 2012, Ansar al Jihad publicly swore an oath of allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. US officials said at the time that the group was the military wing of Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, which was “seeking to coordinate operations” with other groups in the Sinai and Gaza.
Despite these overt ties between jihadists in the Sinai and al Qaeda, Mawafi has tried to remain in the shadows. Egyptian officials have highlighted his position of authority in the press, but neither Mawafi nor al Qaeda have announced his role. They prefer to work through organizations that are not explicitly branded as al Qaeda, US officials say. Mawafi’s group acts as a “platform” for pooling the jihadists’ resources.
In Aug. 2011, for instance, CNN first reported that Mawafi had set up shop in the Sinai following his escape from prison. Egyptian officials expressed concerned about Mawafi’s role because of his expertise in bomb making. Mawafi is known as “the chemist” and, according to an Egyptian general, “had set up his own [explosives] laboratory in Tora Bora with bin Laden” prior to 9/11.
CNN also noted that Mawafi had been in contact with two already established jihadist groups: Takfir wal Hijra and the Palestinian Islamic Army.
In Sept. 2013, the Associated Press (AP) cited Egyptian military intelligence officials who said that Mawafi was working with multiple jihadist groups, and facilitating the flow of funds and weapons to them. The Egyptian officials explained that two jihadists captured in the Sinai, a Yemeni and a Palestinian, “provided information about Mawafi’s role while under questioning.” And an Egyptian court described Mawafi as “the secretary general of al Qaeda in Sinai.”
At least one representative from al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula took part in an al Qaeda “conference call” in the summer of 2013. The communications, which were first reported by the Daily Beast, involved more than 20 al Qaeda operatives from around the world, including Zawahiri and Wuhayshi. It was during the call that Wuhayshi’s appointment as al Qaeda’s general manager was announced to other terrorist commanders.
The US was forced to close nearly two dozen diplomatic facilities after officials learned of the communications, which utilized a complicated Internet-based infrastructure. The al Qaeda terrorists reportedly planned to attack one or more diplomatic outposts. One of the facilities closed as a precautionary measure was the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, because authorities were concerned that al Qaeda’s presence in the Sinai could be used as a staging ground for an attack.