By Thomas Joscelyn and David Daoud
May 3, 2016
The man known as Abu Ubaydah Al Lubnani (“the Lebanese”) is one of the most senior al Qaeda leaders to defect to the Islamic State since the two jihadist organizations split in early 2014. Lubnani was once a top security official for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But after being demoted from his sensitive post, he joined Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization. Lubnani quickly became a thorn in al Qaeda’s side, revealing details about his former employer’s inner workings.
Earlier this year, Lubnani’s story was featured in several editions of the Islamic State’s Al Naba newsletter. The contents of his testimony are so explosive that an al Qaeda operative known as Abu Karima al Khorasani was forced to respond.
One issue, more than any other, loomed large in their debate: Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran.
In the 19th edition of Al Naba, an interviewer asked Lubnani how he managed to travel from the Khorasan (an area that encompasses Afghanistan and Pakistan) to the caliphate’s home in Syria after his falling out with al Qaeda’s leadership.
“The matter was relatively easy,” Lubnani responded. “Coordinators from al Qaeda oversaw the entry of members to Iran” and the “[t]ravelers remained there in guest houses for some time until the completion of their travel arrangements to Sham [Syria].”
“This was with the knowledge of the Rafidi [Shiite] government in Iran, even under the eye of its intelligence services,” Lubnani stressed. “Simply put, once a traveler entered one of the guest houses, intelligence services knew of his arrival through those in charge of these guest houses.” The safe house operators “would meet with the Iranian intelligence services weekly” and “the phones of the guest houses were tapped and under their [the Iranians] control.”
Lubnani told Al Naba that he “emigrated this way” and his “stay in Iran was prolonged, until the al Qaeda coordinators confirmed” that he was not going “to travel to the lands of the Islamic State.” (Although he did just that.) He claimed that he “escaped from the fist of Iranian intelligence,” which learned of his “presence through the coordinators of al Qaeda’s guest houses.”
Al Qaeda’s Response
16-02-28 Image accompanying Abu Karima al Khorasani's response
Abu Karima al Khorasani penned a blistering critique of Lubnani that was published online by a jihadist media outfit in late February. The piece was promoted with the banner seen on the right.
Lubnani served as al Qaeda’s security official in South Asia for only “several months” before he was “completely dismissed” for “deceiving al Qaeda commanders,” according to Khorasani. An al Qaeda sharia court even ruled that Lubnani should be harshly punished for his alleged crimes. Al Qaeda’s defender took exception to Lubnani’s accusation that al Qaeda works with Pakistani intelligence, arguing that al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s first attack targeted the Pakistani Navy.
Khorasani did not deny that al Qaeda has safe houses in Iran. Instead, Khorasani threw the allegation back in Lubnani’s face.
“If you live in a glass house, do not throw stones at people,” Khorasani wrote.
Khorasani then asked a series of rhetorical questions. Lubnani “mentions the story about Iranian intelligence, and if this [is] true as he claims, then why did he go to the Islamic State via the same route of Iranian intelligence?” The al Qaeda loyalist continued: “Why was he able to…freely walk the streets of Tehran? Give us a fatwa, O religious scholars of the [Islamic State], on the judgment regarding your fellow who came to you via the help of the Iranian Intelligence, knowingly and willingly?”
Continuing to address the Islamic State’s scholars, Khorasani added: “Then give us a fatwa regarding the judgment of [Lubnani], who met with Iranian intelligence at the same table before fleeing to you?”
Khorasani’s questions are intended as a dig at the Islamic State. Given its unrelenting demonization of Shiites, it is embarrassing for one of the so-called caliphate’s own leaders to have benefitted from al Qaeda’s deal with the Iranians during his travels.
According to Khorasani, there is something even more problematic in Lubnani’s background. Khorasani claimed that Lubnani is a former member of “a movement supported by Iran.” Lubnani also allegedly concealed the identity of “the group to which he [Lubnani] belonged before he entered al Qaeda.” This same group, Khorasani insisted, “does not hide its relationship with Iran!”
Khorasani does not name the organization Lubnani belonged to, but it is possible he was once a member of Hezbollah or an affiliated group. As a native of Lebanon, Lubnani could have belonged to an Iranian proxy in his home country before converting to Sunni Islam, joining al Qaeda and eventually defecting to the Islamic State.
Khorasani also wrote that Lubnani had left the Islamic State since he was interviewed by Al Naba, implying that he had problems with Baghdadi’s men as well.
US Terror Designations Have Targeted Al Qaeda’s Network inside Iran
Lubnani’s testimony regarding al Qaeda’s hub inside Iran has been corroborated by an independent source: the US government.
Since July 2011, the US Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly targeted al Qaeda’s facilitation network inside Iran by sanctioning its key leaders.
On July 28, 2011, Treasury designated six members of the network, including the jihadist who was overseeing it at the time: Yasin al Suri. Treasury described Suri as “a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator, operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Treasury and State have exposed various aspects of the network on multiple occasions in the years that followed. [For more, see LWJ’s reports on al Qaeda’s network inside Iran.]
The most curious aspect of the Iran-al Qaeda deal is that the two are at odds in Syria and elsewhere. Yet, according to the US government, al Qaeda’s leaders have used the Iranian pipeline to shuttle cash and fighters from various destinations through Turkey and into Syria. The jihadists then join Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
Al Nusrah seeks to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime. Al Qaeda’s men also regularly fight Iranian forces and Iran’s proxies. This raises a key question: Why has Iran allowed al Qaeda to continue operating its network even as the two are at war in Syria?
Lubnani provided an answer.
“Although it might seem odd coming from me to say that Iran permitted the passage of fighters to Sham, despite the fact that they are going to fight its army, its militias, and its allies there, this is the reality, for Iran’s biggest concern is that no operations happen on its soil,” Lubnani told Al Naba.
Lubnani said that Iran has “secured the loyalty of al Qaeda” by hosting the “majority” of al Qaeda’s leaders in its lands. Some of them, like Atiyah Abd al Rahman, have been allowed to travel “freely.” Rahman, who served as Osama bin Laden’s chief of staff, was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011. The Treasury Department noted weeks before Rahman’s death that he had previously served as “al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.”
Lubnani also mentioned the presence of Saif al Adel and Abu Mohammed al Masri inside Iran. In 2015, both Adel and Masri were reportedly freed in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al Qaeda operatives inside Yemen.
“These [al Qaeda] leaders have not acknowledged the Rafidah [Shiites] as infidels and they even eat their slaughtered meat,” Lubnani told Al Naba. “Moreover, some of them consider [the Iranians] friends or allies in the war against America, and Iran further expects to benefit from al Qaeda by putting pressure on America and its allies, the tyrants of the Gulf States.”
Lubnani pointed to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB), which he said Iran has supported. The AAB supposedly “split from al Qaeda” after “executing an operation that targeted an oil tanker in the Arab Gulf a few years back.”
Lubnani was likely referring to the AAB’s July 2010 attack on a Japanese oil tanker, the M. Star, in the Strait of Hormuz.
More than three years later, in November 2013, the AAB launched twin suicide attacks outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. As The Long War Journal reported at the time, this may have been a form of blowback. Multiple reports indicated that the AAB had its own network inside Iran in the years beforehand.
Al Qaeda’s “Two Lines of Operation” In Syria
There are additional interesting nuggets in Lubnani’s testimony. He confirmed that al Qaeda’s senior leadership rejected the Islamic State’s Manhaj, or methodology, for waging jihad. It is well known that al Qaeda’s leadership criticized Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his successors, who founded the Islamic State, for their indiscriminate attacks on Shiites. Lubnani noted that al Qaeda’s leaders “were rejecting the Manhaj of the mujahidin in Iraq even before the establishment of the State.” He also said that al Qaeda’s senior leadership privately believed it was premature to declare an Islamic nation in Iraq, given that the whole country was in a state of war at the time. The Islamic State of Iraq was formally declared in 2006.
Lubnani’s version of events actually cuts against the Islamic State’s anti-al Qaeda arguments in important ways. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men often claim that they represent the true legacy of Osama bin Laden and that al Qaeda, under Ayman al Zawahiri’s leadership, has supposedly deviated from its original manhaj. As Lubnani explained, however, the disagreements began during bin Laden’s time, even though the Islamic State of Iraq remained a part of al Qaeda’s network.
According to Lubnani, al Qaeda did not want to repeat the Islamic State of Iraq’s “experience” in Syria, meaning they didn’t want to declare an emirate in Syria or follow the same Manhaj that was employed there.
Lubnani said that al Qaeda followed “two lines of operation” to thwart the Islamic State’s plans early on in the Syrian war.
“The first was with Ahrar al Sham, through which Abu Khalid al Suri was working with them [al Qaeda], communicating with Zawahiri and informing him of the situation,” Lubnani told Al Naba.
Al Qaeda also named Abu Maryam al-Azdi “to act as al Qaeda’s representative to Ahrar al Sham,” but he was arrested, preventing them from carrying out this part of the plan.
The leadership in South Asia counted on Abu Khalid al Suri to groom factions to work with al Qaeda. Suri “was in touch with al Qaeda leadership in Khurasan” and he “was conveying to them the news of what was happening in Sham,” Lubnani explained.
Suri “incited” against the Islamic State’s fighters, demanding that al Qaeda’s leadership “work on expelling them from Sham,” so that they would “return to Iraq.” This is, in fact, the course Ayman al Zawahiri pursued.
Zawahiri “was hoping that the work of Abu Khalid al Suri in leading Ahrar al Sham would bring al Qaeda closer to the factions,” Lubnani said. Zawahiri asked Suri “in one of his letters to gather the factions and seek their promise to cooperate with al Qaeda.” But Suri refused, “claiming that the situation did not permit it or that the time was not suitable.” Still, Suri was still doing al Qaeda’s bidding.
While Suri was working within Ahrar al Sham, al Qaeda was simultaneously pursuing another lane, “infiltrating” the Islamic State’s “effective group in Sham,” meaning Al Nusrah Front.
Abdullah al Adam, the organization’s intelligence chief (who was killed in April 2013), also began “sending cadres from al Qaeda in Khorasan to Sham,” preparing “for the movement of first tier al Qaeda leaders to Sham.”
“Zawahiri’s plan,” according to Lubnani, was to take control of Al Nusrah, which began as the Islamic State’s Syrian wing, and then merge it into Ahrar al Sham’s “model.” Lubnani likely means that Zawahiri wanted to create a single jihadist entity focused on the Syrian war.
“This did not take place because of the killing of Abu Khalid al Suri, who was the leader of the project of bringing both al Qaeda and Ahrar al Sham together,” Lubnani said. Indeed, Suri was killed by the Islamic State in February 2014; just weeks after al Qaeda’s general command disowned Baghdadi’s organization. The Long War Journal first reported that Suri was embedded in Ahrar al Sham in Dec. 2013.
The deaths of other senior al Qaeda leaders also helped prevent Zawahiri’s scheme from becoming successful, Lubnani told Al Naba. Some al Qaeda members in Syria joined Jund al Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group, because of personality conflicts.
While parts of Lubnani’s story are influenced by the Islamic State’s spin, much of it rings true and can be verified by other sources.
It remains to be seen if Lubnani surfaces again in the Islamic State’s media, or if he has already left the “caliphate,” as Khorasani alleged.