Analysts believe that Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Libi is the one poised to succeed Osama bin Laden as leader of al-Qaeda. Although his involvement in terrorist activities stretches back a number of years, Abu Yahya al-Libi’s climb officially began in July 2005, when he escaped from out of Bagram U.S. military prison in Afghanistan. An obscure terrorist at the time of his prison-break, he has since enjoyed a meteoric rise into the senior ranks of al-Qaeda.

Carnegie hosted Jarret Brachman, an al-Qaeda specialist from North Dakota State University, and Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation to discuss Abu Yahya al-Libi, his rise, and the making of al-Qaeda’s new leadership. Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek moderated.

 Abu Yahya’s Story

 Abu Yahya al-Libi has been of interest to counter-terrorism organizations and al-Qaeda experts since before 2006. He was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and was on its Sharia Council. He received formal religious training in Mauritania. Since his escape from Bagram prison in 2005, al-Libi has been increasingly visible in al-Qaeda’s international presence. 

  •  Al-Qaeda media productions present him as a modern thinker, a fighter, and a romantic. Brachman contended that he is being branded as the bin Laden for the new millennium, shown in al-Qaeda videos with a laptop and a rifle. Al-Libi served as the Taliban’s webmaster in 2001.
     
  • He has a particularly strong appeal to al-Qaeda’s young supporters and affiliated organizations, as Fishman explained.
     
  • According to Brachman, religious credentials have given him a reputation as al-Qaeda’s “jurisprudential police chief” and the “religious mapmaker” for al-Qaeda. According to Brachman, he is obsessed with religious purity and believes that the Muslim world has been ruining itself by adopting non-Muslim concepts.

 Al-Libi has also taken up the mantle of defending al-Qaeda, and stands at the forefront of the organization’s intellectual and jurisprudential battles. He was second only to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the intensity of his attacks on Sayyid al-Sharif, a former al-Qaeda leader who, in 2007, wrote a treatise arguing against terrorist activities in the name of jihad.

Rivals

One of al-Libi’s chief contenders for leadership in al-Qaeda is Ayman al-Zawahiri. Fishman argued that al-Zawahiri has an important role in al-Qaeda’s leadership and likely stands closer to the center of al-Qaeda than al-Libi, who analysts believe plays an advisory role to central command.  Brachman added that one big difference between al-Libi and al-Zawahiri is al-Libi’s willingness to engage al-Qaeda’s Muslim critics head on, writing treatises on topics like the murder of Muslims and bending religious interpretation to fit his own views and Al-Qaeda’s interests.

Al-Qaeda Today

Al-Qaeda has undergone some serious shifts in the past few years, transforming itself from a terrorist organization that employs media as a tool to achieve its goals into a media organization that employs terrorism as a tool to achieve its goals. According to Brachman, this can be seen in al-Qaeda’s new logo, which was adopted from its media department, and in the rise of the telegenic al-Libi as its main spokesperson. Al-Qaeda central serves as a media consulting organization for affiliate groups like Al-Shabab of Somalia, and Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.

This media organization has been pushing al-Libi into the public eye. Brachman pointed out that al-Libi’s Eid sermon, which was publicized through photos, showed intentionally blurry photos of what looked like Osama bin Laden in attendance. This may indicate that al-Libi’s stature in al-Qaeda has risen to the point where top ranking leaders of al-Qaeda attend his sermons. On the other hand, the fact that the pictures are blurred implies that those running the media operations prefer it remain ambiguous whether these high-ranking leaders were in attendance or not. 

How to Defeat Al-Qaeda

In what Brachman argued was a strategic blunder, al-Libi himself actually provided a list of six ways that al-Qaeda could be defeated, contending that making this information public would help the organization’s members and supporters defend against such strategies. He argued that al-Qaeda’s enemies would gain ground by:

  1. Providing “backtrackers,” like Sayyid al-Sharif, a platform to spread their message.
     
  2. Fabricating and exaggerating al-Qaeda’s missteps.
     
  3. Supporting anti-Qaeda fatwas. Fatwas by clerics such as the popular Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi have been quite harmful to al-Qaeda.
     
  4. Encouraging new moderate voices in regional Muslim populations, who could articulate the differences between al-Qaeda’s understanding of Islam and the traditions and religion of local populations.
     
  5. Publically degrading jihadi symbols, including by spreading mocking images of jihadi leaders, such as those of Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks who is being held by U.S. authorities.
     
  6. Promoting distinctions and divisions between different branches of Salafism, all of which hold to a strict interpretation of Islam.

Al-Libi represents a new kind of al-Qaeda leader, one who is technologically competent, builds rational arguments without denying mistakes, and has a charismatic presence. His combination of strict religious interpretation and technological savvy appeals to a younger generation of potential recruits. The promotion of al-Libi by the media branch of al-Qaeda suggests that al-Libi may be seen as the successor to Osama bin Laden.