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.
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 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:
- Providing “backtrackers,” like Sayyid al-Sharif, a platform to spread their message.
- Fabricating and exaggerating al-Qaeda’s missteps.
- Supporting anti-Qaeda fatwas. Fatwas by clerics such as the popular Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi have been quite harmful to al-Qaeda.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.