By Sherrie Gossett
CNSNews.com Staff Writer
December 16, 2005
(CNSNews.com) – The reported killing of a senior al Qaeda operative by a CIA-launched missile in Pakistan on Dec. 1 has sparked debate among terrorism experts over the true identity of the target and the accuracy of numerical rankings that the Pentagon and White House have attached to other captured or killed terrorists.
Some say the rankings represent public relations run amok, while others say they prove that the U.S. continues to rely on faulty Pakistani intelligence.
On Dec. 3, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told reporters that Abu Hamza Rabia had been killed in an explosion two days earlier. An aide to Musharraf told reporters that Rabia was "very important in al Qaeda, maybe number three or five" in the terror group’s hierarchy. Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao added that Rabia’s death was a "big blow to al Qaeda."
Several American news organizations, including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, then quoted multiple, unnamed U.S. intelligence officials as saying that Rabia was al Qaeda’s number-three man, the operational commander or military commander, all terms typically used interchangeably. Headlines around the world trumpeted the death of the "al Qaeda number three man"
Last weekend, Stephen Hadley, national security advisor to President Bush, appeared on CNN and Fox News Sunday, describing Rabia as "the chief operational planner for al Qaeda," who had been "involved in planning attacks against the United States."
But the day before Hadley’s appearances, terrorism expert and author Christopher L. Brown was labeling it all a case of mistaken identity. Rabia was wanted for plotting to assassinate Musharraf, Brown said, was probably a local senior member of al Qaeda, but was far from being its military mastermind.
Brown, a researcher with a Washington think tank, has briefed members of Congress and senior administration officials on key threats, and he has prepared testimony and briefing materials for officials at the Department of Defense, State Department, CIA, National Security Council and the White House.
Rabia has never appeared on the FBI’s "Most Wanted Terrorists" list and no known reward has been posted for his capture, Brown points out.
A LexisNexis database search turns up no news articles written about Rabia prior to his reported killing, except for an Aug. 18, 2004, announcement by the Pakistani government of a reward for his capture and that of six other al Qaeda suspects accused of attempting to assassinate President Musharraf on Dec. 14 and 25, 2003.
The ‘real’ al Qaeda number three, Brown contends, is Saif al-Adel (also known as Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi), who was previously reported by numerous independent sources to have become al Qaeda’s chief of the military committee (operational commander) following the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003.
Unlike Rabia, al-Adel and his ranking are mentioned in numerous news articles, briefings and even in congressional testimony. On May 20, 2003, Reuters quoted terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna as saying that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s arrest elevated al-Adel because he was "the most competent man" and "extraordinarily bright." Gunaratna also pointed out that as a "highly structured organization," Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda "would have made a point of formally appointing a successor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."
Saif al-Adel is also still listed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list with a $5 million reward offered for his apprehension. Al-Adel is suspected of having trained some of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers and has been linked to the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The U.S. has sought al-Adel since his alleged involvement in the training of Somali rebels, who killed 18 U.S. servicemen in Mogadishu in the notorious ‘Blackhawk Down’ incident in October 1993.
In March of 2005 Jordanian analyst Bassam al-Baddarin wrote of al Qaeda’s "2020" plan, which outlined the vision of the "strategic brain" of the group — Saif al-Adel. The "2020" plan made world headlines.
Al-Adel’s Iranian connection
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the battle at Tora Bora, some al Qaeda fighters, including al-Adel, were reported to have fled to Iran.
"We began to converge on Iran one after the other," Saif al-Adel recalled in a recent book by an Egyptian journalist. "The fraternal brothers in the peninsula of the Arabs, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan, had already arrived … We set up a central leadership and working groups …"
Brown said Iran’s announcement that it "seized" al-Adel in May 2003 was not credible. He pointed to another report in a London Arabic daily newspaper that quoted Iranian sources and indicated that al-Adel and his al Qaeda cohorts left Iran following the May 12, 2003, bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and headed for the triple border area of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In June 2005, the German investigative magazine Cicero, known for its intelligence contacts, reported that about 25 al Qaeda leaders, including al-Adel and three of bin Laden’s sons were running terrorist operations from their refuge in Iran, where they were provided safe haven, logistical support and equipment by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Soon after the reports of the CIA missile attack on Abu Hamza Rabia, Iran’s top intelligence official announced that "there are no al-Qaeda leaders inside Iran.
"We do have a long border with Afghanistan and when the Americans bombed the country, some people crossed this area, but we extradited them or sent them back," the Iranian official added.
Dan Darling, consultant for the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism, has also asserted that Saif al-Adel is "the real al Qaeda No. 3." And the Israeli intelligence group, DEBKA File, reported that "[Rabia] is not a member of al Qaeda’s high command and certainly was not Osama bin Laden’s Number Three."
When questioned about Rabia, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey told Cybercast News Service that he had never heard of the man.
On Dec. 5, the well-known Indian terrorism expert B. Raman, sent Cybercast News Service an analysis stating that the reported killing of Rabia was "mired in contradictions," including the fact that no body had been recovered. Raman is the former head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing in India’s external intelligence agency.
Still another al Qaeda number three official
Raman also referenced Abu Faraj al-Libbi, another terrorist previously described by Pakistani intelligence, then U.S. officials, as al Qaeda’s third ranking official when he was captured in May of this year. "[W]hile the FBI did not believe that Abu Faraj and Rabia were that highly placed in Al Qaeda, the CIA rated both of them as among the top planners of Al Qaeda." Raman noted.
Raman reported that before the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Rabia was trained by Midhat Mursi (aka Abu Khabab), another Egyptian, in an Afghan camp to do research and development on chemical and biological weapons, particularly toxins. "[This] was not highlighted by the Pakistani authorities in their media briefing," Raman said.
On Dec. 5, the global intelligence firm Stratfor reported that neither Rabia nor Abu Faraj al-Libbi were likely the masterminds Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies made them out to be. "It is more likely that these individuals, rather than being third in command of the jihadist network, were high-level leaders involved in day-to-day operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan," the Stratfor report stated.
"The Pakistanis would have an interest in propagating the notion that al Qaeda’s third-highest ranking member was killed. By assigning a high value to Rabia, Islamabad can placate Washington by showing progress and cooperation in the war on terrorism," according to Stratfor.
"The Pakistani officials [previously] stated that they were not aware of the involvement of Abu Faraj [al-Libbi] in any act of jihadi terrorism outside the Pakistan-Afghanistan region," Raman noted. "They were unable to explain why they projected him as the international operational head of Al Qaeda when there was no evidence of his role in any terrorist strike outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region."
Why the confusion?
What Rabia and al-Libbi have in common is they both targeted Pakistani President Musharraf for assassination, said Brown.
"The truth is Pakistan is yanking our chain on al Qaeda and getting America and the CIA to eliminate threats to their regime," he added. The elimination of lower level leaders or threats to Musharraf is "not necessarily a bad thing," but relying on Pakistani intelligence to rank al Qaeda members "puts us in potential danger."
Saif al-Adel is believed to still be operating today and remains listed on the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists.
When questioned about the doubts raised by terrorism experts, a CIA spokesperson told Cybercast News Service that "these titles are somewhat fluid.
"This is not uncommon to have disagreements over titles. Number three is certainly applicable. It’s certainly where we came down on it, but there [are] always disagreements among academics and think tanks. Not necessarily everyone agrees. If it’s more comfortable, you can use ‘senior’ and ‘certainly planning operations.’"
When asked whether Rabia had been planning international or local operations, the CIA spokesperson declined comment.
When asked to comment on Saif al-Adel’s current status, she also declined comment. "We don’t usually comment until after they’re gone."
Jean-Charles Brisard disagrees with those who doubt the roles of Rabia and al-Libbi in the al Qaeda hierarchy. Brisard is a well-known terrorism financing investigator and chief investigator in the lawsuit filed by the family members of the victims in the 9/11 attacks. He is also the author of "Zarqawi: the New Face of Al-Qaeda," a book praised for its first-hand information about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terror mastermind in Iraq.
"Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) had two principal lieutenants," Brisard said, "Abu Hamza Rabia for external operations and Abu Faraj al-Libbi for the Pakistani-Afghan operations. This is why I refuted at the time that al Libbi had replaced KSM and played the same role."
Brisard said that based on various intelligence sources with whom he has consulted, Rabia was actually a protege and confidant of the undisputed number two man in al Qaeda — Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"Zawahiri was the one who insisted in naming [Rabia] as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s deputy," Brisard said. "According to interrogations of al-Libbi, [Rabia] maintained a direct contact with Zawahiri for planning and operations. He was a high value target, a key al Qaeda member and one of the few who interacted between the al Qaeda historical leaders and foreign cells, and surely not someone we can downgrade to a simple ‘ground commander.’"
Terrorism expert and author Evan F. Kohlmann, however, believes that the whole Pentagon and White House practice of assigning numeric rankings to terrorists "doesn’t make any sense.
"This is the reality. We really don’t know who the number three is," said Kohlmann. "Even when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in charge of al Qaeda’s military wing, was he number three in the organization? There’s no way to quantify that."
Since Mohammed’s capture, al Qaeda’s structure has become "more nebulous," Kohlmann asserted. "It’s not even clear what the precise role of bin Laden’s son is.
"This isn’t a Fortune 500 company with clearly defined roles. It’s more like the mafia. You shoot up in the organization by violence, by inspiring fear and respect in others," Kohlmann said.
"That’s the problem of the numbers game. It’s a way to sell a story to media. But people wind up then doubting credible information coming from the military, for example," he added. "This is a PR guy’s dream, turned nightmare."