The South Asia Channel

New kid on the block: An al-Qaeda leader ascends

New kid on the block: An al-Qaeda leader ascends

The last two years have not been kind to al-Qaeda Central (AQC). U.S. drone strikes over Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal regions have decimated its leadership ranks, killing a number of senior operational leaders and ideologues. These killings have eroded the ability of AQC and the transnational Sunni jihadi current to propagate its message.  Despite these losses, however, AQC still has a number of charismatic voices that it is able to, and frequently does, deploy.  One of these is the group’s chief juridical voice, Abu Yahya al-Libi. A second is the Kuwaiti preacher Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, a much lesser-known ideologue who has played an increasingly prominent role in AQC’s media productions since his debut in an often comedic "quiet dialogue." This "dialogue" was actually a rhetorical monologue aimed at U.S. president Barack Obama, released by the group’s al-Sahab Media Foundation in August 2009.   

Since then, al-Husaynan has emerged as both the spiritual guide to AQC’s armed cadres in the AfPak region and the group’s missionary ambassador tasked with wooing new recruits from abroad. These roles have been emphasized in his repeated appearances in al-Sahab’s Diary of a Mujahid video series, which presents a holistic picture of the jihadi-guerilla lifestyle by showing jihadis engaged in military attacks, physical and doctrinal education, and leisure activities such as fishing. The Diary of a Mujahid series highlights the important but often neglected social aspects of "mujahideen" life, through which bonds are created among jihadis, reinforcing the group’s ideology and dedication. Al-Husaynan has appeared more frequently in a quasi-military capacity, filmed with firearms delivering lectures and sermons in the field to AQC’s frontline troops, emphasizing his role as a "mujahid" or warrior theologian and missionary preacher. The publication of several of his essays and full-length books on weighty theological and juridical topics by the al-Fajr Media Center, the shadowy media network that coordinates the online distribution of all media materials produced by AQC, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), solidified his credentials as a jihadi juridical voice and religious scholar.

Unlike Abu Yahya, al-Husaynan has not attracted a significant amount of attention from scholars and analysts — with a couple of notable exceptions — despite being one of the most vocal advocates for the transnational jihadi missionary campaign. While it is true that AQC’s operational and media abilities have been significantly hampered by its recent losses, the group retains prominent voices, such as al-Husaynan’s, urging Muslims around the world to support its "jihad" against the U.S. and its allies and regional clients in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. These voices should not be ignored by al-Qaeda analysts because they continue to provide a valuable window into the ideological machinations of a certainly weakened, but still living transnational militant movement.

In addition to his personable oratorical style, which runs the gamut between fire-and-brimstone preaching to (more frequently) a conversational tone, al-Husaynan is also able to deploy his credentials as a religious scholar and preacher prior to his joining AQC. The transnational jihadi current suffers from a relatively small number of bona fide religious scholars (‘ulama), and the presence of ideologues such as al-Husaynan enables it to claim much-needed juridical and theological cover for its actions. Specifically, jihadis are able to use voices of "frontline scholars" (‘ulama al-thughur) such as al-Husaynan to counter the criticisms of AQC and its sister groups by other, more mainstream, ‘ulama, such as the Saudi Salafi scholar Salman al-‘Awda. 

A former preacher employed by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, al-Husaynan began his formal religious education in 1986 with a number of prominent Saudi Salafi scholars, including the prominent Saudi jihadi-Salafi scholar Suleyman al-‘Ulwan, who has been imprisoned since April 28, 2004, and the mainstream Saudi Salafi jurist Muhammad al-‘Uthaymin, one of the most influential Salafi scholars in modern history. The Kuwaiti ideologue provided a detailed sketch of his educational and biographical background in a lengthy interview with Hittin, an Urdu-language jihadi Internet magazine named after a famous battle in which the medieval Muslim ruler Saladin defeated the army of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187, which was published in the January issue. 

Information posted online by al-Husaynan’s supporters sheds additional light on his biographical background.  After graduating with a degree in theology from Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Saudi Arabia, he worked as a prayer leader (imam) and preacher at the mosque of the Sa‘d al-Abdullah Academy for Security Sciences, an institution which is responsible for training Kuwaiti police officers. He later worked at a number of other mosques controlled by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs where has was a popular preacher and a prolific writer of religious pamphlets on issues such as supplicatory prayers (du‘a), the Day of Judgment, and women’s issues. Even at this point in his career, al-Husaynan was known for employing humor in his lectures in order to better connect to his audience.  The preacher emphasized his use of humor as a means for reaching out to Muslim youth, which he identifies as the primary target of his and other Kuwaiti preachers’ missionary work, in his Hittin interview. 

By the mid-1990s, he was a vocal advocate for Muslim fighters, or "mujahideen," presumably in places such as Chechnya and Bosnia.  At this time in his life, al-Husaynan worked with the Salafi Movement of Kuwait, whose spokesman, Fahid al-Haylam, is quoted by al-Husaynan’s supporters as having described him as a "missionary man" who was active in the organization of religious seminars for students at summer camps.  Al-Husaynan was eventually removed from his position as an imam and preacher (khatib) at the academy’s mosque because of fears that he would influence the cadets politically, and he was moved at a mosque in Bilqis in the Jalib region. In either 2006 or 2007, al-Husaynan left Kuwait to travel to the "battlefields of jihad" in Afghanistan, the land of "glory and pride."  The date he gives in his Hittin interview is the Islamic lunar year 1427, which corresponds to the Gregorian years 2006 and the beginning of 2007. 

Al-Husaynan’s emergence as an AQC ideologue was slow but steady.  In November 2009, al-Sahab released a video recording of his sermon for the Eid al-Fitr, the holiday ending the month of Ramadan, in which the preacher’s demeanor was no longer as cartoonish as in parts of his August debut.  Throughout Ramadan the following year al-Sahab released a series of brief, daily video lectures by al-Husaynan on a variety of issues ranging from proper belief (‘aqida) and theology to ritual practice and the proper behavior of a pious Muslim.  Some of the lectures included references to political and ideological topics, such as one on the signs of hypocrisy, which include, according to the preacher, backbiting against the "mujahideen." 

In October 2010 al-Husaynan, who is known in jihadi circles by the nom de guerre Abu Zayd al-Kuwaiti, was referenced briefly in the fifth installment of al-Sahab’s masterfully produced martyrology video series The Wind of Paradise, which chronicles the life stories of AQC fighters and leaders killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In April 2011 the series of video "propagation lessons" (al-durus al-da‘iyya) that began with the Ramadan 2010 lecture series continued, and a month later al-Husaynan was being referred to by a new title, the "missionary" or "propagating" sheikh (al-sheikh al-da‘iyya), the same title used in AQAP’s media to describe the role of the militant American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. 

Al-Husaynan has undeniably become one of AQC’s most frequently broadcast ideological voices and his importance to the group is likely to only increase with the thinning of the group’s ranks of ideologues over the past two years. Despite the fact that al-Sahab has steadily pushed al-Husaynan to the forefront of its media campaign since late 2009, his impact on the broader transnational Sunni jihadi current is unclear. Measuring influence in the jihadi universe is difficult, but one way is to see who is quoted by other jihadi groups in different geographical areas of operation and how often they are quoted. Unlike Abu Yahya, ‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi, Usama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Husaynan is not yet quoted frequently by jihadi movements such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia and  the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or even AQIM and AQAP. Cyber artwork produced independently by online jihadis is another indicator and a field of jihadi media that the author has followed closely for several years. Al-Husaynan has only recently appeared in such artwork. While this uncertainty as to al-Husaynan’s standing within the broader jihadi current should be considered, his promotion by AQC itself and the increasingly prominent role he has played in the group’s recent media productions are compelling reasons to pay attention to his contributions to contemporary jihadi thought and discourse.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.