The Ghost of Abu Yahya

The memory of the al Qaeda commander known as "the next Osama" lives on in a remote Libyan village.

Harald Doornbos
Harald Doornbos

For more photos of the isolated Libyan village that reared Aby Yahu al-Libi, click here. 

TESAWA, Libya – The stretch of Libyan desert finally comes to an end, as palm trees and herds of goats announce life in an oasis town. Mustafa, the nephew of al Qaeda’s former second in command, sits in the passenger seat of a white four by four. "Welcome," he says, sipping from a bottle of water, "This is Tesawa."

Tesawa lies roughly 500 miles south of Libya’s capital Tripoli — far removed from the convulsions that have seized the country since Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall. With Niger and Algeria less than 200 miles away, this is the heart of the Sahara. It is a region inhabited primarily by Arab tribes and an ethnic Tuareg minority that doesn’t lack for three things: sand, traditions, and hospitality. It is also the hometown of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the former al Qaeda commander whose star in the organization rose quickly due to his talent for both oratory and jihad.

Abu Yahya — whose real name, his family says, is Al Hussain Muhammad Qayed — spent the first 21 years of his life here. He then spent his last two decades abroad, first traveling to Mauritania and Sudan before eventually arriving in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he joined the ranks of al Qaeda. He was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but escaped from Bagram Air Base in 2005. He rocketed to fame following his jailbreak, achieving such prominence that some Western counterterrorism analysts even dubbed him "the next Osama."

In the back of the car lies a Kalashnikov — "you never know here in the desert," our young, bearded driver provided by Abu Yahya’s family explains. Another weapon is lodged between the driver seat and the gearbox, next to a chicken sandwich. Mustafa, 30, connects his cell phone via Bluetooth to the car stereo and plays one of Abu Yahya’s speeches. "Look," he says after the clip ends, holding up his arm. "His words always give me goose bumps."

Mustafa — who remembers his uncle as a soccer-loving youngster rooting for Brazil in the World Cup — will never hear the real voice of Abu Yahya again. On June 5, the White House announced that Abu Yahya was killed in a drone strike a day earlier in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan’s tribal area. Comments from al Qaeda leaders themselves would soon confirm the news. But Abu Yahya’s memory lives on in this town, which views its most famous son with admiration — even as residents make clear that they have no intention of following his violent path.

Like al Qaeda’s version of Elvis, many seem unable to shake the belief that Abu Yahya is still alive and well. Rumors that he escaped the drone strike have taken on a life of their own in the past month. Various al Qaeda affiliated websites have claimed that Abu Yahya escaped — promising to air videos, which never emerged, showing that the organization’s second-in-command lives on.

Abu Yahya’s family, however, knows better. The 55-year old Abu Bakr Qayed, his eldest brother, sits under a tree at the family farm. "Yes, my brother Abu Yahya al-Libi was martyred in Pakistan," he says, confirming Abu Yahya’s death for the first time to a journalist. He attributes the news to "a reliable source" in Pakistan.

Abu Yahya’s death did not come as a surprise to his family. "The moment Osama Bin Laden was killed, I cried for my brother," Abu Bakr explains. "Because if they can get the leader they for sure can get all the others."

Family members said their goodbyes to Abu Yahya in a ceremony at their small compound last month, Abu Bakr says. Male villagers visited to pay their respects to Abu Yahya’s male relatives, and verses from the Quran were read out. There was no body — Abu Bakr assumes his brother is buried "somewhere in Pakistan."

While the men of the family gathered for the mourning ceremony, Abu Yahya’s Mauritanian wife, Tutu Bent Abdul Rahman — who other family members refer as Umm Yahya, or "mother of Yahya" – was secluded in one of the family’s houses. She will remain there for a period of four months and 10 days, in accordance with a strict interpretation of Islamic law. During this period she is not allowed to meet any man, including male family members of her husband.

Abu Yahya’s death marks the latest tribulation of what has been a difficult life for Umm Yahya. She and her two sons and daughter — 18-year old Yahya, 15-year old Karima, and 12-year old Osama — waited 11 years in Mauritania for the return of Abu Yahya, whose journeys to Pakistan and Afghanistan drew unwanted government attention. "I was often checked by Mauritanian intelligence," she claims, "It was a very hard time."

Under Qaddafi’s reign, Abu Yahya’s wife and children were unable to join his family here in Tesawa — the Libyan despot harbored an abiding hostility to Islamists after fundamentalist groups threatened his rule during the 1990s. But with Libya in chaos after Qaddafi’s fall, the coast was clear, and so the widow and her three children moved to the Tesawa compound during the summer of 2011.

According to Umm Yahya, she had sparing contact with her husband during his years abroad.

"While waiting 11 years for my husband he contacted me once every year or two years by phone or by SMS," she confesses. "He would tell me to be brave and to wait and to have faith in jihad. This was not easy, of course."

But while Umm Yahya was waiting for Abu Yahya, the al Qaeda commander wasn’t necessarily waiting for her. "We have found out that Abu Yahya also got married in Pakistan," Abu Bakr, the eldest brother, whispers later. "He has a wife there and a daughter named Asmaa. The wife is pregnant. We are trying to move her to Tesawa because we are her family now."

Abu Bakr now suggests a little drive through the village to see the landmarks of Abu Yahya’s life. First stop: A ruin made of stones and mud, destroyed by time and harsh weather. "This is where Abu Yahya was born," he says, pointing to a destroyed room in what was once a house.

Abu Bakr continues on foot, passing some of his goats, sheep, and many palm trees. He stayed in Tesawa, he says, because "I had to take care of my parents." He says he wishes his brother never left the town: "I would be happy if he would have stayed. Marry, start a family, work the fields, behave like the others."

Nevertheless, he understands why Abu Yahya chose a different path.

"[In Qaddafi’s Libya], if you kept a beard you were labeled an extremist and could be arrested," he explains. "Many people were prosecuted by these secular regimes in the Middle East. There was no space to breath inside Libya and the Arab world. So [Abu Yahya and people like him] left abroad and vowed to bring down those regimes. There is a saying in Arabic: Suppression creates explosion."

"But let us not forget," says Abu Bakr, now with fire in his voice. "That we — his family — cannot be frowned upon because of the actions of our brother, our husband, or our father. Abu Yahya was responsible for his own actions, just like we are responsible for ours."

With that, Abu Bakr starts his car and we drive through town to a yellow concrete building that served as Abu Yahya’s elementary school. Inside, its walls are lined with various religious texts — as well as a drawing of Sponge Bob and Tom & Jerry figures made of cardboard.

Al Mahdi Abu Bakr, who now works as a teacher here, remembers Abu Yahya from their days as classmates at the school. "He was a very smart guy," he says. "He advised us on religious issues related to prayers and fasting."

On a table in the hall lays a large book containing a long list of names — a record of everyone who went to school here. Abu Bakr locates his brother’s name and proudly points at the comment written next to it. "Excellent student," it says.

When Abu Bakr drives back to the house, it is too late to leave Tesawa. Crossing the desert by night would be dangerous. Without any hesitation, the family offers a place to sleep. They also share their dinner with us: A large bowl of beans with camel intestines and sides of chicken, bread, and grapes.

Yahya, the eldest son of the slain al Qaeda commander, serves dinner. He has a friendly face, but appears timid — he doesn’t speak much, turning instead to the TV, where he watches a repeat of soccer matches from the 2012 Euro Cup.

His younger brother Osama is livelier, but seems torn between conflicting emotions. He laughs upon being handed a camera — snapping pictures and claiming he wants to be a journalist. But during gloomier moments, he stands up and delivers speeches the way his father once did. Lifting one finger into the air, the 12-year-old speaks with a heavy voice about Islam, the Muslim ummah ("community"), and the battle against the unbelievers. Osama says he wants to become a fighter, a mujahid just like his father. But when asked about his father, his emotions swing again. He starts crying, and mumbles a question: "Father, why did you leave us, why did you go away?"

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