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The War of Words Between AQAP’s Bomb-Maker and Al Jazeera

Ibrahim al-Asiri argues the network failed to live up to its journalistic obligations.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 5crop

Ibrahim al-Asiri, an operative for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is internationally recognized as the world’s foremost terrorist bomb-maker. And he isn’t pleased with an Al Jazeera documentary released in June that featured a man describing himself as a former spy inside AQAP alleging that the terrorist group had at times received support from the Yemeni government.

In a statement released late last month, a translation of which was released Tuesday by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadi statements, Asiri attacks the network for what he describes as shoddy journalistic practices. Asiri questions how Al Jazeera, “which claims to be the platform of the free,” could “adopt an entire film from a single source who is an enemy to another party and originally on the ‘intelligence side.’” How, Asiri asks, “is this fair or professional?” The network, Asiri points out, “is not incapable to send someone who can investigate the truth himself.”

The documentary in question, Al Qaeda Informant, is based on the testimony of Hani Mujahid, a Yemeni who claims to have trained in Afghanistan with al Qaeda before 9/11. Facing the ensuing U.S. invasion of Afghanistan a month later, Mujahid says he fled with the terror group to Pakistan, where he claims to have been arrested and interrogated before being released and returning to Yemen. There, he made contact with militants and was eventually recruited as an informant for the government in Sanaa.

Mujahid alleges that the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, which fell during the Arab Spring uprisings, played a double game with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in order to secure support from the United States. Mujahid claims that Saleh and his lieutenants on the one hand pledged their support to the United States in the fight against AQAP, while at the same time giving the group covert support. Boosting the group while also claiming to fight it allowed Saleh to push the United States for increased aid to the Middle East’s poorest country.

The allegations presented by Mujahid are potentially explosive for both AQAP and the former members of the Saleh government. As Mujahid tells it, the Saleh regime funneled cash and even explosives to the group to launch attacks on U.S. interests in Yemen, including a bombing on the U.S. embassy in 2008. Mujahid claims that an intelligence official in Saleh’s inner circle personally met with AQAP’s military commander, who Mujahid alleges was also a spy for the government.

Claims that the Saleh government turned a blind eye and perhaps even supported AQAP are not as outrageous as they might sound. Such rumors have long circulated and some in the U.S. government have questioned whether the Saleh government fully cooperated with Washington in combating al Qaeda in Yemen. “U.S. officials say they long understood that Saleh was a fickle partner against AQAP, and that he and his loyalists in the security services had at times kept former jihadi fighters on their payroll and misused U.S. counterterrorism aid to fight their own domestic enemies,” Evan Hill and Laura Kasinof reported for Foreign Policy earlier this year. “They also maintain that, when it mattered, he sincerely fought against AQAP members who threatened the United States.”

But according to Asiri, Mujahid’s allegations are part of an elaborate plot by the United States to discredit AQAP and sow dissension within its ranks. Asiri questions why the Yemeni authorities would have revealed the presence of one spy in his organization to another and what motives Mujahid might have in going public with his story.

“A regular man with full mental strength cannot believe this weak and crumbling structure,” Asiri said in his statement. “As for Al Jazeera, we say to the neutral journalists and broadcasters in it, and to holders of integrity and professionalism among them, to deny whoever wants the channel to enter into the ‘dirty war of Obama’ and to be responsible for its consequences.”

Asiri also denied Mujahid’s claim that he had met with the bomb-maker: “As for his claim that he met me in Marib and he entered into my laboratory, by Allah, O people, how can I reveal my location to a man who returns to the city and could be captured!”

But Asiri’s statement wasn’t all press criticism. He also called on al Qaeda’s affiliates in Mali and Nigeria to carry out attacks inside the United States.

Photo credit: YouTube/Al Jazeera English

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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