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Al-Shihri (Associated Press/SITE Intelligence Group)

Desperation or new life?

War on Terror | A single al-Qaida group forms on the Arabian Peninsula

The media wing of one of al-Qaida's Yemeni franchises, al-Qaida in Yemen, released a statement on online jihadist forums Jan. 20 from the group's leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, announcing the formation of a single al-Qaida group for the Arabian Peninsula under his command. According to al-Wuhayshi, the new group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, would consist of his former group (al-Qaida in Yemen) as well as members of the now-defunct Saudi al-Qaida franchise.

The press release noted that the Saudi militants have pledged allegiance to al-Wuhayshi, an indication that the reorganization was not a merger of equals. This is understandable, given that the jihadists in Yemen have been active recently while their Saudi counterparts have not conducted a meaningful attack in years. The announcement also related that a Saudi national (and former Guantanamo detainee) identified as Abu-Sayyaf al-Shihri has been appointed as al-Wuhayshi's deputy. In some ways, this is similar to the way Ayman al-Zawahiri and his faction of Egyptian Islamic Jihad swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and were integrated in to al-Qaida prime.

While not specifically mentioned, the announcement of a single al-Qaida entity for the entire Arabian Peninsula and the unanimous support by jihadist militants on the Arabian Peninsula for al-Wuhayshi suggests the new organization will incorporate elements of the other al-Qaida franchise in Yemen, the Yemen Soldiers Brigade.

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The announcement also provided links to downloadable versions of the latest issue of the group's online magazine, Sada al-Malahim, (Arabic for "The Echo of Battle"). The Web page links provided to download the magazine also featured trailers advertising the pending release of a new video from the group, now referred to by its new name, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The translated name of this new organization sounds very similar to the old Saudi al-Qaida franchise, the al-Qaida Organization in the Arabian Peninsula (in Arabic, "Tandheem al-Qaida fi Jazeerat al-Arabiyah"). But the new group's new Arabic name, Tanzim Qa'idat al-Jihad fi Jazirat al-Arab, is slightly different. The addition of "al-Jihad" seems to have been influenced by the Iraqi al-Qaida franchise, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn. The flag of the Islamic State of Iraq also appears in the Jan. 24 video, further illustrating the deep ties between the newly announced organization and al-Qaida in Iraq. Indeed, a number of Yemeni militants traveled to Iraq to fight, and these returning al-Qaida veterans have played a large part in the increased sophistication of militant attacks in Yemen over the past year.

Four days after the Jan. 20 announcement, links for a 19-minute video from the new group titled "We Start from Here and We Will Meet at al-Aqsa" began to appear in jihadist corners of cyberspace. Al-Aqsa refers to the al-Aqsa Mosque on what Jews know as Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as Al Haram Al Sharif. The video threatens Muslim leaders in the region (whom it refers to as criminal tyrants), including Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Saudi royal family, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It also threatens so-called "crusader forces" supporting the regional Muslim leaders, and promises to carry the jihad from the Arabian Peninsula to Israel so as to liberate Muslim holy sites and brethren in Gaza.

An interview with al-Wuhayshi aired Jan. 27 on Al Jazeera echoed these sentiments. During the interview, al-Wuhayshi noted that the "crusades" against "Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia" have been launched from bases in the Arabian Peninsula, and that because of this, "all crusader interests" in the peninsula "should be struck."

A different take on events

Most of the analysis in Western media regarding the preceding developments has focused on how two former detainees at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, appear in the Jan. 24 video-one of whom was al-Shihri-and that both were graduates of Saudi Arabia's ideological rehabilitation program, a government deprogramming course for jihadists. In addition to al-Shihri who, according to the video was Guantanamo detainee 372, the video also contains a statement from Abu-al-Harith Muhammad al-Awfi. Al-Awfi, who was identified as a field commander in the video, was allegedly former Guantanamo detainee 333. Prisoner lists from Guantanamo obtained by Stratfor appear to confirm that al-Shihri was in fact Guantanamo detainee No. 372. We did not find al-Awfi's name on the list, however, another name appears as detainee No. 333. Given the proclivity of jihadists to use fraudulent identities, it is entirely possible that al-Awfi is an alias, or that he was held at Guantanamo under an assumed name. At any rate, we doubt al-Awfi would fabricate this claim and then broadcast it in such a public manner.

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