Yesterday, FBI counterterrorism agent Brian LeBlanc said that al-Qaeda leader Adnan el Shukrijumah had become al-Qaeda’s “chief of operations.” Shukrijumah served as part of what once was a three-member council overseeing al-Qaeda’s external operations, including attacks against the West. The deaths of the two other members of the council evidently boosted him within the organization. His familiarity with the West — he lived in New York and Florida and holds a passport from the South American nation of Guyana — also increased his value, giving him the ability to more easily select a wide array of targets, connect with operatives, and move more freely. “Dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and plotters who aimed to blow up the New York City subway and the John F. Kennedy Airport all had ties to Shukrijumah, who may also have been associated with hijacker Mohammed Atta prior to 9/11.
In a July 12 piece on the rollup of al-Qaeda-linked operatives in the U.S., U.K., Norway, and Germany, I described how these factors had accelerated Shukrijumah’s rise:
Two other individuals reportedly served alongside [al-Qaeda leader Saleh al] Somali [as part of an al-Qaeda “external operations” branch]: Rashid Rauf, who designed the 2006 plot to bring down airliners traveling to the U.S. from Britain, and Adnan el Shukrijumah, whom authorities charged in the July 7-8 rollup. U.S. drone strikes killed both Rauf and Somali in the last two years, leaving Shukrijumah as the sole surviving leader of the external operations branch. Shukrijumah’s experience makes him an increasingly important asset for al-Qaeda, as less-experienced operatives and intermediaries have likely filled the gaps left by Rauf and Somali.
Shukrijumah’s background in the West, his experience with planning attacks, and his increasing prominence within the al-Qaeda organization increases the threat of attacks against targets in the U.S. Combined with news this week that the Department of Justice charged 14 individuals with attempting to provide assistance to the al-Qaeda linked Somali group al Shabaab, Shukrijumah’s prominence (recognized again on Friday by the FBI, who first began searching for Shukrijumah in 2003), shows the importance the al-Qaeda network places upon striking America.
Attention to the role Shukrijumah plays as operations chief continues to show that the al-Qaeda network has an active assembly line for preparing and coordinating operatives to strike the West. While this is frightening, this fact has a silver lining: An active network can be defeated much more easily than attacks conducted by self-radicalized individuals who lack connection to a larger organization. The U.S., however, needs a comprehensive strategy to roll back that network across the globe.
– Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.