The South Asia Channel

Al Qaeda loses bridge to the West

Bekkay Harrach, the German spokesman for Al Qaeda Central (AQC), was confirmed dead in an attack on the U.S. air base at Bagram in a statement released last week by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The German-Moroccan was usually referred to by the jihadi nom de guerre Abu Talha al-Almani (The German). Rumors of his death surfaced last autumn but were never confirmed by either NATO or AQC.

Born to a Moroccan family that immigrated to Germany when he was a child, Harrach starred in several German-language AQC propaganda films and audio tapes. Harrach is believed to have traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan in 2007 where he eventually joined AQC, and it is suspected (but has not been confirmed) that his travel was facilitated by recruitment networks active in Germany. A relatively large number of Germans, including many of Turkish descent, have traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions, and joined in significant numbers two militant Uzbek groups operating in the region, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and an offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU).

Shortly before the German federal election in September 2009 AQC's media outlet, the Al-Sahab (The Clouds) Media Foundation, released three videos of Harrach warning the German people and government to leave Afghanistan and cease supporting the "Crusader campaign" against Muslims around the world. Pictures of him, most of them screen grabs from his Al-Sahab videos, were used prominently in a number of graphic art designs seen by the author and produced by cyber jihadis with messages threatening Germany.

The IMU statement, published in the form of a newsletter credited to German IMU member Abu Adam al-Almani, is entitled "A New Year in Waziristan."  Harrach was killed, it says, leading an attack on Bagram by 20 militants launched jointly by the IMU, AQC, and Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  The exact date of this attack is not given.  The Afghan Taliban claimed, and the U.S. military confirmed, a major surprise attack on the Bagram base on May 19, 2010. Videos about the attack are forthcoming, according to the statement, from both Al-Sahab and the IMU's media outlet, Jundullah (God's Soldiers) Studio.

The IMU statement provides additional evidence of the group's alliance with both AQC and the TTP, a link that often figures in discussions of foreign fighters in Pakistan's tribal regions.

Ties between the three groups are not new, and have survived changes in the IMU's senior leadership. Last September Jundullah Studio released a video and posted a message online confirming the 2009 death of its former leader, Tahir Yuldashev, from wounds suffered in a NATO airstrike. The video featured footage of Yuldashev's successor as IMU leader, Abu Usman Adil, meeting with the TTP's two senior leaders, Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur Rahman Mehsud. If the IMU claims are true, TTP involvement in joint attacks on military targets inside Afghanistan are significant with regard to the military resources and reach of the Pakistani militant umbrella organization and indicates the willingness of the TTP to operate on the turf of the "largely parochial" Afghan Taliban, to use the characterization of Georgetown University professor C. Christine Fair.

Germans are frequently featured in media releases from the IMU, IJU, and Turkish militant groups and outlets such as Taifetul Mansura (Victorious Sect) and Elif Medya. The IMU's Jundullah Studio has released a number of videos exclusively in German showing attacks on Pakistani security and military forces in the Pashtun tribal agencies such as Waziristan. Judging from their media releases, the IMU, IJU, and several Turkish militant groups have been the most aggressive recruiters of Germans in the border regions. German speakers like Harrach have thus been valuable propaganda assets to AQC, the IMU, the IJU, and Turkish jihadi groups operating there.  However, the IMU, which has a number of German members who it features prominently in videos, is unlikely to be greatly impacted in its media campaign because of Harrach's death.

Uzbek and Turkish recruitment networks have also long been suspected of operating inside Germany. In 2007 four Germans were arrested in Germany for plotting to engage in attacks in Europe in collaboration with the IJU, and a number of Germans linked to unidentified militant groups were killed last year in airstrikes in Pakistan. Moreover, Harrach was not the only prominent German jihadi to be killed last year. The young German convert Eric Breininger, who first traveled to Pakistan in 2007 to train in IJU camps, was killed in April during an attack on a Pakistani military position in Mir Ali, Waziristan.  His death was confirmed in statements issued by the IJU, Elif Medya, and Taifetul Mansura and photographs of his body were also released.

Additionally, the IMU is suspected by authorities of having the largest militant recruitment network inside Germany. The group's recruitment videos have not only sought to attract men as fighters but have also encouraged them to bring their wives and children. There are reports, some of them confirmed, of "colonies" of German jihadis in the Pashtun tribal regions of Pakistan.  A number of Germans have been arrested by Pakistani security forces, and the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, as of April 2010, tracked nearly 100 individuals suspected of traveling from the country to join militant groups based near the Durand line. 

Known cases of recruitment such as Breininger's provide windows into the radicalization process in Germany.  Young men like Breininger, including fellow converts, are often heavily influenced by charismatic ideologues who introduce the idea of participating in "jihad" in their minds and serve as persuasive voices urging them to travel abroad for this purpose.  There is also a strong socialization process at work, as individuals adopting militant views interact with others, reinforcing more hardline views. The relatively large number of German militants already in Afghanistan and Pakistan gives groups such as the IMU a greater pool of potential spokesmen to use in new recruitment videos and messages, adding credibility to their messages.

Harrach grew up in a poor area of Tannenbusch in the city of Bonn and reportedly attended the King Fahd Academy there.  Run directly by the Saudi consulate in Bonn, the academy was forced to change its curriculum in 2003 after pressure from the German government, which discovered that its leaders were teaching students to participate in violence in the name of Islam and disavow non-Muslims and Muslims viewed as heretics in Saudi Arabia's Salafi interpretation of the religion. As a teenager Harrach reportedly participated in the conversion of a number of other individuals to his radical interpretation of Islam and was active in radical circles. Ultimately, it is believed that Harrach fully embraced a jihadi outlook under the influence of Aleem Nasir, a radical Muslim activist and gemstone dealer in the German town of Germersheim, who urged the young man to travel to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions.  Once there, Harrach joined AQC, but is believed to have maintained his ties with Uzbek, Pakistani, and Afghan militant groups. He was said to have been particularly close to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and operational day-to-day leader of the feared Haqqani insurgent network operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While Harrach and Breininger are gone, they are unlikely to be forgotten. Both were regularly covered by members of jihadi online discussion forums and web sites in a variety of languages including Arabic, Turkish, English, German, and Somali.  Their videos remain available on a variety of web sites online, including YouTube and Internet Archive. The document believed to be Breininger's posthumously-released autobiography, entitled My Way to Paradise, was widely circulated on the aforementioned militant web sites.  His death "on the battlefield" likely elevated him in the eyes of fellow jihadis to the status of a hero to be emulated, increasing the usefulness of his story as a propaganda tool to recruit others. We can expect to see similar things from the death of Bekkay Harrach.

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.

Video Screenshot via Getty Images