Morocco: Abu Rahman al-Maghrebi may succeed al-Zawahiri as head of al-Qaeda

By Soufiane Khabbachi, Jeanne Le Bihan
Posted on Thursday, 25 August 2022 12:42

Mohamed Abattay (aka Abu Rahman al-Maghrebi) (left), is Ayman al-Zawahiri's son-in-law. © DR

Born in Morocco, Mohammed Abattay (aka Abu Rahman al-Maghrebi) is one of the contenders to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader killed on 31 July in Afghanistan by a US strike.

“On Saturday, on my orders, the US carried out an air strike on Kabul, Afghanistan, which killed the al-Qaeda emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri.”

With these words, on 1 August, US President Joe Biden announced the al-Qaeda leader’s death during a brief live address from Washington. “Justice has been done and this terrorist leader is no more,” he added.

Presented as one of the masterminds of the 2001 attacks, Zawahiri was one of the most wanted terrorists by the US. He had taken over al-Qaeda’s leadership following the death of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by a US commando in Pakistan in 2011. Among the names circulating, in addition to that of Egypt’s Seif al-Adel, to take over is that of Moroccan Abu Rahman al-Maghrebi, whose real name is Mohamed Abattay.

Presumed dead in 2006

Now in his fifties, Abattay was born, according to several corroborating sources, in Marrakech in 1970. In 1996, Maghrebi, then aged 26, left Morocco to study software programming in Cologne, Germany. Three years later, in 1999, he joined the Al-Farouk training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, financed by bin Laden himself.

After the Taliban regime fell in 2001, he fled to Iran, and then found refuge in 2003, like several jihadists at the time, in Pakistan. In 2006, following a US strike on the village of Damodola targeting Zawahiri, who was still the terrorist organisation’s number two at the time, Maghrebi was said to be dead by some media organisations, notably the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

In reality, according to the US State Department, Maghrebi not only survived but from 2012 he also headed al-Qaeda’s media arm, ‘Al-Sahab’ – the organisation’s main propaganda tool – in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He then returned to Iran to head external communications and coordinate the terrorist organisation’s activities with those of its partners. His remarkable ability to evade the US intelligence services earned him the nickname “al-Qaeda’s fox”.

The US think tank Foundation For Defence and Democracies reports on remarks taken from correspondence between bin Laden and another al-Qaeda leader, Atiyah Abu al-Rahman, who was killed in Pakistan in 2011 by a US drone.

In these excerpts, the latter described al-Maghrebi as being “fit to command”, and judged him to be endowed with “a fine intelligence”. Since 2021, the US has offered a $7m reward for information leading to his capture.

Zawahiri’s son-in-law

It is therefore quite logical that – among Zawahiri’s potential successors, in addition to Egypt’s al-Adel and Algeria’s Yazid Mebrak, who heads the section of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – Maghrebi’s name is also mentioned. It is also well known that the two men know each other.

During his stay at the Al-Farouk camp, Maghrebi stayed at the “House of Martyrs”, which was led at the time by al-Adel. Although the former seems at this stage more likely to take the organisation’s reins, the Moroccan has a particular asset, as he is one of al-Zawahiri’s sons-in-law.

While not a decisive advantage, could this circumstance tip the balance in his favour? For the time being, and insofar as nothing has been announced by any of the parties, speculation is rife.

In any case, al-Maghrebi’s appointment could constitute an additional threat to Morocco. In April 2022, his father-in-law, to whom he was close, published a video in which he threatened several countries, including Morocco and Egypt, which he accused of being “enemies of Islam”.

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