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Asharq Al-Awsat Exclusive: The Untold Story of Al-Zarqawi’s Wife - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Black and white file photo of Al-Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. (AP)

Black and white file photo of Al-Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. (AP)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Over the past year in Saudi Arabia, one story has continued to be cited and mentioned across the Internet and on social media. This is the story of Wafa Al-Yahya, the woman who went from being a university lecturer to become the wife of one of the Middle East’s most infamous terrorists.

The case of Wafa Al-Yahya came to the spotlight after a video clip showing a gathering of men and women somewhere in Jeddah chanting demands was posted on YouTube. Following this, a number of websites, including social media, began to focus on Wafa’s story, positing it as a human tragedy.

There have been a number of claims and counter-claims swirling around Wafa’s story. We have heard claims that she was arrested in 2005 and remains in prison, unable to receive visitors or make telephone calls; that she was arrested along with her three children—two girls and a boy—and they remain imprisoned alongside her; that her husband—an army officer—completely denies her existence, along with that of his children; that she is on the run; or that she has been killed.

Following a prolonged investigation into the case, Asharq Al-Awsat can now exclusively reveal Wafa’s true story. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with a number of informed sources who, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed a great deal of background information about her.

Wafa was born in 1968; she holds a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies, a master’s degree in Islamic Jurisprudence and has previously worked as a lecturer at Riyadh’s King Saud University. She is divorced and a mother of three: two girls and a boy.

Wafa reportedly showed an early interest in the conflict in Afghanistan, something that she did not keep from her immediate family, who knew of her support for the mujahedeen. By the end of 2005, Wafa had begun to spend a significant amount of time online, visiting Islamic extremist and jihadist websites. This soon escalated to the point that Wafa became a well-known presence on a number of jihadist websites, utilizing avatars such as “Al-Mudawia” (The Caller), “Al-Bariqa” (Ray of light), and “Bariqat Al-Seyoof” (Glimmer of Swords).

Wafa mainly wrote about changing attitudes towards the mujahedeen, expressing her support for the fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan and even praising Al-Qaeda’s activities and operations in Saudi Arabia.

It was on one of these websites that Wafa came into contact with a person calling himself “Abu Talha Al-Bihani.” In a message to Wafa, he called on her to join the jihad in Iraq, inviting her to join a Shari’a committee, given her academic qualifications. Wafa asked for some time to think.

Wafa Makes Her Choice

Wafa eventually agreed to join the fighters in Iraq and started planning her journey. She took a leave of absence from her work at the university and applied for passports for herself and her children. In the meantime, she remained in touch with Bihani, who informed her via email that he might be killed and that he hoped this would not cause her to change her mind about travelling to Iraq. He also told her that should this happen, she would be contacted by somebody calling himself “Al-Ustaz” (The Master), who would take care of all her travel arrangements.

Following this, infamous Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, issued a recording announcing the deaths of a number of jihadists, including Bihani. This led her to conclude that Abu Talha Al-Bihani was very close to the jihadi leadership in Iraq.

Wafa was then contacted by Al-Ustaz. Experts believe that Al-Ustaz was none other than Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi himself. Zarqawi is widely regarded as having been one of Al-Qaeda’s most violent and visible leaders, being responsible for a series of high-profile bombings and hostage-takings during the Iraq war. He was killed in an US air strike on June 7, 2006, in a house north of Baghdad.

Travel Arrangements

After arranging to travel to Iraq via Syria, Wafa Al-Yahya realized that she was facing a major problem—namely, that her children’s passports were in the possession of her ex-husband, who refused to hand them over to her. Attempting to resolve this issue, she convinced one of her relatives to apply for alternate passports for her children, providing all the required documentation.

However, Wafa’s actions had not gone unnoticed by the government, and she was placed under surveillance by the Saudi security services.

According to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, Wafa’s name was also placed on the travel ban list during this time as a precaution.

Of course, Wafa did not know this and she continued to make plans to travel to Iraq to join the jihad, booking flights to Syria. Wafa had initially booked tickets for the entire family, but she later cancelled her children’s bookings out of fear of being exposed. She confirmed her own flight to Syria, claiming that she was travelling to carry out research in the country. However, on her arrival at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, the authorities detained her and prevented her from boarding her plane.

On March 9, 2005, Wafa was summoned and detained by security forces for illegally communicating with Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq. On April 14, 2005, the police handed Wafa over to her family—her father and two brothers—after receiving the required “pledges” of fidelity and loyalty.

Sources confirm that the police only released Wafa Al-Yahya out of “respect for her family and because the [Saudi] leadership is always keen to dismiss cases against women.”

Disappearance

After only a short period in the care of her relatives, Wafa began to communicate once more with Al-Qaeda elements over the Internet. During this period, she received an e-mail from Al-Ustaz, who Asharq Al-Awsat has uncovered as being none other than Zarqawi himself. This message warned her against communication via the Internet and called on her to travel as soon as possible. Wafa replied that she was ready to travel, albeit without specifying a date.

A short while later, she received a message which included detailed travel plans. The plans were for Wafa to travel to Damascus, where she would then meet a contact at the Al-Assad Library. These plans were later changed, and she was provided contact information for two mobile phones in Damascus, along with a code-word. She was to tell whomever answered that she had arrived to complete her studies and not disclose her real reason for travelling. Following this, she would be provided a guide to escort her into Iraq.

On August 1, 2005—coinciding with the day of the death of King Fahd bin Abdulaziz—Wafa disappeared, along with her children, from their home. At this point, Wafa’s daughters were aged 13 and 5, while her son was aged 12. An extensive search was conducted for the family, but the security services were unable to locate them owing to a lack of credible intelligence.

Sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat of the difficulties faced by this investigation, as efforts to locate Wafa and her children proved fruitless. However, the case finally caught a break on September 6, after Yemen informed its northern neighbor that a number of Saudi nationals had been arrested in the country. Further investigation revealed that one of these suspects had smuggled a Saudi woman and her three children into Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Yemen coordinated their investigations, and the suspect confessed to smuggling Wafa Al-Yahya and her children across the border.

The informed source revealed that this breakthrough occurred while then Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz was paying an official visit to Yemen. The source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Saudi crown prince raised the issue with his Yemeni counterpart, leading to a Saudi Defense Ministry officer being assigned to travel to Yemen to question the Yemeni suspect: Rashed.*

Saudi Arabia pressured Sana’a to deport the Saudi nationals who had been arrested in Yemen in the hopes of continuing the investigation with them. Finally, on April 30, 2006, the Saudi suspects were handed over to Saudi authorities. They were questioned and it was revealed that one of the suspects, SN** had been involved in the operation to smuggle Wafa Al-Yahya and her children across the border, along with Yemeni national Rashed.

According to information revealed by SN and Rashed in 2005, SN had received a call on his cell phone from SY,*** a Saudi national based in Syria. SY informed SN that one of his associates would be contacting him in the near future for help—something that SN agreed to provide.

A short while later, this associate, Rashed, contacted SN, introducing himself as an envoy for SY. Rashed and SY arranged to meet in Riyadh’s Al-Mursalat district, whereupon Rashed informed SY that he wanted him to help smuggle the family of one of the mujahedeen—comprising a wife and three children—into Syria.

Rashed asked SN for assistance in obtaining Saudi passports for the family. He also handed over a message from SY, which included propaganda inciting youth to commit jihad, as well as the cell phone numbers of two facilitators. These two facilitators included an unnamed Saudi national and a Yemeni national known as “Abu Al-Bara.”

For his part, SN contacted Abu Al-Bara on the orders of SY, arranging a meeting close to Riyadh’s Obeikan bookshop. During this meeting, Al-Bara informed SN that he could obtain falsified Yemeni documents via a Yemeni contact known as “Louay.”

The sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that during this period, this cross-border criminal network revealed above was heavily involved in sending prospective jihadists to Iraq. This would be achieved by first smuggling them into Yemen, where they would then be provided with forged passports to travel to Syria, usually via a Gulf state. From here, they could then cross the border into neighboring Iraq.

Returning to Wafa Al-Yahya and her children, SN—who coordinated this operation on the ground—attempted to contact SY, to brief him of the latest developments, but received no response. This prompted SN to contact a second figure, a Syrian national known as Mazen Tabin, who also played a role in smuggling Wafa and her three children into Syria. Subsequently, SN visited Mecca to perform umrah (pilgrimage), whereupon he called Rashed and informed him that he would not be able to obtain false passports for Wafa and her children.

After some discussion, both men agreed that SN would accompany Wafa and her children to the Al-Jizan region bordering Yemen. SN returned to Riyadh and purchased tickets, then contacted Rashed and informed him of the date of the booking. Rashed then got back to SN, telling him that Wafa and her children would be waiting for him at King Khalid International Airport.

SN met up with Wafa Al-Yahya as arranged and accompanied her and her children from Riyadh to Jizan, the southernmost region of Saudi Arabia, exploiting the fact that—at that time—he was not known to the authorities.

Following this, SN rented a car and smuggled Wafa and her children across the border into Yemen. At this point, SN and Rashed split up; the Yemeni entering the country via the Al-Tawal border checkpoint, while the Saudi returned to the Jizan airport, returning the hired car and then entering Yemen officially.

After SN landed in Sana’a, Rashed called to inform him that the family had also reached the Yemeni capital safety. At this point, SN returned to Saudi Arabia. Although Rashed was arrested in Yemen not much later, the deal that SN had previously made with Syrian national Mazen Tabin—for forged passports for Wafa and her children—came through. It was later revealed that they had travelled to Damascus from Sana’a. As for SN, his accomplice, Rashed—at this point in the custody of the Yemeni authorities—contacted him and convinced him to come to Yemen, where the Yemeni authorities were waiting to arrest him. SN remained in Yemeni custody until he was later handed over to Saudi Arabia.

The information that SN provided to the authorities about Wafa, confirmed what Rashed had revealed to Saudi investigators who questioned the Yemeni national while he was in custody.

In addition to this, SN revealed that his uncle, Saleh, had hosted Wafa and her children, while Syrian authorities confirmed that Wafa had entered Syrian territory.

Searching for Wafa in Iraq

Wafa’s circuitous journey to Iraq happened in the midst of a fierce and complex war. This was a war in which Zarqawi was playing a leading role in inciting sectarian strife, thanks to his attacks targeting Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community.

There is scarce information about the presence of Wafa and her children in the country, and it all originates from detainees returning from Iraq.

One detainee, Fahd R, who returned from Iraq in 2008, revealed that a Saudi woman known as Umm Mohamed (the mother of Mohamed) had entered the country along with her three children. He acknowledged that she later married Zarqawi, adding that he had heard that her daughter had also married in Iraq, but did not know anything about the fate of her other two children.

Fahd R was a senior Al-Qaeda member who was responsible for the border region and facilitating the entry of fighters into the country.

Another detainee, Mohamed Z, who was repatriated from Iraq in 2011, confirmed that a Saudi woman had entered the country with her children in 2005. He acknowledged that she later married Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, adding that he heard that she had subsequently been killed.

Abdurrahman Y, who was handed over to Saudi Arabia from Syria on June 7, 2009, also said that he heard that Wafa had entered Iraq and married Zarqawi.

Wafa’s Children

On the morning of June 9, 2012, the Saudi authorities arrested one of the country’s most wanted figures, Saleh Abdullah Saleh Al-Qarawi, also known as Nijm. Qarawi, commander of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigade, was included on the Saudi Interior Ministry’s infamous list of 85 most-wanted terrorists.

Qarawi previously lived in Iran, and is known to have received intense training with explosives in Afghanistan. He was targeted by an unmanned US drone in Waziristan, along the Pakistani–Afghan border, losing his legs, one hand, and his left eye. He returned to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan on a special medical transport, where he was treated in the state security hospital.

Here, he was reunited with his family: his wife—who also happens to be the daughter of Egyptian Mohamed Al-Hakamiya, also known as Abu Sara Al-Masri, also an Al-Qaeda leader—his son, H, two daughters and another son, and an adopted daughter.

As for what this has to do with Wafa and Zarqawi, Saudi authorities suspect that H is not the son of Qarawi—despite his protestations—but rather the child Zarqawi. A subsequent DNA test revealed that H truly is not Qarawi’s offspring, and his true parentage was later confirmed in a third DNA test: H is the son of Zarqawi and Wafa. In July 2012, Qarawi met with Jordanian Sayel Fadel Nazzal Al-Khalayleh—brother of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi—about the fate of H, obtaining Khalayleh’s approval for H to remain with the Qarawi family.

Sources reveal that H was most likely born to Wafa after Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006. A well-informed source claimed that Wafa was later killed in Iraq’s Anbar province.

Following Zarqawi’s death in 2006, Qarawi sought to secure a safe route out of Iraq for H, taking him to the lawless Waziristan region where he tasked wanted Saudi national Mohamed T with his care.

This is where Asharq Al-Awsat uncovered a second surprise: H was not alone. Rather, he was accompanied by his half-sister, the daughter of Wafa and Mohamed T. The Saudi national Mohamed T was subsequently killed in Pakistan, and his daughter was later adopted by the Qarawi family—along with her half-brother, H.

As for Wafa’s remaining children—the youngest boy and girl who accompanied her on her journey to Iraq—sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that they had been present in Syria until recently. Their location is now unknown, particularly due to the unrest that has struck the region.

Wafa’s family has been informed about these developments, particularly following the false claims surrounding her disappearance which have been repeated on social media. The Al-Khalayleh family—Zarqawi’s family—were also informed of this, and are petitioning to take H—son of Zarqawi and Wafa—to Jordan.

Ultimately, Wafa Al-Yahya’s story sums up the impact that Al-Qaeda and its poisonous ideology has had on Saudi society.

*Rashed: associate of SY.
**SN: Not his real initials; Asharq Al-Awsat has chosen to keep him anonymous as he is currently being prosecuted.
***SY: Not his real initials. Asharq Al-Awsat is also preserving his anonymity.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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