The Relentless Terrorist: A Profile of Muaz al-Fizani.

AuthorPugliese, Mateo

The analysis of individual career patterns in the jihadi community may help qualitative research on how terrorism networks work. Muaz al-Fizani is one of the few surviving top commanders of the Islamic State in Libya and Tunisia who contributed to shaping the group's strategy in North Africa. Al-Fizani (alternative transliteration Moez Fezzani) was born on March 23, 1969, in Tunis to Fatima Shehawi and Abdelkader al-Fizani. (1) He spent his childhood in Ezzahrouni, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital. Although he is a Tunisian national, he is of Libyan descent, and according to some sources, he even holds dual citizenship. (2) When questioned by Italian investigators in 2010, he said, "I, myself, feel Libyan." (3)

From Italy to Bosnia to Afghanistan: The Makings of a Jihadi Terrorist

In 1989, al-Fizani emigrated to Italy in search of a better life. He initially worked as a day laborer near Naples and in the northwestern Valle d'Aosta region. For a short period, he joined his brother, a drug dealer, to sell hashish and heroin in the northern city of Bolzano and in Milan. Later on--as he told Italian investigators--he regretted being involved in drug trafficking and became "a pious man." (4) After more than three years in prison, al-Fizani settled in Milan and found employment as a construction worker. He shared an apartment in a housing project on Via Pier Alessandro Paravia in the San Siro western suburb. (5) This apartment would later become a notorious hub for the Islamist network in Milan, called "the Tunisians' house." Al-Fizani's roommate was Lassaad Sassi, a member of the Tunisian Islamic Front (FIT) (a) who in 2006 became the leader of Jund Asad Bin al-Furat, better known as the Soliman Group. (6)

The two Tunisians radicalized together in part as a result of the influence of the Egyptian preacher Anwar Shaaban, an "Arab-Afghan" veteran and imam of the Islamic Cultural Institute on Viale Jenner, who became the emir of the El Mudzahid detachment (also referred to in English as the Mujahideen Battalion) in the Bosnian conflict. (7)

Al-Fizani traveled to Bosnia in November 1994 and stayed there until March 1996. (8) After a short training, he took part in three battles against the Serbs: Operation "Clear Victory--Black Lion" in May 1995, the "Dignity Battle--Operation Miracle" in July 1995, and in September "Operation Badr." The jihadis carried out horrific tortures and beheadings of Serbian prisoners of war. (9) His experiences in Bosnia made him a war veteran with respectable credentials in the jihadi milieu.

After his return to Milan from Bosnia, al-Fizani prayed in the then-radical mosques of Viale Jenner and Via Quaranta in Milan, both led by salafi preachers connected to al-Qa`ida and the Egyptian Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. (10) Before they took different paths, al-Fizani and Sassi hosted several North African militants who lived in Milan and in Bologna. Their apartment was known as "the Tunisians' house" because it served as a sort of informal recruiting center for those who wanted to join the foreign fighters in Bosnia. (11) (b) In May 2001, Sassi left Milan and traveled to Algeria to join the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). In 2002, a Tunisian court sentenced Sassi in absentia to 20 years in prison for terrorism offenses. (12) In 2005, Italian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Sassi on charges of arms trafficking and terrorism. (13) Yet, despite being a wanted man, in April 2006 Sassi and five other militants infiltrated Tunisia from the Algerian border, (14) and the following month, Sassi set up three jihadi camps for his Jund Asad Bin al Furat group in the mountains south of Tunis. (15) Sassi trained recruits mostly from the town of Soliman, which gave the group its more well-known name, and prepared attacks against the American and British embassies in the capital. (16) From December 2006, Sassi's band of jihadis engaged in firefights with Tunisian security forces and took shelter in their hideouts, (17) but by mid-January 2007, they had all been killed, including Sassi. (18)

In 1997, al-Fizani was investigated by the Italian police for money laundering of counterfeit banknotes in Milan and Cremona. (19) While seemingly a minor offense, it was, in fact, connected to terrorism financing. Indeed, from 1997 to 2000, a group of Tunisians in Milan linked to al-Fizani and Sassi sold counterfeit banknotes to fund the GSPC in Algeria and future attacks in Italy. (20) According to Milan's prosecutor, the group was considering plans against the Carabinieri barracks of Via Moscova, the police headquarters in Milan, Linate Airport, the railway station, the Tunisian consulate, and the NATO base in Mondragone. Thanks to counterterrorism investigations and a series of detentions, these attacks never took place. (c)

Al-Fizani left Italy on August 19, 1997. When he landed in Peshawar, Pakistan, he was arrested for his forged visa. (21) He was later released and married an Afghan or Pakistani woman named Rhail, who would give birth to three children. (22) Using the kunya of Abu Nassim, al-Fizani spent some time managing a safehouse in Peshawar and sending Tunisian recruits to the Afghan training camps. (23)

In the fall of 1997, al-Fizani moved to the Darunta camp run by Egyptian explosives expert Midhat Mursi al-Sayyid Umar, also known as Abu Khabab. (24) The former al-Qa`ida member and MI6 spy Aimen Dean was in Darunta at that time and described Abu Nassim as a sociopath. (25) According to Dean, al-Fizani "had a gentle voice and shy eyes when in conversation but took great pleasure in torturing the animals on which we experimented and held extreme takfiri views." (26) When Abu Khabab's apprentices started considering chemical weapons by extracting nicotine poison from cigarettes, Dean recalls in his memoir: "Our psychopath, Abu Nassim, talked about lacing banknotes with the poison inside letters." (27) Al-Fizani also tried to make botulinum toxin and experimented with hydrogen cyanide on rabbits. (28) When, after al-Qa`ida's bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, an apprentice proposed a new chemical weapon, al-Fizani was excited and said, "This will change everything. Imagine if we'd used poison gas in

Nairobi and Dar es Sala[a]m." (29)

The Tunisian spent the next several years going back and forth between Peshawar and Abu Khabab's facility in Darunta, training in a large variety of chemical weapons and IEDs. Although it is unknown whether al-Fizani formally joined al-Qa`ida, he can be considered a follower of the so-called Jalalabad school...

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