With a sense of relief, Mohannad Ghallab, the Egyptian spokesperson for Yemen’s Al-Qaeda branch, texted me: “I’m on the corniche.”
I was a thousand miles away at the time and had been corresponding with him on and off for six months. It was April 21, 2015, and he had just arrived in Yemen’s seashore city of Mukalla — the provincial capital of Yemen’s largest province of Hadramawt — which Al-Qaeda had just gained control of in its search for a new safe haven.
It is also one of very few Yemeni cities spared from destructive violence that has torn the country apart, either at the hands of Yemeni Houthi rebels — who seized the capital last year — or a Saudi-led campaign aimed at driving them out.
The city and its sea were a window to fresh air and life in the open after spending the past few years hiding and fighting. Ghallab, along with Al-Qaeda militants, had fought the US-backed Yemeni military offensive that drove the group out of large swathes of land it had gained control of in the wake of the 2011 uprising.
Throughout the eight-hour drive from his undisclosed hideout to Mukalla, he kept a close eye on the skyline, mindful of drone strikes that frequently target suspected Al-Qaeda motorcades. Arriving safely in Mukalla meant surviving possible death, as drones normally refrain from firing missiles inside cities. But this would change later that night.
As he was settling down for dinner on the corniche, Ghallab tersely summed up his deep sense of relief, texting: “Al-Donia peace” (the world is at peace).
Less than two hours later, a strong explosion rocked the city. A US drone fired three missiles killing him and five others on the spot, including Al-Qaeda’s top military commander Nasr al-Ansy.
A bold writer, a fluent English speaker, a battle-hardened fighter and an ultraconservative Salafi, who was a staunch opponent of both the Muslim Brotherhood’s Machiavellian approach to power but also a vocal critic of the Islamic State’s savagery, Ghallab put all his talents and capabilities into the service of Al-Qaeda, years after Egypt failed him.
A firm believer in jihad, his detention in Egypt’s notorious State Security cells and subsequent three-year imprisonment helped define his frame of reference and easily pushed him into the arms of Al-Qaeda.
Though he always insisted on identifying himself as a “soldier” of Al-Qaeda, his loss had a special impact on the group. For nearly a year before his death, he coordinated a new media strategy to infuse the narrative of Yemen’s Al-Qaeda — the group’s most dangerous offshoot — into Western media coverage, and break the US government’s monopoly over the story. This strategy was also meant to counter-balance and compete with Al-Qaeda’s top rival group in the region, the Islamic State.
In one incident, the FBI’s director publicly criticized the New York Times for quoting him as an “anonymous source,” thus giving him protection. In a lengthy Wall Street Journal article, he was widely quoted on the transformation of Al-Qaeda’s media strategy.
The 35-year-old was constantly multitasking and improvising. He shared photos with me. One showed him in a grey robe inside a tent in a mountainous area giving media training sessions to fellow Al-Qaeda militants. A second portrayed him holding a camera and videoing a reception party celebrating newly escaped Al-Qaeda militants. His most recent pictures showed him with a blue sling, having smashed his elbow.
As a main contributor to Al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, the group’s top propaganda outlet seen as instigating waves of lone wolf attacks in the West, Ghallab appeared once on the cover page in a black Balaklava, posing in front of the cameras like a fashion model.
He provided tips and advice to top commanders on the best ways to win people’s hearts and minds, and attended leadership meetings, giving his insights and views on the group’s strategy and movements.
Born on July 15, 1979, in the populous district of Shubra, Ghallab carried a different name and had a starkly different life. There, he was Amr Abdel Hamid Abdel Wahab Permawy (he insisted on writing his last name with a P not a B). Like many middle-class families, his parents — one a pious engineer and the other a school teacher — spent the first five years of Permawy’s life in Saudi Arabia to save money and secure their children’s future.
In a rather amusing and, in hindsight, an exceptional early encounter with the police, the five-year-old Permawy prompted a frantic call to the authorities when he fell asleep under a wooden table at his mother’s school.
“They found me later snoring under a desk,” he recalled with a laugh.
At the age of 12, he experienced loss, grief and death. Nearly six years after returning from Saudi Arabia, Permawy lost his mother in a sudden asthma attack. He was left with three sisters, the youngest of whom was six months old, and a heartbroken father.
“It was very hard. I didn’t understand her death. I didn’t get it,” he remembered.
In 2000, Permawy graduated from Helwan University’s College of Arts with a Journalism degree. Moving between Cairo’s newsrooms, he took an internship at the state-owned Al-Ahram daily newspaper, producing business pages.
“Al-Ahram is a sad story,” he mocked. “I worked my ass off, spending the day between different ministries to come up with news that filled entire pages.”
Short stints at the privately owned tabloid Al-Nabaa and the business daily of Al-Alam Al-Youm preceded his final job with the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA).
But, somewhere along the way, Permawy’s path radically deviated and he went from a moderate Muslim in love with rock and roll and Western pop culture to an ultraconservative Salafi with a beard and shaved mustache.
Whenever he was asked, Permawy attributed this shift to the September 11 attacks.
“It was like a wakeup call for me,” he said, adding that he went into seclusion at his father’s house in a rural area near Cairo, where he devoted all his time to reading the Quran and watching videos of jihadis in Chechnya.
Ghallab provided no other reason, except great admiration for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and for his cause.
But, did the loss of one of his most intimate friends in a car crash — an incident he mentioned mid-conversation — have anything to do with his decision? I didn’t get the chance to ask him.
Less than three years after becoming an ultraconservative, and only three months after his marriage, he was arrested by state security forces. He spent weeks blindfolded and handcuffed in Cairo’s Nasr City detention cells, while hearing the screams of his friends being tortured.
They were accused of attempting to travel to Iraq with the intention of joining jihadi groups fighting American forces.
“I sat handcuffed and blindfolded for days. I didn’t see light. My friends were tortured,” he said.
When I asked if he was tortured, Permawy would pause and say, “My father managed to secure me detention without torture.” But, in other conversations, he admitted his own torture.
“People are being punished for mere intentions,” he added. “The prosecutor warned me: Anything but the Americans.”
After the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and his US backed regime, Permawy recalled retrieving his file from the state security headquarters stormed by protesters.
“It was a thick 500-page file, with everything from who I phoned, when and what I said. They even reported the phone calls that went unanswered. They wrote: ‘the phone was ringing and there was no answer,’” he said with a sad smile.
About his imprisonment in Egypt, he said, “If you enter prison half jihadi, you leave 1000 percent jihadi. If you enter 100 percent jihadi, you leave a martyr seeker.”
After his release, he lost his job at MENA. “They were even afraid of a handshake,” he said.
When I asked if he would ever return to Egypt, he said, “Can you find me a way to come back and live in peace without having men storming my house, terrifying my kids and stripping me naked?”
He followed Egypt’s political upheavals closely from abroad — from an Islamist-led government to the military comeback — through his favorite Joe Tube satire and Al Jazeera news coverage. The constant killing and imprisoning of Islamists by security forces provided him with another reason to stay away.
“In Egypt, Islamists are either dead or in prison. I think I made the right move at just the right time,” he said.
The January 2011 revolution, for some Salafis and radical Islamists like Permawy, was a time to push strongly for the implementation of Islamic Sharia. But, the wider public was split between those who were terrified of an Islamist take over, and were prepared to prevent it at any cost, and those who saw them as the only organized and viable oppositional force.
“I could easily see that the military was making a comeback,” he said. “It was very obvious from the very beginning.”
By September 2011, he had arranged his second escape. He shaved off his beard, put on casual clothes and dark sunglasses and headed to the airport whispering his prayers.
“Today I begin to achieve my dream, break myself and force myself toward what is good,” he wrote in a series of articles remembering his anxiety before departure. “Now I will defeat the tyrants who thought I was dismayed after detention and torture … the love for jihad has possessed my heart,” he added.
A nervous Ghallab arrived in Sanaa airport, where he was due to take another flight to his ultimate destination. However, instead, he took a different corridor, leading him to airport officers who prevented him from leaving the airport and insisted on deporting him over unspecified suspicions. He told the officers he was there for tourism. They weren’t convinced, and threatened to send him back to Cairo.
“The employee was suspicious. Yemen is in at a state of turmoil. What tourism are you talking about?” Ghallab recalled airport security asking him.
“I went to pray. I put my forehead on the ground bowing and I asked for God’s help. I broke into tears,” he said.
After a bribe to the officer, his long day finally ended with safe passage.
Permawy documented his impressions of jihadis in a romantic and utopian way. During his time with Al-Qaeda, he wrote extensively about lone wolf jihad and US strategy, and contributed to the group’s Inspire magazine.
His resentment for the rival Islamic State sparked an online war with the group’s supporters. In one incident, he tried to shed light on the leaders of the Islamic State in Yemen, which brought him under heavy criticism from Islamic State supporters, who later expressed relief at his death.
Ghallab, or Abu Hafs al-Masry, according to a close associate who posted his biography online, had rehearsed his death several times in the last few years, either by drone strike, or in a fierce gun battle. A near miss in a battle with the Yemeni army left him injured in the shoulder, before an apache chased him into the open desert.
“Luckily, it didn’t fire. For some reason, the pilot didn’t want to shoot me from the back,” he told me. His Al-Qaeda comrade confirmed his injury online.
The daily threat of drone strikes prompted him to write a series of articles about the best ways to avoid death by drones, which he posted on his Twitter account.
Before his travels, I used to tell him, “Stop chasing the drones.”
The drone strikes were relentless, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind for Ghallab to deal with. He collected the dismembered and charred bodies of his friends after a number of strikes.
In one incident, on April 19, 2014, Ghallab narrowly escaped death when a sprawling training camp in the mountainous region of Mahfad wasn’t ready to receive him and his fellow militants. Spending the night two kilometers away, they were spared.
“It was a chilly night and we didn’t have enough covers. Some slept under the bushes, others inside a car and some wrapped themselves with car covers,” he said. Shortly before midnight, balls of fire rained from the sky over the camp. Dozens were burned alive, including youngsters, while others had their heads smashed under rocks.
“We counted the bodies of the brothers killed that night, it was 45,” he said. With other attacks the same day, the total number reached 60.
Ghallab kept a record of how many strikes killed how many Al-Qaeda members in which cities. He distributed pictures of friends and their vehicles turned into charred twisted metal mingled with body parts after being hit by US drones.
Al-Qaeda opened the prison in Mukalla to release their men, and seized billions of Yemeni riyals from the Central Bank and military barracks. Just days later, in April 2015, the city turned into a death trap for Al-Qaeda and Ghallab.
Six months after his death, in a visit to Mukalla, I stood at the same place along the corniche of the Arabian Sea where he was struck down. Demolished and blackened steps were reminders of the drone strike that killed Ghallab. It was also the same place Al-Qaeda executed two Saudi nationals on charges they planted electronic chips that helped guide drones to targeted Al-Qaeda militants — a tactic the group is now wise to.
One of those killed was Ghallab’s close friend Hammam al-Hamid or Mousaid al-Khouiter. His family told a Saudi newspaper that he wanted to leave the group, leading Al-Qaeda directly to him.
“I am waiting for death at any moment,” he often said. He intently pursued death, something that he never revealed to me.
Soon after Ghallab’s death, a close associate of his revealed that he was a “martyrdom seeker” but that his request for a “martyr attack” had been turned down.
The author of this piece has requested to remain anonymous.