Al-Qaeda Central in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 14, 2015

Osama bin Laden and Ayman az-Zawahiri (2001)

Usama bin Ladin and Ayman az-Zawahiri (2001)

A couple of days ago, a leader Jabhat an-Nusra issued a statement condemning Ahrar a-Sham. The statement is actually rather milder than initial reports suggested. Nusra is mostly annoyed at Ahrar for working with Turkey and Qatar to acquire money and weapons. Nusra is also displeased that Ahrar, at the instigation of Ankara and Doha, asked Nusra to publicly break its al-Qaeda link. Nusra also felt Ahrar was too willing to publicly distance itself from Salafi-jihadism to gain war materiel. This will no doubt help intensify the debate about Ahrar’s ostentatious “moderation” over the last eighteen months, and what the West should do about Ahrar.

In this post, however, I’d like to focus on the statement’s author, Abu Firas as-Suri, or more precisely on what he represents. Abu Firas is part of a group of (known) agents of al-Qaeda Central (AQC) who were sent into Syria in mid-2013 to mediate the dispute between Nusra and then-ISIS (now the Islamic State, I.S.), and when that failed the AQC veterans stayed, erected a veritable bureaucracy, and sought to forestall Nusra “going local”. Below are mini-profiles of these AQC veterans.

Muhsin al-Fadhli

Muhsin al-Fadhli

Al-Fadhli is a Kuwaiti and has been, since his arrival in Syria in mid-2013, the apparent-leader of the “Khorasan Group,” the external operations wing of Nusra.

Possibly aware of the 9/11 massacre in advance, al-Fadhli was also possibly involved in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which is suggestive about his rank.

Al-Fadhli is implicated in several attacks, and foiled attacks, on Western interests in Kuwait, from where he supported al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Al-Fadhli is also reported, during this period, to have converted Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) from Shi’ism to Sunnism in Kuwait. Al-Fadhli often got resources into Iraq through Iran. In 2009, al-Fadhli relocated to Iran, joining Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitation network, which he headed for a time in 2011; the network still exists and now supports Nusra, whom Iran are ostensibly fighting in Syria.

Al-Fadhli was reported killed in the U.S.’s first airstrikes into Syria in September 2014, and al-Fadhli was reported killed again in July 2015. The second claim did seem more credible, but as I.S. has proven, being dead is good OPSEC: stops people looking for you.

Abdul Muhsin Ibrahim as-Sharikh (pseudonym: Sanafi an-Nasr)

Sanafi an-Nasr (early 2014)

Sanafi an-Nasr (early 2014)

As-Sharikh, a Saudi, follows al-Fadhli’s latter trajectory closely: a member of the Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitation network, sent to Syria in 2013, and now a member of Nusra’s “Khorasan Group”. But as-Sharikh spent more time closer to AQC’s leadership.

As-Sharikh heads AQC’s “victory committee,” which is responsible for developing and implementing al-Qaeda’s strategy and policies. A third cousin of Usama bin Ladin, as-Sharikh has been a leading al-Qaeda propagandist since 2006 and one of the most wanted men in Saudi Arabia since 2009.

As-Sharikh was reported killed in Latakia in March 2014, but sanctions from the U.S. Treasury in August 2014 suggest he is still alive.

Abdul Rahman ad-Dubaysi al-Juhani (Abu Wafa as-Saudi)

Al-Juhani, a Saudi, was a key logistics operative for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2006 and 2009, running the courier network in Waziristan, among other things. Riyadh listed al-Juhani in early 2011 for inciting attacks on Saudi Arabia and allegedly training to assist al-Qaeda’s affiliates, presumably AQAP which actually could hit the Saudis. Before al-Juhani left for Pakistan for Syria in mid-2013, he was, in addition to being on al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, chief of security and head of counterintelligence. Al-Juhani remains connected to AQC in Pakistan and is involved in procuring heavy weapons for, and providing training to, Nusra.

Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam as-Suri)

Abu Hamam as-Suri

Abu Hammam as-Suri

Hijazi, according to a biography of him released by Nusra in early 2014 as part of their political warfare with I.S., went to Taliban Afghanistan in 1998 and trained for a year at the Ghuraba training camp of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab as-Suri), probably al-Qaeda’s greatest strategist. Hijazi then moved to al-Faruq Camp (“The Airport Camp”), which trained the mujahideen Special Forces. Hijazi “graduated” in second place to “Abu al-Abas al-Zhrani,” one of the death pilots on 9/11.[1]

Hijazi gave bay’a (an oath of allegiance) to Bin Ladin personally and became a trainer at al-Faruq. For this reason Hijazi is sometimes called Faruq al-Suri or Faruq al-Shami. Hijazi, himself a Syrian, was given responsibility over the Levantine jihadists in Taliban Afghanistan. Hijazi also participated in “most of the battles” against the Coalition and the Northern Alliance that overthrew the Taliban-Qaeda regime.

Hijazi’s record shows his jihadist credibility is clearly as a military official, rather than a religious one.

Hijazi had been closely associated with Sayf al-Adel, probably al-Qaeda’s most senior military official and one of their most senior members still free, while in Taliban Afghanistan, and stayed with al-Adel in Iran after the fall of the regime, until Saeed al-Masri (Mustafa Abu al-Yazid), al-Qaeda’s financial chief, ordered Hijazi to move to Iraq.

Hijazi moved into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002 as an “official representative” of al-Qaeda. When exactly Hijazi arrived is unclear, but he met Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, who had been in Baghdad since May 2002 with a dozen senior Qaedaists who sought (and received) shelter from Saddam. Hijazi spent four months in Saddam’s Iraq.

Hijazi was directed by Zarqawi to Syria, before the invasion, to oversee part of the “ratlines” that funnelled Salafi-jihadists, notably the suicide bombers, into post-Saddam Iraq. It seems that Saddam’s intelligence services arrested Hijazi, however, and transferred him to his native Syria before he could make the trip of his own volition. The Assad regime freed Hijazi suspiciously quickly, and Hijazi then carried on with the task he had been set by Zarqawi.

Saddam had changed to a pro-Islamist foreign policy in the mid-1980s, which had included relations with al-Qaeda since the early 1990s, but there was a more immediate reason to harbour al-Qaeda in 2002. It is likely that Saddam sought to use this al-Qaeda delegation, which included some of AQC’s most capable military men, to his own ends against the then-impending Western attack, and indeed the Salafi-jihadists this AQC advanced party helped bring into Iraq combined with the agents of the fallen regime to form the core of the immediate post-Saddam insurgency.

Hijazi moved to Lebanon in 2005. After a stint back in Afghanistan, Hijazi was sent to Syria, but never got there, being arrested in Lebanon and imprisoned until he was released, at the Assad regime’s instruction, at the start of the uprising in 2011.

Hijazi recounted his experience, around late 2013, meeting Abdel Aziz al-Mahdali (Abu Usama al-Maghribi), a Moroccan jihadist connected to Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani) who was killed by Nusra in March 2014, and Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), and trying to have them cease-and-desist attacking Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other groups, but “the mere thought of stopping the battle didn’t exist” for them. Al-Mahdali and al-Absi had diverted fighters from the frontlines with the regime to attack the FSA, and al-Mahdali, who had military responsibility for certain areas, used foreign fighters who didn’t speak Arabic—and thus couldn’t read the flag over the base—to massacre an Nusra gathering.

Hijazi then met with IS’s senior religious official, Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), and was informed that all opposition to IS was heresy, and, “We will exterminate them!” Hijazi found Batirashvili, acting as the General Military Commander of IS, more accommodating in person to the idea of a ceasefire, but the next day IS assaulted insurgent areas with car bombs and raids.

Hijazi was head of Nusra’s military when he was reported killed in March 2015 in Idlib. This was denied swiftly by Nusra.

[Update] Hijazi was reported to be among the dozen-plus jihadists killed by the U.S.-led Coalition in March-April 2016. Hijazi was then reported by As-Safir—a pro-Hizballah outfit—to have been killed shortly after he resigned from Nusra on 5 August 2015 over their rebranding to “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” and purported “disengagement” from al-Qaeda.

Radwan Nammous (Abu Firas as-Suri)

Abu Firas as-Suri

Abu Firas as-Suri

Nammous, a Syrian, is a founder of al-Qaeda and has the classic biography of the Syrian Salafi-jihadist.

Nammous was dismissed from the army for being an Islamist sympathizer in 1979, according to one account. But Nammous was more than that: he had been a trainer for the Muslim Brotherhood-Fighting Vanguard revolt against Hafez al-Assad since 1977. Given that Nammous fled to Jordan in 1980, it is possible, if not probable, that he was actually dismissed from the army in 1980 and immediately fled. Nammous went to do holy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1981. Nammous fell in with Abdullah Azzam and Usama bin Ladin and their al-Maktab al-Khadamat (The Services Bureau), which would evolve into al-Qaeda in August 1988. Nammous was involved in creating Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, al-Qaeda’s expansion into Pakistan. Nammous moved to Yemen in 2003, where he was presumably involved in the foundation of AQAP. And Nammous came full circle in mid-2013, moving back to Syria to aid the jihad against Assad.

Nammous, like the others, entered Syria with his primary mission to try to settle the nascent schism between Nusra and then-ISIS. Nammous has since then become a media spokesman for Nusra.

AQC and Ahrar a-Sham

The other known AQC veterans in Syria have shown up in the ranks of Ahrar a-Sham.

Abu Khalid as-Suri

Abu Khalid as-Suri

By far the most important of these is Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid as-Suri). Al-Bahaya traces the above-mentioned Syrian Salafi-jihadist path almost perfectly. The lifelong best friend of Nasar, after fleeing Syria once the revolt was crushed by Hafez al-Assad, al-Bahaya did jihad against the Soviets and stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban conquest. Fleeing the NATO invasion in 2001, al-Bahaya had personal and financial contacts with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood cells in Europe that had shifted into al-Qaeda’s camp during the 1990s, including the bombers in Madrid in March 2004 and (reportedly) those who brought off the 7/7 massacre in London. Not long after this al-Bahaya was rounded up in circumstances that remain unclear, and “rendered” to Syria, where he was among those released by the regime in 2011.

Al-Bahaya’s history with al-Qaeda is somewhat complicated. Al-Bahaya and Nasar specifically denied being members of al-Qaeda in 1999, around the time they sent a letter to Bin Ladin, condemning him for defying Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar by not only orchestrating terrorist attacks from bases in areas under Taliban rule, but giving interviews boasting about this to the international press. Bin Ladin was “jeopardize[ing] … the Arab presence … in all of Afghanistan”, the authors said, and “for no good reason”. Indeed, they suggested it was a childish vanity. “[We] think our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans, and applause”, they wrote.

Nonetheless, al-Bahaya was appointed as Ayman az-Zawahiri’s personal “representative in Syria” in 2013, charged with mediating the Nusra-ISIS spat, and the common understanding is that al-Bahaya was an AQC agent to the end. The importance of this is that al-Bahaya never joined Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) and was a founder of Ahrar (something Ahrar denies). Al-Bahaya was the mentor (p. 109) to Ahrar’s leader, Hassan Abboud (Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi), and was assessed to have a “significant role in guiding the group”. Al-Bahaya was the crucial facilitator, the “linchpin”, of the close battlefield alliance that remains to this day between Nusra and Ahrar. During the early phase of the Nusra-ISIS split, al-Bahaya was the driving force behind Ahrar providing potentially existential help to Nusra to allow it to survive the schism with its parent organization. In short, al-Bahaya is the clearest evidence of an al-Qaeda imprint in Ahrar’s DNA. Al-Bahaya was struck down by then-ISIS in February 2014.

Abu Hafs al-Masri

Abu Hafs al-Masri

Another AQC veteran is Abu Ayman al-Hamawi, a senior Ahrar deputy who was killed in the explosion that nearly wiped out Ahrar’s leadership a year ago, was a close companion of Zarqawi’s who wrote Zarqawi’s bay’a to Bin Ladin in 2004. (For this reason, Abu Ayman’s condemnation of I.S. as khawarij carries more weight than most.) Then there is Abu Hafs al-Masri, an Egyptian who had spent seventeen years in al-Qaeda, fighting in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, Somalia, and Bosnia. Abu Hafs was killed fighting in Ahrar’s ranks during the fall of Idlib.

Ahrar has other members with a history of Islamic militancy that aren’t exactly AQC.

One is a senior Ahrar military commander, Iyad al-Sha’ar (Abu al-Hassan), a Syrian from Jisr a-Shughur, who fought in the Afghan jihad (and whose brother, Abu Yasr, fought and died in the Chechen jihad.) Another is Mohamed Ayman Aboul-Tout (Abul-Abbas a-Shami), a Syrian born in Idlib, who fought with the Fighting Vanguard against Old Man Assad and was reportedly a founder of Ahrar. Aboul-Tout is now an Ahrar shar’i. And finally, Baha Mustafa al-Jughl (Abu Hamza al-Jughl), who wasn’t involved in the anti-Hafez revolt but was arrested between May 2001 and February 2005 in Pakistan for involvement in an unknown terrorist group, and sent to Syria where he was imprisoned in the infamous Sednaya. Though al-Jughl was released at one point, he seems to have been re-arrested in late 2005 and have been in jail when the uprising began in 2011.

Abu al-Hassan at-Tunisi

Abu al-Hassan at-Tunisi


Update: On September 19, it was announced that Abu al-Hassan at-Tunisi had been killed the previous night fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, as part of Jaysh al-Fatah, in al-Fua, one of the Shi’a villages (the other is Kafraya) that represent the Assad regime’s final outposts in Idlib. At-Tunisi was a confidante of Usama bin Ladin’s, who allegedly fought with al-Qaeda against NATO forces at Tora Bora in 2001. At-Tunisi was among those sent by AQC to Nusra.



[1] Who it was that finished ahead of Samir Hijazi at al-Faruq is unclear. Al-Faruq trained four of the 9/11 killers: Wail al-Shehri and Waleed al-Shehri, who were on the first plane smashed into the World Trade Centre by Mohamed Atta, and Saeed al-Ghamdi and Ahmed al-Nami, who were on United Airlines Flight 93 that was forced down by passengers in Pennsylvania. The four men had gathered to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda in the spring of 2000 and Wail took the kunya “Abu Musab al-Janubi”.

Correction: Post initially said Iyad al-Sha’ar had a history with al-Qaeda; while al-Sha’ar fought in the anti-Soviet jihad, it does not seem to have been as part of al-Qaeda. Post has also been updated to reflect new details about the biographies of Samir Hijazi and Muhammad al-Bahaya.

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