U.S. Treasury Targets Al-Qaeda in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 24, 2017

The U.S. Treasury on Thursday imposed sanctions on two senior operatives associated with al-Qaeda in Syria (AQS). This is undoubtedly part of the escalating campaign against AQS. The two men are interesting on their own account, however, and give a glimpse at some of the things that have shaped jihadism across the Fertile Crescent. In the one case, that of Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil, better-known as Iyad al-Tubaysi or Abu Julaybib, this history begins with the earliest days of the Islamic State (IS), from which AQS splintered, in Iraq before Saddam Husayn was deposed. The other case, that of Bassam al-Hasri (Abu Umar al-Filistini), highlights the events at the outset of the Syrian uprising, when the regime of Bashar al-Assad set in motion its strategic plan to militarize and radicalize the nascent insurgency in order to present the population and the world a binary choice—the dictator or a terrorist takeover.


The first man sanctioned by the Treasury is named as Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil, also known as Iyad al-Tubaysi, and by his nom de guerre Abu Julaybib.

Al-Tubaysi was a brother-in-law to Ahmad al-Khalayleh, the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded IS in Taliban Afghanistan in 1999. After the Taliban was overthrown, al-Tubaysi accompanied al-Zarqawi to Iran and from there they moved into the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq in April 2002 to join Ansar al-Islam.

By May 2002, al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad and soon after a number of senior al-Qaeda-linked jihadists joined him.[1] By July 2002, al-Zarqawi was recruiting in Lebanon and Syria; from Syria he organized the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan in October. Returning to Kurdistan in November 2002, al-Zarqawi waited for the Americans to arrive. The jihadi camps in the north were obliterated in the first days of the U.S.-led invasion and al-Zarqawi would once again take refuge in Iran, before he and his supporters returned to Iraq in May and June 2003.

Al-Tubaysi “remained close” to al-Zarqawi until he was killed in June 2006, according to the Treasury.

When IS, under the direction of its then-deputy Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), dispatched operatives into Syria in August 2011 to take advantage of the uprising by forming a Syrian wing, later known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Tubaysi was among them, as the Treasury notes.[2]

Al-Tubaysi was al-Nusra’s emir in Deraa, southern Syria, a post he was occupying when he was reported—evidently erroneously—to have been killed in December 2012 and replaced by Mustafa Abdul Latif Saleh (Abu Anas al-Sahaba), another member of the IS movement in its earliest days and one of the IS advance party who formed al-Nusra.

In southern Syria, al-Tubaysi “empowered [al-Nusra’s] security and intelligence operatives responsible for assassinations, ran prisons notorious for torture, and encouraged the looting of vehicles and possessions of Free Syrian Army members,” Treasury reports.

Treasury continues to identify AQS as al-Nusra, though the group rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016, claiming to have severed its links with al-Qaeda, and then last month took the leading part in a merger of the kind that formed IS in 2006. The new group is called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

By Treasury’s reckoning, al-Tubaysi was the “third highest-ranking official” in al-Nusra when he was appointed as the coastal emir in March 2016 by Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), al-Nusra’s leader, who is now formally the military leader of HTS and thus a subordinate to Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar).

Al-Tubaysi “took part in discussions among the group’s senior leadership regarding [al-Nusra’s] overall strategy and the feasibility of establishing an emirate in Idlib, Syria,” according to the Treasury. Indeed, al-Tubaysi’s move to the north was interpreted as a means of coercion—”a really scary move,” as one rebel put it, referring to al-Tubaysi’s reputation for assassinating rebels in the south—in the then-ongoing talks about an insurgent merger, al-Nusra’s way of burrowing into the local landscape, simultaneously shielding itself and tilting society in its direction.

On 23 August 2016, Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir), a senior then-JFS official, became the first such person to unambiguously use the term “split” in relation to JFS’s relationship with al-Qaeda. While there is every indication that the claim of al-Nusra and its successors to have moved on from al-Qaeda is an information operation to allow the organization to dig in locally, even this pretence was too much for some, al-Tubaysi among them.

On the same day as Mahamed’s interview was published, al-Tubaysi, al-Nusra’s military leader Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni), and a half-dozen other “hardliners,” went public with their separation from JFS because of its alleged dissociation from al-Qaeda. Al-Tubaysi reaffirmed his bay’a (oath of allegiance) to al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and is now part of an avowed al-Qaeda group—separate from HTS—in Idlib, led by al-Zawahiri’s deputy, Ahmad Hasan (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri).

[UPDATE: It was reported, on 28 December 2018, by jihadists online, that al-Tubaysi had been killed in Deraa, southern Syria. Al-Tubaysi is said to have been killed alongside two other men, Abu Talha al-Muhandis and Salman al-Tunisi, apparently as they tried to enter Jordan. Al-Tubaysi and his comrades were members of Tandheem Hurras al-Deen, the splinter from HTS that al-Tubaysi helped in the spring of 2018, which is openly pledged to al-Qaeda. Al-Tubaysi was briefly arrested by HTS in late 2017 as tensions with al-Shara rose.]


Bassam al-Hasri took over from al-Tubaysi as the Deraa emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2015, according to the Treasury, and “oversaw the group’s military operations in southern Syria.” Before this, al-Hasri had been a “religious advisor” to al-Nusra, Treasury notes. Al-Hasri is also known as Abu Umar al-Filistini, according to Charles Lister, which means that al-Hasri was also among the IS advance party that created al-Nusra.

Al-Hasri was only able to help found al-Nusra because he had been released by the Assad regime, with hundreds of other jihadist prisoners, eleven days into the uprising in March 2011, after spending six years in jail for his “longstanding ties to al-Qaeda”.

Further waves of amnesties for hardened Islamists followed. Among those released were senior IS official Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), and local Raqqa emirs Abu Luqman and Awad al-Makhlaf (Abu Hamza), plus al-Qaeda’s designated representative in the Levant, Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid al-Suri), and the leaders of the major Islamist groups—Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham—who shared the same cellblock in Sednaya, the warehouse for the worst jihadists the Assad government had in custody.

Meanwhile, secular, peaceful demonstrators continued to be arrested and assassinated. By May 2011, Sednaya had been emptied, and it was then filled with activists, lawyers, and students, who have been subjected to crimes against humanity, ranging from torture to rape to murder—quite often in that order—on a scale and in a bureaucratized manner with few precedents since the Holocaust.

From the outset, Assad said his opposition was a terrorist conspiracy; he and his allies have worked very hard to make this a reality ever since, and al-Hasri is a part of that scheme.


The Treasury also sanctioned an entity related to the Assad government, the Metallic Manufacturing Factory (MMF), for its relationship to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. “MMF acts for or on behalf of Mechanical Construction Factory,” Treasury reports, an entity that is on the WMD blacklist because it has acted as a cut-out for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which develops and produces WMD and the means to deliver them.


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[1] Among those in Baghdad with al-Zarqawi and al-Tubaysi were Thirwat Shehata and Yusuf al-Dardiri. They were soon joined by Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), al-Zarqawi’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), and Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri).

[2] The seven men who moved (p. 58-9) into Syria in 2011 to set up al-Nusra in collaboration with the extensive IS networks present in Syria from the time Assad had used them against the Americans and the newly-released jihadists from Assad’s prisons were: three Syrians, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), Saleh al-Hamawi, and Anas Hasan Khattab; two Jordanians of Palestinian extraction, Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib) and Mustafa Abdul Latif Saleh (Abu Anas al-Sahaba); an Iraqi, Maysar al-Jiburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), and a Palestinian, Bassam al-Hasri (Abu Umar al-Filistini). By some accounts, it was eight IS members who crossed into Syria to form Jabhat al-Nusra in the summer of 2011. If that is true, the other jihadist is likely to be Muhammad Yusuf Uthman Abd al-Salam (Abdul Aziz al-Qatari), a Qatari who was the first emir of Jund al-Aqsa.


Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society. Post has been updated

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