A statement from Issam al-Barqawi, far better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordan-based Palestinian jihadi-salafist cleric, was released in English on Telegram on 15 August 2017. The statement dealt with his view of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), highlighting again the questions around this Syrian-based jihadi group and its relations with al-Qaeda. Continue reading →
In April 2015, a United State Federal Grand jury in Ohio charged Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, also known as “Ayanle”, with three terrorism-related offences. Yesterday, court records were unsealed that revealed that Mohamud pleaded guilty to all charges, admitting to having fought with a terrorist organization in Syria and returned to the United States with the intention of carrying out an act of domestic terrorism. Mohamud was in contact with foreign terrorist operatives throughout the period he was plotting an attack within the United States. But—and this is the most significant aspect of the case—Mohamud was not in contact with one of the Islamic State’s intelligence operatives, who guide attacks in a manner now relatively well-understood. Instead, Mohamud was in contact with Jabhat al-Nusra, at that time al-Qaeda’s declared branch in Syria. Al-Nusra is now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and claimed in July 2016 to have disaffiliated from al-Qaeda’s “central”, not that this has (nor will nor should) remove HTS from the terrorism list. Regardless of its formal status within al-Qaeda’s command structure, HTS retains significant links with al-Qaeda’s global networks, and a breakaway group from HTS in Syria has reaffirmed its loyalty to al-Qaeda. Mohamud’s case is an extremely important data point in assessing the risk these overlapping and mutually reinforcing entities pose to the West and the wider world. Continue reading →
Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) is a U.S.-designated terrorist, an al-Qaeda operative who has formally resigned from al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), which was previously Jabhat al-Nusra and has now reorganized itself as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Earlier this month, on 11 March, Michael Ratney, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, released an open letter (in Arabic) labelling all constituents of HTS as terrorists seeking to exploit the Syrian opposition, and incited divisions within the Islamist sections of the insurgency by including Ahrar al-Sham—heretofore a close HTS ally, though recently involved in clashes with the group—as part of the Syrian revolution. HTS issued a formal response on 12 March and, on 20 March, Mahamed issued his own response, which is reproduced below. The main themes were anti-Americanism and dissuading the Syrian armed opposition that the U.S. was an ally; arguing that HTS was different than JFS and unconnected to al-Qaeda; and the strong impression of a threat should the U.S. move against HTS—while explicitly denying that such a threat was being made. Continue reading →
Last night it was reported that al-Qaeda’s overall deputy, Abu Khayr al-Masri, had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition in Syria with a drone strike. This was soon seemingly confirmed by pro-Qaeda channels, and Abu al-Khayr was said to have been buried this morning. Though the emphasis on targeting jihadist leaders can be overdone, the demise of Abu al-Khayr is an important development, and one with significance beyond itself.
Abu al-Khayr’s career is demonstrative of a few interesting trends within the Jihadi-Salafist movement, primary among them the willingness of the Iranian revolution to work with the Sunni jihadists, al-Qaeda very much included, when it suits its purposes, particularly in undermining Western interests. Abu al-Khayr also elucidates the changed nature of al-Qaeda, where the “centre” (AQC) could now be said to be more in Syria than the Afghanistan-Pakistan, and where al-Qaeda operates both an overt and covert presence to try to secure a durable foothold in the Levant, which might in time be a base for attacks against the West, currently suspended only for tactical reasons. Continue reading →
A series of clashes broke out on 19 January between al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore close ally and portal into the Syrian rebellion, Ahrar al-Sham. By 23 January, JFS had expanded its targets, engaging in hostilities with mainstream rebel groups in the “Greater Idlib” area, and specifically trying—and succeeding—in dismantling the positions of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a moderate group, west of Aleppo. The crisis continued to escalate, forcing many groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham for protection, until 28 January, when a JFS-led merger was announced under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syrian Liberation Committee. HTS announced a ceasefire, and since then individuals and groups—including a significant number from Ahrar—have given allegiance to HTS. This radical reshaping of revolutionary dynamics in northern Syria has undoubtedly created antibodies going forward against al-Qaeda that could be capitalized on by the international community, but the present situation is highly favourable to al-Qaeda. Continue reading →
From the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, there have been accusations that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was in a de facto partnership with the Islamic State (IS) against the mainstream opposition. These accusations have a considerable basis in fact: during the entirety of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, Assad collaborated with IS jihadists in the destabilization of Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of American and British troops. Once the Syrian uprising was underway, the regime undertook various measures to bolster extremists in the insurgency. Assad and IS worked in tandem to leave Syria as a binary choice between themselves: Assad was sure this would rehabilitate him in the eyes of the world and transform his criminal regime into a partner of the international community in suppressing a terrorist insurgency, and IS wanted to rally Sunnis to its banner. The Secretary of the Syrian Parliament has now come forward to underline this. Continue reading →
Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists wave their flag in Syria (Associated Press picture, source)
In the last week, the American-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, whose primary mission is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), has apparently conducted two airstrikes against senior members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), once known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in Syria. In late 2016, the U.S. began an intensified targeting campaign against al-Qaeda and associated individuals; this appears to be a continuation of that policy, which provides some guidance about Western policy on Syria more broadly. Continue reading →
UPDATE: It has subsequently become clear that the “Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir” who was killed in Syria on 18 November 2016 was not Muhammad al-Saghir, who is profiled below. The slain man, like al-Saghir a veteran of the war get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and an Egyptian jihadist with close links to al-Qaeda, also used the kunya “Abu Afghan al-Muhajir”.
A week ago, it became clear that the air war being waged by the U.S.-led Coalition, which primarily targets the Islamic State (IS), was going to expand its campaign against the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria. In the evening of 18 November 2016, the Coalition killed Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, whose real name is Muhammad Ibrahim al-Saghir. Al-Saghir also uses the name Abd al-Rahman al-Ali. This killing would appear to be part of the Coalition’s new effort.
Al-Saghir has a long record as an important jihadi religious ideologue, though his exact relationship with al-Qaeda’s network remains unclear. Al-Saghir’s most lasting contribution to jihadi-salafism is as a key guide to the founder of IS, Ahmad al-Khalayleh. Continue reading →
The deeply problematic attempted Syrian ceasefire agreement between the United States and Russia last week never really took hold and was finally torn asunder on Monday by Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad blitzing an aid convoy and launching massive, indiscriminate aerial attacks on rebel-held areas in Aleppo. Last night, the pro-Assad coalition commenced a renewed assault on Aleppo actually as the parties met to discuss putting the ceasefire back online.
It had been surreal that it was the U.S. insisting that “The ceasefire is not dead”. What it exposed was the lack of Western will to restrain the Assad regime, which al-Qaeda, especially, is exploiting, offering its services in the fight against Assad, and building a sustainable presence in Syria that will threaten the West for many years to come. Continue reading →
Humanitarian convoy in Aleppo after the airstrikes by pro-regime coalition, 20 September 2016
The United States and Russia reached an agreement over Syria on 9 September that was supposed to lead to a week of reduced violence—a ceasefire or “cessation of hostilities” (CoH). During this time, there would be free distribution of humanitarian aid—followed by joint operations against the rebranded al-Qaeda branch in the country, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. This agreement was essentially ignored by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which Russia had pledged to restrain, and on Monday the agreement was torn up by the regime, returning Syria to all-out war. Continue reading →