Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden's courier, now Zawahiri's representative
A senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri is a leading figure in Ahrar al Sham, a Syrian extremist group that is part of the recently formed Islamic Front. Al Suri's real name is Mohamed Bahaiah.
Bahaiah is a longtime al Qaeda operative who worked as a courier for the terror network. Spanish authorities think he may have delivered surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks to al Qaeda's senior leadership in Afghanistan in early 1998.
In addition to being a senior member of Ahrar al Sham, Bahaiah today serves as Ayman al Zawahiri's representative in the Levant.
Ahrar al Sham is not one of al Qaeda's two official branches inside Syria, which are the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or Levant (ISIS) . But Ahrar al Sham has closely cooperated with the al Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield even while engaging in a very public dispute with ISIS.
Bahaiah's role in Ahrar al Sham has been confirmed by two US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal. One official noted that while Bahaiah is not the emir or overall head of Ahrar al Sham, he is considered a central figure within in its ranks and plays a significant role in guiding the group.
Other al Qaeda operatives hold key positions within the extremist organization as well, according to the US officials.
In an article earlier this month, As-Safir, a Beirut-based publication, reported that Bahaiah "has played a prominent role" in Ahrar al Sham since its founding and "has sought to to cooperate and consult with prominent al Qaeda figures regarding the best methods of jihadist work in Syria." The publication cited a "source in the Ahrar al Sham movement."
The Daily Beast reports that Bahaiah is "overseeing the relationship between the al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic Front."
Bahaiah has kept his role within Ahrar al Sham out of the spotlight. US officials say that he is part of a secretive al Qaeda cadre that has sought to influence or co-opt parts of the Syrian insurgency that are not official al Qaeda branches.
A courier for Osama bin Laden
European officials first gathered evidence connecting Bahaiah to the al Qaeda network as early as the 1990s. Spanish investigators identified Bahaiah as one of Osama bin Laden's most trusted couriers.
Bahaiah "is the person who was totally trusted by many different people in the various countries and was able to coordinate and transmit orders from bin Laden," a Spanish judicial official told The New York Times in December 2003. This same official said that Bahaiah "was also being investigated for helping to finance an unsuccessful plot in 1997 to kill the prime minister of Yemen."
Spanish court records reviewed by The Long War Journal cite Bahaiah's longstanding relationship with Imad Yarkas, a fellow Syrian who headed al Qaeda's presence inside Spain prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Spanish officials found, for example, that Bahaiah delivered money from Yarkas to Abu Qatada, an al Qaeda-affiliated ideologue, in London.
Bahaiah's brother-in-law is Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, a Syrian businessman who was arrested on terrorism charges in 2002. The United Nations has described Zouaydi as "a suspected financier of al Qaeda's worldwide terrorist efforts." Zouaydi would say, according to Spanish court documents, that Bahaiah's "mission had been to establish contacts at the international level."
One of Zouaydi's employees, a fellow Syrian named Ghasoub Al Abrash Ghalyoun, traveled to the US in 1997. During his trip, Ghalyoun made suspicious videos of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks. Ghalyoun would later claim that the videos were simply the work of an eager tourist. Spanish authorities, who tied Ghalyoun to Yarkas' operations, had a different view.
In July 2002, after arresting Ghalyoun for a second time, Spanish police released a statement regarding the videos. "The style and duration of the recordings far exceed touristic curiosity," the statement reads, according to an account by the Associated Press. "For example, two of the tapes are like a documentary study, with innumerable takes from all distances and angles of the Twin Towers in New York."
In addition to the World Trade Center, Ghalyoun made recordings of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, and the Statue of Liberty, as well as theme parks. The Golden Gate Bridge's "suspension pillar" was "given substantial attention," according to the police statement.
Spanish investigators believed that Ghalyoun's videos were delivered to senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. The allegation was contained in a Sept. 17, 2003 indictment detailing the layers of evidence amassed against Yarkas' al Qaeda network.
"The Spanish indictment alleges that an al Qaeda courier was in Ghalyoun's town in Spain shortly after the trip and that the courier probably delivered the tape to al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan," the 9/11 Commission reported.
According to the Spanish government, that courier was Bahaiah.
The story of Ghalyoun's videos remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Spanish investigators became convinced that it was more likely than not that the videos were part of al Qaeda's attack planning and that the Yarkas cell had supported the plot.
However, the 9/11 Commission concluded that the evidence was not strong enough to say that al Qaeda's Spanish cell was directly involved in the attack. The commission came to this conclusion despite the fact that Yarkas apparently had some foreknowledge of the attack. In August 2001, Yarkas received a call from a fellow operative who said he had entered "the field of aviation" and would be "slitting the throat of the bird."
In any event, the Spanish government amassed a wealth of evidence concerning Bahaiah's al Qaeda role.
Close ally of prominent al Qaeda ideologue
Bahaiah was a close aide and ally to Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Musab al Suri), an influential al Qaeda ideologue whose work is regularly cited in jihadist literature, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine. In his seminal work, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, Nasar describes Bahaiah as "my brother and friend, my companion throughout my life."
Both Bahaiah and Nasar had been imprisoned in Bashar al Assad's Syria and were freed in the wake of the uprisings.*
In his biography of Nasar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri, Brynjar Lia summarizes Bahaiah's relationship with Nasar and the al Qaeda network in Europe.
As Lia also recounts, Bahaiah and Nasar had their disagreements with al Qaeda's senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden, prior to Sept. 11, 2001. But this did not stop Bahaiah from serving as a trusted al Qaeda courier. And Nasar mended his own the relationship with bin Laden after 9/11. When Nasar was designated a global terrorist in 2004, the US State Department noted that "in the wake of the [9/11] attacks [Nasar] pledged loyalty to Osama Bin Laden as a member of al Qaeda."
Nasar had his own ties to al Qaeda operatives throughout Europe. And his name surfaced as a suspect in both the Mar. 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings and the July 7, 2005 London bombings. While Nasar certainly had ties to the networks that executed those attacks, his specific ties to the plots, if any, are uncertain. Nasar previously denied any direct role.
While it is unknown what role Nasar plays today, Bahaiah is now Zawahiri's man in the Levant.
Zawahiri's main representative and mediator
Earlier this year, Zawahiri named Bahaiah as his chief representative to settle an ongoing leadership disagreement between al Qaeda's two official branches.
The dispute erupted in April when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who heads the ISIS, tried to fold al Qaeda's operations in Iraq and Syria into a single organization. Al Baghdadi's attempt to make the Al Nusrah Front subordinate to his command was rejected by Abu Muhammad al Julani, who heads Al Nusrah.
Zawahiri's ruling on the disagreement came in a letter that was authored in May and published by Al Jazeera in June.
In the letter, Zawahiri appoints Bahaiah as his mediator. Zawahiri describes Bahaiah as "the best of men we had known among the Mujahidin." Zawahiri writes that Bahaiah has been empowered to make sure that his orders are carried out and to resolve "any dispute" between the two emirs "arising from the interpretation of this ruling." If necessary, Bahaiah can "set up a Sharia justice court for giving a ruling on the case."
Bahaiah's role in Ahrar al Sham is not mentioned in Zawahiri's letter. But US offficials say it helps to explain why Zawahiri thought that Bahaiah was well-positioned to settle the dispute. Ahrar al Sham's leaders command a large and effective fighting force that has participated in key battles alongside al Qaeda's two official branches.
To date, Bahaiah has not been able to end the leadership dispute. Ahrar al Sham and ISIS have had their own sometimes contentious disagreements as well.
US officials point out, however, that al Qaeda's senior leadership was clever enough to place multiple bets within the Syrian insurgency.
In late November, Ahrar al Sham was one of several groups that announced the formation of a new Islamic Front, which has been billed as an Islamist or jihadist alternative to al Qaeda. But al Qaeda's presence within Ahrar al Sham ensures that it maintains some degree of influence within the new coalition, the US officials point out.
Ahrar al Sham holds some of the Islamic Front's key posts.
*Note: In April 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nasar (Abu Musab al Suri) had been freed from prison. There are conflicting accounts about Nasar's current status.