Sanafi al Nasr. Photograph from Saudi Interior Ministry.
Not long after Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al Suri, was killed in late February, a prominent online jihadist known as Sanafi al Nasr condemned the assassins on his Twitter feed.
Nasr praised al Suri and prayed for Allah to fight his killers. Nasr claimed to have met with al Suri “in a great session” just two weeks prior. And during their meeting, Nasr said, al Suri spoke of his “strong relationship” with Osama bin Laden, as well as his longtime friendship with Abu Musab al Suri, a key al Qaeda ideologue.
Abu Khalid al Suri knew his death might be imminent, according to Nasr. Al Suri told Nasr that “they had promised him five attackers,” according to a translation of one of Nasr’s tweets by the SITE Intelligence Group. When another Twitter user asked Nasr who he meant by “they,” Nasr responded, “The state of injustice and evil” — an obvious reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which is suspected of killing al Suri.
Nasr is a well-known jihadist who has been active online for approximately a decade. But according to US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal, he is much more than that.
Nasr, whose real name is Abdul Mohsin Abdullah Ibrahim Al Sharikh, has risen through al Qaeda’s ranks to become one of the organization’s most senior leaders.
According to US officials, Nasr leads al Qaeda’s “Victory Committee” (or Shura al Nasr), which is responsible for developing and implementing al Qaeda’s strategy and policies. The nom de guerre he uses, “Sanafi al Nasr,” actually means “Cultivator of Victory.”
And as Nasr’s tweets following Abu Khalid al Suri’s death indicate, he has relocated to Syria. In other words, Nasr now leads an elite al Qaeda committee from Syria, and not from Afghanistan or Pakistan where he was previously based.
An al Qaeda family
Sanafi al Nasr, a Saudi, is a member of Osama bin Laden’s extended family. According to US officials, he is one of bin Laden’s third cousins. Nasr has six brothers, and most of them are known to have joined al Qaeda’s jihad.
Two of Nasr’s brothers, Abdulhadi Abdallah Ibrahim al Sharikh and Abd al Razaq Abdallah Hamid Ibrahim al Sharikh, were once detainees at Guantanamo. Leaked and declassified files prepared by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) provide numerous details about the brothers and their involvement in al Qaeda.
The two Sharikh brothers were transferred from Guantanamo to their home country of Saudi Arabia on Sept. 5, 2007. In threat assessments prepared just a few months earlier, JTF-GTMO recommended that they both be retained in the Defense Department’s custody. JTF-GTMO deemed both brothers “high” risks “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.”
Despite JTF-GTMO’s warnings, the Bush administration transferred the two brothers home. One year after their transfer, in September 2008, the brothers were arrested inside Saudi Arabia for “supporting terrorism,” according to an analysis published by the Department of Defense.
Prior to their detention at Guantanamo, the JTF-GTMO files state, the Sharikh brothers were “selected and prepared by al Qaeda senior leadership for a special mission to attack US forces at the Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in Saudi Arabia.”
The two brothers were picked for the mission by senior al Qaeda leader Saif al Adel and by Abu Hafs al Masri, al Qaeda’s military chief who was killed in late 2001. Al Adel and another top al Qaeda operative, Ibn Sheikh al Libi, then oversaw their specialized training on shoulder-fired SA-7 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
Although the brothers were captured before they could carry out the attack, JTF-GTMO’s analysts found that an SA-7 SAM was fired into the air base in May 2002 but did not explode. “This attack was likely the realization of the plot” the brothers had been training to execute, JTF-GTMO found.
Other senior al Qaeda leaders, such as Abu Zubaydah and Walid Bin Attash, recognized the Sharikh brothers during questioning. Both Zubaydah and Bin Attash were placed in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program before they were transferred to Guantanamo.
Zubaydah told American officials that he recognized four of the Sharikh brothers, and first met the pair once held at Guantanamo in Kabul in 2000 or 2001. Zubaydah also knew the father of the family, saying that he had stayed in an al Qaeda guesthouse for one month.
JTF-GTMO concluded that the Sharikh father is a “probable al Qaeda member.”
Another Sharikh brother identified in the JTF-GTMO files was killed while waging jihad in Chechnya.
Based on the intelligence assembled by JTF-GTMO, it is easy to see how Nasr became so trusted within al Qaeda. His kin served al Qaeda’s most senior leaders well before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
JTF-GTMO found that Abd al Razaq al Sharikh was likely a member of the 55th Arab Brigade, which al Qaeda created to serve as its primary fighting force in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. And the brothers continued to serve al Qaeda through its darkest days, including during the Battle of Tora Bora.
Abd al Razaq al Sharikh even admitted to US officials that he witnessed a high-level al Qaeda meeting in the Tora Bora Mountains. In addition to Saif al Adel, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was in attendance.
It is not clear where Abdulhadi and Abd al Razaq al Sharikh are today. There has been little reporting on them since they were arrested inside Saudi Arabia in 2008.
Online jihadist who joined the jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Sanafi al Nasr’s online presence is well known in jihadist circles. He became active on jihadist forums and websites nearly a decade ago, posting as early as 2005, if not earlier. Many of his posts and tweets have been devoted to praising key jihadist leaders who have been killed. In an April 2013 tweet, for instance, Nasr praised Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Adam, al Qaeda’s deceased intelligence chief, as a “martyr.”
Nasr has also frequently heralded the arrival of his fellow online jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In one piece, Nasr advised new recruits to commit an act of violence in their home country before leaving to fight in the jihad abroad.
Nasr himself relocated to Afghanistan or Pakistan in 2007, according to his writings.
In February 2009, Nasr was included on Saudi Arabia’s list of 85 most wanted terrorists and extremists. Nasr was number 12 on the list. According to BBC Monitoring, Nasr is connected to other jihadists on the Saudis’ list, including Salih al Qarawi, the former leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon.
It became clear in 2011 that Nasr was an important al Qaeda figure when he first contributed to the Vanguards of Khorasan magazine, al Qaeda’s flagship publication. His article focused on female prisoners held in Saudi Arabia.
Until now, however, Nasr’s role as the head of an elite committee within al Qaeda was not publicly known.
Infighting in Syria
From al Qaeda’s perspective, the infighting between factions inside Syria threatens to spoil the jihad. The fighting has pitted ISIS, the former al Qaeda affiliate, against al Qaeda’s official branch, the Al Nusrah Front, and the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham, as well as other organizations.
Nasr is clearly on the side of Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham. He largely stayed out of the infighting on social media until late 2013. But he then became a vocal critic of ISIS and its online supporters, denouncing their “intolerance.”
In a series of tweets in October 2013, Nasr criticized unnamed jihadist leaders inside Syria. He accused them of ignoring the teachings of al Qaeda ideologue Abu Musab al Suri. Nasr’s endorsement of Abu Musab’s teachings is telling. In his extensive writings, Abu Musab examined the reasons why the jihadist project had failed in many countries, including in Syria in the 1980s and in Algeria in the 1990s, and he made specific recommendations for avoiding the same mistakes in the future.
The Al Nusrah Front openly follows Abu Musab’s teachings. Ahrar al Sham appears to be following a course similar to the one advocated by Abu Musab as well. Abu Musab’s longtime companion and friend, Abu Khalid al Suri, was a founding member of and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham until his death last month.
Both the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham have attempted to unify the jihadists’ ranks inside Syria and avoid infighting. Abu Musab warned against such internecine fighting in his writings.
ISIS, however, has pursued its own goals and sought to establish itself as the premier authority in charge of the jihad. This has brought ISIS into direct conflict with other jihadist organizations, thereby repeating the mistakes of the past, from al Qaeda’s point of view.
As the head of al Qaeda’s “Victory Committee,” ISIS’ actions have certainly challenged Nasr. The Long War Journal has reviewed months’ worth of tweets by Nasr. His posts show that he is clearly allied with the ideologues who have attempted to rein in ISIS, including Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, his fellow Saudi. Muhaysini attempted to broker a peace deal between the rival jihadist factions, but his initiative failed in late January when ISIS rejected the proposal. Al Qaeda’s general command then disowned ISIS in early February.
The killing of Abu Khalid al Suri in late February was a major escalation in the conflict.
After al Suri’s death, Nasr changed the photo at the top of his Twitter feed to honor his fallen comrade. Previously, the photo had been the one used by Saudi authorities in 2009 in announcing that Nasr was on their most wanted list; the picture is a dated one and shows Nasr as a young man. The new photo shows al Suri after his “martyrdom.”
The conflict with ISIS remains unresolved. After al Suri’s death, Nasr tweeted, “I ask Allah to take vengeance upon your killers.”