Not long after the news broke that more than one dozen senior leaders in Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front had been killed in Syria earlier today, several influential al Qaeda figures took to their Twitter accounts to mourn their fallen allies. And one of them claimed that the Islamic Front’s political head had been in contact with Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda.
“May Allah have mercy on them and be pleased with them, and may He gather us with them in the highest of gardens [in paradise],” a senior al Qaeda leader known as Sanafi al Nasr wrote in Arabic on his Twitter feed. “A tragedy has occurred,” Nasr added. “We ask Allah to compensate the Muslims with goodness.”
The hashtag in Nasr’s tweet reads, “#Martyrdom_of_Ahrar_alSham_Leadership.”
Nasr has long been close with Ahrar al Sham’s leaders. After Mohamed Bahaiah (a.k.a. Abu Khalid al Suri) was killed in February, Nasr wrote in a tweet that he had tried to warn Bahaiah that the Islamic State was going to try to kill him.
Ahrar al Sham, the Islamic Front, and Al Nusrah are all opposed to the Islamic State, the former al Qaeda branch that has stormed its way through Syria and Iraq since the beginning of this year. The Islamic State is suspected of killing Bahaiah and of launching today’s attack on Ahrar al Sham’s leaders.
Bahaiah, who was both a senior al Qaeda operative and a cofounder of Ahrar al Sham, was a close companion of Hassan Abboud, the Islamic Front political chief and head of Ahrar al Sham. Abboud was killed in today’s explosion.
Nasr previously revealed on his Twitter account that al Qaeda’s senior leaders had dispatched veteran jihadists to work with both Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
In another tweet today, Nasr referred to drone strikes hitting leadership meetings in northern Pakistan. Nasr then asked: “Is the targeting of the Ahrar leadership a preface to the meeting on Thursday?” It is not clear what upcoming meeting, on Thursday, Sept. 11, Nasr is referencing.
The US Treasury Department designated Nasr as an al Qaeda terrorist in August, noting that he is one of Al Nusrah’s “top strategists” and a “senior” leader in the group.
In a tweet on his own social media page, Dr. Sami al Uraydi asked Allah to accept the Ahrar al Sham leaders as “martyrs” and said he hopes to meet them in paradise. Al Uraydi is a Jordanian ideologue and senior religious official in Al Nusrah. Al Uraydi renewed his “vow of fealty” to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, in a video that was released in late July.
Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a jihadist who relocated from Australia to Syria and is now a religious leader in Al Nusrah, wrote several tweets dedicated to the Ahrar al Sham leaders. The tweets are in both Arabic and English.
“May Allah accept our brothers & unite us with them in the highest paradise,” Abu Sulayman wrote in English, adding “O Allah! Deal with the killers ….” The hashtag included in the tweet, written in Arabic, is the same one Nasr used.
“Ya Allah! Amongst those killed were men I was honored to befriend,” Abu Sulayman wrote in another tweet. “O Allah! Unite us all under your shade and in the highest of paradise.”
Claim that Hassan Abboud, the Islamic Front’s political chief, was in contact with Ayman al Zawahiri
Still another well-connected jihadist, who is known as “Shaybat al Hukama” (or “the eldest of the wise”), honored Hassan Abboud in a tweet. Al Hukama’s real name is not publicly known, but his nom de guerre is likely a tribute to Ayman al Zawahiri, who is often referred to as “the wise man of the ummah.”
In a tweet including a picture purportedly showing Abboud’s corpse, al Hukama wrote: “Allah was pleased to have him communicate with Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri.”
Thus, al Hukama claimed that Abboud had been in communication with the head of al Qaeda. The picture al Hukama posted of Abboud can be seen on the right.
Al Hukama’s claim likely has at least some basis in fact. Abboud’s longtime comrade, Mohammed Bahaiah, was Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed. And, according to the US Treasury Department, Bahaiah helped funnel cash from gulf donors through Syria to other parts of the al Qaeda network. So, it is certainly conceivable that Abboud was in direct contact with Zawahiri, given that Abboud’s righthand man served Zawahiri.
There are additional reasons to believe that Al Hukama’s claim may be accurate. Al Hukama is believed to play a role in al Qaeda’s media and propaganda operations. And, by his own admission on Twitter, al Hukama admittedly helped deliver a petition from several leading jihadist ideologues to Zawahiri in April. The jihadists asked Zawahiri to comment on key issues in the dispute between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Al Hukama would later use his Twitter feed to tell the authors that the petition had reached al Qaeda’s leaders “in full” and that they would be responding. Indeed, Zawahiri issued a response to the petition in May 2014, saying he owed his “honorable brothers” a response. Al Hukama was not named by Zawahiri, but he clearly helped broker the back and forth.
Al Hukama is highly respected by known al Qaeda operatives on Twitter, including officials in the Al Nusrah Front.
Oren Adaki, an Arabic language specialist and research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.