Al Nusrah Front confirmed today that Abu Firas al Suri, a veteran jihadist who served al Qaeda since the 1980s, was killed in an American airstrike on Apr. 3. The group eulogized Abu Firas in a statement released online that was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The al Qaeda arm says that Abu Firas was killed along with a “group from the best of our brothers” in a “Crusader airstrike carried out by the Crusader-Arab coalition led by America.”
The jihadists portray the airstrike as a service to Bashar al Assad’s regime.
“America has blatantly helped the Nusayri [a pejorative used to describe Alawites and Bashar al Assad’s government] regime, where it bombed a camp that was preparing to graduate a class of mujahideen to fill their role in defending their religion and people, the people of al Sham [Syria], against the hordes of the enemy that gathered against them, including the Nusayris, Rafidha [Shiites], and Crusaders,” the statement reads, according to SITE’s translation.
The camp’s “class of heroes” was from the same “group” of jihadists that overran the village of Talat al-‘Iss two days earlier, according to Al Nusrah. In other words, the al Qaeda group claims that those killed in the airstrike are the same as those jihadists fighting Assad and his allies.
Al Nusrah is a regional branch of al Qaeda’s global organization
The Department of Defense confirmed on Apr. 4 that Abu Firas was targeted in a US airstrike. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that “al Qaeda members meeting in northwestern Syria” were the target, but he did not say anything about the training camp Al Nusrah claims was hit.
Cook acknowledged Abu Firas’ longstanding membership in al Qaeda, noting that he began working for Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. But Cook’s description of Al Nusrah made its al Qaeda affiliation sound weaker than it really is.
In light of the fact that an American airstrike targeted Abu Firas, a reporter asked Cook if Al Nusrah’s leaders are a “legitimate target.” The Pentagon Press Secretary replied: “We have always considered al Qaeda leaders to be legitimate targets. Of course, Al Nusrah has its ties to al Qaeda. And that is something that we’ve been very upfront about for years. And [this] continues to be an ongoing, active part of our efforts, will be to target al Qaeda leadership.”
However, Al Nusrah doesn’t just have “ties” to al Qaeda. Al Nusrah is one of al Qaeda’s several regional branches. The others are: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), and Shabaab. Still other organizations are also part of al Qaeda’s network. [For more on al Qaeda’s regional branches, see LWJ report, Analysis: Al Nusrah Front ‘committed’ to Ayman al Zawahiri’s ‘orders’.]
As a regional branch of al Qaeda, Al Nusrah is responsible for waging jihad in its designated geographical area, the Levant. Like other regional heads of al Qaeda’s global organization, Al Nusrah emir Abu Muhammad al Julani has sworn an oath of allegiance (bayat) to al Qaeda chieftain Ayman al Zawahiri. And Julani is openly loyal to Zawahiri to this day.
During a two-part interview that aired on Al Jazeera in late May and early June 2015, Julani explained the he is “committed to the orders of Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri]” and follows the “directives that come to us from” the al Qaeda master.
“By the grace of Allah,” Julani said, “we have inherited this banner and this jihad.” The “al Qaeda organization or the Afghan jihad renewed the jihad,” leading it to be “extended to Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Algeria, and…the Levant.” With the exception of Iraq, al Qaeda’s official branches openly operate in all of the areas mentioned by Julani. (It is possible that al Qaeda is clandestinely working inside Iraq as well.)
In another interview, aired on Orient TV in December of last year, Julani refused to break from Zawahiri. He also explained how al Qaeda works. Nusrah “at this stage is only interested in fighting Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah,” he said. Julani elaborated by explaining that the al Qaeda organization “has various roles divided among various parties” and “not everyone has the same role.” Al Qaeda may have “people who are fighting the United States and operating in Europe,” but that is not Al Nusrah’s task.
“We have people whose hair had gone gray in the mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere,” Julani continued. “They had been involved in war against the [Assad] regime in the Levant the 1980s” and went on “to Afghanistan and were involved in the war against the Russians, then the war between the factions there and the Taliban government, and then the American war, before returning to the Levant to fight the [Assad] regime.”
Although Julani did not name any of these jihadist veterans, he clearly had men such as Abu Firas al Suri in mind. Abu Firas’ life followed almost precisely the same path outlined by Julani.
Abu Firas first waged jihad against the Assad regime in the 1970s and 1980s and then against the Russians in Afghanistan. He fought on the side of the Taliban government in the 1990s, before relocating to Yemen in the early 2000s. He returned to Syria in late 2012 or early 2013 to fight the Assad regime once again. Abu Firas was part of a cadre of al Qaeda veterans who were sent to Syria to help lead Al Nusrah.
An American airstrike finally ended Abu Firas’ decades-long career.
For more on Abu Firas al Suri, see LWJ reports:
Al Nusrah Front celebrates 9/11 attacks in new video (June 29, 2015)
Note: The spellings of Al Nusrah and al Qaeda have been standardized throughout this article, including in the quotes from Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.