US strikes al Qaeda’s ‘Khorasan Group’ in Syria

Islambouli with Taha Musa

The short bearded man standing in the middle is Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, who was killed in an airstrike this week. The second man to his left (the reader’s right) is Mohammed Islambouli.

The US struck senior al Qaeda leaders in Syria twice this week. “These airstrikes were focused on targeting key Al Qaeda leaders who pose a threat to the US, our allies and our national security interests,” CENTCOM announced today. CENTCOM added that the slain jihadists were “core” al Qaeda members.

The first airstrike killed Abu Firas al Suri, a longtime al Qaeda veteran who served on Al Nusrah Front’s shura (advisory) council and was also the group’s spokesman for a time.

Jihadists on social media identified one of those killed in the second bombing as Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, a veteran Egyptian jihadist who first worked with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri in the 1980s and 1990s. Musa was released in the wake of the Egyptian uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. He eventually fled Egypt, making his way to Turkey and Syria.

The photo seen above was posted on social media by a supporter who mourned Musa’s loss. Another jihadist seen in the image, which was first tweeted in July 2015, is Mohammed Islambouli.

US intelligence officials have identified both Musa and Islambouli as leaders in al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group.”

Mohammed Islambouli is the brother of Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islamobuli. He is the equivalent of royalty within al Qaeda because of his jihadist pedigree and longtime commitment to jihad. The UN mysteriously removed Islambouli from its al Qaeda sanctions list in October 2015, but he is still one of the US government’s designated terrorists.

Islambouli’s role in al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group” was reported by NPR in October 2014. NPR said that US officials were “concerned” he “might be directing the” Khorasan Group. NPR also explained that Islambouli “is very close to” al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

Several US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal subsequently confirmed Islambouli’s leadership role in what al Qaeda calls the “Khorasan Shura.” (This is the same body that is commonly referred to as the “Khorasan Group” in the press.)

The Khorasan Shura is an elite body within al Qaeda that is charged with overseeing multiple aspects of the jihadist group’s global operations. Plotting against the West is just one part of the Khorasan Shura’s mission. In al Qaeda’s hierarchy, the Khorasan Shura sits above al Qaeda’s regional branches and is responsible for overseeing various aspects of the jihadists’ paramilitary operations, especially in Syria.

Islambouli lived in Iran for years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While living in Iran, he led a contingent of jihadists in Gamaa Islamiya (IG) who formally merged with al Qaeda. Musa was once one of the IG’s most senior officials as well.

Declassified files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound demonstrate Islambouli’s importance within al Qaeda. In one document, dated Oct. 20, 2010, bin Laden stressed the importance of protecting Islambouli, who had apparently evacuated northern Pakistan, after leaving Iran, for Kunar, Afghanistan. Bin Laden wanted to make sure that Islambouli was not killed in the American drone campaign.

“He [Islambouli] should be informed of the nature of work and he should be consulted on things that are being discussed,” bin Laden wrote, in reference to some ongoing projects.

Following the uprising that dethroned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Islambouli relocated to Egypt, where the longstanding terror-related charges against him were dropped. Once back in his native Egypt, Islambouli joined other jihadist figures in proselytizing for their cause. One of his companions was an old ally: Musa, who had been freed from an Egyptian prison.

Islambouli and Musa left Egypt shortly after Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist regime was deposed from power. They enjoyed a hospitable environment in Morsi’s Egypt, but under President Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s rule they would have risked becoming wanted men once again. Press reports place the pair in several countries after their departure from Egypt in 2013, but they reportedly landed in Turkey.

Indeed, some of the Khorasan Shura’s most important leaders, including Musa and Islambouli, have been based in Turkey. They are also known to travel into Syria, where Musa was killed.

Foreign Policy first reported that the US targeted the Khorasan Group (or Shura) in Idlib, Syria this week. In its account, Foreign Policy also linked to a video produced by the pro-jihadist On the Ground News showing the wreckage of a vehicle that was blown to pieces while carrying several al Qaeda members.

Social media accounts that track the jihadists’ in Syria have identified another one of the casualties as a Belgian fighter known as Abu Sulayman al Belgiki.

Attempt to “unify the ranks”

On his Facebook page, Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group, or IG) leader Assem Abdel Maged wrote that Musa was in Syria as part of “a mission to unify the ranks of Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham.”

Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, whereas Ahrar is a jihadist group that has been seeded with al Qaeda veterans. Some of al Qaeda’s veteran operatives in Syria have tried to hide their presence in Ahrar al Sham’s senior leadership.

While still being close jihadist allies, Al Nusrah and Ahrar have differed on some tactical questions. They have also bickered in recent weeks.

In January, Al Nusrah and Ahrar discussed a potential merger. Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, reportedly proposed a unity plan. But some Ahrar figures decided to reject it, arguing that it wouldn’t work unless the combined entity could publicly distance itself from al Qaeda. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front chief proposed rebel unity plan.]

This does not mean that Ahrar al Sham is opposed to al Qaeda or anything of the sort. The jihadists seek to maximize the support they receive from throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in order to better coordinate the insurgency against Bashar al Assad and his allies. The jihadists long ago realized that the al Qaeda brand name can act as a hindrance when trying to achieve their objectives.

For example, bin Laden’s letters reveal that he told Shabaab, which became a formal branch of al Qaeda in 2012, to keep its al Qaeda ties secret. Bin Laden calculated that Shabaab would be more successful in acquiring external support from throughout the Gulf if people and governments didn’t recognize it as part of al Qaeda’s global network. Ayman al Zawahiri instructed Al Nusrah Front, which initially was not branded as an al Qaeda group, to keep quiet on its al Qaeda status as well. Zawahiri’s reasoning was the same as bin Laden’s: Al Nusrah’s prospects for success in Syria were better if it avoided the international scrutiny that comes with the al Qaeda brand name. Al Qaeda also embedded veterans in other jihadist organizations, such as Ahrar al Sham, as part of its effort to hide its influence in the insurgency.

Musa may have been involved in arbitrating recent disputes between Ahrar and Al Nusrah. But he was also likely involved in the unification discussions. One proposal would have required the jihadists to announce that they are not tied to any external actors. This would allow the jihadists to portray their cause as a purely Syrian endeavor and avoid the same issues that bin Laden and Zawahiri sought to avoid. Musa may have even been in favor of this proposal.

Long hunted by American authorities

Musa was first hunted by American authorities in the 1990s.

Musa’s al Qaeda ties were publicly recognized by the US government as early as 1998. In February of that year, he was included as a signatory on al Qaeda’s infamous fatwa justifying terrorist attacks against American civilians. Some sources would later claim that Musa didn’t really sign the fatwa, but his relationship with al Qaeda was well-established.

The Clinton administration’s November 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda members responsible for the Aug. 7, 1998 embassy bombings noted that al Qaeda has “functioned both on its own and through some of the terrorist organizations that operated under its umbrella.” The indictment then named the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, and the IG, which was headed by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and Musa, as two groups that fall under al Qaeda’s “umbrella.” Rahman, the IG’s longtime spiritual leader, was already imprisoned in the US at the time for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and follow-on plots against New York City landmarks.

Musa was specifically named by Clinton-era federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in al Qaeda’s terror.

In the months that followed the US government’s indictment, the CIA gathered intelligence suggesting that Musa was directly involved in anti-American terrorist plots.

On Sept. 13, 2000, the FBI recorded a conversation between Musa and an IG member residing in the US named Ahmed Sattar. An American court would later convict Sattar of passing messages from Sheikh Rahman to his followers.

Citing a senior US attorney, the New York Daily News described the conversation between Musa and Sattar in an article published in April 2002. The pair “discussed planned terrorist attacks similar to Luxor” and Musa mentioned “a second Luxor.” (The IG massacred dozens of tourists at an archaeological site near Luxor, Egypt in 1997.) They used the code word “weddings” to describe future operations. Additional conversations between Musa and Sattar were also documented in the US government’s federal indictment of Sattar.

On Sept. 21, 2000, just over one week after the FBI recorded the conversation between Musa and Sattar, Al Jazeera aired a video showing bin Laden and Zawahiri demanding the release of Sheikh Rahman. Sitting between the two al Qaeda masters was Musa. “By God, we all have a duty toward” Rahman “to free him,” Musa said. Al Qaeda’s dynamic duo agreed.

Less than one month later, on Oct. 10, 2000, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole. Musa released a statement praising the attack.

“Our officers and soldiers, and the sons of our people in Egypt, should learn the lesson of the US destroyer in Aden,” Musa said, “they have the Suez Canal through which dozens of US and Jewish ships pass.”

Musa continued to advocate for terrorism in the months that followed.

“In early 2001,” the State Department reported in its Patterns of Global Terrorism for 2001, “IG leader Rifa’i Ahmad Taha Musa published a book in which he attempted to justify terrorist attacks that result in mass civilian casualties.” Foggy Bottom warned that while some IG members had renounced violence, Musa led a “faction” of the IG that remained committed to terrorism. While the group’s “[p]rimary goal is to overthrow the Egyptian Government and replace it with an Islamic state,” Foggy Bottom reported, “disaffected IG members, such as those potentially inspired by Taha Musa or [Sheikh Rahman], may be interested in carrying out attacks against US and Israeli interests.”

Musa disappeared after authoring the book, but the CIA was on his trail.

In his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explains that Musa was tied to pre-9/11 terrorist plots against Americans.

Tenet wrote that “intelligence assessments painted a picture of a plot to kidnap Americans in India, Turkey, and Indonesia.” The plot “was said to be the work of” Musa, who was “then living in Damascus.” Musa ended up in Syria after reportedly being “expelled from Iran,” but the Syrians arrested him after the US provided a “tip” concerning his whereabouts in late 2001. Other reports confirm that Musa was deported from Syria to Egypt.

Musa “had put out numerous fatwas against the United States in the several months prior to his arrest,” Tenet wrote. The former CIA head explained that the CIA kept “a photograph of [Musa] seated right between the two of them,” referring to the appearance by bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Musa on Al Jazeera in September 2000.

“Talk about Toxic Trio,” Tenet wrote.

Anti-American, pro-al Qaeda protest in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012

Taha-Faroq-video-thumb-200x100-1243-1

Musa publicly reappeared during the Sept. 11, 2012 protest in front of the US Embassy in Cairo. In a video produced by a jihadist media group known as Al Farouq, Musa called on followers to rise up in protest against the trailer for a previously obscure anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims. A screen shot of Musa at the protest can be seen on the right.

“We call on Muslim youth in the world to respond in a practical way,” Musa said during the protest at the US Embassy in Cairo, according to a translation of the video by SITE Intelligence Group. “There are a billion Muslims worldwide, and if they were strong and honorable we would have defended the honor of the Prophet, Allah’s peace and prayer be upon him, and America wouldn’t have gotten to this way.”

Musa was not the only al Qaeda-linked jihadist to attend the US embassy protest in Cairo. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda-linked jihadists helped incite 9/11 Cairo protest.]

Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, admittedly helped stage the protest. He said that he called upon members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a designated terrorist organization that merged with al Qaeda, to attend. The younger Zawahiri has been imprisoned in Egypt multiple times, but was recently released once again.

Less than two weeks after the embassy protest in Cairo, Musa was interviewed by Asharq Al-Awsat. He was asked about the “the Anti-Islam film which insults the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the subsequent attack on the American embassy in Cairo.” Musa did not comment on the embassy assault, but branded the film “a criminal act” and called on the Egyptian government to “sever diplomatic ties with the United States and expel the US ambassador, if only for a short period of time.”

Musa added: “As for the United States, we treat it as an enemy, and we do not consider it a friend of the Arabs and Muslims.”

As for al Qaeda, Musa admitted his organization has had a relationship with the group. “Yes, there was a relationship between al Qaeda and the Islamic Group, but it was not in the form of a common organizational framework,” Musa claimed. “It was similar to a relationship between any two political parties. There were exchanged benefits.”

Those benefits include collusion on terrorist plots. Asharq Al-Awsat asked Musa about his role in the 1995 assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. Musa did not deny having a role in the plot, saying only that the “Islamic Group attempted to assassinate Mubarak in many locations, including Addis Ababa” and the “arrangements for this operation were made (by Islamist leaders) abroad.”

Osama bin Laden himself had a hand in the IG’s 1995 assassination plot against Mubarak. The 9/11 Commission found that Mubarak’s “would-be killers, who came from the Egyptian Islamic Group, had been sheltered in Sudan and helped by Bin Laden.”

Top jihadists are often coy about their real role in al Qaeda’s operations. Given Musa’s reported meetings with Ahrar al Sham, which has spread disinformation about its al Qaeda ties, it is likely that some will try to distance Musa from al Qaeda.

However, the US has strict rules of engagement concerning which parts of al Qaeda can be targeted in Syria. For instance, the US military often draw a misleading line between al Qaeda’s Khorasan Group and Al Nusrah Front. In general, only those al Qaeda terrorists known to pose a threat to the West are targeted. And America’s target list this week included Musa.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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