Pentagon: Al Qaeda veteran in Syria was planning attacks against the West

The Defense Department announced today that Haydar Kirkan, an al Qaeda veteran who was trained in Afghanistan during the 1990s, was killed in an airstrike in Idlib, Syria on Oct. 17. US intelligence officials concluded that Kirkan was planning attacks against the West.

Kirkan was “a long-serving and experienced facilitator and courier for al Qaeda in Syria,” the Defense Department said in a statement. Kirkan had “ties to al Qaeda senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and was al Qaeda’s senior external terror attack planner in Syria, Turkey and Europe.”

According to Agence France Presse, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters that Kirkan “was intent on plotting and carrying out attacks against the West.”

Al Qaeda began relocating senior leadership cadres to Syria several years ago. But according to the Defense Department, additional personnel were moved to the country in the past year. Approximately one year ago, “more core al Qaeda fighters began arriving in Syria, even creating [a] leadership council called a shura.”

“They had a friendly, hospitable environment with al Nusra, which is their affiliate,” Davis said. “They are people who are from outside Syria in many cases and who are focused on external operations.”

Leaked cable summarizes Kirkan’s network in Turkey

More details on Kirkan’s career can be found in a leaked State Department cable authored at the US Embassy in Ankara in 2007. Consistent with the description provided by the Defense Department today, State found that Kirkan was an al Qaeda veteran who had “military training and religious education at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1999.”

After the 2003 bombings in Istanbul, according to the cable’s author, Turkish authorities detained dozens of suspects. “As a result of operations carried out against Al Qaeda after these attacks,” the cable continued, “many people linked with Al Qaeda groupings were captured and their plans for terrorist actions were foiled.”

It was “[w]ithin this framework” that Kirkan’s “group” was “active” in Turkey’s “Konya, Istanbul, Kocaeli and Izmir provinces.”

“Intelligence indicated that [Kirkan’s] group was in preparation for a big scale terrorist act in Turkey and most probably about to finish its reconnaissance activities to this end,” the State Department’s representative wrote. However, “the target of such an act has not been discovered yet.”

Turkish police cracked down on Kirkan’s network during raids across six provinces on Jan. 29, 2007. In all, according to State’s summary, 47 people were “taken into custody and transferred” to a facility “for interrogation.” Twenty-three (23) of them were detained in Konya province, another 17 in Istanbul, and the remaining seven were arrested across four other provinces.

The counterterrorism raids uncovered various small arms and jihadi paraphernalia, including: “3 handguns, 3 blank-firing guns, 6 shotguns, 1 air rifle, 2 swords, 205 bullets (9 mm), 27 computers, 5 laptop computers, 4 walkie-talkies, 2 forged ID cards and passports, 1,000 CDs including images of terrorist acts conducted in Iraq etc., hard disks, flash disks and numerous documents of the organization were captured.”

In Kirkan’s own house, according to State’s summary, “two practicing certificates for lawyers as well as a membership card for IHA-DER (Association for the Protection of Human Rights) in the name of Osman Karahan was found.” Karahan was described in the cable as a “publicly known” lawyer who defended “Al Qaeda members in Turkey,” but was himself arrested “on charges” of allegedly “providing assistance to the terror organization” in December 2006.

The US Embassy in Ankara concluded that Kirkan’s group had “intensified its efforts to carry out an attack in Turkey” and had “potential” to “realize it,” but it was likely an al Qaeda “terrorist act” had been “foiled at an early stage.”

Series of al Qaeda veterans and “external operations” planners targeted in Syria

The US has targeted a number of senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives in Syria since September 2014. The first US airstrikes aimed at al Qaeda were intended to take out members of the so-called “Khorasan Group.” Although there was much confusion surrounding the “Khorasan” cadre, it was simply a collection of al Qaeda operatives sent to Syria to perform a variety of functions, including laying the groundwork for attacks in the West.

“Khorasan Group” figures such as Sanafi al Nasr, Muhsin al Fadhli and David Drugeon, all of whom had a hand in al Qaeda’s “external operations,” perished in US airstrikes in northern Syria. Other senior al Qaeda leaders killed in US airstrikes in Syria include Abu Firas al Suri, Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, and Ahmed Salama Mabrouk, among others.

The airstrike targeting Kirkan indicates that the US thinks that al Qaeda is still plotting against the West from Syrian soil. In the past, Ayman al Zawahiri issued a stand down order on this front. While Zawahiri wanted the Khorasan Group and affiliated al Qaeda members to prepare attacks against the West, he did not give them the go ahead to actually launch the offensives. However, that calculation could change at any time.

Al Qaeda also rebranded Al Nusrah Front, which provided safe haven for Kirkan and his associates, in late July in an attempt to distance the al Qaeda branch from any “external” entities. Al Qaeda wants Al Nusrah to be seen solely as a force dedicated to fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime and its allies. But this wouldn’t necessarily stop al Qaeda from hatching a plot from Syrian soil if Jabhat Fath al Sham, as Nusrah is now known, could somehow escape blame.

The Defense Department warned today that al Qaeda threatens the West from multiple countries. In addition to the airstrike targeting Kirkan in Syria, the US hunted senior al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Yemen in October. The Pentagon emphasized that the airstrikes “show the transregional nature of both the terrorist group [al Qaeda] and the approach to countering them.”

“Al Qaeda doesn’t recognize borders when they conspire to commit terrorist attacks against the West, and we will continue to work with our partners and allies to find and destroy their leaders, their fighters and their cells that are planning attacks externally,” Pentagon spokesman Davis said.

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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