A senior al Qaeda leader and ideologue who was based in Pakistan’s tribal areas has taken control of al Qaeda in Iraq’s organization in Syria and is operating from the capital, Damascus.
Sheikh Issa al Masri is thought to have entered Syria in June 2009 and has been consolidating control of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq to refocus the group’s efforts to destabilize the Iraqi government.
Sheikh Issa was detained by Pakistani security forces in January 2009, according to the Asia Times. It is unclear if he escaped or was released from Pakistani custody, US military and intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
After leaving Pakistani custody, Sheikh Issa traveled to Iran prior to entering Syria, according to a report in Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper. Al Qaeda has an extensive network inside Iran which receives support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to the US Treasury Department, which has sanctioned several members of al Qaeda’s organization in Iran.
Sheikh Issa is believed to be based in Damascus and is protected by the Mukhabarat, Syria’s secret intelligence service. From Damascus, Sheikh Issa has been instrumental in reorganizing al Qaeda in Iraq’s network and is thought to be behind some of the most deadly attacks in Iraq, including Wednesday’s coordinated bombings in Baghdad that killed more than 90 Iraqis and wounded more than 1,200.
Sheikh Issa has been aided by Abu Khalaf, a senior al Qaeda operative who has been instrumental in reviving al Qaeda in Iraq’s network in eastern Syria and directing terror operations in Iraq, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
Abu Khalaf, whose real name is Sa’ad Uwayyid ‘Ubayd Mu’jil al Shammari, took control of al Qaeda’s facilitation network after his predecessor Abu Ghadiya and his senior staff were killed during a US raid inside Syria in October 2008. Khalaf is in charge of recruiting foreign fighters, funding operations, and moving the fighters across the border to conduct attacks in Iraq. The US Treasury designated Khalaf as a global terrorist in May 2009.
US military and intelligence officials fear that al Qaeda in Iraq may be seeking a revival through its safe havens in Syria, just as al Qaeda and the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban and al Qaeda sheltered in Pakistan’s tribal areas and patiently rebuilt their networks before relaunching the Afghan insurgency in earnest in 2006.
Background of Sheikh Issa al Masri
Sheikh Issa, whose real name is Abu Amro Abdul Hakeem, is an Egyptian national who has been instrumental in radicalizing the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He was the spiritual adviser to Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al Zawahiri’s organization that merged with al Qaeda.
Sheikh Issa is also the leader of al Jihad fi Waziristan, an al Qaeda branch in North Waziristan. He has radicalized thousands of Taliban fighters and several influential commanders by indoctrinating them with the Wahabbi version of Islam.
While based out of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, Sheikh Issa maintained close ties to Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani. Sheikh Issa is known to be a charasmtic figure in jihadi circles. Siraj and influential Taliban leaders Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq Haqqani fell under Sheikh Issa’s sway and converted to Wahabbism.
Sheikh Issa was also influential in recruiting the traditional Punjab and Kashmiri jihadi groups into the Taliban and al Qaeda. Former members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, and the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen have flocked to join the Taliban and al Qaeda’s cause. Groups such as the Fedayeen-e-Islam, a Punjabi terror outfit allied with Baitullah Mehsud, and the Ghazi Force sprung up throughout the tribal areas.
Sheikh Issa is believed to have provided religious justification for the multiple failed assassination attempts against former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as well as the successful assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Sheikh Issa issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that called for their assassination.
The US targeted Sheikh Issa in a covert Predator airstrike in North Waziristan just days after Bhutto was assassinated in late December 2007. He was wounded in the strike but is said to have recovered. He is also reported to have been temporarily paralyzed due to an illness but later recovered.
US intelligence believes Sheikh Issa’s charisma and his popularity in jihadi circles are two of the reasons he was recruited to travel from Pakistan to Syria to lead a new push to revive al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations from inside Syria. Sheikh Issa can draw the resources and the fighters needed to revive al Qaeda in Iraq after the terror group suffered a series of crushing defeats during the combined US and Iraqi offensives in 2007 and 2008.