A message purportedly written by Ayman al Zawahiri’s top representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al Suri, was posted on jihadist websites yesterday. The message has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, which notes that it “could not be authenticated.” Therefore, we do not know if this message is really from al Suri.
Last year, Zawahiri named Abu Khalid al Suri (whose real name is Mohamed Bahaiah) as his arbiter in the leadership dispute between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) and the Al Nusrah Front. Al Suri was one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted couriers in Europe prior to the 9/11 attacks. He was imprisoned in Syria but freed after the uprising against Bashar al Assad’s regime began. The Long War Journal has reported that he is actually a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, an extremist group that has fought alongside al Qaeda’s two official branches.
The missive is directed at ISIS, the unruly al Qaeda affiliate that is currently at odds with the Al Nusrah Front (another branch of al Qaeda), the Islamic Front (Abu Khalid al Suri’s Ahrar al Sham is a key party within the front), and other Islamist parties.
If the message is indeed from Abu Khalid al Suri, it is yet another example of how senior al Qaeda leaders and ideologues connected to the network have repeatedly implored ISIS to to settle its differences with other jihadists.
The author argues that the spilling of Muslim blood is what caused the jihad in Algeria (in the 1990s) and elsewhere to fail. He warns that the only beneficiary of the infighting will be the Assad regime.
The writer also openly worries that the actions taken by ISIS are jeopardizing the jihadists’ ability to build popular support. The infighting “leads to the weakness of the fronts and the advance of the regime and a return to square one, but with the animosity of the mujahideen and a loss of the popular cradle, and this may lead to them being repelled by the Islamic project,” SITE’s translation reads. In addition, the “behavior of arrogance toward the rest of the mujahideen and the Muslim masses is not part of the path of the people of empowerment nor in its name.”
The writer tells ISIS that it should not portray its deeds as being consistent with the advice of senior al Qaeda leaders and ideologues. Here is a key paragraph from SITE’s translation [emphasis added]:
What we hear today of crimes and incorrect practices being committed under the name of jihad and establishing the Islamic State, and being attributed to the like of the Sheikhs of Jihad such as Sheikh Usama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him; Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him; Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, may Allah have mercy on him; Sheikh Abu Musab al-Suri, may Allah release him, and Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may Allah have mercy on him, who spent their life in jihad in the cause of Allah, Allah’s name, is away from the correct method. So my words to you are the words of one who spent his life with those prominent men and knew them well, for they are innocent of what is being attributed to them, like the innocence of the wolf from the blood of the son of Jacob. Do not be tricked by the confusion of those who confuse nor the news of the liars.
The three spots where I’ve added emphasis are interesting.
First, the writer mentions Abu Musab al Suri (Mustafa Setmariam Nasar), who is a major al Qaeda ideologue and Abu Khalid al Suri’s longtime companion. The phrasing “may Allah release him” means that the author believes Abu Musab al Suri is still imprisoned. According to other sources, Abu Khalid does believe that his compatriot is in custody. This is interesting because there have been credible reports that Abu Musab was let out of prison in the wake of the Syrian uprising. We’ve cited those reports at The Long War Journal but careful readers will note that we added a caveat (see the note at the bottom here, for example), because we can’t be sure one way or the other.
Second, the author says that the actions of ISIS should not be attributed to the memory of “Sheikh Abu Musab al Zarqawi, may Allah have mercy on him.” This is rich given that Zarqawi’s barbarism is what became a major liability for al Qaeda in Iraq. Over time, Zarqawi and his successors did do a better job of coordinating with other jihadist forces in some ways, but al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) brutality was a major reason why key tribes and local forces in western Iraq turned against the group, sided with American forces during the “surge” and drove back AQI’s territorial gains for a time. Unfortunately, much of that progress has been undone.
Third, the writer says that his words “are the words of one who spent his life with those prominent men [al Qaeda’s leaders and senior jihadists] and knew them well.” This is entirely consistent with Abu Khalid al Suri’s biography.
In the end, the author calls “upon the emirs of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham and the brother emigrants and supporters from among the soldiers of State to repent to Allah and return to His matter and adhere to His Shariah.” Other senior jihadists have repeatedly called on ISIS to submit to a common sharia court to settle the jihadists’ differences.
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The problem with ‘a common sharia court to settle the jihadists’ differences’ is who picks the judges. None of the groups will agree to accept the court unless they know in advance that it will not rule against them, or at least not too badly.