Statement from Zawahiri’s representative shows Syrian rebel group tied to al Qaeda

A statement criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) that was written by Abu Khalid al Suri, Ayman al Zawahiri’s main representative inside Syria, has been posted on various jihadist websites. The statement appears to be authentic as it was posted on a Twitter feed that belongs to one of al Suri’s comrades in Ahrar al Sham, an extremist group that frequently fights alongside al Qaeda in Syria.

The Long War Journal has reviewed the Twitter feed and various social media pages linked to it. The statement by al Suri (whose real name is Mohamed Bahaiah) was posted on Twitter on Jan. 16, and it was subsequently picked up by other jihadist websites.

In the statement, al Suri confirms his longstanding ties to al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Suri harshly criticizes ISIS because of its infighting with other jihadist groups, and says that the group should not attribute its actions to bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other leading jihadists.

“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,” al Suri writes, according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Suri warns that ISIS is weakening the rebels’ cause and calls upon its emirs, as well as its “brother emigrants,” to “repent to Allah and return to His matter and adhere to His Shariah.” Al Qaeda has been attempting to settle the dispute between ISIS and other groups in a common sharia court.

Ahrar al Sham is directly linked to al Qaeda

The Long War Journal reported on Dec. 17 that al Suri is a founding member of, and a senior leader in, Ahrar al Sham.

Ahrar al Sham is an extremist group that has fought alongside ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s two officially recognized branches inside Syria, against Bashar al Assad’s forces.

ISIS, however, has proven to be unruly and its emir has even disobeyed orders from Zawahiri. In recent weeks, the infighting between ISIS and other rebel groups, including Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, has intensified.

US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that al Suri’s role in Ahrar al Sham shows that al Qaeda is playing a sophisticated game inside the Syrian insurgency.

Al Qaeda’s senior leaders have sought to hide their influence within the group. And al Suri is not the only senior al Qaeda operative within Ahrar al Sham’s senior ranks, the officials say.

Ahrar al Sham is not only one of the largest Syrian rebel groups in its own right, it is also a key part of the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel coalition. Ahrar al Sham holds significant posts within the front.

Al Qaeda has been able to influence the direction of Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front while not publicly recognizing its hand inside either, US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal.

Longtime al Qaeda operative

Al Suri’s al Qaeda role was well-documented even before his latest statement was released on Jan. 16. The US Treasury Department recognized him as “al Qaeda’s representative in Syria” in December.

The Spanish officials who investigated the Mar. 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings found a mound of evidence linking al Suri to al Qaeda’s global operations. The Spanish government identified al Suri as one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers in Europe before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The investigation also documented al Suri’s ties to bin Laden’s chief subordinate inside Europe and to a constellation of other al Qaeda actors. [See LWJ report, Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative.]

Ayman al Zawahiri named Abu Khalid al Suri as his arbiter in a leadership dispute between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front last year. The emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, tried to fold Nusrah into his ranks. But Abu Muhammad al Julani, Nusrah’s emir, refused Baghdadi’s order and reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri directly.

Zawahiri then empowered al Suri to settle the dispute, but those mediation efforts have not put an end to the infighting.

Al Suri’s role within Ahrar al Sham shows, however, that al Qaeda has placed multiple bets within the Syrian insurgency.

In December, the US Treasury Department designated ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Umayr al-Nu’aymi as an al Qaeda supporter. Treasury described al-Nu’aymi as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.” Nu’aymi “was considered among the most prominent Qatar-based supporters of Iraqi Sunni extremists.”

“In 2013,” the Treasury designation reads, “Nu’aymi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via al Qaeda’s representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al Suri, and intended to transfer nearly $50,000 more.”

Below: Abu Khalid al Suri has published a statement criticizing the ISIS. The statement was posted on Twitter. Al Suri confirms his longstanding ties to al Qaeda’s most senior leaders in the statement. Click the statement to enlarge.

Abu Khalid al Suri's statement.jpg

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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