Al Qaeda’s chief representative in Syria killed in suicide attack

Abu Khalid al Suri, whose real name is Mohamed Bahaiah, has been reportedly killed in a suicide attack in Aleppo. Al Suri’s death has been confirmed on several Twitter feeds managed by Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front.

Al Suri, a longtime al Qaeda operative, was a founding member of Ahrar al Sham and a senior leader in the organization at the time of his death. Ahrar al Sham is arguably the most powerful rebel organization within the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that was formed late last year.

Hassan Abboud, a top official in Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front, confirmed al Suri’s “martyrdom” in a Tweet early this morning. The official Twitter feeds for the Islamic Front and Ahrar al Sham say that al Suri was killed along with his “comrades” in a suicide attack at one the Front’s headquarters in Aleppo. And a hashtag commemorating al Suri’s death is already being used on jihadist Twitter pages.

As of this writing, there has been no official claim of responsibility for al Suri’s death. Some reports on social media implicate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which was recently disowned by al Qaeda’s general command, as the group responsible for the attack.

Al Suri was a key figure in the dispute between ISIS and other jihadist groups inside Syria, including Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, which is an official branch of al Qaeda.

In a May 2013 letter, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri named al Suri as his intermediary in a leadership disagreement between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. The dispute became public the previous month when ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi attempted to subsume control of the Al Nusrah Front. Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, rejected al Baghdadi’s order and directly reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri instead.

Al Suri’s mediation efforts failed and the dispute between the groups grew more vehement in the months that followed as Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusrah, and other jihadists rejected ISIS’ power grab.

One last attempt at mediation in January, spearheaded by a popular pro-al Qaeda Saudi cleric named Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, failed after ISIS rejected the initiative. All of the other major rebel groups, including Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, endorsed Muhaysini’s proposal, which was released just hours after a similar appeal by Zawahiri. [See LWJ report, Saudi cleric’s reconciliation initiative for jihadists draws wide support, then a rejection.]

Al Qaeda’s general command, or senior leadership, officially disowned ISIS after it rejected Muhaysini’s proposal. The decision was apparently prepared beforehand in the event that ISIS failed to accept the reconciliation initiative.

The Long War Journal reported on Dec. 17, 2013 that al Suri was a senior leader in Ahrar al Sham in addition to being Zawahiri’s main representative in Syria. US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that al Suri’s placement within Ahrar al Sham, alongside other senior al Qaeda operatives in the group, revealed that al Qaeda has influence in organizations that are not officially recognized as affiliates or branches of the group.

Al Suri’s al Qaeda role was long known in counterterrorism circles. The Spanish government accused him of serving as Osama bin Laden’s chief courier in Europe prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Spanish officials found that he carried surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks from the operative who made the videos to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative.]

Shortly after The Long War Journal reported on al Suri’s dual-hatted role in Ahrar al Sham and al Qaeda in December 2013, the US Treasury Department described al Suri as “al Qaeda’s representative in Syria.” Treasury revealed that an al Qaeda supporter in Qatar had transferred nearly “$600,000 to al Qaeda via” al Suri in 2013 and was preparing to transfer an additional $50,000.

Abu Khaled al Suri’s death, therefore, is a major development in the history of the Syrian war and al Qaeda’s role in it. However, al Qaeda retains the loyalty of numerous other senior jihadists on the Syrian battlefield.

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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  • Rohan says:

    Hmm, So a leader of Al-Qaeda is killed by a suicide bomber.
    Oh the Irony.

  • Tony says:

    The death of Abu Khalid al Suri is good news. It continues the jihadi movement’s self-destructive tendencies for ISIS is making a major challenge for leadership of the movement
    This dynamic will continue the centrifugal pressures that have bedeviled jihadi movements in Algeria, Egypt and Syria (past and present)
    The prolongation of jihadi infighting a virtual certainty given innate power struggles and ideological pretensions of self- appointed emirs assists our struggle against Islamic radicalism

  • Barry Larking says:

    The LWJ’s information regarding money transfers (Treasury revealed that an al Qaeda supporter in Qatar had transferred nearly “$600,000 to al Qaeda via” al Suri in 2013 and was preparing to transfer an additional $50,000) is intriguing. Money was the downfall of IRA-Sinn Fein when the ‘boys’ who handled the donations gained from foreign supporters or drug dealing and protection rackets developed sticky fingers, or so others were led to believe … Lots of opportunities for mischief there if western intelligence is astute enough.

  • KW64 says:

    Sometimes I wonder if ISIS isn’t a Syrian Government front organization. Assad does not hit them much and they sure do cause the rest of the rebels a lot of trouble.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Yes, I have wondered that too indeed. ISIS rarely, and I mean rarely, gets involved in clashes with Assad’s forces. Their HQ buildings hardly ever get bombed in airstrikes, and ISIS seems to have a habit of attacking rebels from the sides and the rear while the rebels are doing operations against the regime. ISIS very aggressively goes after rebel assets while leaving the regime ones alone.
    I have no absolute solid proof to confirm, but my suspicions are indeed very high that the ISIS and the regime have some type of arrangement together.

  • Neo says:

    To me, it appears that ISIS has squandered a position of relative strength over the last few months, insisting that their own ideological positions and goals have priority. You would think that capitalizing on recent gains along the Iraqi-Syrian border would occupy their full attention, but they seem to be hunkering down with their recent gains to some extent. Concentrating on their gains in Iraq could have brought them more support and gains in recruitment, but it seems they have gotten themselves fixated on stomping out anyone who doesn’t fall in line behind them.
    Meanwhile the Syrian army occupies itself with improving its situation around Damascus. The whole sideshow with ISIS leaves the rebel opposition unable to press any gains against the Syrian government. Furthermore the current squabbling in Syria has the potential of blunting the impact of gains ISIS has made in Iraq. Recent gains in the cities of Ramadi and Falluja could have been catalysts for a new surge in activity against the Iraqi government. A weak Iraqi army is at least has time to settle into the current balance of power rather than reeling from recent losses.

  • Theodore says:

    As the ISIS begins to eclipse the fading Al Qaeda brand in the region, this sort of cleansing of the AQ debris is bound to take place. It’s kind of like a dead retail chain that’s been bought up and is having its assets sold off, discarded, and/or liquidated. This will likely boost Assad’s forces as they continue to make gains against the Islamic Front and FSA – with the IF essentially imploding from within as the pressure builds from both Assad and the ISIS. The FSA may eventually be absorbed into some new national transition army depending on how they play their diminishing political position. There’s already movement towards this as Assad begins to sign ceasefire agreements with the becoming-overwhelmed FSA factions. It also portends to solidify the ISIS in its Western Iraq and Eastern Syria locales which may serve to break these areas off into a new Sunni national framework. We may also begin to see more of these self-styled Islamic States being declared in other areas where there are AQ franchises still nominally operating with the remnants being taken up into the States. Altogether, it’s going to be a big mess in the region for years to come.

  • Doug says:

    Awesome. AQ reps killed by ISIS. The FSA need every opportunity it can get. If ISIS and the IF want to gun it out that’s cool with me. Best case, and in my dreams, the Russians grant Assad a comfy retirement plan on the Black Sea down the block from Yanukovych. And facing a life under the Salafists the FSA, Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, mod Sunnis, and Shia cut a great bid grand compromise. Structure a deal that protects minority rights. Some peace and reconciliation BS. Mass muderers face justice, simple combatants get a pass. Minus Assad it’s a deal in everyone’s favor except the gulf states. At this point it’s the best envisionalble outcome for the Turks, Iran, Jordan, Egypy, US, and even the Russians and Isreal. The prospect of a unending Salafist Wild West running from northeastern Syria through central Iraq is in no ones interest. The longer the region is a magnet for the Wahhabi the greater likelihood they poision the regional body politic.


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