Al Qaeda veteran appears in Al Nusrah Front video, criticizes rival

Abu Firas al Suri.jpg

Abu Firas al Suri, a senior al Qaeda operative, was sent to Syria from Yemen in 2013. According to the Al Nusrah Front, Al Suri served as an “envoy” for Osama bin Laden and helped establish Lashkar-e-Taiba. The picture above is from an Al Nusrah Front video.

A recently released video produced by the Al Nusrah Front features Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who has waged jihad since the late 1970s. In his video debut, al Suri criticizes the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), a jihadist group that has been disowned by al Qaeda’s senior leadership.

The Al Nusrah Front is al Qaeda’s official branch inside Syria and has been openly fighting ISIS both online and on the ground.

Abu Firas is one of the senior al Qaeda officials who was entrusted to mediate the dispute, but those efforts have failed.

“I was not intending to talk about the State (ISIS) and about its crimes against the Islamic ummah and against Islam,” Abu Firas says in the video, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. However, an ISIS leader known as Abu Muhammad al Adnani recently accused Abu Abdallah al Shami, a Nusrah Front official, of “lying and slander.” Al Adnani also called for Allah to curse the lying party in the dispute, by which al Adnani meant the Al Nusrah Front.

Abu Firas says that al Adani’s speech, which was widely disseminated online, was “devastating” and therefore he had to respond.

Abu Firas addresses two issues in his response to ISIS: the assassination of al Qaeda’s top representative in Syria, known as Abu Khalid al Suri, and ISIS’ habit of declaring other Muslims to be apostates.

Shortly before Abu Khalid al Suri (whose real name was Mohamed Bahaiah) was killed, Abu Firas says the two met. Abu Khalid claimed to have had warnings about an impending attack on him by ISIS. “They put me on the black list and they want to assassinate me,” Abu Khalid said, according to Abu Firas’ account.

Abu Firas maintains that he warned Abu Khalid to take special precautions, but the attack was successful on Feb. 23, the day after they met. Although Abu Khalid had worked with Abu Firas to end the disagreement between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front, all Abu Khalid did was earn ISIS’ enmity.

Another senior al Qaeda official in Syria, a Saudi known as Sanafi al Nasr, has made similar claims on his Twitter feed. Nasr has alleged that Abu Khalid al Suri warned him about ISIS’ threats just two weeks prior to the suicide bombing. [See LWJ report, Head of al Qaeda ‘Victory Committee’ in Syria.]

Given the similarity of their claims, it is likely that al Qaeda operatives inside Syria are coordinating their testimony against ISIS. By claiming that Abu Khalid al Suri warned of his own death beforehand, they are building the case against ISIS in jihadist minds.

Abu Firas also levels another charge against ISIS: that the group is “takfiri” because it declares other practicing Muslims apostates. Abu Firas says that when the Al Nusrah Front attempted to shelter ISIS fighters during a battle in northern Syria, an ungrateful ISIS commander complained that Al Nusrah raised its banner above an ISIS building in the process.

According to Abu Firas, this same ISIS leader also lashed out at Al Nusrah for accepting oaths of support from members of the Free Syrian Army. But Abu Firas claims that Al Nusrah was simply receiving pledges of support for jihad. Thus, the longtime al Qaeda ideologue says, ISIS is “takfiri” for denouncing acts that are consistent with the will of Allah.

Little known, but with an extensive biography

Little was publicly known about Abu Firas al Suri until his sudden appearance in the Al Nusrah Front video, which includes a summary of his biography.

According to Al Nusrah, Abu Firas went to military school and joined the Syrian military, but was relieved of his duties because of his “Islamic tendencies.” Abu Firas was a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and fought against the regime of Hafez al Assad, Bashar al Assad’s father, in 1979 and 1980.

Abu Firas traveled to Jordan and then Afghanistan, where he met with Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden. He trained both Afghans and Arabs, as well as jihadists from other countries around the world, and worked to end the conflict between unidentified jihadist groups inside Afghanistan.

The Al Nusrah Front claims that Abu Firas served as Osama bin Laden’s “envoy” for “mobilizing Pakistanis for jihad.” The Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was set up for this purpose, the Al Nusrah Front says. The LeT and another group “were established, trained, and funded by Osama Bin Ladin.”

Further demonstrating Abu Firas’ seniority within al Qaeda, the Al Nusrah Front video says that he worked with the group’s first two military commanders, Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri and Abu Hafs al Masri. Abu Firas also worked with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the deceased commander of al Qaeda in Iraq.

After the 9/11 attacks, Abu Firas “secured the mujahideen families in Pakistan,” meaning that he helped al Qaeda families and others find safe haven in the country.

In 2003, Abu Firas relocated to Yemen and he stayed there until 2013, when the conflict between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front erupted. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership then dispatched Abu Firas to Syria in an attempt to help put an end to the dispute.

Abu Firas says in the video that he has followed the guidance of Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, who wanted to resolve the conflict with ISIS.

‘Core’ al Qaeda in Syria

Abu Firas’ role as a leader within the Al Nusrah Front was not publicly known until the video was released on March 18. But this is not the first time that the infighting in Syria has brought to light more details concerning al Qaeda’s international network.

After the infighting between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front broke out in April 2013, Ayman al Zawahiri named Abu Khalid al Suri as his chief mediator. Abu Khalid al Suri’s position of authority inside the Syrian jihad was not known before a letter from Zawahiri to all of the parties involved, written in May 2013, was leaked online.

Subsequently, as The Long War Journal reported, Abu Khalid al Suri’s leadership position within Ahrar al Sham was also discovered. Ahrar al Sham is not an official branch of al Qaeda, but it is possibly the most powerful rebel group within the Islamic Front, which is a large coalition of several Islamist groups.

While Abu Khalid al Suri was killed in late February, al Qaeda still has senior talent inside Syria, in addition to the new recruits it has garnered since the insurgency began in 2011. For instance, The Long War Journal has reported that Sanafi al Nasr, who leads al Qaeda’s ‘Victory Committee,’ relocated to Syria from Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Nasr has also been a party to the infighting between Al Nusrah and ISIS. Like Abu Firas and Abu Khalid al Suri, Nasr is opposed to ISIS.

In February, according to BBC Monitoring, Nasr claimed on his Twitter feed that al Qaeda has sent a group of leaders to Syria and most of them were tasked with joining the Al Nusrah Front. This group includes Abu Firas.

Two of the dispatched al Qaeda operatives, however, were told to join Ahrar al Sham. However, only the deceased Abu Khalid al Suri has been identified as a dual-hatted Ahrar al Sham-al Qaeda leader. The identity of Abu Khalid’s companion remains unknown.

Just as Abu Firas’ role was not publicly known (at least in the West) until the Al Nusrah Front’s video was released on March 18, the Syrian jihad likely masks more of al Qaeda’s secrets.

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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  • Jason says:

    The background and context you has been such a great tool for having a greater understanding of these conflicts. And you do it free of charge. Thank you.

  • jakem says:

    ANF is out of its mind if it truly believes UBL and the old guard of AQSL set up Lashkar. LeT was first established as Markaz Dawa wal Irshad (MDI) in the late 80s in AFG. While inspired by the likes of Abdullah Azzam, it was actually “created” when Hafiz Saeed’s jama’at organization was coupled with small millitant groups under the control of Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who at the time was actually connected to Haqqani elders in Konar. While LeT certainly received boatloads of funding from KSA in it’s infancy (and still does), it was in no way organized or overseen by UBL or any element of AQ for that matter.
    ISI, in the early 90s, hand picked LeT as the next in line for state sponsorship of militant leverage across the LoC into Kashmir (after it had failed to maintain control over previous kashmir-focused groups). ISI believed it could more easily control LeT due to its Ahl e Hadith religious base, which historically has had only a small base in PAK, compared to Deobandi groups.


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