Not long after the Al Nusrah Front’s leader in the Idlib province of Syria was killed two days ago, a senior sharia (Islamic law) official in the group condemned the killers on Twitter.
Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, an extremist preacher from Australia who is now one of Al Nusrah’s most senior sharia officials, described Abu Muhammad al Fateh as a “dear friend and brother,” adding that his killers are “filthy animals.” Fateh was the “gem of Idlib,” Sulayman says.
Although Sulayman did not publicly identify Fateh’s killers, the first reports of Fateh’s death said that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in early February, was responsible.
If true, then the ISIS has killed another significant al Qaeda figure in Syria. The ISIS and Al Nusrah, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, have been fighting since last year. The ISIS is widely suspected of slaying Abu Khalid al Suri, Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria, in a suicide attack in late February. Al Suri was a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, an extremist organization that plays a leading role in the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups.
Sulayman’s tweets honoring Fateh were compiled and edited into a longer statement released by the Al Nusrah Front. The statement describes Fateh as the “Amir of Qaedatul Jihad (Jabhat Al-Nusrah), Idlib.” Sulayman frequently describes Al Nusrah as simply al Qaeda in Syria.
Sulayman says that Fateh was “[a]ctive in Jihad since 2005 and he was part of Tandheem Al Qaeda [the al Qaeda organization], recruiting, financing and facilitating for AQ Iraq.”
Fateh “was imprisoned in Saydnaya on ‘terrorism charges’ and released in 2010-2011,” according to Sulayman. Saydnaya is a city north of Damascus. “After his release, [Fateh] immediately joined the Jihad and joined the ranks of Jabhat Al Nusrah.”
Sulayman says that Fateh “had the clear qualities of a leader and was soon recognized as one,” so he “was promoted in the ranks of Al Qaeda until he became the Amir of Idlib and then a confidante of Shaykh [Abu Muhammad al] Julani,” who is the emir of the Al Nusrah Front and has sworn an oath of loyalty to Zawahiri.
Fateh was recuperating from significant injuries at the home of his brother when the attackers came calling. They killed Fateh, his brother, and members of both of their families, including women and children. Al Nusrah has released a banner showing pictures of the family members, including Fateh, who were killed or wounded in the attack.
“The investigation is on-going and new information regarding the criminals will surface soon,” Sulayman says. “There is sensitive information, which will expose the true face of the enemy within.” When Al Nusrah fighters “found the house that [the] criminals were hiding in … two of the criminals blew themselves up causing two rooms to collapse.”
If true, then the attackers included suicide bombers in their ranks. And if the ISIS was responsible, then Al Nusrah will almost certainly use the killing of Fateh and his family members in the propaganda war against its deadly rival. Al Nusrah officials may also use the incident to again call on Ayman al Zawahiri to issue a a more specific condemnation of the ISIS. Earlier this month, Sulayman was one of several jihadist ideologues who used social media to ask Zawahiri to address the infighting between the ISIS and Al Nusrah. One of the issues they want Zawahiri to discuss is the ISIS’ killing and mistreatment of Muslims.
Sulayman discussed al Qaeda’s organization and strategy in a recent video. He also gave his version of the origins of the conflict with the ISIS in the video.
“Seems some need to be reminded who we [are] before killing our women & [children],” Sulayman blusters in one tweet. “We [are] the children of Osama [bin Laden] and [soldiers] of Ayman.”
“We [are] Al Qaeda!” Sulayman says.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.