The video accompanying Zawahiri’s message shows a clip of Abu Khalid al Suri walking alongside Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri at the Al Farouq camp in Afghanistan in 2000.
Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, has released an audio message eulogizing Abu Khalid al Suri, who served as Zawahiri’s representative in Syria until he was killed by a suicide bomber on Feb. 23. Al Suri was also a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, a powerful militant organization that helps lead the Islamic Front, which is a coalition of several rebel groups.
Al Qaeda has released a video accompanying Zawahiri’s verbal message. The video contains images of other al Qaeda actors, but Zawahiri himself is not shown. Zawahiri’s message and the accompanying video were translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) is not mentioned in the production, the video and Zawahiri’s message are clearly aimed at the group, which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in early February.
Top jihadists have accused ISIS of killing al Suri, and the group remains the most likely culprit in the slaying.
The video opens with a clip of Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager before he was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011. Rahman discusses the sanctity of Muslim blood and the importance of avoiding Muslim casualties while waging jihad.
Rahman’s message, recorded long before ISIS became a player in the Syrian war, reflects al Qaeda’s sensitivity to the criticisms the group has faced within the Islamic world. Al Qaeda has killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims in its campaign of terror. Here, however, Rahman’s words are intended as a rebuke of ISIS.
The video then cuts to footage of Abu Khalid al Suri walking alongside Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri at the Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan in 2000. Al Qaeda’s propagandists zoom in on footage of al Suri at the camp.
A longtime al Qaeda operative
Zawahiri says he knew Abu Khalid al Suri “from the days of the jihad against the Russians” and he knew al Suri “until his capture in Pakistan” approximately a decade ago. Abu Khalid al Suri “was a colleague of the professor of the mujahideen, Sheikh Abu Musab al Suri, may Allah release him very soon, Allah willing.”
Abu Musab al Suri is a major jihadist ideologue whose teachings continue to influence al Qaeda’s thinking. The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, openly follows Abu Musab al Suri’s teachings. There are conflicting reports concerning his status in Syria, with some accounts saying he has been freed from Assad’s prisons.
However, Zawahiri’s message is the third instance in which senior al Qaeda leaders have used the phrase “may Allah release him” in reference to Abu Musab al Suri. This is a strong indication that he remains imprisoned.
Zawahiri re-established contact with Abu Khalid al Suri after the Syrian revolution. Zawahiri says the “last message” he received from Abu Khalid al Suri, prior to his capture in Pakistan, “was nearly ten years ago … stating that he supported a speech I gave, where I said that victory is but the patience of an hour.” After al Suri was captured “[c]ommunication was cut off between us, until the outbreak of the blessed Syrian revolution.”
According to Zawahiri, Allah then “facilitated the communication between us after Allah relieved him and spared him from being captured by” Assad’s forces. “He was to me and my brothers such a great advisor,” Zawahiri says.
Abu Khalid warned Zawahiri that he sees in Syria “the seeds of sedition, which he experienced in Peshawar” — a reference to jihadist infighting in the past, which al Qaeda ties to ISIS’ actions in the present. Indeed, al Suri was a strong critic of ISIS and did not hide his rejection of the group’s practices.
“This sedition that Abu Khalid saw and was warning about, Allah willed that it make him a martyr,” Zawahiri says.
Without naming ISIS, Zawahiri calls on Muslims to reject any group that behaves like the former al Qaeda affiliate. “Every Muslim and mujahid must disavow all those who refuse arbitration” by an “independent” sharia court, Zawahiri says. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have repeatedly called on ISIS to submit itself to arbitration in a common sharia court, but ISIS has refused to abide.
“Every Muslim and mujahid must not be involved in the blood of the mujahideen,” Zawahiri says, according to SITE’s translation. “And for this, he must refuse to blow up their headquarters or kill their sheikhs.” In addition, “[a]ll Muslims must not help whoever blows up the headquarters of the mujahideen and sends to them car bombs and human bombs, and stop supporting them in any form.”
This is precisely how al Suri was killed.
Jihadist infighting in Syria reminiscent of the past
Zawahiri says that the infighting inside Syria reminds him of Algeria in the 1990s. Veteran jihadists within the Armed Islamic Group (commonly known by its French acronym, GIA) turned on one another and also indiscriminately slaughtered Muslims. Zawahiri says the GIA’s infighting led first to the “spiritual death of that group, followed by [its] physical death.”
In an effort to rectify the GIA’s excess, in the late 1990s al Qaeda helped form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known as the GSPC) as an offshoot of the GIA. The GSPC then evolved into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a branch of al Qaeda. Zawahiri personally oversaw AQIM’s official merger with al Qaeda in 2006.
Zawahiri references a meeting he had years ago in Peshawar with Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, an influential jihadist ideologue now imprisoned in Jordan who has issued criticisms of ISIS’ actions from his prison cell. According to the story, which the al Qaeda emir calls “funny yet sad,” Zawahiri said that some had labeled him a disbeliever because he refused to “brand the Afghan mujahideen as disbelievers.” To this Maqdisi allegedly replied, “You do not know that they [this same group] branded me a disbeliever because I did not brand you a disbeliever.”
ISIS today labels everyone who does not agree with the group a disbeliever, including Abu Khalid al Suri.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.