Abu Hamam al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who served as a senior military official in the Al Nusrah Front, was reportedly targeted in a recent strike in Syria. There are mixed reports concerning his fate, with some sources saying he has been killed and others merely wounded.
According to the Associated Press, Syria’s state-controlled news agency, SANA, reported that al Suri “was killed in a military operation carried out by the Syrian army…in the village of Habeet, in the northern Idlib province.” SANA’s report, according to AP, suggested that Abu Hamam had been killed in an airstrike. Separate accounts from jihadists on social media have claimed that he was killed in a coalition airstrike days ago. And sources who have spoken to Reuters have offered a different account of where Abu Hamam, as well as other Nusrah Front commanders, were supposedly struck.
Jihadists on social media are even divided as to whether or not Abu Hamam has been killed, with some mourning him and others saying he lives to fight another day.
This article will be updated once more definitive information concerning Abu Hamam’s status becomes available.
An al Qaeda veteran
Abu Hamam al Suri first made a public appearance in March 2014 when the Al Nusrah Front introduced him as a key witness against the Islamic State. Al Suri’s testimony was used in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has seized large portions of Iraq and Syria. Al Nusrah and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s “caliphate” are fierce rivals. [For more on the March 2014 video, see LWJ report: Al Nusrah Front video features veteran al Qaeda military leader.]
Al Nusrah provided a lengthy biography for Abu Hamam in the video. He first joined the jihad in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and spent one year at the al Ghuraba military camp, which was run by Abu Musab al Suri, a major jihadist ideologue whose teachings are still widely read. Abu Musab al Suri is reportedly still imprisoned by the Assad regime, but Al Nusrah Front officials promote his works online.
Abu Hamam then moved on to al Qaeda’s Al Farouq training camp, which provided basic instruction for new recruits and was also used “to train the Special Forces of the Afghan Mujahideen.” He finished second in his class behind one of the 9/11 hijackers, according to the Al Nusrah Front video.
Saif al Adel, a longtime al Qaeda military commander and member of al Qaeda’s elite shura council, appointed Abu Hamam as the emir “over the region of the Kandahar Airport.” He was also named a trainer at Al Farouq.
Abu Hamam swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden with a handshake and was named the head of the Syrian jihadist contingent in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. He fought “in most of the battles” that “occurred and took place after the Crusader’s invasion of Afghanistan,” according to the Al Nusrah Front’s biography.
However, in late 2001, Abu Hamam fled with Saif al Adel. And he was appointed by another senior al Qaeda leader, Mustafa Abu al Yazid, to work in Iraq prior to the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Yazid was one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants and became al Qaeda’s general manager in 2005. Yazid was killed in a US drone strike in May 2010.
Abu Hamam stayed in Iraq “as an official representative of” al Qaeda for four months prior to the Iraq War. During that time, he met with both Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who went on to head AQI before being killed in 2006, and Abu Hamza Al Muhajer (a.k.a. Abu Ayyub al Masri), who took over as head of AQI after Zarqawi’s demise. Al Muhajer, a longtime subordinate of Ayman al Zawahiri, was subsequently killed in April 2010.
Abu Hamam was arrested by Iraqi intelligence and transferred to Syrian custody, according to the Al Nusrah Front video. Suspiciously, he was quickly freed by the Syrians and resumed his work.
At the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, he was appointed as the military head “of the mujahideen services office that was working in the benefit of the jihad in Iraq.” Zarqawi “would send him men and he would train them militarily and [then] return them to” Iraq.
The Al Nusrah video does not indicate where this training took place, but it was likely inside Syria, which housed a significant training and facilitation network during the Iraq War. Not only was Abu Hamam released inside Syria, he mentioned a series of arrests by “the Nusayris” (a derogatory term for Bashar al Assad’s regime and its Shiite supporters) in 2005 that forced him to flee to Lebanon. He then returned to Afghanistan.
Sheikh Atiyah Abd al Rahman, “who was in charge of the foreign activities of [al Qaeda] at that time,” then “charged him with working inside Syria directly for al Qaeda.” Rahman succeeded Yazid as al Qaeda’s general manager, but he too was killed in an August 2011 drone strike.
Before Abu Hamam could assume his leadership duties in Bashar al Assad’s Syria, however, he was arrested in Lebanon and imprisoned for five years. He was eventually released and, as of March 2014, worked “in the position of the general military leader” in the Al Nusrah Front.
Various reports identify Abu Hamam as still being Al Nusrah’s general military leader at the time of the strike. But it is not clear if he really still held that position. While he has certainly continued to serve in a senior role, Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, appointed another jihadist as a top military commander in July 2014. In a leaked audio message that surfaced at the time, Julani could be heard naming Abu Qatada al Albani as the head of his organization’s military forces. Al Nusrah dos not publish an organizational chart, so it is difficult to discern its exact leadership structure. [See LWJ report, Leaked audio features Al Nusrah Front emir discussing creation of an Islamic emirate.]
Regardless, by any reasonable definition, Abu Hamam is a “core” al Qaeda member. Other al Qaeda veterans also serve throughout the Al Nusrah Front’s ranks.