An al Qaeda front group in Syria

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On April 26, Jund al Aqsa, a jihadist group based in Syria, posted a martyrdom notice for its “military commander” on its official Twitter feed. (The tweet, in Arabic, can be seen above.) Of course, jihadist groups frequently mourn their members and leaders on social media. But the identity of this particular commander was especially noteworthy.

Adel Radi Saker al Wahabi al Harbi was a senior al Qaeda operative wanted by the US government, which offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to his whereabouts. According to the US Treasury Department, al Harbi had served as the deputy leader of al Qaeda’s network in Iran prior to relocating to Syria.

As The Long War Journal reported on April 20, well-connected jihadists claimed that al Harbi, a Saudi, had been killed while fighting in Idlib. At the time, jihadists posted a number of new images of al Harbi. [See LWJ report, Jihadists claim wanted al Qaeda operative killed in Syria.]

Jund al Aqsa’s tweet confirmed al Harbi’s death, indicating that he was both a military leader in the organization, as well as a leading figure in al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group.” The tweet included a photo of al Harbi that was released by Saudi authorities when he was added to the kingdom’s most wanted list.

According to the US Treasury Department, al Harbi worked under Muhsin al Fadhli, a senior member of the Khorasan Group, which is suspected of planning attacks against the West. US airstrikes first targeted al Fadhli and his Khorasan comrades in September 2014, and have struck their suspected locations since then. Initial reports from September of last year claimed that al Fadhli may have been killed, but that was never confirmed.

An al Qaeda front group in Syria

Jund al Aqsa’s tweet identifying al Harbi as its military leader is the latest indication that the group is a front organization for al Qaeda, which has attempted to hide the extent of its operations in Syria.

At first, Ayman al Zawahiri ordered his operatives to conceal al Qaeda’s role in the insurgency against Bashar al Assad’s regime. It was only after the infighting between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State broke out in mid-2013 that Al Nusrah’s allegiance to Zawahiri became public knowledge. While Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, other jihadist groups in the country have ties to al Qaeda. Jund al Aqsa is one of them.

In mid-April, Jund al Aqsa released a eulogy for Ibrahim Rubaish, an ex-Gitmo detainee who served as an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official before being killed in a US drone strike. The group heaped effusive praise on Rubaish, calling him a “symbol and luminary of the jihad,” an “honest guide,” and “advice-giver,” according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

In its eulogy for Rubaish, Jund al Aqsa also specifically addressed al Qaeda’s senior leaders. The group described Nasir al Wuhayshi, who serves as both the emir of AQAP and al Qaeda’s global general manager, as the “honorable emir and veteran leader.” Jund al Aqsa regards al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri as the “wise and rightly-guided sheikh,” according to the eulogy.

Late last year, Jund al Aqsa worked closely with Al Nusrah to combat Western-backed rebels in the province of Idlib. Al Nusrah and Jund al Aqsa went on the offensive against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), capturing several towns and villages from the group.

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Jund al Aqsa also accused the SRF of killing its founder, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Qatari, who reportedly fought for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was “close to” Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

Jund al Aqsa released a statement concerning the death of its leader, al Qatari, via Twitter. An English-language banner advertising the statement can be seen on the right.

In March, Jund al Aqsa was one of the seven named organizations that established Jaysh al Fateh, a coalition of forces that captured the provincial capital of Idlib. A number of other groups, in addition to Jaysh al Fateh’s seven founding member groups, took part in the offensive against regime forces. Jund al Aqsa’s fighters played key roles early on in the assault, launching suicide attacks against regime checkpoints, thereby clearing the way for other forces to march in.

It is not clear how many jihadists fight in Jund al Aqsa’s ranks, but the group remains a key part of the jihadist coalition in northern Syria.

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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