Said Arif, an al Qaeda veteran who trained in Afghanistan in the 1990s, has reportedly been killed in Syria while leading Jund al Aqsa’s forces. Arif’s death has been reported by multiple jihadists on social media, but has not yet been confirmed on Jund al Aqsa’s official Twitter feed. He was allegedly killed in an airstrike conducted by the US-led coalition just days ago.
The Long War Journal has previously identified Jund al Aqsa as an al Qaeda front, based on the biographies of its leadership, the group’s propaganda, and its close working relationship with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Arif’s background is consistent with this assessment.
The US State Department designated Arif as a terrorist on Aug. 18, 2014, identifying him as an “Algerian army officer deserter, who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1990s, where he trained in al Qaeda camps with weapons and explosives.” [See LWJ report, US adds Islamic State, Al Nusrah Front leaders to list of global terrorists.]
Arif was implicated in multiple al Qaeda plots against targets in Europe. State described him as “a long-time terrorist who was a suspect in the al Qaeda December 2000 plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market.” He was arrested in 2003 and tried in France along “with 25 others,” all of whom were accused of belonging to the “Chechen Network,” which plotted “to blow up the Eiffel Tower” and launch “chemical attacks…on malls and police stations in France.” Arif was convicted in 2006 “for his role in these planned attacks,” afterwards declaring that al Qaeda was “planning to attack an American military base in Spain using chemical weapons.”
Arif was eventually placed under house arrest in France, but fled for Syria in 2013. He then joined the Nusrah Front, according to State.
Photos posted on Twitter purportedly show Arif’s charred body. There are conflicting reports as to where he was killed, with the airstrike taking place in either Latakia or Idlib.
If Arif’s death is confirmed, then he is the latest of several al Qaeda veterans to die while leading Jund al Aqsa’s forces. Late last month, the group confirmed that Adel Radi Saker al Wahabi al Harbi, another US-designated al Qaeda operative, had been killed in the fighting. [See LWJ report, An al Qaeda front group in Syria.]
Harbi was a leading figure in al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan group,” an elite unit of veteran jihadists dispatched to Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri. The Khorasan group serves dual roles, plotting attacks in the West while also leading the fight against Bashar al Assad’s regime and its allies.
Jund al Aqsa’s founder, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Qatari, disappeared in early 2014. The jihadists accused the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a Western-backed group, of killing him. Qatari, who waged jihad in Afghanistan, was a known comrade of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
In addition to the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda veterans have been seeded in the upper echelon of several insurgency organizations inside Syria.