In late March, a coalition of jihadist groups named Jaysh al Fateh overran Bashar al Assad’s forces in the provincial capital of Idlib. Their victory was one of the insurgents’ most significant accomplishments to date.
In the aftermath of the battle, fallen “martyrs” were lionized by the various organizations that participated. In the process, al Qaeda veterans in Jaysh al Fateh’s ranks were publicly revealed. One of them was known as Abu Hafs al Masri, a senior leader in the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham movement.
A video posted online by jihadists earlier this month records a brief talk Abu Hafs al Masri gave prior to this death. The video was translated into English by a small online jihadist outfit calling itself GIIMedia.
Abu Hafs explained in the interview that he served al Qaeda for 17 years and had lived with the organization’s most senior leaders.
“We have lived with the leader of al Qaeda, Sheikh Osama and his brothers,” Abu Hafs said. “Allah also witnesses that I was 17 years in al Qaeda.”
Abu Hafs goes on to praise Ahrar al Sham, saying it is the most “balanced” jihadist group he has seen. He explained: “Allah witnesses that we haven’t found a faction or group like they were with regard to Taqwa and balance/impartiality that Allah ordered us to follow — as He said: ‘As such, We have made you a balanced/impartial nation.’ – between extravagance and negligence like the Ahrar al Sham Movement is.” He reiterated that he “had not found a faction that embraces the balanced/impartial Manhaj [methodology] as the Ahrar al Sham Movement,” which is “on the middle way between extremism and negligence.”
“Before I came to the land of Sham I saw a dream that I would not go anywhere except to this Blessed Movement,” Abu Hafs added. “So I say to the brothers; you are on the true Manhaj [methodology]. So hold on and remain steadfast for you are filling a great gap.”
The al Qaeda veteran encouraged his fellow jihadists to continue to build popular support for their cause, saying the Prophet Mohammed had advised them to “give good tidings (to the people), and do not repel them, make things easy for them and do not make things difficult.”
Shortly after the battle of Idlib, online jihadists identified Abu Hafs al Masri as both an Ahrar al Sham leader and as an al Qaeda veteran who fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia. According to some accounts on Twitter, al Masri served as an al Qaeda trainer at one point.
In a separate compilation of tweets and statements posted online, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, who is affiliated with al Qaeda, said he had met with Abu Hafs and praised him as one of the “martyrs” in Idlib.
Then, Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, honored al Masri in a speech preaching jihadist unity in Idlib. Julani listed several “martyrs” who fell during the “invasion” of Idlib, including two Egyptians. Julani named one of the two as “Abu Hafs,” which is almost certainly the same Abu Hafs al Masri (or Abu Hafs the Egyptian) who was killed while leading Ahrar al Sham fighters. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front leader preaches jihadist unity in Idlib.]
Prior to his death in late March, Abu Hafs al Masri’s role inside Ahrar al Sham was not widely publicized. This is consistent with al Qaeda’s original intentions for the jihad in Syria.
Other al Qaeda veterans were seeded in Ahrar al Sham’s ranks, holding positions of considerable influence.
One of them, known as Abu Khalid al Suri, doubled as Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in the Levant. It was not until after Abu Khalid al Suri was killed in February 2014 that numerous photos of him waging jihad in Syria were posted online. Many of the photos showed al Suri side-by-side with Hassan Abboud, Ahrar al Sham’s top leader. It is obvious from the photos and other information that surfaced that Abboud, who was subsequently killed in September 2014, considered al Suri to be his mentor and teacher.
The Long War Journal first reported in December 2013 that Abu Khalid al Suri was a senior member of Ahrar al Sham. At the time, his role was not publicly disclosed by the group.
Another senior al Qaeda figure, Adel Radi Saker al Wahabi al Harbi, was the military commander of Jund al Aqsa, which also took part in the attack on Idlib. But al Harbi’s leadership position in Jund al Aqsa was not revealed until he, too, was killed while fighting. The US government had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to al Harbi’s whereabouts. In 2012, the US Treasury Department identified him as the deputy head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran, a position he held until relocating to Syria.
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, was originally instructed to hide its ties to the mother organization. Ayman al Zawahiri made this clear when he attempted to mediate the dispute between the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that claims to rule as a “caliphate” over large portions of Iraq and Syria, and Nusrah in 2013. In a letter written in mid-2013, Zawahiri by and large sided with the Al Nusrah Front, but chastised the group’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, for “showing his links to al Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.”