Al Qaeda-linked foreign fighter recruiter designated by State Department

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The State Department has added Omar Diaby, who “leads a group of French foreign terrorist fighters in Syria,” to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists.

In an announcement on Sept. 16, State said that Diaby’s fighting group, known as Firqatul Ghuraba (“Brigade of Strangers”), has “approximately 50 members” and participates in operations alongside Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Al Nusrah Front was rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al Sham (“Conquest of the Levant Front”) in late July.

“Although assumed killed in August 2015,” the State Department reported, Diaby “re-emerged in May 2016, claiming his death was a ploy to allow him to travel to Turkey for an operation.”

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In June, Diaby, also known as Omar Omsen, announced his staged resurrection during an interview broadcast on France 2 television. The picture on the right of Diaby was first posted on France 2’s website. France 24 accurately described the move as a “PR stunt” that was intended to attract attention.

According to State, Diaby first “came to the attention of French intelligence due to his involvement with a French extremist group and his online propaganda video series.”

Although the extremist group in question isn’t named in State’s announcement, it is likely Forsane Alizza, which was disbanded by French authorities. Forsane Alizza claimed that it was formed to fight “Islamophobia” in France, but quickly turned to advocating on behalf of jihadist causes. French officials found ties between Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people during a series of shootings in 2012, and Forsane Alizza. Merah was reportedly trained in an al Qaeda camp during a visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Diaby’s “videos have been credited as the chief reason behind why so many French nationals have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq,” State said. The video series Diaby created is titled “19HH” — a reference to the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks. The videos combine apocalyptic themes, conspiracy theories and other anti-Western messages to advocate for jihad. Some of them include clips of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks.

Many of the “19HH” videos remain online and can be easily found on YouTube. Several of the productions have been viewed tens of thousands of times.

French authorities concluded that the videos helped recruit young, impressionable men and women for jihad. One video praised the January 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris. That attack was carried out by a pair of brothers acting under the orders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Diaby himself has praised the military-style assault on Charlie Hebdo, saying: “I wish I’d been chosen to do that.”

Diaby is from Dakar, the capital of the West African nation Senegal. He previously spent time in France’s prisons on criminal charges. According to an account in L’Opinion, a Paris-based publication, Diaby was on authorities’ radar as early as 2011. He was suspected of attempting to lead a cadre of recruits from Nice, France to Afghanistan. Diaby was released from prison in 2013 and deported to Senegal. From there, he made his way to Syria.

The Long War Journal has reported on multiple occasions that al Qaeda wants to implement a version of sharia law that is very similar to the Islamic State’s, if not identical, but has a very different strategy for doing so. Diaby has described the differences between the two rival jihadist groups in similar terms.

“When we come to a country that is not our own, we cannot impose laws that the people don’t understand,” Diaby has explained, according to France 24. “We have to first educate the people, make them understand and love religion. Sharia law is not about cutting hands or stoning the adulterous.”

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This is al Qaeda’s view. Al Qaeda’s leaders believe that the people must be indoctrinated in the jihadist ideology so that they do not resist the implementation of draconian sharia laws.

By contrast, the Islamic State explicitly markets its brutal implementation of sharia on the populace. The differences between al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been addressed in some of the 19HH videos, as can be seen in the screen shot on the right.

The 19HH videos have advertised Diaby’s loyalty to al Qaeda. Scenes of men and women fighting in Syria and elsewhere have also been included. Screen shots from the videos can be seen below.

As the competition between the Islamic State and al Qaeda heated up, however, Diaby’s Firqatul Ghuraba reportedly suffered defections to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization. It is not clear how many fighters it lost to the Islamic State.

Screen shots from the 19HH video series highlighting Diaby’s allegiance to al Qaeda:

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A video uploaded in 2015 contained pictures of several al Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the chief architect of the 9/11 hijackings), who is held at Guantanamo:

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Abu Yahya al Libi served as al Qaeda’s general manager until his death in a US drone strike in 2012:

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Anwar al Awlaki, an al Qaeda ideologue, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011:

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The next two screen shots show Abu Khalid al Suri, a senior al Qaeda operative who was embedded in Ahrar al Sham. Suri was killed by the Islamic State in early 2014:

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Screen shots of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri from the 19HH videos are below. Zawahiri is referred to as the “sheikh” in the productions:

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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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