During a briefing on Oct. 6, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said US officials have confirmed the death of Ahmed Salama Mabrouk (or Mabruk), who was targeted in an American airstrike three days earlier.
“We have now determined that Egyptian national Abu al-Farai al-Masri, also known as Ahmad Salamah Mabruk, one of Al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, was killed in an American airstrike near Idlib, Syria” on Oct. 3, Cook said. “His death is a significant disruption to Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, and again a blow to their ability to plot external attacks.”
As The Long War Journal previously reported, Mabrouk was part of Al Nusrah Front’s rebranding effort. On Jul. 28, Al Nusrah’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani, announced that his group would subsequently be known as Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS, or “Conquest of the Levant Front”). Mabrouk sat to Julani’s right as he read the announcement.
Cook’s statement is interesting because the Pentagon explicitly tied Mabrouk to al Qaeda’s plotting of “external attacks,” that is, terrorist operations outside of Syria. Usually this wording refers to plots in the West or against Western interests.
In the weeks leading up to Al Nusrah’s rebranding effort and thereafter, the al Qaeda branch desperately tried to convince the world that it didn’t intend to carry out attacks outside of Syria. Al Nusrah’s representatives denied that they posed an immediate threat to the West, even though Al Nusrah itself has openly celebrated the 9/11 hijackings in its propaganda.
For instance, Al Nusrah was quick to deny a July 19 account written by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. American “officials report increasing evidence that the group [Al Nusrah] is plotting external operations against Europe and the United States,” Ignatius wrote.
Abu Ammar al Shami, a spokesman for Nusrah, took to Twitter to dispute Ignatius’ sources. Abu Ammar’s denial was first reported by NOW. “We in Nusra emphasize that [our] interest is maintaining a strong and standing Jihad in Syria, and all other desired interests to target the US and the West will be marginalized and absent,” Abu Ammar tweeted.
After Al Nusrah was renamed JFS, another spokesman for the group, Mostafa Mahamed (also known as Abu Sulayman al Muhajir), similarly downplayed the jihadi threat to the West. “When we were part of Al Qaeda, as our 5 year track-record shows, our core policy was to focus all our efforts on the Syrian issue,” Mahamed told CNN. “That was our policy before; it is our policy today; we do not intend to change that policy.” What Mahamed didn’t say was that he had previously praised the 9/11 attacks on Twitter.
Moreover, the “policy” Mahamed mentioned came directly from al Qaeda’s emir: Ayman al Zawahiri.
During an interview with Al Jazeera that aired in 2015, Julani explained that the “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri]…are that Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime,” and not to strike the West at the time. Concurrent with Assad’s planned downfall, Al Nusrah was ordered to reach “a mutual understanding with other factions to establish a righteous Islamic rule.” That could change, Julani explained, should Zawahiri order them to launch a terrorist attack in the West.
“We have received guidance to not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West or Europe so that the real battle is not confused,” Julani said. He conceded that “maybe” the mother al Qaeda organization is plotting against the West, just “not from Syria.” Julani emphasized that this “directive” came from Zawahiri. Al Jazeera’s interviewer pressed Julani on the matter, asking if Al Nusrah will respond to the US air strikes targeting the group’s leadership. Julani reiterated that his organization is “committed to the orders of Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri]” and the al Qaeda leader’s “directions…up until now” have been to avoid targeting the West or the US from inside Syria. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Nusrah Front ‘committed’ to Ayman al Zawahiri’s ‘orders’.]
However, the implication of Cook’s statement is that Mabrouk was directly involved in al Qaeda’s “external” attack plotting. If that was the case, then the Pentagon doesn’t buy the story pitched by JFS (formerly Al Nusrah) concerning its supposed lack of international terrorist aspirations.
Mabrouk compiled an extensive terrorist dossier dating back to the 1980s. So, it is easy to see how he could have been involved in plotting “external” attacks immediately prior to his demise. Still, it is possible that any such attack, if successful, would not have been claimed by JFS.
A key document for understanding al Qaeda’s thinking in this regard was discovered in Mali and first reported on by Rukmini Callimachi, then of the Associated Press and now at The New York Times. The missive was authored by Abdulmalek Droukdel, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Droukdel was especially concerned with the jihadists’ efforts to build an Islamic emirate in northern Mali. [See LWJ report, Libya’s Terrorist Descent: Causes and Solutions.]
Droukdel concluded that AQIM had “two missions” and combining them created a “true dilemma.” AQIM wanted to both build an Islamist state and also continue its “global jihadi project.” The latter was a reference to AQIM’s commitment to carrying out terrorist operations throughout the region, especially against Western targets.
Droukdel and his advisors came up with two proposals. In the first scenario, AQIM would subordinate itself to the local ruler. AQIM would “be under the emirate of Ansar Dine,” an AQIM front group, such that AQIM’s “emir would follow their emir” and AQIM’s “opinion would follow their opinion.” This would be the case for all “internal activity,” meaning “all activity connected to participating in bearing the responsibilities of the liberated areas.” But all “external activity” connected to the “global jihad…would be independent of them [Ansar Dine]” and AQIM “would ensure that none of that activity or its repercussions is attributed to them [Ansar Dine], as care must be taken over negative impacts on the project of the state.”
Therefore, as Droukdel made clear in his letter, AQIM didn’t want its “external” plotting to have negative “repercussions” on the jihadis’ nation-building project. That is, AQIM didn’t want the nascent state it was building along with its allies to be blamed for any high-profile terrorist attacks. As it turned out, Droukdel didn’t need to follow through on his proposals, as a French-led invasion quickly toppled the jihadis’ sharia-based effort.
Regardless, it is easy to see the parallels between Droukdel’s thinking and al Qaeda’s approach in Syria. Julani himself told Al Jazeera that Zawahiri ordered Nusrah not to attack the West “so that the real battle is not confused.” That is, Zawahiri didn’t want an attack in the West to interfere with al Qaeda’s effort to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime and replace it with an Islamic state. It is easy to see how a mass casualty attack launched from Syrian soil (independently from the Islamic State) could create even more problems for the jihadists. To date, America has targeted only select al Qaeda leaders, not JFS as a whole.
None of this means that US officials should assume that al Qaeda won’t target the West from Syria. Indeed, the Pentagon clearly doesn’t make that assumption. As Julani made clear, the stand down order was a tactical decision on the part of al Qaeda’s leadership. Al Qaeda also dispatched a team commonly known as the “Khorasan Group” to Syria. This cadre included operatives who were tasked with planning operations in the West. US officials previously told The Long War Journal that the Khorasan Group’s members were ordered to lay the groundwork for plots outside of Syria, but were not given the green light to go through with them.
Droukdel’s letter suggests another possibility. Al Qaeda could have a terror team launch strikes from Syria or elsewhere without implicating JFS. Al Qaeda could claim that such operations were independent from the jihad being waged by JFS against the Assad regime. In reality, there is no firm dividing line between these two aspects of al Qaeda’s jihad.
As Mabrouk’s life shows, key al Qaeda personnel have been simultaneously involved in the two missions outlined in Droukdel’s letter: Islamic state building and plotting “external” attacks. And JFS can’t help but threaten the US.
Earlier today, a senior JFS official known as Abu Abdullah al Shami released a eulogy for Mabrouk. Abu Abdullah denounced the US for killing the Egyptian jihadi. His audio eulogy was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“[I]n the face of this crime America will only harvest from the battle of Sham [Syria] the fate which Assad awaits,” Abu Abdullah said, according to SITE’s translation. “It [America] has put itself in front of a free, dignified Muslim people, whose dignity and pride motivate it, and it conspires with its enemy and kills its sons the mujahideen.”
Abu Abdullah continued: “The mujahideen and their Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] will not forget to take vengeance for their martyrs, for before every martyr there are hundreds of men who bear his weapon and continue his path, Allah permitting.”