US airstrike targets Egyptian al Qaeda veteran in Syria

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Jabhat Fath al Sham (“Conquest of the Levant Front”), al Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria, announced earlier today that Ahmed Salama Mabrouk has been killed in an airstrike in the Idlib province. Mabrouk, an Egyptian al Qaeda veteran, was also known as Abu Faraj al Masri.

Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis confirmed that Mabrouk was the target of an American bombing, but said US officials are still working to confirm his status. “We can confirm that we targeted a prominent Al Qaeda member in Syria, and we are assessing the results of the operation at this time,” Davis said, according to Agence France-Presse. “This is a prominent Al Qaeda leader,” Davis emphasized.

In addition to Jabhat Fath al Sham’s (“JFS”) official Twitter feed, several jihadi accounts commented on the reports of Mabrouk’s demise. Abu Saeed al Halabi, a Dutch JFS member, tweeted that Mabrouk’s death had been “confirmed.” Mabrouk was “martyred after being targeted by a coalition airstrike on his car in W-Idlib,” Halabi tweeted.

Dr. Abdullah al Muhaysini, a cleric who is probably a member of Ayman al Zawahiri’s organization, also eulogized Mabrouk. Muhaysini is, at a minimum, a pro-al Qaeda ideologue operating in Syria. Khaled Abu Anas, an Ahrar al Sham official, honored Mabrouk as well.

Mabrouk’s alleged death draws attention, once again, to Al Nusrah Front’s rebranding. On July 28, Al Nusrah emir Abu Muhammad al Julani announced that his organization would be known as JFS going forward. Julani also said that JFS would supposedly have “no affiliation to any external [foreign] entity.” This was widely interpreted as Al Nusrah’s “break” from al Qaeda, even though Julani didn’t actually say that.

Moreover, as The Long War Journal assessed at the time, al Qaeda itself isn’t an “external entity,” as the group has moved much of its senior leadership to Syria. One of these key leaders was Mabrouk, who sat to Julani’s right as he announced Al Nusrah’s relaunch as JFS. Mabrouk can be seen on the reader’s left in the screen shot below.

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Mabrouk was well-known in US intelligence and counterterrorism circles, as he compiled a thick dossier by the late 1990s.

Mabrouk was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which worked closely with Osama bin Laden’s operation even before the two officially merged sometime before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There are conflicting accounts regarding when the EIJ and al Qaeda formally merged — some sources say 1998, others 2001. Regardless, some of the EIJ’s top commanders were clearly integrated into al Qaeda’s chain of command before that time.

As Lawrence Wright recounts in The Looming Tower, Mabrouk was “kidnapped” by the CIA in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1998. Mabrouk’s laptop, which contained key details about al Qaeda’s network, was then examined by US officials. According to Dan Coleman, a former FBI agent who worked for the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, Mabrouk’s computer was the “Rosetta Stone of al Qaeda.”

Mabrouk was subsequently held in an Egyptian prison for years. He was released some time after the uprisings that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak’s government.

The Long War Journal has tracked Mabrouk using social media, press reports and other sources since 2013. [See LWJ reports: Al Qaeda’s expansion into Egypt, US counterterrorism efforts in Syria: A winning strategy?, Veteran Egyptian jihadist now an al Qaeda leader in Syria and Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham.]

In late 2013, Egyptian officials alleged that Mabrouk played a leading role in Ansar Jerusalem, an al Qaeda-linked group that defected to the Islamic State in 2014. Mabrouk also starred at Ansar al Sharia Egypt events alongside Mohammed al Zawahiri, who is the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

In September 2015, The Long War Journal reported that Mabrouk had relocated to Syria, where he served as a member of Al Nusrah’s elite shura council. Mabrouk’s senior role was subsequently confirmed in an Al Nusrah video that was released earlier this year.

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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