The Treasury Department announced today that Dr. Abdallah Muhammad Bin Sulayman al Muhaysini and three other jihadists have been added to the US government’s list of designated terrorists. All four were designated for “acting for or on behalf of” Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s “affiliate in Syria.”
Treasury also notes that Al Nusrah Front has changed its name to Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS), but described the new brand name as merely an “alias.”
Muhaysini, who is from Saudi Arabia, has claimed that he is an independent sharia scholar with no formal affiliations inside Syria. But The Long War Journal assesses this is unlikely and he is probably a senior al Qaeda sharia official. He has numerous connections to al Qaeda’s international network.
Treasury describes Muhaysini as a key Al Nusrah (now JFS) leader, thereby indicating that he is not truly independent.
“As of late 2015,” Muhaysini “was an accepted member of al Nusrah Front’s inner leadership circle.” He has served as Nusrah’s “religious advisor” and “represented” the group “in an Idlib Province, Syria, military operations room” as of July 2015. Although Treasury doesn’t mention it, Muhaysini was one of the most important ideologues in the Jaysh al Fateh alliance during this period. Jaysh al Fateh, which was cofounded by Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham, overran Idlib province in early 2015.
Muhaysini has been a prolific recruiter for Nusrah and has helped to form a new jihadi “state” in northern Syria, Treasury reports.
“In April 2016,” Treasury’s announcement continues, “Muhaysini launched a campaign to recruit 3,000 child and teenage soldiers across northern Syria” for Al Nusrah. The enrollment drive was supposed to benefit all of the insurgency groups that supported it, but the US government indicates that it was mainly an Al Nusrah effort. [For more on the recruiting campaign, see LWJ report: Al Qaeda-linked cleric leads new recruiting campaign for jihadists in Syria.]
The Saudi jihadist cleric has also “played a crucial role in providing financial aid to” Al Nusrah, raising “millions of dollars” to support the organization’s “governance efforts in Idlib Province, Syria” between 2013 and 2015. He has also “set up institutions providing financial aid to terrorist groups, including a highly successful campaign that he claimed had secured $5 million in donations to arm fighters.”
The Long War Journal has reported on Muhaysini’s activities since early 2014. He was a student of Sulayman Al Alwan, a jihadist cleric responsible for indoctrinating some key figures within al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission found that al Alwan even instructed one of the 9/11 hijackers. Muhaysini has defended and spoken fondly of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. In early 2014, Muhaysini even issued a proposal for jihadist reconciliation that was timed to coincide with Zawahiri’s own. The initiative was intended to reconcile the Islamic State with its jihadist rivals in Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham. While the latter parties agreed to the plan, the Islamic State rejected it. On one of his popular Twitter feeds, Muhaysini subsequently described his meetings with Abu Ali al Anbari, a senior Islamic State leader, as he tried to broker the truce.
In addition to Al Nusrah Front (JFS), Muhaysini has worked closely with other al Qaeda groups in Syria, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and similar ethnic jihadist brigades. His work has been featured in Al Masra, an al Qaeda newsletter launched earlier this year, as well as in the Taliban’s literature. Muhaysini’s popular social media sites are regularly littered with references to al Qaeda, including eulogies for senior al Qaeda operatives killed in American airstrikes.
Three others designated by Treasury
In addition to Muhaysini, Treasury designated three other Al Nusrah (JFS) figures today.
Jamal Husayn Zayniyah was Al Nusrah’s “emir” of al Qalamun, Syria and Lebanon as of late last year. In that capacity, Zayniyah has overseen both abductions and hostage negotiations. Treasury says he was “responsible” for kidnapping “a group of Christian nuns in Ma’alula, Damascus Province” and has also been the “intermediary for the negotiations over hostages” held by Al Nusrah, including 16 Lebanese soldiers.
Abdul Jashari is an Al Nusrah “military advisor who has also helped to raise funds for the families of” fighters, according to the US government. The emir of Nusrah (JFS), Abu Muhammad al Julani “appointed Jashari as leader” of Nusrah’s “military operations” during the summer of 2014 and led the group’s “military operations in northern Syria” one year later.
Jashari is also known as Abu Qatada al Albani (the Albanian). During a fiery speech that was leaked online in July 2014, Abu Muhammad al Julani told his followers that Abu Qatada al Albani had been appointed as the new head of Nusrah’s military forces and that they must obey him. Julani also promised that the time had come to build an Islamic emirate, or state, in northern Syria. Other Al Nusrah officials quickly walked back this claim. But as Treasury’s designations indicate, Muhaysini and others are working to build a jihadi emirate. From al Qaeda’s perspective, however, it was premature to declare its existence in 2014, as such a state may not be strong enough to survive its enemies’ advances.
Ashraf Ahmad Fari al Allak is an Al Nusrah “military commander” in southern Syria, namely Dara Province, and has also served as the group’s “emir of Saraya, Syria and Dara City, Syria.” In that role, he has been responsible for “mobilizing” both “fighters and weapons.”
Today’s designations were likely timed to coincide with President Obama’s order to launch airstrikes against key JFS personnel. To date, the US has only targeted jihadists with longstanding al Qaeda pedigrees, while leaving al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces untouched. But according to the Washington Post, President Obama “has ordered the Pentagon to find and kill the leaders of” JFS, because the president is concerned that the group “is turning parts of Syria into a new base of operations for al Qaeda on Europe’s southern doorstep.”
However, that threat has been present for some time. The US began launching precision airstrikes on al Qaeda leaders who are part of the so-called “Khorasan Group” in September 2014. Those infrequent bombings have continued into 2016, including one last month. Ayman al Zawahiri ordered the “Khorasan Group” to begin preparations for attacks in the West more than two years ago.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.