Jihadis claim US-designated terrorist killed in Syria

Several jihadi social media accounts are claiming that a veteran al Qaeda figure known as Abu Julaybib al-Urduni has been killed in Syria. Abu Julaybib’s real name is Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil and he is also known as Iyad al-Tubasi, among other aliases. Born in 1974, his career spanned much of the war in Iraq, the uprising in Syria and the jihadi infighting that ensued.*

In Feb. 2017, the US Treasury Department and United Nations designated Abu Julaybib as a terrorist. Abu Julaybib joined al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) “in the mid-2000s” and was “close” to AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Indeed, he was Zarqawi’s brother-in-law. He remained with AQI as it evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and eventually expanded into Syria.

According to Treasury, Abu Julaybib was a member of a small cadre sent by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Syria in 2011. Along with “six other individuals,” he was tasked with establishing a new arm for Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). That group became known as Al Nusrah Front.

Al Nusrah Front broke off from Baghdadi’s Islamic State in 2013, when Al Nusrah head Abu Muhammad al-Julani reaffirmed his direct loyalty to al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. And Abu Julaybib was part of the crew that supported Julani in his rivalry with Baghdadi. That intra-jihadi conflict would spread far outside of Syria’s borders, as the Islamic State competed with al Qaeda and its regional branches for dominance of the global jihadist movement.

Abu Julaybib stuck with Al Nusrah until mid-2016.

By “early 2016,” according to Treasury, he had become Al Nusrah’s “third highest-ranking official.” Julani also appointed him “as the group’s emir for Syria’s coastal area.” Some within Al Nusrah wanted to declare an Islamic emirate centered in the northwestern province of Idlib. Abu Julaybib “took part” in these “discussions among the group’s senior leadership regarding” Nusrah’s “overall strategy,” as well as the “feasibility of establishing an emirate in Idlib.” Ultimately, Nusrah’s leadership decided it was premature to declare a Islamic state for various reasons.

Abu Julaybib split from Al Nusrah’s ranks in the summer of 2016, announcing his withdrawal via social media. He objected to the group’s decision to “disassociate” from al Qaeda and rebrand itself as Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS). He also reaffirmed his own allegiance directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In Jan. 2017, JFS merged with several other groups to form Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), but that alliance ultimately fractured, leaving JFS as the main constituent to operate as HTS.

In late 2017, HTS detained Abu Julaybib and others who were highly critical of Julani’s leadership and Al Nusrah’s evolution into HTS. They were only released after a jihadi reconciliation body was established to arbitrate between the various competing factions.

The disagreements with Julani and other HTS figures led to the formation of the “Guardians of Religion” organization, which Abu Julaybib reportedly may have helped lead, though that isn’t confirmed.** The “Guardians of Religion” continues to attack Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their allies in several Syrian provinces.

Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric who has also been designated as a terrorist by the US, was among the jihadists to honor Abu Julaybib after his reported demise. Accounts affiliated with Muhaysini posted a brief eulogy, along with an image of the fallen jihadi.

Muhaysini praised Abu Julaybib for continuing the fight in Daraa, where he was purportedly killed, and for not being content to stay in Idlib.

Abu Julaybib has roots in Daraa, as he served as Al Nusrah’s emir there prior to relocating to Syria’s coast. “Under his leadership” in Daraa, Treasury noted, he “empowered [Nusrah’s] security and intelligence operatives responsible for assassinations, ran prisons notorious for torture, and encouraged the looting of vehicles and possessions of Free Syrian Army members.” According to other reports, his behavior proved to be controversial and may have led to his relocation.

If Abu Julaybib was killed in Daraa, as the jihadis say, then he may have been attempting to revive the jihad there. The Assad regime and its allies have pummeled the opposition in southern Syria.

Abu Julaybib is an interesting character to study, as his career touched on so many aspects of the modern jihadist scene. Past reports of his demise proved to be false. If his death is confirmed, then al Qaeda has lost a loyalist.

*Some accounts place Abu Julaybib in Afghanistan alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi prior to the 9/11 attacks. For instance, Suha Philip Ma’ayeh wrote in the CTC Sentinel that Abu Julaybib (“Abu Gelebeb”) “fought with al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan and Iraq.” In Perspectives on Terrorism (Vol. 9, Issue 4), Truls Hallberg Tønnessen wrote that Abu Julaybib was a veteran of “Zarqawi’s camp in Herat who had accompanied Zarqawi to Iraq.”

**This sentence was edited after publication to note that Abu Julaybib’s position is unconfirmed.

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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