Al Qaeda veteran reportedly killed in Idlib

Jihadists shared this photo of the car Abu Khallad al-Muhandis was in when an explosion caused his demise.

Al Qaeda-affiliated Telegram channels reported earlier today that Abu Khallad al-Muhandis, a veteran jihadist, was killed in a bombing in Idlib. These same channels posted photos of the car he was traveling in when a bomb exploded. It appears he was killed in a targeted assassination, as his car was specifically destroyed. (Another nearby vehicle was collateral damage.)

The jihadist comrades who commented on Muhandis’s death did not blame any specific party. One blamed the “treachery” of some unknown traitors. But the authors of the attack are unknown.

Some of the jihadists who mourned Muhandis posted reminders of his impressive jihadi pedigree. One short biography reminds readers of his time in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, where he was detained.

There are a few men known as Khallad, or Abu Khallad, in al Qaeda circles. But it appears that the recently departed Abu Khallad al-Muhandis (meaning “the engineer”) is the same man who has gone by the name Sari Shihab. (FDD’s Long War Journal will update this report if the identification changes.)

Shihab was a close friend of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, and the two worked together. Shihab, a fellow Jordanian, was also from Zarqa. In Zarqawi: The New Face of Al-Qaeda, Jean-Charles Brisard reports that Shihab was a member of Zarqawi’s “inner circle” and belonged to the “upper echelons of Tawhid wal Jihad,” the precursor to al Qaeda in Iraq. Shihab’s name was sometimes given as Sari Muhammad Hasan Shihab, and his other aliases included Abu Safar and Suhayb.

Abu Khallad al-Muhandis’s death was big news in the jihadi scene.

In 2015, Shihab was among the five senior al Qaeda figures released from Iranian custody as part of a hostage exchange. Al Qaeda’s relations with the Iranians are complex, murky and frequently duplicitous. While the Iranians have held some of al Qaeda’s men in custody, others have been free to operate.

In The Exile, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark report that at one point Shihab served as “an important facilitator for any Iraq-bound brothers traveling through Iran.”

Also released in the 2015 swap between the Iranians and al Qaeda were: Saif al-Adel, Abu Mohammed al-Masri (a.k.a. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah), Abu Khayr al-Masri, and Khalid al-Aruri. It turned out that each of these jihadists would play a significant role in Syria’s turbulent jihadi scene.

Abu al-Khayr al-Masri relocated to Syria, where he blessed Al Nusrah Front’s public disassociation from al Qaeda in July 2016. While this move wasn’t immediately controversial, as it sparked only a few protests, it caused significant problems in the months that followed. Some al Qaeda veterans rejected the move and eventually formed their own factions. However, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to Ayman al-Zawahiri, wasn’t around long enough to fully mediate these disputes. He was killed in an apparent US airstrike in late February 2017.

Saif al-Adel and Abu Mohammed al-Masri became involved in the controversy when they rejected Al Nusrah Front’s rebranding as Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS). In early 2017, JFS was relaunched once again as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Both al-Adel and al-Masri were in Iran when they rejected the moves made by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Al Nusrah/JFS/HTS. One Julani loyalist dismissed their ruling, saying they were being held in an “enemy state,” meaning the Shiite Iran.

But Khalid al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam) quickly fired back, saying that al-Adel and al-Masri were free to operate in Iran and weren’t being held. Al-Aruri, who was one of the five released from Iranian custody, had made his way to Syria.

Just recently, the UN Security Council reported that al-Aruri is the leader of Hurras al-Din (the “Guardians of Religion” organization, or HAD), which was established with the blessing of al-Adel and al-Masri. HAD and other jihadist groups operate in Idlib. Despite disagreements between HTS and HAD, the two reached a new accord earlier this year.

It appears that Abu Khallad al-Muhandis was a senior figure in HAD, or was at least working with the group. Some of the eulogies offered on Telegram include condolences for both Saif al-Adel and HAD.

Abu Khallad al-Muhandis has been active on Telegram. He previously ran an account named @mansey3. On that now suspended Telegram channel, al-Muhandis posted writings concern the Taliban, al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran, and various other topics. He also shared a letter from Hamza bin Laden concerning the death of the junior bin Laden’s son. His decision to post the letter created a brief backlash, as some jihadis accused al-Muhandis of violating al Qaeda’s secrecy rules and Hamza’s confidence. Al-Muhandis defended himself against these charges, arguing that he was well aware of al Qaeda’s communications scheme and Hamza’s letter wasn’t a secretive missive. (Recent press reports indicate that Hamza bin Laden is dead, though his demise hasn’t been officially confirmed by the US government or al Qaeda yet.)

If today’s reports are confirmed, then Abu Khallad al-Muhandis’s long career in jihad has ended in a mysterious explosion in Idlib.

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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