U.S. adds Al Qaeda leader in Syria to list of global terrorists

Sami al-Uraydi as seen in a 2018 video released by al-Qaeda’s central propaganda outlet as-Sahab.

The U.S. State Department added Sami al-Uraydi, a senior leader of Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. State’s Rewards for Justice program previously offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of al-Uraydi.

State offered little other information on al-Uraydi in yesterday’s designation, only noting he was being designated as a result of his senior leadership position in HAD. Al-Uraydi, who is also known by his kunya as Abu Mahmud al-Shami, was previously identified by State, however, as “a Jordanian national and senior sharia official for Hurras al-Din” (HAD, or the “Guardians of Religion organization).”

Al-Uraydi is a known al-Qaeda loyalist who was closely allied with former al-Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahriri. Zawahiri even cited al-Uraydi’s speeches on multiple occasions and featured periodically in media released by al-Qaeda’s general command. The U.S. government also previously alleged al-Uraydi “was involved in terrorist plots against the United States and Israel.” [See LWJ report, US offers rewards for information on 3 al Qaeda leaders in Syria.]

In 2018, al-Qaeda’s central propaganda outlet as-Sahab included footage of al-Uraydi during a video celebrating the 9/11 attacks. In that video, al-Qaeda emphasized al-Uraydi’s self-serving claim that Muslim scholars generally agree that waging jihad is a religious imperative.

Al-Uraydi’s works continue to be featured in propaganda released by as-Sahab, with an article penned by al-Uraydi featuring in the latest issue of the outlet’s “One Ummah” magazine just last week.

It is thus clear by his continued inclusion in the group’s global propaganda that al-Uraydi plays an outsized role in al-Qaeda’s overall messaging and propaganda and not just for its continuing, albeit limited, operations inside Syria.

Uraydi’s Hurras al-Din was formed in early 2018 during a dispute within the senior leadership cadres of the former Al-Nusrah Front, which rebranded itself as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, in early 2017.

Al-Qaeda loyalists within HTS, such as al-Uraydi and Abu Hammam al-Shami (the current emir of HAD and an al-Qaeda veteran), disagreed with HTS’ disavowal of al-Qaeda and left HTS shortly after its creation.

Other leaders and factions also left HTS shortly thereafter, wherein they subsequently merged to form HAD. HAD is now believed to be al-Qaeda’s official branch inside Syria.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimates that HAD has between 2,000 and 2,500 fighters in its ranks (though the UN notes these numbers could be lower), and the group is primarily based in Syria’s Idlib Governorate near the borders with Turkey and with a limited presence in nearby Latakia Governorate.

The UN’s ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee also reports that HAD receives direct instructions from Sayf al-Adl, who is currently assessed to be al-Qaeda’s current overall emir.

Al-Uraydi thus helps oversee al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in the Levant, which continues to be an area of great importance for al-Qaeda’s overall goals and aspirations as made evident by Sayf al-Adl’s direct interventions.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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