Al-Qaeda in Syria and American Policy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 4, 2016

Ahmad Mabruk in Jabhat al-Nusra's "Heirs of Glory" video, March 2016. (Source: The Long War Journal)

Ahmad Mabruk in Jabhat al-Nusra’s “Heirs of Glory” video, March 2016. (Source: The Long War Journal)

Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri) was an al-Qaeda veteran, close to the organization’s leadership. The United States killed Mabruk in Syria on 3 October 2016 in a drone strike near Jisr al-Shughour in northern Syria. This is the second time in a month the U.S. has killed off a senior al-Qaeda jihadist, and sheds some light on the strength of the U.S. policy in Syria.

Ahmad Mabruk

Born in 1956 in Cairo, Mabruk was first arrested in late 1981, picked up in the dragnet after his fellow Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) member, Khalid al-Islambuli, assassinated the ruler, Anwar al-Sadat.

Released in 1988, Mabruk moved to Afghanistan the next year to do jihad against the Soviet occupation. Mabruk was facilitated by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (Dr. Fadl), a long-time associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is currently al-Qaeda’s leader. In Afghanistan, Mabruk was close with al-Zawahiri.

After the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, Mabruk moved to Yemen, where Usama bin Ladin had at the time placed high hopes on an Islamist revolution and where al-Qaeda attacked Western troops involved in the famine-relief for Somalia in December 1992, the first in the series of attacks through the 1990s on the road to 9/11. With Yemeni unification in May 1990, hopes for Islamist rule were dashed, though al-Qaeda retained invaluable networks for recruitment and facilitation in the country.

Sudan was Mabruk’s next domicile, where Bin Ladin was based until May 1996 and where al-Qaeda took shape as “an ‘Islamic Army Shura’ that was to serve as the coordinating body for the consortium of terrorist groups with which he was forging alliances,” including some “that were still independent,” according to the 9/11 Commission. EIJ was one such group. “The groundwork for a true global terrorist network was being laid.”

EIJ Is Driven From Egypt

In 1991, al-Zawahiri, became EIJ’s leader, and in 1992 EIJ launched a war against the Egyptian regime. In June 1995, EIJ tried to assassinate Egypt’s new leader, Hosni Mubarak, while he was on a trip to Ethiopia. Cairo maintains that Khartoum’s intelligence services helped EIJ in this endeavour. EIJ struck down an Egyptian diplomat, Ahmad Nazmi, in Geneva on 13 November 1995, and on 19 November brought off a double suicide-attack against Egypt’s Embassy in Pakistan, murdering seventeen people.

A month before, on 20 October, al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (GI) had bombed a police building in the Croatian port of Rijeka as a “protest” for the arrest of their spokesman, Talat Fouad Qassem (Abu Talal al-Qasimi), one of the first men to fall under the U.S.’s “extraordinary rendition” program. GI was led by the U.S.-based Umar Abdel-Rahman (“The Blind Shaykh”) until he was arrested for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, al-Qaeda’s first attack on American soil.

One reason for EIJ’s attack on the Pakistani Embassy is allegedly as retaliation for Cairo’s aggressive efforts to infiltrate EIJ. If the documents obtained by Asharq al-Awsat are correct then Mabruk’s teenage son, Musab, and another boy, Ahmad, the son of one of the group’s legal officials, Mohammed Sharaf, were captured and videotaped being raped by members of Egyptian intelligence, who then used the footage to blackmail the boys into spying.

Among other things, Musab passed documents containing the identities of EIJ fighters to Cairo and planned to kill EIJ’s leadership by smuggling explosives into a Shura Council meeting. Where al-Qaeda ended and the Sudanese regime of Umar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi began was difficult to discern in the early 1990s, and it was Khartoum’s counter-intelligence that discovered Egypt’s agents; the two boys were put before a firing squad after an EIJ internal tribunal chaired by al-Zawahiri.

That the most successful Islamist attacks on the Egyptian authorities were all outside Egypt was a testament to the weakness of the EIJ specifically in the country. EIJ had been seriously degraded inside Egypt by the security forces after al-Sadat was killed and much of its leadership had already gone into exile; the ferocious crackdown after 1992 completed the process, and by 1993-4, much of EIJ and al-Zawahiri personally had been relocated to Bosnia. The massacre of tourists at Luxor temple in November 1997 by GI isolated the Islamist cause still further in Egypt.

The Russian Sojourn

It was in this context that in December 1996, Mabruk, Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, and al-Zawahiri went to Russia “to scope out Chechnya as a possible sanctuary”. In August 1996, the first war between Chechnya and Moscow had ended with Grozny securing de facto independence. Most of the nationalists who controlled the government remained bitterly hostile to the jihadists, but the pressure of the fight and the double-games of the Kremlin—not unlike Syria—had provided some operating room.

Mabruk, al-Hennawi, and al-Zawahiri were arrested, and this is where things get really weird. The three had posed as businessmen, travelling on false passports and claiming to want to “study the market for food trade”. They had in their possession money in seven currencies, a laptop, satellite phone, and numerous medical textbooks.

Incredibly, the Russians claimed they did not realize who they had in custody and could not access the communications equipment or laptop. In May 1997, the three jihadists were sentenced to six months in jail and almost immediately released for time served. They then spent ten days meeting with Thamir Saleh Abdullah (Emir Khattab), the Saudi leader of the jihadist wing of the Chechen insurgency.

As former NSA counter-intelligence officer John Schindler has noted, “There are many reasons to doubt the official story told by both sides in the affair.” Al-Zawahiri was widely known from his trial in Egypt, where the Russians had been creating a colony until al-Sadat ordered them out, leading Moscow to initiate Active Measures from Syria and increase support to opposition forces in Egypt, including Islamists, to destabilize al-Sadat’s regime. That the KGB/FSB was unable to break either the laptop or al-Zawahiri, who had notoriously caved to torture in Egypt, also stretches the imagination.

Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector, said that Moscow knew perfectly well who it had in custody, gave al-Zawahiri training in the time he was supposedly in jail, and then sent him to Afghanistan, where, “under supervision of his FSB bosses, he penetrated Bin Ladin’s entourage”. Crazy as this sounds, Vladimir Putin’s regime took Litvinenko seriously enough to have him murdered in London, at great risk and political cost, so Litvinenko’s testimony cannot be dismissed out-of-hand.

Still, all that is known for sure is that al-Zawahiri departed Russia for Afghanistan, drew closer to Bin Ladin with whom he soon issued a fatwa calling for attacks on Americans, and made EIJ—heretofore a “national-revolutionary” organization—into a core component of al-Qaeda’s global jihad.

Arrest By America

While al-Zawahiri would stay in Taliban Afghanistan, Mabruk and al-Hennawi returned to the Chechen theatre, which had by the late 1990s flared back to the life. Al-Hennawi would get directly involved in the fighting and was killed in Chechnya in 2005. Mabruk was based in Baku, Azerbaijan—the rear-base of the Chechen jihad: what Pakistan was to Afghanistan in the 1980s or Assad’s Syria was for the Islamic State’s predecessor in the 2000s.

In May 1998, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower records, the U.S. was tied in legal-political knots deciding what to do about Bin Ladin. Trying to cut through this, the CIA director—twice—went to Saudi Arabia and asked for their help. Riyadh, in exchange for Washington’s promise to keep their name out of it, did what their superpower ally asked.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, the long-serving Saudi intelligence chief, went to Afghanistan and secured an agreement (“in principle”) from Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar to give up Bin Ladin. The Saudis sent four-hundred trucks and other financial aid to the Taliban as a down-payment for Bin Ladin. Riyadh got played.

The Taliban—supported by shock troops from al-Qaeda’s 055 Brigade—used the Saudi materiel to storm Mazar-i-Sharif on 7 August 1998, which led to the infamous massacres against the Hazara Shi’is. That same day, al-Qaeda blew up the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the U.S. responded with airstrikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. Still Mullah Umar would not surrender Bin Ladin—not even to save his regime, as it turned out.

By the summer of 1998, EIJ was “still separate from al-Qaeda but closely allied,” according to Wright, which made it a target:

In July 1998, CIA operatives kidnapped … Mabruk and another member of Jihad [i.e. EIJ] outside a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan, Mabruk was Zawahiri’s closest political confidante. The [U.S.] agents cloned [Mabruk’s] laptop computer, which contained al-Qaeda organizational charts and a roster of Jihad members in Europe—”the Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda”—as [the FBI’s] Dan Coleman called it.

The exact circumstances of Mabruk’s arrest are murky. One version of events says that Israeli MOSSAD intercepted communications about a planned meeting between Ihab Saqr, al-Zawahiri’s then-chief of staff and one of the organizers of the bombing of Egypt’s Embassy in Islamabad in 1995, and an officer of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK), and handed the intelligence to the United States.

The decision was made to pick up Saqr and the VEVAK agent at the meeting. As it happened, the Azeri authorities moved too quickly and arrested Saqr before the VEVAK operative arrived, but Baku picked up two other men in Saqr’s hotel room, one was Essam Marzouk, a Canadian EIJ member who trained two of the bombers that struck the African Embassies, and the other was Mabruk.

The evidence of collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iran was novel and sketchy at the time. Nearly two decades later it is not so. In 1992, al-Qaeda and Iran came to an agreement to collaborate against the West. This deal was personally sealed between Imad Mughniyeh, an officer of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the military leader of its Lebanese proxy, and Bin Ladin in Sudan. Al-Qaeda members were trained in the Bekaa by Hizballah and training provided by Iran was key in making the strikes in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam possible. Up to half of the 9/11 death pilots passed through Iran and the attack’s operational planner, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, lived in Iran for long stretches of the 1990s. In 2011, the U.S. exposed the “secret deal” between Iran and al-Qaeda that allows an extensive al-Qaeda network to shelter from U.S. drones on Iranian soil and feeds al-Qaeda’s global branches, including in Syria, where Tehran is supposedly “fighting terrorists” like al-Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission recommended “further investigation” into the Islamic Republic’s dealings with al-Qaeda; sadly that never occurred.

Mabruk was returned to Egypt, where he was imprisoned. A five-man Albanian EIJ cell, set up by al-Zawahiri’s brother, Muhammad, was broken up soon after Mabruk’s rollup, and its members also dispatched to Cairo. Both Ayman and Muhammad al-Zawahiri were sentenced to death in absentia by the Mubarak regime.


Mabruk was freed from prison after Mubarak was overthrown. There are claims that Mabruk was present at the creation of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that became the Islamic State’s Sinai Province in November 2014. This cannot be true. ABM had appeared first in June 2012, infiltrating Israel and murdering a civilian. ABM’s propaganda output continued through the summer, it claimed the 21 September attack that killed an IDF soldier as a response to The Innocence of Muslims, and by October it was an entrenched presence. Mabruk was released in November 2012. This does not preclude Mabruk having had some role in ABM; he likely did.

During this period, Mabruk was also often seen in the company of Muhammad al-Zawahiri. After the violent military coup in Egypt in July 2013 and the massacres of those who protested about it, all opposition has been suppressed. Much of the jihadist contingent in Egypt has fled, a lot of it to Turkey: Mabruk, Rifai Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri) who led GI after Abdel-Rahman, and Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambuli, Khalid’s brother, among them. As in the 1990s, the Egyptian state has proven effective at incubating jihadism and deflecting the problem onto others.


Taha was killed on 5 April 2016 in an airstrike by the U.S.-led Coalition that was probably intended for Mabruk. Thus was during a wave of Coalition airstrikes that had, over that previous month, killed a dozen senior jihadists, notably Radwan Nammous (Abu Firas al-Suri) and Abu Umar al-Masri from al-Qaeda, and Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer) and the caliph’s deputy Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari) from IS. Reports at the time that Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri) from al-Qaeda and IS’s Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani) were among the slain were later falsified.

Taha had become, with Muhammad al-Islambuli, part of the infrastructure that the U.S. has called the “Khorasan Group,” the jihadi veterans associated with al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) networks that oversee al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Taha’s role specifically was mediating among the leadership circles in al-Nusra, though he was formally “independent” of al-Qaeda.

Mabruk’s role within al-Nusra was more direct: he was a senior religious official and sat on al-Nusra’s executive Shura Council. Mabruk’s presence in Syria was confirmed on 18 March 2016 when he appeared in the second video of al-Nusra’s “Heirs of Glory” series. The first video had celebrated the 9/11 massacre.

Mabruk sat at the right hand of al-Nusra’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), when he announced on 28 July that his organization had “no affiliation to any external entity,” and was now changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). Mabruk was proof-positive of the slipperiness of this statement: even if this statement were true, what need of “external” connections if AQC has a bureaucracy inside Syria?

Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), Abdulrahim Attuon (Abu Abdullah al-Shami)

Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), Abdulrahim Attuon (Abu Abdullah al-Shami)

It would later be stated more forthrightly that JFS had “split” with al-Qaeda, and that in turn has provoked a public announcement of the formation of a breakaway group led by Hijazi, Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib), and Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni). There is much reason for scepticism about what is happening here.


Picture circulated allegedly showing Ahmad Mabruk (Abu Faraj) after he was killed.

The rebranding of al-Nusra as JFS gives every indication of being an operation playing out according to designs laid down by al-Qaeda to further integrate itself into revolutionary dynamics in Syria to secure a more durable base from which to operate, doubtless against the West eventually, too. The creation of an ultra-extremist splinter from JFS allows al-Qaeda further options in pursuing this objective, both in presentation and action.

The Pentagon described Mabruk as “one of al-Qaeda in Syria’s most senior leaders and a legacy al-Qaeda terrorist who previously had ties to Osama bin Laden,” making clear that the U.S. rejects the claim that JFS has broken from al-Qaeda.

America’s Anti-Qaeda Policy

A U.S. drone strike cut down Usama Nammoura (Abu Umar al-Saraqib) on 8 September 2016 around Aleppo. Nammoura, a Syrian from Homs, was the JFS military leader credited with having organized the breaking of the siege of Aleppo City. The city has been re-besieged since then and by all accounts Nammoura was in a planning meeting for how to break it again when he was killed.

This week, the Russians, gave the U.S.-supports-terrorism narrative an extra push. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC: “We have more and more reasons to believe that from the very beginning the [American] plan was to spare Nusra and to keep it, you know, just in case, for Plan B or for Stage Two when it would be time to change the regime.” The killing of Mabruk puts paid to that, and as ever there was a significant degree of projection in Moscow’s propaganda.

The airstrike that killed Nammoura, indeed, took place as the U.S. neared the end of a half-year of negotiations with Russia to set up a joint mechanism to target al-Nusra/JFS. The U.S.-Russian plan was to revive the ceasefire, enacted in February, which collapsed soon after, and—after a period of calm—engage in direct collaboration to target IS and—crucially—JFS. It was deeply flawed but it was what Russia wanted and the U.S. took it very seriously.

This flaws in the ceasefire/anti-JFS plan were that it made no provision for preventing or punishing regime violations of the ceasefire and would—if it worked—have led to the elimination of a powerful insurgent capacity without compensating the rebellion, allowing regime gains that would have pushed a political settlement further away, leading to further radicalism and a longer war. In the course of events the ceasefire did not work.

On 19 September, the pro-Assad coalition made clear it did not want the ceasefire when it bombed—over several hours—the first humanitarian aid convoy that had gotten into Syria after a seven-day period in which there was supposed to be unlimited access. The U.S. bowed to reality on 3 October, having convincingly demonstrated it had no Plan B to working with the Russians and no willingness to do anything concrete to complicate the pro-regime coalition’s ability to commit mass-murder.

Al-Qaeda has gained from all of this. The ceasefire’s tilt toward the regime coalition was notable in one specific inequality: it targeted Salafi-jihadists but had no plan for dealing with the legion of Shi’a jihadists fighting on behalf of the Assad regime under Iran’s command, something John Kerry flatly stated was justified since Hizballah had not declared war on America. Several hundred murdered and maimed Americans might disagree—and that’s not counting the one-thousand American soldiers killed and wounded by Shi’a militias that Hizballah’s Unit 3800 created and sustained in Iraq.

Beyond morality, this was a deeply troubling double-standard, even from a narrow counterterrorism perspective, as was underscored by the killing of Nammoura: the U.S. overflew the pro-Assad jihadists imposing the siege on Aleppo to strike at the anti-Assad jihadists trying to break the siege. This produced widespread outrage among the opposition and a belief that the only explanation for U.S. behaviour was that she wanted the siege of Aleppo and the defeat of the revolution. This comes after five years in which al-Qaeda has, as a simple, objective fact, provided meaningful support and protection to civilians and opposition fighters inside Syria, while “not one single Syrian inside Syria has been protected by the West from the mass homicide, collective punishment policy of the Assad regime,” as Fred Hof put it. Unsurprisingly, rebels drew closer to JFS after this.

One blow that has been dealt to al-Qaeda is by the Turkish intervention in northern Syria. By providing the armed opposition a concrete alternative, it has induced serious tensions between JFS and even hardline forces like Ahrar al-Sham that favoured cooperating with Turkey and fighting the pro-regime forces and, where necessary, IS. This is a model that might work.

The destruction of al-Qaeda in Syria is a necessary task and a ceasefire is helpful toward that cause. Only the rebels can uproot al-Qaeda in Syria and, as was shown in the spring, without the all-consuming violence, the tacticalnot ideological—conditions that allowed al-Qaeda to tangle itself into the insurrection fade, and the mainstream opposition begins to separate itself. Liquidating key al-Qaeda leaders in Syria, especially if they are believed to be involved in external terrorist plots, is inevitable. But the solely counterterrorism approach is not going to work. Attempting to remove al-Qaeda without replacing the rebels’ ability to defend themselves and their communities will only push the rebels closer to al-Qaeda. Likewise a ceasefire that restrains rebel activity, while doing nothing to credibly deter or punish regime attacks on opposition-held areas.

2 thoughts on “Al-Qaeda in Syria and American Policy

  1. Pingback: Al-Qaeda in Syria and American Policy – Thinking Syria

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