The Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, al-Naba, interviewed a high-ranking al-Qaeda defector, Abu Ubayda al-Lubnani, across two issues in February and March. Abu Ubayda appeared on a list of prominent clerics supporting IS’s caliphate declaration in February 2014, and two months later his defection from al-Qaeda to IS was announced by al-Battar. Abu Ubayda is described by al-Naba—as best as can be told accurately—as having been a member of al-Qaeda’s: Shura [Consultation] Council, a training officer in its Military Committee, and a counter-intelligence officer. Abu Ubayda is advertised as speaking about many secret aspects of al-Qaeda.
Among the topics Abu Ubayda covers is the alleged infiltration and manipulation of al-Qaeda by foreign intelligence services, specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is not only a violation of jihadist doctrine by collaborating with an “infidel” and illegitimate state but led to the deaths of a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of what Abu Ubayda has to say relates to al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the Syrian revolution. This persistent campaign has followed a pattern of disguising al-Qaeda’s presence and attempting to influence and eventually co-opt the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One lever al-Qaeda relied upon, according to Abu Ubayda, was Ahrar al-Sham, an organization that disclaims all connections to al-Qaeda and dissimulates about its ideology. Whatever Ahrar’s dominant ideology, it is simply a fact that it has served as the bridge between the foreign-led jihadists and Syrian Islamists, and its connections to al-Qaeda are evident enough. Abu Ubayda suggests Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are even deeper than they appear. Continue reading
The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad al-Shara, ostensibly broke the link between his organization and al-Qaeda last week. This is another stage in al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy of embedding itself into local societies so that it can more effectively reshape the faith and shield itself from the international community. Continue reading
A couple of days ago, a leader Jabhat an-Nusra issued a statement condemning Ahrar a-Sham. The statement is actually rather milder than initial reports suggested. Nusra is mostly annoyed at Ahrar for working with Turkey and Qatar to acquire money and weapons. Nusra is also displeased that Ahrar, at the instigation of Ankara and Doha, asked Nusra to publicly break its al-Qaeda link. Nusra also felt Ahrar was too willing to publicly distance itself from Salafi-jihadism to gain war materiel. This will no doubt help intensify the debate about Ahrar’s ostentatious “moderation” over the last eighteen months, and what the West should do about Ahrar.
In this post, however, I’d like to focus on the statement’s author, Abu Firas as-Suri, or more precisely on what he represents. Abu Firas is part of a group of (known) agents of al-Qaeda Central (AQC) who were sent into Syria in mid-2013 to mediate the dispute between Nusra and then-ISIS (now the Islamic State, I.S.), and when that failed the AQC veterans stayed, erected a veritable bureaucracy, and sought to forestall Nusra “going local”. Below are mini-profiles of these AQC veterans. Continue reading