Abdallah al-Muhaysini and Muslah al-Alyani, two senior clerics in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, resigned on 11 September 2017 after leaked recordings showed HTS commanders musing about assassinating al-Muhaysini. There is clearly a well-orchestrated campaign underway to weaken HTS by discrediting and dividing it, and the sophistication of the campaign gives every indication of being the work of a state intelligence service, almost certainly Turkey’s. Continue reading
Last night it was reported that al-Qaeda’s overall deputy, Abu Khayr al-Masri, had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition in Syria with a drone strike. This was soon seemingly confirmed by pro-Qaeda channels, and Abu al-Khayr was said to have been buried this morning. Though the emphasis on targeting jihadist leaders can be overdone, the demise of Abu al-Khayr is an important development, and one with significance beyond itself.
Abu al-Khayr’s career is demonstrative of a few interesting trends within the Jihadi-Salafist movement, primary among them the willingness of the Iranian revolution to work with the Sunni jihadists, al-Qaeda very much included, when it suits its purposes, particularly in undermining Western interests. Abu al-Khayr also elucidates the changed nature of al-Qaeda, where the “centre” (AQC) could now be said to be more in Syria than the Afghanistan-Pakistan, and where al-Qaeda operates both an overt and covert presence to try to secure a durable foothold in the Levant, which might in time be a base for attacks against the West, currently suspended only for tactical reasons. Continue reading
The U.S. Treasury on Thursday imposed sanctions on two senior operatives associated with al-Qaeda in Syria (AQS). This is undoubtedly part of the escalating campaign against AQS. The two men are interesting on their own account, however, and give a glimpse at some of the things that have shaped jihadism across the Fertile Crescent. In the one case, that of Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil, better-known as Iyad al-Tubaysi or Abu Julaybib, this history begins with the earliest days of the Islamic State (IS), from which AQS splintered, in Iraq before Saddam Husayn was deposed. The other case, that of Bassam al-Hasri (Abu Umar al-Filistini), highlights the events at the outset of the Syrian uprising, when the regime of Bashar al-Assad set in motion its strategic plan to militarize and radicalize the nascent insurgency in order to present the population and the world a binary choice—the dictator or a terrorist takeover. Continue reading
UPDATE: It has subsequently become clear that the “Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir” who was killed in Syria on 18 November 2016 was not Muhammad al-Saghir, who is profiled below. The slain man, like al-Saghir a veteran of the war get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and an Egyptian jihadist with close links to al-Qaeda, also used the kunya “Abu Afghan al-Muhajir”.
A week ago, it became clear that the air war being waged by the U.S.-led Coalition, which primarily targets the Islamic State (IS), was going to expand its campaign against the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria. In the evening of 18 November 2016, the Coalition killed Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, whose real name is Muhammad Ibrahim al-Saghir. Al-Saghir also uses the name Abd al-Rahman al-Ali. This killing would appear to be part of the Coalition’s new effort.
Al-Saghir has a long record as an important jihadi religious ideologue, though his exact relationship with al-Qaeda’s network remains unclear. Al-Saghir’s most lasting contribution to jihadi-salafism is as a key guide to the founder of IS, Ahmad al-Khalayleh. Continue reading
In August 2015’s Perspectives on Terrorism, Truls Tønnessen writes about the evolution of the leadership of what is now the Islamic State (I.S.) from its origins in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under the heading, “Heirs of Zarqawi or Saddam?” Tonnessen makes the obvious point that AQI’s leadership was largely comprised of foreign Salafi-jihadists with al-Qaeda histories, while I.S. is led by Iraqis, most of them former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs). But Tonnessen’s argument that I.S.’s leaders had not been AQI members is mistaken (they had), which erodes his arguments that AQI’s influence diminished over time as I.S. formed from various mergers, and that this diminution of influence came about because I.S.’s post-2010 leadership purged the veteran AQI elements within I.S. (I.S.’s leaders are veteran AQI elements.) The main difference between AQI’s leaders and I.S.’s is that AQI’s leaders had background connections to al-Qaeda Central (AQC) networks, and I.S.’s largely do not. While Tonnessen sees Jabhat an-Nusra as linked to these shifting dynamics, this argument does not stack up. Ultimately, Tonnessen’s contention that I.S.’s leaders are more heirs of Saddam than Zarqawi fails in the terms Tonnessen presents it. Continue reading