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memri
November 25, 2013 No.
1037

Al-Qaeda Upgrades Its Presence In Syria

By: R. Green*

Introduction

In recent weeks, there have been growing signs that Al-Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan is preparing to upgrade its presence in Syria and increase its footprint in the country. To do this, Al-Qaeda's leadership is set to declare Jabhat Al-Nusra, its affiliate in Syria, to be "Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham" – "Al-Qaeda in Syria." This name change will be signify the completion of Jabhat Al-Nusra's integration into Al-Qaeda's global network.

Concurrently with this impending change, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan-Pakistan has stepped up its involvement in Syria. Under direct orders from Al-Qaeda's top leadership, cadres of Al-Qaeda operatives have been sent from the Afghanistan-Pakistan arena to Syria. It is likely that the role that Al-Qaeda's top leadership is playing in Syria is in offering ideological guidance, military expertise and training, organizational consultation, and so on.

The following report will present some of the evidence for these developments.

Al-Zawahiri Approves Upgrading Jabhat Al-Nusra To "Al-Qaeda In Syria"

In recent weeks, Jabhat Al-Nusra operatives on the ground and online supporters have been using the name "Tanzim Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham" ("the Qae'dat Al-Jihad organization in Syria") along with Jabhat Al-Nusra. Banners, flags, and flyers carrying the new name are being circulated. In addition, one Jabhat Al-Nusra operative in Dar'a dedicated a poem praising Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri for bestowing the title on his organization, noting that this is an honor. These indications appear to precede the official announcement via Al-Qaeda's channels, namely its media company Al-Fajr.[1]


Graffiti: "Tanzim Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham." Source: Twitter.com/bilialalshame65, November 16, 2013.

A Poem Marking Jabhat Al-Nusra's New Status

On November 13, 2013, the Jabhat Al-Nusra branch in Dar'a released a video of one of its members reciting a poem titled "A Gift to the Doctor Ayman Al-Zawahiri on the Occasion of Awarding the Medal of Honor of 'Tanzim Al-Qaeda fi Al-Sham' To Jabhat Al-Nusra." The member, identified as Abu Sa'id Al-Hadhli, is filmed against the backdrop of a black flag bearing both names, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham. In the video, he extols Ayman Al-Zawahiri and praises him for honoring Jabhat Al-Nusra with the title "Al-Qaeda in Syria":[2]

"The sheikh Ayman sent a message last night

"May your glory persist, oh hero

"[The message was that] Jabhat Al-Nusra represents him [Al-Zawahiri] in Syria

"I can see the victory ahead of me

"Thanks to you for putting your trust in us

"You gave us a medal of honor

"You are the one raised us on manhood

"We are the brave ones and [Abu Muhammad] Al-Joulani is our commander

"As much as I try, my tongue cannot describe him…

"Oh men of ISIS, lions of Iraq

"Oh brothers in Allah, there is no separation between us

"We shall go hand in hand to the battlefields..."


Jabhat Al-Nusra poet Abu Sai'd Al-Hadhli on the backdrop of flag bearing the double name Tanzim Al-Qaeda bi Al-Sham/Jabhat Al-Nusra. Source: YouTube.com. November 13, 2013.

Al-Qaeda in Syria Claims Responsibility For Raid In Syria

On November 7, 2013, online jihadis circulated a statement signed by Al-Qaeda in Syria, claiming responsibility for the November 5 raid on the Mahin ammunition depot near Homs. The statement read: "The mujahideen were able, with the power of Allah, to liberate the ammunition depot of Mahin following heavy battles in the eastern outskirts of Homs, and praise to Allah. The organization of Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham, as represented by Jabhat Al-Nusra, met with the first dispatch of the heroes of Homs, and together they decided to name the operation 'The Gates of Allah Will Not Be Locked' in cooperation with Al-Katiba Al-Khadra' [The Green Brigade, a group loosely affiliated with Jabhat Al-Nusra] and ISIS [i.e. the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi]..." The statement went on to describe the attacks carried out by Jabhat Al-Nusra and other attacks on regime outposts in the area.[3]


Banner with the double title Tanzim Al-Qaeda fi Bilad Al-Sham/Jabhat Al-Nusra. The banner was raised over a Shi'ite place of worship in the Raqqa area. Source: Twitter.com/ Sy_Rq, November 17, 2013.


"Tanzim Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham." Source: Twitter.com/alabjani_21, November 11, 2013.


Tanzim Al-Qaeda fi Bilad Al-Sham. Source: Twitter.com/ATBG1, November 11, 2013.

Al-Qaeda Central's Presence In Syria

The following points provide evidence, from sources within Al-Qaeda and Jabhat Al-Nusra, that elements of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan have arrived in Syria and are operating there:

1. Following the outbreak of the struggle over the leadership of the jihad in Syria between ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri sent a directive with his orders to the leaders of both groups. In his directive, Al-Zawahiri said that he was appointing one of his confidants, Abu Khaled Al-Suri, his personal representative to the Syrian arena and as arbitrator between the two rival groups. Al-Zawahiri said: "The honorable sheikh Abu Khaled Al-Suri is one of the best mujahideen we have met, known, and lived with – although we cannot vouch for him in front of Allah – [and] he is our representative to Syria in the following matters: First, he is the authority in interpreting this directive in any disagreement [between Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS]. Second, in case of an aggression on behalf of one side against the other, I hereby appoint him to set up a shari'a court to decide in the dispute."

2. Abu Khaled Al-Suri, whose real name is Muhammad Bahyah, is a longtime operative in the global jihad movement. He is known to be the closest associate of Al-Qaeda's notorious ideologue Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri, who was among those in charge of indoctrination and strategic planning in Al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan.[4] Abu Khaled Al-Suri's presence in Syria was confirmed by senior Jabhat Al-Nusra leader Maysar Al-Jubouri. On November 18, 2013 Al-Jubouri sent a tweet marking the death that day of 'Abd Al-Qader Saleh, the commander of another Islamist organization who had died that day. Al-Jubouri mentioned that he and "our sheikh Abu Khaled Al-Suri" had both met with Saleh two weeks ago.

3. Audio recordings of a series of lectures given in Waziristan at some point in the past few years were brought to Syria, where they were posted online and are now making the rounds on the jihadi forums. The lectures, by senior Al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya Al-Libi to a group of Al-Qaeda members in Waziristan on the topic of a book by medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, were posted online by a member of the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum. The forum member wrote: "The series [of lessons] was brought by an honorable brother, one of the members of the Khorassan [Afghanistan-Pakistan] delegation who were sent by the sheikh Ayman Al-Zawahiri, may Allah protect him."[5] This delegation is apparently situated in the Aleppo area, as the person who uploaded the recordings apologized for the delay in posting them, saying that it was due to "the enemy's raids on the residences of the monotheists in Aleppo."

4. 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-Sharikh, a Saudi operative of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, reported on July 27, 2013 the death of Abu Muhammad Al-Shami ("the Syrian"). Al-Shami, apparently a senior figure in Jabhat Al-Nusra, was, according to Al-Sharikh, a veteran of Al-Qaeda's war in Afghanistan. He died in the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras Al-'Ayn, where Jabhat Al-Nusra and other jihadi and Islamist groups were engaged in fighting with Kurdish militias. It should be noted that it is quite possible that Al-Sharikh himself is part of the delegation sent by Al-Zawahiri to Syria.[6]


Abu Mahmoud Al-Shami, veteran of Afghan jihad, died in Syria.

5. Turki Al-Ash'ari, a Saudi preacher in the ranks of Jabhat Al-Nusra, also referred in an online exchange to the cadres of mujahideen who came from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Syria; his mention of them came when he was asked about the squabble between Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS in an exchange on the question and answer website Ask.fm.[7] To support his position that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was guilty of insubordination and of violating his oath of loyalty to Al-Zawahiri, Al-Ash'ari wrote: "All the mujahideen from Khorassan [Afghanistan-Pakistan] who entered Syria told me that [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi is a subordinate of Ayman Al-Zawahiri."[8]

Conclusion

Since its inception, Jabhat Al-Nusra has made every effort to stress its Syrian character, as evidenced by its full name – Jabhat Al-Nusra Li-Ahl Al-Sham min Mujahidi Al-Sham fi Sahat Al-Jihad – "The Support Front for the people of Syria of the Mujahideen of Syria in the Arenas of Jihad." Although there have been strong indications of the group's affiliation, only the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forced it to publicly acknowledge that it belongs to Al-Qaeda and is loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri – thus implying that it has a foreign, non-Syrian agenda.

The Al-Qaeda leadership has shown a keen interest in the civil war in Syria since its beginning. Ayman Al-Zawahiri and other Al-Qaeda leaders have dedicated numerous video speeches and messages to the situation in Syria, encouraging the mujahideen there and calling on them to establish an Islamic state. However, in the past six months, Al-Zawahiri's leadership of the jihad movement worldwide has been strongly tested by the establishment of ISIS, whose leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, openly defied Al-Zawahiri's orders to stand down from his attempt to take over the jihad in Syria.

Thus, changing Jabhat Al-Nusra's name is not merely a procedural step; it elevates it from an Al-Qaeda affiliate to an integral part of Al-Qaeda's "mother" organization in Afghanistan-Pakistan. The new name is meant to bestow the prestige of Al-Qaeda's brand on it, giving it a status of prominence in Al-Qaeda's global network – similar to that of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It appears that Jabhat Al-Nusra hopes that this enhanced prestige will help it regain dominance in the jihad in Syria, garner support, and attract recruits and funds.

For Al-Qaeda's part, officially declaring its presence in Syria would enable its leadership to boast its direct involvement in the battlefield on which all eyes are set, and to reassert itself in the struggle for dominance within the global jihad movement vis-à-vis rivals for the mantle of leadership, namely Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.[9]

Furthermore, in Al-Qaeda's eyes, forcefully declaring its presence in Syria allows it to refute the U.S. and Western claims that it has been decimated or is in retreat. Syria thus constitutes a new staging area for Al-Qaeda's ongoing war against the West.

* R. Green is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] It remains to be seen whether Jabhat Al-Nusra will retain its independent media structure – the Al-Manara Al-Baida' company and its Twitter account – or whether its media released will be distributed via Al-Fajr. The latter scenario would mean that its publications and releases would have to go through a longer, more complicated process.

[2] YouTube.com, November 13, 2013.

[3] Twitter.com/DeSilento, November 7, 2013.

[4] Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri, who is currently imprisoned in Syria, praised Bahyah/Abu Khaled Al-Suri in the foreword to his book "The Call of Global Islamic Resistance" (da'wat al-muqawama al-islamiyya al-'alamiyya). See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 698, Al-Qaeda Military Strategist Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri's Teachings on Fourth-Generation Warfare (4GW), Individual Jihad and the Future of Al-Qaeda, June 21, 2011.

[5] Shumoukh Al-Islam, November 15, 2013.

[6] For more on Al-Sharikh, see MEMRI JTTM report Exclusive: Saudi Al-Qaeda Operative Tweeting From Waziristan, October 13, 2013.

[7] Jabhat Al-Nusra supporters claim that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is guilty of insubordination to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, since the latter had ordered the former to remain in Iraq. ISIS supporters argue that Al-Baghdadi never pledged loyalty to Al-Zawahiri. A Jabhat Al-Nusra supporter asked Al-Ash'ari how to respond to ISIS supporters' claim that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi never pledged loyalty to Al-Zawahiri.

[8] Ask.fm/tash3ri, and Al-Fida', November 3, 2013.

[9] For more on the squabble among Jabhat Al-Nusra, ISIS, and Al-Zawahiri over who will lead the jihad in Syria, see: MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 983, Jabhat Al-Nusra And Al-Qaeda In Iraq Squabble Over Leadership Of Jihad In Syria, June 18, 2013.