Ayman al-Zawahiri, emir of al-Qaeda, has recorded a new video criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), adding a new layer of complexity to an already confusing situation in northern Syria. In his statement, al-Zawahiri criticizes unnamed rebel groups for causing dissension in the ranks of the opposition and creating an environment of “partisan fanaticism.”
The video release raises many interesting questions, especially given that Abu Khalid released a statement very similar to al-Zawahiri’s on 16 January 2014, in which he too called for a halt to rebel infighting. A quick background on Abu Khalid sheds a bit more light on al-Qaeda’s strategy in Syria and the nature of the ongoing battle among rebel groups.
“The Best of Men”
Abu Khalid al-Suri (a.k.a. Muhammad Bahaiah) has a long and well-documented relationship with the senior leadership of both al-Qaeda Central and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest faction of the Islamic Front rebel alliance.
Spanish authorities investigating the Madrid train bombings confirmed Abu Khalid’s connection to al-Qaeda. He was most likely operating as a courier and “may have delivered surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan in early 1998” and was indicted along with bin Laden by a Spanish magistrate in 2003. He has been praised by both Atiyatallah al-Libi and Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who even dedicated his book, “A Call to Global Jihad,” to him. His brother, Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, is “a suspected financier of Al-Qaida’s worldwide terrorist efforts” and was arrested in Europe in April 2002.
After the leadership disagreement between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS and Abu Muhammad al-Jolani of Jabhat al-Nusra in March-April 2013, al-Zawahiri appointed Abu Khalid to be his representative in Syria and tasked him with mediating between the two groups. al-Zawahiri described Abu Khalid as “the best of men we had known among the Mujahidin.”
Clearly, Abu Khalid has failed to bring about a peaceful resolution, but he remains al-Zawahiri’s man on the ground in Syria. On December 18, 2013, the US Treasury Department designated Qatar-based al-Qaeda financier and facilitator ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Umayr al-Nu’aymi a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT) for providing $600,000 in financial support to al-Qa’ida. His connection in Syria was Abu Khalid al-Suri.
Abu Khalid and al-Ahrar
Abu Khalid openly affirms his connection to Ahrar al-Sham – posting the group’s banner prominently on his Twitter feed – and maintains a position of influence within the group’s command circle.
According to As-Safir, a Lebanese daily:
…a number of “migrants,” including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011. Souri is a founder and senior leader in this movement. The majority of these “migrants” had secretly joined Ahrar al-Sham, since it was a faction recommended by al-Qaeda leaders. Yet, the majority of these “migrants” moved to Jabhat al-Nusra, when the latter was established. As for Souri, he remained with Ahrar al-Sham, in a move that may have been intended to strengthen the “al-Qaeda movement” in Ahrar al-Sham, to be used at the right time.”
Ahrar is not an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria; it has fought in the past alongside both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. But it is now the keystone member of the Islamic Front, an alliance that includes numerous groups that are openly hostile to al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in the Levant.
Abu Khalid is the veteran al-Qaeda man in Syria and his presence indicates a higher level of sophistication of al-Qaeda’s strategy in the region. Al-Zawahiri is hedging his bets with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra by keeping Abu Khalid in a prominent position outside the ranks of the two formal al-Qaeda groups. Al-Zawahiri’s latest video, coming as it does on the heels of Abu Khalid’s 16 January statement, seems to show the al-Qaeda emir’s support for a settlement on Abu Khalid’s terms.