Treasury sanctions 2 senior leaders in al Qaeda’s Syrian branch

The US Treasury Department and the United Nations have designated two senior jihadists in Syria as terrorists. Both of them were leaders in Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official arm in Syria.

In July 2016, Al Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS). Then, in Jan. 2017, JFS and several other groups merged to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), or the “Assembly for the Liberation of Syria.”

Treasury’s announcement refers to both of the newly designated terrorists as leaders in Al Nusrah, and does not indicate what specific roles they play in HTS. Given their prominence in Al Nusrah, however, they are likely significant figures in HTS.

“From overseeing militant operations to developing Al Nusrah Front’s strategy, these senior Al Nusrah Front leaders and al Qaeda terrorists are responsible for providing key support to the violent terrorist group,” John E. Smith, the acting director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), said in a statement. “Today, the Treasury Department, in line with actions just taken by the United Nations, is cutting off their access to the international financial system to further disrupt Al Nusrah Front’s ability to plan and execute terrorist attacks.”

The new designations add to the public’s knowledge of senior personnel in the al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Both of the jihadists have led Al Nusrah in Daraa, which is in southern Syria.

Treasury describes one of the two, Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil, as the “third-highest-ranking official” in Al Nusrah Front as of early 2016. In this capacity, Khalil took “part in discussions among the group’s senior leadership regarding [Al Nusrah’s] overall strategy and the feasibility of establishing an emirate in Idlib, Syria.”

Al Qaeda has been working to build an Islamic emirate, or nation, in Syria for several years. However, unlike Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, al Qaeda views state-building as a long-term project. Al Qaeda’s leaders concluded years ago that prematurely declaring an Islamic emirate in Syria or elsewhere could be problematic for the jihadists’ cause. Al Qaeda’s strategists concluded that a jihadist nation lacking popular support could easily fall when confronted by multiple adversaries.

However, the temptation to declare an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria has been strong. During a fiery speech that was leaked online in July 2014, Al Nusrah emir Abu Muhammad al Julani told his followers that the time had come to declare an Islamic emirate in northern Syria. Other Al Nusrah officials quickly walked back this claim.

Still, the Treasury Department has now recognized that this is al Qaeda’s goal at least twice. In Nov. 2016, Treasury designated Dr. Abdullah al Muhaysini and three other Al Nusrah officials. Treasury noted at the time that Muhaysini is “helping to form a new Al Nusrah Front ‘state’ in northern Syria” and had “raised millions of dollars to support [Al Nusrah Front’s] governance efforts in Idlib Province,” which was overrun by al Qaeda and its allies in early 2015.

Khalil previously served as Al Nusrah’s emir in Daraa for “at least two years.” While in that role, Khalil “empowered” Al Nusrah’s “security and intelligence operatives responsible for assassinations, ran prisons notorious for torture, and encouraged the looting of vehicles and possessions of Free Syrian Army members.”

The revelation of Khalil’s involvement in torturing prisoners is significant, because al Qaeda has attempted to portray itself as a populist force in Syria. Unlike their rivals in the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s men do not promote their implementation of strict draconian laws, or the torture and executions of individuals opposed to their agenda. Those measures could alienate the broader Muslim population.

Treasury’s description of Khalil also further underscores al Qaeda’s opportunistic relationship with groups operating as part of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) loosely affiliated coalition. These FSA groups often fight alongside al Qaeda’s jihadists in Syria, but al Qaeda also has no problem “looting” their arms, vehicles and other “possessions” when it is deemed necessary.

Earlier this month, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), which includes the al Qaeda arm formerly known as Al Nusrah, launched operations in Daraa alongside other organizations opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime. HTS is fighting under the banner of Al Bunyan al Marsous, a military operations room in the area. Thus, al Qaeda’s men continue to cooperate with FSA-branded units in Daraa. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Jihadists and other rebels assault Syrian regime positions in southern city.]

After serving as Al Nusrah’s leader in Daraa, Khalil was appointed as the group’s “emir for Syria’s coastal area.” He presumably still serves in that role.

According to Treasury, Khalil is a veteran of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which he joined “in the mid-2000s.” Khalil was “close” to AQI chief Abu Musab al Zarqawi until he met his demise in 2006.

Treasury adds another interesting detail about Khalil’s career. In 2011, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi sent Khalil to Syria along “with six other individuals…to establish what would eventually become” Al Nusrah Front. Several jihadist groups operating in Syria today — including Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic State — have roots in AQI and its political front, the Islamic State of Iraq. But AQI’s heirs ended up fighting one another for control of the jihad in Syria.

Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir and Khalil’s boss, was once one of Baghdadi’s lieutenants. Like Khalil, Julani was sent to Syria to build AQI’s operational arm in the country early on in the revolution. (In fact, Khalil and Julani may have been part of the same cadre dispatched by Baghdadi.)

However, Julani and his comrades disapproved of Baghdadi’s strategy for Syria, established their own line of communications with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, and ultimately broke away from Baghdadi’s operation. This jockeying for power in Syria led to the greatest rivalry in the history of modern jihadism, with the Islamic State challenging al Qaeda around the globe. While the Islamic State has grown significantly since 2013, when the infighting in Syria first broke out into the open, al Qaeda survived Baghdadi’s challenge and has expanded its own footprint in Syria and elsewhere.

The second newly designated Al Nusrah official is Bassam Ahmad al Hasri.

In Dec. 2015, al Hasri succeeded Khalil as Al Nusrah’s emir in Daraa and he held that position as of June 2016. Al Hasri previously “served as a religious advisor” for Al Nusrah and “has longstanding ties to” al Qaeda. Treasury did not elaborate on these ties.

Al Hasri was among the jihadists, Islamists and others released from Bashar al Assad’s jails in 2011, “after spending six years in prison for his association with” al Qaeda.

The designations by Treasury and the UN come just a few weeks after al Qaeda’s men launched a new offensive in Daraa alongside others in Al Bunyan al Marsous. It is not known if the timing of the designations was influenced by this offensive, but it is possible. The designations are intended, in part, to draw a dividing line between al Qaeda’s operatives in Syria and other rebels opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime. In practice, that has often been difficult to do.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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