On Aug. 31, a veteran al Qaeda jihadist known as Abu Firas al Suri announced his presence online with new Twitter and Facebook pages. For Abu Firas, a man who long operated behind the scenes, the social media sites are indicative of how much things have changed since he first chose the jihadists’ path in the 1970s. He has gone from being a clandestine operative in al Qaeda’s international network to serving as the spokesperson for the Al Nusrah Front.
In his new role, Abu Firas handles Al Nusrah’s most delicate public affairs. He is, for instance, the Al Nusrah official tasked with explaining why the group has taken more than forty UN peacekeepers hostage.
Abu Firas’ role as a senior figure in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, was not known until March of this year when he first appeared in a video. Al Nusrah introduced Abu Firas as one of its witnesses against the Islamic State, the former al Qaeda branch that has become Al Nusrah’s powerful rival.
In the months since his first video appearance, Abu Firas has taken on an increasingly prominent role within Al Nusrah. In July, Abu Firas introduced Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, during a major rally of fighters. His voice could be heard on a leaked audio recording of the gathering, during which Julani spoke of establishing an Islamic emirate, or state, in Syria.
The leaked audio threatened to upset Al Nusrah’s close relations with other leading jihadist groups, because it sounded as if the group was going to steal a page from the Islamic State’s playbook and unilaterally declare itself the ultimate authority in parts of Syria. And when Al Nusrah sought to assure its allies that this was not its intent, it turned to Abu Firas. In a video released by Al Nusrah on Aug. 8, Abu Firas said the al Qaeda branch would only declare an Islamic emirate in Syria after consulting with other leading parties. By then, Al Nusrah was openly naming Abu Firas as its official spokesperson.
A post on Abu Firas’ Twitter page on Aug. 31 says that his account is the “official and only account of the al Qaeda spokesperson” in Syria.
UN peacekeepers taken hostage
Even before Al Nusrah announced that the hostages had been taken, Abu Firas had begun to build the group’s case against the UN. In a video released by Al Nusrah on Aug. 27, he decried the UN’s decision to condemn Al Nusrah under Chapter VII of the UN’s charter.
The US and the UN had taken steps to target the Al Nusrah Front as a terrorist organization in the weeks leading up to Abu Firas’ video. The seasoned al Qaeda commander attempted to turn the tables, accusing the UN of being the real terrorist organization, and of serving an imagined “Zio-Protestant alliance.” He alleged that the UN only uses its powers to target Muslims, and not to condemn the US and others who are supposedly the aggressors.
“The United Nations is an institution founded upon disbelief” and “terror,” Abu Firas argued, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. “We know that the United Nations and the West do not want stability in Sham, and do not want Sham to be ruled by Islam,” Abu Firas continued. “We know that the United Nations is among the largest supporters and endorsers of the Jewish State, and the establishment of an Islamic state that governs by the Sharia of Allah in sham directly threatens the creature of the United Nations, the Jewish State.”
Abu Firas’ video, therefore, set forth the justifications for Al Nusrah’s anti-UN actions in the days to come. And Abu Firas justified the action in posts on his Twitter account after Al Nusrah captured the UN peacekeepers.
“There has been much ado and chatter about the issue of the captives of the so-called United Nations,” Abu Firas wrote in a tweet, according to SITE’s translation. “We say that al Qaeda and its branch in al Sham, the al Nusrah Front, were not founded but to establish the Shariah of Allah and raise high the word of Allah.” Abu Firas went on to explain that the hostage situation will be decided according to sharia laws.
The UN peacekeepers in Al Nusrah’s custody are from Fiji and the government of Fiji says the group has issued a set of demands that must be met to secure the hostages’ release. According to Voice of America, Al Nusrah wants to be removed from the UN’s list of terrorist organizations, humanitarian relief for the areas surrounding Damascus, and compensation for three Al Nusrah fighters who were killed in fighting.
The first demand is entirely consistent with Abu Firas’ stated opposition to the UN’s designation of Al Nusrah as a terrorist organization.
Extensive al Qaeda biography
Little was publicly known about Abu Firas al Suri until his sudden appearance in an Al Nusrah Front video in March. The video included a summary of his biography.
According to Al Nusrah, Abu Firas went to military school and joined the Syrian military, but was relieved of his duties because of his “Islamic tendencies.” Abu Firas was a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and fought against the regime of Hafez al Assad, Bashar al Assad’s father, in 1979 and 1980.
Abu Firas traveled to Jordan and then Afghanistan, where he met with Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden. He trained both Afghans and Arabs, as well as jihadists from other countries around the world, and worked to end the conflict between unidentified jihadist groups inside Afghanistan.
The Al Nusrah Front claims that Abu Firas served as Osama bin Laden’s “envoy” for “mobilizing Pakistanis for jihad.” The Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was set up for this purpose, the Al Nusrah Front says. The LeT and another group “were established, trained, and funded by Osama Bin Ladin.”
Further demonstrating Abu Firas’ seniority within al Qaeda, the Al Nusrah Front video says that he worked with the group’s first two military commanders, Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri and Abu Hafs al Masri. Abu Firas also worked with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the deceased commander of al Qaeda in Iraq.
After the 9/11 attacks, Abu Firas “secured the mujahideen families in Pakistan,” meaning that he helped al Qaeda families and others find safe haven in the country.
In 2003, Abu Firas relocated to Yemen and he stayed there until 2013, when the conflict between Islamic State and the Al Nusrah Front erupted. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership then dispatched Abu Firas to Syria in an attempt to help put an end to the dispute.
In the Al Nusrah video released in March, Abu Firas said that followed the guidance of Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, who wanted to resolve the conflict with Islamic State. All attempts at bringing about a resolution failed, however. Abu Firas also said that he had warned Abu Khalid al Suri, Ayman al Zawahiri’s top representative in Syria, that the Islamic State wanted to kill him. In February, Abu Khalid was killed in a suicide attack that was presumably launched by the Islamic State.