Abu Khalid al Suri, whose real name is Mohamed Bahaiah, has been reportedly killed in a suicide attack in Aleppo. Al Suri’s death has been confirmed on several Twitter feeds managed by Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front.
Al Suri, a longtime al Qaeda operative, was a founding member of Ahrar al Sham and a senior leader in the organization at the time of his death. Ahrar al Sham is arguably the most powerful rebel organization within the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that was formed late last year.
Hassan Abboud, a top official in Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front, confirmed al Suri’s “martyrdom” in a Tweet early this morning. The official Twitter feeds for the Islamic Front and Ahrar al Sham say that al Suri was killed along with his “comrades” in a suicide attack at one the Front’s headquarters in Aleppo. And a hashtag commemorating al Suri’s death is already being used on jihadist Twitter pages.
As of this writing, there has been no official claim of responsibility for al Suri’s death. Some reports on social media implicate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which was recently disowned by al Qaeda’s general command, as the group responsible for the attack.
Al Suri was a key figure in the dispute between ISIS and other jihadist groups inside Syria, including Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, which is an official branch of al Qaeda.
In a May 2013 letter, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri named al Suri as his intermediary in a leadership disagreement between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. The dispute became public the previous month when ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi attempted to subsume control of the Al Nusrah Front. Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, rejected al Baghdadi’s order and directly reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri instead.
Al Suri’s mediation efforts failed and the dispute between the groups grew more vehement in the months that followed as Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusrah, and other jihadists rejected ISIS’ power grab.
One last attempt at mediation in January, spearheaded by a popular pro-al Qaeda Saudi cleric named Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, failed after ISIS rejected the initiative. All of the other major rebel groups, including Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, endorsed Muhaysini’s proposal, which was released just hours after a similar appeal by Zawahiri. [See LWJ report, Saudi cleric’s reconciliation initiative for jihadists draws wide support, then a rejection.]
Al Qaeda’s general command, or senior leadership, officially disowned ISIS after it rejected Muhaysini’s proposal. The decision was apparently prepared beforehand in the event that ISIS failed to accept the reconciliation initiative.
The Long War Journal reported on Dec. 17, 2013 that al Suri was a senior leader in Ahrar al Sham in addition to being Zawahiri’s main representative in Syria. US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that al Suri’s placement within Ahrar al Sham, alongside other senior al Qaeda operatives in the group, revealed that al Qaeda has influence in organizations that are not officially recognized as affiliates or branches of the group.
Al Suri’s al Qaeda role was long known in counterterrorism circles. The Spanish government accused him of serving as Osama bin Laden’s chief courier in Europe prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Spanish officials found that he carried surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks from the operative who made the videos to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative.]
Shortly after The Long War Journal reported on al Suri’s dual-hatted role in Ahrar al Sham and al Qaeda in December 2013, the US Treasury Department described al Suri as “al Qaeda’s representative in Syria.” Treasury revealed that an al Qaeda supporter in Qatar had transferred nearly “$600,000 to al Qaeda via” al Suri in 2013 and was preparing to transfer an additional $50,000.
Abu Khaled al Suri’s death, therefore, is a major development in the history of the Syrian war and al Qaeda’s role in it. However, al Qaeda retains the loyalty of numerous other senior jihadists on the Syrian battlefield.