The Dagestani branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate recently issued a statement that praised the assassinated leaders of Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda ally in Syria. Not long after the Al Nusrah Front released a statement on their deaths, the Caucasus Emirate has followed suit, saying that it had “heard of the pain of the martyrdom of the leaders and scholars of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya” (the full Arabic name for Ahrar al Sham).
The Caucasus Emirate’s statement compares the killing of the top leaders of Ahrar to the deaths of Shamil Basayev and Abu Walid, two former leaders in the North Caucasian jihad, and notes that “the killings [of Basayev and Abu Walid] did not end the jihad in the Caucasus.” In other words, the Caucasus Emirate is saying that the death of the leaders of Ahrar will not stop the jihad in Syria and that Ahrar will keep fighting. According to the Islamic Front’s official English Twitter page, most groups that make up Ahrar al Sham have already sworn bayat (loyalty) to Abu Jaber, the new Ahrar leader. Abu Jaber previously led a unit in the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
Towards the end of the statement, the Caucasus Emirate says it hopes that the slain Ahrar al Sham leaders “will end up like the martyred Shaykh Abu Khalid al Suri,” a founding member of Ahrar al Sham who served as al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri’s personal representative in Syria. The CE’s Dagestani brranch then notes that al Suri “helped the Caucasian Mujahideen.” It is not clear if al Suri’s assistance was provided to Caucasus Emirate fighters in Syria or in the North Caucasus in Russia.
The Caucasus Emirate does have a branch inside Syria. Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers, or Mujahireen Army), a Chechen-led group fighting in Syria, considers itself to be the official branch of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria, according to From Chechnya to Syria. The group is led by Salahuddin Shishani, who took over after the death of another Chechen, Sayfullah Shishani, who died fighting near the Aleppo Central Prison in February. The Muhajireen Army often fights alongside Al Nusrah, and is also allied to Ahrar al Sham.
Background on al Suri:
Khalid al Suri, who was al Qaeda’s main representative in Syria before his death, was instrumental in the creation of Ahrar al Sham. Al Suri’s real name was Mohamad Bahaiah, and he had served a “trusted courier for Osama bin Laden.” Spanish authorities also think he 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.
In a December 2013 article, the Beirut-based publication As-Safir reported that Bahaiah “has played a prominent role” in Ahrar al Sham since its founding and “has sought to to cooperate and consult with prominent al Qaeda figures regarding the best methods of jihadist work in Syria.” The publication cited a “source in the Ahrar al Sham movement.”
Moreover, The Daily Beast has reported that Bahaiah was “overseeing the relationship between the al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic Front.”
Bahaiah kept his role within Ahrar al Sham out of the spotlight. US officials have said that he was part of a secretive al Qaeda cadre that has sought to influence or co-opt parts of the Syrian insurgency that are not official al Qaeda branches. Al Suri was killed in February of this year, likely by the Islamic State.
Other eulogy statements for the Ahrar al Sham leaders:
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch inside Syria, has also eulogized the slain leaders. In its statement, Al Nusrah said that “the people of Syria and the entire Islamic ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] have lost a group from the best of its men and leaders, leaving behind a wound that will not heal, and a gap that is not easy to fill and fortify. The trust remains around all of our necks to complete the march, and to achieve the desired goal, which is establishing a rightly-guided Islamic government on the blessed land of Sham [Syria].” [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front releases eulogy commemorating Ahrar al Sham leaders.]
Ahrar al Sham and Al Nusrah are close allies on the battlefields in Syria. Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham, either by itself or with the larger Islamic Front coalition to which it belongs, have fought together in several key battles in Syria.
Another jihadist group that has eulogized the slain Ahrar leaders is Jaysh al Mujahideen, the Iraqi insurgent group (not to be confused with the Syrian rebel group of the same name). Jaysh al Mujahideen fought against US and Coalition forces during the Iraq War and was responsible for several kidnappings. Jaysh al Mujahideen said it hopes that “God will accept the noblest people of Sham [Syria] as martyrs.”
The Caucasus Emirate (at least through its Dagestani branch) has joined al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria and other jihadist groups in offering condolences to Ahrar al Sham. The eulogies from Al Nusrah and the Caucasus Emirate serve to demonstrate just how close Ahrar is to al Qaeda, even after al Suri’s death.
Caleb is a political science student focusing on the Middle East.