Al-Qaeda’s top leader in Syria was killed on Sunday in a suicide bombing in the city of Aleppo that some rebels say was carried out by a jihadist group recently disowned by Qaeda’s top brass in Pakistan.
The killing of Abu Khalid al-Suri, a veteran jihadist who fought alongside Osama bin Laden, is likely to prompt a redoubling of rebel infighting in northern Syria, which has already seen more than 2,000 insurgents killed since early January, according to opposition activists.
Al-Suri was killed in the Al-Halq area of Aleppo along with half-a-dozen companions, in an attack that pro-opposition analysts and jihadists blamed on the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS),
Al-Suri’s killing is further evidence that the wayward ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has no intention of caving in to al-Qaeda’s top leadership and means to pursue a rivalry that is fracturing the jihadist movement and represents the biggest challenge it has faced since U.S. special forces took out bin Laden.
Akram al-Halabi, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a coalition of half-a-dozen Islamist brigades—some which have links with al-Qaeda—told the Associated Press news agency, “unfortunately this is going to make the infighting worse.”
ISIS, which emerged from the Sunni Islamist insurgency in neighboring Iraq, appears to be in fierce competition with al-Qaeda to secure the loyalty of affiliates and offshoots across the Middle East. For months, jihadi religious scholars have been weighing in about al-Baghdadi’s refusal to obey instructions to withdraw ISIS to Iraq and allow al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to assume the lead role in Syria.
The Sinai-based Egyptian jihadist group Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing of a tourist bus last week in Egypt that left three South Koreans dead and more than a dozen people injured, appears to be siding with ISIS. “There are indications that it is allying itself with ISIS”, says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-DC-based non-profit. He says ISIS “is positioning itself as an alternative to AQ.”
Two rebels told Reuters that five ISIS members had entered the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that al-Suri helped to set up, and as four of them fought with guards, one ISIS fighter blew himself up. Al-Suri was “an important jihadi figure, he fought the Americans in Iraq and in Afghanistan. They (ISIS) gave the Americans a present, a free gift, by killing him,” a Syrian rebel close to Ahrar al-Sham told the wire agency.
“The longer al-Baghdadi lasts, the stronger ISIS becomes a rival to the al-Qaeda-backed groups. This has turned into a full-fledged blood feud.”
Al-Suri’s slaying “ups the ante in a big way,” says Thomas Joscelyn, an al-Qaeda watcher for the U.S.-based think tank The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Assuming ISIS was responsible, and they are the most likely but not only suspects, it is a direct shot at al-Qaeda senior leadership’s authority.”
He adds: “The key now is how al-Qaeda and its preferred rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham and al Nusra, respond. The longer al-Baghdadi lasts, the stronger ISIS becomes a rival to the al-Qaeda-backed groups. This has turned into a full-fledged blood feud.”
A trusted confidant of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Suri was captured in 2005 by Pakistani authorities and was rendered to Syria by the Americans. He was wanted in Europe for a suspected role in the 1985 bombing of a restaurant outside Madrid and for the 2004 bombing in Spain’s capital. He was considered a highly articulate al-Qaeda ideologue and had been seeking in recent weeks to craft a truce in the rebel infighting between ISIS and a loose alliance of Syrian insurgents, including Islamists and other jihadists from al-Nusra.
The internecine warfare erupted after a long-simmering rivalry between brigades affiliated to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and breakaway Islamists and ISIS, which had conducted a campaign of targeted abductions and assassinations of leading moderate rebels as well as Islamists commanders.
The Aleppo-born al-Suri—his real name was Mohamed Bahaiah—called last month on al-Zawahiri, who appointed him his envoy in Syria, to intervene in the fighting and, in an audio recording posted online, advised al-Qaeda’s overall leader to “cut a patient so as not to damage the whole body, my sheikh.”
Soon thereafter, al-Qaeda’s leadership posted a brief statement on jihadi websites saying it was cutting links with the militant group led by al-Baghdadi, who envisages carving out his own caliphate stretching across the Levant. Some analysts believe al-Baghdadi caused especial offense to core al-Qaeda by describing himself as “Emir of All Believers,” implying that he was the regional emir when al-Zawahiri appointed al-Suri to that position in May 2013.
Some media outlets reported that the breach between al-Qaeda and al-Baghdadi was over al-Zawahiri’s disapproval of the excessive brutality ISIS displayed in areas in northern and eastern Syria it controlled, including beheadings and beatings of anyone who questioned it rule or behaved contrary to its rigid ultraconservative interpretation of Sharia law. In fact, in the al-Qaeda disavowal of the group, which is estimated to number between 10,000 to 15,000 mostly non-Syrian fighters, there was no mention of excessive brutality.
Some analysts argued the disavowal—the first time the terror group’s top leadership has disowned an affiliate—would likely isolate ISIS and could hinder its ability to recruit and fundraise in the Gulf at least in the long-term. That maybe so, but in the short term al-Qaeda’s top leadership is facing a stiff internal challenge to its authority.