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Who are the al-Qaeda leaders killed or arrested in HTS-controlled areas in Syria?
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What lies behind the repeated attacks on al-Qaeda and IS leaders in northern Syria?
Recently, there has been an increase in attacks on al-Qaeda leaders in Syria, which prompted us to search and investigate to discover the reasons behind the downfall of al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders in northern Syria, where all al-Qaeda Al-Qaeda leaders killed in Syria have been targeted by the US Central Command in recent years in the northern regions of countries under the direct or indirect control of HTS, which created speculation that HTS, indirectly, was facilitating such operations against al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
On the other hand, since 2018 the group has undertaken a campaign of assassinations and arrests of al-Qaeda and Isis leaders and a crackdown on smaller, independent jihadist groups and those composed of foreign fighters.
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After first leaving the Islamic State and then al-Qaeda, HTS sought to consolidate itself by confronting the threat from the Islamic State. Starting in July 2017 and even more decisively in 2018, HTS launched a campaign of armed raids and arrests against Islamic State sleeper cells in Idlib and areas under its control. To this day, HTS conducts raids and arrests against the Islamic State, most recently on 19 November 2022, when the media of the General Security Service (GSS) of the Syrian Salvation Government in the areas under HTS control announced that it had dismantled an Islamic State cell called Ansar Allah in Jabal al-Zawiya.
The GSS statement
On Aug. 3, 2023, al-Furqan Media Foundation, the official media wing of the Islamic State (IS) responsible for disseminating the central leadership’s messages, released new audio about 30 minutes long entitled, "So Rejoice in Your Transaction which You have Contracted”.
The audio speaker, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu Hudhaifa al-Ansari, announced the group's new leader, specifying that the previous leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraysh. The spokesman announced that his death occurred in battle in an armed clash with the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group in the town of Jenderes in the Idlib governorate area, accusing HTS of handing over the body of the slain leader to Turkish intelligence so that Erdogan could exploit the operation in propaganda and electoral terms.
Abu Hudhaifa also reports that his predecessor in the role of spokesman, Abu Umar al-Muhajir, was captured by HTS near the site of Abu al-Hussein’s death and is currently imprisoned.
The Islamic State spokesman criticizes HTS claiming that this event confirms that al-Julani’s group has turned into a tool of the secular Turkish government and is working with it against jihadist groups.
On the evening of August 4, the General Security Service (GSS), the security service of the HTS, said its media denied responsibility for killing the IS leader and then cooperating with Turkey, but confirmed that its mission to fight and eradicate the Islamic State (“the criminal organization”) will continue to exist in the areas it controls.
The GSS statement
HTS against Al-Qaeda
The dynamics involving HTS, and al-Qaeda were different. The establishment of HTS and the formation of Tanzim Hurras al-Din (HaD) in February 2018 by a network of prominent al-Qaeda veterans and loyalists who decided not to link up with the group that rose from the ashes of the al-Nusra Front, was the first official gauntlet thrown down as a challenge by al-Qaeda to HTS. After months of accusations, condemnations, and negotiations, HTS imposed a unilateral agreement with Hurras al-Din in March 2019 stipulating that HaD would permanently disband all its Shari'a and security-related structures such as courts, prisons, checkpoints, and training camps, renounce planning military operations outside Syria, and place weapons depots under HTS's rules and supervision, and limit its military activities in Syria to seven predefined areas.
From this moment on, tensions have risen continuously, with a succession of arrests and accusations. The point of no return in the difficult relations between the two groups occurred in May 2020, when HaD decided to conduct a major military operation against Syrian regime soldiers stationed in Tanjara in northern Hama that led to the death of 21 Assad regime soldiers. HTS held Hurras al-Din responsible for violating the 2019 agreement and also violating the ceasefire in Idlib.
HaD was firmly opposed to the rules defined by HTS and therefore in June 2020, it created and placed itself in charge of, the 'So Be Steadfast military operations room', with which other jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Islam, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Liwa al-Muqatilin al-Ansar and Tansiqiyat al-Jihad cooperated. Following this, HTS began a major campaign of arrests and torture of leaders and fighters belonging to Hurras al-Din and al-Qaeda-aligned groups.
A series of US drone attacks between 2020 and 2021 also took place during this period, triggering widespread speculation, accusations and opinions that HTS, or elements within HTS, were divulging the positions of Qaedist leaders to eliminate them. These doubts and speculations were also fuelled by the fact that HTS initiated in the summer of 2021 several military operations and arrests against smaller jihadist groups, both al-Qaeda-aligned and independent, particularly those composed of foreign fighters, forcing them to either join HTS's Liwa, or to align with the “al-Fateh al-Mubin Operations Room” and abide by its operational rules, or leave northwestern Syria.
Some groups, such as the Syrian branch of the Islamic Party of Turkestan (TIP), Xhemati Alban, Selahaddin el-Kurdi Haraketi, Ansar al-Tawhid, have aligned themselves with HTS, such as Tavhid vo Jihad Uzbek, Ghuroba al-Turkestan and Harakat al-Sunnat Iran, have integrated themselves into the HTS brigades, maintaining independent propaganda, while other smaller groups, which disagreed with the HTS rules and wanted to maintain their independence or aligned with al-Qaeda, such as Kataib al-Sahaba, Jund Allah, Ajnad al-Kavkaz, Junud al-Sham, were subjected to more aggressive pressure in a methodical campaign of intimidation. Many of those mentioned have been dismantled, have stopped operating (such as Hurras al-Din) or have left Syria (as in the case of Ajnad al-Kavkaz that reached Ukraine).
On Aug. 23, 2023, Hurras al-Din (HaD), the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, issued a one-page statement calling for an investigation with an independent judicial system overseen by the Mujahideen of the Levant to judge "spies and traitors" in liberated areas, referring to HTS.
The statement cites several HaD leaders imprisoned by HTS or killed by drone strikes in Syria, such as Abu al-Khair al-Masri, Abu Mohammed al-Sudani, and Abu Qassam al-Urduni, which we will elaborate on below.
The Hurras al-Din Statement
Who are the al-Qaeda leaders killed or arrested in Syria?
After the clash and split between al-Qaeda and HTS and the emergence of Hurras al-Din and its operations room, the pressure has increased on al-Qaeda leaders and fighters, who have been targeted by arrests, torture, and killings by drone attacks.
Below is a list of Qaedist leaders and veterans targeted by US attacks:
1) Abu Hani al-Masri
On 4 February 2017, a US drone killed Abu Hani al-Masri while he was travelling in a vehicle near the city of Batabo in Aleppo governorate, Syria.
Abu Hani was a veteran of al-Qaeda. He was a founding member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihadist (EIJ), supervisor and creator of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a trainer and recruiter. He had close ties with Abdullah al-Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Some sources claim that he was among the founders of al-Qaeda. He was a trainer, coordinator and military leader of the Chechen mujaheddin in the Second Chechen War, and of Bosnian and Somali mujaheddin in the Somali civil war and the Bosnian Serb War. According to various sources, he was also the commander of Ahrar al-Sham for a time.
A photo of Abu Hani
2) Abu al-Khair al-Masri
Abu al-Khair al-Masri (Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd Al-Rahman) was killed by a US drone strike with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile on 26 February 2017 in Idlib, Syria. Abu al-Khair al-Masri was a member of the al-Qaeda Shura Council, former head of the political committee, head of foreign relations and a lieutenant and friend first of bin Laden and then of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al-Masri was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and together with Ayman al-Zawahiri fled Egypt in the mid-1980s, travelling to Afghanistan, meeting Abdullah Azzam and Omar Abdel Rahman and forging close relations with Osama bin Laden and starting to work closely with him (he was also married to one of bin Laden's daughters). He followed bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to Sudan and with them returned to Afghanistan, becoming al-Qaeda's representative in relations with the Afghan Taliban, and later also head of foreign relations for al-Qaeda and responsible for coordination with other jihadist groups.
He left Afghanistan after the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001 and before the US invasion of Afghanistan by fleeing to Iran, being arrested in the eastern province of Sistan & Balochistan in April 2003 along with other prominent al-Qaeda leaders, including the likely current de facto leader of the organization, Saif al-Adel. In March 2015 he was released by Iran in a prisoner exchange and travelled to Syria to join the then al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Nusra Front. In July 2016, he became al-Zawahiri's deputy and head and supervisor of 'military operations' in Syria. Together with its allies, al Qaeda set up numerous joint operations rooms in Syria, personally overseeing the rebranding of the al-Nusra Front into Jabhat Fath Al Sham. Before his death, he oversaw unifying all jihadist groups and some Islamist rebel groups in Syria under the Qaeda banner.
A recent photo of Abu al-Khair al-Masri was published by Paul Cruickshank with CNN shortly after his death.
3) Abu Ahmed al-Jazayri
Very little is known about him. A Jihadist of Algerian nationality, he was killed in the Idlib area by a US drone on 3 December 2019 with a Hellfire missile that hit his car. All we know is that he was a senior Qaedist military trainer and that he operated in the ranks of Hurras al-Din.
The photo of the car after it was hit by the US drone.
4) Bilal Khuraisat, known as Abu Khadija al-Urduni.
Killed by a US drone strike in the second decade of December 2019 in the northwestern village of Termanin in Idlib province, while travelling in his car.
Abu Khadija was a Jordanian national and a senior commander of the Hurras al-Din group, described as one of the most dangerous men within al-Qaeda in Syria. He joined the jihadist struggle from the beginning of the Syrian civil war, operating first in Daraa and then in Eastern Ghouta. Later, he moved into the northern Syrian areas.
Khuraisat was also an important ideological figure in al-Qaeda, published several treatises in which he criticized the United States and also often fiercely criticized the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Some sources claim he was killed with his wife and two of his children.
The condolence statement of Hurras al-Din.
5) Abu Adnan al-Homsi
On 24 June 2020, a US drone targeted, on the road between Binnish and Idlib, Mohammed Khattab known as Abu Adnan al-Homsi, a senior Hurras al-Din commander in charge of logistics, military equipment, and military vehicles of the Syrian Qaeda group. In this case, a missile attack not using Hellfire missiles was used. The car exploded, also causing the death of a civilian travelling on a nearby motorbike.
A photo of Abu Adnan al-Homsi.
6) Khalid al-Aruri
On 14 June 2020, a US drone killed Khalid al-Aruri, also known as Abu Qassam al-Urduni, a senior commander of Hurras al-Din, while he was driving his car with the Syrian HaD commander, Amin al-Assi known as Bilal al-Sana’ani in the Idlib area. Khalid al-Aruri is a veteran of al-Qaeda, having joined the organization in the 1990s and thus a leading figure. He was of Palestinian nationality, born on 25 July 1967 in Ramallah, West Bank, but grew up in the city of Zarqa in Jordan, thus also acquiring Jordanian citizenship. In Jordan, he met and befriended Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with whom he travelled to Afghanistan for the first time in 1989, remaining there until 1993.
In March 1994, he returned to Jordan and was then arrested together with al-Zarqawi, with whom he remained imprisoned until March 1999, when he was released under a general amnesty granted by the monarchy.
Immediately after their release, they returned to Afghanistan for a second time, where Al-Aruri was appointed commander of the training camp set up by al-Zarqawi in Herat. In the Afghan town, he meets and marries al-Zaraqwi’s sister, Alia. In the same year, he also met Saif al-Adl in Kandahar.
He left Afghanistan in 2001 after the start of the US attacks on the Taliban regime and moved with al-Zarqawi to northern Iraq, to the Ansar al-Islam areas, becoming responsible for the training camps in northern Iraq set up by the Jordanian leader. Shortly afterwards, Al-Aruri moved to Iran operating as a financier and facilitator of al-Zarqawi, being arrested in 2003 in Tehran. He remained imprisoned until March 2015, when Khalid was released by Iran along with other senior al-Qaeda leaders including Saif al-Adel, Abu Khayr al-Masri and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah in a prisoner exchange. A few months after his release, in September 2015, Khalid al-Aruri travelled to Syria and joined al-Qaeda, becoming the deputy leader of Hurras al-Din in 2017 (some sources claim that al-Aruri was one of the founders of HaD and ran the organization together with and on a par with Abu Hamman al-Shami).
A photo of Abu Qassam al-Urduni shortly before his death.
7) Bilal Al-San’ani
On 14 June 2020, a US drone killed him together with Khalid al-Aruri, while he was travelling by car in the Idlib area. Very little is known about him. He was a Yemeni citizen and probably also held Jordanian citizenship. He was commander of the Badiyah section of Hurras al-Din and had defected from HTS to join al-Qaeda. He previously commanded Jaysh al-Badiyah, a small group linked to HTS, which he left in November 2017, pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda and joining HaD.
A probable photo of a young Bilal al-San'ani (the man on the left).
8) Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki
On 13 August 2020, Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki was killed in the Sarmada area, a rural area north of Idlib with an R9X AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki, an independent military trainer from Uzbekistan, collaborated with several jihadist groups. He had met and collaborated with Abu Ahmed al-Jazayri who had introduced him to the Syrian Qaedist milieu. He had recently affiliated himself with the Hurras Al-Din organization and trained its militants in several training camps.
Abu Yahya’s car after the attack.
9) Sayyaf al-Tunisi
On 14 September 2020, a US drone hit a car in the Idlib area with a Hellfire R9X missile, killing two important Hurras al-Din leaders, Sayyaf al-Tunisi and Safina al-Tunisi (his brother).
Very little is known about Sayyaf; he was a Tunisian jihadist who previously belonged as a military leader and trainer to the al-Nusra Source. Sayyaf al-Tunisi had participated, along with other former Jabhat al-Nusra officials, in several statements complaining about the direction taken by the future HTS led by al-Julani regarding the severing of ties with al-Qaeda and the campaign of arrests conducted against Syrian Qaeda militants. He then joined Hurras al-Din, always occupying the position of leader and military trainer.
The car and the area where Sayyaf al-Tunisi was shot.
10) Safina al-Tunisi
On 14 September 2020, Safina al-Tunisi was killed together with his brother by a US drone that hit the car they were travelling in the Idlib area with a Hellfire R9X missile.
Safina al-Tunisi had also become a fierce opponent of al-Julani and HTS. According to several reconstructions via telegram chats and by several analysts (notably Charles Lister, Nihad Jariri and Aymenn al-Tamimi) Safina al-Tunisi is said to be 'Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi' a Tunisian jihadist responsible for the massacre of the Druze in Qalb Lawze in June 2015 when he was fighting under the banner of the al-Nusra Front. Safina al-Tunisi was, according to al-Tamimi's reconstruction, originally a member of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and arrived in Syria in 2013. He defected to Jabhat al-Nusra after ISIS's withdrawal from Idlib in early 2014 and became Jabhat al-Nusra's official for the Jabal al-Summaq area. After the Druze massacre in June 2015, he was arrested and imprisoned for two months before being released and removed from Jabhat al-Nusra. He would later join Jund al-Aqsa and then Hurras al-Din, reuniting with his brother.
Also according to Telegram sources and analysts such as Lister and al-Tamimi (unconfirmed news), Safina al-Tunisi survived the US drone attack and was killed in April 2021 along with Abu in an intra-jihadist fight between Hurras al-Din and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
A photo by Safina al-Tunisi.
11) Abu Mohammed al-Sudani
On 15 October 2020, Saleh al-Karuri, known by his battle name Abu Muhammad al-Sudani, was killed by a drone attack in the Arab Sa'id area, west of Idlib. According to numerous sources, he was killed together with his family. A Sudanese national, he joined the Jihad as a young man in Afghanistan, where he met both Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. With them, he moved to Sudan where he remained with the al-Qaeda leadership until 1996. He later operated on behalf of al-Qaeda in Somalia and then in Yemen. He arrived in Syria at the time of the formation of Hurras al-Din, immediately occupying prominent positions within the new Syrian Qaedist group.
In HaD, he was a member of the Command Council, the Shura Council. Being a jurist, he oversaw attempting a possible rapprochement with HTS. In the last months before his death, Al-Sudani published several writings in which he criticized HTS. According to researcher and journalist Nihad Jariri, al-Sudani had published a message the day before he died in which he called on HTS to hold a Shari'a court to end its diatribes with HaD.
One of the most recent images of al-Sudani.
12) Abu al-Bara al-Tunisi
On 20 September 2021 in Idlib province (in the Binnish area), a US airstrike killed a Tunisian leader of Hurras al-Din, Abu Al-Bara al-Tunisi, a prominent ideologue of the group. Abu al-Bara al-Tunisi was head of the Shari'a Council in Deir ez-Zor between 2013 and 2014, later appointed Wali of the al-Nusra Front in the Badiyah area. In 2017, he defected from HTS to join Hurras al-Din. He was a friend of the deputy leader and head of the Shari'a Council of Hurras al-Din, Sami al-Oraydi. It is likely that another HaD Qaedist leader, Salim Abu Ahmad, was also killed with him.
A photo of Abu Bara al-Tunisi
13) Salim Abu Ahmad
The US announced a few days later that another name was killed on 20 September 2021 in Idlib province, in the Binnish area, claiming to have killed a senior HaD leader responsible for planning, financing, and approving trans-regional al Qaeda attacks.
The car was hit by US drones
14) Abdul Hamid al-Matar
On 23 October 2021, a US MQ-9 aircraft targeted and killed the Qaedist leader of Hurras al-Din in the town of Suluk, near Raqqa. Little is known about him, except that he was a senior leader of the group and oversaw the group’s military expansion into other areas of Syria.
A post-operation image.
15) Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni
Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni was killed in June 2022, by a US drone while travelling alone on a motorbike late in the evening in the northern province of Idlib. Abu Hamza al-Yemeni was a senior military commander of Jund al-Aqsa, one of the main commanders involved in the capture of the city of al-Mastouma in 2015. It is unclear whether he is a fighter of Syrian or Yemeni nationality (although the battle name suggests the latter).
After the group stopped all operations in March 2018, some fighters formed Ansar al-Tawhid and others joined Hurras al-Din (HaD), In HaD, al-Yemeni became military commander.
A photo of Abu Hamza.
Behind all the leaders mentioned above, it was often thought that HTS might be behind it. Many of the leaders killed had left HTS or had criticized it harshly. In many pro-AQ media channels, HTS was accused of providing clues to the whereabouts of Qaedist leaders.
If there is any doubt about who had allowed the location of so many Qaedist leaders in northern Syria, there is no doubt about the arrest campaigns conducted against Qaedist leaders and veterans or al-Qaeda-aligned groups, conducted either directly by HTS or by the Syrian Salvation Government's Security Service (GSS) under HTS's military-controlled areas. Among the names of imprisoned fighters and leaders, (it often happens that they are released and then re-arrested, others are released after torture), according to Syrian sources on the ground there are between 150 and 200 imprisoned, the following should be mentioned:
Abu Malek al-Talli, a commander who had defected from HTS in 2020 and aligned himself with HaD; Abu Hamza al-Darawi, Shaqran al-Urduni, Abu Maryam al-Jazaery (executed by HTS in April 2023) Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Makki (transferred several times to hospital as his health deteriorated due to hunger strikes conducted in protest against repeated torture by HTS and later released in April 2022), members of HaD's Global Shura Council; Abu Sulayman al-Libi, Abu Yahya al-Jazayri, and Abu Basir al-Shami, veteran leaders of HaD and al-Qaeda; Abu Abdullah al-Suri general administrator of HAD; Abu Hurayrah al-Masri, head of the Shari'a Council; Abu Abdul Rahman al-Urduni, member of the Shari'a Council of Hurras al-Din; Abu Abdullah al-Suri, leader and commander of Hurras al-Din in Aleppo.
Between 2020 and 2021, HTS and the GSS General Security Service killed several HaD leaders and commanders including Aby Zayd al-Urduni, Abu Ahmed al-Raqqawi (Khalid al-Aruri's chief aide), Abu Yunus al-Almani, Abu Muaz al-Fransi, Abu Aisha al-Tajiki and Abu Abdulrahman al-Uzbeki.
Syrian sources reported that in April 2023, HTS and GSS summarily executed about two dozen prisoners belonging to Hurras al-Din and the independent group Ansar al-Islam, until 2021 aligned with al-Qaeda and HaD-led operations, whose bodies were then buried in mass graves.
Over the past four years, HTS has succeeded in establishing unchallenged hegemony in northwestern Syria through its repression of HAD and small al-Qaeda-aligned groups and its sustained campaign against Islamic State cells. HTS continues violently to pursue its goal of eliminating jihadist currents within its ranks and the territory under its control. The jihadist groups are still present in HTS areas (such as foreign groups composed of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Dagestani, Iranians, Albanians, etc.) and have been forced to accept HTS's military, operational, legal, and social rules and to align themselves or integrate with al-Julani’s organization. Those who decided not to do so. He was persecuted and fought. HaD moved away and stopped all operations, remaining militarily dormant in other areas of Syria.
Others, such as Ansar al-Islam, suffered continuous repression, at least until mid-2022 with numerous military leaders and cadres of the group arrested (such as Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Kurdi, Abdulmateen al-Kurdi, Abu Shihab al-Kurdi, Ammar al-Kurdi, Abu Abdulrahman al-Shami and Abu Ali al-Qalamouni). In a rehearsed interview I did with a legal leader of Ansar al-Islam in the early days of June 2023, I asked why the repression of the jihadists of HTS and their group in particular, and was told that “HTS wants to be the sole decision-maker on the ground, it does not want anyone, group or faction, to oppose it, its decisions and its project, so if it feels that anyone, person, group or faction, may oppose its decisions, it confronts them in a hostile manner and arrests or kills its leaders and soldiers. But this will not deter us from our goal”. I asked him what he thought of the US drone raids in recent years against Qaedist leaders and whether he thought anyone could provide them with information, and he replied: “They only pick important targets and only jihadist leaders. Of course, they have spies on the ground but their reconnaissance planes, as well as Turkish and Russian ones, are 24 hours a day over our skies gathering intelligence”.
We have no evidence that HTS has provided intelligence to the coalition to eliminate Qaedist leaders, it is certain however that the US-led killings since 2017 have eliminated important and strong opponents of al-Julani and in particular important leaders and cadres of Hurras al-Din which has greatly weakened Qaedist operations and has certainly favoured HTS. In the future, likely, HTS will further strengthen its positions and the future of al-Qaeda in Syria will depend on the decisions of the de-facto leader Saif al-Adl, who has handled the Syrian dossier in the past.
Analysis appeared on 04/09/2023 on Akhbar al-Aan Media TV. https://www.akhbaralaan.net/news/columnists/2023/09/04/
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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