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Last night it was reported that al-Qaeda’s overall deputy, Abu Khayr al-Masri, had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition in Syria with a drone strike. This was soon seemingly confirmed by pro-Qaeda channels, and Abu al-Khayr was said to have been buried this morning. Though the emphasis on targeting jihadist leaders can be overdone, the demise of Abu al-Khayr is an important development, and one with significance beyond itself.
Abu al-Khayr’s career is demonstrative of a few interesting trends within the Jihadi-Salafist movement, primary among them the willingness of the Iranian revolution to work with the Sunni jihadists, al-Qaeda very much included, when it suits its purposes, particularly in undermining Western interests. Abu al-Khayr also elucidates the changed nature of al-Qaeda, where the “centre” (AQC) could now be said to be more in Syria than the Afghanistan-Pakistan, and where al-Qaeda operates both an overt and covert presence to try to secure a durable foothold in the Levant, which might in time be a base for attacks against the West, currently suspended only for tactical reasons.
Abu al-Khayr, who also used the alias Ahmad Hasan Abu Khayr al-Masri, was born Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman on 3 November 1957 in Kafr al-Shaykh, north-eastern Egypt. Abu al-Khayr was therefore 59 when he was killed.
Abu al-Khayr was close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, in the 1980s when al-Zawahiri was the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). After the Egyptian government began to overwhelm the Islamist insurgency in the early 1990s, driving most EIJ operatives abroad, al-Zawahiri regrouped, first in Bosnia, where the Sunni Islamists found ample help from the Shi’a Islamist regime in Tehran; then, in one of the strangest episodes in the history of the jihadi movement, in Chechnya, where al-Zawahiri and two of his deputies, Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri) and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, were arrested by Russian security forces; and then Sudan. Abu al-Khayr travelled with al-Zawahiri to Sudan.
Usama bin Ladin was based in Sudan between 1992 and 1996, where “he established an ‘Islamic Army Shura’ that was to serve as the coordinating body for the consortium of terrorist groups with which he was forging alliances,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report. “It was composed of his own al-Qaeda Shura together with leaders or representatives of terrorist organizations that were still independent. … The groundwork for a true global terrorist network was being laid.”
When Bin Ladin moved to the Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan in May 1996, Abu al-Khayr went with him. Abu al-Khayr operated as the chief of foreign relations for al-Qaeda for a time and also as a liaison with the Taliban regime. Abu al-Khayr has been implicated in the August 1998 bombings by al-Qaeda of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Abu al-Khayr was promoted to al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, sometimes called the Management Council, the advisory body to al-Qaeda’s leadership, after EIJ formally merged into al-Qaeda in March 2001. As ever with jihadi networks, Abu al-Khayr’s stature was enhanced by social relations as well as merit: Abu al-Khayr was a son-in-law of Bin Ladin’s, married to one of his daughters.
AFTER THE FALL OF THE TALIBAN
In the aftermath of the 9/11 massacre, Abu al-Khayr fled to Iran with other senior al-Qaeda operatives like Sayf al-Adel, who had been one of al-Qaeda’s military leaders, and formally-non-Qaeda jihadists like Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), who had founded what would become the Islamic State (IS) in 1999 and only swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, renaming his organization al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). Al-Zarqawi had been brought into a working relationship with Bin Ladin in Afghanistan by al-Adel, and in Iran in 2001-02 it was with al-Adel that al-Zarqawi would develop the plan to establish a caliphate in the short-term, a plan later repudiated—along with IS itself—by al-Qaeda.
Sulayman Abu Ghayth (Abu Youssef) was born in Kuwait, participated in the Bosnian jihad, and joined al-Qaeda in Taliban Afghanistan in June 2001. Ghayth was also a son-in-law of Bin Ladin’s. Ghayth became quite well-known globally in October 2001 as al-Qaeda’s spokesman, releasing statements threatening further attacks. “The Americans should know that the storm of plane attacks will not abate,” Ghayth said.
Ghayth was ostensibly arrested in the city of Shiraz, Iran, on 23 April 2003, but was later let go and travelled to Turkey, where he was taken into government custody on 13 January 2013. Deported by Ankara back to his native Kuwait—which had by then stripped him of citizenship—via Jordan, Ghayth was transferred by Amman to American custody on 28 February 2013.
Ghayth was a member of al-Qaeda’s Shura Council when he was arrested in Iran and told the FBI that he was arrested alongside Abu al-Khayr, the then-chairman of the Council, who “was responsible for coordinating al Qaida’s work with other terrorist organizations,” according to U.S. Treasury sanctions levied against Abu al-Khayr as a terrorist associate in 2005. Two other Council members, al-Adel, the former military chief who was then-planning external operations and directing propaganda, and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri), a close associate of al-Adel’s and a military planner—one of the masterminds of the 1998 East African Embassy bombings—were picked up in the same raid.
UNDER ARREST IN IRAN
The captives were not interrogated by the Iranian government, they were reunited with their wives, and they were eventually allowed to communicate with the outside world, according to Ghayth, though there are indications that communications were not so isolated. From “house arrest,” al-Adel coordinated the May 2003 bombings against the Saudi capital. The U.S. Treasury in 2011 sanctioned several al-Qaeda jihadists and noted the “secret deal” between Tehran and al-Qaeda (Tehran has always been, even if it has been harder to maintain in recent years, ecumenical in its approach to anti-Western Muslim radicals, as its relationships with HAMAS and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar attest.)
It is a multi-layered relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, with one seeking leverage over the another. By having al-Qaeda members on its soil, with the option to cripple al-Qaeda’s crucial artery from the Af-Pak zone to the Arab world, Iran prevents al-Qaeda attacks inside Iran. Among the reasons al-Zawahiri counselled al-Zarqawi in his famous letter in 2005 to cease attacking Shi’a civilians so extensively and so publicly was to avoid antagonising the Iranians, forcing Tehran into a position where they had to take public counter-measures. After the schism between AQC and its former Iraqi branch, IS, the spokesman for IS, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), acknowledged that IS had obeyed al-Qaeda’s orders in matters of foreign policy, specifically to desist from attacks on Iran. “Let history record that Iran owes an invaluable debt to al-Qaeda,” Falaha tauntingly concluded in his missive against al-Zawahiri.
Al-Qaeda officials in Iran are (politically) out of reach of American drones, and able to bolster the group’s affiliates in the Arab world with money, materiel, and men, even in Syria, where Iran is purportedly at war with al-Qaeda and similar terrorists. Al-Qaeda has tried to make the terms of its stay in Iran even more favourable by kidnapping Iranian officials, notably Heshmatollah Attarzadeh and Nour Ahmad Nikbakht. Ghayth was released in the deal over Attarzadeh, as was Bin Ladin’s daughter, Iman. Al-Adel, Abu al-Khayr, Abdullah, Khalid al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassem), and Sari Shibab were publicly released in late 2015 in the trade over Nikbakht, who was sprung in March 2015.
There is little reason to believe Tehran about its actions toward al-Qaeda and the actual conditions under which it held the five al-Qaeda leaders it released in 2015 remains murky. For example, in 2011, embarrassed by U.S. sanctions, Tehran arrested the leader of al-Qaeda’s facilitation network on their territory, Ezedin Khalil (Yasin al-Suri), but once the furore died down he was soon back in place. Al-Adel himself allegedly travelled from Iran to Pakistan in 2010, possibly with an Iranian escort. There was every indication that by mid-2011, al-Adel had much freer conditions inside Iran—and even to travel outside Iran. Adding to the confusion, in August 2015, a video message from Hamza bin Ladin called for the release of al-Adel, Abu al-Khayr, and Abdullah—about five months after they were probably released.
As was predicted once it became known that Abu al-Khayr, al-Adel, Abdullah, and al-Aruri were free, they made straight for Syria, which, as Charles Lister noted at the time, meant “al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria arguably now outweighs its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” And by no means are these operatives confined in their thinking to Syria. Al-Aruri is an old friend of al-Zarqawi’s and is married to a daughter of al-Zarqawi’s. As IS falls back, al-Qaeda is looking to fill the vacuum, not just in Syria but in Iraq, a task al-Aruri is well-situated to undertake.
The arrival of these senior AQC figures coincided with the jostling for position, within al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, and with other Islamist insurgents like Ahrar al-Sham, to form a united insurgent merger that would allow al-Qaeda to co-opt the Syrian revolution. When al-Nusra announced that it had severed tied with al-Qaeda and rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) as part of the effort to integrate even further into the local environment, this action was pre-endorsed by Abu al-Khayr.
JFS ultimately rebranded again, continuing al-Qaeda’s consistent intent to hide its hand in Syria, forging nodes in its network beyond its formal affiliate, by merging with some smaller factions and ultra-extremist individuals from extremist groups like Ahrar al-Sham to form Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January, an organization that now almost certainly has a forcible veto, as well as one of legitimacy earned by its role in the anti-regime struggle, over the direction of the insurgency in north-western Syria, unless some external force alters the balance of power.
HTS/al-Qaeda is very likely capable of launching a terrorist strike in, say, Europe, but has not thus far because its focus for the moment is on embedding into Syrian society so that when it recommences attacks there is no easy return address. Whether this calculation will hold, or the need to respond to the slaying of such a senior leader will take over, remains to be seen. It is also possible that a change in this calculation had been detected and that is what precipitated the airstrike that killed Abu al-Khayr.
It should also be noted that Abu al-Khayr did not join JFS/HTS, however. Instead, Abu al-Khayr led a splinter faction that contained some of the “legacy al-Qaeda” members from JFS—Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib), who was sanctioned last week by the U.S., Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni), and a half-dozen others—who broke away and publicly reaffirmed their allegiance to al-Qaeda.
Abu al-Khayr also operated as al-Zawahiri’s overall number-two, with responsibility for other branches of the organization. Abu al-Khayr thus held a role similar to Nasser al-Wuhayshi (Abu Basir), the direct leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda’s General Manager, i.e. AQC’s intermediary with the other theatres, when he was killed in June 2015.
This dual role, local and global, was the one played by Abu al-Khayr when he was struck down in al-Mastuma on Sunday night by what appears to have been a dud missile.
Since the autumn, the U.S.-led Coalition has been steadily escalating its targeting of al-Qaeda in Syria. Since the turn of the year, the Coalition has killed several dozen al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in Syria. This strategy is flawed, so narrowly focused that it is enabling other negative trends, but doubtless it is having an effect.
 Al-Zawahiri had at one point, in September 2013, written to IS’s deputy, Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), proposing that they find common ground in releasing prisoners held by the Iranians. The wife of Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), the leader of IS’s predecessor after al-Zarqawi was killed, was specifically mentioned.
UPDATE: An American official confirmed to The New York Times on 1 March 2017 that Abu al-Khayr had been killed.