Yesterday, the Syrian Salafi group known as Ahrar al-Sham announced the death of one of its top commanders, Abu Khalid al-Suri. It seems he was killed in a suicide attack in the Aleppo region at the hands of the “Kharijites of this age,” as Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud put it. The word “Kharijites” refers to a splinter sect among the early Muslims and is used by Abboud as a derogatory epithet for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the extremist group currently challenging al-Qaeda for hegemony over the jihadi movement in Syria.
Abu Khalid’s death ends a long and storied career in jihadism, stretching back to the late 1970s or early 1980s. But it will only increase speculation about his exact political allegiance and his role within Ahrar al-Sham and, perhaps, al-Qaeda.
Recently, analysts have claimed that Abu Khalid’s presence in the Ahrar al-Sham leadership shows that Ahrar al-Sham, and by extension the Islamic Front alliance of which it is part, has direct links to al-Qaeda. However, we still know precious little about the nature of Abu Khalid’s involvement with al-Qaeda, and most publicly available information seems to suggests a more nuanced relationship.
Abu Khalid and Abu Musab
Abu Khalid al-Suri, which means “Abu Khalid the Syrian,” was the nom de guerre of Mohammed al-Bahaiya, born 1963 in Aleppo. Before the Syrian war, he was best known as an associate of the Spanish-Syrian jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, another Aleppine whose real name is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar. Abu Musab’s life (and some of Abu Khalid’s) is best documented in a detailed biography by Norwegian historian Brynjar Lia.
The two men fled Syria during a failed 1980s Islamist uprising against then president Hafez al-Assad. They later cooperated in establishing media groups and training centers for jihadi volunteers in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
While in Afghanistan, both Abu Musab and Abu Khalid seem to have cooperated closely with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, and at times they appeared to be working for the group. But there were also periods of tension, with Abu Musab—and probably Abu Khalid—typically supporting Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in his disputes with al-Qaeda leader bin Laden. In fact, both Abu Khalid and Abu Musab explicitly stated in 1999 that they were not members of al-Qaeda. Abu Musab repeated this refrain in later statements and interviews, although he would also routinely praise bin Laden and pride himself on their good relations.
Both Abu Musab and Abu Khalid were linked through personal contacts and money transfers to the terror cell responsible for the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, and a Spanish court document referred to Abu Khalid as bin Laden’s “courier” in Europe. The same network was connected to the 2005 London terror attack, and Abu Musab would be known in the media as its “mastermind,” although this seems spurious at best.
In 2005, Abu Musab was apprehended by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence, ending up in CIA custody. Some reports claim that Abu Khalid was also picked up in the same operation, or around that time. Abu Musab seems to have been rendered by the CIA to Syria, either as a bargaining chip or to allow for even more “enhanced” interrogation. Since then, little has been heard of either man. I was told by leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 2009 that they had information that Abu Musab was being held in the Palestine Branch, a Syrian military intelligence compound in southern Damascus that has long been infamous for the torture of high-value political prisoners.
According to some reports, both Abu Musab and Abu Khalid were released by the Syrian government in late 2011, but this has never been confirmed. Pending confirmation, there have been hints that Abu Musab may still be in prison.
The Zawahiri Letter
In May 2013, after conflict had erupted between the ISIL and the Nusra Front, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sought to settle the dispute (preferably in the Nusra Front’s favor). In a secret letter, he named Abu Khalid his delegate to the Syrian jihadis and told them to obey his rulings.
Zawahiri said nothing about Ahrar al-Sham, but soon after that, information began to seep out to the wider public about Abu Khalid’s involvement with the group. The U.S. Department of the Treasury would later refer to Abu Khalid as al-Qaeda’s “representative in Syria,” and his name came to be mentioned as evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham.
Abu Khalid and Ahrar al-Sham
Ahrar al-Sham is a secretive group whichever way you look at it, but it seems to have been particularly eager to conceal Abu Khalid’s role in its ranks. Instead of working under his old nom de guerre, Bahaya adopted a new one for his work as Ahrar al-Sham’s leader in Aleppo: Abu Omeir al-Shami.
While running Ahrar al-Sham’s northern front, Abu Khalid/Abu Omeir/Bahaya kept away from the media spotlight. Only after conflict erupted with the ISIL in winter 2013–2014 did he begin to make public statements. In one, he drew on his hardline credentials, name-dropping a list of personal acquaintances that included bin Laden, Zawahiri, Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar known as the “Father of Jihad,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and of course Abu Musab al-Suri, in a rebuke to the ISIL’s holier-than-thou attitude.
These statements were all released under the Abu Khalid name, with no mention of Bahaya’s cameo as Abu Omeir, the emir of Aleppo. Only after his death did Ahrar al-Sham leaders publicly link the names Abu Khalid, Abu Omeir, and Bahaya. Photos of him are now being circulated that show a heavyset and gray-bearded man, on the battlefield or seated alongside rebel leaders like Hassan Abboud and the late Abdul Qader Saleh of the Tawhid Brigade, an armed rebel group in Aleppo. Some of these pictures seem to have been taken during the talks that led up to the creation of the Islamic Front in November 2013.
The Islamic Front: We Are Not al-Qaeda
Some weeks before Abu Khalid’s death, I asked a person speaking on behalf of the Islamic Front’s Political Office about the relationship between Ahrar al-Sham and Abu Khalid, on the one hand, and between Abu Khalid and al-Qaeda, on the other. The Islamic Front representative would not comment on Abu Khalid by name, but he unambiguously denied the existence of an organizational link to al-Qaeda.
“There is neither a secret nor a public link,” he said, adding: “there is no one who belongs to al-Qaeda within the ranks of the Islamic Front.” Asked about the Islamic Front’s view of al-Qaeda in general, the answer was a little more guarded: “Our opinion about al-Qaida is that they have announced their project and we have announced our project.”
The second part of this article, which deals with the links between Ahrar al-Sham and international jihadism, will be published tomorrow.