April 8, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda’s Legacy Leaders Under Fire
This week, U.S. airstrikes in Syria reportedly killed at least three longtime and well-known extremists; three terrorists whose histories reach back past the founding of al-Qaeda. While the death of Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa has not been confirmed, al-Qaeda media outlets released eulogies for Abu Firas al-Suri and Abu Hamam al-Suri; Abu Hamam had previously and erroneously been reported killed in a March 2015 U.S. airstrike in Syria. The three men were in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, where Abu Firas was a member of the group’s shura council. The loss of three legacy al-Qaeda figures within one week will not meaningfully hurt al-Qaeda, but it does indicate that the U.S. has significant intelligence on high-value figures who have been on counterterrorism radars for decades.
Unconfirmed reports claim that Rafai Ahmed Taha Musa was killed in an airstrike on April 5 in Idlib. Musa was a former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah, as was ‘Blind Shaykh’ Omar Abdel-Rahman. Musa signed Osama bin Ladin’s 1998 fatwa against the West, and was implicated in the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa that same year. He had been imprisoned in Egypt but was released at some point following President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power. With four decades of experience next to some of the world’s most infamous terrorists—from bin Ladin to the ‘Blind Shaykh’—it is difficult to overstate the symbolic power that Musa carried, and that he evidently brought to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.
While the April 5 death of Musa is unconfirmed, the April 3 deaths of Abu Firas al-Suri and Abu Hamam al-Suri have been recognized and eulogized by al-Qaeda. Both Abu Firas and Abu Hamam were members of what has been confusingly labeled ‘The Khorasan Group,’ a term that simply refers to a group of senior and capable al-Qaeda members deployed to Syria to help Jabhat al-Nusra. Both men joined al-Qaeda in its earliest days, and for more than three decades have been involved in terrorism across Afghanistan, Yemen, and many other countries.
That all three men with such notable histories in al-Qaeda ended up in Syria is an indication of how the center of the global jihadist movement has reoriented to Syria. Much of the reporting about al-Qaeda understandably focuses on the idea that the so-called ‘al-Qaeda Central’ (referring to the senior leadership thought to be in hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is on the defensive, while its affiliates (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, among others) are on the offense. This week’s deaths suggest that it may be more accurate to think of al-Qaeda Central not as a group composed of beleaguered senior leadership (though some certainly are under immense pressure), but rather as a legacy and breadth of experience personified in people like Abu Firas al-Suri or Taha Musa. Al-Qaeda Central apparently has more freedom of movement than one would have assumed, given its fighters' notoriety. While in Syria, they will continue to be high-value targets for the United States, which tries to make a distinction between Jabhat al-Nusra and its legacy advisors.
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