March 10, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Long Arc of an Al-Qaeda Terrorist

• The alleged death of Abu Humam al-Shami, military leader of the Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, provides an important look at the long arc of some senior al-Qaeda members

• As a group, al-Qaeda was greatly diminished and dispersed after 9/11 but many al-Qaeda figures like al-Shami, who shook the hand of Usama bin Ladin and then slipped through the cracks, are still continuing the fight they started years ago

• Across the region, there are apostles of bin Ladin teaching their lessons to groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Jabhat al-Nusra, serving as both inspiration and instruction to newer fighters

• Because of the sustained presence of huge sanctuaries and conflict, there will unfortunately be another generation of Shami-type figures that will ensure the violence and hatred doesn’t end with these current conflicts.


The alleged death of Samir Hijazi aka Farouq al-Suri aka Abu Humam al-Shami shows just how long the arc of a terrorist can bend, and is a mini-case study in how members of pre-9/11 al-Qaeda (AQ) continue their fight. Al-Shami, allegedly killed in an airstrike last week in Idlib, Syria, was the military commander of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the AQ affiliate in Syria. In addition to his military training and experience, he provided a direct link from the days of Usama bin Ladin in Afghanistan to the current fighting in Syria and Iraq. This is particularly important given that an entire new generation of al-Shami-types are being created in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, guaranteeing that the fighting won’t end whenever the conflicts in Iraq and Syria do.

Al-Shami is neither special nor unique; hundreds of AQ members slipped through the cracks after 9/11. His path, like those of many early AQ members, brought him into contact with almost every significant AQ official over the last 18 years. He traveled to Afghanistan in 1999, where he first joined the al-Ghuraba training camp run by influential extremist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri near the capital of Kabul. After a year, he joined al-Qaeda and traveled south to Qandahar to attend al-Farouq training camp near the airport. At some point, al-Shami personally swore allegiance to Usama bin Ladin, shaking his hand as he did so. This ‘handshake allegiance’ remains a serious badge of honor for the remaining AQ members who are still active.

Al-Shami then trained at the al-Banshiri camp, which was named after the deceased military head of AQ, Abu Ubaydah al-Banshiri. This camp, unlike the military focus of al-Farouq, was specifically designed to be a terrorist training camp. Al-Shami finished second in his class, trailing only Abdul 'Aziz al-Omari, who would go on to be one of the 9/11 hijackers that crashed United Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Upon graduation, al-Shami was appointed by senior AQ leader Sayf al-Adel (one of the most senior AQ leaders still at large) to help with security around the Kandahar airport, and then later as a trainer in the camps. Impressed with his performance, senior AQ leader and military commander Muhammad Atef, aka Abu Hafs al-Masri, placed al-Shami in charge of all Syrian AQ fighters in Afghanistan. In November 2001, with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan underway, al-Shami escaped to Pakistan with Sayf al-Adel. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of his journey.

Before the fall of Baghdad in 2003, al-Shami was sent to Iraq to help set up training under the orders of AQ’s general command based in 'Khorasan,' a historic region that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fighters from this command, such as al-Shami, eventually became known as the Khorasan group—referring to individuals who trained and organized in the region. While in Iraq, he linked up with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, the precursor group to the Islamic State), and Abu Ayyub al-Masri aka Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who would succeed Zarqawi as head of AQI. Al-Shami became the point of contact between Zarqawi and AQ, which wanted a piece of the fight in Iraq. Al-Shami set up training camps in Syria for fighters sent to him by Zarqawi, only stopping when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began to crack down on extremist activity in 2005. The paths of Assad and al-Shami would cross again.

He returned to Afghanistan but was sent back to Syria and Lebanon by then-AQ external operations leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman to continue training. Al-Shami was arrested in Lebanon on terrorism charges, negatively affecting the AQ-AQI synergy at a time they needed it most. After five years, he was released in 2012, and was unfortunately well-timed to rejoin a resurgent AQ affiliate taking advantage of the Syrian civil war. From 2012 until his death last week, al-Shami helped perpetuate not just the ideology of bin Ladinism but also the military tactics learned from battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under his military command, JN has become one of the most effective groups fighting the Assad regime. It remains successful even as it fights its once-parent group, the Islamic State, like a snake eating its tail.

Unfortunately, al-Shami was nowhere near the only AQ member who rose from the Afghan battlefield to infect other battlefields far removed. JN’s infamous sniper/trainer Abu Yusuf al-Turki also spent time in AQ’s Afghanistan camps. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, considered AQ’s most dangerous affiliate) was once bin Ladin’s secretary, while two senior members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, spent formative time in Afghanistan.

The death of al-Shami will hurt JN in the short term, but the reality of today’s persistent sanctuaries and conflict in Syria and Iraq ensures that there will be yet another generation of fighters and trainers who will become the new influential legends. Ending the conflict in Syria is vital but it’s too late now to break the cycle. Unfortunately there will be new al-Shami figures to ensure that the fighting continues and that bin Ladinism doesn’t disappear with the cessation of hostilities.


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