Al Qaeda Emissary in Syria Killed by Rival Islamist Rebels
Violent Power Struggle Between Radical Groups Deepens
Feb. 23, 2014 7:58 p.m. ET
BEIRUT-Al Qaeda's top emissary in Syria was killed by rival Islamist rebels
in a suicide bombing, deepening the violent power struggle between extremist
groups that has undermined the battle to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.
The attack on Sunday in the northern city of Aleppo killed Abu Khalid al
Suri, one of the founders of the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al Sham. His
group said he had been asked by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to help
settle differences between the two main al Qaeda offshoots in Syria.
The mediation was aimed at curbing the escalating fight between the Nusra
Front, designated al-Qaeda's rightful representative in Syria, and the
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which the global terror group
Ahrar al Sham blamed ISIS for the double suicide bombing that killed Mr.
Suri, but ISIS denied the accusation. ISIS killed another Ahrar al Sham
leader in January but initially denied involvement, claiming responsibility
The splintering of extremist rebels in Syria reflects a broader split
developing within al Qaeda's global terror organization, according to
members. Hard-liners complain al Qaeda has been softening since Mr. Zawahiri
took control after Osama bin Laden's death in 2011.
Younger followers balk at the group's stance in Syria, where it has vowed to
protect religious minorities and has given up on a long-stated goal of
building an Islamic caliphate-a super state stretching across Muslim
nations. Instead it has embraced the goal of a single state under Islamic
"At this point, it's a competition between al Qaeda and ISIS about who will
become the beacon of the global jihadist movement and Syria is at the
pinnacle of this," said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute
focusing on jihadist movements.
Mr. Zawahiri recently disavowed ISIS in response to its brutal tactics
against the Syrian population and attacks on other rebel groups, including
Islamists. He named the Nusra Front as al Qaeda's official representative.
Nusra is cooperating with more secular rebel groups, including the
Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), against the Assad regime-a pragmatic
turn for al Qaeda which traditionally cooperated only with other hard-line
Islamists. Some religious conservatives view the secular-leaning FSA as
Mr. Suri's group had recently banded together with other religious factions
in an alliance called the Islamic Front. It excluded both the Nusra Front
Only a few months ago, the U.S. and its allies held some tentative talks
with the Islamic Front to see if they could be brought into the Geneva peace
talks. There were also indications at the time that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia
wanted to arm and fund another group within the Islamic Front, the Army of
But since then, the FSA, the Islamic Front and the Nusra Front have all
turned to battling ISIS. The FSA and Islamic Front have at times joined
forces to fight ISIS while Nusra has been separately confronting the group.
It is still not clear whether all three are moving toward some kind of
alliance to battle ISIS together.
Some al Qaeda supporters have criticized Nusra's leader, Abu Mohammad al
Golani, for cooperating with secular rebels and for shunning the
establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Mr. Golani, in his first televised
interview in December on Al Jazeera, said Nusra supported a single state
based on Islamic law, a surprising position for al Qaeda.
After Mr. Golani's interview, some analysts said it was an indication that
Mr. Zawahiri had come to terms with al Qaeda's failure to establish a
caliphate after decades of fighting, and was trying to broaden the group's
appeal by dropping some of its more extreme views.
ISIS, which started in Iraq to fight the U.S.-led war, has active cells in
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with the aim of establishing an Islamic caliphate,
al Qaeda's original mandate.
"A key line being used in private by ISIS fighters is that bin Laden led the
true al Qaeda and that Zawahiri isn't perceived as a capable or legitimate
leader of the global jihad," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the
Brookings Doha Center. "The inability of Zawahiri to definitively solve
ISIS-Nusra tensions before they boiled over could prove a deeply damaging
failure on his part."
He said some al Qaeda followers both within Syria and outside have expressed
support for ISIS, suggesting a split within the global organization that in
the past, spoke in a unified voice. Despite Mr. Zawahiri's attempts to
undermine ISIS, some international jihadists continue to support the group
out of admiration for its fight against U.S. troops in Iraq. Nusra was
formed in 2012 in Syria and is still cutting its teeth.
"There's a generational gap and a shift. A lot of the old star leadership of
al Qaeda were born and bred from the Afghan war, whereas the younger people
in the movement grew up during the Iraq war and Arab uprisings. ISIS is more
appealing to this generation," said Mr. Zelin.
"Al Qaeda's old guard has matured in some aspects and learned lessons from
its failures they are still radical, but less so than in 2003 in Iraq."
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