Bin Laden loyalists dominate new al-Qaeda
BEIRUT - Tanzim Huras al-Din, established on February 27, is an amalgamation of six jihadist factions. Since then, several smaller groups have joined it. Various sources identified the leader of the new unit as Abu Hamam al-Shami, real name Farouq al-Suri, an al-Qaeda veteran, former commander of al-Nusra Front and a stalwart supporter of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda.
“Several of its leaders are thought to have been involved with al-Qaeda’s brief foray into foreign-attack plotting from Syria, which the US labelled the Khorasan group,” explained analyst Charles Lister, an expert on al-Qaeda.
A group by that name dates from 2015, when US officials identified what they claimed was a select team of veteran fighters embedded by Zawahiri within what was then al-Qaeda Central’s Syrian affiliate — Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS) — specifically to plot operations against the West and the United States in particular.
Its members were considered high-priority targets. They included such veterans as Saif al-Adl, a former colonel with Egypt’s special forces who was close to bin Laden and is arguably al-Qaeda’s most battle-hardened surviving commander and strategist.
Adl is a key member of Huras al-Din’s ruling Shura Council. Others have been identified as Sami Iyad al-Tubasi of Jordan, a jihadist for 20 years and a co-founder of al-Nusra Front whose nom de guerre is Abu Julaybib; and Khalid Khalifa al-Aruri, aka Abu Qassam al-Urdani, a top aide and brother-in-law of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, forerunner of the Islamic State (ISIS), who was killed by the Americans in June 2006.
Waiting in the wings to take a leading role is bin Laden’s youngest and reportedly favourite son Hamza, now 28 or 29, schooled by such notorious and able mentors as Adl and branded a “global terrorist” by the United States
“Smaller than HTS, Huras al-Din operates deeper in the shadows, pursuing global terror objectives with little or no footprint,” Lister observed.
Even though “counterterrorism has long shaped US policy towards the Middle East… the US is doing literally nothing to deal with the very real terrorist threat posed by the likes of Huras al-Din.”
To some extent this is because it has severely reduced its operational capabilities in Syria. US President Donald Trump has spoken of reducing the US military presence even further.
“Much like al-Qaeda before 9/11 or ISIS before its shocking expansion in 2014, this al-Qaeda group is operating in north-western Syria with virtual impunity, with America back in the bullseye,” Lister cautioned.
He stressed that Russia and Turkey have “locked US aircraft out of north-western Syria’s airspace, prohibiting even CIA drones from operating there,” while neither has made any move against Huras al-Din and other al-Qaeda units.
The longer Huras al-Din “remains untouched, the more dangerous it will become,” Lister warned.
With ISIS on the run and striving to regroup, just as al-Qaeda has done, Zawahiri’s restored organisation seems ready to fill the vacuum in the global jihadi sphere.
US counterterrorism expert Robert McCabe observed that al-Qaeda’s new Syrian branch “may turn out to be the greater long-term threat, having survived a massive worldwide campaign to destroy it and having modified its strategy to reflect lessons learned from past mistakes.”