Key anti-Assad rebel leader acknowledges al Qaida past, potentially complicating U.S. aid in Syria

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

A top official of a major Syrian rebel group acknowledged Friday that he considers himself a member of al Qaida, an admission that undercuts Western hopes that the new Islamic Front would prove to be an acceptable counter to the rising influence of other al Qaida affiliates in Syria.

Abu Khaled al Suri, who is a top figure in the rebel group Ahrar al Sham, made the statement in an Internet posting in which he argued that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, another radical rebel group, was not al Qaida’s representative in Syria and was not doing the work of al Qaida’s founder, Osama bin Laden, its current leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, or al Qaida’s late leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed by an American missile in 2006.

Ahrar al Sham is one of the most militarily effective groups fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad and is one of the largest groups aligned with the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that announced its formation in September as a counter to the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council. Ahrar al Sham’s leader, Hassan Aboud, is the political chief of the Islamic Front.

Some analysts of jihadi organizations said al Suri’s admission makes it likely the United States will move to designate Ahrar al Sham a foreign terrorist organization.

“Suri’s prominence in Ahrar al Sham and his public statement praising Zarqawi and Zawahiri will make it very difficult for the U.S. administration not to designate Ahrar,” said Will McCants, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. “If Ahrar is designated, it will be hard for (aid groups) to move humanitarian aid through the country since they control large swathes of it. The designation will also put the U.S. at odds with Qatar, Ahrar’s main state sponsor.”

Ahrar al Sham’s conservative philosophy has been well known, but its ties to al Qaida had been unclear until Friday’s statement, which al Suri made through Twitter.

In that statement, al Suri said that ISIS, whose outposts in northern and eastern Syria have been attacked by other rebel groups for the past two weeks, had committed crimes against fellow rebels and Muslims in its attempt to use the Syrian rebellion to form its own radical Islamist state.

The statement cited al Suri’s close relationship with bin Laden and Zawahiri, and said that despite ISIS’ claims to be an al Qaida franchise, bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi could not be held responsible for ISIS’ crimes or behavior. ISIS has used brutal measures, including beheadings, to enforce its harsh interpretation of Islam in the areas of Syria it dominates, a blood thirst that had earned it the enmity of many Syrians.

Zawahiri had designated al Suri to mediate disputes between ISIS and other rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, another al Qaida affiliate battling in Syria.

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, called the denunciation of ISIS especially strong because it came from a powerful jihadi voice.

“Abu Khaled’s intriguing history has been known for some time now, but his statement against ISIS was clear and wholly condemnatory,” he said. “A statement by Zawahiri, presumably speaking out against ISIS, must now surely be in the works.”

Lister added that al Suri’s profession of friendship with bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi, three of the West’s most despised figures, undercuts Ahrar al Sham’s previous claims that it was not affiliated with al Qaida, despite its close working relationship with the Nusra Front, which has long claimed an al Qaida relationship. He noted that Aboud, Ahrar al Sham’s leader, has been interviewed frequently by Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television network.

“Ahrar al Sham undoubtedly intends to play some role in a potentially post-Assad Syria,” Lister said.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  • Kuwait orders 2 newspapers shut over coup articles

    Kuwait's state news agency says the government has temporarily suspended the publication of two independent newspapers over articles about a secret probe into allegations of a coup plot to overthrow the Gulf monarchy's government.

  •  
In this February 18, 2014 photo, a construction worker is carried in a basket by a crane, as he works on a luxury tower, in Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut is no different than Dubai, Doha or other major world cities overtaken by a global trend for modern, tall buildings. But in a country that prides itself on its rich history, many complain that Lebanon is losing its charm and character, often said to be the only thing going for it.

    Construction frenzy in Beirut alters city skyline

    One by one, the old traditional houses of Beirut are vanishing as luxury towers sprout up on every corner, altering the city's skyline almost beyond recognition amid an ongoing construction frenzy seemingly immune to tensions from the civil war raging next door.

  •  
FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2004 file photo, former boxer, Rubin, "Hurricane" Carter, holds up the writ of habeas corpus that freed him from prison, during a news conference held in Sacramento, Calif. Carter, who spent almost 20 years in jail after twice being convicted of a triple murder he denied committing, died at his home in Toronto, Sunday, April 20, 2014, according to long-time friend and co-accused John Artis. He was 76.

    Boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter dies at 76

    Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer whose wrongful murder conviction became an international symbol of racial injustice, died Sunday. He was 76.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category