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Qaeda Militants Seek Syria Base, U.S. Officials Say

WASHINGTON — Dozens of seasoned militant fighters, including some midlevel planners, have traveled to Syria from Pakistan in recent months in what American intelligence and counterterrorism officials fear is an effort to lay the foundation for future strikes against Europe and the United States.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, told a House panel recently.

The extremists who concern Mr. Brennan are part of a group of Qaeda operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted in recent years by a decade of American drone strikes. But the fighters still bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West.

Syria is an appealing base for these operatives because it offers them the relative sanctuary of extremist-held havens — away from drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan — as well as ready access to about 1,200 American and European Muslims who have gone there to fight and could be potential recruits to carry out attacks when they return home. Senior counterterrorism officials have voiced fears in recent months that these Western fighters could be radicalized by the country’s civil war.

New classified intelligence assessments based on information from electronic intercepts, informers and social media posts conclude that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al-Zawahri, is developing a much more systematic, long-term plan than was previously known to create specific cells in Syria that would identify, recruit and train these Westerners.

Al Qaeda has in the past blessed the creation of local branches in places like Yemen, where an affiliate has tried to strike the United States. But the effort in Syria would signify the first time that senior Qaeda leaders had set up a wing of their own outside Pakistan dedicated to conducting attacks against the West, counterterrorism officials said. It also has the potential to rejuvenate Al Qaeda’s central command, which President Obama has described as being greatly diminished.

The assessment by the United States, however, has some detractors among even its staunchest counterterrorism partners, which also see an increase in Pakistan-based veterans of Al Qaeda among Syrian rebel groups but which disagree over whether they are involved in a coordinated plan to attack the West.

“At this stage, it’s a lot less organized than a directed plan,” said one Western security official. “Some fighters are going to Syria, but they’re going on an ad hoc basis, not at an organized level.”

Most of the operatives identified by intelligence officials are now focused on attacking Syrian government troops and occasionally rival rebel factions. But the fact that these kinds of operatives are showing up in Syria indicates to American officials that Mr. Zawahri is also playing a long game — counting on easy access to Iraq and Qaeda support networks there, as well as on the United States’ reluctance to carry out drone strikes or other military operations against targets in Syria.

“A key question, however, is how using Syria as a launching pad to strike the West fits into Zawahri’s overall strategy, and if he’s soft-pedaling now, hoping to consolidate Al Qaeda’s position for the future,” said one American counterterrorism official. “Clearly, there is going to be push and pull between local operatives and Al Qaeda central on attack planning. How fast the pendulum will swing toward trying something isn’t clear right now.”

The new assessment is not likely to change American policy toward Syria any time soon, but it puts pressure on the Obama administration and its allies because it raises the possibility that Syria could become the next Afghanistan.

Top officials at the F.B.I., the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security say they are working closely with European allies to track Westerners returning from Syria.

There are perhaps “a few dozen” Qaeda veterans of fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan in Syria, two top counterterrorism officials said. “What we’ve seen is a coalescence in Syria of Al Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as extremists from other hot spots such as Libya and Iraq,” Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate panel in March. “From a terrorism perspective, the most concerning development is that Al Qaeda has declared Syria its most critical front.”

In his first speech as secretary of Homeland Security in February, Jeh C. Johnson put it even more bluntly. “Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” he said.

The Qaeda veterans have multiple missions and motivations, counterterrorism officials say. Like thousands of other foreign fighters, many have been drawn on their own to Syria to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Many others, like Abu Khalid al-Suri, a Syrian-born veteran of Al Qaeda, were sent by the terrorist group’s central command in Pakistan first to fight Mr. Assad, but also to begin laying the groundwork to use enclaves in Syria to launch attacks against the West, American officials said.

Mr. Suri, who is believed to have been close to Osama bin Laden and to have fought against American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, was sent to mediate conflicts between Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and another extremist faction, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which Al Qaeda has disavowed. He was killed in a suicide attack in February by the rival group.

Many of the Qaeda planners and operatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan have clustered in the east and northwest sections of Syria, in territory controlled or heavily influenced by the Nusra Front, intelligence officials said.

Sanafi al-Nasr, a Saudi-born extremist who is on his country’s list of most wanted terrorists, traveled to Syria from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region late last year and emerged as one of the Nusra Front’s top strategists. Jihadi forums reported that he was killed in fighting last week, but American counterterrorism officials said those reports could not be confirmed.

“Al Qaeda veterans could have a critical impact on recruitment and training,” said Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a security consulting firm that tracks militant websites. “They would be lionized, at least within the ranks, as experienced mujahedeen.”

While these senior Qaeda envoys have been involved in the immediate fight against Syrian forces, American counterterrorism officials said they also had broader, longer-term ambitions.

Without naming Mr. Nasr, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told a Senate panel in February that a “small nucleus” of Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Syria who are “separate from al-Nusra harbor designs on attacks in Europe and the homeland.”

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, agreed, saying, “The large majority of Al Qaeda-linked commanders now in Syria are there due to the potential for Syria to be the next jihadist safe haven.”

Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements, said that launching attacks on Western targets did not appear to be a priority for the Nusra Front now. However, the group’s ideology, or a belief that it was under direct threat, could lead it to attack the West eventually, he said.

“As soon as they get targeted, they will move the battle outside,” Mr. Hanieh said.

via Qaeda Militants Seek Syria Base, U.S. Officials Say – NYTimes.com.

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Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative


A senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri is a leading figure in Ahrar al Sham, a Syrian extremist group that is part of the recently formed Islamic Front. Al Suri’s real name is Mohamed Bahaiah.

Bahaiah is a longtime al Qaeda operative who worked as a courier for the terror network. Spanish authorities think he may have delivered surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan in early 1998.

In addition to being a senior member of Ahrar al Sham, Bahaiah today serves as Ayman al Zawahiri‘s representative in the Levant.

Ahrar al Sham is not one of al Qaeda’s two official branches inside Syria, which are the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or Levant (ISIS) . But Ahrar al Sham has closely cooperated with the al Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield even while engaging in a very public dispute with ISIS.

Bahaiah’s role in Ahrar al Sham has been confirmed by two US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal. One official noted that while Bahaiah is not the emir or overall head of Ahrar al Sham, he is considered a central figure within in its ranks and plays a significant role in guiding the group.

Other al Qaeda operatives hold key positions within the extremist organization as well, according to the US officials.

In an article earlier this month, As-Safir, a Beirut-based publication, reported that Bahaiah “has played a prominent role” in Ahrar al Sham since its founding and “has sought to to cooperate and consult with prominent al Qaeda figures regarding the best methods of jihadist work in Syria.” The publication cited a “source in the Ahrar al Sham movement.”

The Daily Beast reports that Bahaiah is “overseeing the relationship between the al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic Front.”

Bahaiah has kept his role within Ahrar al Sham out of the spotlight. US officials say that he is part of a secretive al Qaeda cadre that has sought to influence or co-opt parts of the Syrian insurgency that are not official al Qaeda branches.

A courier for Osama bin Laden

European officials first gathered evidence connecting Bahaiah to the al Qaeda network as early as the 1990s. Spanish investigators identified Bahaiah as one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted couriers.

Bahaiah “is the person who was totally trusted by many different people in the various countries and was able to coordinate and transmit orders from bin Laden,” a Spanish judicial official told The New York Times in December 2003. This same official said that Bahaiah “was also being investigated for helping to finance an unsuccessful plot in 1997 to kill the prime minister of Yemen.”

Spanish court records reviewed by The Long War Journal cite Bahaiah’s longstanding relationship with Imad Yarkas, a fellow Syrian who headed al Qaeda’s presence inside Spain prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Spanish officials found, for example, that Bahaiah delivered money from Yarkas to Abu Qatada, an al Qaeda-affiliated ideologue, in London.

Bahaiah’s brother-in-law is Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, a Syrian businessman who was arrested on terrorism charges in 2002. The United Nations has described Zouaydi as “a suspected financier of al Qaeda’s worldwide terrorist efforts.” Zouaydi would say, according to Spanish court documents, that Bahaiah’s “mission had been to establish contacts at the international level.”

One of Zouaydi’s employees, a fellow Syrian named Ghasoub Al Abrash Ghalyoun, traveled to the US in 1997. During his trip, Ghalyoun made suspicious videos of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks. Ghalyoun would later claim that the videos were simply the work of an eager tourist. Spanish authorities, who tied Ghalyoun to Yarkas’ operations, had a different view.

In July 2002, after arresting Ghalyoun for a second time, Spanish police released a statement regarding the videos. “The style and duration of the recordings far exceed touristic curiosity,” the statement reads, according to an account by the Associated Press. “For example, two of the tapes are like a documentary study, with innumerable takes from all distances and angles of the Twin Towers in New York.”

In addition to the World Trade Center, Ghalyoun made recordings of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, and the Statue of Liberty, as well as theme parks. The Golden Gate Bridge’s “suspension pillar” was “given substantial attention,” according to the police statement.

Spanish investigators believed that Ghalyoun’s videos were delivered to senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. The allegation was contained in a Sept. 17, 2003 indictment detailing the layers of evidence amassed against Yarkas’ al Qaeda network.

“The Spanish indictment alleges that an al Qaeda courier was in Ghalyoun’s town in Spain shortly after the trip and that the courier probably delivered the tape to al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan,” the 9/11 Commission reported.

According to the Spanish government, that courier was Bahaiah.

The story of Ghalyoun’s videos remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Spanish investigators became convinced that it was more likely than not that the videos were part of al Qaeda’s attack planning and that the Yarkas cell had supported the plot.

However, the 9/11 Commission concluded that the evidence was not strong enough to say that al Qaeda’s Spanish cell was directly involved in the attack. The commission came to this conclusion despite the fact that Yarkas apparently had some foreknowledge of the attack. In August 2001, Yarkas received a call from a fellow operative who said he had entered “the field of aviation” and would be “slitting the throat of the bird.”

In any event, the Spanish government amassed a wealth of evidence concerning Bahaiah’s al Qaeda role.

Close ally of prominent al Qaeda ideologue

Bahaiah was a close aide and ally to Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Musab al Suri), an influential al Qaeda ideologue whose work is regularly cited in jihadist literature, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine. In his seminal work, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, Nasar describes Bahaiah as “my brother and friend, my companion throughout my life.”

Both Bahaiah and Nasar had been imprisoned in Bashar al Assad‘s Syria and were freed in the wake of the uprisings.*

In his biography of Nasar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri, Brynjar Lia summarizes Bahaiah’s relationship with Nasar and the al Qaeda network in Europe.

As Lia also recounts, Bahaiah and Nasar had their disagreements with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden, prior to Sept. 11, 2001. But this did not stop Bahaiah from serving as a trusted al Qaeda courier. And Nasar mended his own the relationship with bin Laden after 9/11. When Nasar was designated a global terrorist in 2004, the US State Department noted that “in the wake of the [9/11] attacks [Nasar] pledged loyalty to Osama Bin Laden as a member of al Qaeda.”

Nasar had his own ties to al Qaeda operatives throughout Europe. And his name surfaced as a suspect in both the Mar. 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings and the July 7, 2005 London bombings. While Nasar certainly had ties to the networks that executed those attacks, his specific ties to the plots, if any, are uncertain. Nasar previously denied any direct role.

While it is unknown what role Nasar plays today, Bahaiah is now Zawahiri’s man in the Levant.

Zawahiri’s main representative and mediator

Earlier this year, Zawahiri named Bahaiah as his chief representative to settle an ongoing leadership disagreement between al Qaeda’s two official branches.

The dispute erupted in April when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who heads the ISIS, tried to fold al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq and Syria into a single organization. Al Baghdadi’s attempt to make the Al Nusrah Front subordinate to his command was rejected by Abu Muhammad al Julani, who heads Al Nusrah.

Zawahiri’s ruling on the disagreement came in a letter that was authored in May and published by Al Jazeera in June.

In the letter, Zawahiri appoints Bahaiah as his mediator. Zawahiri describes Bahaiah as “the best of men we had known among the Mujahidin.” Zawahiri writes that Bahaiah has been empowered to make sure that his orders are carried out and to resolve “any dispute” between the two emirs “arising from the interpretation of this ruling.” If necessary, Bahaiah can “set up a Sharia justice court for giving a ruling on the case.”

Bahaiah’s role in Ahrar al Sham is not mentioned in Zawahiri’s letter. But US offficials say it helps to explain why Zawahiri thought that Bahaiah was well-positioned to settle the dispute. Ahrar al Sham’s leaders command a large and effective fighting force that has participated in key battles alongside al Qaeda’s two official branches.

To date, Bahaiah has not been able to end the leadership dispute. Ahrar al Sham and ISIS have had their own sometimes contentious disagreements as well.

US officials point out, however, that al Qaeda’s senior leadership was clever enough to place multiple bets within the Syrian insurgency.

In late November, Ahrar al Sham was one of several groups that announced the formation of a new Islamic Front, which has been billed as an Islamist or jihadist alternative to al Qaeda. But al Qaeda’s presence within Ahrar al Sham ensures that it maintains some degree of influence within the new coalition, the US officials point out.

Ahrar al Sham holds some of the Islamic Front’s key posts.
*Note: In April 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nasar (Abu Musab al Suri) had been freed from prison. There are conflicting accounts about Nasar’s current status.

Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative – The Long War Journal.


The End of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syrian Scam

The Free Syrian Army had one purpose. To fool America. Now the con is over.

In the deserts of the Middle East, political mirages appear easily and disappear just as easily. There are countries and armies that exist only on paper. And there are invisible tribal nations that have no flag and never appear on a map, but that have their own militias and govern themselves.

The Middle East as it exists neatly laid out in the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post has little relationship to the messy realities of a region with few clean borders, only messy collections of tribes, families, ethnic groups and quarreling variations of Islam clinging to a few miles of dusty land, a handful of olive groves, some oil wells and their children and machine guns.

Out in Syria, the mirage of the Free Syrian Army, its camps full of soldiers defecting from the military to form a secular liberation force, has dissipated, vanishing into the sand. And all it took to knock down the Potemkin villages of the FSA that never existed was an attack on the only part of the Free Syrian Army that did exist—its warehouses full of American and European military aid.

The Free Syrian Army never existed. What did exist was neither free, nor Syrian, nor an army. The FSA was sold as an army of Syrian soldiers who had banded together under defecting officers to fight against the Assad government. The real FSA mostly consisted of Islamic brigades, indistinguishable for the most part from the other Salafist brigades in the war.  Some of these brigades were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood whose local allies, Turkey and Qatar, were the war’s biggest backers.

Perhaps even the war’s inventors.

And yet even this FSA, the one that was later being described as a collection of “moderate” Islamic militias, was just as much of an illusion. Like the attempt to draw lines around tribal encampments and call the whole thing a country, the Free Syrian Army was really a collection of militias with little in the way of an organizing structure except a willingness to identify casually with the FSA in the hopes of scoring some loot from those warehouses of American aid … and the promised American air support.

The units in the Free Syrian Army were not monogamous. They operated with the Al Nusra Front, one of the Al Qaeda groups in Syria, and any of the wannabe Caliphs and Emirs of the other Islamist militias. Their commanders and their men were out for themselves, switching team alliances as easily as reality show contestants, but with much bloodier results.

The FSA’s real purpose was to fool America by propping up a fake military for the real governments that were assembled by the Muslim Brotherhood’s activists in places like Doha and Istanbul. These interim “governments” won official recognition and received money and weapons that they could distribute to the Islamist militias in exchange for their support. Once Assad was defeated, their internationally recognized ”government” representing the patchwork of militia-controlled territories would be able to stage phony elections and control the billions in foreign aid which would be donated to rebuild Syria.

The FSA con existed for and depended on American support. Without American weapons and American military intervention, the Free Syrian Army no longer had a reason to exist.

And the air support and weapons weren’t coming.

Benghazi had made the United States nervous and the secret negotiations with Iran were overriding the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda in Syria. When Russia pressured Obama and Kerry into the Syrian chemical weapons deal, any hope of American military intervention in Syria ended.

And so did the Free Syrian Army.

Some of the militias that had been pretending to be the FSA joined other Islamist alliances. And those Islamist alliances went after the only real asset that the FSA had; its trucks and warehouses of foreign aid. The FSA’s warehouses full of foreign aid fell to the Islamic Front with only five casualties. Its leader, General Salim Idriss, fled to his masters in Turkey and Qatar.

Shortly thereafter a correction was issued.

General Idriss had never fled Syria because he hadn’t been in Syria. Idriss, who commands nothing except the attention of gullible Westerners, sets foot in Syria when he needs to accompany a VIP like Senator McCain for some photo ops. Idriss’s Islamist “deputies,” who command actual militias, have power. Their job is to fight the actual war. Idriss’s job is to tell American senators that if the imaginary moderate legions of the Free Syrian Army don’t receive more American aid, then Al Qaeda will win.

Unfortunately quite a few of his men actually are Al Qaeda. The rest make very poor warehouse guards.

In the wake of the warehouse debacle, the media is echoing the same warnings that if we don’t throw our weight behind the FSA, then Al Qaeda will win. But Al Qaeda has already won. And lost.

Al Qaeda dominates the Sunni opposition. Its foreign fighters have the best weapons and gear. The media tells us this all the time … but never bothers explaining where the weapons and gear come from.

They come from the same countries that are warning us that we must support the Free Syrian Army.

Al Qaeda’s arms dealers are warning us to arm the Free Syrian Army or Al Qaeda will win. But if they really didn’t want Al Qaeda to win, they wouldn’t be arming it. Al Qaeda in Pakistan or Mali isn’t nearly as well equipped as it is in Syria. They were arming Al Qaeda while setting up the Free Syrian Army as the moderate opposition so that we would be dragged into the war and overthrow Assad for them.

They had every reason to expect the plan to work. It worked in Libya.

But now the plan is shot to hell. The United States isn’t joining the war. The Shiite axis has thrown enough resources into Syria that it’s likely to win. Qatar and Turkey are facing a backlash in Sunni countries like Egypt where their Arab Spring plots failed to hand over rule to the Muslim Brotherhood.

As long as the United States keeps sending some foreign aid, the FSA scam will be kept alive. But the scam will consist of warehouses with a handful of men paid with proceeds from the sale of that foreign aid. And those warehouses will fall the moment that ISIS or the Al Nusra Front or the Islamic Front or anyone with enough fighters and guns rolls up in their dusty Japanese pickup trucks and takes it all.

The scam is over. So is the Free Syrian Army.

The End of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syrian Scam | FrontPage Magazine.