Al Qaeda’s Operational Command Suddenly Lands in Syria
As ISIS terror attacks bounced across Europe – the latest apparently striking London when on Aug 3 a Norwegian of Somali descent stabbed to death an American tourist and injured five others not far from the July 7 transport terror attacks in London 11 years ago – the definitive scene of Islamist action moved clandestinely back to Syria.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources reveal that al-Qaeda, believed by many experts to have declined to a second-rate terror organization which is dormant most of the time, has made a sudden, seismic move: Its entire operational headquarters has just landed in Syria.
It now turns out that Abu Muhammad al Joulani and his Syrian Nusra Front never really went through with a split from al-Qaeda. This announcement and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s exit permit were simply a charade, supported by the reported re-branding of Nusra as a new breakaway organization called Jabhat Fath Al Sham -Conquest of the Levant Front.
The performance was designed to throw sand over the real move which was the relocation to Syria of al-Qaeda’s top operational mastermind Saif al-Adel, whose real name is Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaid, complete with a large group of lieutenants, to take over the leadership of the Nusrah Front.
Where this leaves Joulani is not clear.
Our sources report that the group passed through Iran and Iraq to reach Syria. There is no way they could have traveled this route without arousing the notice of Iran’s ubiquitous intelligence agents. It therefore stands to reason that Tehran was at the very least aware of this momentous transition and may even have been a player in the scheme.
Our counterterrorism sources trace the connections and partnerships between Iranian intelligence and Saif al Adel going back 15 years.
When America invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Al Adel and his men fled to Iran and were given a safe haven at an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps camp in the northern city of Mashhad. Over the years, the IRGC made use of his talents more than once. In one striking episode, when Iran decided in 2003 to unleash a string of terror attacks on the residential quarters of US experts in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, al Adel and his team were pressed into service for the operation.
Saif al Adel, now 56 years old, served in the 1980s as a colonel in Egypt’s special operations forces, specializing in organizing and executing raids for breaking up covert terror cells.
His other expertise is bomb-making.
For years, he got away with serving two masters – the Egyptian army and the underground Egyptian Islamic Jihad, from which many radicalized army officers set out to join al-Qaeda, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as top man.
In 1998, he led the al-Qaeda attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The team that Adel has just brought to Syria includes such notorious terrorists as Khalid Mustafa Khalifa al-Aruri aka Abu al-Qassam, a Jordanian Palestinian born in Ramallah. His wife is a daughter of al-Qaeda’s late chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who led a ferocious campaign against US forces until they liquidated him.
Other team members are an Australian convert to Islam, who calls himself Abu Sulayman al Muhajir;
and two Egyptians believed to be deputies of the top al Qaeda leader, Abdullah Ahmed aka Abu Mohammed al-Masri and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, who is married to one of Osama Bin Laden’s daughters.
What al-Zwahiri’s motives are in relocating his headquarters to Syria is not known. But it is certainly a seismic albeit as yet unfathomed change in the jihadist terrorist movement’s disposition and plans.
It may be that al-Qaeda, which perpetrated the 9/11 atrocity on the US, is planning to open a new terror front against both the West and Moscow and prove no less dangerous than the Islamic State.
In any case, Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will have to take Zawahiri’s move into account in their plans for eliminating the Nusra Front which Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed this week in Moscow.