Al Qaeda’s Top Man in Syria Hates Islamic State — and America
The United States killed his brother
It goes without saying that Al Qaeda is a violently anti-American organization, but for Sanafi Al Nasr it’s personal.
Sentinel, the monthly newsletter of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, has a new and comprehensive profile of Al Nasr, the mysterious Saudi militant who rose to a prominent position within the Khorosan group. That group of Al Qaeda leaders relocated to Syria to coordinate with affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra.
The United States captured two of Al Nasr’s older brothers in Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 invasion and imprisoned them at Guantanamo. One of his eldest brothers — he had six in total — died fighting in Chechnya. Another died in a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan. His father fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The article, by terrorism analyst Kevin Jackson, is a revealing look at jihadi radicalization — and makes the often overlooked point that becoming a terrorist depends foremost on who you know.
Jackson is notably concerned with that Al Nasr might plan attacks on the United States in revenge for the death of one of his brothers and the imprisonment of two others.
Al Nasr, sitting at far left in the above photo, also surpassed his siblings and his dad. In his twenties, he rose through the ranks of the Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan branch of Al Qaeda. He operated for a time in Iran, acting as a key middleman arranging recruits and money to flow eastward to Pakistan.
Despite Iran jailing him between 2009 and 2011, he continued operations after being released. His activities in the country were apparently sanctioned by the Iranian government, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
In April 2013, he went to Syria and linked up with Al Nusra, one of the country’s most powerful rebel factions. He became a senior adviser to Nusra chief Abu Muhammad Al Julani. He’s also a prominent propagandist, having honed his writing and propaganda skills in online jihadi forums.
CTC Sentinel described his career as epitomizing “the intertwined nature of the jihadi milieu, where social bonds and family pedigree often prove to be significant in one’s radicalization process and subsequent role.”
Throughout his career, his connections and family background helped him migrate back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — and then to Syria.
Although he is a member of the younger generation that used to acclaim Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi’s jihad in Iraq, the Saudi has remained devoted to al-Qa`ida’s old guard, and established himself as a staunch critic of al-Zarqawi’s heirs in the Levant. In light of his recent feature role as one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s major officials and the demise of many of al-Qa`ida’s longtime figures, al-Nasr appears set to further increase his stature within al-Qa`ida’s global network.
Should the organization change its calculus with regard to launching international attacks from Syria, al-Nasr’s background and mindset would likely see him play a key role in orchestrating terrorist attacks against the West.
Jackson notes Al Nasr’s experience in mountain warfare in Afghanistan was put to good use after he moved to Syria. He’s since become one of Al Qaeda’s “top strategists” in Syria, and is a prominent critic of Islamic State — the rival Sunni jihadi group that now controls nearly half of Iraq.
Although al-Nasr did not specifically point to the Islamic State, he railed against “adolescent jihadism [which manifests in a] disorder of priorities, a rush to set loose rulings, [and] on-the-spot decision-making by temper.” After infighting with the Islamic State broke out in January 2014, al-Nasr grew more outspoken about Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. He noted the discrepancy between what he was told by Islamic State members, namely that “they do not excommunicate Ahrar al-Sham,” and their “calls to send car bombs” against the group. The hostility that the al-Qa`ida envoys reported to the leadership in Pakistan was a driving factor in the organization’s decision to disown its Iraqi affiliate in February 2014. Al-Nasr’s aversion to the Islamic State reached its climax later that month with Abu Khalid al-Suri’s slaying, which the Saudi blamed on the “state of oppression and injustice.”
Islamic State — which has received the overwhelming share of coalition air strikes and international media attention — is extreme even by the standards of other jihadists. But even if Islamic State is defeated, other jihadi groups willing to attack the West will likely remain in control of large parts of the country.