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Top Al Qaeda commander relocates to Syria

 

A member of Al Qaeda's senior leadership, Sanafi al Nasr, has relocated to Syria, where he is living openly and publicly courts his followers on twitter, according to counter-terrorism analysts and social media messages.

"This is a guy who fought with Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. He's a spokesman for the Nusra Front. He's connected, if not a planner, for the Al Qaeda core. This demonstrates the integration of Al Qaeda and all its levels,"  Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said.  "And the fact that it's (Al Qaeda leadership) now seeking out Syria as a core area of operations, this explains a lot about, I think, the new direction of Al Qaeda today."

While Nasr is not a household name, his pedigree is well established, according to counter-terrorism analysts, who say he is the third cousin of Usama bin Laden and almost all of his six brothers have fought alongside the Al Qaeda network. At least one of his brothers was held at Guantanamo Bay.

The Saudi, who is on that nation's most wanted list, was first identified by the Long War Journal as relocating to Syria, and as a member of Al Qaeda's so-called Victory Committee, which sets policy and long term strategy for the network. 

"This is a sort of policy planning group for Al Qaeda,"  Schanzer said of the Victory Committee, adding, "These are people who are trying to think about what happens next, how to plan for the future."

Nasr's emergence is seen as another indicator that the network is sending members of its senior or "core" leadership to Syria to build alliances with other radical groups, and thereby extending the brand and reach of the senior leadership, which is traditionally based in Pakistan.

In recent congressional testimony, the head of the national  counter-terrorism center, Matt Olsen, told Congress that Al Qaeda is making a significant play for Syria with its operatives and its cash.

"Syria has become the pre-eminent location for Al Qaeda-aligned groups to recruit and to train, and to equip what is now a growing number of extremists some of whom seek to conduct external attacks,"  Olsen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early March. 

Nasr has coordinated with other senior "core" Al Qaeda members inside Syria, including Abu Khalid al Suri until al Suri's recent death.

"Al Qaeda and terrorist networks in general - international terrorist networks - will go, they'll follow the path of least resistance,  said Fox News military analyst Ralph Peters. "We've seen them moving into Syria in significant numbers. It tells me that they actually feel not only safer there, but that they have more flexibility there than they do in Pakistan."

Nasr's move to Syria, according to some analysts, was by design and it suggests that the traditional view of Al Qaeda, with its leadership based in Pakistan, is at the very least outdated or was wrong to begin with. 

"The idea that we were hearing that Al Qaeda was decimated, or that it was destroyed because Usama bin Laden was killed, or because some of the senior operatives were wrapped up, it was absolutely not true,"  Schanzer said.  "This guy demonstrates the fact that people who've been fighting for affiliate groups, multiple affiliate groups, that can still be a leader on the battlefield in an area that seems to be apparently far-field from the core, and still seems to be working with the core."

Sally Persons contributed to this report

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.