Running an international terrorist organization from a hiding place somewhere in Pakistan isn’t easy. Even though war, be it in Somalia, Yemen or Libya, presents great opportunities for expansion, growth brings unique challenges, as any CEO can attest. Nowhere has that been made clearer for al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri than Syria. For the past year, al-Qaeda’s star franchises in Syria and Iraq — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria [ISIS], respectively — have battled over turf, recruits and the right to claim the mantle of al-Qaeda’s true representative in Syria.
Strongly worded letters written by Zawahiri didn’t work. An audio recording posted to jihadist websites didn’t defuse tensions either. Finally, Zawahiri decided to send an envoy to sort out the problem. Not only was Abu Khalid al-Suri a trusted confidant who had fought with Zawahiri in Afghanistan, he once worked for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden as a courier in Spain, according to Thomas Joscelyn, a counter-terror analyst and editor at the Long War Journal. Al-Suri’s mission was to resolve the crisis, stop the infighting and steer both organizations back towards defeating the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, so al-Qaeda could achieve the overarching goal of establishing its first foothold in the heart of the Middle East.
On Sunday, al-Suri was killed, victim of an apparent ISIS suicide bomb attack that is likely to reverberate among rebel groups for months to come. While the death of one of al-Qaeda’s top operatives may be cause for celebration in most quarters, it could be a harbinger of even more death and destruction, as rival rebel groups square off against each-other in a new cycle of revenge killings that will do little to bring an end to a conflict that has already lasted three years and taken more than 130,000 lives.
Al-Suri never did accomplish his mission, says Joscelyn, who has covered Suri’s role in Syria extensively. “Those reconciliation efforts failed and al-Qaeda sided with Suri and al-Nusra, disowning ISIS in the process.” Which may explain why ISIS was so determined to go after one of Zawahiri’s top lieutenants. What happens next, however, is unclear. The Syrian-born al-Suri had another role in helping lead one of the most effective fighting groups in Syria today, the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. Officially, Ahrar al-Sham has no affiliation with al-Qaeda, but Zawahiri was able to influence the rebel group’s actions through al-Suri. It was a savvy management move that gave al-Qaeda flexibility on the Syrian front. But not all is lost for Zawahiri, or his organization, says Joscelyn. “Al-Suri wasn’t the only one. Al-Qaeda has other loyal senior operatives in Syria. So al-Qaeda’s efforts are far from over.”