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Top Al-Qaida Operative Killed in U.S. Airstrike in Syria Boasted a Prolific Online Footprint

Laith Alkhouri

While there has been intense media focus on the prominent role of ISIS in stoking the conflict in Syria, the U.S. government has also actively targeted other groups in the Levant with military aircraft and armed drones.  Another principle target identified by the U.S. government is the so-called “Khorasan Group,” a name bestowed by American intelligence analysts on a sub-unit of Jabhat al-Nusra comprised of experienced Al-Qaida veterans who were trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The U.S. believes that the “Khorasan Group” poses a grave threat to national security as it contains upwards of several dozen members who have gained lengthy experience as Al-Qaida operatives.  In a reflection of that training, these individuals have allegedly played active roles in targeting Western interests both inside and far beyond the borders of the Muslim world.

Despite the sensitive nature of their clandestine activities, one of the more unusual aspects of some of those associated with the “Khorasan Group” has been their highly-visible presence on Internet social networking forums run by, or on behalf of, Al-Qaida–as well as on major commercial web platforms like Twitter.  While it may seem remarkably counter-intuitive for a most wanted terrorist suspect to cruise the Internet daily in order to engage in mundane online chats with other jihadists, this is nonetheless exactly what senior members of the “Khorasan Group” have recently done.

Perhaps the best example of this is Saudi Arabian national Abdul-Mohsin al-Sharekh (a.k.a. “Sanafi al-Nasr” a.k.a “Abu Yasser”), once a top fugitive in his own home country whose death in a U.S. airstrike in ad-Dana, Idlib Province, northwest Syria was announced by trusted users on the top Al-Qaida web forum. Messages posted by these users identified the other two “martyrs” as Saudi national Muhannad Al-Otaibi (aka Abdulmalik Al-Jazrawi) and Moroccan national Abu Yasir Al-Maghribi (aka Abu Yasir al-Muhajir).  Two days later, the Pentagon confirmed the death of al-Nasr in a press release, indicating that he had been killed in an October 15 coalition airstrike, adding that al-Nasr “was the highest ranking leader of the network of veteran Al-Qaida operatives…called the Khorasan Group.”  In fact, Sanafi al-Nasr was one of those featured on the 2009 Saudi government’s “85 most-wanted” list.

Despite being publicly pursued by Saudi security services as well as the U.S. government, as early as 2008–while still training with Al-Qaida on the Afghan-Pakistani border–al-Nasr surfaced on Arabic-language online Al-Qaida chat forums to announce the “martyrdom” of several foreign militants in Afghanistan, signing the message: “Sanafi Al-Nasr, Afghanistan.”  Three years later, by 2011, al-Nasr had become an active contributor, issuing regular messages on elite password-protected Al-Qaida web forums.  On September 12, 2011, he posted a screed on one such forum railing against the Saudi government for detaining female jihadists, saying, “a person stands incapable of expression toward what goes on in the holiest regions and its most purest, the land of Haramin [Saudi], as there is no inability after this disability, and no humiliation after this humiliation, as our sisters and women are in the prisons of those who are [considered] our people, while we do not act and our eyelids don’t twitch! It is a disaster that more than 70 free women are led, before everyone, to the prison cells. What the tyrannical rulers are doing is familiar and expected as they have betrayed Bayt Allah Al-Haram [the holy mosque] and they graced those who stepped on the words of Allah…But How could they approve of seeing women being in cells and how did they justify imprisoning an elder women and a [little] girl?”  The message was signed: “Abdul-Mohsin Abdullah Al-Sharekh, Wanted on the 85 List.”

Just two weeks later, al-Nasr followed up with another forum post offering meticulous guidelines for aspiring jihadists on what to expect after they arrive to the land of jihad, based precisely on his own personal experience. He explained, “the path of jihad is a rocky road, and there are body pieces, blood, displacement, sorrows, calamities, tiresomeness, hunger, thirst, and loneliness, but all of that goes away…all of these hardships are removed once you clutch your weapon and march with your brothers to attack the enemy.” Al-Nasr indicated that a jihadi fighter must focus “on military courses in general and should specialize in a particular skill,” adding that a fighter “in the land of jihad is closer to death [than he thinks], and therefore, he must double the benevolent deeds,” and to “listen to and obey” the leaders, including “coping with the prevailing doctrines in the [jihadi] arena where he fights.” He also encouraged jihadists to avoid becoming a “burden on others.”

One of the more interesting pieces of advice that al-Nasr offered on Al-Qaida web forums was for jihadists to pay close attention to cyber security. He noted to other users on the forum, “a lot of information is provided to the enemy on a gold platter through communications and the Internet; one of the reports said that more than 80% of information the enemy gains is from communications and the Internet, so fear Allah and focus on your brothers’ security.”

In 2011, al-Nasr also advised fellow online jihadists to conduct “assassinations” and broadcast “threats” against “[foreign] targets in the Muslim countries,” urging jihadists to plan and study their targets and subsequently “take your weapon and remove his malevolent presence from the Muslims.” He encouraged jihadi sympathizers to provide “logistical support… without the rear lines, there are no front lines.” Moreover, he encouraged jihadists to review “available military memoirs online,” underscoring “Al-Battar Camp” releases, detailed online training manuals that were authored by notorious Saudi Al-Qaida leader Abdulaziz al-Muqrin.

Allegedly, in 2013, Sanafi al-Nasr moved from the battlefields of Afghanistan to Al-Qaida’s new frontline that had opened inside Syria. Despite the onset of U.S. and coalition airstrikes and the violent dispute between Al-Qaida and ISIS, al-Nasr once again jumped on the Internet–this time on Twitter, where he maintained several different accounts. Al-Nasr’s tweets, which began as early as October 2013, demonstrated his abiding support for global jihad, including attacks in the West. In February 2015, al-Nasr tweeted, “It is a mistake that the 9/11 attacks become the standard of unique operations in the Western homelands; each act in the land of the enemy is considered successful, and the success rate is in accordance with choosing the target.”  He declared his personal fondness for former American Al-Qaida leader Adnan al-Shukrijumah, who was reportedly killed while planning terrorist attacks on the United States.

The fugitive Saudi Al-Qaida operative also expressed support on Twitter for the January 2015 terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, indicating, “May Allah have mercy on the Kouachi brothers, and we say to France ‘we have history with you O France.’” In another post, he said, “Despite being late, but I choose to share the Muslims’ joy in the blessed operation in Paris and heroes avenging the Prophet.”

In March 2015, al-Nasr posted a Twitter message marking the anniversary of his being wounded in battle, and acknowledged that he was operating in Idlib Province, where he was ultimately killed in the October 15 coalition airstrike.

The former Al-Qaida leader was last active on Twitter on October 08.

Following his death, jihadists flocked to Al-Qaida web forums to mourn Sanafi Al-Nasr, demonstrating the significant legacy he left behind due to his prolific online activity. One of the administrators on the top Al-Qaida web forum lamented the loss of al-Nasr saying, “the arenas of jihad are impacted with the loss of his likes…the brother Sanafi Al-Nasr was not only a mujahid in the fighting arena, but he also was a mujahid in the jihadi media field.”

This rise to prominence from the cyber-field to the battlefield is nothing new. The most infamous case of such a journey is that of Humam Al-Bilawi (a.k.a. “Abu Dujanah Al-Khorasani”), the administrator of online Al-Qaida forums who ultimately launched the 2009 suicide attack at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven CIA agents. Another notable case of an influential jihadist who maintained a prolific online presence was Al-Qaida in Yemen’s late second-in-command, Sa’eed Al-Shehri, known in Al-Qaida’s web forum as “Abu Asmaa Al-Kubi.”

Al-Nasr is the latest case that exemplifies the nexus between online arenas and war zones. Jihadi groups and operatives understand that maintaining a presence online is imperative in recruitment, communications, and fundraising. The Internet is their gate to the outside world, allowing them to receive updates on various jihadi battlefield developments, as well as enemy plans and locations. Moreover, staying plugged in offers these individuals a platform through which they can preach their ideology and advertise their acclaimed victories.

About the author: Laith Alkhouri

Laith Alkhouri

Laith Alkhouri is co-founder and Director of Advanced Solutions at Flashpoint. A native Arabic speaker and on-air terrorism analyst for NBC News, Mr. Alkhouri supports law enforcement on national security investigations, bringing expertise on Deep & Dark Web networks used by terrorist groups and their supporters. Over the past decade, Mr. Alkhouri has researched thousands of jihadist operations, analyzing terrorist activities with a focus on the use of technology and the Internet. He’s presented to the State Department, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, House of Representatives, Council on Foreign Relations, NYPD, and others. Mr. Alkhouri is frequently cited in global media and holds an MS in International Affairs and a BA in Political Science.