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Former head of al Qaeda's network in Iran now operates in Syria

Muhsin al Fadhli, a senior al Qaeda leader who once headed the organization's network in Iran, relocated to Syria in mid-2013, according to a report in The Arab Times on March 21. Citing anonymous sources, the publication reports that al Fadhli has joined the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria. He was apparently sent to the country after a dispute broke out between Al Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS).

Al Fadhli was one of the trusted operatives who reported back to Ayman al Zawahiri on the dispute, according to the Arab Times, and he influenced al Qaeda's decision to eventually disown ISIS.

Today, al Fadhli reportedly recruits European Muslims to join the jihad in Syria and "trains them on how to execute terror operations in the western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes."

The Arab Times account does not identify its sources and parts of it do not ring true. For example, al Fadhli's "four main targets" inside Syria are supposedly Bashar al Assad's forces, the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, and ISIS. However, only two of these targets make sense in the current operational environment. The Al Nusrah Front is closely cooperating with the Islamic Front, which is a coalition of several jihadist and Islamist rebel groups, and also works with the Free Syrian Army.

Still, the story makes sense in the context of other known aspects of al Qaeda's operations.

Al Fadhli became the leader of al Qaeda's network inside Iran after a senior al Qaeda leader known as Yasin al Suri was detained by Iranian authorities. In July 2011, the US Treasury Department identified al Suri as the head of the network, which it said operates under an agreement between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda. Several months later, in December 2011, the State Department announced a reward of $10 million for information leading to al Suri's arrest.

This put pressure on the Iranians to shelve al Suri for a time. In February 2012, press reporting indicated that al Fadhli had replaced al Suri as al Qaeda's chief inside Iran. And in October 2012 the Treasury Department confirmed that al Fadhli had indeed filled in for al Suri.

But earlier this year, the US government announced that al Suri had assumed his leadership role inside Iran once again. In late January, Treasury and State Department officials spoke with Al Jazeera, saying that al Suri was supporting the Al Nusrah Front from Iranian soil despite the fact that Al Nusrah is currently fighting Iran's ally and proxies in Syria. In early February, the Treasury Department officially confirmed that al Suri has "resumed leadership of al Qaeda's Iran-based network after being temporarily detained there in late 2011."

With al Suri back in the game, al Qaeda had the operational freedom to deploy al Fadhli to Syria. Al Qaeda's senior leaders dispatched trusted operatives to Syria once the dispute between Al Nusrah and ISIS became heated. Therefore, al Fadhli's reported presence inside Syria makes sense in the context of al Qaeda's decision to reshuffle its personnel.

The Arab Times report draws from Kuwaiti sources, who have an interest in tracking al Fadhli since he is a native of their country. In 2009, the publication accurately reported that al Fadhli was then living along the Iran-Afghanistan border.

And according to the US government, al Qaeda's Iran-based network relies on Kuwait-based donors and facilitators, who support the Al Nusrah Front and other parts of al Qaeda's operations. This provides even more reasons for Kuwaiti authorities to keep close tabs on al Fadhli's movements.

Connected to high-profile terrorist plots against Western interests

If al Fadhli is indeed inside Syria and training recruits to attack the West, then this is a significant cause for concern among counterterrorism authorities.

Al Fadhli was first designated as a terrorist by the US Treasury Department in 2005. Treasury noted at the time that his dossier was extensive.

Al Fadhli has long been an elite member of al Qaeda. In early September 2001, Treasury explained, he "possibly received forewarning that US interests would be struck." The Sept. 11 operation was compartmentalized and only select members of the network received advance notice.

The Kuwaiti al Qaeda operative has been tied to the Oct. 6, 2002 attack on the French ship MV Limburg and the Oct. 8, 2002 attack against US Marines stationed on Kuwait's Faylaka Island. One Marine was killed during the Faylaka Island shootout. He may have also been involved in the bombing of the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000.

He went on to support Abu Musab al Zarqawi's operations inside Iraq.

An al Qaeda cell responsible for the 2009 plot against Camp Arifjan, a US military installation in Kuwait, had ties to al Fadhli. That cell was broken up by Kuwaiti authorities before it could launch an attack.

And Egyptian officials have alleged that still another plot, targeting the US Embassy in Cairo and other Western interests, involved al Qaeda's Iran-based network. The May 2013 plot was tied to a terrorist known as Dawud al Asadi, who had been in contact with the cell responsible in the months beforehand.

Dawud al Asadi is one of the aliases used by Muhsin al Fadhli, but Egyptian officials have not publicly confirmed al Asadi's real identity. Al Asadi reportedly put members of the cell in contact with Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, a longtime subordinate to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as with other members of Jamal's network.

[Source: By Thomas Joscelyn, The Long War Journal, NJ, 25Mar14]

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