Abstract: This article profiles Sanafi al-Nasr, a Saudi currently active with the Khorasan Group in Syria, whose ideological and personal animus toward the United States may influence the degree to which al-Qa`ida elements plot international terrorism from Syrian soil. He became active in al-Qa`ida’s Saudi chapter in the early 2000s and established himself as a prolific online writer. In 2007, he joined al-Qa`ida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran triangle where he learned from some of its top leaders and contributed to its media efforts and strategies. In April 2013, al-Nasr moved to Syria where he teamed up with Jabhat al-Nusra and emerged as a senior figure in the group.

Abd al-Muhsin `Abdallah Ibrahim al-Sharikh is a leading Saudi figure in the so-called Khorasan Group best known by his online moniker “Sanafi al-Nasr,” who has emerged as an important power broker and a strategic thinker in al-Qa`ida circles in Syria.[a] His growing influence is of significant concern because his writings reflect a deep-seated animus toward the United States that has both ideological and personal components. In the years after 9/11 one of his brothers was killed and two of his brothers were imprisoned by the United States. Even though al-Nasr has surfaced in media reports over the past year, this is the first comprehensive account of his jihadi trajectory.[1] The stage is set for al-Nasr to play an even more prominent role in the Khorasan Group. On July 21, 2015, the Pentagon announced the July 8 death of Mohsin al-Fadhli, the alleged leader of the group in an airstrike in northwest Syria.[2] A veteran Kuwaiti jihadi with ties to Usama bin Ladin, al-Fadhli had gone to Syria in 2013 after helping run an al-Qa`ida facilitation network in Iran in collaboration with al-Nasr.[3] If confirmed, al-Fadhli’s killing would be the latest in a series of losses for Syria-based al-Qa`ida elements previously located in the Khorasan region (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran). However, a number of these operatives remain active inside Syria and are worth scrutinizing because of the potential threat they pose to the security of Western countries. In Syria, some al-Qa`ida delegates have high-ranking positions in Jabhat al-Nusra, testifying to the close relationship between the two groups. Even though Jabhat al-Nusra claims it has been ordered by al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri not to mount external operations,[4] the number of foreign recruits available to al-Qa`ida in Syria, the group’s longstanding focus on the West, and intelligence suggesting that the Khorasan Group has engaged in plotting international terrorism,[5] make it vital to understand the Khorasan Group’s leaders and their profile, agenda, and priorities.

Jihadi Family
Al-Nasr was born in the Saudi town of al-Shaqra in Riyadh province on July 12, 1985,[6] into a family with longstanding ties to the Arab-Afghan milieu in general and al-Qa`ida in particular. His father fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later encouraged his sons to engage in militancy,[7] as did the father’s now-deceased spouse.[b] Such activity earned the al-Sharikh the reputation for being a “mujahideen family” in a document found in 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s hideout in March 2003.[8]

Raised in their parents’ house in Riyadh’s al-Shifa district, the seven al-Sharikh brothers lived in what a family acquaintance called “martyrs street.”[c] One of the elder brothers—`Abd al-Latif—paved the way for several of the others to join jihadi groups. He trained at Khalden camp in Afghanistan before fighting with the Saudi jihadi Ibn al-Khattab in Chechnya, where he was killed in 2000.[9] His jihadi connections appear to have assisted his younger brothers’ militant trajectory. In 2000, three of them (`Abd al-Rahman, `Abd al-Hadi, and `Abd al-Razzaq) used connections in their deceased brother’s social network to migrate to Afghanistan.[10] In Kandahar, the al-Qa`ida leadership groomed `Abd al-Hadi and `Abd al-Razzaq[d] to help with the organization’s work in the Arabian Peninsula.[11]

These plans were cut short when they were captured after the fall of the Taliban and sent to Guantanamo.[e] `Abd al-Rahman, for his part, died in a U.S. airstrike while defending the Kandahar airport in late 2001.[12]

Early Militant Activities
Al-Nasr, the youngest of the brothers, stayed behind in Saudi Arabia and was likely inspired by his elder brothers. He began his jihadi career with al-Qa`ida’s Saudi branch,[f] having developed ties to its membership, including its higher echelons. When asked about the branch’s late leader Yusuf al-Uyayri and others, al-Nasr once said: “All of them [were] my companions.”[13] Although not a senior operative, he provided logistics and financial assistance.[14] For instance, he helped shelter `Abdallah al-Rashud, a top ideologue in the Saudi offshoot.[g] Al-Nasr also reportedly plotted attacks inside the kingdom with his friend Salih al-Qa`rawi, who later became a field commander with the Levant-based Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) before his arrest in 2012.[15]

During this period, the young Saudi jihadi also started to earn a reputation as a writer. He participated in Sahwist-affiliated [h] and later in popular jihadi internet networks [i] such as al-Hisba, where he posted numerous pictures and brief biographies about many jihadis.[16] An ardent supporter of al-Qa`ida in Mesopotamia and its later incarnations, al-Nasr summarized the content of their video materials[17] while scolding their detractors, including the Turkish administrator of a militant forum.[18] In May 2006, he issued a vitriolic warning about the Shi`a and their supposed entrenched “enmity [toward] Sunnis” and their expansionist plans, with a focus on Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.[19]

Core Al-Qa`ida
In 2007, al-Nasr followed in his brothers’ footsteps and moved to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He left with Muhammad al-Mutlaq, a renowned writer in the digital jihadi sphere[j] better known as Qahir al-Salib. The pair flew to Bahrain on April 8, 2007,[k] and were smuggled into Iran’s Kish Island by Muhammad Ja`far Iqbal,[l] a Bahraini jihadi veteran. Before setting off for Pakistan, al-Nasr met the Egyptian senior al-Qa`ida operative Sayf al-`Adl in Zahedan.[20]

On arriving in Pakistan’s tribal areas, al-Nasr befriended a diverse array of muhajiroun (émigrés), although his inner circle seems to have largely comprised fellow Saudis. Among them was Abu Bashir al-Najdi, born `Abdallah al-Qahtani, an al-Qa`ida official killed in North Waziristan in November 2009.[21] Another close acolyte was `Abdallah `Azzam al-`Azdi (real name Mu`jab al-Zahrani), an al-Faruq camp alumnus who served as a senior leader responsible for new volunteers in Waziristan before his November 2008 death in Bannu, Pakistan.[22] Al-Nasr also reconnected with old acquaintances, such as Ikrima al-Najdi, whom he knew from Saudi Arabia.

Al-Nasr received mentoring from a number of prominent al-Qa`ida leaders. According to his friend Bilal al-Khorasani, who is currently in Syria, the Saudi jihadi was “brought up at the hands of Abu Yahya and `Atiyyatullah,” [n] two Libyan ideologues then in al-Qa`ida’s leadership. Al-Nasr himself acknowledged `Atiyyatullah’s influence by contending that the Libyan had left an indelible mark on him.[23] Further, al-Nasr learned from, among others, Abu al-Miqdaq al-Misri, a late member of al-Qa`ida’s Shura council; Abu al-Layth al-Libi, a now-deceased top leader; and Khalid al-Husaynan, a slain Kuwaiti theologian.

This lengthy association with senior al-Qa`ida leaders helped al-Nasr to gradually ascend through the group. The Saudi émigré served as a mulazim (lieutenant) for Abu Yahya al-Libi and, in Bilal al-Khorasani’s words, their close relation led the one “who worked with [al-Nasr to be] touched by a scent of Abu Yahya in him.”[24] His brother-in-arms further praised him as “a noble, shy, and well-behaved man” who, despite his seniority, “hated to be called emir.”[25]

There is little documentation of al-Nasr’s engagement in al-Qa`ida’s military efforts. He is said to have featured in an al-Sahab production showing rocket attacks in Paktika, a province in southeastern Afghanistan.[26] Al-Nasr also provided a vivid account of a multi-pronged attack he had been charged with filming in 2007.[27] This supports other sources in which he was characterized as one of the “media men of Qa`idat al-Jihad in Khorasan” by a fellow member of the organization.[n] Al-Nasr’s only other appearance in al-Qa`ida’s official media was his later article for the group’s magazine Tala`i’ Khorasan in which he addressed the issue of Saudi women in custody.[28]

Most of his output was featured on jihadi forums such as al-Hisba and al-Fallujah, two of the most preeminent online platforms at the time. Al-Nasr acted as an on-the-ground “reporter” for his online audience, feeding it with news on the latest arrivals or battles in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.[o] Also, he penned a number of eulogies retracing the life and death of recently slain Arab militants, including mid-level al-Qa`ida commanders such as Abu Tayyib al-Sharqi.[p] Finally, the Saudi jihadi provided forums with audiovisual materials from the region, such as recordings of foreign fighters singing anashid (hymns).[29]

Between Iran and Pakistan
In late 2008 or early 2009,[q] al-Nasr was dispatched to Iran, where according to the United Nations “he was appointed the Iran-based representative of al-Qa`ida to replace Yasin al-Suri, an al-Qa`ida operative who had been jailed by the Iranian authorities. From Tehran, he managed a facilitation network that transferred finances and fighters to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”[r]

The al-Sakina website reported that frictions between the group’s leaders and Salih al-Qar`awi, the later AAB field commander, resulted in al-Nasr’s promotion.[s] The article claims that during a June 2008 meeting in Waziristan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the then al-Qa`ida leader in Khorasan, enjoined al-Qar`awi to give bay`a (oath of allegiance) to Usama bin Ladin and that in return he would be handed control over the organization’s Persian Gulf file. He refused and al-Qa`ida instead appointed al-Nasr.

But his tenure was short-lived. Iranian authorities arrested him at some point during 2009 and only released him in May 2011. According to the United Nations, he then moved back to North Waziristan, where he continued to be involved in facilitation activities, and as of 2012, he had taken “charge of the finances of Al-Qaida core.” [t]

Despite taking on an increasingly senior role for al-Qa`ida, al-Nasr continued his written output, frequently publishing on the jihadi media house al-Ansar Mailing Group, which was also used by other al-Qa`ida figures.[30] It issued his 2011 essay “[What is required] Before al-Nafir,” followed by “[What is required] After al-Nafir.”[31] Aimed at providing guidance to would-be volunteers for jihad overseas, his work built on discussions with seasoned militants and his personal readings. He focused on physical preparation, “an essential pillar” of jihad, as well as the importance of listening to and obeying the emir and respecting local supporters of the cause.

Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013, al-Nasr returned to Iran, where he resumed a senior role in al-Qa`ida’s fighter and financing facilitation network. During this time he fostered a working relationship with the future alleged leader of the Khorasan Group. According to the United Nations, during this second spell in Iran he acted as the deputy in the network to Kuwaiti al-Qa`ida veteran Muhsin al-Fadhli.32 [u] In October 2012 the U.S. government stated:

The network uses Iran as a critical transit point and operates under an agreement between al-Qa`ida and the Iranian government. Under the terms of the agreement between al-Qa`ida and Iran, al-Qa`ida must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities. In return, the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al-Qa`ida network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.“[33]

As early as 2012, al-Qa`ida elements began leaving Khorasan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) and moving to Syria. The exodus reflected a process sanctioned by al-Qa`ida’s general command, as those involved were characterized as “the members of the Khorasan delegation sent by Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri.”[34] The group has long been adept at deploying trusted operatives to local subsidiaries to assist and keep them in line with its policies. It was no surprise that al-Zawahiri wanted to replicate this in Syria, especially since his Iraqi affiliate, with its history of brutality, had dispatched members of its own, under the cover of Jabhat al-Nusra.

According to the United Nations, al-Nasr left Iran and relocated to Syria in April 2013.[v] If al-Nasr’s Twitter feed is any indication, the timeline seems accurate. After joining Twitter in early January 2013, he barely mentioned the Syrian conflict and the material he posted related to actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A change occurred from mid-June, with later tweets clearly pointing to his presence in Syria. He began using the platform to reach out to senior Syria-based militant figures, informing his followers of his comrades “martyred” in Syria, and occasionally reporting what he witnessed. [w]

Operating in northern Syria, al-Nasr adopted the new alias Abu Yasir al-Jazrawi.[35] On account of their provenance, he and his associates were commonly referred to as the “brothers/mujahideen from Khorasan” in Syria’s militant circles.[36] They did not constitute a distinct group, but a mere extension of the Pakistan-based mother organization with specific instructions for implementation once in Syria. As al-Nasr related, “the organization Qa`idat al-Jihad asked all those who were sent to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra, except for two people [who were sent] to Ahrar al-Sham.”[37] Abu `Ubayda al-Maqdisi, the security chief who was in charge of dispatching al-Qa`ida members from Khorasan to Syria, even required an oath from operatives that they would team up with Jabhat al-Nusra.[x]

While some al-Qa`ida veterans assumed a public position in Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Nasr’s exact duties in the group remain less clear and seem to have shifted over time. He served in a combat role in and around north-western Idlib and Latakia provinces38 and, due to his years in Khorasan, was apparently appointed as Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir for al-Sahel in Latakia where his experience in mountain warfare was especially valuable. [39] [y] Al-Nasr’s military contribution is further underscored by the severe injuries he suffered from a tank shell during the first day of the al-Anfal battle in Latakia on March 21, 2014.[40]

More importantly for his ascension through the ranks was al-Nasr’s emergence as one of the top strategists for al-Qa`ida in Syria. According to a former al-Qa`ida member, al-Nasr distinguished himself “with strategic acumen and an ideologically driven approach to jihad throughout his career.”[z] Upon al-Nasr’s arrival in Syria, he headed a small al-Qa`ida council originally envisaged by Bin Ladin as offering guidance on “strategic policies and planning.”[aa] Combined with his description as “one of [Jabhat al-Nusra’s] top strategists”[41] by U.S. officials, it seems al-Nasr has been working as a senior advisor, this time with Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir Abu Muhammad al-Julani and his top aides,[bb] especially since his injuries in 2014.[42]

In that regard, al-Nasr, along with other Saudis and Jordanians, is alleged to have played a role in keeping Jabhat al-Nusra in al-Qa`ida’s orbit, even as some senior Jabhat al-Nusra figures pushed for a weaker relationship with the central leadership in Pakistan.[cc] Al-Nasr is also said to have participated in sidelining Jabhat al-Nusra’s former top religious official, Abu Mariyya al-Qahtani, who was dismissed in favor of the Jordanian Sami al-`Uraydi in the summer of 2014.[43] Conversely, al-Nasr apparently helped bolster the theological and judicial clout of the Jordanians Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi over Jabhat al-Nusra’s Legal Committee.[dd] Both of these men had influenced him since his youth. Al-Nasr also reportedly contributed to the deepening of the Syrian affiliate’s reach in the Levantine militant environment by helping it develop its “operational relationship” [ee] with the AAB.

It is unclear if al-Nasr had any operational role in the alleged plotting of international attacks by the Khorasan Group. Nevertheless, in the case of an overseas attack in the making, it is most likely that he was, at the very least, made aware of the preparations owing to his close working relationship with al-Fadhli, who headed external operations for al-Qa`ida Central in Syria.[44]

In any event, al-Nasr’s writings clearly showed that the Saudi had considerable motivation to target the West, especially the United States. Indeed, upon arriving in the Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran region in 2007, al-Nasr recounted that what had captured his attention was the fate of jihadis in U.S. custody, citing the cases of “Shaykh `Umar `Abd al-Rahman (aka the blind sheikh) and our prisoners in Guantanamo.” He then added that “we will take revenge for our brothers with all our strength” by striking the “Americans who hurt my brothers in Cuba” and their “Pakistani agents.”[45] Besides his long involvement in al-Qa`ida, al-Nasr’s grievances were also certainly cemented by the imprisonment and killing of his own brothers by the United States. Furthermore, according to the U.S. government he “used social media posts [in Syria] to demonstrate his aspiration to target Americans and U.S. interests.”[46] His desire to orchestrate attacks against the West may, for the time being, have been tempered by al-Zawahiri’s call for Jabhat al-Nusra not to use Syria as a base for international operations. His track record as a loyalist to al Qa`ida’s top command and his emphasis in his writings on obeying the emir suggests he is likely to abide by these orders.

A Harsh Critic of the Islamic State
The period during which al-Nasr and many of his comrades migrated to Syria corresponded with the growing rift between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Indeed, as al-Qa`ida’s emissaries entrusted with securing its interests in Syria, a number of them[ff] served as mediators in the then nascent fitna (sedition) that created the Islamic State, though there is no hard evidence that this was part of al-Nasr’s portfolio.[gg]

Despite several reconciliation attempts throughout 2013,[hh] the rift only intensified. 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.”[47]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.[48] 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.[ii] 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.” [jj]

Further asserting his anti-Islamic State sentiment, al-Nasr signed the joint statement “About al-Baghdadi’s group” issued on July 18, 2015.[49] The Saudi jihadi, alongside other prominent foreign militant figures, admonished al-Baghdadi’s forces for having “increased their crimes.” This was the first time that al-Nasr’s name featured on a public communiqué as one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s top representatives. Al-Nasr was last heard of on August 24, 2015, when he eulogized Idris al-Balushi—Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s nephew, who he evidently knew—on a Twitter account he had apparently newly created.[50]

Al-Nasr’s trajectory from the Saudi wing of al-Qa`ida to al-Qa`ida in Khorasan epitomizes 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. 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.

Kévin Jackson is a contributor at the Jihadica academic blog, runs the All Eyes on Jihadism blog, and is completing a degree in Middle East Studies at Sciences Po. You can follow him

Substantive Notes

[a] Al-Nasr is on Saudi Arabia’s February 2009 most-wanted list and the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. Treasury Department both added him to the list of al-Qa`ida figures on the sanctions list in August 2014. See “Tafasil fi Qa`ima al-85 al-Mulahaqin Amniyyan,” `Ukadh, February 5, 2009. I am grateful to the blogger known as Mr. Orange for his help in translating Arabic texts; “United Nations Security Council Adds Names of Six Individuals to Al-Qaida Sanctions List,” United Nations, August 15, 2014; “Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014.

[b] An internal al-Qa`ida document states that “after [`Abd al-Razzaq’s] brother [`Abd al-Latif] died in Chechnya, his mother sent him, along with two brothers, to jihad.” See `Abd al-Razzaq’s profile in “The Guantanamo Docket.” New York Times (updated June 2015).

[c] It was named as such given that, besides `Abd al-Latif, another Saudi living close by nicknamed Abu `Abdallah al-Shabani was killed in Bosnia. See Hamad al-Qatari, “Min Qisas al-Shuhada’ al-`Arab, `Ibad al-Najdi.” Available at http://www.saaid.net/Doat/hamad/48.htm. (shari’ al-shuhada’).

[d] While Sanafi al-Nasr has explicitly mentioned `Abd al-Latif and `Abd al-Rahman as his brothers, he did not do so concerning `Abd al-Razzaq (born in al-Shaqra, like al-Nasr) and `Abd al-Hadi. Nonetheless, it is evident that these two are also al-Nasr’s brothers. Not only do they share the same family name, but the two also stated that `Abd al-Latif and `Abd al-Rahman were their brothers. See, for instance, `Abd al-Razzaq’s profile in “The Guantanamo Docket.” New York Times (updated June 2015). Bilal al-Khurasani, a personal friend of al-Nasr, though not naming `Abd al-Razzaq or `Abd al-Hadi, confirmed that two of al-Nasr’s brothers had been imprisoned in Guantanamo. See Bilal al-Khurasani, “Wa madhi Kawkab min Kawakib Khurasan—al-Amir al-Nabil Sanafi al-Nasr Rahimahullah,” March 26, 2014. On the connections between the brothers also see Thomas Jocelyn, “Treasury designates 2 ‘key’ al Qaeda financiers,” The Long War Journal, August 22, 2014.

[e] After being transferred to their home country on September 5, 2007, the two brothers were later rearrested on terrorism suspicions. See “Former Guantanamo Detainee Terrorism Trends,” Defense Intelligence Agency, April 8, 2009.

[f]  This branch was the first incarnation of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and was mainly active in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006. After several setbacks in the kingdom, the group announced its “reactivation” in January 2009, with the merger between its Saudi and Yemeni components. For an exhaustive account of AQAP’s first incarnation, see Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[g] Al-Nasr hid al-Rashud while the latter was “snubbed by many of those that he had considered to be among his closest friends.” See Bilal al-Khurasani, “Wa madhi Kawkab min Kawakib Khurasan—al-Amir al-Nabil Sanafi al-Nasr Rahimahullah,” March 26, 2014. Al-Rashud eventually managed to flee to Iraq, where he was killed in 2005.

[h] The Sahwists were reformist Islamists who led the non-violent opposition against the Saudi regime in the first half of the 1990s.

[i] Al-Nasr’s early online involvement was recounted to this author by Aimen Dean. The Saudi Islamist-run forums al-Nasr was active on were al-Islah, owned by the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, and al-Masrah, created by Kassab al-`Utaybi, a Saudi dissident. These were the two online platforms where Dean would come to know and interact with al-Nasr from 2000 onward.

[j] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Hal Ta`rifun Sanafi al-Nasr, Innahu fi Sahat al-Wagha,” Ana Muslim, May 5, 2007. Al-Mutlaq was likely killed in a U.S. drone strike that targeted a compound in North Waziristan on January 29, 2010. To read more on his background, see “2 More Web Jihadists Announced Dead,” Jarret Brachman blog, February 1, 2010.

[k] Before leaving, al-Nasr returned to his home to see his parents and bid them farewell.

[l] Also known as Abu al-Harith, Iqbal went to Afghanistan in 1991 and 1992 before turning his attention to the Bosnian jihad in the mid-1990s. He enjoyed close relations with Libyan jihadis, especially in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

[m] Bilal al-Khurasani, “Wa madhi Kawkab min Kawakib Khurasan—al-Amir al-Nabil Sanafi al-Nasr Rahimahullah,” March 26, 2014. For more on `Atiyyatullah al-Libi and his ideological views, see Christopher Anzalone, “Revisiting Shaykh Atiyyatullah’s Works on Takfir and Mass Violence,” CTC Sentinel 5:4, (2012). He was also known by the alias Abu `Abd al-Rahman. His real name is Jamal Ibrahim Ishtiwi al-Misrati. He was born in 1970 in Misrata, Libya, traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s and was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on August 22, 2011. See Don Rassler et al, “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, May 3, 2012, p. 5.

[n] This was said on the Twitter account @Kmohajer63, which has since been shut down. Aimen Dean was also adamant that al-Nasr was an “al-Qa`ida Central media guy.”

[o] For instance, al-Nasr announced the arrival of a forum administrator to Khorasan in late June 2008. See “Report: The brother asdasd99, one of the supervisors of the Al-Firdaws web forum, has joined his mujahideen brothers in Afghanistan,” NEFA Foundation, June 29, 2008. To read a battle report written by al-Nasr, see Sanafi al-Nasr, “Tafasil Saytarat Taliban Bakistan `ala al-Ta`irat al-Thalath kama Yarwiha Sanafi al-Nasr,” Hanayn Forum, June 18, 2008.

[p] His real name is Talayhan al-Mutayri. Abu Tayyib al-Sharqi joined al-Qa`ida in the late 1990s. After three years in custody in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of 9/11, he moved to the Afghan-Pakistan border region and reconnected with his group. He led a major assault against a U.S. military base in Khost in August 2008 before being killed in an airstrike shortly after. To read his eulogy, see Sanafi al-Nasr, “Silsilat `Am al-Huzn 1429h—Abu al-Tayyib al-Sharqi Rahimahullah,” Ana Muslim, March 28, 2009.

[q] It is not clear exactly when al-Nasr traveled. This estimate is based on the author’s analysis of al-Nasr’s statements.

[r] “United Nations Security Council Adds Names of Six Individuals to Al-Qaida Sanctions List,” United Nations, August 15, 2014. According to the U.S. Treasury, Yasin al-Suri has been active in al-Qa`ida’s facilitation networks in Iran since 2005 and later became the head of its activities in the country. He was also involved in moving the group’s elements from Khorasan into Syria. “Treasury Targets Key Al-Qa’ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran as a Critical Transit Point, U.S Department of the Treasury Press Release,” July 28, 2011. For more details on al-Suri’s most recent activities, see Thomas Jocelyn, “Report: Senior al Qaeda Facilitator ‘Back on the Street’ in Iran,” The Long War Journal, January 31, 2014.

[s] See “Asbab Ghadhab al-Qa`ida `ala al-Qar`awi wa `Azluhu min Mansibihi,” al-Sakina, February 22, 2015. Although it does not mention al-Nasr, an insider account substantiates the article’s information about al-Qa`ida’s strained relationship with al-Qa`rawi. In it, al-Qa`rawi is decried as a rogue element whose “reckless behavior” caused major troubles in the Khorasan-based militant community, which prompted al-Qa`ida’s leaders, including Abu al-Yazid, to attempt to “contain him.” See `Abd al-Hamid al-Iraqi, “Allahu Akbar—bi Idhnillah—Tahrir Bayt al-Maqdis ala yad al-Qa`ida (ma`a Dalil),” Post 13, Ana Muslim, July 17, 2010.

[t] “United Nations Security Council Adds Names of Six Individuals to Al-Qaida Sanctions List,” United Nations, August 15, 2014. In the same vein, the U.S. Treasury says that al-Nasr functioned “as a key financial facilitator in Pakistan” for the organization.

[u] It should be noted that al-Nasr hinted at his close relationship with al-Fadhli by lauding him as his “companion” when rumors surfaced that the Kuwaiti had been killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria in September 2014.

[v] The United States is less exact, identifying only the spring of 2013. Interestingly, there was a time lapse between early February 2013 and early April 2013 during which al-Nasr went dark on Twitter.

[w] Author monitoring of the @Snafialnasr Twitter account. The account contains many personal recollections in the first person indicating it is authored by al-Nasr, not a supporter.

[x] This was claimed by a Jordanian who defected from al-Qa`ida to the Islamic State and became a vocal opponent of his former group. See Abu Jarir al-Shamali, “Al-Qaidah of Waziristan,” Dabiq, Issue 6, December 29, 2014, p. 51.

[y] Al-Nasr is said to have been working with `Abd al-Rahman al-Juhani, a top leader of al-Qa`ida who arrived in Syria from Pakistan in 2012, in his duties in Latakia. See “United Nations Security Council Adds Names of Six Individuals to Al-Qaida Sanctions List.”

[z] Interview with Aimen Dean, July 28, 2015. Based on his online conversations with al-Nasr, Dean saw him as being from “la crème de la crème” of jihadis, those who, as opposed to the “romantic” or “bloodthirsty” types, are “ideologically, politically, and strategically driven.”

[aa] In late 2009 or early 2010, Bin Ladin addressed a letter to Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in which he brought up the need for “one or two brothers to specialize in the area of strategic policies and planning,” adding that “this person might give us lucid ideas during the events the nation will go through since this is his field of study.” U.S. intelligence sources told Thomas Jocelyn that this very restricted body eventually grew and became known as the “Shura al-Nasr.” (Victory Council), with al-Nasr running it. I am indebted to Thomas Jocelyn for having shared his insights into the origins and development of the council.

[bb] On a broader level, the role played by al-Qa`ida’s representatives in orienting Jabhat al-Nusra is echoed in primary sources. For example, an insider account refers to an unnamed “delegate of Ayman al-Zawahiri” as one of “Jabhat al-Nusra’s advisors and leaders” keen to push forward reform in the group. See “Interview with Abu Samir al-Urduni,” Dabiq, Issue 10, July 14, 2015, p. 76.

[cc] Interview with Aimen Dean, July 28, 2015. Charles Lister agrees that a cluster of Jordanians, Saudis, and some Kuwaitis lobbied for keeping Jabhat al-Nusra under al-Qa`ida’s umbrella. To read more about Jabhat al-Nusra’s internal divisions, see Charles Lister, “An Internal Struggle: Al Qaeda’s Syrian Affiliate Is Grappling With Its Identity,” Huffington Post, May 31, 2015.

[dd] Interview with Aimen Dean, July 28, 2015. During their discussions on Islamist forums, al-Nasr told Dean that the two most influential scholars he had come across were al-Filistini and al-Maqdisi, whose book al-Kawashif al-Jalliyya fi Kufr al-Dawla al-Sa’udiyya considerably influenced his views on the Saudi monarchy. Also, al-Nasr participated in online debates involving al-Filistini and the Syrian militant cleric Abu Basir al-Tartusi. Al-Nasr’s role in specifically strengthening al-Filistini’s standing in Jabhat al-Nusra led one member of Ahrar al-Sham to dismissively refer to the Saudi government as “nothing but a stooge of Abu Qatada.”

[ee] Interview with Charles Lister, July 29, 2014. According to Lister, besides al-Qar`awi, al-Nasr also knew Majid al-Majid, the late emir of the AAB, and “had relationships into Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.” These contacts proved useful in fostering the Jabhat al-Nusra-AAB nexus. Lister added that the Lebanese-founded group “Jund al-Sham in Homs along the Lebanese border may have helped with several covert crossings to Tripoli in this regard.”

[ff] Although he had the main authority in solving these internal disputes as per al-Zawahiri’s orders, Abu Khalid al-Suri was not the only one involved. For example, the biography of Abu Firas al-Suri, a jihadi veteran now part of Jabhat al-Nusra’s senior leadership, specifies that he “returned to Syria from Yemen in 2013 when the conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State took place and he desperately tried along with Shaykh Abu Khalid al-Suri to address the issues.” See Abu Firas al-Suri, “Silsalah al-Shahada: Chain of Testimonies,” al-Basira Media Productions, March 21, 2014.

[gg] Both Aimen Dean and Charles Lister raised doubts about al-Nasr’s possible involvement in the mediation. Dean holds that al-Qa`ida favors “grey beards,” (meaning historically authoritative figures with long experience in jihad) for such a sensitive mission.

[hh] According to Abu `Abdallah al-Shami, a top Jabhat al-Nusra religious official, one of the proposed solutions was to send two figures, one from Jabhat al-Nusra and one from the Islamic State, to al-Zawahiri so that he could choose the most suitable candidate to lead both groups in Syria. See Abu `Abdallah al-Shami, “But If They Had Done What They Were (Actually) Told, It Would Have Been Best For Them,” al-Tahaya Media Foundation, March 30, 2014.

[ii] This had been reported by Adam Gadahn, a key figure in al-Sahab until his death, who declared that “numerous reports from reliable sources—including some sent to Syria especially for the purpose of evaluating the situation on the ground—confirmed the accuracy of many of the accusations leveled against Islamic State.” See “Resurgence,” al-Sahab, Issue 2, June 25, 2015, p. 54.

[jj] See https://twitter.com/Snafialnasr/statuses/437596608906407936. Al-Nasr further revealed what al-Suri had told him shortly before his assassination, from a meeting with Bin Ladin in Afghanistan in the 9/11 aftermath to the death threats he received from ISIS in Syria.


[1] For the most thorough article on al-Nasr to date see Thomas Jocelyn, “Head of al Qaeda ‘Victory Committee’ in Syria,” The Long War Journal, March 6, 2014.

[2] Barbara Starr, “U.S. Official: Leader of Khorasan Group Dead,” CNN, July 21, 2015.

[3] For more details on al-Fadhli, see Thomas Jocelyn, “Report: Former Head of al Qaeda’s Network in Iran now Operates in Syria,” The Long War Journal, March 25, 2014.

[4] “Translation: Interview with Abu Muhammad al-Joulani on Al Jazeera (Part 1),” al-Minara, June 1, 2015.

[5] To read more about U.S. allegations regarding plots against the West hatched by the Syria-based al-Qa`ida cadre, see Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Feared Al Qaeda Group Targeted in Syria Was Plotting Terror,” Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.

[6] “Tafasil fi Qa`ima al-85 al-Mulahaqin Amniyyan,” `Ukadh, February 5, 2009; “Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida, United States Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014.

[7] Bilal al-Khurasani, “Wa madhi Kawkab min Kawakib Khurasan—al-Amir al-Nabil Sanafi al-Nasr Rahimahullah,” March 26, 2014, available at http://justpaste.it/snafi. For details on how the al-Sharikh patriarch directly encouraged his sons to take up the cause, see `Abd al-Hadi al-Sharikh’s profile on “The Guantanamo Docket,” New York Times (updated June 2015).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] `Abd al-Hadi al-Sharikh’s profile on “The Guantanamo Docket,” New York Times (updated June 2015).

[11] `Abd al-Hadi al-Sharikh’s profile on “The Guantanamo Docket,” New York Times (updated June 2015). The mission they were assigned to was to attack a U.S. airbase in Saudi Arabia.

[12] “Shuhada’ al-Islam alladhina Jahadu wa Nadhalu wa Nalu Sharaf al-Shahada wa al-Mawt fi Sabil Allah,” Ahla Shalahu, February 18, 2011.

[13] Bilal al-Khurasani, “Wa madhi Kawkab min Kawakib Khurasan—al-Amir al-Nabil Sanafi al-Nasr Rahimahullah,” March 26, 2014. The relationship between al-Nasr and al-Uyayri was confirmed to this author by Aimen Dean, a former member of al-Qa`ida.

[14] “`Abd al-Muhsin al-Sharikh, al-Sira al-Dhatiyya `an `Abd al-Muhsin al-Sharikh, Man Huwa Sanafi al-Nasr,” Nahr al-Hub, August 24, 2014.

[15] “`Abd al-Muhsin al-Sharikh, al-Sira al-Dhatiyya `an `Abd al-Muhsin al-Sharikh, Man Huwa Sanafi al-Nasr,” Nahr al-Hub, August 24, 2014. For more on the cooperation between Jabhat al-Nusra and AAB see Charles Lister, “Al-Qa`ida Plays a Long Game in Syria” in this issue, p. 13.

[16] “Shuhada’ al-Islam alladhina Jahadu wa Nadhalu wa Nalu Sharaf al-Shahada wa al-Mawt fi Sabil Allah,” Ahla Shalahu, February 18, 2011.

[17] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Taqrir `an Film Qawafil al-Shuhada’ fi Bilad al-Rafidayn,” Ana Muslim, March 2, 2007.

[18] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Maghalitat fi Bayan ‘Mish`an al-Juburi’ al-Mushrif al-`Am `ala Mawqi’ al-Mukhtasar,” Ana Muslim, February 26, 2007.

[19] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Al-Rayy al-`Am li-al-Rafidha Yu`id Fasl al-Mintaqa al-Sharqiyya bi-al-Quwwa,” Ana Muslim, May 16, 2006.

[20] Interview with Aimen Dean, July 28, 2015.

[21] “Istishhad al-Shaykh `Abdallah al-Qahtani—Abu Bashir al-Najdi—Ahad al-Matlubin,” Ana Muslim, November 13, 2009.

[22] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Wa rahala Hafid Abu Hurayra al-Qiyadi al-Bariz `Abdallah `Azzam al-`Azdi Rahimahullah,” Ana Muslim, February 8, 2009.

[23] This was mentioned on al-Nasr’s former Twitter profile.

[24] See Bilal al-Khurasani, “Wa madhi Kawkab min Kawakib Khurasan—al-Amir al-Nabil Sanafi al-Nasr Rahimahullah,” posted on Justpaste and disseminated by pro al-Qa`ida Twitter accounts, March 26, 2014.

[25] Ibid.

[26] See “Sharpshooters of Paktitka,” al-Sahab, March 3, 2012. A comrade of al-Nasr made this claim on his now defunct account @ali_gt959.

[27] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Ibrat Madhi al-Tariq!,” Ana Muslim, December 13, 2007.

[28] “Hal Sayafaji’na al-i’alam al-Sa`udi bi-Quwa`im al-Matlubat,” Tala`i’ Khurasan, Issue 19, September 11, 2011.

[29] “Khasrian…Jalasat Anashadiyya al-Ikhwanuna al-Mujahidin fi Afghanistan Muhadat Min al-Akh Sanafi al-Nasr li-Ghurfat al-Ansar,” originally published on a jihadi forum, March 26, 2009. Accessed through archive.org. Al-Nasr also shared a video paying tribute to a cluster of foreign militants killed in Zabul, Afghanistan. The video was narrated by Abu Damdam al-Qurayshi (Khalid al-`Utaybi), a Saudi national reported to have facilitated al-Nasr’s departure from Saudi Arabia. See “Ghurfat al-Ansar fi al-Baltuk Tuqaddim: Abrar fi Zaman al-Inkisar,” al-Qimmah Forum, February 28, 2009.

[30] See, for example, Abu `Ubayda al-Maqdisi, “Eulogy for the Lion of ash-Sham: Shaykh Mahmud Mihdi Aal Zaydan (Mansur ash-Shami),” al-Ansar Mailing Group, June 8, 2012.

[31] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Ma Qabl al-Nafir,” Ana Muslim, July 1, 2011; Sanafi al-Nasr, “Ma Ba`d al-Nafir,” Defender of the Lands Arabic, September 30, 2011. The term al-nafir means heading to jihad.

[32] “United Nations Security Council Adds Names of Six Individuals to Al-Qaida Sanctions List” United Nations, August 15, 2014.

[33] “Treasury Further Exposes Iran-Based Al-Qa’ida Network,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 18, 2012.

[34] “Kanz `Adhim li-kul Talib Ilm Mujahid—Silsila Nadira Jiddan lil Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Libi Rahimahullah,” November 15, 2013.

[35] See https://twitter.com/abo11hosam/status/447260012369309697.

[36] See for instance, http://ask.fm/tash3ri/answer/73743073854.

[37] See https://twitter.com/Snafialnasr/statuses/438441163000152064.

[38] Interview with Charles Lister, July 29, 2014.

[39] Interview with Aimen Dean, July 28, 2015.

[40] See Thomas Jocelyn, “Head of al Qaeda’s ‘Victory Committee’ Survived Battle in Syria,” The Long War Journal, April 19, 2014.

[41] “Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014.

[42] One source claims that after his recovery, al-Nasr focused more on “administrative” tasks. See “Asbab Ghadhab al-Qa`ida `ala al-Qar`awi wa `Azluhu min Mansibihi,” al-Sakina, February 22, 2015.

[43] Ibid. Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who is also said to have played a role in Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership shift, categorically denied the allegations.

[44] Interview with Thomas Joscelyn, August 31, 2015.

[45] Sanafi al-Nasr, “Hal Ta`rifun Sanafi al-Nasr, Innahu fi Sahat al-Wagha,” Ana Muslim, May 5, 2007.

[46] “Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014.

[47] See https://twitter.com/Snafialnasr/statuses/366998172230361088.

[48] See https://twitter.com/Snafialnasr/statuses/424671349320069120.

[49] See “Statement of the Muhajireen of Shaam Regarding Baghdadi’s group,” March 18s, 2015.

[50] See https://twitter.com/snafialnasr0. For more details on al-Nasr’s eulogy, see Thomas Joscelyn, “Jihadists Say Nephew of 9/11 Mastermind Killed in Raid by Pakistani Intelligence,” The Long War Journal, August 26, 2015.

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