On Aug. 31, a veteran al Qaeda jihadist known as Abu Firas al Suri announced his presence online with new Twitter and Facebook pages. For Abu Firas, a man who long operated behind the scenes, the social media sites are indicative of how much things have changed since he first chose the jihadists’ path in the 1970s. He has gone from being a clandestine operative in al Qaeda’s international network to serving as the spokesperson for the Al Nusrah Front.
In his new role, Abu Firas handles Al Nusrah’s most delicate public affairs. He is, for instance, the Al Nusrah official tasked with explaining why the group has taken more than 40 UN peacekeepers hostage.
Abu Firas’ role as a senior figure in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, was not known until March of this year when he first appeared in a video. Al Nusrah introduced Abu Firas as one of its witnesses against the Islamic State, the former al Qaeda branch that has become Al Nusrah’s powerful rival.
In the months since his first video appearance, Abu Firas has taken on an increasingly prominent role within Al Nusrah. In July, Abu Firas introduced Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, during a major rally of fighters. His voice could be heard on a leaked audio recording of the gathering, during which Julani spoke of establishing an Islamic emirate, or state, in Syria.
The leaked audio threatened to upset Al Nusrah’s close relations with other leading jihadist groups, because it sounded as if the group was going to steal a page from the Islamic State’s playbook and unilaterally declare itself the ultimate authority in parts of Syria. And when Al Nusrah sought to assure its allies that this was not its intent, it turned to Abu Firas. In a video released by Al Nusrah on Aug. 8, Abu Firas said the al Qaeda branch would declare an Islamic emirate in Syria only after consulting with other leading parties. By then, Al Nusrah was openly naming Abu Firas as its official spokesperson.
A post on Abu Firas’ Twitter page on Aug. 31 says that his account is the “official and only account of the al Qaeda spokesperson” in Syria.