The U.S. announced it was responsible for killing a top al-Qaeda ideologue in Syria recently. The airstrike that targeted Abu Firas al Suri – a so-called legacy member of al-Qaeda who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and worked with Osama bin Laden – also targeted a large gathering of jihadists in Syria. According to the Long War Journal, Al-Suri was a member of al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra dispatched from al-Qaeda's senior leadership around 2012 to help mediate infighting between JN and the Islamic State group, then part of al-Qaeda and known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Despite being an affiliate of al-Qaeda, JN is not considered by the U.S. government, according to open source information, to be a so-called associate force vis-à-vis the organization’s Yemeni affiliate. The "associate force" label enables looser targeting rules against members. As first outlined by then Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson and reiterated last April by then DOD General Counsel Stephen Preston, in order to be considered an associate force, a group must be both “(1) an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside [al-Qaeda], and (2) a co-belligerent with [al-Qaeda] in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”
Rather, the U.S. has only targeted individuals such as al-Suri if they are a dual-hatted member of al-Qaeda’s central leadership as well as a member of the non-associated force affiliate. This counterterrorism framework has been used in Somalia in which the Obama administration has targeted dual-hatted al-Qaeda central/al-Shabaab – the group’s West African affiliate – militants, eschewing exclusive al-Shabaab members. “[N]ot every group that commits terrorist acts is an associated force. Nor is a group an associated force simply because it aligns with [al-Qaeda]. Rather, a group must have also entered [al-Qaeda]'s fight against the United States or its coalition partners,” Preston said in remarks at the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law last year.
Furthermore, Preston provided a list of groups and individuals current legal frameworks authorize the U.S. to take lethal action against; “[al-Qaeda], the Taliban and certain other terrorist or insurgent groups in Afghanistan; [al-Qaeda] in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen; and individuals who are part of [al-Qaeda] in Somalia and Libya. In addition, over the past year, we have conducted military operations under the 2001 AUMF against the [Nusra] Front and, specifically, those members of [al-Qaeda] referred to as the Khorasan Group in Syria. We have also resumed such operations against the group we fought in Iraq when it was known as [al-Qaeda] in Iraq, which is now known as ISIL.”
As Preston alluded to, the U.S. has hit members of the Khorasan Group in Syria, thought to be a small group of elite individuals from al-Qaeda core dispatched to Syria to focus on external operations. Conversely, in interviews JN’s leader has expressed that he has been ordered by al-Qaeda’s chieftain, Ayman al-Zawahiri, not to conduct external operations against the west but to continue the focus on Syria putting JN in the gray area of U.S. targeting policy, if JN maintains this disposition.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook provided scant details following the announcement and claim of responsibility for al-Suri’s death regarding the targeting authorities and policies towards JN in a press briefing this week. “We have always considered [al-Qaeda] leaders to be legitimate targets,” he said responding to a question asking if leaders of JN are legitimate targets. “Of course, Al Nusra has its ties to [al-Qaeda]. And that is something that we've been very upfront about for years. And continues to be an ongoing, active part of our efforts, will be to target [al-Qaeda] leadership... In this particular strike, which is what I'm referring to, we were targeting [al-Qaeda] members.”
“Again, there's -- al-Nusra has been an affiliate of -- of [al-Qaeda], and so to the extent that there's a distinction there, we feel like the targeting of [al-Qaeda] members in -- in Syria in consistent with the targeting of [al-Qaeda] members we've conducted in other parts of the world.“In this instance, we're talking about a historic – [al-Qaeda] members who may be affiliated with al-Nusra. Now, al-Nusra has been an affiliate of [al-Qaeda], so it's in very much -- one in the same. And in this instance, we targeted someone we know as said -- someone who was present who has had a history in higher leadership of [al-Qaeda] dating back to Afghanistan, and -- and -- so we will await to see what the results of that strike were and whether or not he was removed from the battlefield.”
It is also important to point out that according to additional reports, the U.S. strike that killed al-Suri hit other individuals attending the larger gathering from various Syrian insurgent groups with known ties to al-Qaeda. This is not the first time the U.S. has struck members in these groups, though there has not been much, if any, explanation from the U.S. government as to the authorities or policies regarding their efficacy as targets.
The U.S. has gone on the offensive globally in the last few weeks against various al-Qaeda affiliates raising questions about these associate forces policies. The main effort in Syria and Iraq currently – under Operation Inherent Resolve – has focused on the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL. The U.S. has always maintained that it reserves the right to hit what it deems appropriate terrorist targets around the globe, however, the recent strike in Syria, given the circumstances and scope of individuals involved, the policy vis-à-vis JN and related groups in this volatile war region lacks clarity.