The Washington Post’s decision to publish an op-ed piece by a representative of the Syrian jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham has raised numerous eyebrows and elicited a number of incredulous responses. The article, by one Labib Al Nahhas, identified as the group’s “head of foreign political relations,” argues that Ahrar al-Sham is a “moderate” Islamist alternative to the extremism of the Islamic State and hence worthy of US support. This description is difficult to reconcile with the group’s known cooperation with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, as well as reported connections to the al-Qaeda core of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But perhaps the most salient and telling point about Ahrar al-Sham from an American perspective has thus far gone largely overlooked: namely, the fact that the jihadist group sought and obtained the liberation from a Syrian prison of none other than Mohammed Haydar Zammar, the al-Qaeda recruiter who assembled the infamous Hamburg cell that would go on to plan and carry out the 9/11 attacks. Ahrar al-Sham obtained the release of Zammar and several other “political prisoners” in September 2013 in exchange for the release of Syrian army officers. For the details, see my March 2014 report at Al-Monitor.
Ironically, one of the many media to pick up on the story after the publication of my Al-Monitor report was none other than the Washington Post. But for the Post’s editors, Ahrar al-Sham’s role in freeing Zammar appears to be no reason to doubt the plausibility of its claim to “moderation.”
John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist and political analyst who writes on EU politics and transatlantic security issues. He is the author of The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook here.