Islamic State facilitator moved recruits through Turkey, US says

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Fared Saal (right) pictured with Denis Cuspert. Image from Die Welt.

In July 2014, a gruesome video showing the corpses of fighters loyal to Bashar al Assad’s regime was released online. The footage was recorded at the Shaer gas field in Homs, where the Islamic State’s jihadists have long battled Assad’s loyalists. The so-called caliphate’s men were seen gloating over the bodies, even as puppies pawed at the legs of one of the dead men.

A jihadist seen in that video, Fared Saal, has acted as an Islamic State “facilitator, recruiter, and fighter,” according to the US Treasury Department. He also holds “a leadership position in an ISIS battalion.”

And Saal, who was designated by the US and UN as a terrorist yesterday, has operated a network that shuttled recruits through Turkey.

Saal, a 28-year-old German-Algerian, is also known as Abu Luqmaan Al Almani. He first joined the jihad in Syria several years ago, relocating from Germany to the northern part of the war-torn country.

According to Treasury, he has been a member of the Islamic State “since at least 2014.” Saal “recruited potential ISIS members and facilitated their travel to Syria by providing them with specific contacts to reach out to once they arrived at the airport in Istanbul.”

The “contacts” Saal provided to the caliphate’s new believers “would then help facilitate the recruits’ onward travel to the Turkish/Syrian border.” In Dec. 2014, Saal “facilitated the travel of two Austrian minors from Austria to Syria,” but “they were stopped and detained while in transit.” He has “also served as a point of contact for ISIS fighters seeking specialized training.”

Turkey has been a key facilitation hub for the jihadists throughout much of the Syrian War. Although Turkish authorities have arrested foreign fighters and facilitators at times, there is no question that the Islamic State and its jihadist rivals have benefited from the permissive environment. Some senior al Qaeda leaders even operate openly in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.

The Islamic State was initially reticent to claim responsibility for attacks inside Turkey, including even large-scale operations it was suspected of planning, such as the suicide bombings and shootings at the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul in June 2016.

That changed, however, after the Turkish government launched Operation Euphrates Shield last year. The Turks and allied Syrian insurgents seized much ground from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s nascent state in northern Syria. This prompted Baghdadi to unleash on the Turkish government in an audio message released on Nov. 2, 2016. Baghdadi blasted “apostate Turkey” for showing its true “face” by striking inside the lands of the caliphate. Baghdadi called on his loyalists to bring Turkey into their “conflict,” while also fighting those Turkish soldiers who have come to them in the Levant. He likened “infidel” Turkish soldiers to dogs.

The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for a car bombing in southeastern Turkey, which it may not have carried out. During the early hours of New Year’s Day, an Islamic State fighter massacred partygoers at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul.

Demonstrating the complex nature of the war, however, Saal took advantage of the lax security in Istanbul — at least for a time.

Writing in the CTC Sentinel, Guido Steinberg has previously provided key details about Saal’s early career in Syria. According to Steinberg, he was originally a member of Junud al-Sham, a predominately Chechen jihadist group. Along with his “close associate” Denis Cuspert, Saal convinced most of the Germans in Junud al-Sham to defect to the Islamic State. They joined the self-declared caliphate in Latakia province, “under the command of the notorious” Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, leaving the area for elsewhere in Syria sometime in “late 2013” or “early 2014.”

In its designation announcement, Treasury also mentioned Saal’s relationship with Cuspert, saying they both appeared in the July 2014 video produced at Shaer gas field.

Indeed, a man believed to be Cuspert is seen hitting one of the corpses with his shoe. Based on the bodies seen in the footage, at least dozens of Assad’s fighters were killed at Shaer during the battle. It is possible that the number of casualties was much higher. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Islamic State’s jihadists killed upwards of 270 people, including fighters and workers at the gas field. The two sides have repeatedly clashed at Shaer in the years since.

The State Department designated Cuspert as a terrorist in Feb. 2015. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, State Department designates German rapper turned Islamic State ‘operative’.]

And now Cuspert’s longtime comrade has been designated as well.

“We are targeting a dangerous individual responsible for providing support to ISIS in a variety of ways, including serving as a facilitator, recruiter, and fighter for this deadly terrorist organization,” John E. Smith, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), said of Saal. “This action was taken concurrently with new UN sanctions and demonstrates the United States’ resolve to work hand-in-hand with our international partners to further restrict terrorists’ access to the international financial system.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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