Al-Qaeda Affiliate Issues Bounty for Capture of Russian Soldiers in Syria

A prominent spiritual leader and financier of al-Qaeda's official branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, issued a bounty worth three million Syrian pounds ($15,900) for the capture of a Russian soldier in Syria on Thursday, a day after Russia carried out its first airstrikes against rebel groups in the country.

A poster shared on social media offers one million Syrian pounds ($5,300) paid to the fighter who captures a Russian soldier and two million ($10,600) paid to the fighter's faction.

"To the heroic Mujahideen brothers, a prize of a million [Syrian pounds] to anyone who takes hostage a Russian soldier," wrote Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, a spiritual leader of the Nusra Front, in a tweet that has been retweeted more than 150 times and shared widely among online jihadi sympathizers on Twitter.

Although Newsweek could not independently verify that the account was owned by al-Kuwaiti, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert in the monitoring of online extremists and a fellow at the U.S.-based think tank The Middle East Forum, told Newsweek by email that the bounty had been publicized by al-Kuwaiti, describing him as an "important figure" in the terror group's structure.

The two bounty posters appeared on social media for the capture of a Russian soldier after al-Kuwaiti's announcement. One poster shows pictures of al-Kuwaiti, a Kuwaiti citizen whose real name is Ali bin Hamad al-Arjani, as well as Nusra Front's top military commander, Maysar al-Jubouri, who is known by the nom de guerre Abu Maria al-Qahtani. A third man, who has not been identified, appears in the picture.

According to Laith Alkhouri, co-founder and Middle East and North Africa director of research and analysis at U.S.-based internet monitoring group Flashpoint Intel, al-Kuwaiti is believed to act as both a spiritual figure and a financier to the Nusra Front. Alkhouri, who tracks online extremists, also confirmed that al-Kuwaiti posted the bounty from his official account, which is widely followed by other jihadi accounts vetted by Flashpoint. While the bounty is in the low thousands, Alkhouri says that it would provide vital funds for Nusra's factions in rural areas of northern Syria.

"The motivation to capture a Russian soldier is not necessarily going to be the financial reward," he says. "It's not a massive amount of money, but that kind of money can really facilitate the movement and operations for a lot of soldiers and it actually is significant for Syrians themselves."

While little is known about al-Kuwaiti, he has been quoted in the Kuwaiti media previously and regularly posts tweets about radical Islam and blog posts criticizing ISIS. In one post uploaded in July he complains that the rival group attempts to "sow strife in the ranks" of the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front has been energized by Russia's entry into the Syrian civil war and is likely using the offer of a bounty as a tool to attract jihadis from the former Soviet Republics, says Michael Horowitz, security analyst at the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy The Levantine Group.

"The bounty is meant as a PR campaign to attract more jihadists," he says. "For the Nusra Front, Russia's intervention is a good opportunity to bolster its recruitment and to start unifying the mosaic of foreign fighters that are fighting the regime. The fact that al-Qaeda, via its official branch in Syria, is once again fighting Russian forces, decades after the USSR was defeated in Afghanistan, is also a powerful image that could serve to unify jihadist groups in northern Syria. Nusra will most certainly try to use this image and any operation against Russian forces—including the kidnapping of a Russian soldier—to gain momentum in the deadly competition with Islamic State [ISIS]."

Another prominent jihadi cleric linked to the Nusra Front also recalled Russia's war in Afghanistan on Friday, warning that Syria will become a "graveyard for invaders," the Associated Press reported.

"Oh Russian people, did you forget the Afghan quagmire? Do you want to enter a new quagmire? The people of the Levant will stand up to you," Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi militant based in Syria, said in a video statement.

At least two radical Islamist groups from the former Soviet Republics operating in northern Syria—one from Uzbekistan and one led by Chechens—officially joined al-Qaeda in recent weeks, amid increasing signs of a Russian military build-up in Syria.

Al-Kuwaiti tweeted to his 3,000-plus followers on Friday, ordering them to follow Abu Jaber Dagestani, a prominent Russian-born member of the radical Caucasus Emirate group, which has previously received funding from al-Qaeda. The pledges of allegiance and tweets highlight the close links between al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate and the radical fighters from the Caucasus that Moscow considers to be a domestic security risk.

The Caucasus Emirate group is banned in Russia and considered a terrorist organization by the U.K., U.S. and U.N. A number of the group's warlords declared their allegiance to ISIS in June, according to Russia's federal security services (FSB). However, Dagestani tweeted at the time: "Do not believe everything you hear, not all jihadists of Caucasus swore allegiance to the Islamic State," he wrote. "Those who declared allegiance have nothing to do with Sharia laws at all."