BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Saudi Arabian cleric placed by Riyadh and its allies on a blacklist of people they call terrorists linked to Qatar said he survived assassination by a suicide bomber in Syria on Friday.
Abdullah al-Muhaysini appeared in an online video saying he was unhurt in the blast. “We got in the car and a man approached us wearing a suicide vest. He came close to the car and blew himself up,” he said.
Muhaysini did not say who he believed was behind the attack, which a war monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said took place after he left a mosque in Idlib.
He is described as a terrorist by the Syrian government and its allies, as well as by the United States, which has launched air strikes against members of Tahrir al-Sham, the group he is associated with.
There has been fighting among Syrian rebels since early this year and opposition sources have said they fear the Gulf crisis involving Qatar could spark new bouts of that conflict.
Photos on social media, which Reuters could not authenticate, showed an armored car with scorched and slightly crumpled bodywork but with its shape mostly intact and windows unbroken.
Since arriving in Syria in 2013, Muhaysini has become one of the best-known jihadists, partly thanks to his tireless social media presence.
He is a member of the Sharia council for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist rebel factions that includes the Nusra Front, a former al Qaeda group which Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Qatar of funding. Doha denies it.
Saudi Arabia backed Syrian rebels early in the country’s conflict and its top clerics pronounced the uprising a jihad in 2013, but the government has vehemently opposed any participation by Saudis.
Muhaysini’s father was a well-known cleric from the ultra-conservative town of Bureidah, whose fiercely anti-Western views caused him trouble with the government.
His son boasts on his website of studying under Sulaiman al-Alwan, nicknamed “the al-Qaeda sheikh”, who has been in prison in Saudi Arabia since 2004.
When he arrived in Syria, Muhaysini presented himself as a neutral arbiter between rival jihadist groups in Syria, and has often chastised them for their internal divisions.
The United States said in a sanctions listing in November he was in fact part of the “inner leadership circle” of the Nusra Front, something he has denied, but which many experts on Syria’s jihad say they believe to be true.
The Sharia council is responsible for religious and legal matters rather than military activities, but he has published videos of himself brandishing weapons with rebel fighters near front lines.
In his online videos, the young, bushy-bearded cleric apppears earnest and amiable while discussing politics and religion with comrades, but thunderous when denouncing enemies.
“When the battle starts, we will not accept that you come back except as martyrs or victors,” he said in a speech to rebel fighters about to assault Aleppo last summer.
Other videos show him hugging suicide bombers before they leave for the front line, training children to use weapons and showering praise on Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the head of the former Nusra Front group.
On social media feeds, he sometimes uses an emoji of a raised forefinger, the universal jihadist salute.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Andrew Roche