Whither Al-Qaeda in Syria?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 15 August 2017

A statement from Issam al-Barqawi, far better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordan-based Palestinian jihadi-salafist cleric, was released in English on Telegram on 15 August 2017. The statement dealt with his view of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), highlighting again the questions around this Syrian-based jihadi group and its relations with al-Qaeda.


Al-Maqdisi wrote:

I say clearly and openly so that the fabricators are not left with any false interpretations: I am not an enemy of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and I do not lie in wait for its errors.

Rather, I pray to Allah to guide its leaders, and to make them from the rightly-guided ones who guide the others. Because I still believe that HTS is the best of the large entities on the Syrian front. Many of my beloved brothers are still members, who know and bear witness that I do not incite them against HTS or its leaders, and I always call them to be patient, to consider their reward with Allah, and to safeguard the fruits of the jihad and the sacrifices of the martyrs, and not to leave their position free to be filled by those who would dilute the religion.

But all of that does not prevent me from advising HTS harshly or softly according to the need and the level of importance. My beloved in HTS and other groups appreciate what I offer of advice and say, “Keep going shaykh, perhaps through you Allah will rectify this entity”.

This is a distinct change of tune from al-Maqdisi.


Jabhat al-Nusra, originating as a secret branch of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, defected to al-Qaeda in 2013. On 28 July 2016, al-Nusra rebranded itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and claimed to have broken its links with al-Qaeda. Six months later, on 28 January 2017, after a five-day assault that reshaped and significantly crippled the rebellion in northern Syria, JFS proclaimed a merger with several smaller rebel and jihadi groups. The new formation, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was and is clearly dominated by al-Nusra/JFS.

Since its formation, HTS has assumed near-total control of the insurgent-held Idlib Province. Having broken most of its rivals in January, on 18 July, HTS finally came for Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi group whose close alliance with al-Nusra did the most to enable al-Nusra’s rise, giving it a portal into the mainstream armed opposition and revolutionary populations. Weakened physically by HTS taking a slice of its leadership and some of its better military units at inception, and ideologically confused, Ahrar did not hold off for long. With the fall of the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing to Turkey and the evacuation of most of Ahrar’s positions on 23 July it was over; HTS reigned supreme in Idlib.

The original alleged schism when JFS was formed was widely doubted, seen as a ruse by al-Qaeda to allow the organisation to co-opt the Syrian insurrection and use it to embed its ideology and program in Syria, a durable base from which to wage global jihad. The evidence that pointed to this included al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appearing, albeit cryptically and reluctantly, to sign-off on the break. And al-Zawahiri’s deputy, Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman, better known as Abu al-Khayr, who was released by the Iranian government in late 2015 and killed in Syria in February, giving more explicit sanction to the move. But a merger under JFS hegemony did not come quickly, and problems between al-Nusra/JFS and al-Qaeda emerged.


By late 2016, the disputes over a merger had become overt. One of the political leaders of Ahrar al-Sham, still an ostensible ally of al-Nusra’s, stated bluntly that an institutional merger with al-Nusra was suicide. Abdallah al-Muhaysini, the Saudi cleric and JFS member, of course, blamed Ahrar for the failure of merger efforts. Simultaneously, al-Muhaysini defended JFS’s other flank from the criticism of al-Maqdisi, who said JFS’s approach was too soft and willing to forgo proper practice for popularity. JFS should simply impose its will, IS-style, on the insurgency, al-Maqdisi contended. Whatever the political costs, al-Maqdisi concluded, it would be correct before god, and provide order and unity that, in time at least, would be appreciated. Al-Muhaysini was among those clerics who had previously clashed with al-Maqdisi over what they contended was al-Maqidi’s far too lax view of IS’s deviance.

The formation of HTS, particularly its links with al-Qaeda, was immediately controversial, and the U.S. tried to exploit this to further separate HTS from the mainstream insurrectionists and even from Ahrar.

In the jihadi world, the first major issue of contention among jihadists was that HTS accepted into its ranks groups like the infamous Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, which was many things, doctrinaire jihadists not being one of them. (Al-Zengi quit HTS on 20 July in protest at the offensive against Ahrar, about which it was not consulted. [UPDATE: Abu Saleh al-Tahhan, one of the leaders of the hardline Jaysh al-Ahrar faction of Ahrar al-Sham, left HTS, though Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar), also a former member of Jaysh al-Ahrar, remains the titular leader of HTS.]

HTS was defended by figures like Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) and Abu Mahmud al-Filistini. Abu Mahmud, an important jihadi cleric, naturally based in London, defended HTS on the grounds that enough Muslim blood had been shed by IS-like conduct when it came to takfir (excommunication), and HTS instead offered a path to direct wayward groups like al-Zengi toward the correct (i.e. jihadi) practice of the religion. Later, Abu Mahmud wrote a more extensive defence of HTS that took direct aim at al-Maqdisi, who had been criticising the “diluters” he saw as leading HTS.


Al-Maqdisi’s criticisms of HTS began before it had even been formed, when it was still JFS. As Cole Bunzel documented, al-Maqdisi stated as early as November 2016 that he regretted JFS’s break with al-Qaeda. In the days after HTS was formed, al-Maqdisi publicly fretted, Bunzel writes, about the growing influence of diluters and demanded clarity on HTS’s view of implementing the shari’a, its dissociation from “wicked coalitions” like Turkey’s EUPHRATES SHIELD (that Ahrar al-Sham had participated in) and other foreign governments, and its disavowal of the Russian-directed Astana process.

On 10 February, HTS responded, citing the danger that al-Maqdisi would cause defections—suggesting al-Maqdisi has some influence over members of HTS. Abd al-Rahim Atun (Abu Abdallah al-Shami), HTS’s chief shar’i, responded by saying al-Maqdisi was accepting uncritically testimony of partial witnesses and affirmed that HTS remained on the jihadi path, while taking issue with some of al-Maqdisi’s framing. Al-Maqdisi accused Atun of dissimulating, and the public spat only died down after the 16 February intervention of Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), a jihadi cleric second only to al-Maqdisi in influence and also based in Jordan.

Othman, who Bunzel notes is usually more “moderate” than al-Maqdisi, had nonetheless himself earlier attacked Hashem al-Shaykh because al-Shaykh’s first speech was “was not clear” and “his words were chosen in such a way as not to anger anyone”. By early March, however, Othman had changed his mind, and said he accepted that the younger generation of jihadists would be less ideologically inflexible. As Othman put it, the project of the vanguard would give way to “a project of the umma (Islamic community)”—exactly the thing al-Maqdisi had criticised.


The defection of an ultra-extremist cadre from JFS was announced on 23 August 2016, consisting of Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib al-Urduni), Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni), and—as of 8 February—Sami al-Uraydi (Abu Mahmud al-Shami), plus a half-dozen or so others. This splinter has a formal, public bay’a (pledge of allegiance) to al-Zawahiri. For some, this is definitive evidence that JFS, and subsequently HTS, are not loyal to al-Qaeda. Other interpretations are possible, however, since both HTS and al-Tubaysi’s faction benefit from the existence of the other—as political foils and to deniably bring pressure on rivals and enemies.

Why al-Uraydi stayed with JFS/HTS so much longer is unclear, but as soon as he left—and made clear his oath to al-Zawahiri—he began criticising HTS, albeit obliquely. Al-Uraydi reposted a tweet from September 2015, which lamented “disobedience to the mother organisation”. At the time, al-Uraydi was referring to IS’s apparent betrayal of its bay’a to al-Qaeda, and now he intended it against Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani)—ironically enough, concurring with the assessment IS had made of al-Shara as a scheming traitor. In early March, al-Uraydi published a long essay, “Advice to the Mujahid in the Time of Afflictions”, which “defined the current state of affairs (presumably in Syria) as one of ‘afflictions’ (fitan) dividing Muslims and diverting their attention from the goal of implementing the shari’a”, Bunzel explains. Al-Uraydi recommended staying loyal and obedient to one’s group (an unsubtle swipe at HTS) and vociferous condemnation of those who tried to elevate man-made law over God’s law (echoing al-Maqdisi’s attack on HTS, particularly with regard to its failure to anathematize Turkey and Qatar). Throughout April 2017, without ever quite naming HTS, al-Uraydi attacked the “nationalism” of groups in Syria and ruminated on the significance of bay’a. On 20 April, al-Uraydi noted that IS had been “described … in the harshest terms” for “breaking … the bay’a [to al-Qaeda] in “ways not legally allowed”. But, says al-Uraydi, “today, when the very same action is taken by people and their supporters and fans, it becomes legal expediency and the welfare of the community”.

This language from al-Uraydi is very suggestive of a real split between al-Qaeda and HTS. And indeed, through other jihadists close to al-Uraydi and in al-Maqdisi’s orbit, it is now clear that this faction believes HTS has defected from al-Qaeda. As Bunzel explains, the narrative adhered to among this set is that when al-Shara wanted to make the JFS announcement, he was unable to reach al-Zawahiri directly so got permission from Abu al-Khayr to publicly break with al-Qaeda—pending ratification from al-Zawahiri. When al-Zawahiri finally responded in late September or early October 2016, it was sternly in the negative. Abu al-Khayr and a number of others who had made their break from al-Qaeda conditional on al-Zawahiri’s approval immediately reembraced their former status as al-Qaeda members. But al-Shara refused to abrogate his July 2016 declaration that JFS had broken from al-Qaeda, and in effect what had been intended as a deception became a reality.

This version of events was reiterated to Charles Lister by a number of Islamist sources in Idlib with various degrees of contact with HTS. The break had come, these sources told Lister, on these twin grounds of HTS’s “purity” and al-Qaeda’s fury at HTS for perceived disobedience.


For al-Uraydi and al-Maqdisi, the 23 April speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri, condemning those who sought to take the Syrian jihad in a nationalist direction, was vindication. Al-Zawahiri lambasted those who bought into “the myth” that “chang[ing] your jihad to an exclusively nationalist Syrian struggle” will please the international community or garner its support. Two days later, on 25 April, al-Qaeda republished al-Uraydi’s “Advice to the Mujahid in the Time of Afflictions”.

Another speech by al-Zawahiri, on 9 June 2017, continued this theme of attacking those who wanted the Syrian revolt against Bashar al-Assad to be a nationalist struggle as only doing so to appease, and induce support from, the “international community”, a humiliating posture in al-Zawahiri’s telling given this community’s evident indifference to the massacre of Muslims. Pointedly assailing HTS, without naming them, al-Zawahiri said: “[T]oday, there are some who want to push us back behind the lines of division drawn by disbelieving occupiers: Pakistan for Pakistanis, Syria for Syrians, Palestine for Palestinians. In the interest of whom, may we ask?”

There have been appeals from Hani al-Siba’i, another London-based jihadi scholar, for al-Qaeda and HTS to reconcile. But the 11 May statement from Atun that the time of “the one organisation” had passed, and the response of an al-Uraydi loyalist that this had “shut the door permanently on walking back the breaking of ties”, leave this open to doubt.

Still, as Lister pointed out, even if the distance between al-Qaeda “central” and HTS “continues to widen”, with al-Qaeda only retaining total control over the small cell around al-Tubaysi, committed to maintaining a guerrilla war against Assad and planning attacks in the West, it would “result in blurred lines: neither H.T.S. nor al-Qaeda would perceive or treat the other as a hostile rival, and the very existence of each would serve to reinforce the other’s existence”.



Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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