Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful jihadi group in northern Syria, formally broke from al-Qaeda’s command over the last year. In the morning of 27 November, HTS arrested the leaders of a splinter group from HTS that remained loyal to al-Qaeda. The arrests were first reported by pro-al-Qaeda media, and HTS has since released a statement explaining that, having found this al-Qaeda group unwilling to even engage in reconciliation talks, it placed “the heads of turmoil” before a “just shari’a court” to answer for spreading demoralizing lies about HTS.
The reports that al-Qaeda in Syria operatives had been arrested by HTS began yesterday afternoon, first with reports that Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib al-Urduni) and Sami al-Uraydi (Abu Mahmud al-Shami) had been taken into custody, and later with reports that Khalid al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni), Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri or Faruq al-Shami), Abu Islam al-Deiri, and Abu Abd al-Karim al-Khorasani (or Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri) had been arrested as well. Al-Aruri was supposedly able to escape later in the evening. As of this morning, there are claims from HTS-affiliated sources that HTS has only al-Tubaysi and al-Uraydi have been detained, and placed under house arrest. Beyond al-Tubaysi and al-Uradyi, who is under arrest is rather unclear.
There has been an increasingly public feud between HTS’ leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), and a cadre of al-Qaeda loyalists, led by al-Tubaysi, relating to the manner in which HTS disaffiliated from al-Qaeda.
HTS’ predecessor, Jabhat al-Nusra, was an open branch of al-Qaeda. On 28 July 2016, al-Nusra publicly broke with al-Qaeda and became Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). Al-Tubaysi quit JFS on 23 August 2016 because it had dissociated from al-Qaeda. Al-Tubaysi was joined by Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni), among others; al-Uraydi and Hijazi formally quit JFS/HTS on 8 February 2017. The announcement of Jamaat Ansar al-Furqan fi Bilad al-Sham on 9 October 2017 appears to be the re-formation of al-Qaeda in Syria into an official grouping. Though there were rumours, beginning 2 October, that Hamza bin Ladin had relocated to Syria to lead the faction that would become Ansar al-Furqan, there is no evidence of Hamza’s relocation and al-Qaeda is yet to (publicly) recognize the group as one of its own.
At the time al-Tubaysi resigned, JFS was still an information operation, intended to liberate Jabhat al-Nusra of the weight of its al-Qaeda ties so it could better integrate al-Qaeda with the Syrian insurgency. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s deputy, Abdullah Rajab Abd al-Rahman (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri), had signed-off on al-Nusra publicly splitting with al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri had long said that jihadi unity took precedence over organizational ties, and indeed that such affiliations should be sacrificed when they stand in the way of unity. This theme was repeated by al-Zawahiri in a speech in May 2016, appearing to approve this move by al-Nusra.
Then things get murky.
According to one plausible account, it transpired al-Zawahiri did not approve and, when word of al-Zawahiri’s displeasure reached Syria, Abu al-Khayr and many others backtracked and reaffirmed their allegiance to al-Qaeda. But al-Shara refused, and cast the ruse as if it was reality. If this is true, it suggests that some of the charges made by the Islamic State against al-Shara, particularly as it related to his cunning and deception, have the merit of objective truth. Al-Nusra originally intruded into Syria as a wing of the Islamic State and without, so far as can be told, the direct blessing of al-Qaeda “central” (AQC). Al-Nusra’s own account of its operations speaks of opening a channel to AQC after it had arrived. But al-Shara called in al-Qaeda to shield his organization when the Islamic State tried to subsume it, and now it seems al-Shara has played al-Qaeda, too.
Al-Shara’s next mark appears to be Turkey. Al-Qaeda has, naturally, not simply accepted the loss of one of its most powerful affiliates, and has sought to undermine al-Shara and the senior leaders around him. To combat this, al-Shara has cast himself as a pragmatist with no horizon beyond Syria, battling globalist jihadists, and tacitly invited collaboration with Ankara in destroying these most dangerous elements. Indeed, these arrests might partly be motivated by such “outreach” considerations. As it happens, Turkey has been waging a campaign over the last few months to eliminate the most al-Qaeda-sympathetic leaders of HTS. Unfortunately for al-Shara, Turkey has also waged political warfare to sow discord within HTS’ ranks and has specifically targeted al-Shara, leaking telephone conversations in which al-Shara tries to orchestrate attacks on rebel groups by staging events so it looks like the other group is the aggressor, for example. It is possible al-Shara will get the better of the situation—HTS is not the Turkish priority; the PKK is—but for now there is considerable instability within HTS and the Turks have been feeding this.
It is against this background that these arrests take place, and they have triggered a new round of internal turmoil for HTS. Protests have been registered in public by several HTS officials about the detention of al-Qaeda loyalists, including by an entire sections of the HTS Elite Force. Abu al-Miqdad al-Urduni, the former al-Nusra security emir in southern Syria—who, interestingly, retained his bay’at (oath of allegiance) to al-Qaeda—has resigned from HTS over this. There are threats of further resignations unless the Qaedaists are released. HTS leaders, such as Abu Malik al-Shami (or Abu Malik al-Tali), the former al-Nusra emir for western Qalamun, have tried reassure the fighters, especially the foreigners, that this was a necessary and limited course of action, and to rally HTS’ own forces and other insurgents around the struggle against Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the Islamic State. HTS’ calculation seems to be that a brief, immediate uproar is less troublesome to HTS’ long-term viability than leaving people of the standing of al-Tubaysi and al-Uraydi free to actively incite dissent and defections. Time will undoubtedly tell whether this bet pays off.
* * * * *
UPDATE: Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), the prominent jihadi-salafist cleric, blamed HTS solely for this crisis. Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), who appears to have more sway over HTS, split the difference. Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa-Ansar, now a part of al-Nusra/HTS, demanded the release of al-Qaeda’s operatives.
UPDATE: Later on 28 November, an audio speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri was released. It seems plausible that HTS acted against al-Qaeda’s loyalists in Syria because they were aware of al-Zawahiri’s impending address.
In the speech, recorded just before the Turkish intervention in Idlib and the formation of Ansar al-Furqan (i.e. early October), al-Zawahiri dealt directly with the HTS question for the first time and confirms the above analysis that then-Jabhat al-Nusra initially tried to deceive the outside world when it claimed to have broken from al-Qaeda in July 2016. Al-Nusra asked to retain a “secret bay’at”, according to al-Zawahiri, who says he found this suggestion “dangerous”. This is the first time the thorny question of the HTS bay’a to al-Qaeda has been raised; HTS has avoided the issue, even as its messaging has become more assertive about its independence from al-Qaeda.
Al-Zawahiri affirms that he had said al-Nusra could disaffiliate from al-Qaeda on two very specific conditions—a full merger of the jihadists in Syria and the establishment of an Islamic (by al-Qaeda’s lights) government under an imam—neither of which were met when Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was formed, and al-Nusra/JFS/HTS has therefore manipulated its oath in the manner of the Islamic State, al-Zawahiri contends.
This is a point of no return between HTS and al-Qaeda. The immediate fallout is that those who had remained within HTS and also retained their oath to al-Qaeda will have to choose. In the short-term this could lead to a haemorrhage of members—certainly that is what al-Zawahiri hopes. But this clear schism with al-Qaeda will simultaneously provide HTS some opportunities.
UPDATE (11 Dec. 2017): Sami al-Uraydi was released from prison by HTS.
Post has been updated.
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society