On 20 November 2016, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in Syria, published its first official account of how JFS, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, split from its parent organization, the group we now know as the Islamic State (IS). The statement was composed by Abdelraheem Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami), identified as the General Judge of JFS. It is apparently drawn from the book, “Under the Shade of the Tree of Jihad” (p. 177-194), and the post was entitled, “The Establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Events of al-Sham [Syria] from the Beginning of the Disagreement to the Announcement of al-Dawla [the State]”. On 27 November, Bilad al-Sham Media released an English language version of this statement, which is reproduced below with some editions for spelling, grammar, and so on, and some especially notable sections bolded. Continue reading →
Screenshot of Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) during a video interview, 12 April 2014
Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) is an Australian citizen who was born on 14 February 1984 in Port Said, Egypt. Mahamed currently occupies a “senior leadership position” within al-Qaeda in Syria—formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)—according to the sanctions levied against him in May by the U.S. Treasury. In an indication of Mahamed’s seniority, he moved from Australia to Syria in late 2012 and within a few months led the mediation efforts between al-Nusra and the then-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now the Islamic State (IS), that began with a breach in April 2013 and ended with al-Qaeda expelling ISIS from its command structure in February 2014. Mahamed is also one of the public faces of al-Qaeda in Syria, now calling himself the “Director of Foreign Media Relations of JFS”. In this capacity, Mahamed has inter alia recently communicated with CNN to further the narrative that al-Nusra/JFS has “split” with al-Qaeda—something, let it be noted, neither the leader of al-Nusra/JFS nor Mahamed have actually said.
With regard to both the ongoing narrative war between IS and al-Qaeda over what their actual relationship was in the lead-up to the schism and al-Qaeda’s structure—the two things very much interlinked—Mahamed gave a very useful interview on 12 April 2014, about ten weeks before ISIS became IS when it declared its caliphate. Mahamed also touches on other interesting matters, such as those jihadi ideologues al-Nusra/JFS regards as guides, and—small point—al-Qaeda’s continuing claim that IS’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have sided with them. (This is matched on the other side by IS continuing to feature Usama bin Ladin in their propaganda as one of their forebears, while regarding Ayman al-Zawahiri as deviant.)
In watching the video back, I ended up taking notes, which turned into a partial (though fairly substantial) transcript that will perhaps be of use to others as well, so it’s posted below.Continue reading →
The Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, al-Naba, interviewed a high-ranking al-Qaeda defector, Abu Ubayda al-Lubnani, across two issues in February and March. Abu Ubayda appeared on a list of prominent clerics supporting IS’s caliphate declaration in February 2014, and two months later his defection from al-Qaeda to IS was announced by al-Battar. Abu Ubayda is described by al-Naba—as best as can be told accurately—as having been a member of al-Qaeda’s: Shura [Consultation] Council, a training officer in its Military Committee, and a counter-intelligence officer. Abu Ubayda is advertised as speaking about many secret aspects of al-Qaeda.
Among the topics Abu Ubayda covers is the alleged infiltration and manipulation of al-Qaeda by foreign intelligence services, specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is not only a violation of jihadist doctrine by collaborating with an “infidel” and illegitimate state but led to the deaths of a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of what Abu Ubayda has to say relates to al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the Syrian revolution. This persistent campaign has followed a pattern of disguising al-Qaeda’s presence and attempting to influence and eventually co-opt the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One lever al-Qaeda relied upon, according to Abu Ubayda, was Ahrar al-Sham, an organization that disclaims all connections to al-Qaeda and dissimulates about its ideology. Whatever Ahrar’s dominant ideology, it is simply a fact that it has served as the bridge between the foreign-led jihadists and Syrian Islamists, and its connections to al-Qaeda are evident enough. Abu Ubayda suggests Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are even deeper than they appear. Continue reading →
In the course of al-Qaeda’s rebranding operation in Syria two weeks ago—the full implications of which are discussed here—the organization showed the face of its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, for the first time. Soon afterward it was revealed that al-Jolani’s real name was Ahmad al-Shara, originally from Deraa in southern Syria, who had lived in Damascus. A report in Al-Monitor has now added details that purportedly show the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in al-Shara’s path to joining the predecessor organization of the Islamic State (IS), from which he eventually split, and underlines the role the Assad regime has played in fostering the terrorism it now claims to be defending the Syrian population and the world from. Continue reading →
First ever picture of the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), 28 July 2016
The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad al-Shara, ostensibly broke the link between his organization and al-Qaeda last week. This is another stage in al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy of embedding itself into local societies so that it can more effectively reshape the faith and shield itself from the international community. Continue reading →
Amr al-Absi, one of the most senior Islamic State (IS) leaders, was killed in an airstrike on 3 March, according to reports on social media and by the SITE Intelligence Group. Al-Absi—better known as Abu Atheer al-Absi or just Abu al-Atheer—exemplified several key dynamics at work in Syria.
Atheer was among the jihadi-Salafists released by the regime of Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of Syria’s uprising in an attempt to make self-fulfilling the regime’s claim that the opposition were terrorists, and was also a seminal figure in making Syria so dangerous for journalists that it allowed Assad and IS to shape the coverage as if Syria was a binary choice between them.
Atheer is among the longstanding ultra-extremists who shape and define IS spiritually, and he was crucial in more concrete terms in IS infiltrating and expanding in Syria, particularly by bringing in foreigners who are among the most ideologically driven category of IS members. Continue reading →
Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr): in Saddam’s intelligence service, in American prison, as a commander of the Islamic State
In the last few months I’ve increasingly focussed on the former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) within the Islamic State (I.S.). There’s now an entire section on this blog about it, and Aaron Zelin over at Jihadology recently gave me time to elaborate in a podcast.
In studying this topic there is one inescapable name: Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, better-known by his pseudonym Haji Bakr, and sometimes by his kunya, Abu Bakr al-Iraqi. Al-Khlifawi is a former colonel in an elite intelligence unit of the Saddam Hussein regime—focussed on air defence at Habbaniya airbase, though what exactly that entails is murky. Al-Khlifawi was also apparently involved in weapons development.
Al-Khlifawi came to international attention in April when Christoph Reuter published an article in Der Spiegel naming al-Khlifawi as the “architect” of I.S.’s expansion into Syria, and the man who had been “pulling the strings at IS for years.” Continue reading →
In August 2015’s Perspectives on Terrorism, Truls Tønnessenwrites about the evolution of the leadership of what is now the Islamic State (I.S.) from its origins in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under the heading, “Heirs of Zarqawi or Saddam?” Tonnessen makes the obvious point that AQI’s leadership was largely comprised of foreign Salafi-jihadists with al-Qaeda histories, while I.S. is led by Iraqis, most of them former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs). But Tonnessen’s argument that I.S.’s leaders had not been AQI members is mistaken (they had), which erodes his arguments that AQI’s influence diminished over time as I.S. formed from various mergers, and that this diminution of influence came about because I.S.’s post-2010 leadership purged the veteran AQI elements within I.S. (I.S.’s leaders are veteran AQI elements.) The main difference between AQI’s leaders and I.S.’s is that AQI’s leaders had background connections to al-Qaeda Central (AQC) networks, and I.S.’s largely do not. While Tonnessen sees Jabhat an-Nusra as linked to these shifting dynamics, this argument does not stack up. Ultimately, Tonnessen’s contention that I.S.’s leaders are more heirs of Saddam than Zarqawi fails in the terms Tonnessen presents it. Continue reading →
In a report on the internal divisions in the Assad regime and the passing of Syria’s sovereignty to Iran by Ruth Sherlock in The Sunday Telegraph on May 17, there was this stunning sentence: “Perhaps a third of all Alawite males of military age have been killed in the civil war.” This is a startling thought.
To determine if this figure for the proportion of Alawis killed is plausible it is necessary to know how many Alawis there were in Syria at the outset of the war, and how many people have been killed during the war. Continue reading →
What a disaster. With American and coalition jets in the air overhead, ostensibly to do battle with Salafi-jihadists, al-Qaeda has been allowed to push rebel brigades the United States purports to support out of almost all of Idlib Province. Continue reading →