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 →
Humanitarian convoy in Aleppo after the airstrikes by pro-regime coalition, 20 September 2016
The United States and Russia reached an agreement over Syria on 9 September that was supposed to lead to a week of reduced violence—a ceasefire or “cessation of hostilities” (CoH). During this time, there would be free distribution of humanitarian aid—followed by joint operations against the rebranded al-Qaeda branch in the country, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. This agreement was essentially ignored by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which Russia had pledged to restrain, and on Monday the agreement was torn up by the regime, returning Syria to all-out war. Continue reading →
In Geneva on 9 September 2016, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to implement a ceasefire—formally a “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—in Syria, which is intended to allow humanitarian access and restart the political process to end of the war, and then to begin jointly targeting the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS).
There is reason to wonder if the deal will ever take effect and the lack of an enforcement mechanism against Bashar al-Assad’s regime leaves open the possibility that the pro-regime coalition will, as it did after the February ceasefire, abuse this process to their advantage.
Most dauntingly, if this process worked to the letter it will legitimate the gains of the regime’s aggression, carried out under the cover of the last ceasefire, and has the potential to weaken the insurgency and embolden the regime, strengthening radicalism on all sides, pushing a political settlement further away, and thus protracting the war. 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 (IS) was driven from the city of Manbij yesterday, a key supply route to the Turkish border in northern Syria, the conclusion of an operation launched on 31 May by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a front-group for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), represented in Syria by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF was backed by U.S. airstrikes. It is difficult not to see the defeat of IS as a positive development. It is, however, worth more closely examining the forces that are being enabled by Western power to fasten their rule across northern Syria, whose vision is deeply problematic—even in narrow terms of the fight against IS. 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 →
Graphic released with the speech of Ahmad Hassan (Abu Khayr al-Masri) about Jabhat al-Nusra and relations with al-Qaeda
In advance of Jabhat al-Nusra rebranding as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) on 28 July 2016, there were carefully coordinated media releases between al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) and al-Nusra. First, al-Manara al-Bayda (The White Minaret), al-Nusra’s media arm, released a six-minute audio speech by Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman (Abu Khayr al-Masri), identified as the deputy to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri; then there was the first ever picture of al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad Husayn al-Shara, and shortly thereafter a video of al-Shara ostensibly severing ties with al-Qaeda; and finally the founding document for JFS was published. Continue reading →
Abdullah Issa on the back of a truck with Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi fighters who will soon behead him
A horrifying video emerged on Tuesday of a teenage boy being beheaded. This had occurred the day before around Handarat in Aleppo, northern Syria. The boy had been fighting for Liwa al-Quds, a militia of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, composed mostly of Palestinians from the Nayrab camp and likely also from the unofficial settlement at Ayn al-Tal near Handarat. The rebel group that took him captive and then murdered him was Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, which had previously received support, including TOW anti-tank missiles, from the United States’ covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency, though that support ended nearly a year ago. The episode is important in itself, and underlines some trends, namely al-Zengi’s evolution and the dynamics underway in northern Syria, where the U.S. is preparing to intensify its de facto policy of collaborating pro-Assad coalition against Jihadi-Salafist terrorist groups, which are strengthening al-Qaeda. Continue reading →
After a coalition supporting the regime of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad conquered the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) in late March, suggestions were made that this demonstrated the efficacy of the pro-Assad coalition in fighting IS, and doubtless the same will be said if and when the pro-regime forces conquer Tabqa. It isn’t true. From the time of Russia’s direct intervention in Syria on 30 September 2015 to Moscow’s announcement on 14 March 2016 that it was withdrawing “the main part” of its “military” from Syria, IS was almost untouched and al-Qaeda was barely damaged, while the Assad regime was bolstered and the moderate opposition, particularly those components supported by the West, were gravely weakened.
Despite Moscow’s claims that its mission was fighting IS or “terrorism,” Russia’s real goals can be summarized as three:
Rescue the Assad regime, which was assessed to be in mortal peril
Damage the mainstream armed opposition, especially those elements supported by the West, in order that Russia can …
Rehabilitate the Assad regime internationally by inter alia leaving only extremists as its opponents, depriving the international community of credible interlocutors, and therefore strengthening the Russian hand to make peace talks an instrument for re-legitimizing Assad, rather than removing him
In recent days, this basic war strategy has been seen again in southern Syria. Continue reading →