Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMWA, or “the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers”) has sworn allegiance to the Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda. The move is hardly surprising, as JMWA, which is comprised mainly of foreign fighters, has long fought alongside Al Nusrah and other al Qaeda-linked organizations in Syria. JMWA’s bayat (oath of allegiance) was released via the group’s official Twitter feed. Al Nusrah tweeted the statement, which can be seen below, later in the day as well.
The decision to officially join Al Nusrah comes months after a shakeup in JMWA’s leadership. In June, the emir of the group, Salahuddin Shishani, and his deputy were removed from their posts. Shishani went on to lead a branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) in Syria, swearing allegiance to the emir of ICE, Abu Usman Gimrinsky. However, Abu Usman was subsequently killed by Russian forces in August, and his replacement has not yet been announced.
Shishani’s replacement resigned from his post just weeks ago. He was succeeded by al Mu’tasim Billah al Madani, a prominent sharia court judge in the JMWA. There are multiple indications that Madani, a Saudi, is a prominent ideologue in al Qaeda’s global network.
Madani is staunchly opposed to the Islamic State. Earlier this year, he was a signatory on a fatwa (religious edict) deeming it permissible to fight Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men in Syria. The fatwa was also signed by prominent pro-al Qaeda ideologues Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi. Other signatories included Dr. Sami al Uraydi, a senior sharia official in Al Nusrah, and Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, who is one of the most prominent al Qaeda-linked clerics in all of Syria.
Madani’s signature alongside such noteworthy leaders is an important indication of his stature. Indeed, Al Nusrah and Muhaysini, who is also a Saudi, reportedly played prominent roles in the reshuffling of JMWA’s leadership.
JMWA was one of three groups in the Ansar al Din coalition. The other two are Fajr al Sham and Sham al Islam, both of which will continue on as part of Ansar al Din.
The jihadists’ regular realignments in Syria can be confusing. But all of the organizations mentioned above have at least some degree of affiliation with al Qaeda, which has sought to hide the true extent of its role in the anti-Assad insurgency.
The latest reorganization likely has to do with al Qaeda’s role in the fighting in Aleppo province, where JMWA has a strong presence. Al Qaeda and its allies, along with other non-affiliated rebels, have been fighting both the Islamic State and Bashar al Assad’s regime in the northern province. Before JMWA’s allegiance to Al Nusrah became official, a media official in Ansar al Din known as Ali Sabr tweeted that the official merger will “boost” al Qaeda’s “activity in Aleppo and its countryside.”
JMWA was designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department in September 2014. At the time, State described it as “a Chechen-led terrorist organization based in Syria that consists primarily of foreign fighters.” Much has changed since then, however, including the aforementioned turnover in its senior ranks.
The evolution of JMWA has been heavily influenced by the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria. It was founded by Omar al Shishani, a Chechen leader who joined the Islamic State in the fall of of 2013. While JMWA initially tried to remain neutral in the fight between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, its alliance with Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham and other anti-Islamic State jihadists became obvious over time.
With the official merger, Al Nusrah has consolidated its grip over the JMWA faction that refused to follow the Islamic State’s lead. It appears that Al Nusrah’s ranks will swell by several hundred jihadists because of the deal.
Statement concerning JMWA’s merger with Al Nusrah (in both Arabic and Russian)