Photo from a Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad training camp in northern Syria
Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), a largely Uzbek group operating in northern Syria, released a statement on its official website yesterday in which it pledged bayah (allegiance) to Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in the country.
KTJ’s statement reads: “To win in this global battle against Islam, we need to combine the strength and support. For this purpose, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, in our current activities in Syria, has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda’s wing in Syria. This allegiance was announced on Tuesday, September 29, 2015.” KTJ also blames the United States and Russia for waging a so-called “global battle against Islam.”
KTJ was led by an Uzbek named Abu Saloh and was largely comprised of Uzbeks and other Central Asians. It likely had native Syrians within its ranks as well. The group was always under al Qaeda’s influence in Syria, as demonstrated by its propaganda and its battlefield presence. Abdullah al Muhaysini, who is a pro-al Qaeda cleric at a minimum, appeared in a KTJ video alongside Abu Ubayda al Madani, an ethnic Uzbek who is the emir of Al Nusrah’s Sayfullah Shishani Brigade, which is predominantly Chechen.
Its areas of operation include both the Aleppo and Idlib provinces. During the Jisr al Shughur offensive in Idlib earlier this year, KTJ operated closely alongside Junud al Sham, led by the Chechen Muslim Shishani, and the Syrian-wing of the Turkistan Islamic Party. Muslim Shishani is a US-designated global terrorist and has an extensive history with the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE). KTJ was known to have operated at least two training camps in Syria. It also joined the Al Nusrah-led Ansar al Sharia operations room in Aleppo.
The pledge of allegiance comes one week after Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMWA), a group comprised mainly of foreign fighters, also pledged allegiance to Al Nusrah. 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.” However, Salahuddin Shishani, JMWA’s Chechen leader, and his deputy were removed from their posts. Shishani went on to lead a branch of ICE in Syria, swearing allegiance to the emir of ICE. JMWA was briefly led by a Tajik fighter before a Saudi took over as the group’s emir.
The recent pledges of allegiance to Al Nusrah come at a time when al Qaeda is likely reorganizing and boosting its footprint in Aleppo province, where both KTJ and JMWA have a heavy presence. As such, the ranks of Al Nusrah continue to swell with foreign fighters.