On Jan. 18, Russia announced that it carried out joint air raids with Turkey against Islamic State positions in and around Al Bab, Syria. Turkey and its allies have been leading the fight on the ground as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, which seized significant territory from the so-called caliphate in northern Syria last year. Until last week, however, the Russians were not part of the Turkish-led operation.
That changed when the Russian defense ministry said that “nine Russian and eight Turkish fighter jets had together struck targets” in Al Bab, according to Al Jazeera. “Today the Russian and Turkish air forces are conducting their first joint air operation to strike [the Islamic State] in the suburbs of Al Bab,” Lieutenant-General Sergei Rudskoi, who serves in the Russian defense ministry, claimed.
The announcement drew a sharp rebuke from Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, an influential pro-al Qaeda ideologue living in Jordan. Maqdisi denounced Turkey’s decision to cooperate with the Russians and Bashar al Assad’s regime.
A statement attributed to Maqdisi entitled, “Euphrates Shield has become a Russian and Bashar Shield,” was disseminated on social media, including on Arabic and English-language Telegram channels associated with the jihadi cleric. “Today Russia has announced publicly that it has launched joint air raids with Turkey against the group ISIS in the city of Al Bab,” the message read, “and that it was coordinated with Bashar’s regime!”
The statement continued: “So the alliance is between the Khalifa of those who water down the religious principles [note: meaning Turkey], and with Putin and Bashar!”
Maqdisi argued that while the joint operations are currently targeting the Islamic State, they could be expanded to include Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS), al Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria.
“At present it is against the group ISIS,” Maqdisi warned, “and soon it will be against JFS and the others.”
The ideologue went on to criticize those jihadist and Islamist groups in Syria that are cooperating with Turkey as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. “Therefore, those who issued Fatwas [note: religious edicts] permitting the participation in the Euphrates Shield should revise their Fatwa and absolve themselves from it.” Maqdisi continued: “Their Fatwa permitting it (Euphrates Shield) has become the Shield for Bashar and Putin! So they must not be arrogant and bury their heads in the sand.”
Although Maqdisi did not specifically name the groups he had in mind, he was almost certainly referring to Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that models itself after the Taliban. Maqdisi may have also had in mind Islamist organizations such Nur al Din al Zanki, which has a strong presence in Aleppo and is allied with both JFS and Ahrar al Sham.
JFS issued a statement last year rejecting overt cooperation with Turkey. But others justified cooperation with Turkey. Ahrar al Sham’s theological council went so far as to issue a statement saying that allying with Turkey under the banner of Operation Euphrates Shield is religiously permissible.
As Maqdisi’s critique demonstrates, not all jihadists and Islamists agree with Ahrar al Sham’s position. This is not altogether surprising. The jihadis are not automatons. There have been longstanding disagreements even with al Qaeda itself as to how to best proceed in Syria and elsewhere. Various schools of thinking have evolved within the al Qaeda network. And the decision to cooperate with Turkey has been reportedly controversial within Ahrar al Sham itself.
While Maqdisi has been outspoken, at least on social media, regarding what he sees as the pitfalls of cooperating with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish forces in Syria, other al Qaeda figures have blessed cooperation with Turkey under certain circumstances.
Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official who also served as al Qaeda’s deputy general manager until his death in Apr. 2015, previously addressed cooperation with Turkey and Qatar. In a question and answer session that was released online in early 2015, al Ansi was asked how the jihadists should deal “with countries like Qatar and Turkey, whose policies tend to benefit the mujahideen.”
Al Ansi replied that there “is no harm in benefiting from intersecting interests, as long as we do not have to sacrifice anything in our faith or doctrine.” However, al Ansi warned, this “does not alleviate their burden for collaborating with the Americans in their war against the mujahideen.” The jihadists “need to be attentive to this detail,” al Ansi explained.
In other words, al Qaeda’s members and like-minded jihadists can benefit from working with Turkey and Qatar, as long as those nations do not cross the line by advancing America’s “war against the mujahideen.” Of course, the same logic could be applied to Turkey and its new collusion with Russia.
In a video posted online in Oct. 2016, Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini explained why it was not in the “interest” of the “mujahideen” to launch attacks in Turkey. Despite claiming to be an “independent” jihadi, Muhaysini is probably the top al Qaeda cleric in all of Syria and, according to the US Treasury Department, part of JFS’ “inner leadership circle.” Muhaysini explained that no individual or sole group had the right to launch operations in Turkey, as this was a matter that affects all of the “mujahideen” in Syria.
In Nov. 2016, Muhaysini followed up on his remarks concerning Turkey by criticizing the Islamic State for launching operations inside the country. Muhaysini blasted Abu Bakr al Baghdadi for ordering such operations, saying that Turkey is “the artery that the wounded go through to be treated” and the “safe haven for millions of people who fled the fire of war.” It is telling that, in recent years, al Qaeda has not joined the Islamic State in orchestrating attacks inside the country.
Still other senior al Qaeda leaders, such as Mohammed Islambouli, have openly operated inside Turkey. And American officials complained about the Turks cooperating with Al Nusrah Front, as JFS was previously known, in the past.
Maqdisi is still widely cited across al Qaeda’s global network. Judging by his recent pronouncements on social media, however, he clearly does not favor working with Turkey, or elements of its government.
In another message posted on Telegram on Jan. 7, Maqdisi wrote: “Erdogan openly allies with the Russian Kuffar [disbelievers] and supports them over the Mujahideen. And despite that, some people desire to see him as the heir of the Ottomans and the reviver of the rightly guided Khalifa,” or Caliph.
The English-language Telegram channel associated with Maqdisi posted another condemnation of Turkey on Jan. 15. “Turkey is not the Ottoman Caliphate, rather it is stated in its constitution that it is a secular state,” Maqdisi wrote. “And its army which participates alongside the Russians and the crusaders in their fight against the Muslims is a secular NATO army and is not an Islamic army.”
Erdogan “is not a Mujaddid (reviver) of the glory of the righteous Caliphate like how the foolish compromisers claim,” Maqdisi inveighed. “Rather he [Erdogan] is proud of secularism and calls towards it and he is among those who fight against Jihad and plots against its people and their project.” It is worth noting that Ahrar al Sham never referred to Erdogan as the “reviver of the…righteous Caliphate.” Instead, some within Ahrar have merely favored a pragmatic approach with respect to Turkey, which has reportedly supported the organization.
Maqdisi wrote that Erdogan’s “support for the refugees and his alliance with some of the revolutionaries [in Syria] does not make him innocent of his secularist beliefs or from his support for the Crusaders and the Jews against the Muslims.” Interestingly, Muhaysini had cited Turkey’s support for refugees and general assistance to those fighting in Syria as reasons to avoid attacks inside the country.
As Maqdisi’s criticisms reveal, jihadists and Islamists have longstanding disagreements over their relations with Turkey. But not all jihadis agree with him.