Rebel coalition in Syria mourns al Qaeda official killed in US airstrike in Yemen

The Ansar al Din Front, a coalition of several jihadist groups in Syria, released a statement on Feb. 7 mourning the death of Harith al Nadhari, a top sharia official in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On Feb. 5, AQAP confirmed that Nadhari had been killed in a US drone strike in southern Yemen just days earlier.

The statement, titled “Let Tears Flow Over Likes of Al Nadhari,” was first published on Ansar al Din’s official Twitter feed. “We have been mired in grief upon receipt of the news of martyrdom of our brother, Sheikh Harith Bin Ghazi al Nadhari, in an oppressive crusader shelling of Muslims in general, and of the mujahideen in particular,” the group says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

Ansar al Din lavishes praise on Nadhari, saying he was a “kind person” who “led a life full of sacrifices” in service of jihad and dawa (the call to submit to Allah). Ansar al Din says Nadhari gave sage “advice to the mujahideen and the entire ummah [worldwide community of Muslims].” And the jihadists lament the loss of Nadhari, arguing that the “absence of the ulema [Islamic religious scholars] and peacemakers adds to the gravity of the disaster.” The jihadist “field urgently needs” sheikhs such as Nadhari today “more than ever.”

The Ansar al Din Front is an alliance of four jihadist groups that was formed in 2014. Its constituent groups include the Jaish al Muhajireen awl Ansar (JMA), Sham al Islam, Al Katibah al Khadra, and Fajr al Sham.

The State Department added the JMA and Sham al Islam to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists in September 2014. A large contingent of jihadists from the Caucasus serve as JMA leaders and fighters. Sham al Islam is mainly comprised of fighters from North Africa and was founded by ex-Guantanamo detainees from Morocco. Saudis have led Al Katibah al Khadra.

This coalition of foreign fighter-dominated jihadists has attempted to stay neutral in the rivalry between the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria as a “caliphate,” and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.

While Ansar al Din has tried to steer clear of the Islamic State, members of both organizations have fought against one another. Meanwhile, Ansar al Din has fought alongside Al Nusrah against their common enemies on multiple occasions. And Ansar al Din’s statement mourning Nadhari is a clear indication that the coalition is at least allied with al Qaeda’s global network.

Nadhari was a staunch critic of the Islamic State. And as the rivalry between the Islamic State and AQAP heated up last year, AQAP increasingly turned to Nadhari to argue that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s “caliphate” lacked the necessary theological justifications.

Ansar al Din’s statement contains echoes of Vilayat Dagestan’s eulogy for Nadhari. This is unsurprising given Ansar al Din’s strong ties to the Caucasus.

The Vilayat Dagestan is a “province” of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) and has also been affected by the rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Late last year, Vilayat Dagestan’s leader defected to Baghdadi’s organization. This move provoked a harsh verbal backlash from ICE’s emir, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, who quickly appointed a new ICE chieftain for Dagestan.

Vilayat Dagestan remains loyal to ICE and al Qaeda. The group was one of the first to openly mourn Nadhari’s death. In its eulogy, Vilayat Dagestan said Nadhari “left us exactly at a time when we acutely need scholars like himself” and that he was working to reestablish the caliphate “on the path of the Prophet.” This is undoubtedly an allusion to the controversy surrounding the Islamic State’s “caliphate,” which al Qaeda thinkers argue was not established according to the Prophetic method.

Without directly mentioning the “caliphate” controversy, Ansar al Din’s message contains some of these same elements, especially the part about how the “absence of the ulema [Islamic religious scholars] and peacemakers adds to the gravity of the disaster.” After the US-led coalition’s airstrikes in Syria began last September, Nadhari and AQAP attempted to bring the Islamic State together with other jihadist groups in Syria to form a united front against the West. This effort, like previous AQAP attempts to reconcile the warring jihadists, failed. Nadhari was also one of ten leading jihadist ideologues who released a letter in January denouncing the Vilayat Dagestan’s defectors.

Ansar al Din itself played a “peacemaker” role last year by attempting to broker and enforce truces between the Islamic State and its rivals.

Ansar al Din concludes its eulogy for Nadhari by offering its “condolences” to ummah, the mujahideen, and Nadhari’s family.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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