On July 18, jihadists belonging to the Al Nusrah Front (al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria), Ahrar al Sham, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers, or Muhajireen Army), and three other individual jihadists published a statement online saying that they will continue to oppose the Islamic State.
The authors say that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men have interrupted their fight against the Assad regime at a time when the jihadists were heading to “the coast of the Nusayris [a derogatory term used to describe Syrian Alawites].” This is likely a reference to a rumored offensive against the Syrian regime in Latakia, a coastal province that has long served as a stronghold for the Assad regime.
The message (seen on the right) was written after Baghdadi’s organization launched attacks against its jihadist rivals in northern Syria in recent weeks. It references the recent slaying of Sheikh Abu Abdul Rahman, a senior Ahrar al Sham official who was killed in a suicide attack in Salqin, a town in the Idlib province. And it lists other assassinations the Islamic State is suspected of carrying out as well, including the killing of Abu Khalid al Suri in February 2014. Al Suri served as both a representative for al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and one of Ahrar al Sham’s most influential officials prior to his death.
The jihadists speak on behalf of the “muhajireen,” or emigrant helpers, who have traveled to Syria to wage jihad. And they portray themselves as being on the same side as the Syrian people in their fight against the Islamic State, which they label as being “Khawarij,” or extremist.
The authors do not explicitly connect themselves to the new front called “Al Muhajirun,” which was established in recent weeks to represent foreign fighters in Syria. Their statement does not, for example, include Al Muhajirun’s watermark. But in all likelihood they are one and the same. Al Muhajirun was founded by existing jihadist organizations, including the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham and their allies.
The statement also contains echoes of a recent video produced by Al Muhajirun, in which it was argued that Allah allows for fitna (discord or strife) among the jihadists as a way to purify their ranks. The Islamic State’s rivals make the same argument, saying the fight against Baghdadi’s “renegade group” has been willed by Allah such that only the “moderate” ones who are “against extremism” are left standing in the righteous mujahideen’s ranks.
Thus, the statement is part of an ongoing effort by al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists to rebrand themselves as the “moderate” alternative to Baghdadi’s butchers.
Five of the signatories are from the Al Nusrah Front’s “muhajireen” leadership. Three of the five have been covered extensively by The Long War Journal.
Dr. Sami al Uraydi, a Jordanian who can be seen on the right, serves as Al Nusrah’s senior sharia official. He is a known Zawahiri loyalist. Earlier this year, anonymous sources claimed that the Al Nusrah Front was going to break from al Qaeda. Uraydi openly scoffed at this rumor on his Twitter feed (since suspended), saying that Abu Muhammad al Julani (Al Nusrah Front’s emir) had saved the jihad in Syria by openly declaring his allegiance to Zawahiri.
Al Uraydi has dealt with some of Al Nusrah’s most important matters. In September 2014, for instance, he issued a video explaining why Al Nusrah had released more than 40 UN peacekeepers from its custody. In January, al Uraydi and other ideologues, including two from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, published a statement criticizing the jihadists who defected from the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) to the Islamic State. Al Qaeda’s international network has made a big push to defend ICE’s leadership against the Islamic State’s advances, but a number of ICE commanders and fighters have sworn allegiance to Baghdadi.
Abu Sulayman al Muhajir was an extremist preacher in Australia who emigrated to Syria, where he took part in the failed efforts to reconcile the Islamic State with the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham and other jihadist groups. It quickly became apparent that al Muhajir was more than a mere extremist, however, as he openly discussed details that only an al Qaeda insider would know. Indeed, al Muhajir said on his Twitter feed (which has been repeatedly suspended) that he was an al Qaeda official. Al Muhajir is currently an Al Nusrah Front sharia official and recently starred in a video celebrating the 9/11 attacks and Al Nusrah’s al Qaeda lineage. Like al Uraydi, al Muhajir used his Twitter feed to dismiss the rumor that Al Nusrah was going to break from al Qaeda. Al Muhajir explained that Al Nusrah’s bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri is binding and can only be voided with Zawahiri’s permission.
Abdul Mohsen Sharikh (see image on the right) is the real name of an al Qaeda leader known as Sanafi al Nasr, who has been designated as a terrorist by the US government. The Long War Journal first reported that Nasr leads al Qaeda’s “Victory Committee,” which is tasked with strategic planning and policymaking for the group, and is also a member of the so-called “Khorasan group.” According to the US Treasury Department, Nasr briefly served as the head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran before relocating to Syria. Once there, he became one of Al Nusrah’s “top strategists.”
Nasr has long worked with senior Ahrar al Sham officials. After Abu Khalid al Suri (a dual-hatted Ahrar al Sham and al Qaeda leader) was killed in late February 2014, Nasr tweeted that he had warned al Suri of the danger to his life. This means, at a minimum, that Nasr was meeting with al Suri.
In addition, Nasr revealed that al Qaeda’s senior leadership had dispatched a cadre of operatives to Syria, and two of them had joined Ahrar al Sham. (Nasr’s tweet discussing these al Qaeda members sent to Syria can be seen on the right.) After much of Ahrar al Sham’s senior leadership was wiped out in September 2014, Nasr mourned his fallen comrades as “martyrs.”
The two other Al Nusrah officials listed as signatories are Abu Azzam Al Qaadhi and Abu Haajar At Tunisi.
One of the individual signatories listed is Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a Saudi who is, at a minimum, connected to al Qaeda’s international network. He was a student of Sulayman Al Alwan, a jihadist ideologue responsible for indoctrinating some key figures within al Qaeda. (The 9/11 Commission found that al Alwan even instructed one of the 9/11 hijackers.) Muhaysini has defended and spoken fondly of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. In 2014, Muhaysini even issued a proposal for jihadist reconciliation that was timed to coincide with Zawahiri’s own. The initiative was intended to reconcile the Islamic State with its jihadist rivals in the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham. While the latter parties agreed to the plan, the Islamic State rejected it. Muhaysini works closely with the Al Nusrah Front and other al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria to this day.
Six of the authors signed their names “on behalf of the muhajireen of Ahrar al Sham.” They are: Abu Sa’d Al Misri, Abu Muhammad Al Misri, Abu Musab al Tunisi, Abu Abdullah An Najdi, Abu Anas Al Misri and Abu Hasan At Tabuki.
The last nom de guerre, Abu Hasan At Tabuki, is used by an al Qaeda veteran also known as Abu al Hassan, who is currently a senior Ahrar al Sham military commander. Tabuki (Hassan) is also the brother of Yasir al Shaar, who participated in the notorious 2002 siege of a Moscow theater. However, The Long War Journal cannot confirm as of this writing that the Abu Hasan At Tabuki who signed the statement is the same Abu al Hassan.
Two officials from the al Qaeda-linked Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA), which has recently had a shake up in its leadership, also signed the message pledging to continue that the fight against the Islamic State. One of the two, Al Mu’tasim Billah al Madani, is a senior sharia official in the JMA.
In early June, al Madani and three of the aforementioned jihadists — Sami al Uraydi, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, and Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini — were among the authors of a fatwa saying Muslims throughout Syria must counter the Islamic State’s aggression in the Aleppo province.
The latest statement goes further, arguing that the “muhajireen” will continue to stand side by side with the people throughout all of Syria in the fight against the Islamic State.
In addition to the statement, the Al Nusrah Front has produced its own new anti-Islamic State video. The opening of the production (titled “So the Way of the Criminals Will Become Clear”) includes a picture of Abu Khalid al Suri after his “martyrdom” at the hands of Baghdadi’s assassins. The video, which features some foreign fighters, is clearly intended to justify the muhajireen’s fight against Baghdadi’s “caliphate.”