Jund al Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group in Syria, claims to have seized much of the town of Morek from Bashar al Assad’s regime. The town sits on a major highway connecting the cities of Aleppo and Hama. The group posted celebratory photos (seen above and below) on its official Twitter feed earlier today. The images show the jihadists in control of positions within Morek.
One photo shows Jund al Aqsa fighters taking possession of an Assad regime tank. Other images show the jihadists taking “spoils” and raising an al Qaeda-style black “banner of monotheism” within the town.
It is not clear as of this writing if the entire town has fallen, or parts of it. A tweet from Jund al Aqsa indicates that the fighting is still ongoing. But a 30 second video also shows the organization’s members driving through the center of Morek, which has clearly suffered from the ravages of war. Many of the town’s buildings have been extensively damaged, with rubble spilling out into the road.
Jund al Aqsa is openly loyal to al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri and has been staffed with al Qaeda veterans. In April, the group’s official Twitter feed posted a “martyrdom” notice for Adel Radi Saker al Wahabi al Harbi, an al Qaeda operative who was dispatched to Syria as part of the so-called Khorasan group. Jund al Aqsa indicated that Harbi was also its “military commander.”
In May, another seasoned al Qaeda member, Said Arif, was killed while leading Jund al Aqsa’s forces. Arif’s death was reported by multiple jihadists on social media. He was allegedly killed in an airstrike conducted by the US-led coalition.
Jund al Aqsa was founded by Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Qatari, who reportedly fought for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was “close to” Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Qatari’s corpse was found in late 2014, months after he disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
On October 23, Jund al Aqsa announced its split from the Jaysh al Fateh coalition in Syria. The move raised eyebrows in the jihadist community. Jaysh al Fateh was co-founded by Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda, and Jund al Aqsa’s own ties to al Qaeda are easy to see.
Jund al Aqsa has played an important role in some of Jaysh al Fateh’s key battles in northwest Syria this year. During the battle for the city of Idlib, for example, its suicide bombers struck checkpoints manned by the Assad regime early on, thereby paving the way for other fighters to stream in. Idlib fell to Jaysh al Fateh in just several days.
While Jund al Aqsa’s break from Jaysh al Fateh threatens to weaken the jihadists’ unity to a degree, it does not mean that the group has left al Qaeda’s ranks. Instead, Jund al Aqsa objects to some of the tactics adopted by its fellow jihadists, including those in Ahrar al Sham. Officials from Ahrar al Sham have fired back at the group, saying its criticisms are unwarranted. Jund al Aqsa also has misgivings about fighting the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s rival, even though the group rejects the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s self-declared “caliphate.”
Jund al Aqsa’s statement announcing its withdrawal from Jaysh al Fateh has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. In it, Ayman al Zawahiri is described as “the sheikh of the mujahideen of today” and “his eminence.” Jund al Aqsa prays that Allah will “preserve and protect [Zawahiri], and let him hold firm to the truth until the day of meeting Him [Allah].”
By praising Zawahiri in this manner, Jund al Aqsa clearly signaled its continuing loyalty to al Qaeda.
Major pro-al Qaeda ideologues, such as Sheikh Abdullah Mohammed al Muhaysini, have been attempting to convince Jund al Aqsa to rejoin Jaysh al Fateh. There are conflicting reports regarding how successful these efforts have been.
In the meantime, the organization continues to fight alongside Al Nusrah Front. On October 26, Jund al Aqsa tweeted a eulogy for three fighters killed by a mine. At least one of the three, known as Abu al Zubayr al Ansari, was a member of Al Nusrah.
Images from Morek posted by Jund al Aqsa on its official Twitter feed
A tank once owned by Bashar al Assad’s regime:
The two pictures below show additional “spoils” captured by Jund al Aqsa:
This screen shot is from a 30 second video showing Jund al Aqsa’s fighters in Morek: