Syrian jihadist group Sham al Islam appoints new leader

Harakat-Sham-Islam-announcementHarakat Sham al Islam, a Moroccan-founded group allied with al Qaeda and other Syrian jihadist organizations, appointed a new leader after its previous emir resigned due to “his health and work-related issues.” The jihadist group, founded by former Guantanamo Bay detainees, is listed by the US government as a specially designated global terrorist entity, and is known to operate a training camp in Syria.

Harakat Sham al Islam, or the Islamic Movement of Syria, issued a statement on its Twitter account on April 20 that announced the resignation of Abu Talha al Andalusi and the appointment of its new emir, Abu Muhammad al Baydawi. In addition to having served as the emir of Harakat Sham al Islam, Andalusi is also a deputy leader of the Ansar al Din Front, a coalition of jihadist groups that are primarily comprised of foreign fighters.

“After a year and a half as the emir of the Harakat Sham al Islam and the deputy general officer of the Ansar al Din Front, and due to his health and work-related issues, Abu Talha al Andalusi submitted a request to be relieved from his responsibilities,” according to a translation of the statement that was obtained by The Long War Journal. “The shura council [central governing body] gathered to discuss this matter. It was agreed to appoint brother Abu Muhammad al Baydawi, as the emir of Harakat Sham al Islam.”

It is unclear if Andalusi’s resignation also means that he is no longer a senior deputy in the Ansar al Din Front. If so, it is likely that he has been replaced by his successor, Baydawi.

Founded by Guantanamo detainees

Harakat Sham al Islam was founded in 2013 by Ibrahim bin Shakran, Ahmed Mizouz, and Mohammed Alami, three Moroccans who were captured in Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001, detained at Guantanamo Bay, and then released to the custody of the Moroccan government in 2004. Bin Shakran was released despite an assessment by Joint Task Force Guantanamo that identified him as a “high-ranking member” of the theological commission of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization.

The Moroccan government inexplicably released the three jihadist leaders sometime in late 2004. Bin Shakran and Mizouz immediately retuned to jihadist activities, were arrested and convicted of supporting terrorism in 2007, and then freed from prison after serving short sentences.

Bin Shakran, who is also known as Abu Ahmad al Maghribi, Abu Ahmad al Muhajir, and Brahim Benchekroune, led Harakat Sham al Islam up until he was killed while fighting alongside the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and Muhajireen Army during an offensive against Syrian forces in the coastal province of Latakia in 2014. [See LWJ report, Former Guantanamo detainee killed while leading jihadist group in Syria, for more details on Bin Shakran.]

Alami, one of the group’s cofounders, was killed in Syria in August 2013. Mizouz is still thought to be active within Harakat Sham al Islam.

The US government added Harakat Sham al Islam to its list of specially designated global terrorist entities in September 2014.

Part of a jihadist coalition that is linked to al Qaeda

Harakat Sham al Islam is known to have operated at least one training camp in Syria. In December 2014, the Ansar al Din Front released photographs of Harakat Sham al Islam fighters training in Latakia. It is unclear if the camp is still in operation.

The Ansar al Din Front is an alliance of four jihadist groups that was formed in 2014. Its constituent groups included the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, Harakat Sham al Islam, Al Katibah al Khadra, and Fajr al Sham. Al Katibah al Khadra folded into Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, which has since openly sworn allegiance to the Al Nusrah Front.

The Ansar al Din Front fights alongside the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and is closely allied to the global jihadist group. In early February 2016, the Ansar al Din Front issued a formal statement that mourned the death of its “brother,” Harith al Nadhari, a top sharia official in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nadhari was killed in a US drone strike on Feb. 5. [See LWJ report, Rebel coalition in Syria mourns al Qaeda official killed in US airstrike in Yemen.]

“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 said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

The Ansar al Din Front also lamented the death of Abu Firas al Suri, a senior al Qaeda leader and member of Al Nusrah Front’s executive shura. The US killed Abu Firas in an airstrike earlier this month. The Pentagon stated that Abu Firas was a “legacy al Qaeda member” who “fought in Afghanistan in the 80s and 90s and worked with Osama bin Laden and other founding al Qaeda members to train terrorists and conduct attacks globally.”

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

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