Jund al Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group, has pledged allegiance to Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or the “Conquest of the Levant Front”), al Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria. The move comes after tensions between Jund al Aqsa and other groups fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime boiled over in recent weeks.
Ahrar al Sham, which models itself after the Taliban, has been at odds with Jund al Aqsa since last year. In October 2015, Jund al Aqsa withdrew from the Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) alliance, which is jointly led by Ahrar al Sham and JFS (formerly known as Al Nusrah Front). At the time, Jund al Aqsa objected to some of Ahrar al Sham’s policies and tactics.
Relations between the two sides seemed to improve earlier this year, but the situation was never fully resolved. Ahrar al Sham has recently accused Jund al Aqsa of having ties to the Islamic State and launched an offensive in areas controlled by the group. Numerous other opposition organizations rallied to Ahrar al Sham’s side, which created a crisis for Jund al Aqsa.
By formally joining JFS, Jund al Aqsa and its allies are hoping to put an end to the rebel infighting. Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a highly influential al Qaeda-linked cleric in Syria, claimed on his Telegram page to have helped broker the deal. His involvement signals just how serious the matter is from the jihadists’ perspective. Jund al Aqsa has technically agreed to submit its forces to a common sharia (Islamic law) court that can adjudicate the matter. But it is too early to tell how the conflict will be resolved.
Although Jund al Aqsa’s opponents accuse the group of serving Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, its leaders have consistently expressed their loyalty to al Qaeda. In the past, Jund al Aqsa refused to fight Baghdadi’s men and it is likely that some factions within the organization are sympathetic to the self-declared caliphate. There are also rumors that the Islamic State infiltrated Jund al Aqsa’s ranks to launch attacks on Ahrar al Sham figures and others.
But Jund al Aqsa’s “general command,” which oversees the organization, has repeatedly signaled its allegiance to al Qaeda.
When Jund al Aqsa announced its withdrawal from the Jaysh al Fath alliance last year, for example, the group’s statement referred to Ayman al Zawahiri as “the sheikh of the mujahideen of today” and “his eminence.”
On July 31, Jund al Aqsa issued a statement praising Al Nusrah Front’s relaunch as JFS, saying that al Qaeda’s leaders must have determined it was in the best “interest” of both the people and the jihad in Syria. In so deciding, the group’s “general command” wrote, Zawahiri and his subordinates have once again proven their “sacrifice” in service of the ummah (worldwide community of Muslims). The jihadists “can [use] any name” they want, the statement continued, so long as they stay true to the principles of the “prestigious first generation of mujahideen” and follow the Prophet Mohammed’s “methodology.”
In September, the State Department added Jund al Aqsa to the US government’s list of designated terrorist organizations. Despite operating independently, State noted, the group “is still openly aligned with” Nusrah (JFS).
The Long War Journal has repeatedly documented Jund al Aqsa’s ties to al Qaeda. [See LWJ reports: An al Qaeda front group in Syria, Jund al Aqsa leaders join Al Nusrah Front, and State Department adds al Qaeda front group in Syria to terror designation list.]