Earlier today, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini and his social media team claimed via his Telegram channels that he survived a suicide attack after attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Idlib, Syria. An English-language post said that “one of the Khawarij,” meaning an extremist, “blew himself up next to the car of” Muhaysini but he “is fine.” Muhaysini also posted a short video concerning the bombing. A picture of his car can be seen above.
The explosion was independently confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which reported that it “shook the area of Abu Thar al-Ghafari mosque in the city of Idlib.”
Citing “reliable sources,” SOHR added that “the information about the explosion in the area” is “still conflicted,” as it isn’t clear if it was caused by “a person detonating himself using an explosive belt or by detonating an IED in a vehicle.” Either way, approximately ten people were reportedly injured, some seriously. SOHR also “received information that the explosion targeted a prominent leader in” Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). This unnamed figure was described as a Saudi, and “one of his escorts” purportedly died in the blast.
SOHR was likely referring to Muhaysini (seen on the right), a Saudi who is also a senior cleric in HTS. In January, several groups announced the creation of HTS. It includes the organization formerly known as Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Months earlier, in July, Al Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS), claiming it no longer had any affiliation with “external” (or foreign) parties, an indirect reference to al Qaeda’s senior leadership outside of the country.
Thus far, the identity of the attacker who attempted to kill Muhaysini has not been revealed. But the jihadists in northwestern Syria have suffered from infighting. Some members of another al Qaeda-affiliated group, Jund al Aqsa, turned against their former allies in Idlib last year. Much of Jund al Aqsa, including its top leadership, joined Al Nusrah/JFS. But the remainder of the organization was denounced by Al Nusrah/JFS and perhaps hundreds of its members went rogue, forming Liwa al Aqsa. Since last year, Jund al Aqsa and then its offshoot, Liwa al Aqsa, were repeatedly accused of serving as a conduit for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State to strike out at its jihadist rivals.
More recently, jihadi ideologues have been engaged in a fierce dispute over HTS and its theological legitimacy.
The dispute pits Sami al Uraydi (Al Nusrah’s former senior sharia official) and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi (an influential pro-al Qaeda ideologue) against Muhaysini and others. The two sides disagree over a range of issues, including: how HTS should deal with countries such as Qatar and Turkey, both of which have supported the jihad against Bashar al Assad’s regime; whether HTS has remained true to its salafi-jihadist roots or has become “diluted” (as Maqdisi alleges); and also over who should lead the jihad in Syria. There are even allegations, which only emerged earlier this year, that Al Nusrah’s leaders betrayed their oath of allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri during the organization’s rebranding and merger with other groups. While Al Nusrah’s relaunch as JFS was blessed by Zawahiri’s deputy, other al Qaeda leaders in Syria objected to the move. Two of Zawahiri’s recent messages appear to deal with the terms of the dispute.
While much of this remains to be worked out between the jihadis, there is no question that the disagreements are serious.
Earlier this month, for instance, Muhaysini interviewed a jurist in HTS known as Sheikh Abu al-Farghali. The discussion was aired on Muhaysini’s online program, which is disseminated via social media. (The show was recently praised in Al Masra, a newsletter that acts as a clearinghouse for stories of interest to al Qaeda’s global membership.)
Abu al-Farghali, who spent time in Sudan and his native Egypt before relocating to Syria, warned that the argument between the ideologues over HTS could lead to “fitna,” meaning discord (or strife) in the jihadis’ ranks. Al-Farghali explained that younger fighters, in particular, were easily confused by the disagreement and this distracted from the main war against the Assad regime.
It is not clear who tried to kill Muhaysini earlier today, but there are multiple possibilities.
The Islamic State has assassinated senior jihadists opposed to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate in the past. In February 2014, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed Abu Khalid al Suri, who served as Zawahiri’s chief representative in the Levant and was a senior figure in Ahrar al Sham. Suri was a fierce opponent of Baghdadi’s nascent state. Muhaysini mourned Suri’s death on his popular Twitter feed at the time, changing his avatar to Suri’s “martyrdom” photo.
Thus far, Muhaysini has escaped Suri’s fate, despite being wounded more than once.
“Your brother is in a good state,” Muhaysini wrote on Telegram after the bombing in Idlib today. “When Allah protects you, the plans of the servants can’t harm you. May Allah reward everyone who asked about us and made Dua for us.” Muhaysni then added: “When Allah is with someone, He never Lets him down.” By that logic, however, Allah has not been with many of al Qaeda’s senior figures, including Abu Khalid al Suri, as well as other affiliated jihadists.
Muhaysini was designated as a terrorist by the US Treasury Department last November. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US Treasury designates Saudi jihadist cleric, three others in Syria.]
Before joining HTS this year, Muhaysini claimed to be an “independent” scholar. But Treasury disputed this, saying he “was an accepted member of Al Nusrah Front’s inner leadership circle” as of “late 2015.” Muhaysini has recruited for Nusrah, and also served as its “religious advisor.” He “represented” the group in a “military operations room” in Idlib as of July 2015. FDD’s Long War Journal has repeatedly profiled Muhaysini in the past, pointing out that he has many ties to al Qaeda’s international network.