The dispute between Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and al Qaeda’s senior leadership has revealed new alleged details about the jihadists’ communications. Some of the issues at the heart of the disagreement involve the ability of HTS leaders to communicate with Ayman al Zawahiri and the role played by Zawahiri’s deputies abroad.
One senior HTS figure, known as Atoun, or Abu Abdullah al-Shaami (pictured on the right), recently released a defense of his group’s disassociation from al Qaeda. Atoun claimed that there were lengthy disruptions in communications with Zawahiri.*
This prompted an unprecedented response from another jihadist known as Abu Abdullah, who identifies himself as an “external communication officer” in al Qaeda’s communication department. As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, posted his two–page reply online on Nov. 30, followed by a translation. The existence of Abu Abdullah’s position had not been previously publicized, as far as FDD’s Long War Journal knows. It was only publicly revealed as a result of the ongoing disagreement between al Qaeda’s senior leadership and HTS.
Al Qaeda’s Abu Abdullah claims that the lines of communication between his office and al Qaeda’s representatives in Syria and elsewhere are now open on an “almost daily” basis.
“Sheikh Ayman had sent a message to Sheikh Julani [the emir of HTS] several months ago informing him that the one in charge of external communication can be contacted almost daily,” Abu Abdullah wrote. “And that was to improve the speed of communication with them.”
Despite this improvement, however, Abu Abdullah claims that he did not receive “a single letter or response” from HTS to Zawahiri’s letter, “which is more than seven months old.”
Abu Abdullah’s testimony adds further weight to the seriousness of the dispute between HTS and al Qaeda’s command. Indeed, he argues that Atoun’s testimony impugns the “character and trustworthiness Al Qaeda’s system” and therefore warranted a reply.
Al Qaeda’s “external communications officer” also takes issue with Atoun’s claims regarding the security of the jihadists’ correspondence. Al-Shaami alleged that some have improperly opened, copied, shared and retained messages that were not addressed to them. Al-Shaami added that this “problem” dates back to “the days of dispute with the Khawarij” (meaning the Islamic State), “but it was not solved.”
Abu Abdullah replies to al-Shaami, claiming that Zawahiri has made it clear that it is appropriate to share correspondence as long as it is not marked “private.” In that case it is fine to share letters “in order to seek the truth and for good advice.” Abu Abdullah says that “this is what happened with the letters” referenced by Atoun, so “there was no violation as we [al Qaeda] have been falsely accused of” committing. He adds that Zawahiri would send letters, or parts of them, to “various places,” including “Sheikhs inside and outside of” Syria as part of his deliberative process. Indeed, Zawahiri has made a “habit” of expanding “his Shura (advisory council)” in this manner.
Al Qaeda’s Abu Abdullah takes the opportunity to criticize Al Nusrah Front’s previous handling of correspondence. (Al Nusrah Front was an official branch of al Qaeda, but rebranded and formed HTS along with other groups in Jan. 2017.) He claims that the “brothers” in Nusrah have complained about the delays in sending and receiving correspondence. Abu Abdullah blames this problem on “the brother who is in charge of communication in” Nusrah.
“Regarding his statement about the letters being leaked during the days of dispute with the Khawarij, I do not know which letter has been leaked from our side,” Abu Abdullah writes. “Perhaps Sheikh Atoun would remember that they themselves leaked the letter which was written regarding the verdict on the problem of Baghdadi’s group, and then the brothers in [Al Nusrah] apologized at that time for having leaked it.” Abu Abdullah adds: “Then the same thing happened with the audio message regarding the same matter, despite me severely warning the brothers to whom it has been sent that it should not come out in the media.”
It is likely that Abu Abdullah is referring to the leak in June 2013 of Zawahiri’s letter on the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah Front. The letter was given to Al Jazeera, which posted a translation online. Zawahiri ordered Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his men to return to Iraq — a command that they obviously refused. But the al Qaeda leader also chastised Julani for revealing his links to al Qaeda, as the organization wanted to obscure its role in the Syrian insurgency.
The dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah led to numerous secrets being made public. The disagreement between HTS leaders and al Qaeda’s command is similarly leading to additional secrets being revealed. Al Qaeda certainly has no desire for these details to come out, as it prefers much of its infrastructure to remain clandestine. Indeed, Abu Abdullah writes that he only replied to Atoun’s testimony (which was formerly private) because it was made public.
It remains to be seen how this situation plays out. As FDD’s Long War Journal has reported, many of the details remain murky and there is uncertainty concerning some of the points being made by the various actors. Atoun’s testimony, Abu Abdullah’s response, and other messages provide new windows into the dispute and the operations of the personnel involved. However, much remains out of the public’s view.
*Atoun claims that communications with Zawahiri were disrupted for nearly three years. While anything is possible, FDD’s Long War Journal finds this to be unlikely, as al Qaeda’s media operation (As Sahab) has been releasing regular messages from Zawahiri since mid-2015. Zawahiri has been able to consistently get his messages to the public, meaning it is unlikely that he has been unable to communicate in private. This improvement in As Sahab’s media was the result of its reorganization after the rise of the Islamic State disrupted its operations. Indeed, Abu Abdullah notes that As Sahab had to overcome the divisions caused by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s group, as some of al Qaeda’s online distributors sided with the so-called caliphate. However, it is certainly likely that communications have been disrupted at times.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.