On Nov. 28, al Qaeda released one of the most important messages from Ayman al Zawahiri in years. The jihad in Syria has unleashed another leadership crisis for al Qaeda, as Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS, “Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”) leaders are feuding with others over the direction of the jihad. Some of Zawahiri’s loyalists have even been imprisoned by HTS.* It is perhaps the biggest crisis for al Qaeda since the rise of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State in 2013 and 2014.
HTS was formed by the successor organization to Al Nusrah Front, formerly an official branch of al Qaeda, and several other groups in January. From the outset, the formation of HTS unleashed vitriolic debates within al Qaeda and affiliated jihadist circles. The relationship between HTS and Turkey, alleged dilution of al Qaeda’s Salafi-jihadist ideology, and the “nationalist” agenda of some of its leaders have all been a matter of dispute. But one of the most important issues has been whether Al Nusrah broke its allegiance to al Qaeda and Ayman al Zawahiri.
Zawahiri has addressed the question of Al Nusrah’s bay’at (oath of allegiance) previously, but his new message contains the most direct language on the topic yet.
“I want to definitively confirm that we did not release anyone from our pledge,” Zawahiri says. He claims that while al Qaeda “expelled” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his Islamic State, it hasn’t released “Al Nusrah Front” or “anyone else” from their oaths of allegiance.
Zawahiri elaborates by stressing that the “pledges” are a “binding agreement” and it “is forbidden to break” them. Moreover, it is “obligatory” for jihadis to adhere to their oaths.
In response to Zawahiri, a senior HTS official known as Abu Abdullah al-Shaami has offered his own version of events via social media. (Abu Abdullah’s testimony was translated by “Al Maqalaat.”) Abu Abdullah argues that Al Nusrah did not break its oath of fealty in July 2016.**
On July 28, 2016, Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, announced that his group would be known as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or “Conquest of the Levant Front”). (Abu Abdullah al-Shaami flanked Julani as he read his announcement.) Julani claimed that his organization would no longer be affiliated with any “external (foreign) entity.” This ambiguous phrasing was intended to imply that JFS wasn’t really part of al Qaeda any more.
But al-Shaami concedes in his response to Zawahiri that the “idea of the project,” meaning JFS, “was to change the name of the group…and announce what would be understood in the media as breaking the ties with” al Qaeda. However, according to al-Shaami, “there would remain a secret undisclosed allegiance to them [al Qaeda], in a state which would resemble the situation before our dispute with ISIS.” Al-Shaami added that while Zawahiri thought JFS had “actually broke[n] its ties…this was not the case from our side.”
Zawahiri says that this arrangement was unacceptable: “We did not accept the pledge of Al Nusrah Front to be a secret. We consider this to be among the deadly mistakes.”
However, Zawahiri did not always consider secret oaths to be a mistake. In fact, he and others deliberately hid Al Nusrah’s role in al Qaeda’s network at first.
Julani revealed his allegiance to Zawahiri in April 2013, but only as a result of the rivalry with the Islamic State (ISIS). Zawahiri actually criticized Julani for announcing his oath at the time, writing that Julani “was wrong by…showing his links to al Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.” Al Qaeda has employed this tactic — obscuring the ties between senior leadership and various organizations — in multiple theaters. So, while Zawahiri now rejects a “secret” oath, this has been a common practice in the past.
Curiously, Zawahiri does not disown Julani (who now heads HTS), nor does he explicitly call for the formation of a new group in Syria. The few times Zawahiri refers to the HTS emir he prays for Allah to “grant him success” and “facilitate him.” It is not clear how al Qaeda will treat Julani’s case. Julani was the emir of a regional branch of al Qaeda in Syria and, as such, subject to the group’s bureaucratic reviews. This process has clearly been interrupted by the formation of HTS. Nor is it entirely clear how al Qaeda will deal with HTS now. There have been unconfirmed reports that a new al Qaeda branch was going to be launched inside Syria, but Zawahiri merely calls for “unity” in Syria and elsewhere.
Although Zawahiri does not condemn Julani by name, he does attempt to refute the arguments Julani made when announcing JFS in July 2016. The al Qaeda leader argues that disassociating from his organization has not and will not stop America from targeting the jihadists, or prevent the US from designating some of them as terrorists, or lead to the unification of the mujahideen. All of these arguments were made by Julani and others to justify the supposed break from al Qaeda in mid-2016, but their moves failed to deliver a unified entity.
Zawahiri also attempts to clear up the confusion his own previous directives have caused regarding “unit,” including when it is appropriate to sever organizational ties to al Qaeda. He says that al Qaeda has “repeatedly communicated” its willingness to relinquish its “organizational ties with Al Nusrah Front if just two conditions are met.” Namely, only after the “unification” of the mujahideen and an “Islamic government is established,” with the people choosing their own “imam,” would al Qaeda allow Al Nusrah and others out of their oaths. Only “at that point” and “not before” would al Qaeda “abandon” its “organizational ties and congratulate the people” of Syria on their accomplishment. Still, even then the “brotherhood of Islam and jihad would remain between us.”
In essence, Zawahiri says that al Qaeda is willing to end its official, public presence in Syria only after a Taliban-style state is established. Of course, that state would have to adhere to principles that al Qaeda finds acceptable. The al Qaeda emir has made similar statements in the past, including in May 2016, just two months before Julani announced Al Nusrah’s relaunch as JFS.
But Zawahiri clearly doesn’t think that Julani and his men have met these conditions — at least not now. “If unity was achieved,” Zawahiri says, “we would be the first to bless it and renounce our connection with them.”
Abu Khalid al Suri held up as an example of a model jihadist
Throughout his message, Zawahiri complains bitterly about the way jihadists in Syria have handled their oaths of allegiance. He even compares the situation to a “train station,” with “passengers coming and going.” He clearly thinks that the jihadists have played games, opportunistically adhering to their oaths depending on the circumstances.
Zawahiri holds up Abu Khalid al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who was a senior figure in Ahrar al Sham (seen above), as an example of how an honorable jihadist should behave. Despite what Zawahiri says now, al-Suri’s career is further evidence that al Qaeda sought to hide its hand in the Syrian insurgency. He and other al Qaeda operatives were embedded within Ahrar al Sham, but their presence was not publicly announced. (FDD’s Long War Journal helped expose al-Suri’s role just months before he was killed.)
Al-Suri was killed in Feb. 2014, presumably by a suicide bomber dispatched by Baghdadi’s organization. He had been serving as Zawahiri’s chief representative in the Levant at the time. Indeed, Zawahiri recalls how he named al-Suri as his “envoy” in the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah. Al-Suri responded with a cordial message filled with brotherly affection, Zawahiri says, quoting from al-Suri’s message.
“To my beloved sheikh, Abu-al-Fath [Zawahiri], may Allah protect you and watch over you,” al-Suri wrote, according to the text included in Zawahiri’s message. Al-Suri added that it “delighted” him to receive Zawahiri’s message naming him as al Qaeda’s chief liaison and “caused joy.” Al-Suri continued by telling Zawahiri that as the al Qaeda leader’s “assistant in solving the current crisis between the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Nusrah,” he asked Allah to be a “virtuous” leader who “does not tolerate lies among his people.”
In a May 2013 message to Zawahiri, al-Suri swore that he hadn’t “changed any of the methodologies” or “thinking” that they had shared. Moreover, the “affection” linking them remained “intact” and even “grew” tremendously, al-Suri’s missive read. “To you [Zawahiri], I am still, as you have come to know me, a faithful advisor and a loving brother,” al-Suri wrote, according to a translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal.
Zawahiri uses Al-Suri’s testimony to undermine those who have broken their oaths to al Qaeda. He recalls that al-Suri wrote to him about how Baghdadi’s followers were “manipulating” their pledges in 2013. “Al Qaeda is a name that they brag about when it suits their desire, but it conflicts [with what they want to do], they do not listen or obey,” al-Suri wrote. This is intended to be an indictment of those from Al Nusrah, and possibly other groups, who are not abiding by their oaths to al Qaeda now.
HTS has cracked down on some al Qaeda loyalists. In addition to some high-profile recent arrests, it appears that HTS had previously detained others. Zawahiri criticizes HTS for these detentions, asking if they would also detain him and al-Suri, merely because he upheld al Qaeda’s “methodology, thought, and goals.”
“We miss you greatly,” Zawahiri says of al-Suri.
There are still al Qaeda loyalists in HTS’ ranks and probably other groups inside Syria. It is not clear how numerous they are, or how they will respond now. Nor is it known how Julani will respond. Zawahiri addresses his men directly: “I request from my brothers, the soldiers of al Qaeda in the Levant, to cooperate with all the honest mujahideen and to strive to reunite and mend the rift.” Zawahiri says his “order” is clear, as his men are “to cooperate” with their brothers, including those who “disagreed with them.” It appears that Zawahiri has some sort of reconciliation in mind and he probably wants to avoid even more infighting. Zawahiri adds that his “brothers” in “al Qaeda in the Levant” should “stay in contact with their leadership,” which will serve them every day.
Other al Qaeda veterans featured in Zawahiri’s video
In addition to Abu Khalid al-Suri, As Sahab includes footage of three Egyptian al Qaeda veterans toward the end of Zawahiri’s video. They are Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhmmad al-Masri and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. All three are shown in pre-9/11 Afghanistan celebrating the official merger of Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group with bin Laden’s operation. (Screenshots can be seen below.)
Footage of these Egyptians is included because they have been involved in the crisis precipitated by the formation of HTS. Along with another al Qaeda veteran, Khalid al Aruri (Abu al Qassam), they were reportedly released from Iranian custody in 2015. Al Qaeda secured their release by exchanging an Iranian diplomat who had been taken hostage in Yemen.
Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, who served as Zawahiri’s top deputy until his death in a US drone strike in February, relocated to Syria after being freed from Iranian custody. In July 2016, he paved the way for Al Nusrah’s public “disassociation” from al Qaeda. Al-Masri specifically endorsed the move in an audio message released shortly before Julani read his statement. Zawahiri doesn’t mention that his own deputy blessed Julani’s announcement, but it has become a key part of the current dispute.
Abu Abdullah al-Shaami, the aforementioned HTS loyalist, and other sources have noted that while Abu al-Khayr approved Julani’s moves, two of Zawahiri’s other top deputies ended up disapproving of them. Those two deputies are Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri and their own roles have come to the fore because they are apparently living in Iran.
According to Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the founders of HTS rejected a decision issued by Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad because they “are in an enemy state (Iran),” where “they are being held there against their will.”**
But Abu al Qassam (a former deputy to Abu Musab al Zarqawi), who is in Syria, rejected this argument, explaining that the pair “left prison and they are not imprisoned” as Abu Abdullah claimed. Instead, “they are forbidden from traveling until Allah makes for them an exit and they move around and live their natural lives except for being allowed to travel.”
“The term confined means they are in prison,” or something similar that prevents them from independently exercising their “will,” Abu al Qassam wrote. But this isn’t the case, “so be aware…that this should not be a reason on challenging their decisions.” In other words, Abu al Qassam argues that HTS was not justified in rejecting the decision issued by Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, because while they are inside Iran (and currently prevented from traveling abroad), they are still free to operate.
The irony is that HTS and other Sunni jihadists are fighting Iranian-backed forces inside Syria and two al Qaeda leaders inside Iran are supposed to have the veto over its decisions. This is just one of the many ways in which al Qaeda’s complex relationship with the Iranian regime can cause problems for the organization.
It remains to be seen what moves Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhammad al Masri and other al Qaeda leaders, including personnel inside Syria, will do now.
Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhmmad al-Masri and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri as shown in Zawahiri’s new video:
*It appears that some of these figures have been released, or will be.
**It is important to keep in mind that both sides of this dispute have their own interests, and some parts of their testimony are questionable. This sentence was also slightly modified after initial publication.
*** These phrases and others from Abu Abdullah’s testimony were translated by Al Maqalaat.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.