Al Qaeda-linked operations room continues to attack Assad regime

A new jihadist operations room began targeting Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their allies in October. Pro-al Qaeda social media sites and channels have promoted the military venture, named “Incite the Believers,” by regularly disseminating the group’s statements and images.

Some of these same online sources have stated that the operations room is comprised of two al Qaeda-linked groups: Hurras al-Din (“Guardians of the Religion”) and Ansar al-Din.

On Nov. 17, the “Incite the Believers” joint venture announced that both of these organizations are indeed operating under its umbrella. A third group, Ansar al Islam, is as well. The statement, seen on the right, was released via the venture’s Telegram channel, which has been online since mid-October.

“Incite the Believers” began operating in the context of an agreement struck between Russia and Turkey that led to the creation of a demilitarized zone in the northwestern province of Idlib. Both “Guardians of the Religion” and Ansar al Din quickly rejected the accord. Meanwhile, the largest jihadist group in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), issued an ambiguous statement concerning the so-called Sochi agreement. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Jihadists in Syria react to Sochi agreement.]

Since then, the men responsible for “Incite the Believers” have launched a string of attacks against the Assad regime and its allies. Their latest claimed operation, on Nov. 18, purportedly targeted the “fortifications of the Nusayri army” (a derogatory reference to Assad’s fighters) with RG-6 grenades near Tal Alloush in the southern countryside of Aleppo. The group’s media team subsequently released a video of the attack.

Other operations have been carried out in Hama, Khan Touman (Aleppo province), Latakia and elsewhere. On Nov. 16, the jihadists claimed to have killed 18 Syrian soldiers, while capturing “light and medium weapons,” in the Mountain of the Kurds (Jabal al-Akrad) in Latakia.

At times, “Incite the Believers” has encouraged other factions in their fight as well. On Nov. 10, for instance, the group offered its condolences to Jaysh al-Izza after it lost a number of fighters.

Jihadist infighting and heated disagreements over leadership helped lead to the formation of “Incite the Believers.” Some jihadists have criticized Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. HTS responded by imprisoning a handful of influential figures and has repeatedly clashed with other factions. Julani was the leader of Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, until mid-2016. Al Nusrah evolved into HTS and some of Julani’s critics have accused him of breaking his bayat (oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri. The US and United Nations still consider HTS to be an “affiliate” of al Qaeda.

“Guardians of Religion” was formed in late February, after the controversies surrounding HTS boiled over. Various al Qaeda veterans are thought to be in its leadership. [For more, see FDD’s Long War Journal report, Jihadists form ‘Guardians of the Religion’ organization in Syria.]

“Guardians of Religion” and Ansar al-Tawhid established a joint venture named Hilf Nusrat al-Islam earlier this year. It is suspected that Ansar al-Tawhid grew out of Jund al-Aqsa, which was still another al Qaeda-linked group in Syria.

Ansar al-Din, which has its own ties to al Qaeda’s network, was one of HTS’s original constituent groups, but it broke away from HTS in February. Ansar al-Din then resumed its activities under its own leadership and brand, as they existed before HTS’s formation.

Ansar al-Islam was originally based in Iraq, but has waged jihad in Syria throughout the war. It is a relatively small organization, but has regularly fought alongside various other groups. In July, Ansar al-Islam members raided an Assad regime position in the Jabal Turkman (Turkmen Mountain) region of Latakia. That raid was conducted in conjunction with other small factions.

“Incite the Believers” has been endorsed by various jihadist ideologues inside Syria. On Nov. 18, a religious campaign led by Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a US-designated terrorist and al Qaeda-linked cleric, expressed its support for the effort in a statement.

The jihadists’ have lost momentum in Syria, as their guerrilla war, which once threatened the Assad regime’s existence, has stalled. “Incite the Believers” is intended to spark the insurgency. Indeed, the group warns of international efforts to thwart the anti-Assad campaign once and for all.

Images posted on Nov. 17 from an “Incite the Believers” attack on the Assad regime:

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

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