Hay’at Tahrir al Sham reportedly arrests Uzbek jihadist leader

Abu Saloh, as seen in a Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad video from early 2015.

Jihadists on social media have reported that a well-known Uzbek commander in Syria was recently arrested by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Idlib.

According to accounts belonging to various jihadists in Syria, Abu Saloh al Uzbeki, the founder and former emir of the Uzbek jihadist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), was arrested yesterday alongside two of his men by HTS’ internal security forces.

HTS has so far not commented on the purported arrest, but several Telegram channels linked to both it and al Qaeda have commented on Abu Saloh’s detention.

These same accounts have reported that Abu Saloh recently left HTS’ fold and joined Jabhat Ansar al Din, another established jihadist group in Syria that is more aligned to al Qaeda’s camp in the country. Ansar al Din operates closely alongside Hurras al Din, the current al Qaeda franchise inside Syria.

If true, this represents a major shakeup within KTJ’s upper echelon. As of the time of publishing, KTJ has not confirmed his defection. The page dedicated to Abu Saloh’s lectures is also still active on KTJ’s website.

One testimony online that has been shared widely by the jihadists has alleged that the current complaints against Abu Saloh are longstanding. But after his reported recent defection, this has brought these issues back to the forefront.

Zaman al Wasl, an independent Syrian outlet, has reported that these complaints revolve around money. According to the outlet, Abu Saloh owned money to HTS’ cadres but the debt was not payed before he joined Ansar al Din.

The jihadist testimony online gives further details that officials within Ansar al Din tried to work the issue out with KTJ’s new emir prior to Abu Saloh’s arrest. But it would appear that these efforts were not successful.

Abu Saloh stepped down from KTJ’s leadership last year, as reported by the United Nations, to “focus on recruitment and fundraising.” KTJ’s new emir, Abdul Aziz, whom the UN identified as ‘Khikmatov,’ is reportedly a 20-year veteran of the al Qaeda-linked group Islamic Jihad Union.

The Islamic Jihad Union, while based in Afghanistan, also maintains a branch inside Syria as part of HTS. It is unknown if the group maintains its own sub-unit within HTS or if it is under KTJ’s hierarchy. Given Abdul Aziz’s leadership, the latter scenario seems likely.

Abu Saloh’s role within HTS was reportedly further diminished last year when a jihadist known as Ahluddin Navqotiy took over much of Abu Saloh’s preaching responsibilities. Navqotiy has been prominently featured in KTJ’s productions since and KTJ’s website also features a dedicated page to his lectures.

According to the Uzbekistan-based Center for Studying Regional Threats, Navqotiy’s appointment by Abdul Aziz has caused further rifts within the ranks of KTJ. If this marginalization is true, this might explain Abu Saloh’s defection from the group he founded.

This is also not the first time HTS has arrested a high-profile foreign jihadist leader in Idlib. The al Qaeda-linked French jihadist Omar Diaby was also held by HTS for more than six months in 2018 and 2019 following several disputes with the organization over the daughter of one of Diaby’s fighters.

Abu Saloh and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

Abu Saloh, whose real name is Sirajuddin Mukhtarov, is an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan. Following the onset of the war in Syria, Abu Saloh travelled to the country where he joined the then-al Qaeda branch, the Al Nusrah Front.

In 2014, he created KTJ as a sub-unit within the Al Nusrah Front for other Uzbek jihadists. By the end of that year, however, KTJ would split from Al Nusrah to become an independent jihadist group.

Despite being independent, it retained close ties to its parent organization. KTJ took part in the various operations to capture Idlib province in the spring of 2015, perhaps most noticeably in the battle for Jisr al Shughur. It also has taken part in other battles in Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia.

KTJ also formed close ties with Syria’s other Uzbek jihadist group, Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB). The group also fought alongside and forged close ties to other foreign jihadist groups such as Junud al Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party.

By the fall of 2015, however, KTJ rejoined the Al Nusrah Front as part of Al Nusrah’s efforts to consolidate various foreign groups inside Syria.

Since rejoining the fold, it has remained part of the structure of Al Nusrah as it rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al Sham in 2016 and later Hay’at Tahrir al Sham in 2017. KTJ has retained some autonomy, however, especially in regards to its own media and propaganda outlets.

KTJ has also enjoyed some degree of autonomy in its operations both locally and globally. For instance, KTJ and the Turkistan Islamic Party have been linked to the Aug. 2016 suicide bombing on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Local authorities have tied both the Turkistan Islamic Party and Abu Saloh to the bombing. According to Kyrgyz investigators, the suicide bomber was a member of the Turkistan Islamic Party while the overall direction for the operation came from Abu Saloh in Syria.

Neither group has ever claimed the bombing. And as of earlier this year, the group still had recruitment networks in place in Uzbekistan.

If the information regarding Abu Saloh’s arrest is true, it is clear that KTJ also has some authority to handle its own internal matters. But it appears that HTS proper is now taking the matter into its own hands.

Article updated with new information on Abu Saloh’s role in KTJ.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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