Jihadist group confirms arrest of Uzbek commander

Jabhat Ansar al Din (JaD), a longstanding pro-al Qaeda group in Syria, has confirmed the arrest of Abu Saloh al Uzbeki earlier this week. Uzbeki was the founder and former emir of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ).

In a statement released earlier today, JaD acknowledges Abu Saloh’s arrest at a Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) checkpoint in Idlib adding that the event “surprised us.” JaD goes on to further hope that “a joint Sharia committee can be established to look into their [HTS] suit.”

A senior official in JaD, Ramiz Abu al Majd, previously stated that the that the current complaints against Abu Saloh are more than a year old. But after his recent defection, this has brought these issues back to the forefront.

It is unclear when Abu Saloh joined Jabhat Ansar al Din. However, JaD officials and local reporting have indicated it was recent. JaD operates closely alongside Hurras al Din, the current al Qaeda franchise inside Syria.

Zaman al Wasl, an independent Syrian outlet, has reported that HTS’ complaints against Abu Saloh 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.

Step News Agency, a pro-opposition outlet in Syria, stated earlier today that HTS has also seized $60,000 of Abu Saloh’s money in one of their banks

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. It is clear that JaD is now attempting to appeal to HTS directly for Abu Saloh’s release.

Abu al Majd has implied that the debts owed by Abu Saloh are cover for a more politicized retribution over Abu Saloh’s joining a group within Hurras al Din’s orbit.

JaD was previously a member of Hurras al Din’s “Incite the Believers” operations room and is now a member of the group’s “So Be Steadfast” alliance. HTS and Hurras al Din have had issues in the past.

KTJ was originally formed in 2014 as an Uzbek battalion within the then-al Qaeda branch Al Nusrah Front. In 2015, it briefly became an independent organization before rejoining the fold. KTJ now constitutes an important ethnic brigade within HTS.

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.

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 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. New reporting from Step News Agency has also confirmed these rifts within the group.

Step has reported that Abu Saloh recently defected to JaD alongside 50 other members of KTJ. The Uzbek group has yet to comment on this development.

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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