Acute divisions within Salafi jihadism in Syria have given birth to a new movement loyal to Al-Qaeda.
Ever since the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime turned into an armed revolt, Salafi jihadist groups have been at the forefront of the movement to take up arms against the regime. They began to attract both local and foreign fighters because they provided intellectual support in the conflict. Salafi jihadists became one of its bases both intellectually and militarily because they represented an ideology based on the idea of oppressed Sunnis confronting a regime armed with sectarianism as the conflict took on a sectarian intellectual course.
However, divisions soon began to creep into jihadist ranks, especially after what many jihadists came to see as attempts by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani and his party, the Nusra Front, to monopolize control of the Syrian political scene. After Jolani split Nusra from ISIS and ended its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the dispute then turned from an organizational split into one over methods. This fighting and intellectual disagreement led to three distinct strands among jihadist groups in Syria: one which supported Nusra, another which isolated itself and a third which was closer to ISIS.
But ultimately, Nusra’s split from Al-Qaeda, its mother group, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because this action split the Nusra Front itself, with a group of Al-Qaeda loyalists breaking away from the main group and the remainder reconstituting themselves as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The breakaway group consisted mostly of those representing the ‘Jordanian current’, loyal to Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The dispute was limited to mutual admonishments until the entry of Turkey and its shaky alliance with HTS, which the Jordanian current rejected, calling the Turks ‘infidels’ and admonishing HTS for diluting and abandoning the ‘fruits of jihad’.
The intellectual divisions between the two became more acute and reached the point that each party attempted to shame the other by exposing what had been considered sacred secrets, such as how allegiance was pledged to Al-Qaeda, with Al-Qaeda supporters accusing HTS of betrayal and oath-breaking.
HTS raised the stakes when it carried out a major campaign of arrests on 26 November 2017, which included first- and second-ranking commanders loyal to Al-Qaeda. It arrested the former Nusra Front sharia official, Jordanian Sami al-Aridi, and his fellow former Nusra leader Ayad al-Tubasi (Abu Jalibib). It also arrested Zarqawi’s deputy, Khalid al-Aroudi (Abu al-Qassam), and the former general military commander for Nusra, Abu Hamam al-Shami, as well as Abu Khadija, a Jordanian, and second-rank commanders including Abu Muslim and Abu al-Laith.
These arrests put HTS in an embarrassing position before its supporters and many jihadist sharia scholars because they had arrested people who were important both in their formation and in their ability to withstand the expansion of ISIS. These arrests also removed a great deal of HTS’s jihadist legitimacy.
All these matters pushed Zawhiri to order those loyal to him to form a group under his authority. Taking advantage of a distracted HTS, preoccupied with fighting al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham, the formation of Horas ad-Deen (Guardians of the Faith) was announced on 27 February 2018. In its formative declaration, the group called for a stop to the fighting between al-Zinki, Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, and for unity in efforts to fight Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Horas ad-Deen, an updated Al-Qaeda branch in Syria
Horas ad-Deen was formed from a number of jihadist groups, such as Jund al-Malahem, Jaish al-Badiya, Jaish al-Sahel and other brigades and units with a jihadist orientation. According to one jihadist commander, the organization is led by the Syrian-Jordanian Abu Hamam al-Shami, and its military commander is Abu Hamam al-Urdani. Its most prominent sharia scholars are the Jordanians Sami al-Aridi and Abu Jalibib al-Urdani. The jihadist figures who have joined it include Abu Baseer al-Britani, Abu Anas al-Saudi, Hussein al-Kurdi and other well-known names in the jihadist scene. The commander estimates Horas ad-Deen has about 2,000 fighters.
Horas ad-Deen is an Al-Qaeda component known for strong loyalty to its leader Zawahiri, but it suffers from many issues, including a lack of funding and low levels of armament. HTS confiscated the weapons of most of those who joined from its ranks. The organization also lacks a centralized administrative structure and is distributed among small groups in various parts of northern Syria. Horas ad-Deen is working to attract muhajireen (foreign fighters) as well as local fighters who left HTS.
The most important aims of Horas ad-Deen are to preserve the traditional loyalty to Al-Qaeda and to retain its international view of the conflict. Jolani had pragmatically diverted Al-Qaeda, through the Nusra Front, away from what had been known as the ‘international jihad’ into a local organization interacting with a complex political environment. This angered leaders and theorists of the jihadist movement who viewed the conflict through a comprehensive lens, aiming to globalize it and not limit it to national borders.
Al-Qaeda now wants to prove it can adapt to local and international realities in Syria. It seeks to claim that it is more mature and aware of the course of the conflict than both ISIS and Jolani by proving its refusal to fight against other rebel groups despite the severe intellectual differences among them.
A former jihadist group commander known as Abi Awseed al-Halabi believes that ‘a confrontation is expected between various jihadist groups and rebel groups after Turkish forces and their allies in the Free Syrian Army took control of Afrin and opened the route between Azaz and Idlib. Turkey is suggesting that it will enter Idlib along with allied groups, while there is also Turkish-Russian agreement on expelling jihadist groups from Idlib.’
While jihadist groups, especially those close to Al-Qaeda, announced they were staying neutral in the conflict between rebel groups and HTS, because both Al-Qaeda and the rebel groups see HTS as a threat to them, the rebel groups also do not want to antagonize these jihadist groups and force them to join HTS. Al-Qaeda, through Horas ad-Deen, wishes to avoid conflict with local groups and hopes to gain support by avoiding this fight.
Sultan Al Kanj is a Syrian Journalist and researcher born in rural Aleppo. He studied Philosophy at University of Aleppo and worked as a journalist coveirng Syria since 2012. He writes for Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Arabi 21 and Al Jazeera blogs. He has experince in academic research including philosophical research, history of religious groups, intellectual doctrines, and history of Islamic civilization.