In late 2010 and into 2011, as the so-called “Arab Spring” swept across North Africa and the Middle East, a consensus emerged in the West that the unprecedented wave of pro-democracy protests spelled the likely end of jihadist movements like al-Qaeda.1 That was not, however, the view within al-Qaeda. From South Asia across to North Africa, the group’s senior leaders applauded the sudden and organic proliferation of public expressions of frustration, disenchantment and the resulting political instability. Here was an ideal opportunity to present al-Qaeda and its Islamic vision as an alternative to the region’s established dictatorial regimes.
Weeks into the protests, the organization’s then-deputy leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman wrote to Osama Bin Laden proposing that he “send his brothers to Tunisia and Syria and other places” to immediately exploit the new opportunities being presented.2 Soon thereafter, in private conversations with his family, Bin Laden himself is recorded to have said that the regional “chaos and the absence of leadership in the revolutions is the best environment to spread al-Qaeda’s thoughts and ideas.”3 Bin Laden was killed in an American raid in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad just weeks after speaking those words, but the opportunities provided to al-Qaeda by the collapse of multiple ruling regimes across the Middle East into crippling insecurity far outweighed the loss of its charismatic leader. Whether in Mali, Tunisia and Libya, or in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, al-Qaeda was presented with political vacuums and thus room to maneuver—and the prospect that hundreds—even thousands—of young recruits would look to join the jihadist movement to express their anger and thirst for change.
Fast forward to late-2019. It is quite clear that al-Qaeda was not defeated by the Arab Spring uprisings. Instead, since 2011, al-Qaeda has expanded its operations into new countries, it has formed new affiliates, and it has recruited many thousands of new fighters. At the same time, a more detailed investigation of the past eight years reveals a more complicated picture. In opportunistically taking advantage of new or worsening areas of instability in the Middle East, al-Qaeda affiliates ended up pursuing campaigns of an increasingly local nature. And by necessity, they saw their operations, and in many cases their identity, become increasingly distant from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL). At the same time, sustained counter-terrorism pressure on AQSL compounded this trend of localization by minimizing AQSL’s contact with its affiliates, and thereby catalyzing a parallel trend of decentralization within the jihadist movement.
In recent years, the localization of al-Qaeda affiliates and the decentralization of the al-Qaeda movement have been most clearly and dramatically illustrated in Syria. Al-Qaeda’s original affiliate there, Jabhat al-Nusra, became so deeply embedded in the hyper-localized dynamics of the Syrian conflict that its communication and coordination with AQSL was overtaken by its need to respond to local dilemmas. By 2017, Jabhat al-Nusra had rebranded twice and effectively severed its ties of loyalty to AQSL, thereby removing as many as 15,000 fighters from AQSL’s global roster.
The loss of Jabhat al-Nusra, until then arguably al-Qaeda’s most successful affiliate, and the manner in which it was lost, sent shockwaves throughout al-Qaeda’s global movement and particularly within AQSL. In earlier years, Jabhat al-Nusra’s success in Syria had presented al-Qaeda with an unprecedented opportunity to overcome its past setbacks and improve its prestige within the world’s jihadist movement and broader Islamist milieu. But this opportunity was swiftly lost when Jabhat al-Nusra went its own way. Jabhat al-Nusra’s de facto break with AQSL was a deeply controversial move that sparked a bitter debate within al-Qaeda’s global movement. Moreover, the jihadist movement’s internal divisions, allegations, and inadequacies were revealed for all to see.
Today, Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to be torn between reverting back to Bin Laden’s model of al-Qaeda as the “elite vanguard” of global jihadism and continuing to try to take advantage of affiliate localization while trying to re-assert more control over their strategic decision-making. Trying to have it both ways is unlikely to prove successful for Zawahiri and AQSL, particularly in a climate in which questions continue to be asked about what al-Qaeda has come to represent.
As the Arab Spring was getting underway, senior al-Qaeda leaders were in the midst of intensifying internal deliberations over the reasons why the jihadist movement had until then failed to build and sustain a credible and popular Islamic State. As al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) brief attempt at establishing the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006-2007 had made clear to many jihadist leaders, a strategy tailored in absolutist ideological terms that imposed itself aggressively upon society was virtually guaranteed to fail. Whether it was AQI’s penchant for horrific brutality and indiscriminate violence, or its prohibition of tobacco and the sale of cucumbers for their sexually-suggestive form, al-Qaeda’s ideological zeal antagonized the local Iraqi population and ultimately contributed to undermining the al-Qaeda project. Some key jihadist leaders concluded this zealous strategy of imposing Islamist rule was not viable.4 Indeed, when radical movements demand strict adherence to behavioral norms, or when ideological expectations of battlefield and political success are not met, then militant groups face inherent challenges attracting recruits and keeping and controlling their allegiance. Winning the hearts and minds of local populations, even for jihadists, is a sensible policy.
This was not an entirely novel idea for the likes of al-Qaeda. In fact, the group was born out of the “Arab Afghan” experience of the 1980s, when the mujahideen fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. There, Abdullah Azzam and some others under him had pursued a jihadist effort that was focused on serving a uniquely local (i.e. Afghan) and defensive struggle against an invading power that utilized both military and non-military means. Through organizations like the Maktab al-Khidamat, Azzam had sought to better coordinate the role of foreign volunteers in the Afghan arena, and to unite otherwise disparate and rival factions so as to further the overall cause.5 Much of Azzam’s foundational thinking in this regard underpinned the ways al-Qaeda sought to present itself in the midst of the growing regional instability during 2011 and 2012.
Excerpts from a letter sent from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abu Musab Abdual Wadud (aka. Abd al-Malik Droukdel) to his sub-commanders in Mali in early 2012 provides a valuable window into the new thinking that had begun to take root within AQSL:
The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and it has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it, support it until it stands… One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah… Our previous experience proved that applying Sharia in this way… will lead to people rejecting the religion and engender hatred towards the mujahideen.6
Droukdel’s guidance proved too little, too late for al-Qaeda’s campaign in Mali. The movement ended up behaving in such an extreme manner that its ability to hold territory and govern in a sustainable way was severely limited.7 Moderated conduct was more effectively implemented in Yemen by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) front group Ansar al-Sharia in the form of less extreme restrictions, better services and a clearer Yemeni face aimed at garnering buy-in from the local population.8 But even then, this more pragmatic guerilla strategy, implemented in 2011 and 2012, was insufficient, as ultimately, the real al-Qaeda face still shone through. Nevertheless, the same evolved thinking about localizing jihad continued to inspire AQSL. Thus, in September 2013, in Zawahiri’s General Guidelines for Jihad decree, the al-Qaeda emir directed the movement’s affiliates worldwide to avoid targeting civilians, Muslims, public areas and even members of “deviant sects”9—a reference to Shia Muslims.
The Syrian Experiment
Whereas Mali and Yemen had not proven to be successful arenas for testing al-Qaeda’s new thinking and its ambition to grow deep and sustainable roots “among the people” in a local conflict environment, Syria ended up proving to be its most successful experiment. It was there that al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra began to embed itself militarily, socially, politically, or religiously among the local factions of the Syrian revolution. Its name, meaning the Support Front, was designed to present Jabhat al-Nusra as an intrinsically local movement, one that was complementary to pre-existing revolutionary efforts. From mid-2012, Jabhat al-Nusra drove the formation of local and regional alliances with mainstream armed opposition groups and other jihadist factions, and thus it began to bridge the divides between ideological and non-ideological armed groups. By late 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra had also entered into governance activities, where despite its comparatively extreme ideological outlook, its drive against corruption and willingness to pay for the subsidizing of staple foods and services won it substantial popular support.10
Through a strategy that encompassed “controlled pragmatism,” “strategic patience,” “localism” and “incrementalism,” Jabhat al-Nusra sought to become part and parcel of the Syrian revolution.11 Of course, its ultimate objective was to infiltrate and ultimately control the revolution, and, to this end, it attempted to establish itself as the would-be leader of a comprehensive and representative Islamic State. In that sense, Al-Qaeda’s traditionally elitist attitude remained firmly in place, but the mechanisms for achieving that control were now markedly different. Jabhat al-Nusra’s governance activities and willingness to engage with a diversity of local actors which had less or even no overt Islamist character won it some political support. Still, arguably, its military primacy on the battlefield was its greatest asset.
Virtually every single major opposition victory in Syria from the Winter of 2012 until mid-2015 was won in part because of Jabhat al-Nusra’s role at the front. To remain relevant and to achieve their own success, mainstream opposition groups relied on their involvement in multi-faction campaigns that included Jabhat al-Nusra, and, more often than not, was also led by it. America’s CIA-led covert program of assistance to vetted opposition factions—which became best known for its provision of sophisticated BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missile systems—even ended up playing a crucially important role. Consciously or not, it provided rear-guard and stand-off support to Jabhat al-Nusra-led shock ground offensives.12
Taken together, Jabhat al-Nusra’s “service” to the Syrian struggle had secured it a prime place in the Syrian equation by 2014-2015. That success thrust Jabhat al-Nusra into a position of leadership, and it enjoyed a certain amount of popularity and credibility within the broader anti-regime milieu. However, the group fell short of achieving al-Qaeda’s ultimate objective: establishing total control over the whole of the Syrian opposition movement. Transitioning from an “elite vanguard” to leader of a unified mass Islamist jihad required more than battlefield successes or networking with Syria’s many factions. Instead, Jabhat al-Nusra needed to secure a broad-spectrum operational and ideological merger with Syria’s diverse opposition factions, and this would require translating the group’s “credibility into popularity, popularity into support, and support into loyalty.”13
And yet, the core obstacle to the establishment of an al-Qaeda-led Islamist “unity project” in Syria—as Jabhat al-Nusra’s internal discussions had repeatedly concluded, and as a host of conservative but independent Islamist clerics had long insisted—was the al-Qaeda name and the distrust it continued to engender among Jabhat al-Nusra’s diverse military partners. After intense and divisive debate within Jabhat al-Nusra, the decision was taken in July 2016 to sever “external ties.” This was a coded reference to Zawahiri and to the al-Qaeda leadership outside Syria (but not necessarily al-Qaeda leaders inside Syria). It was further decided to rebrand Jabhat al-Nusra as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), i.e., the “Front for the Conquest of the Levant,” to make the group appear more organically Syrian. Subsequently, three successive unity negotiation processes were swiftly initiated with Jabhat al-Nusra’s long-time military partners in northern Syria. All three ended in failure.14
The unavoidable conclusion was that the controversial decision—or gamble—to rebrand to JFS had backfired. Meanwhile, the organization felt pressured and increasingly sidelined by declining international interest in an anti-Assad struggle, by ongoing U.S.-Russian talks over countering al-Qaeda in Syria, and by increasing levels of mainstream opposition engagement in nationwide ceasefire negotiations. In response, JFS went on the offense. In January 2017, JFS launched coordinated assaults on multiple opposition rivals—including its long-time Islamist ally Ahrar al-Sham. In so doing, JFS coerced four armed factions to unite with it into yet another formation: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).15
For some within Syria’s conservative Islamist circles, HTS represented the jihadist merger and unity that al-Qaeda had sought all along. But for most ordinary Syrians, it was a vivid illustration of Jabhat al-Nusra's ideological zeal at the expense of a “united front” and Syria-wide political consolidation. It also revealed the limits in Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy of localism. Having been formed through aggression against another Syrian Islamist group, HTS antagonized others, and burned many of the bridges with other Syrian opposition groups that Jabhat al-Nusra had built in earlier years.16 Since its formation, HTS has fiercely protected its own interests whenever necessary, and it has effectively sealed its place as de facto governor of northwestern Syria. There, HTS has embraced and continued to adhere to a path of what I have coined “controlled pragmatism”—including by empowering a technocratic “Salvation Government” to run civil affairs and provide services to the people; forming a political office that seeks to engage in dialogue with foreign governments; engaging closely with Turkey and its National Intelligence Organization (MIT); and loosely abiding by international ceasefire arrangements.
The Syrian experiment has produced a complex and largely troubling set of “lessons learned” for al-Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy of “localism” and “incrementalism” in Syria may have been in line with the strategic instructions of senior al-Qaeda leadership, but its decision to rebrand to JFS and then to HTS proved to be deeply controversial among jihadists. At the moment of JFS’s formation, almost half of Jabhat al-Nusra’s shura council either defected or refused to accept new leadership positions in the new organization.17 Dozens of al-Qaeda veterans in Syria have since quit JFS and HTS in furious protest over its perceived “dilution” of Islamic principles18 and engagement in nationalistic practices. Even worse was its willingness to cooperate with the Turkish government, which al-Qaeda views with outright hostility.19 Today, al-Qaeda and its loyalists around the world no longer consider HTS to be part of the al-Qaeda movement, and AQSL remains engaged in a very public and visceral campaign criticizing HTS’s treachery and illegitimate path. The most pertinent lesson of all concerned al-Qaeda’s localism strategy: although it may have been successful in establishing Jabhat al-Nusra as a leader of the anti-Assad opposition in Syria, it also paved a path toward greater decentralization within al-Qaeda, and to an eventual and perhaps inevitable split between AQSL and its Syrian affiliate.
Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra’s evolution into HTS revealed AQSL’s severely limited capacity to control its network of affiliates around the world. Having encouraged its affiliates to localize and to work on establishing deeper roots and greater credibility “among the people,” AQSL had set in motion a process that it has not been able to control. As the Syrian case demonstrated most dramatically, when an affiliate’s willingness to embrace a strategy founded upon “controlled pragmatism,” and driven solely by local goals and dynamics was met with some success, building on that any further necessitated decisions based on explicitly local considerations. For a preeminent group like Jabhat al-Nusra to function successfully in a fluid, “hyper-local”20 conflict environment like Syria, strategic-level decisions had to be made virtually every day. But as a consequence, each decision made distanced the Syrian group further from AQSL. Moreover, the structural mechanisms and processes put into place by AQSL to prevent its affiliates from operating too independently or taking steps toward leaving al-Qaeda altogether have also clearly failed.
For example, al-Qaeda’s decision to maintain three deputies under Zawahiri (and Bin Laden before him) was intended to ensure a clear system of consultation “up the chain” on significant matters affecting the transnational organization. In the Syria case, one of al-Qaeda’s three global deputies, Ahmed Hassan (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri), was in Syria while Jabhat al-Nusra debated its first rebrand and its severing of “external ties.” Having spent considerable time in Syria, living the realities of Jabhat al-Nusra’s local jihad, Abu al-Khayr “blessed” the proposed rebrand to JFS. However, he did not consult at the time with his two fellow deputies —Sayf al-Adel and Abu Mohammed al-Masri, who were both based in Iran and only later made their objections clear within internal communications.21 Thus, they had no opportunity to raise the issue with Zawahiri in time. As such, the move to establish JFS broke al-Qaeda’s chain of command. Weeks later, when this complaint was made clear within closed al-Qaeda channels and in a string of public, tit-for-tat “testimonies” published by loyalists of HTS and al-Qaeda, Abu al-Khayr was forced to reverse his “blessing.” But by then it was too late.22
Another crisis accompanied the very public uproar following the breakdown in al-Qaeda senior leadership’s control over Jabhat al-Nusra and its subsequent evolution into JFS and then HTS. In the eyes of al-Qaeda and its loyalists, Jabhat al-Nusra’s transition to JFS was a betrayal. But the organization’s second rebrand into HTS represented the end of the group’s allegiance to the al-Qaeda cause.23 In fact, even Abu al-Khayr had not been consulted about it.24
Within days of HTS’s creation in January 2017, al-Qaeda’s most prominent ideologues went into attack mode, and Jabhat al-Nusra’s pre-JFS deputy Sami al-Oraydi publicly quit, accusing HTS’s leadership of “the greatest form of disobedience…of the mother organization.” Oraydi’s phraseology was particularly telling—he had, in fact, employed the exact same wording in 2014 when condemning ISIS’s rebellious break from al-Qaeda.25
There followed a bitter public spat that pitched a wide array of al-Qaeda leaders and ideologues against HTS’s leadership, which was headed by Abu Mohammed al-Jolani’s chief aide, Abdulrahim Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami). Through March and April 2017, Oraydi issued a series of written attacks on HTS, accusing it of “legal trickery.” This was quickly followed by a statement from Zawahiri ordering jihadists to avoid “nationalism” and to re-pledge their loyalty to global jihad—a clear reference to HTS, which Oraydi swiftly leapt on to note that Zawahiri’s position on the matter of condemning HTS actions was “as clear as the sun.”26 The al-Qaeda versus HTS rhetorical war continued throughout the summer and the fall of 2017. In October of that year, Zawahiri issued another statement condemning those he said had committed “violations” and broken “binding” oaths—another clear reference to HTS.27
Then HTS began arresting al-Qaeda loyalists. At this point, Oraydi issued five consecutive “testimonies” detailing what he described as HTS’s “rebellion” and which resulted, he said, in a full break from al-Qaeda. Senior HTS figures, including Atoun, launched a rhetorical counter-attack. This included leveling accusations at Zawahiri himself for being misinformed or confused, and further claiming that, between November 2013 and September 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra (and briefly JFS) had been unable to contact Zawahiri at all.28 Abu al-Harith al-Masri, an HTS shura council member, went as far as to claim Zawahiri’s distance from the Syrian reality meant he had lost any semblance of legitimacy or authority over the situation there.29
The total breakdown of the relationship came in November 2017, when HTS arrested Oraydi along with multiple leading al-Qaeda figures, including Abu Abdul Karim al-Khorasani (a member of al-Qaeda’s global shura council), Iyad al-Tubasi (Abu Julaybib) and Abu Khallad al-Mohandis (Sayf al-Adel’s father-in-law). Days later, another Zawahiri statement was released in which al-Qaeda’s leader, for the first time, directly condemned HTS’s “violation of the covenant” and its engagement in a campaign of “killing, fighting, accusations, fatwas and counter-fatwas.”30 Regarding HTS’s formation, Zawahiri was clear: “As for the creation of new entities without unity, in which absurd schisms are repeated… this is what we have refused.”31
Al-Qaeda in Syria, Reborn
While the creation of JFS sent shockwaves throughout the al-Qaeda loyalist community within Syria, it was the subsequent formation of HTS six months later, in January 2017, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within two weeks, a high-level gathering of al-Qaeda veterans was convened in Idlib.32 According to two sources who attended that meeting, no consensus emerged as to how to respond beyond public and private expressions of condemnation.33
It was not until November 2017, in response to HTS’s arrest of Abu Julaybib, Oraydi, Abu Abdul Karim al-Khorasani and others, that al-Qaeda began to actively mobilize as a counterweight to HTS. Upon his release from HTS custody, Abu Julaybib—one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s seven founding members—issued a public statement declaring defiantly, “If you think by jailing us the idea of al-Qaeda is over, then you are delusional.” He furthermore re-pledged his allegiance to the al-Qaeda cause.34 Then, in a public statement condemning HTS’s arrest campaign, Abu Hammam al-Suri announced that an organized effort was underway to gather al-Qaeda loyalists under a single umbrella.35
Nearly three months later, on February 27, 2018, al-Qaeda’s re-emergence in Syria became a reality, with the creation of Tanzim Huras al-Din (Guardians of Religion, HaD). This small jihadist outfit was led from the outset by two prominent Syrians, Abu Hammam al-Suri and Sami al-Oraydi. HaD’s emergence came just one week after a Zawahiri statement had called on loyal jihadists in Syria to unite and refocus on a guerilla war (not to control and govern territory, like HTS).36 The implication of this sequence of events was impossible to ignore: al-Qaeda was back.37
As news of HaD’s creation spread, al-Qaeda voices worldwide began issuing public calls for jihadists to join the group.38 Two months after HaD’s formation, in April 2018, its leaders negotiated the formation of a military alliance known as Hilf Nusrat al-Islam with the jihadist faction, Ansar al-Tawhid. By August 2018, HaD had attracted pledges of allegiance from at least sixteen small jihadist factions in northwestern Syria, bringing its force level to approximately 2,500 full-time fighters. In October 2018, HaD led the expansion of Hilf Nusrat al-Islam into a military force of much more significance which effectively united almost all al-Qaeda aligned factions—HaD, alongside Ansar al-Tawhid, Ansar al-Din and Ansar al-Islam—under one collective umbrella, known as Ghorfat Amiliyat Wa-Hardh al-Mu’minin (Incite the Believers Operations Room). In pulling together this al-Qaeda alliance, HaD was not just protecting itself in the form of a broader support structure, it was also doing precisely what Zawahiri had repeatedly instructed his loyal followers in Syria to do: unite behind the military struggle.
For the most part, the territorial presence and military operations of both al-Qaeda-aligned militant umbrellas remained largely separate – based primarily in northwestern regions of Idlib and in Latakia – from frontlines shared by less hardline Islamists and other opposition factions elsewhere in Idlib, northern Hama and western Aleppo. Following the bitter breakup with al-Nusra-JFS-HTS, HaD and its al-Qaeda aligned allies had emerged as a largely geographically distinct gathering of armed factions based in northeastern Latakia’s Jabal Turkman and Jabal al-Akrad regions, and across the governorate border in the Jisr al-Shughour and Badama area of western Idlib.
However, when the Syrian regime and Russia launched their all-out military offensive on northwestern Syria in late-April 2019, a debate ensued within HaD: should they assist HTS and other opposition groups by reinforcing their frontlines in northern Hama? Given Zawahiri’s public directives indicating the importance of Islamist “unity” and sustaining the armed struggle against the regime, Abu Hammam and Oraydi emerged as tacitly supportive of operating wherever necessary.
By mid-May, a detachment of HaD militants had travelled south to the Hama frontlines, where they began independently launching consecutive raids across enemy lines. However, they avoided joining wider opposition operations. HaD’s ability to operate in close proximity to frontlines heavily influenced by HTS also brought to the forefront once again the controversial issue of HaD’s access to stocks of weapons and ammunition, which were heavily controlled by HTS.39
The debate over HaD’s role on HTS-opposition frontlines spilled out into the open in late June of 2019, when HaD leader Abu Hammam al-Suri expelled two prominent HaD clerics, Abu Dhar al-Masri and Abu Yahya al-Jazairi, for having issued non-HaD-sanctioned rulings forbidding fighting in northern Hama. Some alleged Abu Yahya had gone as far as pronouncing takfir on HTS, thereby excommunicating them from Islam and labeling them apostates and legitimate targets for attack.
Abu Hammam’s dismissal of Abu Dhar and Abu Yahya sparked an uproar within HaD. The group’s internal judicial court, led by Abu Amr al-Tunisi, issued a petition signed by more than 300 members on June 23 demanding an arbitration involving Abu Hammam and his deputy, Sami al-Oraydi. However, neither Abu Hammam nor Oraydi turned up at the planned arbitration on June 25, leading the court’s chief, Abu Amr, to issue a furious five-minute audio statement accusing HaD’s leaders of “nepotism.” Abu Amr was swiftly expelled from HaD, and this led another senior HaD leader, Abu Yaman al-Wazzani, to declare in exasperation “the jihadist project over.”40 Later that day, a HaD statement confirmed that Wazzani and another fellow critic, Abu Musab al-Libi, had also been expelled from HaD.
Tensions persisted through the Summer of 2019, albeit less intensely. But in a mysterious twist on June 30, 2019—just days after the above-mentioned crisis—Abu Amr al-Tunisi, Abu Yahya al-Jazairi and Abu Dhar al-Masri were all killed, along with three other allied “hardliners” (Abu al-Fid’a al-Tunisi, Abu Dujana al-Tunisi and Abu Ibrahim al-Shami) in a U.S. airstrike that targeted a meeting of HaD detractors in rural Aleppo. That was the first U.S. strike in northwestern Syria in more than two years41 and it was followed up two months later by another on August 31, 2019, targeting HaD’s ally Ansar al-Tawhid. Al-Qaeda veteran Abu Khallad al-Mohandis was also killed in an IED attack that targeted his personal vehicle in Idlib city on August 22, 2019.
A eulogy for Abu Khallad authored by Syria-based al-Qaeda loyalist Abdullah Ibrahim Ali al-Hijazi subsequently revealed that he had quit HaD some time before his death after his attempts to heal internal HaD rifts had been blocked by an “inflexible” Oraydi.42 Intriguingly, his death was swiftly blamed on “traitors”—a likely reference to jihadists (HTS or perhaps even allies of HaD leaders, Abu Hammam or Oraydi) who took issue with his positions.
Notwithstanding persistent internal disagreements over how absolutist HaD and al-Qaeda’s posture should be in Syria, the re-emergence of American counter-terrorism attention on al-Qaeda’s activities in Syria was noteworthy. On September 10, 2019, the U.S. government designated HaD as “al-Qaeda in Syria” and identified Abu Hammam, Oraydi and Abu Abdul Karim al-Masri as specially designated terrorists, offering $5 million each for information leading to their location.43 Al-Qaeda’s determination to re-energize its presence in Syria through HaD had clearly—finally—attracted the attention of the U.S. government, and rightly so. According to several well-connected Islamist sources speaking separately to this author since early-2019 about separate incidents, HaD figures have repeatedly and publicly argued in favor of resuming external attacks on Western/American targets. Despite facing intense opposition from many, HaD figures nonetheless felt confident and comfortable enough to discuss an issue – that of attacking the West—that, until recently, would only have been discussed in secretive rooms in tight, loyal circles—if at all.
When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. Special Forces raid in the small village of Barisha in northern Idlib on October 26, 2019, questions were raised about how such a figure could have found even a temporary safe-haven in an area surrounded by enemies. On paper, the rural area around Barisha was under HTS authority—but it was also a well-known stronghold for al-Qaeda loyalists. One person from the area interviewed by opposition media shortly after the raid had purportedly identified the owner of Baghdadi’s compound as a HaD operative known both as Abu Mohammed al-Halabi and Abu al-Bara’a, but subsequent on-the-ground investigations revealed the individual to be Salam Haj Deeb,44 a long-time ISIS operative, not a HaD member. Likewise, the New York Times published an article on October 30 claiming to reveal a secret ISIS mission to co-opt HaD and acquire its protection in return for money.45 However, in a subsequent Editor’s Note published on November 15, the New York Times admitted that the October 30 article’s author had misrepresented the process of verifying the documents upon which the claims had been based and in fact, an independent document expert had since judged them to have been fraudulent.46
In reality, Baghdadi appears to have embraced a strategy of hiding in plain sight, perhaps motivated in turn by a desire to be closer to family members who had fled to Turkey. Ultimately, that strategy failed.
An Era of Bitter Competition
From the outset, the emergence of HaD as a tangible and credible entity served to further deepen the animosity between it and HTS. HTS instantly issued a formal demand that HaD hand back all weapons belonging to HTS defectors who had joined HaD—an ask that, given the threat of a military response from HTS, was eventually granted. HTS sought to consolidate its primacy in northwestern Syria, whether through military arrangements tacitly done in coordination with Turkey, or through political and social service initiatives pursued through its Salvation Government.
Meanwhile, HaD and its leadership figures sought to undermine HTS’s legitimacy. When the U.S. government added HTS to its list of designated terrorist organizations on May 31, 2018 and when Turkey added HTS to its own terrorist list on August 31, 2018, HaD and al-Qaeda loyalists worldwide leaped at the chance to condemn HTS. They claimed the U.S. designation was conclusive evidence that HTS’s attempt to present itself as something different had demonstrably failed. In response, HTS periodically cracked down on HaD, most notably in October 2018 when senior Egyptian leaders of the group were arrested en masse and in November, when seven HaD-linked commanders were detained.
That latter incident was linked to a bitter dispute over the custody of a young girl named Yasmine whose mother lived in France and whose father, a French jihadist, had been killed in Syria. Before dying, he had demanded his daughter not be sent back to her “non-Muslim” mother. Since then, a French al-Qaeda-linked commander, Omar Diaby, had purportedly “abducted” Yasmine in an apparent plot to extract a ransom from her mother in Europe. In response, HTS arrested Diaby and six accomplices, sparking a crisis that nearly led to a military conflict. That dispute ended when a group of Islamic scholars in Idlib ordered that the girl be released to her mother in France, while Diaby reportedly remained in HTS custody for “other issues.”47
However, the greatest source of conflict between HaD and HTS was the issue of Turkey and its role in supporting armed groups and the ongoing conflict in northwestern Syria. For Turkey and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the situation in northwestern Syria and its implications for Turkish national security made it a crucially important domestic political issue. The small pocket of territory housed at least three million Syrians, half of whom were already displaced. Erdogan’s domestic political standing was already under severe pressure due to the existing Syrian refugee population inside Turkey of more than 3.5 million. Therefore, a dangerous and delicate relationship with HTS was perceived inside the Erdogan government, and particularly within Turkey’s MIT intelligence service, as a necessary evil.
In January, Abu Hammam and Oraydi issued a scathing public statement accusing HTS of making plans to form a military council alongside the Turkish-controlled Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. This would, among other things, facilitate the re-opening of the M5 highway connecting Turkey and HTS-controlled areas in interior Syrian territory held by the Assad regime.48 Soon thereafter, a second statement was issued by HaD leaders Khalid al-Aruri and Abu Mohammed al-Sudani reiterating the same allegation. After that news broke, the senior HTS figure Abu Yaqazan al-Masri quit HTS on February 3, 2019 in protest, and Zawahiri, on February 5, released a video message decrying HTS’s ceding of the Syrian jihad to “secular Turkey” and the dilution of the Sharia in HTS’s actions and decisions. After HaD and HTS engaged in deadly armed clashes in Aleppo’s southern countryside on February 7, 2019, the groups signed a joint agreement avowing they would cease public attacks on each other, though these continued sporadically throughout the remainder of 2019, particularly once Turkish troops began patrols inside Idlib on March 9, 2019.
Once Assad’s regime forces initiated major offensive operations targeting northwest Syria in late-April 2019, HaD’s recriminations escalated even further. They accused HTS of being dependent on Turkey and responding insufficiently to regime bombardment. On August 14, rare comments attributed to Sayf al-Adel were published by al-Qaeda channels. He blamed HTS for destroying the Syrian jihad and being part of a Turkish plot against al-Qaeda and the struggle in Syria. Ten days later, after HTS and allied groups lost the town of Khan Sheikhoun, HaD and al-Qaeda’s global network launched a tirade against HTS and ridiculed the group.
Future of Al-Qaeda
As al-Qaeda’s experiences in Syria since 2011 have demonstrated, the natural response to the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings and ISIS’s dramatic rise in 2014 was to “turn local” and seek to win hearts and minds. But the consequences of succeeding in that approach posed a direct challenge to al-Qaeda’s capacity to control its affiliate once it began to thrive. Jabhat al-Nusra’s evolution into HTS proved a humiliating development for al-Qaeda and its senior leadership (AQSL), which appeared within that context as aged, distant and almost irrelevant to the realities of the rapidly moving, fluid and hyper-localized conflict ongoing in Syria.
AQSL’s response to this realization in recent years has been to revert back to the original model for al-Qaeda espoused by Bin Laden as a “vanguard” —i.e., an elite, battle-hardened and relatively compact force to confront enemies both near and far. This would be done without unduly compromising their abilities by expending resources heavily on territorial control, governance and population management. However, AQSL has also been unable to fully ignore the opportunity presented by ISIS’s territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, and the chance to position al-Qaeda as a more durable and successful alternative for prospective jihadist recruits. AQSL, in fact, appears cognizant of this opportunity from time to time—attempting to draw a fine line between a Bin Laden-era level of extremism and an HTS-like minor moderation.
This awkward balance was exposed for all to see in June 2019, following the death of deposed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. At that time, two of al-Qaeda’s most influential ideologues and long-time friends—Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini—fell out bitterly over what Morsi had represented to them. As Cole Bunzel detailed extensively in Jihadica, Abu Qatada had swiftly taken to the internet to mourn Morsi’s death:
May God have abundant mercy on him and accept him among the righteous… [This is] an appeal to every Muslim on this earth to beg pardon for him and to ask God to have mercy on him, for he died unjustly. Not for a moment did I doubt that he had a heart sincerely devoted to his religion and his ummah.49
Maqdisi shot back instantly, condemning Qatada outright for lavishing praise on Morsi, a figure who “chose the path of democracy.” As Maqdisi insisted,
“We do not love him” and it is “not permissible for us” to do so, as that would be to condone “heresy warranting takfir.”
Therein followed a public and unusually acrimonious dispute in which Abu Qatada emerged as a prominent advocate for an “inclusivist” and “big tent” approach to building the jihadist movement and Maqdisi consolidated his status as al-Qaeda’s chief “exclusivist” ideologist. The debate between Maqdisi and Qatada had been ongoing for several years, but their dispute over Morsi revealed their differences in its clearest terms. In response to the experience of HTS in particular, Abu Qatada had come around to the idea that a more popular and inclusive jihadist project was the right way forward.50 But Maqdisi embraced the opposite lesson, insisting instead the jihadist project needed to turn inwards and adhere to much stricter operational and ideological limitations in accord with their interpretation of Islam.
Intriguingly, however, despite al-Qaeda’s long-held hostility to the Brotherhood, Maqdisi turned out to be in the minority in the wake of the Morsi spat, while AQIM figures, the Taliban (to whom al-Qaeda owes its ultimate allegiance) and a host of other al-Qaeda aligned figures all sided with Abu Qatada. A June 27 statement by al-Qaeda’s General Command mourning Morsi’s death and calling on God to “pardon him and forgive him” put a fairly swift end to the debate. It revealed, however, the glaring difference of opinion at the heart of its thought-leader network.
The al-Qaeda General Command statement should be understood as a continuation of Zawahiri’s relatively new attempts to walk the line between ultra-extremist (or exclusivist) and controlled-extremist (or inclusivist) trends within an increasingly disparate international movement. The mere existence of such differences also illustrates the extent to which AQSL no longer controls its networks in the same way al-Qaeda did in the early 2000s under Bin Laden. By trying to balance between the two trends, Zawahiri may in fact be further degrading his own position of leadership, creating another source of disconnect and more vacuums into which detractors—ultra-extremist or less so—will step.
Ultimately, al-Qaeda and AQSL will continue to struggle so long as its leadership is perceived—justifiably—as uninspiring and too distant from the realities of fast-moving and especially localized conflicts, whether in Syria, Mali, Yemen, the Maghreb or elsewhere. Jihadism in general appears headed increasingly down the path of localization, in which both al-Qaeda and ISIS are stepping into previously untouched local conflict dynamics, whether between nomadic herdsmen and settled farming communities in West Africa, or tribally and geopolitically-influenced hostilities in parts of Yemen.
AQSL’s missives and instructions to the al-Qaeda movement at-large have clearly reverted back to Bin Laden’s elite vanguard strategy, but al-Qaeda affiliates do not appear to be following suit. The localist strategy remains the guiding principle of affiliate operations. For example, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb’s decision to celebrate the use of peaceful protests in Algeria and to express “hope” that non-violence would be sufficient to achieve change in Algeria does not sound like an al-Qaeda that is switching back to Bin Laden’s ultra-extremism days. 51
None of this necessarily suggests the threat posed by al-Qaeda is likely to significantly lessen. What it does imply is that the nature of that threat will diversify and present counter-terrorism actors with increasingly complex policy dilemmas. Groups like HTS may have zero interest in pursuing any objective beyond Syria’s nation-state borders, but as the case of the Taliban in 2001 demonstrated, jihadist safe-havens can be of invaluable benefit to smaller and more potent organizations who do seek to strike targets further afield. By controlling territory and nation-state border crossings, and by running rudimentary governance systems, groups like HTS also have the potential to become semi-recognized governing actors. It is possible that with Turkish support HTS could come to operate more like HAMAS— a scenario that would transform northwest Syria into more of a safe-haven for terrorists and also risk legitimizing the “jihadist-lite” approach embraced by the likes of HTS. Given the current nature of the Russia-Turkey relationship, this “Gaza-fication” scenario is increasingly emerging as the most likely medium-term outcome of the struggle surrounding Idlib.
In today’s environment, al-Qaeda’s further decentralization is inevitable given increasing factionalism and intra-jihadist competition for preeminence. At the same time, the incentives to form tight-knit, ultra-extreme groups of experienced and committed jihadists remain potent. So, too, does al-Qaeda’s desire to pursue spectacular terror operations on high-value targets—including Western countries. The emergence and consolidation of groups like HaD is justifiably ringing alarm bells. And they are unlikely to be the last to emerge from within the al-Qaeda movement, which will continue to want to revitalize itself through action.