Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Qaeda

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 12, 2016

The Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, al-Naba, interviewed a high-ranking al-Qaeda defector, Abu Ubayda al-Lubnani, across two issues in February and March. Abu Ubayda appeared on a list of prominent clerics supporting IS’s caliphate declaration in February 2014, and two months later his defection from al-Qaeda to IS was announced by al-Battar. Abu Ubayda is described by al-Naba—as best as can be told accurately—as having been a member of al-Qaeda’s: Shura [Consultation] Council, a training officer in its Military Committee, and a counter-intelligence officer. Abu Ubayda is advertised as speaking about many secret aspects of al-Qaeda.

Among the topics Abu Ubayda covers is the alleged infiltration and manipulation of al-Qaeda by foreign intelligence services, specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is not only a violation of jihadist doctrine by collaborating with an “infidel” and illegitimate state but led to the deaths of a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of what Abu Ubayda has to say relates to al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the Syrian revolution. This persistent campaign has followed a pattern of disguising al-Qaeda’s presence and attempting to influence and eventually co-opt the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One lever al-Qaeda relied upon, according to Abu Ubayda, was Ahrar al-Sham, an organization that disclaims all connections to al-Qaeda and dissimulates about its ideology. Whatever Ahrar’s dominant ideology, it is simply a fact that it has served as the bridge between the foreign-led jihadists and Syrian Islamists, and its connections to al-Qaeda are evident enough. Abu Ubayda suggests Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are even deeper than they appear.

AHRAR AL-SHAM

The first interview with Abu Ubayda was in the nineteenth edition of al-Naba, released in the territories of the caliphate on 20 February 2016 and released online on 23 February. The key section of the interview, translated by The Long War Journal, has Abu Ubayda explain:

Al-Qaeda’s project in Syria began long before [Ahmad al-Shara, a.k.a. Abu Muhammad] al-Jolani’s announcement of bay’a [oath of allegiance] to [Ayman] al-Zawahiri. We could even say that the project began during the first days after the mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq entered Syria [in the summer of 2011], launching its operations against the Nusayri regime under the name “Jabhat al-Nusra”. Al-Qaeda had two lines of operation. The first was with Ahrar al-Sham, through which Abu Khalid al-Suri [real name: Muhammad al-Bahaya] was working with them, communicating with al-Zawahiri and informing him of the situation. There was also an agreement to send one of the “shar’iyyin” [religious judges], Abu Maryam al-Azdi, to act as al-Qaeda’s representative to Ahrar al-Sham. This was based on his old relationship with Abu Abd al-Malik, the “shar’i”. However, this step did not take place because al-Azdi was arrested. As for the second part of the project, it was under the direct supervision of al-Qaeda leadership in Khorasan. At that time, al-Qaeda assigned Abdullah al-Adam, otherwise known as Abu Ubayda al-Maqdisi, to the case of Syria, starting by him sending cadres from al-Qaeda in Khorasan to Syria. …

Abu Khalid al-Suri was in touch with al-Qaeda’s leadership in Khorasan. He was conveying to them the news of what was happening in Syria. His correspondence mostly consisted of incitement against the Islamic State and its mujahideen in the Syrian theatre. He kept repeating his demand to al-Qaeda’s leadership to work on expelling them from Syria and to convince them to return to Iraq, claiming that it was best for the Syrian theatre. …

[A]l-Jolani’s own letters to [al-Qaeda “central”] conveyed the same message [as Abu Khalid al-Suri’s]. In the end, they [AQC] had found their justification to launch their own project in Syria, to betray the Islamic State by infiltrating its effective group in Syria [i.e. al-Nusra] and taking control over it, even before they officially merged it into al-Qaeda. …

[A]l-Zawahiri was hoping that the work of Abu Khalid al-Suri in leading Ahrar al-Sham would bring al-Qaeda closer to the [rebel] factions, as al-Zawahiri asked him in one of his letters to gather the factions and seek their promise to cooperate with al-Qaeda. Al-Suri refused, claiming that the situation did not permit it or that the time was not suitable. On the other hand, Abdullah al-Adam was sending cadres to al-Jolani, and preparing for the movement of first tier al-Qaeda leaders to Syria.

In my opinion, al-Zawahiri’s plan was based on merging “Jabhat al-Nusra”, after taking control over it, into the “Ahrar al-Sham” model. This did not take place because of the killing of Abu Khalid al-Suri, who was the leader of the project of bringing both al-Qaeda and “Ahrar al-Sham” together, as well as the killing of almost all first-tier leaders of al-Qaeda, especially Abu Ubayda al- Adam, who was one of the key figures in establishing the project to betray the Islamic State through controlling “Jabhat an-Nusra”. Thereafter, al-Jolani and his group were successful in neutralizing those coming from Khorasan, freezing their activities from the first days they arrived in Syria. This was mentioned in their letters, that they were not welcomed by the leadership of “Jabhat al-Nusra”, who wanted to make for themselves a “purely Syrian” group. Moreover, they were complaining of being harassed by Abu Firas al-Suri [real name: Radwan Nammous], despite the fact that they had known him for a long time. That goes back to the time of his presence in Afghanistan. We discovered that some of these split from “Jabhat al-Nusra” and joined other factions, of which the main one was “Jund al-Aqsa”.

It is reasonably well-known that the seed funders for Ahrar al-Sham came from al-Qaeda’s networks on the Gulf, and the original leadership—al-Bahaya most saliently—were steeped in jihadist ideology and al-Qaeda’s milieu. The claim sometimes advanced is that Ahrar is moderating. If in fact Ahrar was al-Qaeda’s operation in Syria from the get-go, it makes it more difficult to believe that these connections with the jihadi world can be broken, even if they have been attenuated by al-Qaeda’s core leadership being displaced from Ahrar to al-Nusra, and IS in turn being displaced from al-Nusra and openly announcing itself in Syria.

Abu Ubayda was asked how al-Qaeda could have Ahrar as its “main project” since “this faction did not hide its meetings with and links to the taghut governments in the surrounding countries?” Abu Ubayda said:

It is no different than the way they have pledged bay’a to [Taliban leader] Akhtar Mansur, while knowing of his relationship with the tawaghit of Pakistan and its intelligence services.

Al-Qaeda, as you know, wants to avoid fighting the tyrants who control Muslim lands, and instead fight only those who start the conflict. They argue that they want to focus in fighting the head of global kufr, i.e. America. Thus, they attempt to gloss over the factions and groups which the tawaghit sponsor, tolerating them mixing in their own ranks. Moreover, they have no shame in making their fight limited to those whom the tawaghit picked for them to fight; in this way, they protect themselves from the might of the tawaghit.

You can take Khorasan as an example, as al-Qaeda linked up with a few factions connected to Pakistani intelligence, like the nationalist Taliban movement. When the split happened in the ranks of “Tehrik-i-Taliban” [the Pakistani Taliban] in areas of Waziristan, they quickly sided with the branch that rejected fighting the tawaghit in Pakistan, known as the “Mehsud Circle”, which was headed by [Khalid Mehsud, a.k.a. Khan Said] Sajna. At the time, al-Zawahiri’s correspondent requested that I cease all communications with the branch led by Hakimullah [Mehsud], who insisted on fighting the Pakistani government and targeting deviant groups, like the Isma’iliyya and the Rafida [Shi’is], even in their temples.

Most importantly, the only remaining presence of al-Qaeda in that region, known as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, is controlled by people opposed to fighting the Pakistani tawaghit. It is led by [“Ustad”] Ahmad Faruq, who is supported by someone close to al-Zawahiri and his family. [Al-Zawahiri] also authorized [Faruq] to oversee the Urdu “as-Sahab Foundation”, which targets the Indian Subcontinent audience. …

After Ahmad Faruq was killed in an airstrike [in January 2015], which also killed Azzam al-Amriki [Adam Gadahn] and two Crusader prisoners [Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein], he was succeeded by “Maulvi” Asim Umar, who was a leader in “Harakat al-Mujahideen”, supported by Pakistani intelligence and was formerly working to fight against the kafir Indian army in Kashmir. Based on that, one could now describe al-Qaeda’s organization in the Indian Subcontinent as being led by those linked to Pakistani intelligence. Many of them are Deobandi Sufis who do not recognize the apostasy of the Pakistani government. They follow Pakistani “scholars” instead of al-Qaeda’s own “shar’iyyin”. Among them is the apostate “Maulana” Fazlur Rehman [Khalil], who is a member of the Pakistani parliament and was the shaykh of Ahmad Faruq and his followers.

I don’t think you have doubts that the Turkish government, which is linked to “Ahrar al-Sham”, differs much from the Pakistani government, but there are those in al-Qaeda’s leadership who consider the taghut [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to be a Muslim, despite his ruling by other than what Allah revealed and his loyalty to the Crusaders. I’m speaking specifically about Salim al-Tarabulusi, who was the general “shar’i” for al-Qaeda in Khorasan. Therefore, why should al-Qaeda have a problem with aligning itself to a cell linked to the Turkish government?

Ahrar’s critics in the West have taken to calling it the “Syrian Taliban”, the implication being that it is too extreme to deal with. Al-Qaeda accepts the label but means to imply that Ahrar is insufficiently zealous in its adherence to jihadi doctrine.

THE REST OF ABU UBAYDA’S FIRST INTERVIEW

Elsewhere in this first interview in al-Naba 19, Abu Ubayda assaults al-Qaeda ideologically by claiming it does not try to implement Islamic law in areas it controls, that it is too lenient with heretics, that it maintains relations with illegitimate, un-Islamic governments, and that it accepts into its ranks forces that expand its power even if their ideology is deficient. Abu Ubayda says he has seen this at first hand in Waziristan, Pakistan, and the situation is “very similar” in Syria, which will inevitably lead to a collapse.

Abu Ubayda also remarks on al-Qaeda’s relations with the Iranian theocracy:

The [move from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Syria] was relatively easy. Coordinators from al-Qaeda oversaw the entry of members to Iran. Travelers remained there in guest houses for some time until the completion of their travel arrangements to Syria. This was with the knowledge of the Rafidi government in Iran, even under the eye of its intelligence services. Simply put, once a traveler entered one of the guest houses, intelligence services knew of his arrival through those in charge of these guesthouses. They would meet with the Iranian intelligence services weekly. Even the phones of the guesthouses were tapped and under their control.

Although it might seem odd coming from me to say that Iran permitted the passage of fighters to Syria, despite the fact that they are going to fight its army, its militias, and its allies there, this is the reality, for Iran’s biggest concern is that no operations happen on its soil. Also it has secured the loyalty of al-Qaeda, by having the majority of its leaders on their lands, some of them traveling freely, as was the case for Atiyyatullah al-Libi [real name: Jamal al-Misrati] prior to his return to Khorasan. Among them, some who were under house arrest in homes watched by the Rafidi government, as was Sayf al-Adel [real name: Muhammad Zaydan] and Abu Muhammad al-Masri [real name: Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah]. These leaders have not acknowledged the Rafida as infidels, and they even eat their slaughtered meat. Moreover, some of them consider them friends or allies in the war against America, and Iran further expects to benefit from al-Qaeda by putting pressure on America and its allies, the tyrants of the Gulf States. Perhaps we should recall, by way of example, the support which Iran provided to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which split from al-Qaeda for executing an operation that targeted an oil tanker in the Arab Gulf a few years back.

Using this route, I eventually made hijra [emigration], but my stay in Iran was extended, until al-Qaeda coordinators confirmed that I was not going to travel to the lands of the Islamic State. In this way, I escaped from the fist of Iranian intelligence, which had learned of my presence through the coordinators of al-Qaeda’s guesthouses. I succumbed to my own misgivings, as did they.

AL-QAEDA’S RESPONSE

Al-Qaeda responded fiercely at the end of February 2016, with a note by somebody using the kunya, Abu Karima al-Khorasani. Abu Karima dismissed the charges made by Abu Ubayda, saying that Abu Ubayda had been a security official only for few months, after which he was expelled from al-Qaeda for deceptive behavior, and sentenced to a harsh punishment by a shari’a court.

Abu Karima also pushed back on Abu Ubayda’s accusation that al-Qaeda works with Pakistani intelligence, pointing out that the first operation by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)—essentially al-Qaeda “central”, rebranded on 3 September 2014—was against the Pakistani Navy Headquarters, on 6 September 2014.

Abu Karima did not contest that al-Qaeda had safe-houses in Iran. Instead, Abu Karima mocked Abu Ubayda by saying: “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others”. Abu Ubayda “spoke of the Iranian Intelligence”, Abu Karima went on: “If that is true, why did he go to the Islamic State through the same road of [Iranian] intelligence? How was he able to move freely in Tehran’s streets?” Abu Karima then turned, tauntingly, to the Islamic State’s religious authorities, asking where their fatwa was on “your comrade, who came to you willingly through the channels of Iranian intelligence”.

Abu Karima then further assaulted Abu Ubayda’s credibility on two points. First by claiming Abu Ubayda had been part of “a movement supported by Iran … before he entered al-Qaeda”—a movement, indeed, that “does not hide its relationship with Iran!” This almost certainly means Hizballah, and the implication here is that Abu Ubayda converted from Shi’ism to Sunnism at some point. Second, Abu Karima claimed that Abu Ubayda had now left IS after trespassing its codes, something al-Naba (in Abu Karim’s telling) mendaciously failed to mention.

*             *             *             *

In the twentieth edition of al-Naba, produced in the territories on 27 February 2016 and released online on 1 March, there was a second interview with Abu Ubayda, on pages 8 and 9. This interview did not revisit the subject of Ahrar al-Sham, but was interesting in its own right—albeit to be taken with a considerable helping of salt.

In the second interview, Abu Ubayda said that as “al-Qaeda was working to establish its foothold in the Levant, it was eroded in its main stronghold in Khorasan”. As it tried to infiltrate the Islamic State, al-Qaeda “was exposed to the greatest security breach in its history”, says Abu Ubayda. “This penetration was the main reason for the killing of the majority of its leaders”, says Abu Ubayda, adding: “This infiltration did not come from outside, but from within, where the Sahwat (Awakening) associated with Pakistani intelligence was able to recruit three sons of emirs in al-Qaeda, after implicating them in adultery and the indecency of the people of Lot (homosexuality)”. These people were blackmailed into “collect[ing] information about the leaders of al-Qaeda and its headquarters”, and this was passed on to the Americans, whose drones then made a “breakthrough” and began striking down al-Qaeda operatives of the “first rank”, allegedly including:

  • Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyya): Usama bin Ladin’s chief of staff, the number three in al-Qaeda, killed in Waziristan in August 2011;
  • Mohamed Hassan Qaid (Abu Yahya al-Libi): identified by Abu Ubayda as a “shari’a official”, one of the most senior al-Qaeda religious figures, who had escaped U.S. custody in Afghanistan in July 2005 before he was cut down in Waziristan in June 2012;
  • Mohamed Ghadir (Abdelhamid Abu Zeid): one of the triumvirate that led al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), competing with the sometime-renegade Mokhtar Belmokhtar, until Ghadir was killed in February 2013 by French troops in Mali.
  • Ahmed Abdulrahman Sihab Ahmed Sihab (Abdulrahman al-Sharqi): a Bahraini citizen, the “external action administrator”, according to Abu Ubayda, a man who was sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for his terror planning in 2012, was announced killed in October 2014, though exactly when and where is unclear.

There were other senior officials eliminated because of the infiltration, says Abu Ubayda, and it was so bad it spread to affiliated groups like the Haqqani Network. By Abu Ubayda’s account, the killing of Badr al-Din Haqqani in August 2012 was a result of these spies within al-Qaeda.

Asked if it was really possible that the compromise of these three sons of the emirs could bring so much damage, Abu Ubayda says: “Yes,” because these operatives were highly trusted, so they could enter al-Qaeda hideouts and meet its officials “without exception”—and they used the chance to photograph places and people, and plant the devices that directed the “crusaders … to bomb these targets”.

The spy cell was rolled up, Abu Ubayda said, when al-Qaeda’s counter-intelligence unit “arrested an Arab after he was accused of theft, but during the investigation with this young man called Younis, the security apparatus concluded that his case was greater [in significance] than banditry”. Abu Ubayda continued:

He [Younis] admitted to the practice of the people of Lot with a group of Pashtuns and Arabs and that they were spying with one of the Awakening leaders in North Waziristan. We arrested another young man named Hamza, while a third, named Khalid Ali Jan, fled after the news of our search for him got out. Hamza admitted for himself and his companions to the obscene practice of the people of Lot, and their work as spies, causing the deaths of a large number of al-Qaeda leaders and elements. Here, we thank God’s grace for their arrest. We thought that by killing them we would get rid of a big problem; we did not know that by arresting these spies we had afflicted ourselves with one of the most complex problems with al-Qaeda leaders.

Abu Ubayda says that al-Qaeda’s leadership moved to prevent the execution of these spies so as to avoid damaging the reputation of al-Qaeda, and also to avoid a public dispute with powerful emirs whose children would be killed. Abu Ubayda’s men were asked to hand the spies to a Taliban court, he says, and they refused, taking matters into their own hands: “We … applied the rule of God to the spies by killing them without referring to al-Qaeda’s leadership”.

Abu Ubayda says next that the “Sahwat” elements were everywhere, prominently in the Taliban, but al-Qaeda forbade a crackdown on the “pretext” that this would alienate the tribes. Abu Ubayda goes on to claim that al-Qaeda made no effort to apply the shari’a in Waziristan, instead leaving it to the pre-Islamic tribal codes. As such, Waziristan was a “jungle of ignorance”, says Abu Ubayda.

These claims by Abu Ubayda—failure to execute spies out of hand, especially those engaged in “corruption” (sodomy) for which the clear penalty is stoning, as the interview goes on to elaborate, failure to go after those prepared to work with infidels against the jihadists, and failure to apply Islamic law—are a targeted ideological assault designed to contrast the Islamic State’s “purity” with al-Qaeda having apparently deviated from the path of jihadi-Salafism.

Abu Ubayda concludes by saying that this deviancy within the Khorasan theatre was allowed to spread because Ayman al-Zawahiri was asked for rulings and “as usual” he “avoid[ed] answering questions that require a conclusion”. “The sinners in jihad are more dangerous than others”, says Abu Ubayda, since it is not only the “loss of their religion”; it will “tempt them to fall into the traps of apostates who are serving the tawaghit [tyrants] and crusaders”. This “clarification of the reality of al-Qaeda’s manhaj [methodology] will cause shock to many, as happened with us after we entered Waziristan”, says Abu Ubayda, but this is “the view of al-Qaeda from inside, not through satellite channels and forums”.

*             *             *             *

Al-Qaeda responded fiercely at the end of February 2016, with a note by somebody using the kunya, Abu Karima al-Khorasani. Abu Karima dismissed the charges made by Abu Ubayda, saying, as Asharq al-Awsat summarized, that Abu Ubayda had only briefly been with al-Qaeda—he “was a security official for few months”—before he was expelled and “punished harshly” by a shari’a court for deceptive behaviour. Abu Karima also pushed back on Abu Ubayda’s accusation that al-Qaeda works with Pakistani intelligence, pointing out that the first operation by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)—an entity announced on 3 September 2014 that is essentially al-Qaeda “central” rebranded—was against the Pakistani Navy Headquarters, on 6 September 2014.

Rather than contest Abu Ubayda’s testimony that al-Qaeda has safe-houses in Iran, Abu Karima mocked Abu Ubayda by saying: “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others”. Abu Ubayda “spoke of the Iranian Intelligence”, Abu Karima went on. “If that is true, why did he go to the Islamic State through the same road of [Iranian] intelligence? How was he able to move freely in Tehran’s streets?” Abu Karima then turned, tauntingly, to the Islamic State’s religious authorities, asking where their fatwa was on “your comrade, who came to you willingly through the channels of Iranian intelligence”.

Abu Karima then assaulted Abu Ubayda’s credibility on two further points. First by claiming Abu Ubayda had been part of “a movement supported by Iran … before he entered al-Qaeda”—a movement, indeed, that “does not hide its relationship with Iran!” It is possible, since Abu Ubayda is Lebanese, that Abu Karima is referring to Iran’s Hizballah in Lebanon, which would presumably make Abu Ubayda Shi’i convert to Sunnism. Second, Abu Karima claims that Abu Ubayda had by this point left IS after falling afoul of Islamic codes, something al-Naba (in Abu Karim’s telling) mendaciously failed to mention.

2 thoughts on “Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Qaeda

  1. Pingback: Insurgents Respond to America Declaring Syrian Taliban Unit A Terrorist Group | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: The Coalition Strikes Down Al-Qaeda’s Leaders In Syria | Kyle Orton's Blog

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