The Structure of Al-Qaeda

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 14, 2016

Screenshot of Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) during a video interview, 12 April 2014

Screenshot of Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) during a video interview, 12 April 2014

Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) is an Australian citizen who was born on 14 February 1984 in Port Said, Egypt. Mahamed currently occupies a “senior leadership position” within al-Qaeda in Syria—formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)—according to the sanctions levied against him in May by the U.S. Treasury. In an indication of Mahamed’s seniority, he moved from Australia to Syria in late 2012 and within a few months led the mediation efforts between al-Nusra and the then-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now the Islamic State (IS), that began with a breach in April 2013 and ended with al-Qaeda expelling ISIS from its command structure in February 2014. Mahamed is also one of the public faces of al-Qaeda in Syria, now calling himself the “Director of Foreign Media Relations of JFS”. In this capacity, Mahamed has inter alia recently communicated with CNN to further the narrative that al-Nusra/JFS has “split” with al-Qaeda—something, let it be noted, neither the leader of al-Nusra/JFS nor Mahamed have actually said.

With regard to both the ongoing narrative war between IS and al-Qaeda over what their actual relationship was in the lead-up to the schism and al-Qaeda’s structure—the two things very much interlinked—Mahamed gave a very useful interview on 12 April 2014, about ten weeks before ISIS became IS when it declared its caliphate. Mahamed also touches on other interesting matters, such as those jihadi ideologues al-Nusra/JFS regards as guides, and—small point—al-Qaeda’s continuing claim that IS’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have sided with them. (This is matched on the other side by IS continuing to feature Usama bin Ladin in their propaganda as one of their forebears, while regarding Ayman al-Zawahiri as deviant.)

In watching the video back, I ended up taking notes, which turned into a partial (though fairly substantial) transcript that will perhaps be of use to others as well, so it’s posted below.


As for the [five-day] period given by Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Jolani [Ahmad al-Shara] in his eulogy of Shaykh Abu Khalid al-Suri [Muhammad al-Bahaya], he clearly states that we as Jabhat al-Nusra are prepared to abide by the scholarly opinions and the rulings given by the shaykhs who are well-grounded in the Islamic sciences and are known for their Islamic positions like Shaykh Abu Qatada al-Filistini [Umar Othman], Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi [Issam al-Barqawi], and Shaykh Sulayman al-Alwan. Now, when two of these three shaykhs that Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Jolani mentioned advised us with proof and evidences from the Qur’an and Sunna and with wisdom not to widen this battle and conflict with Jamaat al-Dawla [“The State Group,” al-Qaeda’s reference to then-ISIS, now the Islamic State, denying the legitimacy of their claim to statehood], we accepted and decided only to respond to them as necessary. And only in the areas that their transgression is clear … until they come back to the truth, until they are willing to succumb to an Islamic court wherein they are not the judge and the prosecutor. …

What Jamaat al-Dawla is today doesn’t represent the practical or the ideological methodology of Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad [“The Base of Jihad Organization,” the full name of al-Qaeda]. … [T]here are major differences between us as a jamaat and Jamaat al-Dawla. There is a major difference between the vision of our shaykhs like Shaykh Usama bin Ladin, Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Libi [Mohamed Hassan Qaid], Shaykh Atiyyatullah al-Libi [a.k.a. Atiyya (Abd al-Rahman); real name: Jamal al-Misrati], Shaykh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [Ahmad al-Khalayleh], et cetera—and the vision of Jamaat al-Dawla. … [These differences] of course are in regard to their dealing with people, how they view … their position in this umma, and their understanding of the priorities of jihad. These differences cause serious issues when they shift from theoretical debates to the battlefield.

Nobody will deny that there was a relationship between the two. This relationship was one of an emir with his jamaat. Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad draws up its plans and its strategy based on what we call al-Qalim, or locations. The representative of Tandheem al-Qaeda for example in the Arabian Peninsula is Shaykh Abu Basir al-Wuhayshi [Nasir al-Wuhayshi]. The representative of Tandheem al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is Shaykh Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud [Abdelmalek Droukdel]. And the same goes for each of the locations or al-Qalim.

The responsibility of the al-Qalim of Iraq was given to Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now, Doctor Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri was and is the emir of all these different locations or al-Qalim. And at the time the Islamic State of Iraq had a completely binding baya [pledge of allegiance] to this tandheem [organization]. Now, I don’t want to get into details about the political situation at the time and the initial establishment or announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq. That’s not our topic. But there is a role in the jamaat called Masul al-Qalim, someone that overlooks all of these different locations.

The decision of the strategy emplaced by the jamaat, where each location should work—this is not based on agreements placed by the kuffar [unbelievers] like the Sykes-Picot agreement. Rather, it is a purely strategic decision, based on Islamic principles and goes in line with these Islamic guidelines, keeping in mind … the principle of weighing out the harms and benefits. This has been the policy of Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad since its establishment. But we must note here that this hierarchy is precisely why we don’t see [al-Qaeda commanders] from different areas giving baya to Shaykh al-Baghdadi. On the contrary, each of these locations, their emir gives their baya directly to Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri. …

This announcement [of ISIS in April 2013] was the straw that broke the camel’s back. … We obviously rejected this [ISI’s attempt to take over Jabhat al-Nusra] in the best way possible, trying to maintain the hierarchy of the jamaat … by referring the matter to Shaykh Ayman, the emir of both our jamaat and their jamaat. …

[A]nnouncing a state as a reaction to a particular threat that you feel that exists [referring to a claim that ISI announced their state to thwart al-Nusra] is completely invalid. Announcing a state needs to be done with real requisites of a state, which their general command admitted on several occasions didn’t exist.

Another objection we have is that each of these commanders of the al-Qalim … has a certain authority. Announcing a state is not one of these authorities that this commander has. This is considered to be a serious transgression of the rank of that particular emir within the jamaat. And it’s considered a sin Islamically for not obeying the emir.

Our brothers in Somalia [al-Shabab], for example, they never established a state nor did they announce a state nor did they merge with their neighbours in Yemen [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)], even though doing so would have been much, much easier than the attempt of Jamaat al-Dawla in al-Sham. Now, one of the reasons they didn’t do this is because they don’t have such an authority. They must go back in the hierarchy to receive such permission. …

It’s quite strange that there’s all this confusion about this particular topic [i.e. who heads al-Qaeda]. While the administration of Jamaat al-Dawla know very well the rank they had in Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad. However, when this question started to arise I started to remember some of the more stranger [sic] issues before all of these dramas existed when we were one jamaat, Jamaat al-Dawla and Jabhat al-Nusra. …

For example, a few weeks before this announcement, I visited our headquarters in Halab [Aleppo, probably refers to the base in Tel Rifaat] with a few other … Islamic advisers in the jamaat. We had a general meeting with all … those that are working in the field of Islamic advice and education and what-not. And there were many issues that were raised. Some of these issues were to do with baya. The comments made by some of these brothers were shocking to say the least. Some of these Islamic fieldworkers, I guess, believed that their baya was that of a khilafa. Others believed that the baya was to Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri and others to Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many didn’t understand the difference between the baya of Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad to Mullah Muhammad Umar, and the baya within the jamaat itself, Tandheem al-Qaeda. Some of the head shari’is of the jamaat, Jamaat al-Dawla right now, even started to take baya for Mullah Muhammad Umar. …

Both parties agreed to the final rule of Shaykh Ayman. And everyone was eager and waiting for this response. Anyone in Syria at the time would remember these days to be some of the most nerve-wracking days for all of the mujahideen. Everyone was waiting for the answer from Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Now Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as his vice [Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr)], both confirmed that they will obey Shaykh Ayman if he orders them to pass on the affairs of al-Sham to anyone, including Jabhat al-Nusra. And not to interfere. … [T]his is precisely what Shaykh Ayman said … [so] it was a shock that the so-called Islamic justifications started to emerge, only after the response came [rejecting al-Zawahiri’s ruling]. Now, if the solution that Shaykh Ayman proposed or ordered was so un-Islamic as they clearly claimed after this response came, why was it even considered initially? Why was this case even brought forward to the Shaykh if they considered the only Islamic solution to be their solution? … Why was their an agreement for Shaykh Ayman to rule on the matter if the establishment of the state, or the announcement of the state, was wajib [obligatory]. … Wajib issues in Islam are not up for discussion. There would be no need to go to a judge to find out the Islamic ruling on a matter that is already known Islamically. … Questioning clear-cut Islamic issues is not just irrational but it’s un-Islamic, it’s haram [forbidden]. …

Obeying your emir in general is wajib. However, when what is commanded from the emir to his soldiers is questionable, the one receiving such a command must review the command. In other words, if the command given by the emir is not a clear-cut Islamic decision, and it’s not based on ijtihad [independent reasoning], then the matter needs to go back to the people of knowledge. …

The issue of obedience by Jamaat al-Dawla was taken completely out of perspective. And only used when it benefited them. When Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Jolani referred the matter to the higher emir of both Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, this was considered a sin by them. At the same time, they reassured their soldiers that they’d come and listen and obey to the higher emir, Shaykh Ayman, when the response came. Doing this allowed Jamaat al-Dawla to gain numbers, to gain weapons, to gain wealth, and these mujahideen only gave their pledge of allegiance to Jamaat al-Dawla and to Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because they were sure that if Shaykh Ayman were to respond in any way, everyone would succumb. …

The first time I heard this [idea that the baya between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri was not complete] was in a meeting with Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the midst of the initial dramas and the split. We heard that their top shari’i, Abu Bakr al-Qahtani, was telling the masses of the mujahideen that the baya of the jamaat to Shaykh Ayman, or the baya of Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in particular to Shaykh Ayman, was a baya of … love and assistance. In this meeting, al-Qahtani was present, so we decided to ask Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi immediately and in his [al-Qahtani’s presence] and clarify things: “Was your baya to Shaykh Ayman one of [love and assistance] or was it a baya which was complete?” The response of Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an immediate [Mahamed speaks Arabic]: “I seek refuge in Allah. My baya to Shaykh Ayman is a true baya. To hear and obey, in hardship and ease, in what is liked and what is disliked.” In short, using lies and deception in order to reach your goal is a great, great sin. …

That [a baya of a caliphate] wasn’t what was meant by “a complete baya”. The baya of all of the representatives of Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad in all of their locations or al-Qalim is a baya that binds them to the jamaat. It’s a baya of obedience in the matters of jihad and it’s a baya that ties them to one unity, one group called Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad. It is certainly not a baya of khilafa. We don’t have a khilafa, even though we are working towards this goal. …

I myself was the first mediator appointed between Jamaat al-Dawla and Jabhat al-Nusra. I would go back and forth between Shaykh al-Jolani and Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi trying to find a resolution to the problem, along with another Iraqi brother whom I prefer not to mention his name [sic] for security reasons. … Shaykh al-Jolani offered [a proposal] that cancels the name of Jabhat al-Nusra and Jamaat al-Dawla cancels the … announcement of … al-Dalwa al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wal-Sham and that they would together under the name of Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham. This was refused. [Al-Jolani] also offered that he meets with Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi privately, with no interference from anyone, and whatever they agree to … everyone, from both sides, would have to agree to, they would be bound by this agreement. This offer was made by Shaykh al-Jolani, sent to Shaykh al-Baghdadi via Abd al-Aziz al-Qatari [Muhammad Yusuf al-Athamna, the head of Jund al-Aqsa]. This was also refused. The judgment of Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri was obviously refused. And the advice of the scholars was also refused. The list [of attempts to reconcile al-Nusra and ISI] is extremely long. …

We did not want this to be a public matter; we tried as much as we could to keep it in-house. But Jamaat al-Dawla left us no choice when they announced all of our differences in media available to the public.

2 thoughts on “The Structure of Al-Qaeda

  1. Pingback: The Islamic State’s Relationship With Al-Qaeda | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: Al-Qaeda Explains its Split with the Islamic State | The Syrian Intifada

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