A statement from Issam al-Barqawi, far better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordan-based Palestinian jihadi-salafist cleric, was released in English on Telegram on 15 August 2017. The statement dealt with his view of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), highlighting again the questions around this Syrian-based jihadi group and its relations with al-Qaeda.
I say clearly and openly so that the fabricators are not left with any false interpretations: I am not an enemy of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and I do not lie in wait for its errors.
Rather, I pray to Allah to guide its leaders, and to make them from the rightly-guided ones who guide the others. Because I still believe that HTS is the best of the large entities on the Syrian front. Many of my beloved brothers are still members, who know and bear witness that I do not incite them against HTS or its leaders, and I always call them to be patient, to consider their reward with Allah, and to safeguard the fruits of the jihad and the sacrifices of the martyrs, and not to leave their position free to be filled by those who would dilute the religion.
But all of that does not prevent me from advising HTS harshly or softly according to the need and the level of importance. My beloved in HTS and other groups appreciate what I offer of advice and say, “Keep going shaykh, perhaps through you Allah will rectify this entity”.
This is a distinct change of tune from al-Maqdisi.
REBRANDS AND CONFUSION ABOUT AL-QAEDA’S ROLE
Jabhat al-Nusra, originating as a secret branch of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, defected to al-Qaeda in 2013. On 28 July 2016, al-Nusra rebranded itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and claimed to have broken its links with al-Qaeda. Six months later, on 28 January 2017, after a five-day assault that reshaped and significantly crippled the rebellion in northern Syria, JFS proclaimed a merger with several smaller rebel and jihadi groups. The new formation, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was and is clearly dominated by al-Nusra/JFS.
Since its formation, HTS has assumed near-total control of the insurgent-held Idlib Province. Having broken most of its rivals in January, on 18 July, HTS finally came for Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi group whose close alliance with al-Nusra did the most to enable al-Nusra’s rise, giving it a portal into the mainstream armed opposition and revolutionary populations. Weakened physically by HTS taking a slice of its leadership and some of its better military units at inception, and ideologically confused, Ahrar did not hold off for long. With the fall of the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing to Turkey and the evacuation of most of Ahrar’s positions on 23 July it was over; HTS reigned supreme in Idlib.
The original alleged schism when JFS was formed was widely doubted, seen as a ruse by al-Qaeda to allow the organisation to co-opt the Syrian insurrection and use it to embed its ideology and program in Syria, a durable base from which to wage global jihad. The evidence that pointed to this included al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appearing, albeit cryptically and reluctantly, to sign-off on the break. And al-Zawahiri’s deputy, Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman, better known as Abu al-Khayr, who was released by the Iranian government in late 2015 and killed in Syria in February, giving more explicit sanction to the move. But a merger under JFS hegemony did not come quickly, and problems between al-Nusra/JFS and al-Qaeda emerged.
THE DISPUTES BEGIN
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