The Campaign to Weaken An Al-Qaeda-Affiliated Group in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 12 September 2017

Abdallah al-Muhaysini and Muslah al-Alyani, two senior clerics in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, resigned on 11 September 2017 after leaked recordings showed HTS commanders musing about assassinating al-Muhaysini. There is clearly a well-orchestrated campaign underway to weaken HTS by discrediting and dividing it, and the sophistication of the campaign gives every indication of being the work of a state intelligence service, almost certainly Turkey’s.

YESTERDAY’S INCIDENT

The audio that leaked yesterday between HTS leaders documented a conversation between “Imad” (Abu Husayn al-Urduni) and “Mughira” (Abu Hamra al-Binnish or Abu Waleed), the overall HTS emir in their stronghold of Idlib province in north-western Syria:

Mughira: The most important thing is that we work on the shaykhs, we put them in prison, and then we work a play within the group [to say] they are not shaykhs and they don’t know anything that is called principles. We need to bring them to account, then we work. As for me, I do the internal work.

Imad: By Allah, shaykh [referring to Mughira], I see the best thing we can do is to set up checkpoints and spray [bullets] on them on the road between, may Allah accept it. … Fire on al-Muhaysini, remove him, and finish [the matter].

Mughira: We were walking, all of them [HTS members] squeak to me, “We want a shar’i”. We said, this statement is not official, we removed that; a statement can be forged. Then we started laughing about them. We told them this is a system that we arranged. We are the leadership of the group and the shar’is do this and do that.

At the time of this conversation, al-Muhaysini was on his way to a HTS base to advise them to cease fighting against Ahrar al-Sham. The suggestion that HTS should kill al-Muhaysini en route by making it look like a miscue at a checkpoint, or else another of the random killings that occurs in the “jungle”, as some opposition activists have termed it, of Greater Idlib, is shocking. In some ways, more politically damaging is the reason given by Mughira for wanting to assassinate the cleric. Mughira speaks of HTS instrumentalizing religion, and showers contempt on those who truly seek to live by jurisprudence, rather than the “shari’a of force”.

(Another leak, from the same timeframe as the one about al-Muhaysini, has the de facto leader of HTS, the emir of the ostensibly-dissolved Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani)—referred to by the codename “Nayef”—orchestrating killings in order to try to create an atmosphere in which battling Ahrar becomes more acceptable.)

Abdallah al-Muhaysini put out a statement in response to this that essentially suggested that if only HTS gave him more power, this kind of thing would not keep happening:

All praise is due to Allah, the one and only God. May the peace and blessings come upon the Prophet, whom there is no prophet after.

To proceed:

About what is shown and confirmed by the leaks of the deviancy and corruption of the leaders of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham:

A group of people of knowledge in HTS are working through a package of necessary reforms and advice for HTS and these are their conditions if they are to stay in [HTS], with the accompanying danger during this stage and the complexities of the scene.

These reforms [that must be enacted to keep the muftis in HTS] are summarized as follows:

1) Returning esteem for the people of knowledge and preserving their status, to be a real reference for the leaders and soldiers in the mujahid group.

2) To activate [i.e. allow to work independently of HTS’s political leadership] the internal judiciary and increase its power.

3) The formation of a committee with high powers recommending reconciliation between the Hay’at and the people, and between Hay’at and the other factions, and looking at the files of the prisoners without exception and the complaints raised against HTS.

Dr. Abdallah al-Muhaysini

A mujahir in the land of al-Sham (Syria)

Before the day was out yesterday, Mughira had been sentenced to one-month imprisonment for defamation of the shar’iyyin, and al-Muhaysini had, with al-Alyani, quit HTS. [UPDATE: Al-Muhaysini later clarified that he quit not only because of the leaks but because his suggestions to rectify the situation, reprinted above, were rejected.]

This is a serious blow, at least politically, to HTS. Al-Muhaysini, a Saudi, is one of the major figures of the jihadi scene in Syria—something akin (certainly in his own mind) to what Abdullah Azzam was to the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. A charismatic preacher with extensive international connections, al-Muhaysini brings a lot of political weight inside Syria and a lot of financial and other resources from outside.

[UPDATE: The ramifications were extended on 13 September when Jaysh al-Ahrar, a splinter faction of Ahrar al-Sham led by Abu Saleh al-Tahan that joined HTS at its foundation, was also leaving HTS because of the revelation that HTS had considered killing al-Muhaysini. On 1 November 2017, al-Tahan was nearly assassinated at a checkpoint in al-Barqum in southern Rif Aleppo. HTS denied trying to murder al-Tahan.]

HTS has haemorrhaged such figures. In late 2016, Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) left what was then Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

CONTEXT

This latest audio is at least the sixth leak over the past month. All of these leaks have been detrimental, in one way or another, to HTS. On 9 September, for example, it was disclosed that Abu Ibrahim al-Salameh (Khattab), the HTS emir in Aleppo, and the HTS military commander of western Rif Aleppo, Abu Ubayd Kafr Hur, had conspired to isolate and attack Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, the major constituent part of HTS apart from al-Nusra. Al-Zengi left HTS in July, having concluded that al-Nusra had no intentions of actually merging power, and was making decisions around the shura council.

The technology required to intercept these communications, and the skill needed to disseminate them in this way, strongly hints at a professional intelligence service waging informational and political warfare against HTS. The prime suspect must be Turkey.

UPDATE ONE

The leaks continued.

On 14 September, a ninth leak had a conversation between Mughira and Abdurraheem Atun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami), the chief religious judge of HTS. In the recording, both Mughira and Atun mock the HTS clerics, naming important figures like Abdallah al-Muhaysini, Maysar al-Jiburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), and Abu al-Harith al-Masri, and also figures of lesser stature: Abu Muhajir, Abu Qassem, and Abu al-Yaqtham. Atun says he recently “humiliated” Abu al-Harith in front of HTS’s rank-and-file in an attempt to diminish his authority. Probably the most sensational part of the recording is when Mughira openly says that he recommended to HTS’s de facto emir, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), that they “get rid of [the shar’iyyin]”. Al-Shara rebuffed Mughira, saying, “Leave them to me”. Al-Shara’s method is allegedly to follow as Atun had done with Abu al-Harith and embarrass and diminish the clerics in front of HTS soldiers.

Alongside this political warfare, there began a series of assassinations of HTS leaders:

  1. 7 September 2017: Abu Nasibah al-Tunisi, an HTS religious leader (Tunisian): assassinated in western Idlib.
  2. 13 September 2017: Abu Muhammad al-Jazrawi or Abu Muhammad al-Shar’i (sometimes given as al-Sharie), a senior HTS cleric (Saudi): killed in his home in Saraqib in a very professional and targeted assassination.
  3. 14 September 2017: Saraqa al-Makki, a senior HTS cleric (Saudi): assassinatedin Idlib, eulogized by Abdallah al-Muhaysini two days later.
  4. 18 September 2017: Abu Yasir al-Shami, HTS cleric: killed while in his car, seemingly with an explosive device, in the town of Hatem in northern Idlib.
  5. 20 September 2017: Abu Salman al-Maghribi (or Abu Sulayman al-Maghribi), a North African HTS preacher, was killed in Idlib city.
  6. 20 September 2017: Abu Yahya al-Tunisi, a Tunisian cleric with HTS, was killed alongside Abu Salman al-Maghribi.
  7. 3 October 2017: Abu Elias al-Baniassi (or al-Saheli), HTS coastal emir: assassinated by a single gunshot to the head by masked men on motorcycles in Idlib.
  8. 23 October 2017: Mustafa al-Zahri, a senior HTS military commander: assassinated with a bomb under his car in al-Dana.
  9. 23 October 2017: Saeed Nasrallah, a HTS field commander: assassinated in north-eastern Hama in unclear circumstances.
  10. 27 October 2017: Abu Talha al-Urduni, senior HTS commander: assassinated near Saraqib in Idlib with an IED in his car.
  11. 27 October 2017: Hassan al-Bakour (Abu Abdurrahman al-Muhajir), HTS military commander: struck down in Khan Shaykhun. Abu Abdurrahman was in the car of a Faylaq al-Sham commander, who was also killed in the blast.
  12. 30 October 2017: Abu Ali Dumar al-Sharqi, field commander: assassinated by masked men on a road in Maarat Misreen.

There is a noticeable pattern to those who were assassinated: senior in the ranks of HTS and disproportionately foreign (the foreign contingent tending to be more extreme than local recruits). While Turkey is likely responsible for the majority of these operations, it is possible—indeed likely—that there are multiple actors involved in these assassinations. The Islamic State maintains cells in Idlib, and Bashar al-Asad’s mukhabarat has agents and officers in the province, too. Additionally, as the recordings show, HTS is not above assassinating its own people, and the fact that the early assassinations are of clerics, some close to al-Muhaysini, before the campaign begins against HTS military commanders, allows the possibility that there were two separate campaigns.

UPDATE TWO

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gave the first quasi-admission that his government was behind this dual campaign of political and military warfare against HTS on 3 October. Cavusoglu referred cryptically to efforts already underway to dissociate HTS from the remnants of the mainstream armed opposition in the Greater Idlib area. A source within that mainstream opposition added, to Reuters, “With regards to Nusra, [the Turks] are working to weaken it through intelligence operations”. The intention was to peel away those who had joined al-Nusra/HTS for non-ideological reasons by these political and targeted military measures, and only go at the organization directly once it has been shrunk down to its irredeemable core.

UPDATE THREE

Charles Lister reported on this situation at War on the Rocks on 31 October, after a trip to Turkey and extensive meetings with the Syrian opposition. By the time Lister was writing, Turkey had moved into Idlib, beginning on 7 October. The next day, Turkish soldiers were seen being escorted by HTS into the province, and it was quite clear that Ankara and HTS had delineated the areas of control in advance, leaving HTS in control of some territory. This led to accusations—again—that Turkey was “colluding with al-Qaeda”. The reality, however, is that neither side was prepared for a direct confrontation, nor saw an advantage in it—yet. But in forcing HTS to deal with an “infidel” state, Turkey had forced a concession on HTS. Moreover, it is indeed the Turkish government behind the actions against HTS, according to Syrian opposition sources talking to Lister.

Turkey has been left holding the bag for Syria and has prioritized her own security: the Idlib move was primarily against the YPG/PKK, a means of further hemming in that group in Efrin and preventing the PKK exerting further leverage and threats over the Turkish state by controlling more of the border area. Ankara’s simultaneous campaign of subversion, of which the leaks and assassinations were part, to undermine HTS over the long-term might not be a priority on the same level as the anti-PKK focus, but it is operational. A second track of this effort involves Turkey seeking to bolster the Syrian Interim Government led by Jawad Abu Hatab and to fuse this political body with the actual power-wielders among the rebels inside Syria to keep alive a non-jihadi insurgent force.  Given the impossibility of uprooting an organization like HTS that is so organically tied into Idlib by short-term military means, Turkey’s effort seems like a reasonable compromise.

It might not work. Turkey’s intervention spared the two million residents—most of them already displaced once—from the wrath of the pro-Asad coalition, which had long seemed poised for a scorched earth invasion of Idlib. Beyond that, though, as Hassan Hassan has pointed out, Abu Hatab’s administration has hardly shown itself to be virulently resistant to HTS infiltration, and the Turkey-ruled EUPHRATES SHIELD area further north does not provide much cause for optimism that Ankara has created a model of intervention that can stand up a local governing apparatus capable of suppressing the lawlessness and rebel faction fighting that have so long provided jihadists so much space to operate.

UPDATE FOUR

Writing for The Atlantic Council on 13 November 2017, Ahmad Abazeid, a Syrian writer who has done a lot of work on the armed opposition, noted that HTS is riven with internal disputes, largely a result of how it evolved from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Along the way it has had important defections—Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib), Khaled al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni), Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni)—and the command relationship with al-Qaeda appears to have been broken. Turkey took aim directly at these faultlines before a single soldier moved over the Syrian border, striking the most important blow against HTS by forcing HTS into dealing with Ankara at all.

For HTS, one of the touchiest ideological questions has been how to deal with foreign states. HTS has attacked rebel factions on the pretext of those groups’ relations with “infidel” states, Turkey in particular, and now many of the religious and military authorities in HTS found themselves explaining why their dealings with the Turkish government did not run afoul of their previous rulings. For some it has already proved too much and they departed. This is in line with Turkey’s effort to “tame HTS or fragment it internally.”

Abazeid explains that while the intervention “magnified problems between [HTS leader Ahmad al-Shara’s (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani)] pragmatist faction (which prefers to avoid confrontation with the Turks and to find a way to maintain its presence) and an ideological faction that sees cooperation with Turkey as a violation of Islam and that believes Turkey is planning to eventually remove them”, the term “pragmatist” should not in any way be read as synonymous with “moderate”: “Jolani, in his fight against other opposition factions, deployed some of his most hardline commanders: those closest to the thinking of the faction that later defected.” These included Abu Hussein al-Urduni, the commander of Jaysh al-Nusra, the elite forces of the former Jabhat al-Nusra, which dominates HTS; Egyptian religious scholars such as Abu al-Fateh, Abu al-Yaqzan, and Abu Shuaib; the general Islamic legal scholar Abdurrahim Atwan (Abu Abdallah al-Shami); and Jund al-Aqsa, which has now joined the Islamic State.

Abazeid added:

Jolani could achieve more cohesion within his organization by getting rid of the biggest threat: former members who have defected. It would also prove that he is fighting al-Qaeda and extremism, but that could cause him to lose his most important group, Jaysh al-Nusra, and it could break up HTS from within. While those directly loyal to Jolani would stay, HTS branches outside Idlib (Daraa, Eastern Ghouta and southern Damascus) are generally closer to the group’s most extreme ideology.

Still, in Abazeid’s telling, al-Jolani understands that a direct confrontation with Turkey would be devastating, and has sought to impress this point on Turkey by securing his organization’s hegemony in Idlib and embedding it in the local society. Simultaneously, says Abazeid, al-Jolani moved to position himself as an enemy of the most extreme, openly al-Qaeda forces and the PYD/PKK, Turkey’s nemesis. In this way, al-Jolani would present to Turkey a picture of HTS as too entrenched to be removed without incurring costs that are prohibitively high, and as an organization with potentially overlapping interests—therefore an immovable actor with which Turkey should come to terms. For al-Jolani, partnership with the Turks in fighting al-Qaeda and the PKK, and administering Idlib, would shield him from an unmerciful campaign by the pro-Asad coalition. This harkens back to a notion that has been floating around among some of the HTS cadres since their formation, that the group can become something akin to the Afghan Taliban or Lebanese Hizballah—jihadists that become, in however underhanded a way, an accepted part of the political landscape in the region that neighbouring states and the international community more broadly have to deal with.

UPDATE FIVE

Haid Haid wrote for Chatham House on 22 November 2017 that at least thirty-five HTS members had been assassinated in Idlib in the approximately three months from the beginning of September 2017. It is extremely difficult to get comprehensive figures, but of the killings that are known there is a clear pattern, says Haid: all “high profile” HTS members; the most significant being “shari’a scholars and leaders” (as opposed to the military commanders); and the majority of these religious figures are foreign—Saudis, Jordanians, Tunisians, and so on.

Haid explains:

Despite HTS’s efforts to become a rooted movement, it is still largely a network built around individuals with charisma and expertise. Therefore, the assumption is that eliminating those targets will destroy the network around them. As such, targeting HTS’s foreign scholars, who are mostly veteran fighters with long experience as jihadists, will weaken the group’s credibility and limit its ability to recruit. Likewise, the military leaders who are targeted are generally known to be effective and experienced and thus difficult to replace.

This campaign began coincidental with the Turkish intervention in Idlib, Haid writes, “leading to the assumption that Turkey is behind the attacks. The advocates of this theory argue that Turkey’s plan is to slowly weaken HTS rather than out-fight it in a military confrontation that would be costly and may even harden its base.” The problem with this theory, argues Haid, is that such a policy means Turkey accepting a risk to its main priority—containing the PKK.

An alternate explanation, says Haid, would look within HTS, where al-Jolani is contending with the rifts caused by the break from al-Qaeda’s command, and now by this open wound of his dealings with the Turkish government that trample the cannons of jihadi-salafism. If al-Jolani’s faction was killing these HTS leaders the motive would be to prevent further open defections spreading the image of a group in disarray that might cause an actual unravelling, and to eliminate the irreconcilables who would prevent the creation an HTS model of governance that might not provoke an international reaction to destroy it. This “inside job” theory is challenged, says Haid, by the fact of the leaks—how could such a vast operation remain secret when someone has access to HTS at such a high level?

Ultimately, Haid concludes, it is hard to remove the suspicion of foreign government involvement given how many states view HTS as a threat and how easy it is to hire local mercenaries—something it was confirmed to Haid is happening. (Haid does not spell it out, leaving it implicit: this explanation might square the circle between HTS and Turkey, either with Turkish agents inside HTS conducting the assassinations or HTS operatives in the “pragmatic” faction winking at these operations as a form of “outreach” to Turkey along the lines discussed by Abazeid above.) But the Islamic State and the pro-Asad coalition—notably the regime’s mukhabarat and Russian military-intelligence (GRU)—retain the capacity and the will to carry out these operations, and it would not be surprising if they were behind some of these hits.

6 thoughts on “The Campaign to Weaken An Al-Qaeda-Affiliated Group in Syria

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