A New Branch of Al-Qaeda Emerges in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 1 March 2018

Hurras al-Deen logo

A new jihadi faction announced its formation in Syria on 27 February 2018: Tandheem Hurras al-Deen,[1] which translates as The Organization for the Guardians of the Religion or the Religious Guardians’ Organization. Hurras al-Deen is, unofficially, the re-emergence of a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria after the schism between al-Qaeda “central” and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The first statement from Hurras al-Deen was released via Telegram and is reproduced below.

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT HURRAS AL-DEEN?

Hurras al-Deen is composed of several hundred people at most, located in the insurgent-held enclave of “Greater Idlib” in north-west Syria. Hurras al-Deen is led by Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), a veteran al-Qaeda operative, and the circle around himIyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib al-Urduni), Sami al-Uraydi (Abu Mahmud al-Shami), Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni), Khalid al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni)—who objected to the trajectory followed by Jabhat al-Nusra, particularly after the rebranding to HTS.

Al-Nusra originally intruded into Syria in the summer of 2011 as a secret branch of the Islamic State (IS). By late 2012, IS’s control over al-Nusra was slipping, with al-Nusra insisting on direct contact with al-Qaeda and a more localist agenda in Syria, and the tension broke into the open in April 2013 when IS tried to publicly assert its authority over al-Nusra and al-Nusra’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), resisted this. The matter was referred to al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ruled that al-Nusra should remain in Syria as al-Qaeda’s branch in that country and IS should retreat to Iraq. IS’s leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), rejected al-Zawahiri’s judgment and tensions rose until open warfare erupted in Syria in January 2014 and IS was expelled from al-Qaeda in February 2014.

Al-Nusra had attempted to embed itself in the Syrian rebellion and in July 2016 undertook an information operation to enable this program, claiming it had severed links with al-Qaeda, renaming itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). Al-Qaeda signed-off on this move. A second rebranding took place in January 2017 with the formation of HTS, an entity dominated by JFS/al-Nusra from the beginning and still recognised as a terrorist group by the West, which has now reverted to its core al-Nusra operatives and some ultra-hardline Ahrar al-Sham defectors.

There is every indication that at some point between the announcement of JFS and HTS, al-Qaeda lost control. Some of the above-mentioned leaders of Hurras al-Deen, such as al-Tubaysi and Khuraysat, could not even partake in the JFS gambit, when they believed they had al-Qaeda’s sanction for the ruse; none of them could stomach the HTS development that was in blatant defiance of al-Zawahiri.

Reports of varying credibility about a cell or faction of al-Qaeda loyalists in northern Syria have been around since late 2016, shortly after JFS was announced. The declaration of Jamaat Ansar al-Furqan fi Bilad al-Sham on 9 October 2017 appeared to be the reforming of an al-Qaeda grouping in Syria. Ansar al-Furqan, not thought to contain more than 300 men, was unveiled days after a speech by al-Zawahiri that subtly criticised HTS. Al-Zawahiri had obliquely attacked HTS in April 2017; with al-Zawahiri’s speech in November 2017, finally acknowledging the problems with HTS head-on, the floodgates of public score-settling were opened.

Since al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) has not formally adopted Hurras al-Deen as its own, it can be assumed that Hurras al-Deen’s formation was not coordinated with AQC. Nonetheless, it is rather plain what Hurras al-Deen is and wants to be, given its leadership and the fact that at least three pre-existing jihadist insurgent groups in Syria identified as loyal to al-Qaeda have joined Hurras al-Deen: Jaysh al-Malahim (The Army of the Epics (Glorious Battles)), Jaysh al-Badiyya (The Desert Army), and Jaysh al-Sahel (The Coastal Army).

Jaysh al-Malahim and Jaysh al-Badiyya split from HTS late last year. Jaysh al-Badiyya in particular, which departed from HTS on 5 December 2017 after HTS arrested several al-Qaeda loyalists, has made a point of using al-Qaeda’s iconography. Jaysh al-Sahel also split from HTS, announcing its independence two weeks ago, on 13 February.

UPDATES

The formal bay’at was given by six groups to Hurras al-Deen on 4 March: Jaysh al-Malahim, Jaysh al-Badiyya, Jaysh al-Sahel, Saraya Kabul (The Kabul Companies), Jund al-Shari’a (The Army of Holy Law, formed in February), and Saraya al-Sahel (The Coastal Companies), plus elements from Jund al-Aqsa (The Soldiers of al-Aqsa) that did not join IS.

Abu Abdurrahman al-Makki, the leader of Jaysh al-Malahim, is thus another identifiable figure among Hurras al-Deen’s leadership.

It is estimated that Hurras al-Deen has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters available to it, which, if true, is a significant advance over the few hundred it was estimated were gathered around Ansar al-Furqan.

An official flag for Hurras al-Deen was released on Telegram on 13 March 2018.

Ayman al-Zawahiri gave a speech on 23 March that revived a lot of the themes of the “far enemy” messaging that became al-Qaeda’s calling card after the 9/11 massacre. Putting aside the fact that this was always overdone as an aspect of al-Qaeda’s strategy—al-Qaeda had trained (p. 67) up to 20,000 jihadists for insurgencies in the Muslim world between 1996 and 2001—if al-Qaeda is now renewing its interest foreign attacks, it is Hurras al-Deen that poses that threat from the Syrian theatre.

On 29 April 2018, Hurras al-Deen announced a merger with Ansar al-Tawhid, a former Jund al-Aqsa formation, and rebranded under the name Hilf Nusrat al-Islam (The Alliance for Supporting Islam).

THE FIRST STATEMENT

Statement No. 1 on 11 Jumada II 1439 AH [27 February 2018].

Save the Bastion of the Muslims[2]

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,

Allah the Exhalted says: “And if they seek aid in the matter of religion, then it is your duty to help [them]” [al-Anfal (8): 72]. The Prophet, may Allah’s prayer and peace be upon him, said: “If anyone relieves a Muslim believer from one of the hardships of this wordly life, Allah will relieve him of one of the harships of the Day of Resurrection” [Hadith compiled by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj].

And the Prophet, may Allah’s peace and prayer be upon him, said: “There is no Muslim man who will support a Muslim in a place where his honour and dignity may be violated, except that Allah will secure him victorious in a place [home] that he wishes” [Narrated by Ahmad and Abu Dawud].

The Prophet, may Allah’s prayer and peace be upon him, said: “Be servants of Allah, oh our brothers, the Muslim of your Muslim brother, and do not oppress him or neglect him or humiliate him” and he pointed to his chest three times [Imam Muslim].

The meaning of him saying, “and do not neglect him”, is, the scholars said: The abandonment before an enemy, meaning: if he is appealing for help in defending against injustice, then a Muslim must assist him if he is able … and he has no legitimate shari’a excuse not to. In the narration: Verily, the Prophet, may Allah’s prayer and peace be upon him, said regarding the Muslim is the brother of the Muslim: “do not degrade him” and it is said: if the safest person was thrown into danger and was not protected from his enemy, and if he surrenders to the clutches of his enemy who will abuse him and oppress him and transgress against him and will curse him with pain, and kill him, and transgress against him in terms of his money and his appearance. Therefore, it is the terms of Islamic brotherhood that he does not let him down or degrade him and does not leave him to be pillaged by the enemy.

Oh, Muslims:

Verily, the Islamic umma [community or nation] has passed and is passing through a number of tragedies in this era, and among its tragedies are Ghuta, Damascus, today. How can it be good for us to live while our people in al-Ghuta suffer under different bombs, with the deadliest of missiles in our current era tested upon them? Is there not a wise man among us? As for the shaking of your hearts and your growing enthusiasm, our brothers have been surrounded by the enemy and their poisonous bombing. How can you eat and drink and enjoy life while your brothers there [in Ghuta] are being burned with napalm and phosphorous and buried under the ruins of their homes, having to sleep on the embers?

Oh umma of Islam:

Save your family and your brothers under the canopy of Muslims [in eastern Ghuta] and know, oh our people, that when the regime is finished [with its attack] in al-Ghuta, then your masir [fate (or destiny)] will be their fate if you do not support them now. Direct the lava of your guns and your weapons toward your enemy and know that if you support Allah then He will support you.

We say to our people in al-Ghuta: we are very sorry. We have let you down severely, and left you vulnerable, and without a plan from us. But we promise you, our brothers, that we will do our best to rid you of the siege set upon you and we will be a stab in your oppressor’s side, to shake his movement and distract him from you, for we give ourselves for you and our blood to save yours.

Regarding the factions:

Verily, we call upon the fighting factions in Syria to stop the fighting amongst themselves so that we can devote ourselves to this great duty. Time is aware of us, the duty is immense, and the trust in us is great, so let us all repel this hostile enemy and relieve our people in al-Ghuta and Fustat.

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

Notes

[1] Other transliterations include: Tanzim Hurras al-Din and Tandheem Hurrasideen.

[2] The title of the statement is Inqadhu Fustat al-Muslimeen (أنقذوا فسطاط المسلمين) and the English translations circulated on Telegram gave the title as “Save the Canopy of the Muslims”.

5 thoughts on “A New Branch of Al-Qaeda Emerges in Syria

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