It has been widely assumed in Western capitals that the latest incarnation of Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (née Jabhat al-Nusra), remains fundamentally unchanged. It may have publicly renounced ties to al-Qaida back in July 2016 and softened its rhetoric somewhat, so the thinking goes, but it has not transformed itself in any meaningful way. It is still al-Qaida through and through.
Don’t tell that, however, to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the preeminent Jihadi-Salafi scholar living in Jordan who vehemently disputes all of the above. Indeed, the problem with this portrayal of Tahrir al-Sham is that it ignores the existence of a profound controversy in jihadi circles surrounding the nature of the group, which some argue has lost its way. According to these critics, al-Maqdisi chief among them, not only was the break with al-Qaida real as opposed to superficial, it was never actually endorsed by al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. What is more, since breaking with the mother organization, the group has sacrificed longstanding jihadi principles—such as the duty of excommunicating and separating from secularists and democrats—for the sake of broadening its appeal and pursuing unity with more nationalist-minded groups. In short, the jihad in Syria has been imperiled.
Al-Maqdisi is no stranger to internal jihadi controversies, as readers of Jihadica will well know. Historically his criticisms have centered on the extremist tendencies of the jihadi movement, most famously the excesses of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi and the Islamic State. Here, however, his target is not extremism but rather laxity, or in his word “dilution” (tamyīʿ).
Syria’s rebels divided
Al-Maqdisi’s concerns should be viewed against the backdrop of recent developments in Syria’s rebel scene, which recently saw the emergence of Tahrir al-Sham out of Jabhat Fath al-Sham and the consolidation of its main rival, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham. As Aron Lund and Aymenn al-Tamimi have recently explained, the two groups, Jabhat Fath al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, nearly came to blows in January 2017 when the former attacked several Western-aligned insurgent factions taking part in peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The smaller groups sought protection by joining Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist militia with ties to Turkey and Qatar. In response, on January 28, Jabhat Fath al-Sham and four other hardline groups announced the formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“The Committee for the Liberation of al-Sham”) as the new vehicle of Syria’s revolution and jihad. Abu Jabir Hashim al-Shaykh, a former Ahrar al-Sham hardliner, was named leader.
This reordering marked the end of nearly six months of failed initiatives aimed at uniting Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fath al-Sham. The latter had hoped, by splitting with al-Qaida in July 2016, to unify the armed opposition under its banner. But ideological and strategic differences between the two groups proved insurmountable.
Two particular points of contention are worth mentioning here, as al-Maqdisi refers to them frequently. The first is Turkey’s military intervention in the northern Aleppo countryside known as Euphrates Shield, which is aimed at beating back both the Islamic State and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Ahrar al-Sham has long been involved in the operation and even endorsed it in a fatwa. Jabhat Fath al-Sham, by contrast, prohibited its forces from participating, deeming coordination with the Turkish military to be unlawful “seeking of help” from foreigners. The second issue is the Astana conference that took place on January 23-24. While Ahrar al-Sham ultimately decided not to attend, it still publicly supported those groups that did. Jabhat Fath al-Sham, meanwhile, condemned the talks and urged all to keep away.
Jabhat Fath al-Sham is clearly the more ideologically pure group in this contest. But none of this was enough for al-Maqdisi.
Al-Maqdisi seeks clarity
Al-Maqdisi’s criticisms of what is now Tahrir al-Sham in fact go back to November 2016 when, writing on his Telegram channel, he regretted the group’s breaking of ties with al-Qaida. Having given his blessing to the break back in July, he now admitted that it failed to yield any benefit—it had not produced greater unity or lightened the international coalition’s bombing. If it worked to anyone’s advantage, he said, it was to that of “the diluters” (al-mumayyiʿa), those in the group willing to compromise on “the principles of the path (al-manhaj).”
The term “diluters,” meaning those who would water down strict monotheistic principles, has long formed a part of al-Maqdisi’s lexicon. In the context of Syria, he has mainly used it to denigrate groups that seem Western-oriented or not fully committed to implementing the sharia. But gradually he began to use the term in reference to certain elements in Jabhat Fath al-Sham, and with the announcement of Tahrir al-Sham his criticism became more pronounced.
On January 29, the day after the announcement, al-Maqdisi offered cautious support for the group. Certain people “worried at the growing influence of the diluters,” he wrote on Telegram, were asking his advice concerning giving allegiance to Tahrir al-Sham. While acknowledging their concerns, he urged them nonetheless to pledge fealty if only “to increase the influence of the supporters of the sharia.” But his apprehension was growing by the day. (Al-Maqdisi writes one or two essays daily.)
On January 30, he wrote: “My thinking is that the influence of the diluters, after the formation of the Committee [i.e., Tahrir al-Sham], is now growing greater!” And on February 2, he called on Tahrir al-Sham’s new leaders to reaffirm the soundness of their path, the strength of their monotheism, and their disavowal of foreign powers. Particularly, they were to clarify their stance on Euphrates Shield and Astana, as some of the new groups joining Tahrir al-Sham had been involved or not so opposed to these.
Two days later, al-Maqdisi repeated his call for “clarity”: “clarity that the objective is to implement the sharia, not the laws of men”; “clarity concerning your disavowal of wicked coalitions such as Euphrates Shield”; “clarity concerning your disavowal of conferences and conspiracies such as Astana”; “clarity concerning your views on…secular regimes providing foreign backing.” He emphasized that this appeal was on behalf of certain concerned members of the group with whom he was in contact. One of these, whom he quoted at length, complained of feeling sidelined and unable to trust the new leadership.
Tahrir al-Sham responds
On February 10, Tahrir al-Sham’s leading sharia official, Abu ‘Abdallah al-Shami (real name ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Utun), released a more than 20-page letter responding to al-Maqdisi. The latter’s criticisms, he said, were troubling to some in the group who held al-Maqdisi in esteem, and could even lead to defections. Evidently the old scholar still held some sway over Syria’s jihadis.
Al-Shami’s letter made a series of points, the first of which was that al-Maqdisi was ill-informed. For some reason he uncritically accepted the claims of individuals bearing personal grudges, when he ought to be communicating directly with the group. Al-Shami claimed to have made countless efforts to establish contact with al-Maqdisi, concluding that “he refused to communicate with us.” For this reason, it had been necessary to respond publicly.
The second point concerned terminology. Al-Shami objected to al-Maqdisi’s use of “diluters,” and its counterpoint “supporters of the sharia,” as imprecise and divisive. Throwing around vague accusations of “dilution,” he warned, implied excommunicating large numbers of fighters with different views on sensitive issues, such as the Islamic status of certain rulers. Al-Shami noted in particular the debate among Syria’s jihadis over whether Turkey’s Erdogan should be considered a Muslim or a heretic. Some, he explained, consider Erdogan, his government, and his military to be unbelievers, while others disagree or hold more nuanced views. Whatever the case, “those who do not excommunicate Erdogan are not necessarily diluters,” just as Usama bin Ladin was not necessarily a diluter for not excommunicating the Saudi government in his early years.
In his third point, al-Shami refuted the contention that Tahrir al-Sham was veering off the jihadi path. The group remained committed to “the same principles,” which included making the sharia supreme. It was also still strongly opposed to Euphrates Shield and Astana, though it was not going to declare the participants in either to be unbelievers. As for the issue of foreign backing, al-Shami argued, the group had never been against foreign support in theory. What it opposed was support with strings attached—namely, conditions inhibiting independence—and this it would continue to resist.
Al-Maqdisi holds firms
Four days later, a thoroughly unimpressed al-Maqdisi responded in turn, accusing al-Shami of failing to bring clarity to the important issues he had raised and making light of such important matters as the excommunication of secular rulers. Al-Maqdisi further charged al-Shami with not really trying to make contact with him and falsely questioning the reliability of his sources. All of this was an attempt to “cover up” the existence of a significant dissident faction in Tahrir al-Sham dissatisfied with the group’s trajectory. Some of these dissidents, al-Maqdisi said, had abandoned the group on the grounds that it had wrongly withdrawn allegiance from al-Qaida.
In this connection al-Maqdisi made an extraordinary revelation—if it is to be believed—as covered previously by Romain Caillet. He claimed that the breaking of ties with al-Qaida was not in fact approved by al-Qaida’s leadership. Back in July 2016, he explained, al-Shami communicated with him and several other scholars to win their support for the intended break. Al-Shami assured them that this step would be “superficial and nominal, not real,” and had the approval of “the majority of the deputies” of Zawahiri. In any event, if Zawahiri rejected it then Jabhat al-Nusra would “invalidate” the decision. Accordingly, al-Maqdisi tweeted his support for the move. Later, however, after “it was revealed” to him that he had been “deceived” by al-Shami, he deleted the post. The truth, al-Maqdisi asserted, was that al-Qaida’s “leadership was not in agreement” with the split: “After its rejection came to them [i.e., Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders], they did not fulfill their promise to retreat from their superficial step, as they claimed and promised they would. Rather they stayed the course till they made it a real breaking of ties.”
This deception notwithstanding, al-Maqdisi affirmed that his greater concern was with Tahrir al-Sham’s “path” (manhaj), not its organizational affiliation. The one-time al-Qaida affiliate had remade itself into a revolutionary group—“liberation” (tahrir) having recently replaced the more Islamic “conquest” (fath)—and shown itself willing to embrace groups that wanted democracy, not sharia. This was a fact, he asserted, that al-Shami refused to acknowledge.
Abu Qatada’s intervention
On February 16, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, al-Maqdisi’s fellow jihadi scholar in Jordan, announced on Telegram that he had successfully intervened in the dispute between al-Maqdisi and al-Shami. The two had agreed to end the mutual recriminations. Al-Maqdisi’s daily criticism of Tahrir al-Sham would not ease up, but he did cease to engage in ad hominem attacks.
Abu Qatada’s peacemaking role was in keeping with his reputation as the relatively more moderate jihadi ideologue. Yet even he had been critical of Tahrir al-Sham, arguing that recent developments gave cause for concern. In a mid-February essay he expressed disappointment with Abu Jabir al-Shaykh’s first public statement as Tahrir al-Sham’s leader. Abu Jabir “was not clear” about what he stood for. Rather “his words were chosen in such a way as not to anger anyone or oppose anyone,” and this was worrying. “The speech he gave only increases the fearful in fear.”
By early March, however, Abu Qatada had changed his tone. In a rather self-critical fatwa posted to Telegram, he resigned himself to the fact that a new generation of jihadi leaders, one less ideologically rigid and less closed off to the larger Islamic community, was in the ascendant. “The jihadi current has long vacillated between partial openness and isolation,” he wrote, and the former tendency was beginning to make inroads—“the idea of the ideological group” was giving way to “a project of the Islamic community.” In his view, this had to be welcomed, though it meant the jihadi current was going to “splinter” further. “Believe me,” he said, “there are going to be more changes within the current.”
More than a name change
All this would suggest that Tahrir al-Sham is not just a new sign on an old al-Qaida building. Rather the new group is indicative of yet another tension in the jihadi movement that is only now coming to the surface. When al-Qaida in Iraq restyled itself the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, few were those who saw this to be more than a simple name change. But as is well known now, that was not the case. The Islamic State of Iraq marked the start of a new project not really guided by al-Qaida. Something similar appears to be afoot today in Syria, only in “diluted” form.