The last few weeks have seen a widening of the rift in the jihadi world between proponents and critics of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra. As detailed in a previous post, this dispute centers on the group’s perceived deviation from the strict principles of jihadi salafism and its alleged abandonment of al-Qaida. Leading the charge has been Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the influential jihadi scholar in Jordan who has accused it of adopting a “diluted” methodology and of cutting ties with the parent group without the express permission of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al-Maqdisi’s chief ideological ally in this venture has been the younger Sami al-‘Uraydi, a Jordanian ex-shari‘a official in Jabhat al-Nusra living somewhere in Syria. Unlike al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uraydi’ is a member of al-Qaida bound by a loyalty oath to Zawahiri, so naturally his critique has focused more on the purported betrayal of his master than has al-Maqdisi’s. His case lends further credence to the view that Zawahiri disapproved of Jabhat al-Nusra’s severing of links with al-Qaida back in July 2016.
According to a short biography and profile uploaded to his Telegram channel, Sami ibn Mahmud al-‘Uraydi was born in Amman, Jordan in 1973. He received a bachelor’s degree in shari‘a in 1994 and a master’s degree in hadith in 1997, both from the University of Jordan, then moved to Baghdad where he completed his Ph.D. in hadith in 2001 at the Islamic University in Baghdad. His dissertation was a study of the early Muslim scholar al-Nasa’i’s (d. 915) methodology for evaluating hadith transmitters. One of his teachers was the noted salafi scholar and hadith specialist Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), who probably had something to do with this strong interest in hadith. His jihadi leanings seem to derive from an early association with the two senior jihadi scholars of Jordan, al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini.
Al-‘Uraydi’s activates between 2001 and the outbreak of the Syrian uprising are not covered, though it is known that he was arrested in 2006 on suspicion of belonging to an al-Qaida cell in Jordan. When the Syrian rebellion broke out, al-‘Uraydi migrated to the Daraa region along the Jordanian border where he joined Jabhat al-Nusra. He was appointed “general shari‘a official” (al-shar‘i al-‘amm) for the area, and in 2014 was promoted to the post of “general shari‘a official” for the entire group. This coincided with his appointment to the once-vaunted shari‘a council of al-Maqdisi’s website. In the south he grew close to several other jihadi hardliners from Jordan, including the overall commander for Daraa, Abu Julaybib al-Urduni (aka Abu Iyad al-Tubasi), a veteran al-Qaida member who was one of the founders of Jabhat al-Nusra and who previously fought alongside Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. In late 2015 it was reported that both men had relocated to northern Syria.
Following Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding as Jabhat Fath al-Sham in mid-2016, al-‘Uraydi lost his position as top scholar, though he remained a member of the shura and shari‘a councils. Meanwhile, several of his allies, including Abu Julaybib, left the group in protest of the breaking of ties with al-Qaida and the new policy of uniting with less ideologically pure Islamist groups. On August 23, 2016, Abu Julaybib announced his resignation in a series of tweets complaining about the influence of “the diluters.” He renewed his bay‘a (allegiance pledge) to Zawahiri, declaring his “total and absolute rejection” of the dissociation. Abu Julaybib’s resignation followed that of another senior Jordanian commander, Abu Khadija al-Urduni (aka Bilal Khuraysat), who later wrote in a letter to Tahrir al-Sham: “I have remained steadfast upon [my bay‘a]. You are the ones who changed and altered. I have kept my bay‘a to the Qaidat al-Jihad Organization from the first day I entered Syria. I don’t know you, while I know al-Qaida.”
For whatever reason, al-‘Uraydi stayed with the group until the formation of Tahrir al-Sham in late January 2017. On February 8, he and another leader confirmed their departure online, saying: “After Jabhat Fath al-Sham dissolved itself and merged into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, we no longer have any organizational link to this new formation.” On the same day, al-‘Uraydi took his first shot at his former group. He wrote on Telegram: “Among the greatest forms of disobedience is disobedience to the mother organization; after it raised them as children, they disobeyed it when one of them started learning to speak.” This was in fact a reposting of a tweet from September 2015, the implied target having been the Islamic State. This time around the implied target—the disobedient child—was Tahrir al-Sham. It was the beginning of a line of subtle criticism that would grow in intensity over the next few months.
When al-Maqdisi embarked on his verbal assault on Tahrir al-Sham back in February, al-‘Uraydi was quick to lend support and soon was contributing written criticism of his own. His approach, however, has been much more oblique than al-Maqdisi’s.
The first contribution was a long essay in early March titled “Advice to the Mujahid in the Time of Afflictions,” which defined the current state of affairs (presumably in Syria) as one of “afflictions” (fitan) dividing Muslims and diverting their attention from the goal of implementing the shari‘a. Among the courses of action recommended were staying loyal to one’s group and obeying its authorities, along with outspoken condemnation of those who substitute God’s law with man-made law. These were veiled references to loyalty and obedience to al-Qaida and to condemning states such as Turkey and Qatar and the Islamist groups they support.
In early April, al-‘Uraydi took aim at groups in Syria adopting nationalist rhetoric and trying “to isolate themselves from the movements of global Sunni jihad,” a reference to Tahrir al-Sham and its attempt to distance itself from al-Qaida.
Another essay from early April, written in response to pressing questions from “many of the beloved brothers,” focused on the subject of bay‘a. Al-‘Uraydi wrote that “it is not allowed for a person or group to defect and break bay‘as without legal justification”; that bay‘as “are not to be invalidated or broken on account of fancies, illusions, whims, suppositions, legal tricks, deception, and misleading;” that “you must remain faithful to the bay‘a that you gave to your group and its overall emir”; and that “you are not allowed to break it until you have ascertained the facts clearly from the emir of the group himself with certainty.” Al-‘Uraydi twice quoted the following line from the al-Qaida scholar ‘Atiyyat Allah al-Libi (d. 2011): “It is incumbent on [one who has given bay‘a] to listen to and obey [the group]; it is not permitted for one to leave and create a new group.” Al-‘Uraydi was no doubt referring to Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida, and to the question of whether one’s bay‘a to Zawahiri (the “overall emir”) can be invalidated without the explicit consent of Zawahiri himself.
The most direct of these criticisms came in a Telegram post from April 20 accusing Tahrir al-Sham—though again not by name—of leaving al-Qaida just as the Islamic State had. Al-‘Uraydi stated: “We witnessed fierce criticism of Baghdadi and his group for their breaking the vow and the bay‘a in ways not legally allowed; they [i.e., critics of the Islamic State] described them in the harshest terms. Then today, when the very same action is taken by people and their supporters and fans, it becomes legal expediency and the welfare of the community.” The “people” mentioned here are the leaders of Tahrir al-Sham, which was obvious to its online supporters. One of these responded that “the analogy here between the two situations is false,” for Jabhat al-Nusra made “repeated requests” to dissolve its bay‘a whereas Baghdadi denied having one in the first place.
The matter of Abu al-Khayr
Fortunately, not everyone in al-‘Uraydi’s circle has written in code about Tahrir al-Sham’s departure from al-Qaida. Al-Maqdisi, it will be recalled, claimed in February that al-Qaida’s “leadership was not in agreement” with the decision to cut ties. Another jihadi thinker, Ahmad al-Hamdan, then relayed further information from al-Maqdisi, writing in English: “Communication with Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri was not possible due to security issues … The branch of Al-Qaida in Shaam which is Jabhatun Nusrah wants [read: wanted] to take immediate decision regarding breaking of its ties with Al Qaida for the sake of uniting with the rest of the other groups … They turned towards Abu Al-Khayr who … approved this step … After the split from Al Qaida took place, there occurred communication with Zawahiri and he very strongly refused this step.”
Abu al-Khayr is Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, an Egyptian al-Qaida leader who served as Zawahiri’s deputy in Syria till his death in late February 2017 in a U.S. airstrike. It was Abu al-Khayr who, on July 28, 2016, put out the audio statement granting Jabhat al-Nusra permission to leave al-Qaida. Yet such permission, according to al-Maqdisi, was dependent on Zawahiri’s anticipated approval, which proved not forthcoming. When Zawahiri was informed of what had happened he sought to restore the status quo ante, but the leaders of his former affiliate balked. And so a superficial split became a real rupture—widened by the bad blood of perceived disobedience.
This story, it should be noted, is widely believed by the jihadis aligned with al-Maqdisi and al-‘Uraydi. “Everyone knows that the sage [i.e., Zawahiri] rejected the breaking of ties, which was carried out by deception and the violation of an oath,” said recently a certain “Dr. Abu Hamza,” a thinker whose messages are reposted by al-Maqdisi and al-‘Uraydi. As another put it even more recently: “We take issue with the fact that [Abu Muhammad] al-Jawlani invalidated the bay‘a and rejected Zawahiri’s command.”
A more detailed account of what transpired is provided by one Muhammad al-Gharib (aka “the heir of Zarqawi”), a Syria-based activist close to al-‘Uraydi and other former Jabhat al-Nusra officials. Statements from Abu Julaybib, Abu Khadija, and others are released via his Telegram channel, and his version of events appears to draw on these sources. In a brief defense of al-‘Uraydi and al-Maqdisi from late April 2017, al-Gharib wrote that Zawahiri “reprimanded” Abu al-Khayr for allowing Jabhat al-Nusra to go its own way. He went on to explain: “Shaykh Abu al-Khayr, may God have mercy on him, after his audio message … said, ‘Now I will bring the matter to the sage [i.e., Zawahiri]. I will not bless or agree upon anything without the sage’s decision.’” Abu al-Khayr then told “some of the brothers, ‘If the sage’s decision comes back [negative], I will retreat [i.e., withdraw permission].’” Some within Jabhat al-Nusra conditioned their support for the breaking of ties upon Zawahiri’s approval. When, “approximately two months later,” a letter from Zawahiri arrived rejecting the move, Abu al-Khayr “kept his word,” while Jawlani did not. Al-Gharib described this story as “well established,” or mutawatir, a word in hadith terminology indicating a narration conveyed by so many narrators as to be beyond dispute. (Rumor in Islamic State circles has it that Zawahiri’s letter has been viewed by al-‘Uraydi and al-Maqdisi.)
Whether every part of this account is to be believed or not, it is telling that those in the pro-Tahrir al-Sham column are not contesting the basic fact that Jabhat al-Nusra left al-Qaida on bad terms. They would prefer, so it seems, not to address the issue, but they may have no choice.
On April 23, 2017, Zawahiri released an audio statement devoted to Syria that was taken by the supporters of al-‘Uraydi and al-Maqdisi as an endorsement of their position. In the short statement, Zawahiri warned the mujahidin in Syria against turning their jihad into “a nationalist war,” urged them to see themselves as part of the global jihad, and called for “reassessment and correction.” He further advised a strategy of “guerrilla warfare” as opposed to one of holding territory. Pressed for comment, al-‘Uraydi said the message was “as clear as the sun.”
Two days later, al-Qaida’s media agency published a new edition of al-‘Uraydi’s “Advice to the Mujahid in the Time of Afflictions” with an introduction by Zawahiri. This was likewise seen by the critics of Tahrir al-Sham as confirmation of their views. The introduction, which said nothing about Syria specifically, cited examples of how jihad had gone wrong as a result of seeking concessions and lusting for power.
In early May the London-based jihadi scholar Hani al-Siba‘i issued a statement calling on Zawahiri to broker a reconciliation between the two sides, citing “what happened in terms of the smoke surrounding the issue of the breaking of ties.” The appeal recalled al-Siba‘i’s request several years back that Zawahiri clear up the issue of the Islamic State’s historical connection to al-Qaida. In that case Zawahiri responded with a detailed answer. Perhaps such a reply concerning Tahrir al-Sham is in the offing, or perhaps not. It would be highly embarrassing for Zawahiri to admit that his al-Qaida affiliate disobeyed him, especially since he has accused the Islamic State of doing the same.
Apart from complaining, it remains unclear what the group of al-Qaida stalwarts in Syria intends to do. They do not appear to be on the verge of forming a new al-Qaida group—they are probably too small for that—but nor are they itching for reconciliation. Just yesterday, Tahrir al-Sham’s chief scholar released a three-page defense of his group’s methodology, insisting that the stage of “the one organization” and its “ideology” had passed and refuting the idea that this meant “a descent to concessions as some are wont to imagine.” With these words, commented a thinker in al-‘Uraydi’s circle, Tahrir al-Sham has rejected Zawahiri’s latest advice and “shut the door permanently on walking back the breaking of ties.” It is hard to imagine how al-Qaida’s leader could put an end to the cycle of mutual recriminations.