The Syrian Jihad, al-Qaida, and Salafi-Jihadism: An Interview with Muzamjir al-Sham

In early June, the much-awaited interview with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was released by Frontline.[1] American journalist Martin Smith asked al-Jolani a number of questions ranging from the jihadi leader’s personal trajectory and relationship with al-Qaida and the Islamic State to the subsequent transformation of HTS from a group invested in global jihadism to one focused on local struggle in Syria and Idlib in particular. The interview revealed what HTS is seemingly becoming more and more every day: a third model of jihadism that is departing from Salafi-Jihadi ideology and in opposition to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State. In light of the Frontline interview, the authors decided to interview a prominent jihadi source who actively monitors the ongoing conflict between HTS and Hurras al-Din (HaD), the new Syrian al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, and the state of al-Qaida and the Salafi-Jihadi movement globally. The source, who

Read More »

Is Ayman al-Zawahiri Dead?

In November 2020, reports emerged on social media and in the Pakistani press that al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri had recently died of natural causes, possibly in Afghanistan. Born in 1951, the Egyptian jihadi veteran has been at the helm of al-Qaida since Osama bin Ladin’s death in the raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. During this time he has been highly visible as the face of the organization, delivering numerous audio and video addresses and offering written guidance to its members and branches. While there have been periods when he was incommunicado and his fate uncertain, never before have rumors of his demise swirled with such intensity. The release last week of a new video featuring al-Zawahiri has only reinforced those rumors, raising questions about the future of al-Qaida’s leadership and its future as an organization. The Wound of the Rohingya The new video, released on March 12, 2021

Read More »

Al-Qaeda’s Leaders Are Dying, But a Greater Challenge Looms

A string of top-level al-Qaeda leaders have been killed this year in U.S. counterterrorism operations extending from Afghanistan to Iran and Syria. The frequency of the strikes, together with the seniority of those lost, has dealt a crippling blow to the old guard responsible for founding al-Qaeda back in the 1980s. After nearly 20 years of relentless counterterrorism pressure following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda’s central leadership has grown older, more distant and disconnected, and, it seems, increasingly vulnerable. Most prominently, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (better known as Abu Mohammed al-Masri), was reportedly killed in August by a team of elite Israeli assassins acting on U.S. intelligence in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The targeting of al-Masri, the most likely successor to overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was one of the most significant operational successes against al-Qaeda since Osama Bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. That it took place in

Read More »

Jihadi Reactions to the U.S.-Taliban Deal and Afghan Peace Talks

On September 12, 2020, the Taliban and the Afghan government began negotiations in Qatar over the political future of Afghanistan. In accordance with the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” signed by the United States and the Taliban on February 29, the negotiations are expected to produce “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” between the warring Afghan parties, as well as an “agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.” In return for the Taliban’s participation in the negotiations and its guarantee that “Afghan soil will not be used against the security of the United States and its allies,” the United States agreed to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan within fourteen months of the original agreement. In the world of Sunni jihadism, the U.S.-Taliban deal and the associated peace talks have elicited a range of reactions, from celebration to condemnation. This divergence of views reflects the fractured state of the

Read More »

Mourning Morsi: The Death of an Islamist and Jihadi Divisions

Following the death of Mohamed Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, on June 17, 2019, a contentious debate broke out in the world of Sunni jihadism over the proper reaction to his demise. The Islamic State exhibited no grief whatsoever, its Arabic weekly noting the passing of “the Egyptian apostate idol-ruler … [who] rose to power by means of polytheistic democracy and spent one year in power, [ruling] by other than what God has revealed.” For the Islamic State, Morsi’s loss was no loss at all. He was no better or worse than any other apostate ruler in the Islamic world. But for those jihadis in the orbit of al-Qaida, the matter was not so black-and-white. Some rued his loss, others objected to their doing so, and passions ran high. The debate highlights the significance and endurance of a widening ideological divide in this segment of the jihadosphere. Al-Maqdisi

Read More »

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Internal Conflict and Renewed Tensions with Hurras al-Deen

On 1 February Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, a senior religious official (shar‘i) representing the hardliner wing within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), announced his defection from the group. Al-Masri’s decision came as a direct response to a recent interview with Abu Muhammed al-Julani, the amir of HTS, in which he gave his support to Turkey’s planned operations against the Kurds in northeast Syria. HTS’s rapprochement with Turkey has long been a sensitive issue causing problems both within the group and between HTS and al-Qaida-aligned figures. In a speech published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri reiterated his criticisms of HTS, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly. Al-Masri, who allegedly was arrested by HTS following his defection, has long been a critical voice within HTS. As recently as 30 December 2018, he said in a videotaped sermon in Idlib that Turkey’s battle against the Kurdish YPG is “between a secular army and a secular,

Read More »
AQ Central
Bernard Haykel

Messages to Arabia: Al-Qaida Attacks MBS and the Saudi Monarchy

Since the early 1990s, al-Qaida has routinely vilified the Saudi royal family and its government for being un-Islamic and illegitimate, describing the monarchy and the princes as apostates who should be attacked and toppled from power. The gist of al-Qaida’s condemnation of the Saudi rulers is that they are lackeys of the West who only pretend to be Muslim and therefore need to be fought and deposed. The Saudi royals have consistently undermined Islam from within and are delivering Islam’s wealth to the West—Arabia’s vast oil and gas reserves—at well below market value. Because of this, the Saudi dynasty’s real nature has to be revealed and the Saudi state destroyed. Every al-Qaida leader has vilified the Saudis in this way, from Usama bin Ladin to his son and putative heir, Hamza. The latter, in 2016, launched a six-part audio series seeking to expose the Saudi royal family’s history of “betrayal.” Anti-Saudi

Read More »

Abu al-Qassam: Zarqawi’s right-hand man who stayed loyal to al-Qaida

Everywhere Abu Musab al-Zarqawi went, Abu al-Qassam was with him. Even to prison. Abu al-Qassam was al-Zarqawi’s childhood friend, later his companion and finally his deputy. After spending more than 10 years in Iranian captivity, he was released in March 2015, but despite the Islamic State claiming to be the heirs of al-Zarqawi, it is now with al-Qaida that Abu al-Qassam’s loyalty lies. Originally from Ramallah, Abu al-Qassam grew up in Zarqa, just north of Jordan’s capital Amman. It was here, in one of the city’s mosques – most likely al-Hussein bin Ali Mosque – that he one day as a young man met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who eventually would become the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor. The two would go on to become close, even family. He was born as Khalid Mustafa Khalifa al-Aruri in 1967, but it was as Abu al-Qassam or Abu Ashraf

Read More »

What we learned from Sami al-Uraydi’s testimony concerning Abu Abdullah al-Shami

Something is not right in the relationship between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and al-Qaida. On 15 October, an announcement was posted on Sami al-Uraydi’s Telegram channel. “#Soon,” it said, “the series For God, then For History,” which was described as consisting of “testimonies on the split between Jabhat al-Nusra and Tanzim al-Qaida”. 50 minutes later the first such testimony was released and the war of words between al-Qaida and HTS had begun. In the coming six days, four further testimonies from Uraydi, and another from a close accomplice, followed and all with the same objective: to delegitimise leading HTS figures, namely Abu Abdullah al-Shami and Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. As readers of this site will know, this is not the first time that debate and controversy between HTS and al-Qaida-affiliated ideologues have disturbed the Jihadi scene. In late November last year, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi began his critique of what was then

Read More »

Abandoning al-Qaida: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Sami al-‘Uraydi

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

Read More »
Latest Jihadica