Last week, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, a senior leader in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), delivered a controversial message on his Telegram channel. The time had come, he wrote, for al-Qaida’s branches to shut the organization down. After the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri on July 31, 2022, and with the question of succession complicated by the leading candidate’s presence in Iran, this was the best path forward. He urged the affiliates to consider an alternative model of jihadism, one that embraces cooperation with regional states as part of a strategy of confronting “the Iranian project” in the Middle East.
The advice, or nasiha, was not received well in al-Qaida circles. Several critics of the nasiha wrote at length against it, castigating its author as an ignoramus and dismissing his arguments as unfounded. Two of these authors purport to be members of al-Qaida. The exchange is worth considering, as Abu Mariya is no stranger to the inner workings of al-Qaida—he belonged to it for more than a decade—and the advice he offered clearly struck a nerve. It may well shed light on the still murky future of the group after al-Zawahiri.
Abu Mariya’s journey
Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, whose real name is Muyassar ibn ‘Ali al-Juburi, was born in the town of al-Rasif outside Mosul, Iraq in June 1976, and soon after moved to the nearby town of Harara, where he grew up (hence the occasional nickname al-Harari). His studies ultimately took him to the University of Baghdad, where he obtained a diploma in management and bachelor’s degree in Islamic law. While it has been said that he served in the Iraqi police and volunteered in the Fedayeen Saddam, he has denied these claims as enemy propaganda. What is clear, at any rate, is that Abu Mariya has been a committed jihadi since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and that his religious education prepared him for senior positions in the insurgency and beyond.
According to what appears to be the most reliable biography of the man, upon the U.S. invasion, Abu Mariya did not hesitate to join the jihadi opposition, fighting in the ranks of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq in its first incarnation as Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad. After participating in battles in Falluja, Tal ‘Afar, Mosul, and elsewhere, he was injured in a U.S. raid outside Mosul in 2004, and thereafter was imprisoned for a year and a half. After his release in 2006, he was appointed al-Qaida in Iraq’s general Shari‘a official for the western Mosul area and the chief official for tribal relations. Following the announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006, he became the head of the ministry of commanding right and forbidding wrong and a member of the Shari‘a council of Nineveh Province. The next year, in 2007, he was captured again during a U.S. raid in west Mosul, and this time was sentenced to four years in prison.
Upon his second release, in 2011, he was offered senior positions with the Islamic State of Iraq, but instead chose to head to Syria, seeking to bolster the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Asad. He soon linked up with Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a Syrian commander in the Islamic State of Iraq whom Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had sent to Syria to form an Islamic State of Iraq cell that became known as Jabhat al-Nusra. (According to other accounts, Abu Mariya went to Syria together with al-Jawlani.) With the approval of the leadership back in Iraq, Abu Mariya quickly became a key leader in the new Syrian group. Al-Jawlani appointed him Jabhat al-Nusra’s general Shari‘a official and gave him command of the group’s operations in the eastern provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, and al-Hasaka. During this time he was involved in the kidnapping and ransoming of American hostages, including the journalist Theo Padnos. In later 2014, he would cede the position of chief Shari‘a official to the Jordanian Sami al-‘Uraydi and relocate to Dar‘a in southern Syria. From there he eventually made his way to Idlib, joining the rest of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in its northwestern stronghold. He stayed with the group all the way through its transformation into HTS, and remains one of al-Jawlani’s top lieutenants.
Abu Mariya is often presented by HTS’s followers as a religious scholar (‘alim, shaykh), but first and foremost he is a commander and operator—more man of action than scholar, and certainly not a poet. That being said, in the period between 2014 and 2015, he played a leading role as an ideologue making the case against the “extremists” of the Islamic State. So instrumental was he in this role that he earned the moniker “subduer of the Kharijites” (qahir al-khawarij). In numerous essays and audio statements, he cast the Islamic State as “the Kharijites of this age,” aggressively attacking the group for pronouncing takfir on Muslims and spilling Muslim blood. The only way to liberate Syria from the yoke of the “criminal Nusayri regime,” he said in one address in 2014, is first “to excise this evil sickness … to uproot the wicked tree of extremism,” and that could only be done by the sword. In a subsequent essay, he faulted certain unnamed jihadi leaders and scholars for failing to condemn extremists and their criminal acts, such as mass casualty bombings in markets and excess in takfir. For his role in ceaselessly condemning the Islamic State, the group’s “al-Khayr” province in Deir al-Zour released a video in 2017 showing him unmasked. The description reads: “the traitor apostate Muyassar al-Harari.”
While appearing as a loyal member of al-Qaida in these messages, Abu Mariya did not shy away from criticizing al-Qaida and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In a series of tweets in April 2015, for instance, he urged al-Zawahiri to take a harder line on the Islamic State, calling on him to carry out “your duty to save your people in al-Sham” by condemning the extremists who had sullied al-Qaida’s name. In a subsequent Twitter thread, in September 2015, he complained that al-Zawahiri was sowing confusion by seeming to portray the Islamic State as mujahidin, not Kharijites. “Among the group’s mistakes,” he wrote in another series of tweets in June 2015, speaking of al-Qaida, “is that it did not dissociate from extremists … people who do not espouse the thought of al-Qaida and Shaykh ‘Atiyya,” referring to ‘Atiyyatallah al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida commander and scholar who was killed in Waziristan in 2011. Abu Mariya was indeed fond of ‘Atiyya, considering him the repository of al-Qaida’s true manhaj, or methodology, one that embraced the principles of pragmatism and restraint in takfir. As he wrote in an introduction to ‘Atiyya’s four volumes of collected works, published in 2015, “the school of Shaykh ‘Atiyyatallah al-Libi is the true school and the true thought of the Qa‘idat al-Jihad organization,” a school and a thought completely at odds with “the Iraqi ISIS school that has produced extremism and ignorance … and has destroyed all the theaters of jihad.”
One can perhaps see in Abu Mariya’s early frustrations with al-Qaida’s leadership the seeds of his later conclusion that the group’s time has passed. Abu Mariya was among the leaders most adamant that Jabhat al-Nusra separate from al-Qaida, as it did between 2016 and 2017, eventually becoming HTS. As early as April 2015, he defended the idea of breaking ties as a theoretical possibility. After the separation was completed, in early 2017, an unnamed Shari‘a official in HTS commented on the development to an Arabic news outlet, saying that al-Qaida’s days were numbered. “Sayf al-‘Adl is a prisoner in Iran,” he said, “and al-Zawahiri is in another world” (i.e., in a world of his own). “Al-Qaida has come to an end,” he concluded. According to one source, the unnamed official was Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. There is every reason to believe it was.
Abu Mariya’s nasiha
While Abu Mariya may have told a journalist that “al-Qaida is over” back in 2017, he would refrain from publicly criticizing the group for the next several years, even as he led the charge against the al-Qaida loyalists who remained in Syria. The death of al-Zawahiri last month appears to have changed his calculus, prompting him to write the controversial nasiha.
Abu Mariya’s nasiha appeared on his Telegram channel (which has more than 100,000 followers) on August 15, two weeks after al-Zawahiri’s death. The nasiha has two parts The first is a brief note to the membership of Muslim Brotherhood, calling on them to dissolve the organization given its history of disappointment and failure. The second, which is much longer, is directed to the branches of al-Qaida (see my full translation below). “[M]y advice to the branches of al-Qaida,” he wrote in this second part, “is to dissolve the al-Qaida organization and to remove the pretext for the states that have come to treat al-Qaida as a scapegoat.” In what follows, Abu Mariya develops two principal arguments for why this step is necessary. The first relates to the problem of succession, the second to general strategy.
The main challenge with regard to succession, according to Abu Mariya, is that Sayf al-‘Adl, the presumptive next in line, is based in Iran. In fact, Abu Mariya claims, al-‘Adl is “imprisoned” there, living “under confinement and coercion.” “How can Sayf al-‘Adl,” he writes, “who is a man imprisoned, manage the affiliates of al-Qaida?!!” “The idea of giving command to one who is impotent is untenable,” he continues. “Has our condition became like that of the Rejectionists who give allegiance (bay‘a) to one who is absent? We seek refuge in God from ignorance and disappointment.” Even if al-‘Adl were able to succeed al-Zawahiri, there remained the question of his track record as a leader. In Abu Mariya’s view, al-‘Adl’s record in trying to influence events in Syria was abysmal: “We witnessed in al-Sham what Sayf al-‘Adl achieved in terms of tribulations and affairs whose victims could not have imagined the outcome.”
The second reason for dissolving al-Qaida has to do with what Abu Mariya sees as the optimal strategy for jihadi groups in the “stage through which the umma and its peoples are passing.” For Abu Mariya, this is a stage that requires greater cooperation with neighboring states and peoples in the Arab Middle East, particularly Sunni Arab states and peoples, so as to be able confront the growing threat of Iran. “The Islamic umma,” he writes,“must stand together and form an alliance against the Iranian occupation that has taken hold of a number of Arab Muslim capitals and is threatening others.” The affiliates’ connection to al-Qaida stands in the way of this, providing these states with a “pretext” for attacking them and making cooperation impossible. He highlights in particular the case of the affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which he says ought to “concentrate on confronting the Iranian project, announce the sundering of their ties to foreign entities, revise their internal and external polices, address the world and the people of Yemen in a new way, and save our Sunni people in Yemen who have been exhausted by wars and afflicted by the firepower of Iran.” Yet if “they continue to have an association with al-Qaida, it will weaken their position against the Houthis who are one of the arms of Iran—where Sayf al-‘Adl is living under confinement.”
While Abu Mariya refrains from saying so here, the path that he proposes is largely the path taken by HTS, which cut ties with al-Qaida in 2016-17 and has since increased its cooperation with neighboring states, particularly Turkey. What Abu Mariya is calling for, in other words, is for the affiliates of al-Qaida to heed the HTS model.
Reactions to the nasiha
The response to Abu Mariya’s nasiha from members and supporters of al-Qaida was swift and severe. On Twitter, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Palestinian-Jordanian scholar with a wide following in pro-al-Qaida circles, emphasized that these proposals were coming from “a senior personality in HTS,” which made clear that HTS’s breaking of ties with al-Qaida was no mere organizational dispute but rather a sign of ideological backsliding. No comment was forthcoming from al-Maqdisi’s ideological rival, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, a fellow Palestinian-Jordanian scholar known for his support for HTS and its strategy of appealing to the broader umma, though one of Abu Qatada’s students, the London-based Abu Mahmud al-Filastini, was quick to chime in. In a Telegram post, Abu Mahmud praised the nasiha, noting that he had been calling for the same thing for more than two years. “Al-Qaida is not Islam,” he wrote, “and therefore parting ways from al-Qaida, either organizationally or ideologically, is not unbelief or deviation. Indeed, whosoever contemplates reality and truly seeks to support Muslims will find that parting with the name [of al-Qaida] and severing ties [with it] are a binding obligation.”
With the exception of Abu Mahmud, the loudest and most vociferous voices have been those keen on defending al-Qaida. Three refutations of the nasiha in particular may be noted here. All are by pseudonymous authors and were disseminated on Telegram channels associated with al-Qaida.
The first, published the same day as the nasiha and titled “Advice to a Deceived Adviser,” is signed by a certain ‘Adil Amin, who identifies himself as “a soldier from the army of al-Qaida.” The gist of the refutation is that Abu Mariya is someone with a questionable past who is totally unqualified to advise the mujahidin of al-Qaida’s branches, and that the advice he proffers—rescinding the bay‘a to al-Qaida and instead drawing close to the idolatrous rulers (tawaghit) of regional states—is based on “ignorance and malice.” The key to everything Abu Mariya proposes, Amin states, is the distinction between two methodologies (manhajayn): the manhaj of al-Qaida, “firm and unwavering”, and the manhaj of Abu Mariya’s HTS, “updated and pragmatic.” Abu Mariya is effectively calling on the branches of al-Qaida to follow the HTS model of abandoning global jihad and collaborating with secular states such as Turkey, even though this model has not proved successful and could blow up at any moment. Amin mentions recent reports of a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Damascus as evidence that the HTS project is vulnerable. Contrary to what Abu Mariya supposes, Amin continues, al-Qaida is not in decline but rather is “spreading and becoming stronger.” The notion “that al-Qaida has been weakened” is refuted by “Western analytical reports themselves … [which] recognize that the disbanding of al-Qaida has become impossible, as it is firmly established and is more dangerous than ISIS.” For all these reasons, Amin concludes, the bay‘a to al-Qaida is “a badge of honor.” It is “the pragmatists,” not al-Qaida, who ought to be dispensed with. Amin plays down the issue of Sayf al-‘Adl’s presence in Iran, noting that al-Zawahiri’s death has not yet been confirmed.
The second refutation, which appeared on Telegram on August 16, was written by a certain Jalal ibn Hamdan, who reveals himself to be a member of AQAP. Ibn Hamdan makes many of the same points as Amin, including that the success of HTS’s “true model” is illusory. The HTS project, he notes, has involved internecine warfare and the shameful hosting of Turkish and Russian security patrols. Furthermore, the area under HTS control is miniscule compared to the area controlled by al-Shabaab in Somalia, a loyal al-Qaida affiliate. Then there is the matter of the about-face Abu Mariya is calling for. How, Ibn Hamdan asks, can a group like AQAP, which has warned against the tawaghit and foreign powers for years, suddenly change course and endorse collaboration with them? To do so would be “the epitome of hypocrisy.” Abu Mariya’s nasiha is an appeal to “abandon values and principles in order to achieve imaginary benefits.” As far as Yemen is concerned, Ibn Hamdan goes on, Abu Mariya knows not of what he speaks, as certain Yemeni groups have adopted the approach he is advocating only to be used and betrayed. As regards Sayf al-‘Adl, Ibn Hamdan relates with pride how his group took hostage an Iranian diplomat and (in 2015) brokered a prisoner exchange resulting in al-‘Adl being freed (at least from detention/house arrest). Praising al-‘Adl’s decades-long record of commitment to jihad, Ibn Hamdan affirms that were he chosen as the next leader of al-Qaida, “then by the might of God they will see from us only listening and obeying.”
The third refutation, which appeared several days later, on August 20, is signed by a certain Abu ‘Ali al-Qahtani, who echoes most of the arguments made in the previous two refutations. Al-Qahtani focuses on three issues. The first is the matter of the proposed breaking of ties with al-Qaida, which al-Qahtani says would require invalidating the bay‘a to the group. “As for voiding [the bay‘a] without the permission of the emir,” he writes, “as was done by the leadership of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, that is prohibited and is not allowed.” And what good did this do HTS anyway? The group’s gambit caused internal strife and bloodletting, and HTS has not liberated any territory since announcing itself as such. “Will victory be achieved by dissolving the bay‘a?” he asks. “No. Victory will not be achieved through sin.” The second issue he brings up is the question of Sayf al-‘Adl’s succession to al-Zawahiri. After praising al-‘Adl as a veteran jihadi leader, al-Qahtani draws attention to the prisoner exchange mentioned by the second refuter. He notes that while al-‘Adl was freed, he was prohibited from leaving Iran as part of “an effort by the enemies to restrict his activities.” Whether al-‘Adl is in a position to assume command of al-Qaida or not, al-Qahtani does not say, but he does assert that al-‘Adl has more autonomy in Iran than HTS does in Syria. For HTS does not even have the power to open small battlefronts should it wish (presumably because of the influence of Turkey). The third issue broached by al-Qahtani is the proposed strategy of focusing all efforts on “the Iranian project.” While agreeing with Abu Mariya on the significance of the threat, he notes that HTS has done nothing to stop the Iranian project in Syria from advancing and has even prevented mujahidin from taking action against it. He also contends that “the Crusader project” is more threatening than the Iranian one, which it supports. In any event, HTS is in no position to confront either of these projects. “The truth,” he says, addressing Abu Mariya, “is that you and your group are contributing to the bitter reality that the Islamic umma is enduring.” In other words, the HTS model is part of the problem, not the solution.
The end of al-Qaida?
The question raised by Abu Mariya al-Qahtani’s nasiha is of course whether any of the al-Qaida affiliates will take it up. Are they really interested in dissolving al-Qaida and forging relationships with regional states? Judging by the responses reviewed above, the answer appears to be no. For one thing, Abu Mariya is not viewed favorably in al-Qaida circles. He has a reputation for persecuting al-Qaida loyalists in Syria, and some have even accused him of assisting in the assassination of Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni. Then there is the issue of the HTS model’s appeal. Abu Mariya may see exemplary accomplishments in northwest Syria, but his opponents see an enfeebled organization dependent for its survival on treacherous foreign powers.
Yet while the al-Qaida branches are unlikely to embrace Abu Mariya’s proposals, it is also the case that al-Qaida finds itself in a precarious position today. How the organization’s branches will respond to the situation is unclear. Sayf al-‘Adl’s location in Iran is indeed a problem. Only one of the refuters noted above affirmed that he would give bay‘a to al-‘Adl in Iran without hesitation; the others dodged the issue. The relationship with the Taliban also raises uncomfortable issues for al-Qaida. One of al-Zawahiri’s last addresses was an implicit critique of the Taliban for seeking a seat at the United Nations, a body seen by al-Zawahiri as a den of polytheism. There is also the question of how much support the Taliban is willing to offer al-Qaida. The Haqqani network may be unswervingly loyal to the group, but there also appear to be restrictions on its activities in Afghanistan.
Whether al-Qaida will even name a successor to al-Zawahiri remains to be seen. One can imagine a scenario in which the affiliates do not “dissolve” al-Qaida, as Abu Mariya advises, but do allow it to die a quiet death. In Islamic law, the bay‘a is given to an individual, not a group. If no new leader is proposed, and no new bay‘a is given, then that would effectively mean al-Qaida’s end. Such an outcome could potentially free the affiliates to pursue strategies more in line with what Abu Mariya is advocating.
This, of course, is only one possible scenario. One could also see Sayf al-‘Adl, or some other leader, assuming power and at least ensuring al-Qaida’s continuity. The new leader would likely keep a lower profile than al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden, seeking to advise the affiliates from behind the scenes. In this case, the organization would persist, but with the same deficiencies and contradictions as before—namely, a leadership whose priorities are out of step with those of the affiliates, an ideology at odds with that of the Taliban, and a problematic relationship with Iran.
Translation of Abu Mariya al-Qahtani’s nasiha:
Likewise, my advice to the affiliates of al-Qaida is to dissolve the al-Qaida organization and to remove the pretext for the states that have come to treat al-Qaida as a scapegoat. We have not forgotten that Sayf al-‘Adl is living in Iran and is directing the affiliates while under confinement and coercion. We witnessed in al-Sham what Sayf al-‘Adl achieved in terms of tribulations and affairs whose victims could not have imagined the outcome.
My advice to the affiliate in Yemen is thus that they concentrate on confronting the Iranian project, announce the sundering of their ties to foreign entities, revise their internal and external polices, address the world and the people of Yemen in a new way, and save our Sunni people in Yemen who have been exhausted by wars and afflicted by the firepower of Iran. The Islamic umma must stand together and form an alliance against the Iranian occupation that has taken hold of a number of Arab Muslim capitals and is threatening others, as it must strive to form regional alliances with the states neighboring Yemen to break Iran’s power, dislodge its arms, and drive its evil from the region.
Ibn Hazm, among other scholars, related that our lord ‘Umar said, “A man is not safe or free from fear if he can be restrained, tortured, or bound.” Being restrained and being threatened are indicative of coercion, so how can Sayf al-‘Adl, who is a man imprisoned, manage the affiliates of al-Qaida?!! This is contrary to the meaning of the Prophet’s words, “The imam is a shield that guards.” The idea of giving command to one who is impotent is untenable. Has our condition became like that of the Rejectionists who give allegiance (bay‘a)to one who is absent? We seek refuge in God from ignorance and disappointment.
The people of Yemen must come to an agreement to defend against the criminal Houthis and put their internal differences aside. Yemen must turn the page of the past, and its people must drive away the arms of Iran. If they continue to have an association with al-Qaida, it will weaken their position against the Houthis who are one of the arms of Iran—where Sayf al-‘Adl is living under confinement—and it will weaken the position of those who seek to aid the suffering people of Yemen from the nearby states in the region.
I hope for the rest of the branches of al-Qaida to consider this note of mine carefully and not to allow my disagreement with and harsh criticism of their leadership to prevent them from accepting my words. For the truth ought to be followed even if it comes from an enemy or an adversary or an opponent. God knows that these words of mine are intended only as advice to and compassion for our Sunni people in all places. The stage through which the umma and its peoples are passing requires relations with states and peoples. It is unreasonable that Iran should occupy our capitals and declare war on others.
The present state of the Islamic umma is bitter, and we must reflect and consider the condition of our people who have been afflicted by the firepower of Iran. Sufficient for us is God, and He is the best Disposer of affairs. O God, repair our condition, heal our fragmentation, and give us victory over those who have wronged us and shown us enmity. O God, forgive us, grant us pardon, and return us to the truth and return us in a good way. O God, arrange our affairs, for we do not do it well. Praise belongs to God, Lord of the worlds.
Abu Mariya al-Qahtani 17 Muharram [August 15, 2022]