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 goes by the name Muzamjir al-Sham, is known for revealing, via his Twitter account, detailed information about the inner workings of the various jihadi groups in Syria. While his identity remains unknown, his Twitter page describes him as “a shami voice from within the jihadi current.” According to Aaron Zelin, he is believed to have once belonged to Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian Islamist militant group.

The interview, which was conducted remotely between 11 and 18 June 2021, covered a number of topics, ranging from whether the jihadi groups opposed to HTS can form a united front (Q1) and whether al-Jolani will tolerate foreign jihadis in his territory (Q4) to the possibility of a reconciliation between al-Qaida and HTS (Q6) and the current state of HaD (Q7). Muzamjir al-Sham further discussed the state of the al-Qaida leadership and its control of its affiliates (Q10-12), as well as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance, or bay‘a, to the Taliban (Q8-9). Finally, he touched on the differences between al-Qaida and the Islamic State (Q13-14) and the capabilities of these groups to conduct international terrorist operations (Q16-17).

Perhaps the most remarkable detail to emerge from the interview is the assertion that the leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzadeh, refused to accept al-Zawahiri’s bay‘a, meaning that the leader of al-Qaida’s pledge of allegiance to the Taliban was rejected. While the source did not substantiate his claim (and has not responded to further queries regarding the matter), it is a potentially significant revelation if proven true. As of now, no other jihadi source has corroborated the assertion, and the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida is widely seen as strong and enduring. Muzamjir al-Sham appears to disagree, arguing that there will be little al-Qaida activity in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

It is also interesting to note that, according to this source, al-Qaida made the unofficial decision to dissolve HaD and to operate in smaller cells in Syria, thereby avoiding a fratricidal confrontation with HTS. This would seem to confirm the weakened state of al-Qaida in Syria as reported by the United Nations Security Council sanctions monitoring team for al-Qaida and the Islamic State.[2] The source indicates that this decision came from Sayf al-‘Adl, the Egyptian al-Qaida leader in Iran who appears to manage and communicate with al-Qaida central and the al-Qaida affiliates. Given al-Zawahiri’s rumored ill-health, al-‘Adl’s current role is significant as it could undermine the idea of a power vacuum in the event of a leadership transition.

The source was skeptical of the rumors that al-Zawahiri had died, suggesting rather that he could be merely ill. On 10 September 2021, an 852-page book by al-Zawahiri was published by al-Qaida central, and the introduction is dated 21 April 2021. Presumably, therefore, the al-Qaida leader is alive—or least he was until that date—though the text does not reveal anything about his health. The rumors about his death or serious illness could be exploited in an instrumental way by the organization to create confusion around its real condition, allowing al-Qaida to continue to work under the radar.

Jihadi organizations remain a threat not to be underestimated. Al-Qaida’s strategy of keeping a low profile has facilitated its reorganization, allowing it to build ties with other jihadi groups, tribes, clans, and minorities. The Islamic State was too quickly declared defeated; it was also forming new alliances and planning new strategies. In Muzamjir al-Sham’s words, “fighting and struggle are a lung with which Salafi-Jihadism breathes, as it thrives in such circumstances.” Cutting off the air will require specifically tailored policies for each local condition.


Q1: After the separation of the Islamic State from al-Qaida, and the subsequent separation of al-Jolani from al-Qaida, al-Qaida’s position in Syria has become very precarious. HaD found itself fighting alone on multiple fronts, squeezed between the Asad regime, the international coalition, and al-Jolani’s HTS. HTS has imprisoned several members of the al-Qaida shura council and several HaD leaders, transforming Idlib into a new Guantanamo. In your opinion, what are the chances that al-Qaida and HaD will be able to form a united front with the other Salafi-Jihadi factions of Idlib, such as Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Jundullah, and al-Ghuraba, against HTS?

There will be no united front between al-Qaida and the rest of the Salafi-Jihadi factions in Syria for several reasons.

First, some of these factions have been won over by al-Jolani by his providing some support to them, and thus he neutralized them from the conflict with al-Qaida. Ansar al-Tawhid is an example.

Second, there are some Salafi-Jihadi factions that do not agree with al-Qaida in terms of ideology and consider it deviant. This is the case with Jundullah, which is close in ideology to ISIS.

Third, entering into a front or union with al-Qaida means entering into a comprehensive war with HTS, and this is something the results of which these factions are currently not able to bear.

I expect the formation of something that looks like an alliance, not a merger or a single front. I mean an alliance that looks like a joint operations room, similar to the previously formed Wa-Harrid  al-Mu’minin room[3] that HTS was able to dismantle.

This is a step [the formation of an alliance or united front] that cannot take place right now for several other reasons. The position of al-Qaida and the factions that could ally with it is very weak because of arrests and security operations against them and because of a lack of funding.

However, I believe that the regime’s assault on Idlib will strengthen the position of al-Qaida and the factions that could ally with it, as these factions thrive in chaos.

Q2: Is Ahrar al-Sham still close to al-Qaida and HaD?

Al-Zawahiri sent a letter to Ahrar al-Sham calling for the unification of all factions in Syria. But the factions fell into heresy or deviation.

They are no longer close to al-Qaida, especially after the murder of its first leaders.

Q3: Going back in time to the early quarrel between al-Qaida and ISIS, the Khurasan cell [i.e., a group of senior al-Qaida members who travelled from Iran to Syria in 2013 involved in the reconciliation process between al-Qaida and ISIS] and many of its prominent members from Iran were very critical of the way al-Jolani ran the al-Qaida branch in Syria. It seems that al-Jolani may have facilitated or helped in the killing of a number of members of the Khurasan cell in Aleppo and Idlib, before separating from al-Qaida in 2016. Given the high rank of the members of the Khurasan cell, one would think that it would have been very difficult to betray them without consequences. Does anyone suspect al-Jolani?

The Khurasan cell was not satisfied with al-Jolani’s management of al-Qaida in Syria. Al-Jolani is in origin a son of the Iraqi school [of jihadism], and al-Qaida did not know him or anything about him. Neither did al-Qaida know anything about al-Baghdadi’s policy and management of the [Islamic] State group. Its relationship to the Iraq branch was only superficial. Thus when al-Qaida got the opportunity to get to know al-Jolani and the Iraqi school closely, it did not like any of it. What they were being told was one thing, and what they saw was something else.

Al-Jolani is unknown to the leadership of al-Qaida, unlike the Khurasan cell or members of al-Qaida’s shura council who came to Syria, and unlike Abu al-Hammam [al-Suri], the current leader of HaD, who was a leader in the al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. So all of them are known to al-Qaida, while al-Jolani was completely unknown and his bay‘a to al-Qaida occurred suddenly and without complete coordination.

As for how they [the Khurasan cell’s members] were killed, some were killed in coalition strikes, while others were killed by improvised explosive devices. Others were deliberately pushed into battles with the [Asad] regime and were killed.

Even those who were killed in the coalition strikes, I think that they were betrayed from within by HTS, because some of the leaders were liquidated while walking on the road without using any machinery or electronic device. Some of them, such as Abu Firas [al-Suri], were targeted minutes after meeting with al-Jolani and his leaders.

Q4: According to some sources, HTS specifically targeted foreign fighter groups in Idlib, most notably Omar Omsen of al-Ghuraba [Omar Diaby, the leader of the French foreign fighters]. What is the current status of Salafi-Jihadi groups made up of foreigners in Idlib? Do you think they will have to leave Syria and move to other theaters?

Yes, al-Jolani is pushing them to leave Syria by putting great pressure on them: arresting and kidnapping them, preventing them from fighting, and preventing them from working to earn money.

Al-Jolani is pushing them to leave for two reasons: (1) foreign agreements with some countries; (2) the presence of these emigrants hinders his project in Idlib, and therefore it is necessary to get rid of them.

Indeed, the condition of the [foreign] jihadi groups is very bad. They are completely surrounded and prevented from working or raising funds, and they are being arrested, pursued, and severely restricted. They have become just scattered cells.

Q5: Moving away from the Syrian theater, many analysts and researchers claim that there is no longer an al-Qaida group in Iraq. Is this true? Is Ansar al-Islam[4] still operating in Kurdish areas? Are they still connected to al-Qaida? Are there any brigades or battalions linked to al-Qaida in Iraq?

There are no groups connected to Iraq except for ISIS and Ansar al-Islam. Ansar al-Islam is a very old group with popular support and roots in the areas of Kurdistan, so it is difficult to completely eradicate. However, most of its members are now working in Syria, being in contact with their cells in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria they are operating in the western areas of Idlib.

Q6: It is quite clear that reconciliation between al-Qaida and HTS is currently impossible, at least as long as al-Jolani remains HTS’s leader. Do you think that al-Qaida’s opposition to HTS is limited to al-Jolani and his entourage (such as controversial members like Abu Ahmad Hadd, Abu Muhjen al-Hasakawi, Abu Hafs Binnish), or does it also extend to the model of the Salvation Government? If al-Jolani weren’t the leader of HTS, do you think that HaD and other Salafi-Jihadi factions in Idlib would be ready to hold peace talks, similar to what is happening in Afghanistan with the Taliban or what has been proposed by the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) in Mali in the past? Will HaD be willing to join the Salvation Government or a similar authority?

No, this is almost impossible. I mean the possibility of reconciliation between HTS and al-Qaida in the event of al-Jolani’s death. This is for a simple reason: when al-Jolani defected from al-Qaida, the entire current that adopted his position left with him. Meanwhile, the other group opposed to al-Jolani’s line and his orientation formed al-Qaida with its new name, Hurras al-Din.

The issue, then, is not about people only; it is about difference in ideology, thought, and methodology. Even if al-Jolani were killed, all the leaders of HTS today are people who have completely severed their ties with al-Qaida.

As for the HaD’s willingness to join a government or authority, this is also entirely out of the question. HaD does have permission from al-Zawahiri to merge with [other] factions, but only after consulting with and obtaining permission from the al-Qaida leadership. However, al-Qaida does not want to repeat the al-Jolani scenario.

Q7: And do you think that HaD will be able to resist in such a hostile environment? Or will it be disbanded?

HaD has already been dissolved, though it was an unofficial decision. It now takes the form of small cells only.

Al-Qaida’s policy was to avoid confrontation with al-Jolani, directing many of its members to remain within the ranks of HTS—a kind of flexibility for absorbing al-Jolani’s attacks.

Q8: And do you think that HaD could eventually migrate from Syria to other areas, such as Afghanistan? What is HaD’s view on what is happening there?

Both HTS and HaD glorify what the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan, and they sing the praises of their victories. HTS thinks that they are the Syrian Taliban, while HaD thinks that the Taliban are the same Taliban of yesterday that embraced al-Qaida.

However, the emir of the Taliban recently rejected the bay‘a of al-Qaida. Therefore, there will not be significant al-Qaida activity in the areas of the Taliban. It is completely unlikely that fighters will leave the base in Syria for Afghanistan, with the possible exception of the fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party [TIP, a Uyghur jihadi group].

Q9: What do you mean that the Taliban rejected al-Zawahiri’sbay‘a? Did Akhundzada explicitly say he rejected al-Zawahiri’s bay‘a? We only know that Suhail Shaheen recently said that there is no allegiance between al-Qaida and the Taliban[5]. Can you explain to us what you mean?

The emir of the Taliban rejected al-Zawahiri’s bay‘a to him.

Q10: I see. Back to HaD. Is al-Qaida central controlling these new cells? Because many researchers and analysts claim that al-Qaida does not have control over its affiliates, and therefore that they operate independently from the central leadership. Do you agree?

Yes, that is correct. Al-Qaida now operates in a decentralized manner. Al-Qaida central is disconnected from the branches and does not interfere much in their policies or operations. Thus most of the branches operate without referring to al-Qaida central.

As for the Syrian branch, it is still linked to al-Qaida central through Sayf al-‘Adl, who is in Iran and is the supervisor of the Syrian branch. However, the contact with him is weak as well.

Q11: During the last several months, several intelligence services and researchers have reported that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri could be seriously ill or even dead. There are also rumors that his possible successors could be Sayf al-‘Adl and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi. What is your opinion?

Recently, al-Zawahiri appeared in an audio recording after the news reports speaking of his death. Al-Qaida also released a statement regarding the recent events in Gaza.[6] Therefore, I don’t think he has died. It is possible he is just ill.

Regarding his possible successor, there is a document by some al-Qaida leaders from a number of branches entrusting the leadership to a number of persons. I have it, though I cannot remember where it is right now. Perhaps I can find it for you.

In light of the killing of Abu al-Khayr [al-Masri] and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Sayf al-‘Adl is certainly the most likely successor. However, some branches do not support this.

Q12: And apart from Sayf al-‘Adl, is there any other senior member of the Hittin Shura[7] who is still connected with Syria?

Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri[8] is still based in Syria.

Q13: For many years, both official and unofficial Islamic State propaganda accused al-Qaida of having a too populist, sort of wait-and-see strategy, of not applying the Sharia, and of betraying the Salafi-Jihadi ideology. What is your opinion on this?

Indeed, al-Qaida does not agree with ISIS on many matters. Al-Qaida is more populist because of the ideological revisions that took place among the al-Qaida leaders—I mean here the Egyptian leaders. And al-Qaida was influenced by the ideas of Abu Yahya [al-Libi] and Atiyatullah [al-Libi].[9]

Therefore al-Qaida appears to be more realist as it takes into account some aspects of society. However, the difference between them is not huge as regards the issue of applying the Sharia. Jabhat al-Nusra was also close to ISIS when it came to implementing the Sharia in the liberated areas, where it established the role of the judiciary and carried out some of the canonical punishments. But it did not follow ISIS’s policy of giving media coverage to them.

Q14: You say that the difference between al-Qaida and ISIS on the matter of Sharia rulings is not that huge. However, the Islamic State has repeatedly published magazines and videos in which they declare al-Qaida and its leader to be apostates for their operational choices, such as their alliance with the Taliban. What do you think?

ISIS’s relationship with al-Qaida has passed through three stages:

[First,] a stage in which there was a kind of agreement. This was the stage that preceded the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra and the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Al-Qaida continued to recognize the [Islamic] State of Iraq as its branch in Iraq, and ISIS continued to regard al-Qaida with a kind of appreciation, despite the reports that reached al-Qaida concerning violations and abuses committed by the [Islamic] State of Iraq.

As for the second stage, this is the stage of discord. It began with al-Jolani’s announcement of his bay‘a to al-Qaida and opposition to al-Baghdadi, and al-Qaida’s judgment in support of al-Jolani. Here ISIS began to view al-Qaida as a competitor, given that it had encouraged al-Jolani to defect from the [Islamic] State, and accusations began to be hurled between the two sides.

The third stage began after the killing of Abu Khalid al-Suri, the leader in Ahrar al-Sham who was the person appointed by al-Qaida central as arbiter between al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani. This stage came after the fighting between ISIS and the rest of the Syrian factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra, and here the dispute reached the point of accusing ISIS of being on the path of the Kharijites, while ISIS accused al-Qaida in Syria of showing loyalty to apostates and allying with them, and thus of having apostatized as well. Then all of al-Qaida was accused of apostasy.

As for the Taliban, they have been apostate for ISIS for a long time, even before the dispute with al-Qaida … But these matters were not leaked to the media.

Q15: Today, many Salafi-Jihadi groups, including al-Qaida, are still engaged on several fronts, fighting a number of different actors. However, in some areas, some groups appear to be inclined towards abandoning the armed struggle and concluding peace agreements with the governments they are fighting. Do you think such a strategic choice could be a valuable option for Salafi-Jihadi groups, or do you think that there can be no peace deal between them and their opponents?

There are several interrelated factors regarding this issue.

First, fighting and struggle are a lung with which Salafi-Jihadism breathes, as it thrives in such circumstances.

Second, there are many elements that used to be part of jihadi factions that made [reconciliation] agreements.

Third, it seems that after years of conflict Salafi-Jihadism has lost much of its momentum and strength, especially with the disintegration of Ahrar al-Sham, the decline of ISIS, and the cutting of ties between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida.

Fourth, there is no doubt that ending a conflict in an unjust manner and without equitable solutions will generate a backlash among many factions and elements that do not belong to Salafi-Jihadi groups. Thus, the slogans raised by Salafi-Jihadism to the effect that it is necessary to continue the struggle will appear as truthful slogans and will attract more elements to them from beyond Salafi-Jihadism. Thus Asad’s success in regaining control of the country and resolving the conflict in his favor, or imposing unfair solutions, will strengthen the Salafi-Jihadi narrative and position.

Q16: Do you think that al-Qaida and ISIS are still capable of waging a global armed struggle against the far enemy? Or will they decide to exclusively concentrate their attacks on the near enemy?

I believe that ISIS is still capable of launching external attacks despite its weak state at the present time. ISIS has gone through similar stages previously and it was eventually able to reassemble its ranks and restore its activity, and this is what it is doing now in Syria, Iraq, and Africa.

As for al-Qaida, external operations are limited to the Yemen branch only, and to a lesser extent to the North African branch. As for the Syrian branch, it is forbidden from launching any external attacks, and it is in a very weak state now.

Q17: So, you say that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and maybe al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) are still capable of conducting external attacks, as they are allowed to do so. But as you may be aware, many scholars and politicians claim that al-Qaida no longer has the strength to carry out attacks in the West. What is your opinion? Does al-Qaida still have the capability to attack the West?

I think that al-Qaida is still capable of launching small attacks in Europe, such as stabbings or tramplings. As for major operations, I do not think that it is capable of that at the present time.

[1] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/interview/abu-mohammad-al-jolani/.

[2] https://undocs.org/S/2021/68.

[3] The operations room referred to by the interviewee is the “Rouse the Believers Operations Room,” a coalition of Salafist-Jihadi groups that rose up in northwest Syria during the Syrian civil war. The coalition included Hurras al-Din, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Ansar al-Islam, and Ansar al-Tawhid. On 12 June 2020, the member groups of the “Rouse the Believers Operations Room” (excluding Ansar al-Tawhid), along with two other Salafi-Jihadi groups (the al-Muqatileen al-Ansar Brigade and the al-Jihad Coordination Group) led by former HTS commanders, reorganized into a new operations room called “So Be Steadfast,” which was quickly routed by HTS.

[4] Ansar al-Islam is a historic Salafi-Jihadi group originally based in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2014, it shifted its operations to Syria. In February 2015, it announced the creation of a branch in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib that has been mainly active in the northern area of Latakia. It cooperates with HaD in their fight against the Syrian regime and Russian troops.

[5] See Nihad Jariri’s interview with Suhail Shaheen https://mobile.twitter.com/NihadJariri/status/1391155623534989314

[6] The video referenced here is from 12 March 2021, “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Islamic Nation”; see https://jihadology.net/2021/03/12/new-video-message-from-al-qaidahs-dr-ayman-al-%e1%ba%93awahiri-the-wound-of-the-rohingya-is-the-wound-of-the-islamic-nation/.

[7] The core leadership of al-Qaida.

[8] Abu ‘Abd al-Karim al-Masri is a veteran member of al-Qaida and a senior leader of HaD. In 2018, al-Masri, was a member of HaD’s shura council, the group’s senior decision-making body, and served as a mediator between it and Jabhat al-Nusra.

[9] Abu Yahya al-Libi was a prominent al-Qaida leader who rose to become al-Qaida’s second in command. He was killed in a drone strike in 2012 in Mir Ali, Pakistan. Atiyatullah al-Libi was a senior member of al-Qaida who worked as general manager for the organization. He was killed in a drone strike in 2011 in North Waziristan, Pakistan.

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Daniele Garofalo

Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst of jihadist terrorism who has collaborated as an analyst with several Italian and European research centers. He focuses in particular on jihadist propaganda through direct monitoring of online media channels, social networks, and messaging apps.

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