Unprecedented tension between the leadership of al-Qaida and the group's former branch in Syria exposes the extent of the rift in the Syrian Jihad. The war of words that erupted between the two sides became particularly interesting as both al-Qaida central (AQC) and its Syrian affiliates from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) aired their "dirty laundry" on social media, an unusual phenomenon for a closed and secretive organization like al-Qaida.
On November 28, al-Qaeda's central propaganda wing, al-Sahab Foundation, released a 35-minute long audio message on the social media application Telegram from its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the message, titled “So Let Us Fight Them With Solid Foundations,” Zawahiri, for the first time, denounced HTS’s decision to sever its formal ties with al-Qaida, blaming HTS's leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani for betraying his oath of allegiance (bayat) to him.
Zawahiri referred to the July 2016 decision by HTS, formerly known as the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra or NF), to rebrand itself as a Syrian Islamist militant organization, rather than a global Jihadi group working for al-Qaida, and to forge an alliance with other Syrian Islamist factions. Analysts believed that NF, once the second-strongest Jihadi group in Syria after ISIS, aimed to reduce pressure imposed on it by the international community and to protect its fighters from US-led coalition airstrikes in Northern Syria. Moreover, by adopting a semi-nationalist agenda, it sought to exploit the world’s focus on defeating its rivals from ISIS.
Although HTS portrayed its break with al-Qaida as a coordinated step, Zawahiri’s message indicated that he didn't consent to the break and blamed HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani for committing several "fatal mistakes," one of which was offering "secret oath of allegiance" to al-Qaida (in July 2016), because in Zawahiri’s eyes the oath of allegiance is a binding agreement that can not be made in secret.
Zawahiri’s message was released just a few days after HTS arrested senior figures in al-Qaida, including Sami al-Uraydi and Abu Juleibeb al-Urduni, who have expressed strong criticism of HTS leadership and Joulani's decision to break with al-Qaida. HTS confirmed the reports concerning the arrests and justified them as a legitimate act against those who were trying to harm and "destabilize" the new Islamist alliance established in Syria.
The online tit for tat between al-Qaida and HTS escalated into an acrimonious exchange, in which HTS officials like the jurist Abu Abdallah al-Shami defended the arrests, while others in HTS turned against their leaders and called to release al-Qaida figures, and al-Qaida official media published another message responding to al-Shami.
In his statement, Zawahiri admitted that the situation among jihadis in Syria is no longer under his control. He revealed that although AQC has been monitoring the crisis for more than a year, he preferred to resolve their problems with HTS calmly and internally, but things have deteriorated and pushed him to discuss them publicly. Whether intentional or not, these inflammatory remarks drove al-Qaida and its Syrian affiliates to the point of no return.
Gilad Shiloach analyzes tension and conflict between al-Qaida affiliates in Syria.