The New Generation of al-Qaʿida in Syria?

Ariel Koch examines the emergence of two new al-Qaʿida organizations in Syria.

At the end of December 2017, two new pro-al-Qaʿida (AQ) jihadist groups emerged in Syria: Jaysh al-Badiya (the Desert's Army) and al-Malahem (the Epic Battles). These two groups were formerly part of  (JN), the former official AQ branch in Syria that eventually disengaged from AQ to gain legitimacy within the international community. As part of the disengagement between the two organizations, JN's name has changed twice: first, in July 2016, to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and then, in January 2017, to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the organization's current name. The break-up between AQ and its former branch, which was unilaterally carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra's leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani, was not endorsed nor welcomed by those elements within JN that were still loyal to AQ and close to the organization's central leadership, which is based in Afghanistan.

As  previously discussed in Jihadiscope, hostility between AQ and the leadership of HTS intensified as a result of Abu Muhammad al-Julani's decision to sever ties with al-Qaʿida. This hostility escalated in recent months, as was manifested in the arrest of senior al-Qaʿida figures in Syria, such as Sami al-Uraydi. Amid this escalation, the emergence of the two new pro-AQ groups shows that the tension between AQ and its former branch has reached a boiling point. It is possible that this escalation will not stop with the formation of the new groups; as we have seen in the past, verbal attacks on social networks have developed into more aggressive hostility (arrests of those close to al-Qaʿida), and may lead to physical confrontations between different jihadi factions in Syria.

The emergence of Jaysh al-Badiya and al-Malahem, both if which proudly wave the flag of "Qaʿidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham" (AQ in the Levant/Syria), is an act of defiance against HTS and its current leadership, as well as sign of dissatisfaction with the organization's decision to disengage from AQ. Nonetheless, the existence of pro-AQ rebels also points to the desire of some jihadis to continue Usama Bin Laden's legacy of global jihad – a position that Abu Muhammad al-Julani has tried to distance himself from. The emergence of these groups also suggests the continued influence of jihadis from the old guard of AQ, who are close to the organization's central command in Afghanistan, and who have moved from Afghanistan to Syria. Some of those old guard AQ operatives were considered to belong to what was known at the time as the Khorasan Group.

Both Jaysh al-Badiya and al-Malahem operate propaganda channels on Telegram that were created in December. Jaysh al-Badiya’s channel has more than 3,400 followers and the al-Malahem channel more than 2,400 followers. Although there is no quantitative or qualitative data in regard these two groups, it is known that they operate together in the southern region of Idlib and in the city of Homs, where they take part in the fighting against Asad regime loyalists while cooperating with other Islamist rebel groups.

The continuous presence of al-Qaʿida in Syria indicates that despite many challenges, Ayman al-Zawahiri's organization still has considerable influence on many jihadis. Furthermore, the decline of the Islamic State constitutes a golden opportunity for al- Qaʿida to re-establish a group that will be identified with it in Syria. Thus, AQ has tried to position itself as a persistent and committed actor in the Syrian arena and as an alternative address for jihadis who fought in the ranks of other organizations, such as former members of the Islamic State.