Abu Mohamad al-Joulani: a gun for hire, now hitting al-Qaeda in Syria
1 December 2017
By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
“Joulani did it again…He is changing his rifle from one shoulder to the other…. He has become a gun for hire”. This is the language used by al-Qaeda militants in Syria, describing their previous Emir who pledged an oath to the leader of Al Qaeda Central, Ayman al-Zawaheri, a few years back. Today, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the leader of “Jabhat al-Nusra” (ex-Islamic State group turned into al-Qaeda), aka, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”, is arresting Jihadist commanders and those known as the “old guard” who joined the Jihad in Syria a few years ago.
The wide arrest of jihadists forced Zawaheri to come out and make a declaration, accusing Joulani of abandoning the path of the Jihad and of repudiating his previous pledge of allegiance (Bay’a), whereas the al-Qaeda central Emir had saved Joulani from abu bakr al-Baghdadi’s (the ISIS leader) revenge.
The mere fact that Zawaheri issued his latest statement condemning Joulani’s activities confirms that the al-Qaeda Emir is in close contact with his followers on the ground and is well informed of the latest events. This gives the lie to the claim that no correspondence reaches Zawaheri until three months later, and that he is allegedly cut off from the latest developments.
Joulani has arrested high ranking commanders within al-Qaeda like the Jordanian Sami al-Aridi (ex-highest religious authority within Al-Nusra), Abu Julayleb al-Urduni (fought with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq), Khelad al-Urduni, Abu al-Islam al-Diri, Abu Abdel Karim al-Khorasani, Abu Abdel Karim al-Masri and Abu Musab al-Libi (to name but a few). Joulani’s men also attempted (but failed) to arrest Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni (ex-vice of Zarqawi): he managed to escape.
Al-Qaeda and the mujahedeen in Syria rejected Joulani’s actions. Indeed ,the al-Qaeda “Special Forces” in the western sector, the Emir of al-Badiya in the northern sector Bilal al-San’aei (from Yemen) and other commanders in the military, administration and religious leadership of Joulani’s group contested the latest arrests. Moreover, the security and intelligence commander of Daraa (south of Syria), vice al-Mukhtar commander, the head of training and barracks Ab Muqdad al-Urduni: all issued communiqués condemning Joulani and requesting the immediate release of prisoners.
Most foreign fighters (Muhajereen) protested against the move of their leader and explained Joulani’s step as a logical but unwelcome attempt to distance himself from al-Qaeda, now that Jihadists, like ISIS, are no longer permitted to exist in Syria: it is time to end the war and start the political negotiation.
Joulani tried to absorb the shocked reaction of his own commanders by releasing Abu al-Saad al-Jazrawi (Saudi), sheikh Abdel Karim al-Masri (Egyptian) and Abu Moawiya al-Ansari. Nevertheless, the picture is very clear to jihadists: their leader is leaving al-Qaeda and putting an end to its influence.
Several commanders, such as Issam al-Tunisi (from Tunisia) tried to seek, with little success, reconciliation, and attempted to calm this storm ravaging jihadists in Syria. Issam al-Tunisi has asked, in his latest communiqué, for the release of all prisoners and that mediators be allowed to find a way out of this situation.
The principle of Bay’a is considered among jihadists as a religious and honourable “commitment before God” that should never be revoked. It is repeatedly quoted in the Muslim Holy book (al-Imran 76 & 77, al-Maida 1, al-Baqara 40 &177, al-Tawba 111, al-Raad 20 and 25, al-Fath 10).
However, it is not new for Joulani to revoke his Bay’a: he had pledged allegiance to ISIS in Iraq when he was sent to Syria in 2011 and revoked it to declare Bay’a to his new Emir Ayman al-Zawaheri. Today his latest Emir (and certainly not the least of them) seems to be Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, “new ruler in the north of Syria”.
What is pushing Joulani to put himself behind Turkey is nothing more than the de-escalation agreement between the Kremlin and Ankara, where Turkey is in charge of restoring control over Idlib to spare it from being stormed by the Syrian Army and its allies and to annex it to the Turkish influence area in Syria.
Joulani, a gun for hire and a survivor, rather than a faithful subject, calculated his risks and decided to change his clothes, taking off the al-Qaeda hat to keep well away from it- and become a “moderate”! But Joulani is creating many enemies around him, all in a small and confined area (Idlib): his physical presence (or absence) from the Syrian scene will make little difference, and his survival is very much in doubt .
Joulani’s betrayal of Baghdadi is a blessing for the entire Middle East. Had he accepted to join his forces with those of ISIS, jihadists would have occupied the entire Syrian territory, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and reached the doors of Europe.
Instead he has decided to fight back to keep his position as an absolute group leader, rather than as a lieutenant fighting against ISIS, leaving behind thousands killed- and totally dispersing the formerly significant power of the jihadists. He has therefore attacked Syrian moderate groups and the ones trained and financed by the US, to end up fighting and splitting the strongest group in the north, Ahrar al-Sham.
Following this last clash with Ahrar, Joulani managed to divide Ahrar al-Sham into two groups. The first – along with the foreign fighters – adopted the Salafi Takfiri ideology and joined Joulani when he was the Emir of al-Qaeda group. The second group’s approach adopted a more pragmatic ideology (somewhere between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood), declaring loyalty to Turkey. Ahrar counted before the split over 20,000 fighters. Today they are only a few thousand, controlling limited territories: Sahel al-Ghab, jabal al-zawiya, Ariha, rural Latakia and southern rural Aleppo.
Joulani bulldozered all Syrian groups so as to be able to finally sit on the throne of the “revolution”- even though he is far from being a revolutionary personality. In fact he is doing a remarkable job and is indeed a major contributor to breaking up the rump of jihadists in Bilad al-Sham (the Levant).
Joulani arrived in Syria with a group of “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) commanders and several scholars who were spreading Islamic teaching and manipulating the Syrian population to carry arms and lay claim to an Islamic Emirate or State. He led Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of ISI (today known as ISIS) but was closely watched by the late ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who identified Joulani’s ambition and propensity to play solo.
When Baghdadi wanted to discipline his lieutenant abu Mohammad al-Joulani, he hid behind the skirts of Ayman al-zawaheri and pledged allegiance to his new leader, the AQ Central Emir Zawaheri.
This is where the AQC Emir made a huge mistake by protecting Joulani and creating a split between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Zawaheri found an opportunity to revive AQ that had been hit hard by the assassination of Usama Bin Laden. To control Bilad al-Sham is the dream of all jihadists, thereby somehow to resuscitate the ancient Islamic Caliphate.
Joulani indeed was the biggest threat to the Syrian government: his group reached Sahat al-Abbasiyyeen in the heart of Damascus in 2013, triggering the direct intervention of large numbers of the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Zawaheri and Baghdadi never stopped bickering and the split between the two groups was not simple: both groups killed each other’s members in battle in the Muslim World, and far beyond the Syrian borders. Zawaheri saw hope in his new protégé Joulani and called upon all Mujahedeen to join Syria and fight under Joulani’s command. It really felt like the beginning of the possibility to materialise a dream and create an Islamic Emirate.
But today Joulani betrayed his second Bay’a and threw al-Qaeda leaders and key figures into jail. Even those who were freed from Iran’s jails in exchange for Sheikh al-‘Ani (the exchange was organised by al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula – AQAP – where Iranian diplomat was exchanged) ended up in Joulani’s prison in Idlib. To discredit these, Joulani’s followers are spreading false claims, calling those arrested “Iran’s sheikhs”.
Sayed Qutub was asked once: “Why does injustice prevail over justice”? He answered: “So that people can hear the thundering sound of injustice when it falls”. Al-Nusra, aka Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, spread injustice among Syrians in the name of al-Qaeda. They carried out assassinations, confiscation of properties, and indiscriminate arrests. The Syrians turned against al-Qaeda, they who excommunicated Muslims for raising the flag.
As in Egypt and in Afghanistan, the experience of al-Qaeda in Syria failed and lost the support of society. That support is an essential element of survival for any non-state actor. This is exactly what the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned jihadists about at the beginning of the armed unrest in Syria, when he said “the world is allowing your gathering in Syria to destroy you all and destroy Jihad, all for the benefit of the US and Israel”. Nasrallah had asked Jihadists to return to their jihad theatre, on the same path as Usama Bin laden.
There is no doubt that al-Qaeda in Syria is in agonising death throes and will never recover in the foresee able future. It reached its zenith in 2013-2015. Like the reaction against ISIS, the societies of the Levant and Mesopotamia will not allow these elements to return: the Takfiri have lost the war (not just the battle). The direct danger to Syria, Iraq and Jordan is over.
The only group that remains compact, united, and stronger than ever, after over six years of non-stop war is Hezbollah. The group has received more support in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, than ever before. It has gathered more experience in warfare, earned more military bases, and generated the backing of a large part of the Syrian population. Indeed it is considerably more stable and more effectively organised than many of the states with which it is involved, or which it influences through its acquired proximity. This includes the Gulf states (whose support Hezbollah has lost), and others who aligned with the US and Israel, in 2006. After all, the losses, certainly in Hezbollah’s perspective, are not that great.