Abstract: The Syrian jihad presented invaluable opportunities for al-Qa`ida to establish what it had always sought: a popular, broadly representative jihadi resistance movement that could support the creation of an Islamic government presiding over an expanse of important territory. Jabhat al-Nusra assumed the mantle of responsibility in seeking to achieve this grand goal. And it did remarkably well, up to a point. As conflict dynamics evolved, however, the goal of transforming into a mass movement with social and political popularity became an increasingly distant objective. In its determination to aggressively achieve its grand goals, Jabhat al-Nusra prioritized localism over globalism, which as time passed, pushed its relationship with al-Qa`ida to the breaking point.
To confront … blatant aggression and brutal occupation, it is absolutely vital to unite on the basis of Tawhid, [to] organize our ranks to fight in the way of Allah, and [to] transcend our disagreements and disputes … We must understand that we are in for a long war, a battle of creed and awareness before weapons and combat; a battle for the sake of upright conduct, inculcating ethics and abstinence from this world … So let us cooperate, come closer, join ranks, correct mistakes and fill the gaps.
This is a clear-cut order from me to our brotherly soldiers of Al-Qaeda in the Levant, to cooperate with your sincere Mujahid brothers—those who agree with you as well as those who disagree with you—for the sake of Jihad and fighting the Baathists, Safavid Rawafidh, Crusaders and the Khawarij.1
Those were the words of al-Qa`ida’s General Leadership, issued within a stern directive on January 7, 2018, and intended for a jihadi audience in Syria. There, al-Qa`ida’s prospects for success have faced existential challenges in recent years. Now, al-Qa`ida’s claim to command any Syrian affiliate stands on the thinnest of foundations, if any at all. Instead, the once-dominant al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra embarked on a series of rebrands through 2016-2017 that although intended to further its long-term objectives, served only to engender crippling internal divisions and a de facto break from al-Qa`ida. After a months-long public feud pitting Jabhat al-Nusra’s successor, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), on the one side against al-Qa`ida and its loyalists in Syria on the other, mediation efforts energized by prominent al-Qa`ida ideologues and Shura Council members managed to secure three days of détente in January 2018—though that soon crumbled.
In fact, the al-Qa`ida statement’s clear acknowledgement of two distinct factions of fighters—the soldiers of al-Qa`ida in the Levant (junud qa’edat al-jihad fi’l Sham) and the sincere mujahid brothers (al-mujahideen al-sadiqin)—was the group’s first public admission that al-Qa`ida and HTS had become two separate entities.a That admission underlined how divisive Jabhat al-Nusra’s recent evolution had been, significant enough to catalyze the formation of an entirely separate al-Qa`ida loyalist entity.
It is undoubtedly true that al-Qa`ida’s reversal of fortunes in Syria was, in part, a consequence of shifting conflict dynamics, as Russia’s September 2015 intervention turned the tide of regime losses and secured a series of consequential military victories, including in Aleppo. That reality, coupled with the West’s tunnel-like fixation on combating the Islamic State and increasing political fatigue with backing the anti-Assad effort, had combined through 2016-2017 to create conditions in which al-Qa`ida could no longer benefit from intense levels of conflict (which had given it its best chance to acquire credibility) and a viable, potent revolutionary opposition (which it had embedded into and partnered with to consolidate its credibility).
It was facing these far less favorable conditions that had prompted an internal discussion around a need to use additional methods to secure popular acceptance and support. After all, as Jabhat al-Nusra had repeatedly explained,2 achieving its ultimate objective of establishing an Islamic state in Syria would only ever be feasible if it could acquire a sufficiently large and broad spread of support from those living in its midst. The primacy of military conflict through 2012-2015 may have allowed for Jabhat al-Nusra’s rise to prominence and acquisition of some popularity, but shifting dynamics in 2016 meant additional methods were needed to sustain and grow existing support.
Central within this challenge was one issue: could a self-identified al-Qa`ida affiliate broaden its support base to the extent necessary not only to negotiate a broad-spectrum merger (not alliance) with Syria’s armed opposition but to secure widespread support for a jihadi government? Making use of information released publicly by involved jihadis as well as deeper insight provided to this author by individuals directly and indirectly involved in Jabhat al-Nusra’s evolution since 2016,b this article seeks to tell the story of how and why al-Qa`ida has seen its Syrian affiliate slowly drift out of its control and what that means for its project in Syria.
From Jabhat al-Nusra to JFS
As international diplomacy intensified in early 2016 toward the first of several nationwide ‘cessations of hostility,’ Jabhat al-Nusra convened unity talks with opposition factions based in northern Syria.3 Pressure was rising inside Syria’s revolution to adapt to changing circumstances. Politics were beginning to trump military affairs, and the Syrian opposition’s external backers were coercing their proxies to play along. For Jabhat al-Nusra, an avowed al-Qa`ida affiliate opposed to any foreign manipulation of events inside Syria, this state of affairs represented a potentially existential threat. The unity negotiations that began in January 2016 were Jabhat al-Nusra’s way of preempting any foreign attempt to co-opt its military partners into acting against its interests. After all, the United States and Russia were also intensively negotiating to establish a joint intelligence cell in Jordan to deal specifically with Jabhat al-Nusra’s ‘marbled’ presence within opposition areas.4
As it happened, Jabhat al-Nusra’s best attempts to convince opposition groups that a full organizational merger was in their best interests resolutely failed. One reason for rejection hovered above others: Jabhat al-Nusra’s affiliation and loyalty to al-Qa`ida. As far as Syria’s mainstream opposition was concerned, their revolution was under increasing pressure both from within and outside Syria; now was not the time to risk further alienating the cause by uniting with a terrorist group, no matter how valuable a military partner it might be.
This was not the first time that Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempt to encourage a broad inter-factional merger had failed, but the circumstances surrounding the collapse of this round catalyzed something new. Concerned about recent developments, a number of senior Jabhat al-Nusra commanders coalesced in secret in June 2016 in a series of meetings organized in part by former senior member Saleh al-Hamawi. Originally one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s seven founding members, al-Hamawi had been expelled from the group in July 2015 for his overly ‘progressive’ views.5 Al-Hamawi and his secret cohort, which included Jabhat al-Nusra’s military chief in Aleppo, Abdullah al-Sanadi, believed the time had come to sever ties with al-Qa`ida in order to broaden the appeal of Jabhat al-Nusra’s jihadi project so as to better secure the kind of unity that might save their armed struggle from being slowly strangled from the outside. Al-Hamawi confirmed his role in the process to this author in July 2016, explaining that it would amount to an ultimatum to Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani:
Soon, there will be an ultimatum made to al-Nusra: either disengage [from al-Qa`ida] and merge with major Islamic factions, or face isolation socially, politically and militarily.6
Were al-Julani to refuse to consider breaking ties, up to a third of Jabhat al-Nusra’s fighting force were loyal to the reformist wing, one informed source also told the author at the time. A name had even been selected for the potential defecting faction: the Syrian Islamic Movement (al-harakat al-souriya al-islamiyya).7
The interlinked issues of al-Qa`ida affiliation, inter-factional unity in Syria, and Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal of establishing an Islamic state had been discussed within jihadi circles in Syria since at least 2014. Despite their geographic and communications distance, al-Qa`ida’s central leadership had also begun to weigh in. In a speech released in May 2016 but likely recorded early that year, Ayman al-Zawahiri had urged jihadis in Syria to unite, stressing the objective of establishing a “Muslim government” and indicating that formal affiliations (to al-Qa`ida) would no longer apply only if and when such a goal could be achieved.8 Preemptively breaking ties, however, would not protect jihadis from international counterterrorism scrutiny, and if they were to break ties early, further attacks would be inevitable. Though some of the wording may have appeared ambiguous to some, the logic was clear: do not break your bay`a (oath of allegiance); your goals have not been met.
Events in Syria were moving rapidly, and al-Zawahiri was too far away to influence directly what was, for Jabhat al-Nusra and its leadership, an issue needing urgent attention. According to multiple senior Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamist sources inside Syria who spoke to this author both at the time and since, al-Julani convened an initial, urgent meeting of his Shura Council in mid-July 2016 to discuss the issue of al-Qa`ida ties and how best to continue to pursue Jabhat al-Nusra’s objectives in Syria. That meeting ended in discord when it became clear that the Shura Council was divided on the issue.
As the Shura members dispersed and retreated to their respective hideouts, the debate continued behind multiple closed doors and attracted a broader circle of people, these sources told the author. A number of different camps emerged. Some determined that protecting Jabhat al-Nusra’s achievements in Syria and proceeding further toward a united Islamic government made a major break and rebrand from al-Qa`ida necessary. Some insisted that any breaking of ties would be wholly illegitimate without the permission of al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri, his deputies, and the broader Shura Council. And others proposed a middle-way, in which Jabhat al-Nusra would sever its ties of allegiance to al-Qa`ida outside Syria, while retaining close, consultative contact with al-Qa`ida leadership figures inside Syria. The latter option, its proponents insisted, would be presented to the world as a full breaking of ties in the hopes of justifying or legitimizing whatever united body might then result.
As pressure mounted and details of the controversy were leaked (including to this author), al-Julani reconvened a significantly expanded Shura Council, which now included two further levels of the group’s religious and military commands. According to the author’s Islamist and al-Nusra sources in Syria, as that larger Shura met several times through mid- and into late July 2016, al-Julani’s hyper-loyal deputy, Abdulrahim Atoun (aka Abu Abdullah al-Shami), began consulting with prominent al-Qa`ida ideologues outside Syria (including Issam Mohammed Tahir al-Barqawi, aka Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, in Jordan) and with senior al-Qa`ida figures in Syria. The latter included global deputy leader, Abdullah Mohammed Rajab Abdulrahman, aka Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (a veteran Egyptian jihadi with longstanding close ties to al-Zawahiri);9 Khaled Mustafa Khalifa al-Aruri, aka Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni (a former deputy to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi),10 and Ahmed Salameh Mabruk, aka Abu al-Faraj al-Masri (a veteran Egyptian jihadi also previously close to al-Zawahiri)11 on the feasibility of pursuing the middle-way option.
What appears to have resulted from these consultations was a general permission for Jabhat al-Nusra to pursue the middle-way—that is, breaking external ties—to protect its project in Syria and to improve the chances of achieving the Islamic government that al-Qa`ida had so long sought. Abu al-Khayr, Abu al-Qassam, and Abu al-Faraj all qualified their permission by insisting that if al-Zawahiri—who was out of contact—later rejected the move, they too would retrospectively oppose it, and Jabhat al-Nusra would have to reverse its decision. Al-Julani, Atoun, and others reportedly agreed to these terms, and the proposal was made to a final meeting of the expanded Shura on July 23, 2016. The debate that followed was tense, and a number of Jabhat al-Nusra’s most senior leaders balked at the proposal. At least one, Iyad al-Tubasi (aka Abu Julaybib), stormed out of the meeting. Nevertheless, a slim majority ultimately voted in agreement.12 Jabhat al-Nusra began preparing a major announcement.
Five days later, on July 28, 2016, in a brief audio statement, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri gave al-Qa`ida’s blessing for Jabhat al-Nusra’s breaking of ties. At the end of his message, he included a previously unreleased audio clip from al-Zawahiri stressing that organizational links should be sacrificed if necessary for unity, creating the impression that al-Qa`ida’s leader had also sanctioned the move himself.c
Shortly thereafter, al-Julani, Atoun, and Abu al-Faraj appeared on video—al-Julani revealing his face for the first time—and announced the dissolution of Jabhat al-Nusra and the establishment of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), a jihadi movement devoid of “external ties” and dedicated to forming “a unified body” in Syria to “protect” and “serve” its people.13 In the days that followed, JFS’ eloquent, English-speaking spokesman Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) sold the move to the Western media as a complete break from al-Qa`ida driven by a determination to focus solely on Syrian issues and to secure broader unity with opposition factions:
[Before this change, Jabhat al-Nusra] was an official branch of al-Qaeda. We reported to their central command and we worked within their framework; we adhered to their policies. With the formation of JFS, we are completely independent. That means we don’t report to anyone, we don’t receive directives from any external entity. If dissolving external organizational affiliations or ties will remove the obstacles in the way of unity, then this must be done. When we were part of al-Qaeda … our core policy was to focus all of our efforts on the Syrian issue. That was our policy before and it will be our policy today and tomorrow.14
This was al-Julani’s gamble.15 Faced with severe internal pressure to consider a move that he personally had repeatedly refused, al-Julani had now decided to take a leap into the unknown in hopes that doing so would be enough to overcome the trust gap with Syria’s opposition and secure its willingness to merge and then its backing to establish a unified Islamic political project.
JFS: Rising Tensions
Despite the grand nature of JFS’ emergence, the movement’s birth was not altogether smooth. In fact, several of Jabhat al-Nusra’s most senior figures were furious. Abu Julaybib—a former close aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi16—publicly quit JFS in August 2016 in protest at the “disengagement” from al-Qa`ida.17 He was later followed by two other senior leaders, Abu Khadija al-Urduni and Abu Hammam al-Shami, who opposed what they saw as the ‘dilution’ of jihadi purity.18 Jabhat al-Nusra’s former deputy leader Sami al-Oraydi chose not to quit JFS altogether, but he refused to take any position of responsibility. At least 11 other senior Jabhat al-Nusra figures adopted similar positions.19
Almost as soon as JFS came into existence, this band of detractors emerged as a thorn in al-Julani’s side. Their mere existence was compounded by a private letter that arrived in late September 2016 from al-Zawahiri in which he angrily chastised al-Julani and called the rebrand to JFS an “act of disobedience.”20 Al-Zawahiri explained that such a move could only occur after an Islamic state was established, and even then, it would need the approval of al-Qa`ida’s entire Shura Council.21 In a separate message that came with the secret letter, al-Zawahiri also admonished his global deputy Abu al-Khayr for giving his permission to al-Julani.22 Shortly thereafter, as he had warned he might, Abu al-Khayr reversed his support for JFS’ creation, leaving the ball in al-Julani’s court. Al-Julani was now expected to dissolve JFS, reassert his allegiance to al-Qa`ida, and reestablish Jabhat al-Nusra.23
Notwithstanding the Syrian opposition’s continued skepticism that JFS was anything different to Jabhat al-Nusra, the arrival of al-Zawahiri’s letter caused shockwaves. Al-Julani’s gamble was already facing serious challenges, and its internal detractors now had the greatest piece of ammunition possible. By this time, it had also become clear, after communications had been established to Iran, that two other veteran al-Qa`ida senior leaders living there—Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan (Saif al-`Adl) and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Mohammed al-Masri)—had also rejected the rebrand.d
Rather than abiding by his initial assurances to al-Qa`ida’s senior representatives, however, al-Julani refused to reverse JFS’ formation and external break from al-Qa`ida. Instead, he hurriedly convened a meeting of JFS and al-Qa`ida leaders in the Idlib town of Jisr al-Shughour on October 3, 2016, in which he and his loyal comrade Atoun sought to convince those in attendance of the importance of standing firm and correcting al-Zawahiri’s ‘misunderstanding.’24 According to Atoun, the al-Qa`ida figures jumped to al-Julani’s defense, claiming that al-Zawahiri must have misunderstood JFS’ nature and the circumstances surrounding its creation.25 Other than Atoun’s biased claims, though, no other evidence has emerged proving that al-Julani was so strongly defended. Abu al-Faraj’s death in a drone strike an hour after the meeting further added to tensions, according to one HTS-linked source who met some of the attendees afterward.26
Throughout the remainder of 2016, pressure continued to mount on JFS and al-Julani. The first attempt to negotiate a merger with opposition factions since JFS’ formation precipitously broke down in mid-August, due to continued concerns about the group’s al-Qa`ida connections and objectives. After only six weeks, the rebrand was not going to plan. Moreover, by late September 2016, JFS had grudgingly evacuated all its positions in northern Aleppo in protest to Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” intervention against the Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG. Al-Julani was then forced to watch almost all Syrian opposition groups sign on to a major ceasefire on September 13 enforced by the international community that provided for possible U.S. or Russian strikes on JFS.
In a series of undisclosed meetings in September 2016 with Turkish security officials in Ankara, an armed opposition delegation then considered lending intelligence support to U.S. drone strikes on al-Qa`ida figures in exchange for Turkish oversight on the targeting process, two attendees told the author.27 Though the outcome of those meetings was left ambiguous, U.S. strikes against veteran al-Qa`ida members as well as leading JFS figures steadily increased in northwestern Syria from September into the winter of 2016-2017.e
Having embraced the role as JFS’ public defender-in-chief, Mostafa Mahamed’s October 17, 2016, ‘resignation’ from JFSf was the first sign of discontent within the group’s ‘dovish’ wing. Protest was now coming from both ends of the spectrum. To make matters worse, al-Julani was then forced in October 2016 to come to the defense of a particularly troublesome front group, Jund al-Aqsa,28 which a recent opposition investigation had accused of working for the Islamic State.g That opened up an uncontrollable can of worms in which Ahrar al-Sham, which had repeatedly dissolved recent merger talks with Jabhat al-Nusra and JFS, and others led a military campaign to eradicate Jund al-Aqsa. Having secretly established Jund al-Aqsa in early 2013 as a front to take in Jabhat al-Nusra’s foreign fighters and shield them from recruitment attempts by the emerging Islamic State group, al-Julani’s sense of loyalty saw him subsume and protect a force otherwise viewed almost universally with hostility. Even when Jund al-Aqsa suicide car bombs targeted Ahrar al-Sham bases, as in Saraqeb on October 10, 2016, JFS took to misinformation, claiming instead that airstrikes were the culprit.29
From JFS to HTS: Aggressive Expansion
As 2016 drew to a close, rumors abounded that al-Qa`ida had lost patience with al-Julani and that Abu Julaybib was laying the groundwork for a new loyalist al-Qa`ida faction known as “Taliban al-Sham.”30 Leading jihadi ideologue Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi also launched a public critique of JFS, questioning the “diluters’” (al-mumayi’a) motives in degrading the purity of Jabhat al-Nusra’s methodology (manhaj).31
Having pushed through the rebrand based on the gamble that it would secure a mass merger in Syria, al-Julani began preparing for a final try in November 2016. According to three members of Ahrar al-Sham and an Islamic cleric close to HTS, those preparations included a lobbying effort within Ahrar al-Sham to undermine the group’s most nationalistic wing, which had consistently vetoed a merger.32 Eventually, Ahrar al-Sham’s internal divisions on the issue erupted when an extremist wing favoring closer ties with JFS and calling itself Jaish al-Ahrar announced itself as a “sub-faction.”33 In effect, Jaish al-Ahrar and its leadership—including Ahrar’s former leader Abu Jaber al-Sheikh, military leader Abu Saleh Tahhan, and Kurdish Islamic advisor Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq—were positioning themselves as an ‘almost-splinter group,’ in case unity talks with JFS again failed.
The merger talks began in December 2016, and although an initial agreement was signed by Ahrar al-Sham’s then-leader Ali al-Omar,34 it later fell apart when a majority of Ahrar’s leadership again refused.35 They were especially concerned about JFS’ lack of ideological change; recent death threats made in the event of ‘no’ votes; and a fear of losing external support, particularly from Turkey.36 The failure of the talks was the straw that broke the camel’s back. By January 2017, JFS and Ahrar al-Sham were engaged in violent conflict in northwestern Syria.37 Although Ahrar refused to attend the first round of the controversial Astana talks co-hosted by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, it expressed support for those who did.38
The January 2017 JFS-Ahrar conflict had been preceded by coordinated JFS attacks on several Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded groups in Idlib and western Aleppo,39 which severely damaged its reputation within the broader opposition. The Turkey-based, mainstream Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), which retains close relations with almost all northern Syria’s opposition, even called for full-scale mobilization against JFS, labeling al-Julani’s group “khawarij”40—the same term commonly used to refer to the Islamic State’s ultra-extremist breakaway tendencies. Throughout the fighting, which was clearly designed to undercut allies and neutralize future threats, JFS sought to defeat some of the most popular FSA factions within the CIA-led assistance program,h claiming it was preempting a foreign “conspiracy” against its forces.41 JFS also aggressively sought control of important areas along the Turkish border, including the Bab al-Hawa crossing—an invaluable source of income and a potent source of control over the fate of rivals in Syria’s northwest.i
The key consequence of this unprecedented spate of inter-factional fighting was a clarification of the line distinguishing Ahrar al-Sham and JFS, with a series of substantive defections and mergers taking place between sub-factions of the two groups. On the one hand, Ahrar al-Sham lost approximately 800-1,000 defectors to JFS, but gained at least 6,000-8,000 more42 from the integration into its ranks of Suqor al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrit and the western Aleppo units of Al-Jabhat al-Shamiya, and the Idlib-based units of Jaish al-Islam. On the other hand, JFS lost at least several hundred fighters to Ahrar al-Sham, while securing 3,000-5,000 additional fighters43 from a merger with Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, Jaish al-Sunna, and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. With this expansion, JFS announced a second rebrand on January 28, 2017, to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).44
HTS Comes Under Fire
This ‘great sorting out’ was the consequence of al-Julani’s aggressive determination to neutralize potential threats within northern Syria’s opposition; to deter or preempt externally driven ‘conspiracies’ against his forces; and to catalyze the necessary conditions for an absorbing of other groups. Although al-Julani arguably succeeded in achieving all three objectives, the methods used irreversibly damaged his movement’s standing in the broader rebel movement and the feasibility of ever transitioning into a truly representative, mass movement. Consequently, Syria’s opposition communities began referring to the group as “Hitish”—a use of the “HTS” acronym in Arabic and purposefully denigratory given its audible similarity to the Islamic State’s pejorative acronym-based nickname, Daesh. Sizable protests against the jihadi group also became the norm.
This second rebrand in six months also proved to be the final nail in the coffin in al-Julani’s relationship with al-Qa`ida. Whether al-Julani had intended for JFS’ creation to represent a total break from al-Qa`ida or not had now become a largely academic debate, as al-Qa`ida and its loyalists began to view HTS as an independent jihadi outfit—and one that had become so by illegitimately breaking its strict oath of bay`a.
Al-Maqdisi was again the first to weigh in following HTS’ creation, warning on January 30, 2017, that “the influence of the diluters … is now growing greater!”45 Three days later, al-Maqdisi called on HTS’ leadership to clarify its manhaj, and two days after that, he called on HTS to urgently clarify “your disavowal of wicked coalitions such as Euphrates Shield … your disavowal of conferences and conspiracies like Astana … your views on … secular regimes [and] foreign backing.”46 Amidst this intensifying public controversy, Sami al-Oraydi and a close aide, Abu Hajar al-Shami, both quit HTS on February 8, 2017, citing the second rebrand as the final straw. Hours later, al-Oraydi proclaimed that “among the greatest forms of disobedience is disobedience to the mother organization.” As Cole Bunzel has pointed out, al-Oraydi had used that line before, in September 2015 in reference to the Islamic State’s criminal behavior and break from al-Qa`ida.47 Al-Julani and HTS were now being openly compared to the Islamic State by al-Qa`ida loyalists.
Al-Oraydi’s public exit from HTS and al-Maqdisi’s escalating criticism sparked a defensive retort by al-Julani’s loyal defender Atoun on February 10, 2017. In a 20-page screed posted on Telegram, Atoun accused al-Maqdisi of spouting inaccuracies based on a lack of information and of failing to make use of JFS’ attempts to consult him on issues related to rebranding. Atoun also explained that some of the strategic issues internally considered by JFS and HTS necessitated nuance, rather than a black-and-white lens. For example, Atoun implied that different opinions existed on issues like the legitimacy of Turkey’s President Erdogan and relationships with foreign governments. Atoun strongly rejected al-Maqdisi’s claim that “diluters” had weakened HTS’ manhaj. HTS was loyal to “the same principles as before,” Atoun insisted.48
Having been publicly critiqued by his junior, al-Maqdisi responded boldly on February 14, 2017, charging Atoun with skirting around important issues and, more seriously, having deceived him and others about the nature of Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrand to JFS. According to al-Maqdisi and despite claims otherwise, Jabhat al-Nusra had failed to secure permission for JFS’ creation from al-Qa`ida’s leadership, and in initial consultations he had with Atoun in July 2016, the latter had personally described the potential rebrand as “superficial” and something that would be reversed should al-Zawahiri turn out to oppose it. Al-Maqdisi was now implying that the rebrand to JFS had been conducted with a genuine intention to break ties, especially given the nature of the second transition to HTS—a group he claimed had eroded its manhaj, given its emphasis on “liberation” (tahrir), instead of the more religious “conquest” (fath).49
Although Jordanian jihadi ideologue Abu Qatada al-Filistini hurriedly stepped in and mediated a détente between al-Maqdisi and Atoun, the issue had now become very public. Moreover, despite remaining loyal to al-Qa`ida’s side of the debate, Abu Qatada grudgingly admitted several weeks later that one needed to celebrate the fact that a new “jihadi current” was emerging that prioritized “a project of the Islamic community” over and above a more exclusivist “ideological group” project. This was a clear reference to efforts by groups like HTS to broaden their appeal by focusing on the local and thus, being more willing to make ideological concessions for the sake of securing mass appeal.50
In mid-February 2017, amidst the al-Maqdisi-Atoun spat, a meeting of senior al-Qa`ida figures was convened in Idlib to discuss HTS’ formation and how to deal with the fallout. Al-Qa`ida deputy leader Abu al-Khayr attended, as did al-Oraydi, Abu Julaybib, Abu al-Qassam, and Abu Hammam. According to two individuals attuned to the meeting’s attendees and its outcome,51 those in the room unanimously opposed HTS’ creation but disagreed on the path forward. Alarmingly for many in attendance, Abu al-Khayr admitted that he was never consulted about JFS’ evolution into HTS, and in fact, he had not met with any JFS or HTS leader for six weeks.52 That revelation strongly suggested that JFS no longer considered itself bound by al-Qa`ida’s constraints—again, whether the Jabhat al-Nusra-to-JFS rebrand was intended to fully break ties or not.
Abu al-Khayr’s death in a drone strike on February 26, 2017, served to remove another possible obstacle from under HTS’ feet, but also emboldened al-Qa`ida’s loyalists further. Al-Oraydi, the onetime deputy leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, led the charge this time with a series of public postings through March and April accusing HTS of sowing division (fitna) within the Syrian jihad by embracing nationalism over Islam, breaking its bay`a to al-Qa`ida through the use of “legal trickery,” and insisting that al-Julani’s behavior was no different to the Islamic State’s betrayal. In what was then unlikely to be coincidental timing, al-Zawahiri released a statement on April 23, 2017, (three days after al-Oraydi’s final message) in which he warned his followers to remain loyal to the global jihad, to resist attempts to prioritize “nationalist” war, and to engage in guerilla warfare rather than territorial control. Though he made no direct reference to HTS, al-Zawahiri’s intention was clear. After all, everything he warned against defined HTS’ strategy. Unsurprisingly, al-Oraydi responded to al-Zawahiri by describing his message as being “as clear as the sun.”53
The Great Syrian Jihadi Breakup
Al-Zawahiri’s April 23, 2017, statement appeared to temper tensions, or at least stop disagreements from being aired publicly. Al-Oraydi and fellow al-Qa`ida loyalist Abu al-Qassam both pivoted toward offering constructive advice for Syria’s ‘mujahideen,’ including how to face the challenges posed by the emerging triumvirate of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, as well as by emphasizing the strategic importance of fighting an underground guerrilla war as the next stage in Syrian jihad.54 As al-Qassam wrote in June 2017, external pressure on the Syrian jihad was so significant that the ongoing fitna between HTS and al-Qa`ida needed to end. Notwithstanding various accusations made, most al-Qa`ida figures who had spoken on the subject—including al-Zawahiri—had focused and continued to focus on prioritizing “unity” and “cooperation.”55
The one key and consistent exception to that rule was the die-hard al-Qa`ida loyalist Abu Julaybib who, since his resignation from HTS in August 2016, had been driving tensions on the ground by undermining al-Julani’s authority and repeatedly pitching the formation of a new, al-Qa`ida loyalist faction to rival HTS.56 According to three well-connected sources, Abu Julaybib had also repeatedly tried to move back to southern Syria to pursue this separate goal with the aim of coordinating the transfer of al-Qa`ida loyalists from the south to Idlib to stand in opposition to HTS and al-Julani.57 Abu Julaybib was a serious thorn in al-Julani’s side.
By the summer of 2017, another increasingly difficult issue was HTS’ relationship with Ahrar al-Sham, once Jabhat al-Nusra’s closest military ally but now increasingly distant from HTS. Though Ahrar had always held politically and ideologically different positions to Jabhat al-Nusra, evolving geopolitical dynamics, the increasingly assertive role of Turkey, and Jabhat al-Nusra’s own evolution all had a part to play in encouraging Ahrar’s own identity rebrand, which eventually included an embrace of the green FSA revolutionary flag and increasingly nationalist-focused rhetoric.58
The repeated breakdown of merger talks; Ahrar al-Sham’s role in Euphrates Shield, close relations to Turkey, and support for Astana; and the actual intra-rebel hostilities that preceded HTS’ formation all prepared the ground for the most significant battle to take place between the two groups. Between July 18 and July 24, 2017, HTS launched a series of coordinated assaults on Ahrar’s network of headquarters across Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama. What followed was a limp response by Ahrar’s fighters, who suffered catastrophic defeat in a week.59
The fighting’s death toll, though, was very low—two or three dozen from both groups combined, according to commanders from both groups speaking to this author.60 Rather than fight back in force, Ahrar personnel largely retreated, withdrew, or surrendered, in part due to their long history of cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra; the localism that defined much of the two group’s micro-level relations; and the shock and awe nature of HTS’ campaign. There was also a question of poor resolve within Ahrar’s ranks. The group’s especially broad spectrum of political and religious/ideological thought had gradually eroded a shared sense of internal identity, putting it at a significant disadvantage when faced with a more ideologically unified adversary.
Aware that some fighters within its own ranks might balk at fighting against fellow Islamist rebels, HTS had prepared its fighters to turn on their long-time partners. For weeks beforehand, “Julani dispatched his most important [Sharia figures] to talk to the fighters,” one Islamist figure close to HTS’ Shura Council claimed, “first to question the purity of Ahrar al-Sham’s political positions and to suggest it had become a foreign puppet that would be used to attack the mujahideen, and then to explain why it had become a legitimate target.”61
By late July 2017, HTS had cemented itself as the dominant armed actor in opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria. Its main rival, Ahrar al-Sham, retreated back to its bases, hoping to fight another day. Three months later, Ahrar elected an entirely new leadership headed up by Hassan Soufan, a long-time former regime prisoner who, as he told this author in person in October 2017, came into the job determined to distinguish his movement from “criminal” and “corrupt” projects, such as “Hitish and Daesh.”62
The Break Becomes Official
In a speech released on October 4, 2017, al-Zawahiri publicly admonished HTS—again, without referencing the group by name—by chastising those who try to “escape from facing reality and seek to repeat the same failed experiment … [of trying to] deceive America,” a reference to the argument that by breaking ties to al-Qa`ida, jihadis could protect themselves from counterterrorism scrutiny. Al-Zawahiri then went on to censure those who find false, legalistic excuses to avoid or to dissolve one’s bay`a—an oath which he describes as “binding,” any “violation” of which is strictly “forbidden.”63 Five days later, a new jihadi group called Ansar al-Furqan announced itself in Idlib as a movement that would remain loyal to Islam where others were becoming “distant.”
[Ansar al-Furqan] are Sunni jihadist Muslims, consisting of [foreign fighters] and [local fighters] who have attended most of the Syrian events since their beginning and witnessed most of what has become of the groups. Thus, they have discovered that the secret of the issue and the reason behind deficiencies was the [new distance] from the evident verses [of the Qur’an] and not adhering to them or abiding by them and using the brain superficially and not giving in to following the [Qur’an] in many issues.64
Multiple informed sources65 assured this author at the time that Ansar al-Furqan was Abu Julaybib’s initiative and had gathered no more than 300 al-Qa`ida loyalists in northwestern Syria. Several days after Ansar al-Furqan’s emergence, HTS launched a low-level security campaign across Idlib in which suspected al-Qa`ida loyalists with positions critical of HTS were questioned by the group’s internal security service. In a few cases, questioning led to detention, but most were released.66
This attempt to reassert HTS authority and to intimidate potential competition, paired with leaked comments by Atoun criticizing al-Zawahiri’s October 4 speech, sparked fury within al-Qa`ida circles.j Beginning on October 15, 2017, and ending six days later, al-Oraydi published five “testimonies” in which he laid out al-Qa`ida’s various protests against the Jabhat al-Nusra-JFS rebrand and then HTS’ formation, which he explained had resulted in a full break from al-Qa`ida. Al-Oraydi repeatedly labeled al-Julani’s actions as acts of “rebellion”—similar to those of the Islamic State, while explaining that al-Julani and Atoun had sold the JFS rebrand to its early opponents as a move that would have had more of an effect in the media than in reality. In other words, it had been suggested that JFS would quietly retain its al-Qa`ida ties, presumably given the presence inside Syria of senior al-Qa`ida figures like Abu al-Khayr. Even this, al-Oraydi insisted, had proven to be deception, as had al-Julani and Atoun’s repeated promise to abide by any future decision by al-Zawahiri to reject the rebrand.
Predictably, al-Oraydi’s powerful critiques drew a strong response from Atoun, who defended the methods and logic behind the rebrand to JFS, while stretching the truth by describing the move as something overwhelmingly supported within Jabhat al-Nusra’s Shura Council and al-Qa`ida’s central circles. Atoun’s excuse for refusing to reverse the JFS rebrand was to claim that al-Zawahiri had been misinformed about its nature and that senior al-Qa`ida figures like Abu al-Khayr and Abuj al-Faraj had consistently been on al-Julani’s side. Conveniently, both were now dead and unable to confirm Atoun’s claim, which has not been supported by any other source before or since. Atoun also claimed that communications with al-Zawahiri had been nonexistent for security reasons for nearly three years (from November 2013 to September 2016)67—something rejected by a senior al-Qa`ida “external communications” official known as Abu Abdullah, who claimed in response that it had long been possible to send messages to al-Zawahiri through one of his colleagues, “almost on a daily basis.”68 In an apparent recognition of al-Oraydi’s declaration that HTS’ creation represented a full break from al-Qa`ida, Atoun suggested that although this had not been the intention, JFS’ achievement of a broad merger (i.e., HTS) had met the necessary conditions to separate from external ties of allegiance.
This tit-for-tat series of testimonies continued through late October and into November 2017. Al-Qassam jumped to al-Oraydi’s defense, and senior HTS figure Abu al-Harith al-Masri publicly criticized al-Zawahiri, saying he was so distant from Syria’s realities he had ceded his position of authority. Later in November, HTS fighters arrested Abu Julaybib and his family at a checkpoint in western Aleppo as they reportedly sought to escape Idlib toward southern Syria. Hours later, al-Julani dispatched security units to arrest al-Oraydi and several other al-Qa`ida loyalists—including a member of al-Qa`ida’s central Shura Council, Abu Abdul Karim al-Khorasani, and a close aide to al-Qassam known as Abu Khallad—in a move later justified as preventing further “harm and evil” espoused by those who advocated takfir (excommunication) upon HTS and its leaders.69
HTS’ arrest of prominent al-Qa`ida figures drew ire both amongst its own members and the al-Qa`ida loyalist community inside and outside of Syria. Demands flooded in for the prisoners to be released. Within that tense environment, al-Qa`ida-linked calls for a loyalist mobilization in northwestern Syria also became public. In his condemnation of the arrests, for example, Abu Hammam al-Shami explained how an effort was underway to collect and organize personnel.70 Upon his release from HTS detention, Abu Julaybib immediately re-pledged his bay`a to al-Qa`ida and defiantly asserted that “if you think by jailing us the idea of Al-Qaeda is over, then you are delusional.”71
Clearly, neither side planned to back down, and whatever account of events held more truth, the consequence was clear: HTS had severed itself and/or been severed from al-Qa`ida. With his loyalists in HTS prisons, al-Zawahiri released another message on November 28, 2017, in which he directly denounced HTS’ “violation of the covenant,” accusing al-Julani of creating more unnecessary complexity as well as “killing, fighting, accusations, fatwas and counter-fatwas.”
We gave opportunity after opportunity and deadline after deadline for more than a year, but all we saw was increasing aggravation, inflammation and disputes … Verily, the jihad in al-Sham is a jihad of the entire Ummah; it is not a jihad of the people of Syria; and it is not a jihad of the people of Idlib, or Deraa or Damascus … The bay’at between us … is a binding contract which prohibits [you] from being able to breach it … I remind my brothers in al-Sham, that the al-Qaeda organization repeated many times that it is willing to give up its organizational ties with Jabhat al-Nusra if two matters were achieved: the first is a union of the mujahideen in al-Sham; and the second matter is an Islamic government is established in al-Sham, and the people of al-Sham choose an Imam, and then at that time and that time only – and not before then – we give up our organizational ties and we would congratulate our people in al-Sham for what they achieved … As for the creation of new entities without unity, in which absurd schisms are repeated … this is what we refused.72
Al-Zawahiri’s interjection was a watershed moment, making clear to the wider global jihadi movement that a real split had taken place between al-Qa`ida and its Syrian affiliate. That clarified break has not appeared to benefit al-Julani, however, as his broader position in northwestern Syria looks to have become more precarious. Having sought out negotiations with Ankara in October 2017 to ensure a Turkish incursion into Idlib was done without the threat of violence by Turkish forces against his group (and the resulting threat of a broader anti-HTS front emerging), al-Julani has since invited FSA groups in Idlib to consider a merger “for the sake of defending Syria’s revolution.”73 Sending such an “invitation” to groups that did not share his hardline Islamist ideology would have been considered outrageous by al-Julani a year prior, but its use in early 2018 spoke volumes about his sense of being surrounded by hostile actors. That would also explain HTS’ repeated military withdrawals along the periphery of Idlib’s core central, more defensible areas, and online discussion of strategically shifting to guerrilla tactics.74
Notwithstanding a determined mediation effort that lasted through December 2017 into early January 2018, which resulted in a short-lived agreement to coexist in peace, the relationship between HTS and al-Qa`ida loyalists in northwestern Syria remains tense. The two remain decidedly separate, as officially established by al-Qa`ida’s January 7, 2018, statement quoted at the beginning of this article. For reasons of Islamist brotherhood and the prohibition of shedding blood, as well as continued, shared, long-term objectives, it is very unlikely both sides will fall into a state of all-out conflict. However, were HTS to successfully position itself as an actor tolerated by some regional and international players in at least part of Idlib, al-Julani’s willingness to allow a faction of committed global jihadis with overt allegiance to al-Qa`ida may become an overly inconvenient fact needing to be dealt with. Unless that happens, however, the two movements are likely to continue existing uncomfortably together in Idlib.
That produces a complex counterterrorism threat, in which a locally focused jihadi outfit with a sizable 12,000 fighters continues to control territory, govern people, and maintain sources of local finance, while accepting—even grudgingly—a deeply dangerous, small, tight-knit clique of al-Qa`ida terrorists committed to attacking the West. That image looks eerily similar to the Taliban-al-Qa`ida relationship in Afghanistan in 2000-2001, the consequences of which are well known to all. HTS may not be al-Qa`ida anymore, but that does not make its existence any less dangerous. CTC
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of Extremism & Counter-Terrorism at the Middle East Institute. His book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, was published in February 2016, and his 50-page Brookings Institute report, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” was published in July 2016. Follow @Charles_Lister
[a] Intriguingly, the specific acknowledgement of junud qa’edat al-jihad fi’l Sham was excluded from the English version of al-Qa`ida’s statement, which merely referenced brotherly cooperation in the Levant.
[b] Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, no sources agreed to be identified by name.
[c] Abu Khayr states, “These are the words of our Emir and Sheikh Dr. Ayman, may Allah preserve him.” Al-Zawahiri is then heard saying, “The brotherhood of Islam that is between us is stronger than all the finite, ever-changing organizational links. Your unity and familiarity is more important, dear, and precious to us than any organizational link … Indeed, without hesitation those factional organizational links are sacrificed if they go against your unity and familiarity and your standing in one rank.” “Zawahiri’s Deputy Tells Nusra Front to Do What is Necessary to Preserve Syrian Jihad,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 28, 2016.
[d] According to an essay posted online in October 2017 by Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni, al-`Adl and Abu Mohammed al-Masri remained based in Iran after being freed from detention but were not allowed to travel. There had been much speculation about their whereabouts since they were reportedly released in a prisoner deal between Iran and al-Qa`ida. Al-Qassam described them as the second and third of al-Zawahiri’s deputies, after the first, Abu Al-Khayr. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-al-Qaeda Dispute: Primary Texts (III),” aymennjawad.org, December 10, 2017; Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of Al Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015.
[e] Drone strikes targeted and killed JFS military leader Abu Omar Saraqeb (September 2016); al-Qa`ida veteran and close aide to Ayman al-Zawahiri Abu al-Faraj al-Masri (October 2016); Khorasan Group external relations coordinator Haydar Kirkan (November 2016); al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) veteran Abu Khattab al-Qahtani (January 2017); and JFS Shura Council member Younes Shoeyb (January 2017).
[f] Mahamed announced his resignation in a public, written statement released on October 17, 2016, in which he explained that he intended to “pursue a number of projects independently,” presumably a reference to his earlier stated focus on issues relating to “education and Islamic sciences.” He gave no reason for his departure, but in a final paragraph, he stated that “I would like to make absolutely clear that my resignation was not a result of the disassociation of JFS from Al-Qaeda, which I believe was not only in the best interests of JFS, but also in the nest interest of the Syrian people.”
[g] The investigation was undertaken internally within Ahrar al-Sham, and its results are available at https://justpaste.it/y23n.
[h] The CIA-led, covert assistance effort began in late 2012 and was coordinated through operations rooms in Turkey and Jordan, known as the MOM and MOC, respectively. The program was a multilateral effort, with the CIA being responsible for vetting groups prior to their inclusion in the MOC or MOM. CIA-led assistance was briefly frozen after JFS’s attacks in January 2017. Tom Perry, Suleiman al-Khalidi, and John Walcott, “Exclusive: CIA-backed aid for Syrian rebels frozen after Islamist attack: sources,” Reuters, February 21, 2017.
[i] According to local sources (on social media) located in the area, JFS began amassing forces on the main road to Bab al-Hawa on January 24, 2017, and launched an attack on the border village of Babsiqa on January 27 in an attempt to seal effective control of access to the border.
[j] Atoun’s leaked comments appear to have found their way to jihadi circles in Syria, but not to the public. They were referenced repeatedly within al-Oraydi’s five testimonies.
 “And it is due from Us to aid those who believe …,” General Leadership of al-Qa`ida, January 7, 2018.
 Patricia Zengerle and John Davison, “Violence rages in Syria as Kerry and Lavrov reach provisional deal on ceasefire,” Reuters, February 21, 2016; Karen DeYoung, “U.S. offers to share Syria intelligence on terrorists with Russia,” Washington Post, June 30, 2016.
 Jabhat al-Nusra written statement, issued July 15, 2015.
 Author interview, two Islamist clerics (one, a former Jabhat al-Nusra official) involved in the effort to encourage Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrand to JFS, July-August 2016.
 Abu Julaybib statement, issued August 23, 2016.
 “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham: Untroubling defections,” Al-Modon, August 26, 2016.
 Mona Alami, “Al-Sha’ar: I wish that Fatah al-Sham’s behavior confirms the complete disengagement from Al-Qaeda,” Asharq al-Awsat, September 12, 2016.
 Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-al-Qaeda Dispute: Primary Texts (I),” aymennjawad.org, December 6, 2017; Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-al-Qaeda Dispute: Primary Texts (II),” aymennjawad.org, December 10, 2017.
 Al-Tamimi, “The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-al-Qaeda Dispute: Primary Texts (I);” Tore Hamming, “What we learned from Sami al-Uraydi’s testimony concerning Abu Abdullah al-Shami,” Jihadica, October 24, 2017.
 Author interview, a prominent Islamist in northern Syria, March 2017.
 Author interviews, September 2016.
 Charles Lister, “A suspected Jund al-Aqsa suicide car bomb targeted an Ahrar al-Sham HQ this AM, killing several. JFS has blamed it on an airstrike. #Idlib,” Twitter, October 9, 2016. (Original sources now deleted.)
 “Taliban al-Sham: A New Branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria,” Ain al-Medina, December 9, 2016.
 Author interviews, November 2016-January 2017.
 See Ali al-Omar’s account, for example: “The First Media Meeting of the Commander in Chief of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Ali al-Omar Abu Ammar,” interview with Hadi al-Abdullah, January 12, 2017.
 Author interview, three Ahrar al-Sham Shura council members, January-February 2017.
 “A Statement of the Shura Council to the Sons of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya on Going to the Astana Conference,” Ahrar al-Sham Shura Council, January 18, 2017.
 “A Statement on Jabhat al-Nusra (Fateh al-Sham),” Syrian Islamic Council, January 24, 2017.
 “A Statement of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham on Recent Events,” Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, January 23, 2017.
 Author estimations based on a compilation of dozens of small-scale defections and intra-faction transfers reported through January 2017.
 Author estimations; Ibid.
 Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, “Many people commented on the statement that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was a national project, and therefore, we asked our loved ones about it!” Telegram, January 30, 2017.
 Abu Abdullah al-Shami, “Comments sincerely advising Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi,” February 10, 2017.
 Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, “Comments on the comments of Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Shami,” February 14, 2017.
 Author interviews, December 2017.
 For example, al-Zawahiri’s statements entitled “Sham Will Not Submit to Anyone Except Allah,” April 2017; “Hasten to al-Sham: Go Forth to al-Sham,” May 2016; “Syria is Entrusted Upon Your Necks,” January 2016.
 Author interview, senior HTS figure, January 2018; author interviews, two prominent Islamist clerics in Idlib, late 2017.
 Ahmed Abizeid, “How did the Ahrar al-Sham Movement Collapse?” Toran Center, September 2017; “Syrian revolutionary flag flying over Ahrar al-Sham-controlled border crossing for the first time in years,” Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, July 9, 2017.
 Author interviews, HTS and Ahrar al-Sham officials, August-September 2017.
 Author interview, prominent Islamist cleric in northern Syria, January 2018.
 Author interview, Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Soufan, October 2017.
 This included two prominent Islamic clerics with close involvement in mediation initiatives between HTS and al-Qa`ida loyalists; two HTS commanders; a former senior Ahrar al-Sham leader; and three Ahrar al-Sham leadership figures.
 Hayat Tahrir al-Sham statement, issued November 27, 2017.
 “A Statement From the Poor Servant, Abu Hammam al-Shami,” released on social media on December 2, 2017.
 Abu Julaybib Telegram account, December 6, 2017.
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Let Us fight Them As a Solid Structure,” November 28, 2017.
 Author interviews, three FSA commanders in Idlib and southwestern Aleppo, January 2018.