Has al-Qaeda Replanted its Flag in Syria?

Artwork by supporters of the newly established group, Hurras al-Deen.

On February 27, pro-al-Qaeda (AQ) Telegram channels began distributing a statement from a group calling itself “Hurras al-Deen” (“Guardians of the Religion”). In its inaugural message, the group demanded action regarding besieged Eastern Ghouta, chiding Muslims for “eating and drinking and living joyfully” during such humanitarian atrocities. It promised Muslims in Ghouta:

…we shall do the best of our efforts to relieve your siege or to stab your oppressor in the waist to paralyze him or distract him from you, for we give our necks to save yours and our blood to save your blood.

Hurras al-Deen’s call to action was notably vague, though, giving no information as to what its aims were beyond Ghouta (if it had any at all).  When the group created its own Telegram channel a few days later, its posts kept with the same secrecy: no naming of its leadership, where it was based, or even its core ideology. 

Despite this secrecy, Hurras al-Deen saw immediate pledges from three AQ-aligned factions in Syria: Jaysh al-Malahem, Jaysh al-Badia, and Jaysh al-Sahel.

After these pledges were announced, Hurras al-Deen quickly became the hot topic within AQ/pro-AQ spaces on Telegram. Pro-AQ channels and prominent users celebrated the announcements, promoted the group's posts, and created art work featuring the group's name beside images of past and present AQ leadership. Supporters seemed certain of the group’s purported allegiance to AQ, often identifying Hurras al-Deen as “The al-Qaeda Branch in Syria.”

A graphic from Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian militant group based in Syria, stated in part:

Your brothers…present their deepest greetings and congratulations and blessings to their brothers in the cause of Allah in the land of Syria for the rallying of a number of groups under the flag of the Hurras al-Deen group…and we urge our brothers and the crowns over our heads…to be keen to unify the word and…be keen on following the wise words of the scholars and leaders of the mujahidin who know best.

Also circulated were images of hand-written messages of support to Hurras al-Deen from Kashmir, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Moldavia, Kashmir, Somalia, and elsewhere.

At the same time, more factions throughout Syria were joining Hurras al-Deen. Within two weeks following its establishment, allegiance oaths by almost 20 groups—some well-known, and others never publicly heard of—were issued online.

It’s hard to quantify how large of a fighting force these pledges have brought to Hurras al-Deen thus far. Some within pro-AQ circles on Telegram estimate that the group has amassed 1,500 fighters of locals and migrants. However, the group has yet to provide any such details or given any visible showings of its forces.

But while Hurras al-Deen itself has answered very few of the pressing questions surrounding it, long-boiling circumstances in Syria can point us toward the answers.

 

An Opening Space in Syria for AQ

This past October, I wrote about growing discord in the Syrian jihad. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani was becoming increasingly hostile toward potential rivals, including his previous brethren from AQ. At the same time, Julani was also trying to salvage his support within the jihadist community, something severely diminished after he split the Nusra Front (NF) from AQ in 2016.

The Syrian jihad has only further deteriorated since then. The pro-AQ global community has cast Julani as an opportunist traitor to the cause, likening him to everything from the despised Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to a puppet of foreign powers.

A speech by AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released this past November increased these sentiments against Julani. In his speech, Zawahiri called Julani’s leave from AQ “a violation” of his pledge and a “a retreat in the face of American pressure,” ultimately exposing his separation from AQ as for more dubious than he'd initially made it out to be.  

The aftermath of NF's leave from the organization has put major AQ figures in Syria, some of whom being sent there directly by AQ (previously called the “Khorasan Group”), out of work and at odds with the shifting power landscape. This condition is shared by migrant fighters, who increasingly see shrinking welcome from Syria’s factions. And it was likely these exact circumstances that led to the establishment of a group this past October calling itself “Ansar al-Furqan in the Land of Sham,” an upstart similarly mysterious as Hurras al-Deen. However, soon after Ansar al-Furqan was announced, HTS arrested its leaders—some being those same disaffected AQ-linked figures—bringing about their eventual agreement “not work to weaken…or compete with” HTS. Since then, nothing was heard about any such group.

Until Hurras al-Deen was announced.

 

Serious Leadership Name-Dropping

To date, Hurras al-Deen hasn’t issued any statements about its leadership. AQ associates, however, have indicated Hurras al-Deen to be led by prominent AQ figures in Syria, which would help to explain the massive mobilization and support the group has received already.

Abu Hamam al-Shami, an AQ veteran who reportedly made the previously mentioned agreement not to “compete with” HTS, stands among those names mentioned. Abu Hamam is a founding member of NF who publicly left Julani’s leadership upon the split from AQ.

A March 5 tweet from Walid Mohammad Haj Mohammad Ali, an AQ-connected Sudanese jihadist and former Gitmo detainee, adds weight to the reports. In his tweet, Walid expressed hope that rumors of Abu Hamam’s leadership of Hurras al-Deen are true, stating:

The Emir of The Guardians of the Faith Group: We ask Allah to transform the current situation with you all rallying and holding on to the powerful rope of Allah

#Abu_Hammam_alShami

Allah please make this news true

Allah please enable your worshipers the mujahidin

Allah protect your worshiper Abu Hammam al-Shami, for I have known him to be honest and valiant, if he was truly alive like the news stated.

AQ supporters online have echoed Walid Mohammad’s report about Abu Hamam al-Shami, while also reporting Hurras al-Deen-membership by others who left Julani’s lead, including Jordanian NF cofounder Iyad al-Tubasi (AKA Abu Julaybib), and former NF Shariah officials Bilal Khreisat (AKA Abu Khadija al-Urdni) and Sami Mahmoud (Sami al-Uraydi), among others.

And while most of these figures have long been associated with the Syrian jihad via NF, Hurras al-Deen is also rumored to have pulled in other major AQ vets familiar to the global stage. Among them is Khalid Mustafa Khalifa al-Aruri (AKA Abu Qassam al-Urdani), a top AQ operative released from Iranian prison in 2015 as part of a prisoner-exchange with AQAP, who has since been based in Syria. Abu Qassam was a top aid and brother-in-law to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the killed leader of IS’ predeceasing group, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), making his membership immense in symbolic value alone, should the reports be true. 

An even bigger name said to be involved with Hurras al-Deen is Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan (AKA Saif al-Adel), a former Egyptian military colonel who eventually became a high-ranking member of AQ. The guy has a hell of a resume: fought against Russia in the Soviet-Afghan war, trained recruits in bomb-making in Sudan, and was tied to the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings in Kenya.

AQ is well-aware of what an opportune moment Syria’s mounting factional infights makes for it to establish another affiliate like NF.

If Hurras al-Deen includes even just a few of these individuals in its leadership, it would explain why the group has been so secretive. A collection of AQ veterans with such high-profile names will naturally draw enmity from HTS and other anti-AQ factions—not to mention airstrikes from foreign governments.

The urgent backlash against Hurras al-Deen would stem from circumstance as much as it would from the people behind it. IS’ Caliphate has all but disintegrated in Syria and Iraq, just as AQ’s formal leadership was stripped away from the region. That said, disaffected supporters of both groups will very likely see figures like Abu Qassam and Saif al-Adel as trustworthy, and clean-handed from the bloody infighting of the last four years.

Syria has been a—if not the—most dominant topic of speeches from AQ Central since Julani broke his pledge to the organization, and AQ affiliates are echoing this focus. This past December, Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (NIM) called Syria "the gateway of the great conquest that the Ummah has been awaiting for long decades." Similarly, a speech by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, released just yesterday, called for an end to infighting in Syria, describing a global impact of what will come from Syria's jihadi movement:

We are now facing this sedition that has come upon our beloved Sham, and we only can pray hard that all those working in the jihadi fields rush to smother its flames by using good words and honest advice and avoiding anything that might stoke its fire. This is a sedition that if its effects would be exclusive to Sham, the situation would have been simpler, but its effects are much bigger...

Likewise, the outpouring of energy for an AQ revival in Syria is palpable, whether it be by fighters carrying “al-Qaeda in Syria” banners into battle, prominent ideologues calling fighters to the organization’s ideology, or the huge surge of Syria-focused pro-AQ groups on Telegram.

As scores of Western fighters and disaffected AQ loyalists search for new leadership in Syria, AQ is firing on all cylinders to fill the void. Hurras al-Deen is just the latest attempt to meet these two ends. However, it’s hard to say if Hurras al-Deen will survive long enough to serve as AQ’s vessel back into Syria. Hurras al-Deen has not posted any updates to its Telegram channel since March 13, a noteworthy duration of silence which opens the possibility that the group may suffer a similar fate as Ansar al-Furqan.

Regardless, AQ is well-aware of what an opportune moment Syria’s mounting factional infights makes for it to establish another affiliate. Only time will tell if it succeeds in doing so.