A power struggle between radicals looms in Idlib

Erdogan might find himself with very little work to do because the three main jihadi groups have started fighting each other in Idlib, with Hurras al-Din getting the upper hand.
Sunday 05/05/2019
A battle for power. Syrian fighters during a graduation of new Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members at a camp in northern Idlib, last August. (AFP)
A battle for power. Syrian fighters during a graduation of new Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members at a camp in northern Idlib, last August. (AFP)

BEIRUT- The sudden re-emergence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, did not alarm his former friend and present rival Abu Mohammad al-Julani.

Stripped of all territory once under his control, with an army that crumbled throughout the deserts of Syria and Iraq, al-Baghdadi poses little threat to Julani’s powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an organisation deeply rooted at its home base in Syria.

Much of Julani’s success is based on learning from mistakes made by the Islamic State (ISIS). To begin with, his organisation had no territorial ambition beyond Syria, unlike Baghdadi who tried to expand both horizontally and vertically, setting up a wobbly state with weak foundations in 2014, with affiliate branches in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon and Nigeria.

He bit off more than he could chew, striking deep in Europe and the Far East, sending shivers down the spine of the international community with gruesome videos of his men chopping off the heads of “infidels,” defectors and opponents.

Julani did none of the above, appearing more “moderate” than his former fellow inmate at Camp Bucca in Iraq. Julani had very few foreign fighters in his ranks, relying almost exclusively on Syrians, like himself, who spoke one language, came from similar backgrounds and knew the terrain on which they were fighting.

At one point, the two men were the most powerful jihadi commanders in the Syrian battlefield but not anymore. Baghdadi is out of fashion and Julani is coming to terms with a far more capable and dangerous opponent, a Syrian like himself, who heads an offshoot of HTS called Hurras al-Din.

The group was founded in February 2018 by a handful of HTS defectors who opposed Julani’s drift from al-Qaeda. That move, announced two years earlier, was planned to give HTS (then known as Jabhat al-Nusra) a facelift, making it more acceptable to mainstream jihadis. Defectors accused Julani of “selling out” on the jihadi cause and vowed to bring him down.

Hurras al-Din’s founder and chief ideologue is Samir Hijazi (aka Abu Humam al-Shami), a Syrian veteran of the Afghan War who once served as Julani’s top military commander. Trained by none other than Osama bin Laden at the infamous al-Ghuraba Camp, Hijazi was once in charge of Kandahar Airport under Taliban rule, with access to the first generation of jihadi leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Suri.

Bin Laden made Hijazi commander of the Syrian contingent in Afghanistan, after which he returned briefly to the Middle East and was jailed for five years in Lebanon, before joining al-Qaeda in Iraq. His jihadi credentials, amassed over a 30-year career, are far greater than those of Julani, who emerged only after the US occupation of Iraq 16 years ago.

Other heavyweights with Hurras al-Din include Iyad Tobassi, the brother-in-law of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; Sami Oraydi, the former chief sharia officer with al-Nusra; and Saif al-Adel, a veteran Egyptian jihadist and member of al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, wanted for his role in the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya.

Tobassi outflanks Julani in family affiliation, Oraydi in religious credentials (with a PhD in al-Hadith and Islamic sharia) and Adel in war medals related to the jihadi cause. These men are famous and popular, with legendary status in the jihadi community and a reputation for seriousness and financial impeccability. They have everything that Julani lacks — and needs.

Additionally, Hurras al-Din seems to be learning from the mistakes of HTS, just like HTS learnt from the mistakes of ISIS, a logical curve in the jihadi community. Currently situated in Idlib, Hurras al-Din has no ambition of expanding within the Syrian patchwork, although Tobassi is well-connected to the underground jihadi movement in southern Syria, where he served as commander in 2011-15.

Second, they are all at arms length from any media exposure, avoiding the interviews, televised speeches or online social media buzz that Baghdadi and Julani were famous for, preferring to focus on a more grass-roots and low-profile strategy.

This very little exposure has raised curiosity among the young people of Idlib, who are flocking to their ranks, wanting to know more about the jihadi group with an A-class team of founders.

Third, they are not making empty promises and not offering more money than they can afford to their fighters. Inasmuch as they would love to see a global caliphate under their rule, they seem content with continuing to rule Idlib — or even parts of it.

The battle for Idlib is temporarily on hold, Russian President Vladimir Putin said. Speaking in Beijing in late April, Putin said Russia was committed to eradicating the terrorist threat in Idlib but added: “Right now, we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable.”

Putin will be giving his Turkish ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chance to cleanse the province of jihadi groups, as agreed upon last September. Erdogan might find himself with very little work to do because the three main jihadi groups have started fighting each other in Idlib, with Hurras al-Din getting the upper hand, winning minds and hearts throughout the war-torn city.

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