Internal divisions lead to 'hemorrhaging' of Jabhat al-Nusra leaders

Article Summary
As internal divisions grow between Syria's jihadi groups, a number of Jabhat al-Nusra leaders have been dismissed, including one of its founders.

The dismissal of leaders within Jabhat al-Nusra continues. The latest chapter of this saga is the decision to dismiss one of its first seven founders, Abu Mohammed Saleh al-Hamwi. According to leaks supported by earlier data, the decision also included Iraqi national Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s most prominent media officials. Moreover, a few months ago, news published by As-Safir about the defection of Jabhat al-Nusra general military commander Abu Samir al-Urdoni and his joining the Islamic State (IS) was confirmed.

Issue no. 10 of Dabiq, the English magazine published by the Islamic State's media wing, featured a long interview with Urdoni, disclosing secrets and facts. The interview became an extremely important document and a rare testimony about the situation behind the jihadi scenes.

Although Hamwi, known on Twitter as Sera3_alsham, is not known in the media as one of the group's leaders, the decision to dismiss him is a dangerous precedent indicating the extent of the division within Jabhat al-Nusra and the impact of the altercations between its internal movements on the fate of its leaders.

The reason for that is not limited to the fact that Hamwi is one of the first seven founders who entered Syria with Abu Mohammed al-Golani at the end of 2011 to put the final touches on the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra and separation from the Ahrar al-Sham movement. It is worth mentioning that the majority of Jabhat al-Nusra’s key members were affiliated with the movement for camouflage and hiding purposes. But the most important point is that the decision ordered the dismissal of Hamwi, not only his removal from his position as the emir of Hama and member of the Shura Council. If Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership is unable to encompass its founders and accept their differences, how can it present itself as a Sunni project covering the entire region?

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What makes this situation even more dangerous are the leaks that the dismissal was not limited to Hamwi, but also included Qahtani, who was the general Sharia official (dismissed in July 2014 and replaced by Jordanian Sami al-Aridi), the emir of the eastern region and a member of the Shura Council. Qahtani was one of the most prominent and renowned Jabhat al-Nusra leaders, especially during the fighting in Deir ez-Zor. He is currently assuming the role of a jihadi preacher and is known for continuously inciting for the fight against IS and to cleanse the ranks of the mujahedeen of its sleeper cells.

These unconfirmed leaks were preceded by numerous reports on Qahtani’s defection from Jabhat al-Nusra. As-Safir indicated in an article published in December that “Qahtani is only affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra by name and works for his own account.” The article added that he "had received a sum of money from a third party and started buying cars and storing weapons.”

After an absence of almost a year, during which no news was heard about Urdoni, there were conflicting reports about his fate. The former general military commander and member of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Shura Council gave an interview to Dabiq magazine. In November, As-Safir had exclusively published news about the whereabouts of Jabhat al-Nusra’s military commander. The article unveiled the fate of Urdoni and confirmed his defection from Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliation with IS, revealing for the first time that Urdoni is none other than Abu Anas al-Sahab (known as Mustafa Abdel Latif Saleh), Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir in Damascus. His name came out in the confessions of the cell that assassinated Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti at Iman Mosque in Damascus.

As-Safir also later published an article stating that Urdoni led the military operations of IS in eastern Qalamoun. The interview confirmed all of this information, but more importantly it confirmed that the former Jabhat al-Nusra leader decided to disclose many secrets and facts about the leadership of his previous group, as well as its position on some other groups.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing Urdoni said was quoting his former leader, Golani, as describing Ahrar al-Sham as “the future Awakenings” while also noting that the state had “rushed to fight them.” Urdoni also quoted Shura Council member and chairman of the Sharia Committee in Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Abdullah al-Shami as saying that Ahrar al-Sham was “the next Hamas project,” in reference to Hamas’ lack of application of Sharia in Gaza despite being powerful on the ground. Shami’s brother, Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, was deputy general emir of Ahrar al-Sham, and was killed along with Shami in the mass killings late last year.

Such statements are no surprise, although the apparent reality contradicts them, especially when it comes to the military alliance between the two parties. However, those familiar with the history of the relationship between the two, as well as the division in late 2011 and the great sensitivities it resulted in — during which, for the first time, there were talks about Al-Sham Awakening among jihadis — can see the extent of the conflicts that could explode at any given moment.

The second point, which is no less dangerous than the first, is Urdoni’s confirmation that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri sent three letters to the Ahrar al-Sham movement, two to Ahrar al-Sham and one to Golani. “In the letter, Zawahri calls on Jabhat al-Nusra to join the Islamic Front, and he condemns not joining this assembly. I asked him [Golani] back then about his response and he said: 'I will not agree to this unless under certain conditions,' so I asked what they were. He replied that one was for Zahran Alloush and Jaish al-Islam to leave this formation.”

According to Urdoni, a second condition was to be represented in the Islamic Front’s political wing and for this wing to not be dominated by Ahrar al-Sham. This is what Urdoni considered a tendency from Golani to open a dialogue with regional and international parties, following the example of the Taliban.

Urdoni also exposed what could be considered as Golani manipulating his leader, Zawahri, and not consulting him on certain fateful decisions, in spite of Golani’s constant attempts to appear as the obedient follower of his leader’s orders. However, it seems that this blind obedience is only related to not targeting Western countries, as he said in his last interview with Al Jazeera, in which he attributed the lack of targeting to the issuance of orders from Zawahri.

Yet, Joulani did not find a reason to consult his “leader” in the decision to announce the “emirate” during Ramadan in 2014, where Urdoni quoted Zawahri’s delegate in Jabhat al-Nusra saying that Golani did not consult him when it came to the emirate and only invited him to hear the sermon, which he said included “something great.”

Golani’s neglect of Zawahri’s delegate might be what prompted the latter to defect from Jabhat al-Nusra and join IS, in an attempt to shed light on the nature of the relationship within the “mini-leadership” in Jabhat al-Nusra and the quality of relationships with the leadership of Khorasan. Perhaps Dabiq magazine will not wait long before publishing an interview with Zawahri’s delegate, revealing more facts and secrets.

It seems that this "hemorrhaging" of leaders from Jabhat al-Nusra will continue and won't stop easily. The “Hama sector” decided to dismiss around 30 members, including leaders accused of sympathizing with IS and refusing to fight against it. However, what is more important is the poor ties between Jabhat al-Nusra in the north, led by Golani, and Jabhat al-Nusra in the south, led by Jordanian Abu Julaybib. Certain data confirms that the relationship between the two is heading toward further decline, and the repercussions of the dispute between them have not been contained, which could lead to more cases of defection or dismissals in their ranks.

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Found in: syrian conflict, syrian civil war, sharia, qalamoun, jabhat al-nusra, is, ayman al-zawahri, awakening movement
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