A new issue has sparked controversy within a broad area of the salafi jihadi community in Syria, which is the presumed intention of some figures who have defected from the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Nusra Front) to form a new group which takes the name “Taliban al-Sham” (Syrian Taliban), which declared its fealty to Ayman al-Zawahari, the head of Al-Qaeda.
According to recently circulated reports, the former head of Nusra Front in Daraa, and then the coastal region, Eyad al-Toubasi, known as Abou Jalabib (a Jordanian national) and the former security and sharia leader of Nusra in Daraa and Badyat al-Sham, Bilal Khareesat, known as Abou Khadjia (also a Jordanian national), had called for the formation of the new group, under the guidance of some prominent salafi jihadi scholars, most prominently Abou Mohamed al-Maqdissi.
Days ago, a response attributed to Abou Jalabib which was circulated on Twitter, denied all rumors expressing his desire for “dominance” and control as the leader of Al-Qaeda, without confirming or denying the formation of Taliban al-Sham or any Al-Qaeda faction.
Last August, days after Nusra Front declared it was breaking ties with Al-Qaeda and forming Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Khareesat (then Abou al-Toubasi) announced they were splitting from the new group and affirmed their loyalty to Zawahari. The veteran Nusra commander, Mohamed Hijazi, known as Abou Hamam al-Shami followed suit, in addition to other first and second rank leaders of the group, although on an individual and small scale.
For its part, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has not appeared to react to these defections as long as they remained individual and did not threaten its unity. During the last three years, a number of crises have erupted among the jihadis in Syria, most prominently the failure of the efforts led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to unify the rebel groups and factions into one entity, which rumors claim was an undeclared condition imposed by Zawahari on Jolani, the emir of Nusra Front, to accept him cutting ties. Then came the battle which erupted between Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa, then the recent announcement it was dissolving itself and incorporating itself into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and Ahrar and others’ doubts about the seriousness of this step on the part of Jund al-Aqsa.
Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) failed to break the siege imposed on the eastern districts of Aleppo, while Assad’s forces managed to achieve notable advances on a number of fronts there, deepening the crisis among jihadi groups and their leaders. On this basis, calls were made for direct communication or through famous IDs on Twitter to establish a branch for Al-Qaeda to “correct the accumulated deviations from the righteous path, and end the state of division and rivalry among the factions and gather them, voluntarily or involuntarily, under one banner.”
Over the last three, the verbal clashes on the internet have heated up between the — relatively — moderate section of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and supporters of Maqdissi, as a result of the frenetic activity of others, with real names or with fake names, in advertising Taliban al-Sham, and accusing the leader of the faction or some of them, without naming them, of “liquidating” and “delaying” and compromising the bases of jihad, while the other side accused the so-called Taliban al-Sham of extremism and spreading division — and, occasionally, of working for intelligence agencies.
Sources have reported unconfirmed information about the defection of dozens in groups from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in southern Syria, after they gave up loyalty to Jolani and affirmed or renewed their loyalty to the Al-Qaeda leader under the command of Abou Jalabib and then retired from fighting on any of the fronts against Assad’s forces or ISIS. According to these sources, the active movement of Abou Jalabib’s loyalists has been observed buying weapons, ammunition and vehicles after receiving a large sum from Jordan through intermediaries, without knowing its source — whether it was from Al-Qaeda or local sympathizers or others.
So far, it has not been confirmed whether Al-Qaeda has accepted the pledges of loyalty from Syria or rejected them, and no high-level figures in the organization have issued any encouraging or discouraging indications around the activities of Abou Jalabib. However, some speculation points to the historic leader “Seif al-Adel” (Mohamed Salah Zeiden: a former officer in the Egyptian army) with the establishment of the new Al-Qaeda formation in Syria, after he resumed his role following his release from house arrest in Iran in March of last year. This speculation is based on Seif al-Adel’s position of strongly rejecting — before backtracking — the breaking of ties when the issue was presented to the Al-Qaeda leadership months before it was announced, according to what was rumored at the time as a justification for the delay.
At lower levels than Seif al-Adel, Taliban al-Sham may find a special interest from the Jordanian veteran jihadi Abou al-Qassim, Khalid al-Arouri, a companion of Abou Mossab al-Zarqawi since the '70s and the husband of his sister and his deputy in Iraq. Bolstering this view is al-Arouri’s early emergence at the hands of Maqdissi.
A new branch of Al-Qaeda may be born in Syria over the next few weeks or months under the name Taliban al-Sham or any other name, however it will not decisively succeed in achieving its aims, but will be a new burden on an already complicated Syrian conflict.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.