Hurras (Guards of) Al Deen (Religion) is a Jihadi Salafi organization which formally defected from Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham (Formerly, Al Nusra). This defection, which came just after Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani, leader of Al Nusra, disconnected with Al Qaeda, caused a sharp split in the cabinet of Al Nusra. Some leaders of Al Nusra, who advocate Jihad as a global project that goes beyond borders of states, defected and established a new organization under the name of “Hurras Al Deen”. This new organization goes after Al Qaeda and is different from the course of Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani.
This study, which has been done by Middle East and North Africa Media Monitor, focusses on the new Al Qaeda-affiliated organization as a rival of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. This focus is due to the international concern about it as most of its leaders are enlisted on the international terror lists. This study discusses the following points about the new organization:
- Gradual defection from Fateh Al Sham
- Motives for defection
- Structure of leadership
- High Commander of the organization
- Council of curators
- Leaders of Hurras Al Deen
- Capabilities in terms of human and financial resources
- Areas of domination
- Conflict with Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham
For about two years and half, the ongoing conflict between theorists and leaders of Jihadi trends in Syria, within the family of Al Qaeda, has been a very complicated one. It constitutes a key factor for the progression of events and their regional and international correlatives. Internal conflict, which is based on polarization and Jihadi legitimacy, started to take shape when Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani declared defection from Al Qaeda. A new organization was born “Hurras Al Deen” which is the core of Al Qaeda in Syria and the most fanatic organization. It was declared end of February and beginning of March 2018. It was composed of those who defected
Hurras Al Deen was formally established in February 2018. Before that time, it was a faction of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusra. Actually, it had been established before its first statement was declared. Its early signals were spotted in July 2016 when Abu Muhammed Al Julani, leader of Al Nusra disconnected with Al Qaeda. Therefore, some leaders and members working for Julani sat aside and kept away from Al Nusra as it was no longer part of Al Qaeda.
Gradual alienation from Fateh Al Sham
Hurras Al Deen Organization alienated from Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusra, to re-collect members of Al Qaeda in Syria in one military entity following the changes that have been introduced by AL Nusra. These leaders and militants could no longer maintain their identity as members of Al Qaeda. They felt that they couldn’t affect or identify strategies, objectives or policies of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham or express themselves as Qaeda advocates as the new strategies of Jawlani no longer gave a chance for them. Jawlani’s abandon of Al Qaeda constituted a chance for focal figures of Al Qaeda to alienate from Jawlani’s new organization. Iyad Tobasi, known as Abu Julaibeeb, Sami Al Aeraidi, former legislator of Al Nusra and current legislator of Hurras Al Deen and Billal Khresat, known as Abu Khadija Al Urdeni early understood that it was not the right time to alienate from Fateh Al Sham, so they started working on their main objective i.e. the expansion of containment policy with leaders of Fateh Al Sham on ideological basis, or even those who are ideologically different from Jawlani’s pragmatics. They also attempted to attract Salafists who disagree with Fateh Al Sham. this stage can be described as the suspension episode before they got down to establish a new entity following the birth of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham.
With the birth of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, advocates of Qaeda were divided into two teams. The first one considered the new organization i.e. Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham as a necessary step as Al Nusra was keen on terminating the enrollment in international list of terrorist organizations. Therefore, those who agreed with the new policy considered this step to be accordant with the “realistic approach” of Jihadists. The other team disagreed with the new policy as they considered it to be a deviation from Al Qaeda stern rules that reject any liquidation of Sharia implementation under any circumstances.
Many militants joined Hurras Al Deen due to different motives:
- Ideological motive
This motive is related to the ideology of Al Qaeda leaders and the preservation of total allegiance to it. This was provoked after Jawlani took Al Nusra away from global jihad through alienating it from Al Qaeda. This step provoked some leaders and references of Al Qaeda who approached the conflict from a global perspective and that Jihad is not to be bound to national borders.
- Political motive
Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani converted Al Nusra into a local organization interacting with a very complicated political environment. This reason is not enough for many leaders to defect and give up allegiance. Successive military developments on the Syrian arena, mainly the loss of eastern Aleppo on part of the opposition factions end of December 2016 and the beginning of Astana tournaments on 23 January 2917 was a dramatic change. Astana track divided military factions of the opposition in the north and west of Syria as per their agreement or disagreement with Astana which went through many rounds in 2017 and 2018.
- Internal motive
With the declaration of Al Nusra’s alienation from Al Qaeda, many leaders started to defect due to the changes in Jawlani’s political mood. They considered him to have abandoned the ideology of Al Qaeda. Thus, many of these leaders started thinking of establishing a new organization that affiliates Al Qaeda and alienates from Jawlani. They tried to acclimatize with the local and international circumstances. Their claim was that they were more aware of the whatness of the conflict than Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS, and Jawlani himself, through their rejection of war against other revolutionary factions despite the ideological contradictions with these factions.
Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani pretended to keep affiliation with Al Qaeda and allegiance to Ayman Al Zawaheri as a tweeter named “Muzamjer Al Sham” mentioned. But continuous pressure imposed on Jawlani by Al Qaeda pushed him to go ahead with his plan to establish Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham as a completely independent entity from Al Qaeda. This step led to a fervent media war between the two parties and consequently the defection of many leaders and members of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham.
The structure of leadership
The disunity of Al Qaeda in Syria seemed clearer and clearer on the ground and on leadership level. Few days after the declaration of Jawlani’s alienation from Al Qaeda, Hurras Al Deen appeared with its fanatic current leaders who are considered to be most committed to Al Qaeda. Abu Hammam Al Shami is the general leader of Hurras Al Deen with a Shura Council that is joined by prominent figures of Al Qaeda. This structure of Hurras Al Deen includes the following:
Sameer Hejazi, knowns as Abu Hammam Al Shami, former military leader of Al Nusra which was affiliated with Al Qaeda, became the leader of Hurras Al Deen. He had moved to Afghanistan end of 1990s where he was trained at a training camp led by Abu Musa’ab Al Suri, an experienced jihadist. Then he moved to Al Qaeda training camps where he became leader of Syrians who were working with Al Qaeda. In 2005, he traveled to Iraq upon orders of Al Qaeda leadership. In Iraq, he attended training with Abu Musa’ab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Later on, he was assigned leader of Al Qaeda in Syria. He was arrested by Lebanese authorities for five years.
After he was set free, he joined Al Nusra, branch of Al Qaeda in Syria during the Syrian Revolution. In March 2004, he appeared in a video tape when he stated that negotiations with ISIS had failed and the conflict between the two organizations started. In March 2005, media of Assad’s Regime announced that an air strike killed Abu Hammam Al Suri near Idlib, but the man reappeared in 2018 as a leader of Hurras Al Deen.
Council of Curators
Hurras Al Deen is led by a council of curators dominated by Jordanians who fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Caucasus. They are very experienced in organizing Al Qaeda factions. Abu Julaibeeb Al Aurdoni, Abu Khadijah, Abu Abdul Rahman Al Makki, Saif Al Adle and Sami Al Eraidy are the most influential leaders of Hurras Al Deen.
Sami Al Eraidy, known as Abu Mahmoud Al Shami, is a Jordanian religious figure who is considered to be the main reference for Al Nusra Organization, Al Qaeda branch in Syria. In an interview with Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani on Al Jazeera TV channel on 19 December 2013, he recommended listening very carefully to what Sami Eraidy used to say as he was the best to represent the views and attitudes of Al Nusra in terms of doctrine and legislation. He was born in Amman, Jordan in 1973, and he got bachelor of Islamic studies at Jordanian University. He published two books. He used to be one of the most important leaders of Jihadi Salafists in Irbid. He was arrested more than once as leader of the “Victorious Sect” and a focal legislator of Salafism in Jordan. He was a close friend of the most important theorist of Salafism worldwide, Omar Muhmoud Abu Omar, known as Abu Kutada. The pioneer leaders of Jihadis like Abu Musa’ab Al Suri influenced him. He joined Jabhat Al Nusra and soon became the head of legislators after Abu Maria Al Kahtani was replaced. On 1st of December 2014, he declared war against Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS. After the formation of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, he defected from Al Nusra because it alienated from Al Qaeda. Al Nusra arrested him for a while and later he was set free. Then he joined the Council of Curators of Hurras Al Deen.
Abu Julaibeeb Al Aurduni. His real name is Iyad Nazmi Saleh Khalil, also known as Iyad Al Tubasi. He was born in 1974 and he moved with Al Qaeda from Afghanistan to Iraq before he joined ISIS. Abu Baker Al Baghdadi sent him to Syria where he moved from on faction to another. According to documents of US Department of Treasury, and the United Nations, Abu Julaibeeb is brother-in-law for Abu Musa’ab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
According to the documents, he started working with Al Baghdadi in 2011. Al Baghdadi sent him to Syria to establish a branch of Al Qaeda in Syria under the name of “Jabhat Al Nusra”. In 2013, Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani reinforced the link with Al Qaeda, so Abu Julaibeeb remained faithful to Al Jawlani in the conflict with Al Baghdadi. This continued until 2016. According to documents of US Department of Treasury, Abu Julaibeeb was promoted and became the third man in Jabhat Al Nusra. He was assigned a leader of the coastal area in Syria, but he was based in Idlib.
Later in 2016, Abu Julaibeeb defected from Jabhat Al Nusra when it was changed into Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. In 2017, Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham arrested him and was not set free until a deal was made with conditional settlement. However, Abu Julaibeeb established a new organization, Hurras Al Deen before he was mysteriously killed in Dara’ according to different sources.
Billal Khresat, Abu Khadijah Al Aurdoni, is the main legislator of Jabhat Al Nusra in Eastern Ghutta of Damascus, and later became the main security officer in Jabhat Al Nusra and the leader of nomadic area.
Human and financial resources
The main human bulk of Hurras Al Deen comes from factions that joined it after defection from other groups alienating from Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. these small groups pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. The estimated number of its members is about two thousand. This is a relatively small number if compared with the number of members of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. However, the strength of Hurras Al Deen lies in their sleeping cells and tactics of assassination by small groups on motorbikes, and the use of Vehicles Born Improvised Explosive Devices VBIEDs has made them capable of destabilizing the area. Experienced fighters of Hurras Al Deen constitute the backbone of its strength. These stern fighters have gained much experience through their fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hurras Al Deen succeeded in attracting most ideologized fighters who got exceptional intelligence capabilities in security data collection.
Former experience of this organization in Afghanistan contributed to its kinks to central leadership of Al Qaeda and a strong network of relationships with other minor groups of Al Qaeda. Founders of Hurras Al Deen succeeded in attracting small groups and other Jihadi figures in the northeast of Syria. Such groups had problems of allegiance to Fateh Al Sham and later to Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, and for them Hurras Al Deen was a haven.
Jund Al Aqsa, Jund Al Malahem, Jaish Al Sahel and Jaish Al Badiah (Army of the Nomadic area) together with other divisions like Division of Strangers and the coastal division are the main groups that allied with Hurras Al Deen.
However, Hurras Al Deen Organization suffers from shortage of funds and low level of armament as Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham confiscated most weapons of those who defected from it and joined Hurras Al Deen. Hurras Al Deen lacks a proper central administrative structure. It is composed of disconnected groups in the north of the country. It works hard to attract foreign fighters and local ones who alienated from Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham.
Areas of domination
Military divisions of Hurras Al Deen are deployed in different areas of the north of the country. According to local resources, it never controls whole villages or towns. Instead, they are scattered on geographically disconnected areas that have been destroyed by Russian and Assad’s warplanes near the areas of Assad’s Regime and Iranian militias in southern countryside of Idlib, northern countryside of Hama and some parts of Latakia countryside.
Dispute with Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, reasons and consequences
The tension between Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham and Hurras Al Deen is part of the tension between many Jihadi groups and organizations that resulted from monopoly of power by Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham and its attempts to change the doctrine of Al Qaeda as advocates of Jihadi trend claim. This dispute comes in the context of conflict between different Jihadi trends over subjective interests that are interrelated with components of the Syrian Society. Theorizers of Hurras Al Deen believe that allegiance to Al Qaeda should be maintained, whereas focal figures of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham like Al Zubair Al Ghazi and Abdul Rahman Atoun believe that the alienation from Al Qaeda was accordant with Sharia rules and based on religious logic.
Since its establishment, Hurras Al Deen followed two tracks. First, concentration on military action. Second, avoidance of any conflict with Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham or competing it over its dominance of local institutions, or entities like Salvation Government. Hurras Al Deen allied with Jihadi groups working in mountains of the coastal area. It established an operation room with these groups under the name: “provoke the believers” at the frontlines with Assad’s Forces. Operation Room Spokesman said that fighters of Hurras Al Deen launched military actions behind the lines of Assad’s Forces in Jub Al Ahmar in Kurds’ Mountain in the countryside of Latakia Province. Many of Assad’s fighters were killed in these military operations which caused a confusion for Assad’s Forces as they didn’t expect Hurras Al Deen fighters to reach such a fortified area.
The main reason for the conflict between the two entities is the revelation of their bad intentions towards each other which imply existential and political threat for both despite their former partnership in Jabhat Al Nusra on the political and military aspects. Both parties object to each other’s practices which constitute a form of escalation or a dispute. Most important practices can be listed as follows:
- Revelation of secrets related to the way Al Nusra alienated from Al Qaeda and the accusation against Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham for breaking the vow, whereas legislators of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham consider the alienation from Al Qaeda to be based on righteous legal rules.
- Hurras Al Deen consider that the implementation of Sharia doesn’t require any permission from Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham which doesn’t have the right to prevent Hurras Al Deen from this. Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham considers the behavior of Hurras Al Deen to be a blatant intervention in HTSH areas of Domination. This dispute developed into clashes in Tal Hadya near Aleppo where some fighters of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham were killed.
- HTSH’s commitment to the regional memos of understanding and its respect of the de-escalation zones with Assad’s Regime irritated Hurras Al Deen who described Turks as infidels. Hurras Al Deen harshly criticized HTSH for its moderation and disrespect of the fruit of Jihad. Sochi Accords, for Hurras Al Deen, is a disgrace and a dirty conspiracy that is very similar to what had happened in Bosnia. One leader of Hurras Al Deen said that in Bosnia, after Muslims handed over their arms by virtue of the disbarment agreement, Serbs killed Muslims in the sight of the United Nation.
Containment of the grand explosion
In the light of propaganda war between Hurras Al Deen and Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, the two parties came to a point of explosion. On 26th of November 2017, Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham launched a campaign to arrest focal persons affiliated with Al Qaeda. It arrested top leaders like Sami Al Eraidy, former Sharia Officer of Al Nusra, Iyad Batosi, known as Abu Julaibeeb, Khalid Al Arurry, known as Abu Al Kassam (Deputy of Abu Musa’ab Al Zarqawi, Abu Hummam Al Shamy, military leaders of Al Nusra and Bellal Khresat, known as Abu Khadija Al Urdoni. Some other less important leaders like Abu Al Laith and Abu Musalam were also arrested. The tension was contained after Zawaheri imposed pressure on Abu Muhammed Al Jawlani who later set them free. The gap got wider and deeper between the two organization and therefore some revenge was mutually taken and some assassinations were plotted against each other. As a result, some religious figures and references like Abu Al Yakazn Al Masri alienated from Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham. Abu Al Yakazn Al Masri was no longer free to play any role.
Leaders of both Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham and Hurras Al Deen are still doing their best to keep the situation calm. Whatever clashes take place are accidental and, in most cases, they are individually determined rather than planned by Leaders. Perhaps they are governed by inevitable necessity and limitations imposed by each party’s calculations. The gap has been narrowed and apparently the dispute is less explicit. Yet, Hurras Al Deen remain a destabilizing factor for Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham in its areas of domination. Hurras Al Deen fighters deny decisions made by Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham, so security chaos will spread and even threaten safety and security of leaders of HTSH themselves. Recent mysterious assassination intensified the situation in opposition-held areas. Sleeping cells of Hurras Al Deen have been accused of plotting these assassinations that targeted leaders of Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham and the Turkistan Party. Hurras Al Deen launched some military operations against Assad’s Forces in the countryside of Hama and Latakia to which the regime replied with air strikes on these areas which have been calm out of a truce signed by Russians and the Turks.
It is highly expected that there will be some confrontation between Hurras Al Deen on the one hand, and Haya’at Tahrir Al Sham with other opposition factions on the other, especially if we know that Sochi Accords signed by Russia and Turkey includes the termination of Jihadi organizations in Idlib Province.
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