The Syrian Jihad, al-Qaida, and Salafi-Jihadism: An Interview with Muzamjir al-Sham
In early June, the much-awaited interview with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was released by Frontline. American journalist Martin Smith asked al-Jolani a number of questions ranging from the jihadi leader’s personal trajectory and relationship with al-Qaida and the Islamic State to the subsequent transformation of HTS from a group invested in global jihadism to one focused on local struggle in Syria and Idlib in particular. The interview revealed what HTS is seemingly becoming more and more every day: a third model of jihadism that is departing from Salafi-Jihadi ideology and in opposition to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
In light of the Frontline interview, the authors decided to interview a prominent jihadi source who actively monitors the ongoing conflict between HTS and Hurras al-Din (HaD), the new Syrian al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, and the state of al-Qaida and the Salafi-Jihadi movement globally. The source, who goes by the name Muzamjir al-Sham, is known for revealing, via his Twitter account, detailed information about the inner workings of the various jihadi groups in Syria. While his identity remains unknown, his Twitter page describes him as “a shami voice from within the jihadi current.” According to Aaron Zelin, he is believed to have once belonged to Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian Islamist militant group.
The interview, which was conducted remotely between 11 and 18 June 2021, covered a number of topics, ranging from whether the jihadi groups opposed to HTS can form a united front (Q1) and whether al-Jolani will tolerate foreign jihadis in his territory (Q4) to the possibility of a reconciliation between al-Qaida and HTS (Q6) and the current state of HaD (Q7). Muzamjir al-Sham further discussed the state of the al-Qaida leadership and its control of its affiliates (Q10-12), as well as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance, or bay‘a, to the Taliban (Q8-9). Finally, he touched on the differences between al-Qaida and the Islamic State (Q13-14) and the capabilities of these groups to conduct international terrorist operations (Q16-17).
Perhaps the most remarkable detail to emerge from the interview is the assertion that the leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzadeh, refused to accept al-Zawahiri’s bay‘a, meaning that the leader of al-Qaida’s pledge of allegiance to the Taliban was rejected. While the source did not substantiate his claim (and has not responded to further queries regarding the matter), it is a potentially significant revelation if proven true. As of now, no other jihadi source has corroborated the assertion, and the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida is widely seen as strong and enduring. Muzamjir al-Sham appears to disagree, arguing that there will be little al-Qaida activity in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
It is also interesting to note that, according to this source, al-Qaida made the unofficial decision to dissolve HaD and to operate in smaller cells in Syria, thereby avoiding a fratricidal confrontation with HTS. This would seem to confirm the weakened state of al-Qaida in Syria as reported by the United Nations Security Council sanctions monitoring team for al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The source indicates that this decision came from Sayf al-‘Adl, the Egyptian al-Qaida leader in Iran who appears to manage and communicate with al-Qaida central and the al-Qaida affiliates. Given al-Zawahiri’s rumored ill-health, al-‘Adl’s current role is significant as it could undermine the idea of a power vacuum in the event of a leadership transition.
The source was skeptical of the rumors that al-Zawahiri had died, suggesting rather that he could be merely ill. On 10 September 2021, an 852-page book by al-Zawahiri was published by al-Qaida central, and the introduction is dated 21 April 2021. Presumably, therefore, the al-Qaida leader is alive—or least he was until that date—though the text does not reveal anything about his health. The rumors about his death or serious illness could be exploited in an instrumental way by the organization to create confusion around its real condition, allowing al-Qaida to continue to work under the radar.
Jihadi organizations remain a threat not to be underestimated. Al-Qaida’s strategy of keeping a low profile has facilitated its reorganization, allowing it to build ties with other jihadi groups, tribes, clans, and minorities. The Islamic State was too quickly declared defeated; it was also forming new alliances and planning new strategies. In Muzamjir al-Sham’s words, “fighting and struggle are a lung with which Salafi-Jihadism breathes, as it thrives in such circumstances.” Cutting off the air will require specifically tailored policies for each local condition.