Al-Qaida’s central leadership is turning against its large and successful Syrian affiliate after nearly a year of internal bickering.
The Nusra Front, which rebranded to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January, has been steadily moving away from al-Qaida’s leadership since June, according to Middle East Institute’s Senior Fellow Charles Lister. In response, al-Qaida is now pushing to create a rival movement that is loyal to the terrorist group’s central leadership.
“There are really big problems right now,” a conservative Islamist cleric close to Syria’s opposition movement told Lister. “Al-Qaeda is trying to create a new loyal faction in Idlib, but that’s being prevented by al-Hayat.”
The issue at stake is HTS’s focus on the ongoing Syrian civil war. Al-Qaida’s central command would prefer the group to follow its strategic vision of a worldwide, global jihad.
“Al-Qaida disagrees very strongly about Tahrir al-Sham’s vision and is giving up on rescuing it,” a senior Islamist military commander told Lister.
Al-Qaida has two major points of concern, according to Lister. First, HTS is apparently not living up to the leadership’s standard of “purity in its structure, rhetoric, vision and practice.” Second, the group allegedly violated its oath of loyalty to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
HTS officially began distancing itself from al-Qaida in July when the Nusra Front first rebranded to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, severing its “external ties” to the group’s leadership. Al-Qaida deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri signed off on the move at the time, but did not notify Zawahiri beforehand.
Al-Qaida’s decision to break off from HTS will not be easy. The group is one of the largest in the Syrian opposition, with at least 14,000 fighters in its ranks. It has also gained popularity among Syrians since temporarily helping break a siege on Aleppo in August.
Additionally, al-Qaida’s model of fighting local enemies while simultaneously plotting against the West seems to no longer be in vogue among jihadis. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghred (AQIM) appear to be following HTS’s local focus, noted Lister.
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