Militant Leader Talks About Break With Al Qaeda and Possible Syrian Rebel Merger

After Jabhat Fath al-Sham split from al Qaeda, the group’s director of foreign media relations talked to <em>The Intercept</em> about what’s next in the war in Syria.

Photo: YouTube

On August 8, a coalition of rebel groups announced that they had successfully broken the long-standing Syrian government siege of rebel-controlled east Aleppo. Among the groups taking part in the offensive was Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s local affiliate in the country. Video footage released by the group showed its contributions in key battles against regime positions around the city.

Days before the offensive to break the siege began, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani appeared in an unprecedented video message announcing that his group had cut formal ties with al Qaeda and would henceforth operate under the name Jabhat Fath al-Sham. Jolani said members would “strive toward unity with all groups, in order to unify the ranks of the mujahideen and liberate the land of [Syria] from the rule of [Bashar al-Assad] and his allies.”

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri echoed Jolani’s message in a statement acknowledging that the groups had parted ways. But whether the public split reflected a true separation and cutting of organizational ties remained unclear. U.S. officials have said they continue to consider Jabhat Fath al-Sham a terrorist group, despite its new branding.

Following the successful offensive in east Aleppo, it seems that Jabhat Fath al-Sham has cemented its place in the Syrian uprising for the foreseeable future. Its success on the battlefield has fed speculation that it will try to unify rebel factions under a single banner, in preparation for a push to wrest the entire city from government control.

“So far, nothing is definitive yet, but there are increasing talks of a merger, and Jabhat Fath al-Sham has wanted to absorb the other factions under a new banner for some time,” says Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “The previous hurdle was the name of al Qaeda, which gave some people cold feet because they didn’t want to be associated with that group. The vagueness of the continued relationship between Jabhat Fath al-Sham and al Qaeda is what has dissuaded some groups from associating with them more closely, although they still cooperate against the regime on the ground.”


Jabhat Fath al-Sham fighters advanced on a road as they seized key positions south of Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 6, 2016.

Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
Hassan says that a merger of the rebel groups could backfire, potentially benefiting the Syrian regime and its allies. “Jabhat Fath al-Sham are pushing to become the only armed group against Bashar al-Assad,” he says. “Although the regime might suffer tactically as a result of its enemies unifying, even potentially losing parts of Aleppo, they could win the narrative if the opposition came together under Jabhat Fath al-Sham’s banner.”

Such a merger would also make it easier for U.S. officials to justify targeting other Syrian opposition groups like Ahrar al-Sham, as it would more closely associate them with a designated terrorist organization. Along with the Syrian government and mainstream opposition groups, Jabhat Fath al-Sham has been accused by monitoring organizations of committing systematic human rights abuses over the course of Syria’s civil war, including kidnappings and extrajudicial executions.

Jabhat Fath al-Sham is eager, however, to bolster its image.

Mostafa Mahamed, also known as Abu Sulayman al-Muhair, is a 32-year-old Australian citizen and director of foreign media relations for Jabhat Fath al-Sham. He is wanted by Australian authorities and has been listed as a specially designated global terrorist by U.S. officials. Born in Egypt and raised in the suburbs of Sydney, Mahamed has been in Syria since 2012.

Mahamed agreed to respond to a series of written questions from The Intercept about Jabhat Fath al-Sham’s relations with other Syrian rebel factions, its plans regarding the battle of Aleppo, and the nature of its current relationship with al Qaeda. Given the far-reaching potential implications of this merger, responses to the questions have been included below, lightly edited, and condensed for clarity.

Why did Jabhat al-Nusra break with al Qaeda, and what does this break mean in both practical and ideological terms?

Before talking about the split from al Qaeda and the formation of Jabhat Fath al-Sham, I would like to make it absolutely clear that we believe that organizational affiliations are usually temporary. Once the goal of that affiliation can no longer be met, or a larger, more important goal cannot be achieved as a result of that affiliation, then it is time to move on. At the time, Jabhat Al-Nusrah had a relationship with al Qaeda. It served a purpose by funneling a global, Islamic support of a jihad into the local Syrian arena. It was able to support an already very popular jihad with the brand that many mujahideen identified with. By doing this, Jabhat Al-Nusrah was able to focus the efforts of the youth and channel their energies into an Islamic and justified, moral cause. The need for that no longer exists, however. The break was also required in order to fulfill our communal obligations to the Muslims in Syria. The practical implications of the split include the full independence we now enjoy, which gives us more freedom in decision-making. It also removed potential obstacles that stand in the way of a long hoped-for unification of ranks.

In short, we did this for the people who may have been deceived by the claims that strikes against Jabhat Al-Nusrah were due to its affiliation with al Qaeda. It’s a response to the people, who were thankful for the split. In terms of the ideological implications, it must be noted that there exists a common ideology between all Muslims. This cannot be ignored. Differences that set organizations or movements apart are usually methodological. People will differ in their views regarding the correct method to bring about change, and we do recognize the need to tolerate these differences and collaborate with all sincere parties working in the right direction. Leaving al Qaeda gives people more room to draw closer and allow for a freer, more comfortable environment for open discussion, without being stigmatized.


Fighters from Jabhat Fath al-Sham listen to a speech at an armament school after they recaptured two military academies and a third military position south of Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 6, 2016.

Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
Many have claimed that this breaking of ties is intended to be purely for cosmetic purposes — to detach JFS from the scrutiny al Qaeda normally invites. What is your response to this?

It is true that al Qaeda does invite scrutiny, much of which was created by false media and government directives. However, our objective was certainly not cosmetic. We genuinely believe it is time to move on from that period and work toward a more pragmatic option that will allow accommodation of a wider audience. Seeking ways to work with a now popular jihad and accommodate the diversity within the Islamic movement is a priority for our organization. In order for success to be achieved in Syria, different groups need to put aside smaller differences and work toward the common goal that Muslims aspire to.

What is JFS’s position with regard to its future relations with al Qaeda, as well as its stance toward the United States and European powers?

After our announcement of the establishment of Jabhat Fath al-Sham, there were those waiting for some kind of “proof” that we have changed or reformed. That meant to them that we needed to publicly condemn al Qaeda, their leaders, our past and basically announce that we have retracted everything we have ever done. I believe that is not only unfair, but it was also intended to create an obstacle in our path. The very next day, people were quick to claim this was cosmetic, like you mentioned. I believe that these people knew all too well our role in Syria and that we are integral in bringing about change and a sustainable stability, and that is not in their interest. When I say it is unfair to demand proof of this “change” they are expecting, we have to remember that members of any movement are diverse in the way they think. Movements are usually born in extreme situations, and people join them because they identify with the general concept at that given stage. It does not necessarily mean that all members of any particular movement are in total agreement on all topics, and that is true for al Qaeda just as it is true for all other movements in the world, Islamic or other.

At the end of the day, we will not be constrained by the definitions, policies, and understandings of any foreign entity. We decide what our morals and values are for ourselves based on our faith. We will not be a proxy of any satellite state, nor will we give an opportunity for them to dictate to us what we should or should not do. That is the whole point of our independence as Jabhat Fath al-Sham. Relations with any nation, including the U.S. or Europe, are detailed in Islamic political relations. Islam stresses the sanctity of contracts and agreements. It also sees ceasefires and truces to be valid if the conditions are met. However, we are far off from any kind of political relationship with nations that not only watch while our people die, but insist to back the tyrants who are killing, torturing, and displacing hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Is there place in Islam for practical relations with Western states? Yes, but only when they change their foreign policy and start to respect that we will not dissolve into their system, nor will we be a client state.

What is Jabhat Fath al-Sham’s stance on ISIS, and how does Jabhat Fath al-Sham see itself as different from ISIS?

Our stance on this group is very clear. We view them as deviant in their ideology and criminal in their methodology. In Islamic jurisprudence there is a term that we believe fits their description quite well, “Khawarij” [a derogatory term for violent rejectionist groups in Islam]. From an ideological standpoint, what classifies them as “khawarij” is their excommunication of the Muslims according to their unorthodox, extreme understanding of Islam and as well their twisted view of reality. This is their basis to label all the different groups in Syria, including Jabhat Fath al-Sham, as apostates. In their eyes, they are the only legitimate authority in Syria and Iraq, and the only legitimate entity which all Muslims in the world must pledge allegiance to.

From a methodological perspective, they assume their governance through [coercion] and military dominance. They consider it legitimate to fight everyone and anyone that does not succumb to them, including Muslims, even those fighting Assad. All of this is an expected outcome of their reprobate ideology. This obviously makes them isolationists. They totally disregard all efforts of other Muslims in the world and consider themselves to be the sole bearers of any legitimate political Islamic authority. In their eyes, a world that they exist in has no space for anyone else. I think my explanation above is sufficient to outline the differences between us and them.


Fighters from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, fly Islamist flags in Aleppo, Syria, as they head to a front line, May 26, 2015.

Photo: Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images
If Jabhat Fath al-Sham ultimately succeeded in defeating the regime, what would be its intention for the future of Syria? How does it see itself relating to the international and regional political order?

We do not hope to defeat the regime alone. We are working toward this goal with the rest of the groups on the ground. Jabhat Fath al-Sham’s hope is that a just government will be established. It should include all of the sincere parties who worked toward establishing it. We have never been hung up on governing. Our aim is that the goals are met, irrespective of who will govern. The majority of Syrians have been oppressed for the past 50 years. Restoring their rights and relieving them from their pains can only happen if the Assad regime is completely uprooted with all of its institutions. This project must see its complete successful culmination in order for us to see the fruits. Anything less would be cheating the people that entrusted us with this great responsibility.

To the second part of this question, I believe that nobody in the world is satisfied with the amount of tyranny that exists today except the tyrants themselves, their proxies and those benefiting from them. Syria is a perfect example of the “international order” you speak of, watching on while millions of Muslims are displaced or killed. We do not expect anything from them, nor do we wish for their interference. However, their outrageous stance has clearly proven to the world their corruption. We do not aim at Syria being a satellite state. That would defeat the purpose of this Jihad.

The proposed solution in Syria definitely sees the need for an Islamically legitimate, practical solution to dealing with other political entities. We understand that we do not live on this earth on our own. We have never had an isolationist mentality in Syria, and we do not believe we can exist by isolating ourselves from the world. However, we cannot propose any type of solution in this field until we achieve full independence and stability. There would obviously be a process that would include debate and discussion amongst scholars and experienced professionals and specialists in every relevant field before taking this step.

What is Jabhat Fath al-Sham’s position on Syrian minorities (Alawis, Druze, Shias, Christians)?

Islam’s history is very clear about the need to provide security and civil rights to minorities living in Islamic nations. It must be noted that this region had large communities of minorities living peacefully under Islamic rule for centuries. Abdel Qadir Al-Jaza’iri [a 19th-century Algerian political leader], for example, protected the Christians of Damascus when they were attacked unjustly in 1860. There are many similar instances in our history that we are proud of.

However, it would be unjust and irrational to talk about anything but the issue at hand. That is: we are not fighting this war to target any minorities. We are defending the majority Muslim Sunni population of Syria, who are being slaughtered by a minority backed by an international coalition. Their rights, which were ripped away from them by an Alawite minority, need to be restored. The time to discuss the issue of the minorities is only after we achieve this for them. To do this, uprooting the regime and all of its institutions entirely is definitely a precondition. We see that we are heading in the right direction toward our goal, and when we do get there, this question will obviously be posed. The demographics of the country are changing dramatically, so it will be very difficult to determine what Syria will look like by that time.

Even though this matter is political, as Muslims we are not secular, we do not adhere to the secular understanding of governance that the West does, and therefore a decision on this matter cannot be made without a deep study of Islamic jurisprudence. Rulings on such matters would have to be after the establishment of all of our institutions, including a Ministry for Religious Affairs and Rulings. This ministry would be made up of the qualified scholars, that would be able to read into the complex, Islamic Sunni texts and provide an Islamically legitimate proposed policy to deal with the issue. Having said that, we believe that Islam is pragmatic in nature. By that, I mean that it is capable of dealing with any situation and any era to find solutions for any all problems we face.

When Islam entered the Indian subcontinent and ruled for about 1,000 years, scholars faced similar issues. They were, however, able to provide practical, Islamic solutions to their reality, without the use of tyranny or oppression. If you look at Islamic texts, you will find that it always provides a solution for these problems. The main problem we face, however, is the interference of foreign entities, often causing discord amongst the Muslims through backing one sect against another and allowing them to fight on their behalf, from within the society: a task that foreign invaders can never undertake on their own. The solution to this issue is to stop interfering in affairs of the Muslims.


The White Helmets, Syrian civil defense members, gather following airstrikes on the rebel-held city of Idlib, controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, on June 12, 2016. It was not clear who carried out the raids.

Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
Many have said that Jabhat Fath al-Sham seeks to ethnically cleanse minorities from Aleppo. What is your response to this?

These claims are absurd. We have shared in the administration of the freed areas of Aleppo for many years now. We have been dealing with the Christian minorities, and we have not faced these issues. Islam does provide a fair and balanced solution for non-Muslim minorities to coexist in Muslim societies. It has been general policy since the beginning of the efforts in Syria that we only focus on those who take up arms against the population we are defending.

Why was the Aleppo offensive campaign named after Ibrahim al-Yousuf [a former Syrian army cadet who took part in a mass killing of Alawite cadets in 1979]? Is Jabhat Fath al-Sham indicating that it will target Alawite citizens of west Aleppo or elsewhere if it comes to power?

We must put all of this in context. Ibrahim al-Yousuf was a captain in the Syrian army who ignited an uprising that sought to rebel against the Alawite minority that was ruthlessly oppressing a huge majority of Sunni Muslims since the Assad family assumed power. It must be noted that immediately after assuming power, the Assad regime created a majority-Alawite armed force and intelligence agency that would later become the regime’s iron fist against the majority of Syrians. Naming the battle after him was significant because it was in Aleppo, in that very same Artillery College, that Ibrahim Al-Yousuf in 1979 ignited an uprising which continues to motivate people until today.

Ibrahim al-Yousuf did not kill civilians. All of his targets were military officers. Ibrahim al-Yousuf was killed as a result of his activism, but the Assad regime did not stop there. In 1982, Rif’at Al-Assad (the brother of late president Hafiz Al-Asad and uncle of Bashar Al-Assad) headed an offensive against the city of Hama, where the uprising gained popular support and started to become an organized movement. The offensive was referred to later as the Hama massacre. Rif’at Al-Asad himself boasted of killing 38,000 residents of the city. But Ibrahim al-Yousuf targeted military officers and not civilians. This is extremely important in order to understand the reason why we named this battle after him. Even though Bashar’s goal is the complete genocide, ethnic cleansing, or subjugation of the Sunni population, our goal is as determined by Islam: the removal of all oppression and the establishment of justice for all. This is what the battle of Ibrahim al-Yousuf stands for.

Will Jabhat Fath al-Sham and its allied factions seek to impose a siege now over west Aleppo? If Jabhat Fath al-Sham takes Aleppo in its entirety, what will be its intentions for the city? 

We do not aim to besiege civilians ever. If a siege will take place, it will be upon the regime’s armed forces and militias that have come to aid them.

In running the city, there would obviously be a very large responsibility to administer the people’s affairs, bring about security, and provide their basic needs in food, housing, water, electricity, and medical care. Even though a lot of the burden would be on our shoulders, it would be a joint effort with other sincere groups working with us.

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