In July, the al-Qaeda branch known as the Nusra Front expelled one of its founding members a man known as Saleh al-Hamawi. As described in Friday’s post, another founding member of the group, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, has reportedly been sidelined and stripped of power.
With the Syrian jihadis’ internal debates increasingly spilling online, one recent social media posting has revealed new details about the Nusra Front’s mysterious leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Hudheifa Azzam Takes to Twitter
Hudheifa Azzam is the son of the legendary Palestinian Islamist ideologue Abdullah Azzam. The elder Azzam is often regarded as the founder of the modern jihadi movement, although it is not obvious he would have liked the direction it later took. Differences between Azzam and his junior associate in 1980s Afghanistan and Pakistan, a Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden, were already apparent at the time of Azzam’s mysterious death in 1989.
As a young man, Azzam’s son Hudheifa worked with his father in support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union, and he remained active on the jihadi scene. Recently, he left Jordan to settle in northern Syria, where he has presented himself as an independent scholar. He seems to work closely with Syrian Islamist hardliners like Ahrar al-Sham, but he is a strong opponent of the Islamic State and has been critical of the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda as well.
Like many other independent Islamist figures in Syria, Hudheifa Azzam has found Twitter to be an excellent means of broadcasting his opinions. On July 21, he fired off a series of tweets targeted at the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The information in these tweets was vouched for by two Nusra Front dissidents, Saleh al-Hamawi and Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who were to varying degrees involved in the events he describes.
In short, Azzam’s story is as follows, with the addition of a great deal of context for clarity. Whether you think his information is to be trusted or not is up to you.
Golani, Baghdadi, and Mohammed Hardan
The Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani formerly fought the United States in Iraq. He was a member of the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda, which became the Islamic State. At some point in this period, Golani was captured and sent to a U.S. military prison, probably Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. Azzam reveals that Golani used a cover name to hide his Syrian background, calling himself “Aws al-Mosuli.” The American prison administration never found out his real identity, writes Azzam, and Golani “entered prison and left it again as Aws al-Mosuli.”
In prison, Golani/Mosuli coincidentally ended up in the same cell as the Iraqi religious scholar and militant leader Mohammed Hardan, who has also used a variety of aliases, among them Abu Abdullah al-Mansour, Abu Said al-Essawi, and Abu Said al-Iraqi. Originally a member of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, Hardan had long ago left the organization and gone to fight in Afghanistan. There, rubbing shoulders with al-Qaeda leaders, he adopted a more hardline Salafi-jihadi creed.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hardan co-created a Sunni Islamist resistance faction called the Mujahideen Army (not to be confused with the Syrian group of the same name) and became its leader. It grew into one of Iraq’s most powerful Sunni militias. Although its membership was overwhelmingly Iraqi, it worked side by side with foreign jihadis in Hardan’s hometown Fallujah. However, when al-Qaeda in Iraq transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 and demanded obedience from other factions, relations began to sour. After accusations of treachery back and forth, the two groups started fighting. This coincided with the American “surge” in 2007 and both groups were badly damaged. Although the Islamic State would rise again after 2010 and has been in control of much of Sunni Iraq since 2014, the Mujahideen Army seems to be virtually defunct today.
As it happens, Hardan was also associated with one Ibrahim al-Awwad—a lesser religious scholar from Samarra—who would eventually gain global infamy under the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Apparently, Hardan had been his religious teacher.
The claims of a connection between Hardan and Baghdadi are not part of the Bahraini theologian Turki al-Binaali’s semiofficial biography of Baghdadi—a hagiographical piece often circulated by Islamic State supporters and adopted largely uncritically by terrorism researchers in the West—but they have popped up in reporting and jihadi gossip several times before. For example, such a connection was discussed by the Palestinian journalist Wael Essam in a report in the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.
As they were released from prison, one by one, the paths of these three men diverged. Hardan continued to lead the Mujahideen Army but at some point he was forced to seek refuge in Syria.
Baghdadi, on the other hand, had apparently been radicalized by his experiences in prison. He stayed with Hardan’s followers in the Mujahedeen Army for about a year after his release from Camp Bucca in December 2004, according to Hardan’s own testimony (of which an excerpt has been translated by Aymenn al-Tamimi). After leaving the Mujahideen Army in late 2005, he seems to have joined or co-founded a small jihadi faction battling U.S. and Shia forces, known as the Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamaa Army. Soon, this group folded into a jihadi unification project led by the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda, known as the Mujahideen Shura Council. In October 2006, the council transformed itself into the Islamic State of Iraq, which is the direct ancestor of today’s Islamic State.
As a member of the Mujahideen Shura Council and then the Islamic State, Baghdadi seems to have worked in the Mosul area for some time, but more importantly he became one of the group’s leading religious scholars. As its leadership was decimated by U.S. forces, the Iraqi army, and rival Sunni rebels in the 2007 to 2010 period, he gained more influence. In 2010, the group was nearly decapitated by the killing of most of its high-ranking leaders, a series of events which led to Baghdadi’s election as overall emir.
Golani was active in the same group and reportedly served as one of the Islamic State’s top commanders in northern Iraq and Mosul. When the Syrian insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in spring 2011, Golani was tasked by his new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with setting up a secret branch of the organization in his homeland. Among his associates in this project were Saleh al-Hamawi and Abu Maria al-Qahtani.
In summer 2011, Golani’s team went into action. Moving into Syria, it began to seek out and enlist various Islamic State and al-Qaeda sleeper cells, Islamist former political prisoners, and Iraq war veterans from Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian refugee camps. Step by step, they connected these men into a nationwide jihadi organization. The new group staged its first official attack in December 2011—a bombing in Damascus—and announced its existence as the Nusra Front in January 2012.
Ordering Hardan’s Assassination
According to Hudheifa Azzam, what has hitherto remained unknown is that when Baghdadi dispatched Golani and his men to Syria, he gave them two secret tasks. One was to stage attacks in Turkey (more on this below). The second and most highly prioritized mission was to track down and kill Mohammed Hardan in Damascus.Golani, who had known Hardan in prison, would be ideally suited to the task of approaching him.
In the end, however, he refused. “Perhaps the time spent in prison and what Golani saw of Abu Said there was what made Sheikh Golani reluctant to kill Abu Said in Damascus,” writes Azzam, using one of Hardan’s aliases. “He did not obey his emir.”
Azzam goes on to speculate that Baghdadi had ordered the killing of Hardan in an attempt to wipe out all traces of his past with the Mujahideen Army or because of what Hardan knew about him. A less convoluted explanation is that because the Islamic State and the Mujahideen Army had been fighting each other in Iraq, Baghdadi simply saw Hardan as a threat. And, because Baghdadi would be helping Golani construct a jihadi network in Syria anyway, why not use the opportunity to order a hit on a rival?
Saleh al-Hamawi’s Story
Once Azzam had wrapped up his July 21 tweeting session, Golani’s estranged comrade-in-arms, Saleh al-Hamawi, chimed in with a series of tweets of his own. To this, Abu Maria al-Qahtani responded approvingly: “I testify before God that all of brother [Saleh al-Hamawi’s] comments on the tweets by Sheikh Hudheifa Azzam are accurate.”
According to Hamawi’s version, Mohammed Hardan wasn’t the only name on Baghdadi’s death list. He also names Abu Bakr al-Khatouni, an Iraqi from Mosul whose real name is Abdullah Youssef. Whatever the causes of Khatouni’s rivalry with Baghdadi at the time, he would later rejoin the Islamic State and reportedly became the governor of his hometown after its capture in June 2014.
Hamawi adds that Baghdadi had already tried to arrange these assassinations once before. In 2010, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who is also from Mosul, had been wounded while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and he left the country to undergo surgery in Syria. Baghdadi then sent along instructions for Abu Maria to organize the murder of Hardan and Khatouni, as well as two other Iraqi jihadi figures living in Syria, Mohammed Hussein al-Juburi and Saadoun al-Qadi. They were leaders of a now-defunct Iraqi jihadi group known as Jaish Ansar al-Sunna. It was a splinter faction of Ansar al-Islam, an older group with which the Islamic State’s founding father Abu Moussaab al-Zarqawi had been briefly and loosely associated before the Iraq war.
One of these men merits a digression: Saadoun al-Qadi, who also operated under the name Abu Wael, is now nearly unknown in the West, but he once made world headlines. He was the anonymous jihadi figure who then U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell accused, in a now-infamous presentation before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, of being a spy working on behalf of Saddam Hussein as “an agent in the most senior levels” of Ansar al-Islam. The allegation of Iraqi government infiltration of Ansar al-Islam was in turn the basis for Powell’s suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and Zarqawi, who he then linked to Osama bin Laden. The George W. Bush administration’s spurious attempts to connect Saddam Hussein to the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, attacks was, as readers will surely recall, a key part of its case for invading Iraq.
In any case, Hamawi claims that Abu Maria al-Qahtani flatly refused to carry out the murders. A year later, the Islamic State leader would therefore give the same directives to Golani, who also refused to comply. The Islamic State is clearly not an easy organization to manage.
Hamawi goes on to describe how, in late 2012, Baghdadi sent Abu Mohammed al-Adnani into Syria. This is the nom de guerre of Taha Subhi Fellaha, a Syrian from Binnish who has long been a senior leader and official spokesperson of the Islamic State. Settling down in Syria, Adnani began to plot an attack against the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition alliance known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. The idea was to bomb a hotel where the National Coalition leadership was meeting, killing the Western-friendly exiles that the U.S. had been hoping to put in charge of Syria’s uprising.
When this came to Abu Maria’s attention, he protested, saying that such an attack would be both religiously illegitimate and politically stupid. According to Hamawi, the Nusra Front had received strict instructions from al-Qaeda’s international leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, banning all attacks inside Turkey in recognition of the Turkish government’s policy of support for Syrian refugees and the anti-Assad insurgency. Eventually, Golani was drawn into the dispute and sided with Abu Maria. This led to an angry shouting match in the Islamic State/Nusra Front leadership in Syria.
The matter was finally brought to the attention of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq, and apparently helped convince him that he could no longer control the Nusra Front. Soon after, he attempted a kind of hostile takeover of the Syrian subsidiary by unilaterally announcing—on April 9, 2013—the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or ISIL, later shortened to simply “the Islamic State”) as a replacement for both the Islamic State in Iraq and the Nusra Front. He would be in sole command of the new group and he pointedly referred to Golani as one of his “soldiers.”
Baghdadi’s declaration triggered confused and angry reactions among Golani’s allies in the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda’s international leadership, but they eventually decided to resist it—and in January 2014, the two groups began fighting each other.
Thus began the jihadi civil war that is still raging in Syria, Iraq, and many other areas of the world. One of its consequences has been to air the dirty laundry of all the extremist factions involved, as their detractors, dissidents, and defectors take to Twitter and Facebook to complain about their treatment, poking hole after hole in the carefully constructed armor of information security that had so far shielded these groups from prying eyes.