On July 15, the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise known as the Nusra Front issued a statement explaining that it had expelled a former leader from the group. The man, a Syrian known as Saleh al-Hamawi, was among the Nusra Front’s founding members. A combination of personal and ideological tensions seem to have led to his marginalization and, finally, to his expulsion.
The Nusra Front is emerging from a two-year-old internal crisis. It remains trapped in a lethal four-front battle against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, the extremist al-Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State, rival Syrian rebel factions, and the United States and its antiterrorist coalition, which initiated air strikes against the Nusra Front in September 2014.
As the group struggles to define its identity, other senior Nusra Front figures may well face the same fate as Saleh al-Hamawi.
The Nusra Front: A Short History
The Nusra Front was co-created four years ago by the Iraqi jihadi group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (currently self-proclaimed: the Islamic State) and the international leadership of al-Qaeda, which was at that time still seen as the Islamic State’s parent organization. In summer 2011, a small team of around seven individuals was allegedly dispatched into Syria from Iraq, led by a Syrian known as Abu Mohammad al-Golani. They had orders to contact Syrian jihadists and sleeper cells and form them into the network that would, in January 2012, announce its existence as the Nusra Front.
A year later, tension had grown between the Iraq-based leadership of the Islamic State and the increasingly powerful Nusra Front in Syria, leading to a split between the groups. The Nusra Front ended up as al-Qaeda’s official Syrian franchise while the Islamic State cut relations with al-Qaeda altogether. Much of the Nusra Front’s membership in Syria—particularly the foreign fighters, but also many Syrians—decided to follow the Iraqi leadership rather than Golani and al-Qaeda.
Relations remained tense and complicated until the final rupture in early 2014, when Syrian rebel groups decided to try to purge the Islamic State and drive it back to Iraq. The Islamic State and the Nusra Front entered into war against each other. A few months later, the Islamic State captured Mosul in Iraq, rolled into eastern Syria and declared itself a “caliphate.” This threw the Nusra Front, already demoralized by what many members viewed as a fratricidal and illegitimate civil war, into internal disarray.
Although the group has tried to suppress information on these matters, rumors began to swirl about leadership struggles and regional factionalism. Nusra Front commanders in different areas of Syria took different positions on the legitimacy of al-Qaeda’s war against the Islamic State and some defected. By September 2014, the situation was so bad that a senior leader reportedly said that the Nusra Front was on the verge of falling apart into competing regional factions. Still, the group carried on its fight against Assad’s forces all over Syria. And in the north, where Golani is based, the Nusra Front acted aggressively to destroy rival Western- and Gulf-backed rebel factions and grab territory along the Turkish border.
The Nusra Front’s Founding Fathers
The inner workings of the Nusra Front are extremely opaque, but over time, information has leaked out about some of its key leaders, including the small group of founding members.
Abu Mohammad al-Golani has been the Nusra Front’s leader from the start, but this is only a nom de guerre. In early voice recordings, his voice was scrambled and in television interviews, his face is concealed. He is Syrian, but apart from this his real identity remains unknown, despite many theories on who the man behind the mask might be.
Another of the group’s founders is Abu Maria al-Qahtani, an Iraqi whose real name is Maysar Ali al-Juburi. After fighting the Americans in Iraq as part of theIslamic State of Iraq, he was wounded and settled in eastern Syria for medical care around 2010. He then reportedly fell out with the group’s Iraq-based leadership, but a year later he was tapped to aid in the creation of the Nusra Front. He became its top religious official, working out of eastern Syria.
Saleh al-Hamawi—also known as “Saleh Hama” or “Abu Mohammed”—is also said to have been part of this small group of original leaders. A Syrian who is reportedly from the town of Halfaya northwest of Hama, he is also said to have worked in Syria’s eastern desert areas.
The Sidelining of Abu Maria al-Qahtani
Soon after the Islamic State took Mosul in June 2014, it assaulted the oil-rich regions of eastern Syria. This forced Abu Maria and his entourage to flee to the Hauran region in southern Syria. He was removed from his position as the Nusra Front’s top religious official and replaced by a Jordanian, Sami al-Oreidi, alias Abu Mahmoud al-Shami. Oreidi’s base was also in the south.
Although Abu Maria participated in fighting and was reportedly even wounded, much of his time has been spent on Twitter, where he is engaged in a tireless war of words against the Islamic State. Since 2014, he seems to regard this group as the primary threat to the jihadi project in Syria and the world. He has also voiced increasingly frank criticism of other al-Qaeda leaders and jihadi clerics who, in his view, failed their flock by allowing the Islamic State to grow in the pre-2014 period.
According to an article based on “special sources close to [Saleh] al-Hamawi and Abu Maria al-Qahtani” in al-Durur al-Shamiya—an online newsletter close to Ahrar al-Sham, another hardline Islamist group in Syria—Abu Maria has now been totally sidelined by Golani’s leadership. The article claims that Abu Maria was, some time ago, demoted to the rank of “an ordinary individual within the group.”
Saleh al-Hamawi Is Kicked Out
The expulsion of Saleh al-Hamawi followed a similar pattern. He also appears to have reacted to the rise of the Islamic State by opening up to softer Islamist groups and arguing for total war against the Islamic State. And like Abu Maria, he is a prolific Twitter user, tapping out his own brand of feisty commentary on all things jihadi.
According to the Nusra Front’s July 15 statement, an expulsion order was issued against Saleh al-Hamawi in January or February, but it was kept secret. The leadership “remained patient and waited, hoping that this would give the brother a chance to resume his allegiance and respect the rules of collective work, but to no avail.”
Once made public on July 15, the expulsion met with protest from Abu Maria al-Qahtani. “How can a group expel its founders on the pretext that they have contravened it?” he asked. Other current or former senior Nusra Front leaders, some of them associated with Abu Maria and his eastern followers, have also reacted critically.
Saleh al-Hamawi shot back with a statement of his own. It echoes the criticism heard in 2014, alleging that the Nusra Front is in internal disarray and that Golani and his allies have usurped its institutional structure. According to Saleh al-Hamawi, the Nusra Front’s Shura Council—supposedly a central organ that debates policy and supervises officials—is now merely “cosmetic” and lacks a fixed membership. Hamawi also complains that “certain sheikhs” have labeled him and his allies qutriyoun, or “regionalists,” presumably for prioritizing Syria over global jihad. In a Syrian context, that term is particularly charged—the qutriyoun was the Baath Party faction on which former President Hafez al-Assad relied when he captured power in Syria during the 1960s.
Moderates, Easterners, or Simply Malcontents?
The al-Durur al-Shamiya article indicates a clear link between Saleh al-Hamawi’s expulsion and Abu Maria’s fall from grace. The narrative promoted by this article, and by other sources discussing the affair, is one of mostly Syrian-born Nusra Front members who are unhappy with the hardline purism allegedly adopted by Golani on the urging of extremist foreign fighters.
Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Saleh al-Hamawi, and Mazhar al-Ways (a religious official also known as Abu Abderrahman al-Souri) are all said to be part of this group. It is worth noting that they all have ties to the eastern wing of the Nusra Front, which was crushed and exiled to the south by the Islamic State in 2014. As if that was not enough, the southern wing of the Nusra Front now seems to be in trouble, having lost fighters and influence in past months.
In such a situation, the expulsion of Saleh al-Hamawi—and perhaps others too in coming months—will certainly add a dash of venom to the ideological and tactical debates raging within the Nusra Front and the wider al-Qaeda network.
A Word of Caution
One must be careful about taking any of the information currently seeping out of the Nusra Front at face value, regardless of how well-connected the sources seem to be. In the political shadow world inhabited by Syria’s jihadi factions, information is tightly compartmentalized, rumors abound, and deception is the first line of defense.
While the Nusra Front is clearly caught up in some sort of ideological and factional struggle, it remains difficult to sort fact from fiction. The emerging narrative of a “moderate jihadi” faction of native Syrians pitted against hardline foreign fighters is a bit too neat to be easily believable, and, judging by previous Syrian rebel splits, personal and regional power struggles will often trump pure politics.
More details of the ongoing internal disputes will no doubt continue to seep out of the cracks in al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, and so will disinformation. Let’s keep an eye out for both.
I am thankful to Sam Heller, a great researcher of Syrian jihadism, for his comments on an earlier draft of this text. Follow him on Twitter at @abujamajem.