Who Is Abu Ahmad al-Zakur? HTS’s Liaison to the Syrian National Army

Previously, I wrote about Jaysh al-Qa’qa’ and military ways Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is attempting to infiltrate and potentially takeover in the future opposition areas in northern Syria outside the control of HTS. Yet, HTS also has diplomatic efforts to engage actors within the Syrian National Army. In particular, in Afrin and Azaz.

According to Muzamjir al-Sham, the individual that Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani has given this undertaking to goes by Abu Ahmad al-Zakur (though his real name is Jihad ‘Isa al-Shaykh). In late June, Muzamjir al-Sham then provided a biography of who this person is. This, together with other leaks of information in the past month or two regarding HTS maneuvers locally, led HTS leaders and supporters online to put out a piece on Muzamjir trying to discredit him. In line with this, Jihad ‘Isa al-Shaykh then posted his own biography of himself online to try and clarify the situation. In light of Muzamjir’s disclosure, al-Shaykh then posted his own photo of himself, though with his face blurred out of his trip to Azaz. Trying to show that what he and HTS were doing wasn’t quite in the shadows, but legitimate engagement. Yet this wasn’t enough for Muzamjir who then leaked a photo of al-Shaykh with his entire face showing.

Nevertheless, between the two accounts given on al-Zakur’s biography we can triangulate between them to try and garner a better understanding of who he is. Below are edited translations of what both individuals put out.

Muzamjir’s Biography of al-Zakur

Jihad ‘Isa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad al-Zakur), is from al-Nairab area in the countryside of Aleppo. His family is from the al-Baqara clan. His jihadi journey began following the US invasion of Iraq when al-Zakur began attending religious and jihadist sermons and lessons in the al-Sakhur neighborhood in Aleppo city from Mahmud Agassi (better known as Abu al-Qa’qa’), who turned out to be linked to Syrian regime intelligence. Through this, al-Zakur became acquittances with ‘Umar Khattab, who was appointed by Abu Mus’ab al-Zaraqwi as an official for al-Qaeda in Aleppo following his baya to Usamah Bin Ladin. Al-Zakur became his personal driver. Following this, he moved up the ranks to work in a guesthouse in Aleppo for an al-Qaeda figure named ‘Afash, where they helped smuggle Syrians and foreign fighters to go join the fight in Iraq. Eventually, the Syrian regime would arrest ‘Afash’s cell, including al-Zakur, who would end up in Sednaya prison. There he claimed to have higher leadership positions amongst the jihadis in prison than what was reality. Al-Zakur would spend a number of years in prison until he was released sometime in 2012 after Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) announced itself.

Following his release, al-Zakur was appointed as deputy emir of JN in the Aleppo sector. At that time, ‘Abd Allah Sanad was the emir of Aleppo, but then al-Zakur replaced him and Sanad became his deputy. Al-Zakur allegedly had a prominent role in encouraging al-Jawlani to rebel against the Islamic State’s (IS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and pushed for openly giving baya to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri. Through this, al-Zakur had a working relationship with the so-called ‘Khurasan Group,’ the external operations cell within JN. Yet he apparently treated them poorly, which was one of the reasons why the head of the ‘Khurasan Group’ Muhsin al-Fadhli left JN.

After the dispute with IS, JN was severely lacking resources, apparently only having $100,000 in its finance office, while al-Zakur in the Aleppo sector allegedly had millions of dollars due to looting, theft, and corruption. This led Jawlani to appoint him the head of JN’s economic file. Though he was moved off this assignment since he apparently had a dispute with Abu Hajr al-Himsi and Abu Hasan Taftanaz, who both had great influence in JN at the time. Al-Zakur was reassigned to be the emir of the borders. While he was in this position that is when the Italian women journalists were kidnapped in Atarib with the participation of Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zanki. Al-Zakur also became responsible for the smuggling activities in and out of Turkey, effectively establishing a border mafia, which has since been transformed and run by civilian merchants as a front. Yet due to al-Zakur’s corruption and continued pressure from Abu Hajr al-Himsi and other HTS leaders, al-Zakur alongside his colleague Sanad resigned from the organization. This was around the time HTS went after various revolutionary factions.

Yet, Jawlani apparently liked him so much he ended up tapping him again for important positions within HTS. First, he became the commander of Jaysh Halab within HTS’s military infrastructure and then later responsible for relations with the Syrian National Army. In particular, he has close relations with the Sulayman Shah Division and holds continuous meetings in the Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield areas. The end goal is to eventually overtake the Syrian National Army and control their areas and take all the spoils for Jawlani and the leadership of HTS.

Jihad ‘Isa al-Shaykh’s Autobiography

My full name is Jihad Bin ‘Isa Bin ‘Ali Bin ‘Isa Bin Shaykh Bin Muhammad Bin ‘Abd Allah Bin Hasan Bin Musa Bin Hamdan Bin Muhammad Bin Amir Hamzah (with lineage related to al-Husayn Bin ‘Ali Bin Abi Talib). I come from the al-Bawasi clan, one of the clans of the al-Baqara Hashimi tribe. My father, Shaykh ‘Isa al-Asi Abu ‘Ali, is one of the faces of the tribe and of the city of Aleppo. My father is the owner of al-Shahba Poultry, Feed, and Fish Institution, which is one of the largest institutions in this specialization in Syria. It was built in 1987. I grew up in a strict tribal environment of Arab customs and traditions. I studied in school until the ninth grade.

I later joined the lessons and episodes of Abu al-Qa’qa’, who deceived us as he deceived many in Aleppo until we exposed him and turned against him at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. Then he was killed several years later by the brothers Ahmad Kassara and Bassam Zayrbani. At the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, we, the youth of Aleppo, joined with Ansar al-Sunnah, then Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. The latter was Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s organization, who gave baya to Usamah Bin Ladin, which therefore officially turned Zarqawi’s organization into al-Qaeda.

I was responsible for guest accommodations and coordination in Syria. I invested in that work with all my relationships, farms, and my family’s cars. And brothers who are still alive today testify to this, as rarely a brother passed through to Iraq without passing through us. Until the arrest of my uncle and my friend Zakaria ‘Afash, then I got to know ‘Umar Khattab, whom I worked with in my capacity as responsible for him and for the rest of the brothers in Aleppo. In the service of the mujahidin brothers is an honor, but I did not work as a driver for anyone. Then after a while, our brother ‘Umar Khattab was killed in a clash with the infidels in Da’il. After ‘Umar was killed, I became responsible for managing the work for a good period until I fell into an ambush in al-Firdaws neighborhood in Aleppo and was arrested and transferred to the State Security Branch between Aleppo and Damascus for a period of 8 months, then the Palestine Branch for 4 months.

This is where I met again with Zakaria ‘Afash for 4 years, including a year in the Palestine Branch. In Sadnaya prison, I was the official for al-Qaeda youth. I was also the military official in the prison insurgency that lasted for more than eight months and in which Zakaria ‘Afash, Abu Hafs al-Hadidi, and nearly fifty of the best brothers were killed. With the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime abolished the Emergency Law and the State Security Court, after which we were transferred to the civil prison and we were treated as civilian prisoners, and those who left us were released accordingly by enforcing the quarter-term law, and many brothers remained in prison, killed by the regime, with the intensification of battles in 2014. This is a summary of my life before the revolution, but during it, books and volumes are required.

What to Make of This?

There are many similar details, yet they have different twists on them depending on the perspective. Whereby Muzamjir gives a negative twist to his biography and al-Shaykh provides a narrative that makes himself look good. Therefore, if you just take the specific events as such and ignore the spin, there seems to be a convergence between the two and where the truth lies. It’s too bad that al-Shaykh only shared his biography up to the beginning of the uprising and not up to the present. Though I understand for likely political and security reasons within HTS that he might not want to disclose specifics since he is still active within the theater and in the group.

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