On January 22, 2012, a new post on the Shamukh al-Islam Forum teased a big announcement from Syria. It included the below banner:
A day later, on January 23, Jabhat al-Nusrah announced itself via its al-Manarah al-Bayda’ Foundation for Media Prouction, which included an audio message from the leader of the new group Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani.
A week later, I wrote a short analysis of the video, maybe the first, if not one of the first to look at the group before it became more well-known by the end of 2012. Interesting reading it back now a decade later, considering where its successor group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is today and how Jawlani now is front and center compared to the first few years when he wouldn’t show his face. Here is the original video release:
Samir A. is released from pre-trial detention ahead of his December 10 trial. He had previously been a part of the infamous Hofstad Group and was previously convicted of terrorist activities. He was imprisoned for nine years, including in the high-security terrorist wing of the prison, because of plans to attack. He was released in 2017. He was originally arrested in June 2020 for being involved with fundraising amongst relatives to help free Islamic State women at the al-Hawl camp in northeast Syria. This money would go to smugglers to help them get out of the IDP camp. Apparently, Samir focused on women that remained in IS’s territory until the end, with some allegedly married to different IS leaders. Samir worked with a Syrian from Vlaardingen, Fadi M, who is suspected of running an illegal hawala system. They allegedly raised up to €277,000. They were also assisted by an individual named Bilal L, who had previously been a part of the Hofstad Group top. This network allegedly helped 27 children and ten women get away. Some have returned to Europe, while others are in Idlib in northwest Syria.
Mohamed Kazali Salleh, 50, had three charges in a local district court for terror financing. According to reports in The Strait Times, “on three occasions between December 2013 and early 2014, Kazali allegedly provided money to a Malaysian named Wan Mohd Aquil Wan Zainal Abidin (Akel Zainal), who apparently was an IS figure in Syria, intending for the money to be used to facilitate terrorist acts in Syria. Akel had previously instructed two Malaysian IS supporters to attack places of worship and police stations in Malaysia in 2019. The plots were foiled and the supporters were arrested in November 2018. Suggesting Akel could have been part of IS’s external operations team. The report goes on to explain “he is accused of handing over RM1,000 to Wan Mohd Aquil at a bus terminal in Johor Bahru. The other two occasions involve Kazali allegedly remitting US$351.75 and RM500 through Western Union in Singapore and in Malaysia respectively.” Kazali, was based in Malaysia, while his crimes occurred and was arrested by Malaysian Special Branch officers in December 2018. He was then deported to Singapore.
Omaima A., German-Tunisian, 37, who had previously been convicted in German court for being a member of IS, was given additional jail time for using Yezidi slave women to clean her home beginning in 2016. The previous sentence of three-and-a-half years was extended to four years. Omaima is also known for having been married to infamous German jihadi rapper Denis Cuspert (Deso Dogg, Abu Talhah al-Almani). She was originally born in Hamburg. Omaima is believed to have traveled to Syria to join IS with her three children in 2015.
German citizen Leonora M. was also charged with IS membership. According to a governmental press release, on March 6 2015 , Leonora traveled to Syria to join IS. After spending three days in an IS women’s refuge, she was accepted as a member of IS, after she had been registered and married a member working in the IS security apparatus as his third wife. The accused lived in al-Raqqah from the fall of 2015 to June 2017, where she allegedly took part in religious instruction. At the end of 2015, she also took on the task of researching the women of IS fighters for the IS secret service. She was also involved in recruiting a German woman to travel to IS. As part of her work for IS, Leonora received a monthly salary. Leonora’s husband bought a 33-year-old Yazidi women as a slave in order to sell her and her two small children for a profit. Leonora then allegedly nursed the injured Yazidis so that she could be resold at a profit. In addition, Leonora tried to dissuade the damaged Yazidis of the truth of IS’s belief system. The enslaved Yazidi was subsequently sold for a profit. Leonora eventually surrendered to SDF units at the end of January 2019 after IS lost territory and was at various IDP camps until she was brought back to Germany on December 20, 2020.
An Austrian court sentenced two men to jail over their involvement with IS in Syria. The first individual, who had previously fled to Austria in 2004, and was originally born in Chechnya was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail, while the second person was sentenced to four and a half years. The two individuals left for IS in 2013 with the first person staying there for one-and-a-half years and the second one only staying there for a few months. They had been recruited by Mirsad Omerovic, who had originally been born in Bosnia and considered the nexus point of IS recruitment in Austria. Omerovic is already serving a 20-year prison sentence after a court in 2016 found him guilty of belonging to a terrorist group.
Anisa Arabieva (previously Anna Molchanova), 23, was sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of recruiting terrorists to fight in Syria. Arabieva, a resident of Moscow, was recruiting Russians to join the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah. One individual was the Chechen native Zulikhan Magomadova whose departure was prevented by Russian security. In 2011, Arabieva converted to Islam following tragic circumstances in her life.
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.
On June 29, Germany charged two German nationals – Önder A. and Erman K. – for helping finance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Malhamah Tactical, and Junud al-Sham. Önder A. was originally arrested on January 7, 2021, while Erman K. was originally arrested on February 15, 2021. Malhamah Tactical is a jihadi paramilitary unit that helps to primarily train different fighters and groups in the Syrian war. Junud al-Sham is a jihadi group, is Chechen-led, and primarily has fighters from the Caucasus region. Both Malhamah Tactical and Junud al-Sham have associated or worked with HTS in the past.
However, more recently, there have been tensions between Junud al-Sham’s leader Muslim al-Shishani and HTS’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani over current dynamics and the future of the jihadi project in northwest Syria.
Regarding this case, Önder A. transferred funds fifteen times to these groups between November 2017 and October 2020, while Erman K. transferred funds twenty times to these groups between August 2018 and December 2020. According to the press release, “the funds were mainly intended to finance the armed struggle and to consolidate the territory of the terrorist organizations.” It goes on to say that these two individuals “are part of an international network that has supported the terrorist activities of the HTS, Junud al-Sham, and the Malhamah Tactical in Syria from across Europe through financial donations.” These donations were apparently given to two members of Junud al-Sham and one member each of HTS and Malhamah Tactical. Part of this money went towards the maintenance of a website created by those in Syria to elicit further donations to the organizations to help fight locally.
On Friday June 11, a new entity calling itself Jaysh al-Qa’qa’ Bin ‘Umru al-Tamimi announced itself under the command of Abu Mu’tasim Bi-Allah Zabadani.
According to a leaked audio, Zabadani claims that it is a way for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to insert itself into Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield Territory and eventually to take it over. In particular, Afrin and ‘Azaz. Those regions are currently occupied by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army.
This is not necessarily surprising, since Zabadani had previously been a member of Jabhat al-Nusra in Rif Dimashq and continued to be affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham after it changed its name. According to Ugarit Post, Zabadani’s real name is Sulayman al-Dalati and is unsurprisingly originally from Zabadani in Rif Dimashq Governorate. According to the website, al-Dalati is 32 years-old, is married and has children, and was previously arrested in 2006 for allegedly killing a Christian. He was released from Sednaya prison alongside the other Islamist and jihadi prisoners in June 2011 and originally joined up with Ahrar al-Sham. He is believed to currently be based in Ma’arrat Misrin in Idlib Province.
Based on his sources, Muzajmir al-Sham claims that thus far, Jaysh al-Qa’qa only currently has 100 members. However, through inducements such as salaries of 800 Turkish liras and other forms of aid, it is foreseeable others will join up soon since the Syrian National Army reportedly is having salary issues.
On June 8, Muzamjir al-Sham, a popular Twitter personality who has dropped scoops related to the jihad in Syria over the years and is believed to have been affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham previously, posted a series of allegations on Twitter related to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, in particular, in relation to foreign jihadis in areas HTS controls. He also notes that Jawlani is joined by key HTS leaders in making these policies that will be discussed below, including: Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani, ‘Abd al-Rahim al-‘Atun, and Mazhar al-Ways. You can read the entire series of tweets here.
Muzamjir claims that since Jawlani left al-Qaeda’s fold he and his organization have been killing, arresting, torturing, and in even some cases allegedly extraditing wanted jihadists to foreign governments abroad. Most notably, those affiliated with Huras al-Din and Ansar al-Islam. According to Muzamjir these alleged deals with foreign intelligence services is done to try and extract money. As a consequence, he claims that this is the reason a number of al-Qaeda-related figures were also killed: such as, Abu Zayd al-Urduni, Tariq al-Turki, Faruk al-Tunisi, Abu Yunis al-Almani, Abu Mu’adh al-Faransi, and Abu ‘A’ishah al-Tajiki, among others. Likewise, Muzamjir says that there are more than 170 foreign fighters detained by HTS another 100 who were allegedly disappeared, but he cannot corroborate those individuals’ names yet. As for those imprisoned, see below for a list of some of them that Muzamjir and his sources on the ground claim to have confirmed:
Shaykh Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Makki (Commander of Jaysh al-Malahim)
Shaykh Abu Hamzah al-Dar’awi (Member of the Shura Council)
Sahl al-Jazrawi (Qadi)
Shaykh Abu Sulayman al-Libi
Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Jaza’iri
Shaykh Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Urduni
Shaykh Abu al-Zubayr al-Libi
Shaykh Abu Mariyam al-Jaza’iri
Shaykh Abu Dhar al-Masri
Shaykh Abu Basir al-Shami
Shaykh Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Suri
Shaykh Abu Ghadiyah al-Jazrawi
Military Commanders and Field Cadres:
Khalal al-Jawfi (Military Commander)
Abu ‘Umar al-Faransi (Field Commander)
Abu Radwan al-Turki (Field Commander)
Abu Mus’ab al-Turki (Field Commander)
Abu Husayn al-Turki
Abu Sulayman al-Mulla
Abu Safiyah al-Faransi
Abu al-Layth al-Masri
Abu Anas al-Masri
Abu Satif al-Khashir
Abu Bilal Daragham
Abu Hurayrah al-Masri
Independent Foreign Fighter Leaders and Individuals
Abu Usamah al-Jaza’iri
Abu al-Darda’ al-Jaza’iri
Abu Basir al-Libi
‘Abd al-Rahman al-Faransi
‘Abd al-Rahim al-Turki
Jund Allah al-Turki
Abu Ahmad al-Libi
Abu Ayub al-Maghribi
French Foreign Fighters
‘Umar Omsen (Leader of Firqat al-Ghuraba’)
Abu Basir al-Faransi (Military Commander of Firqat al-Ghuraba’)
Abu Salih al-Faransi (Field Commander)
Abu Yusuf al-Faransi
Sayf Allah al-Faransi
Abu Asiya al-Faransi
Jama’at Ansar al-Islam
‘Abd al-Matin al-Kurdi (Military Commander)
Abu Sihab al-Kurdi (Field Commander)
Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami
Abu ‘Ali al-Qalamuni
According to Muzamjir, while these individuals were under interrogation, so-called ‘external parties’ were involved to know more about these jihadis’ activities in Afghanistan and Europe prior to their arrival in Syria. As a consequence, he argues that Idlib is like a new version of Guantanamo Bay Prison.
On June 10, Abu Khalid al-Shami, the official military spokesperson for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was killed in the village of Iblin, in the region of Jebel al-Zawaya. He was killed alongside Abu Mus’ab, HTS’s military media chief, and Mu’ataz al-Nasr, a senior HTS commander. They were killed when they were attempting to rescue and respond to Russian airstrikes that killed up to 13 individuals, including women and children. HTS confirmed their deaths in a statement released in the afternoon of June 10.
Local news outlet Syria TV released details on Abu Khalid’s biography that haven’t been published previously (as far as I’m aware). At this moment, his relatives would not provide his real name due to security concerns. However, he’s originally from Jisrin in Eastern Ghutah in Rif Dimashq. Prior to joining HTS, he went by Abu Khalid Jisrin. Prior to the 2011 revolution, he had worked locally in a sewing factory before moving to Saudi Arabia for work. He allegedly returned home in mid-March 2011 to join in with the demonstrations in his home town.
At the beginning of the uprising he joined the Jisrin Local Council, but later shifted to the military fight and was involved in many key battles in the Eastern Ghutah region from 2013-2017. Originally he was a member of Liwa’ al-Qa’qa’ Bin ‘Umru al-Tamimi, which was within Alwiyah al-Habib al-Mustafa, which was itself a part of the broader coalition al-Itihad al-Islami al-Ajnad al-Sham. This formation had an Islamist bent, most likely of the Muslim Brotherhood variety.
In mid-February 2016, the Ajnad al-Sham coalition merged with Faylaq al-Rahman, another broader coalition in the Eastern Ghutah region that was a rival to the stronger salafi group Jaysh al-Islam. However, many fighters instead decided to choose a different path when this occurred with some joining Jaysh al-Islam or al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusrah, which would become Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July 2016 and later HTS in January 2017. At this point, Abu Khalid joined up with JN.
Abu Khalid moved up the ranks in various security positions until he became first the JN/JFS/HTS military commander for the Eastern Ghutah region and later the general commander for the entire group in the region. Yet, like many other fighters and fighting forces in that region, the Assad regime with the assistance of Russia and Iran via sieges and starvation campaigns over a few years eventually took over the area with a military operation between February and April 2018. As a consequence, those that did not flee or were not killed were sent via infamous green buses from Eastern Ghutah to Idlib.
Once in Idlib, Abu Khalid was assigned the role of official military spokesperson for HTS in June 2018. Since that time, Abu Khalid appeared in at least thirteen releases from HTS. Mainly releasing statements, conducting interviews with HTS’s official news agency Iba, or delivering video messages. Most of them dealt with updates on the most recent military developments as they related to HTS in the war. His most recent official public pronouncement was a statement released in late March 2021 responding to the latest round of Russian airstrikes on various installations and infrastructure in Idlib.