Al Qaeda’s Screwing Up in Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra went to war with a popular Free Syrian Army faction in Idlib. Big mistake.

Tensions between Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the mainstream opposition in Syria’s rebel north are at an all-time high.

Eyes are on a standoff between al-Nusra and a popular rebel brigade in northwest Idlib province and, playing out in parallel, an ongoing anti-Nusra Twitter jeremiad by the son of the founder of modern international jihadism. Now Syrians in the liberated north are engaging in a newly open and critical debate over Nusra—what it wants, and what place, if any, it has in Syria’s opposition.

The latest flashpoint in Nusra-rebel tensions is the Idlib city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man. A nationwide ceasefire that went into effect last month has provided space for the resumption of peaceful protests in Ma’arat al-Nu’man and across Syria’s opposition-held areas. But this new opening for political speech has also highlighted splits between opposition Syrians—between those who want a free, democratic Syria and those who want justice through the rule of Islamic law.

In Ma’arat al-Nu’man, a dispute between Islamist and nationalist protesters escalated over several days into a shooting war between Nusra and the 13th Division, a popular local “Free Syrian Army” faction. Nusra and an allied ultra-extreme jihadist faction called Jund al-Aqsa routed the 13th Division, seizing its bases and taking some of its fighters captive. Nusra has blamed the 13th Division for the bloodshed, but many Idlib residents are dismissive of Nusra’s justifications.

“[Nusra] tried to come up with some lie that the 13th Division attacked their bases and homes,” The Daily Beast was told by an informed Idlib source who spoke on condition of anonymity over social media. “It’s like claiming that Somalia invaded the United States.”

A tentative peace now prevails in Ma’arat al-Nu’man as all sides wait for the results of a halting adjudication. But the events in Ma’arat al-Nu’man have set off an unprecedented wave of criticism of Nusra, whether on the ground in escalating anti-Nusra demonstrations or online in Dr. Hudheifah Azzam’s still-unspooling, multi-chapter indictment of Nusra.

“The ‘wall of fear’ of Nusra has shattered, to some extent,” said an Idlib journalist who also requested anonymity.

Azzam is the son of Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian jihadist considered the father of modern pan-Islamist jihad. His son Hudheifah has shuttled from Afghanistan to Iraq and now to Syria, where he’s served as a broker and peacemaker among Syria’s rebels. Now, over hundreds of tweets, he’s been reeling off all the times Nusra has cannibalized rival brigades.

“[Azzam] dared [to deliver this testimonial] because the battlefield can’t take silence any longer,” said the informed Idlib source. “We’re seeing the Iraqi experience reproduced all over again.”

Azzam’s central argument is Nusra’s attacks on nationalist “Free Syrian Army” brigades have not been a series of one-offs, they have been a systematic campaign. He says Nusra has consistently frustrated efforts to adjudicate these fights so it can smash its local rivals and establish a jihadist mothership in Idlib patterned after the Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital in al-Raqqa province.

“If it was a matter of one mistake, or two, or three that could be stopped—if it wasn’t systematic with these people, you wouldn’t be reading these words,” Azzam wrote.

In a phone call with The Daily Beast, Idlib cleric Hassan al-Dugheim backed Azzam’s account. Al-Dugheim played a similar mediating role in the north before he ended up on the wrong side of Nusra. He now lives in Turkey.

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“[Peacemaking efforts] succeeded when the feuding parties were from the Free Syrian Army,” al-Dugheim said. “The only time they didn’t was when Jabhat al-Nusra or Jund al-Aqsa was involved in the dispute.”

Azzam testimonial reads like the secret history of northern Syria since 2014, complete with salacious details about secret pledges of allegiance to al Qaeda, nationalist factions acting as fronts for Islamists, mixed-up cross-faction family ties, and accidental murders. More recent installments have laid out a detailed early history of Nusra and how its (relative) doves have been sidelined.

Figures involved and Idlib sources who spoke with The Daily Beast attested to the overall accuracy of Azzam’s account, supporting some key details and vouching for Azzam’s personal knowledge, although some disputed elements Azzam made clear he was relaying secondhand. Azzam himself did not respond to requests for comment.

Jabhat al-Nusra has publicly pushed back Azzam’s account, both in several online rebuttals and directly to The Daily Beast. “He’s talking about things we lived through and witnessed ourselves,” Nusra official Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi told The Daily Beast over a messaging app. “And what he’s said isn’t the truth of it.”

But Nusra’s objection is not necessarily to Azzam’s blow-by-blow narrative, a series of events Abu Khattab told The Daily Beast were “well-known.” Nusra instead objects to how Azzam has inserted himself into the story and—in particular—the spin he’s put on these events and on Nusra’s intentions. Nusra stresses it has not acted alone—that other rebel factions have been quietly complicit in its moves against some brigades, and that, despite some leaks to the contrary, it has promised not to unilaterally announce an emirate.

The controversial history Azzam has been airing starts in mid-2014. Prior to that, Nusra had prioritized alliances with Syria’s rebels and avoided aggravating locals with the full-on implementation of conservative Islamic law. In 2014 this changed—Nusra started to take a strong hand in civilian life, setting up its own courts, enforcing social codes using roving morals police, and muscling out municipal councils. It also began liquidating rebel factions it saw as crooks or foreign proxies.

Why Nusra launched what its detractors call its “emirate campaign” is unclear. Its jihadist rival the Islamic State had just declared a “caliphate” and seized the oil-rich eastern section of Syria that had been Nusra’s resource base. Some have speculated Nusra needed to promise a proto-Islamic state to keep its ideological hardcore from defecting to the Islamic State, or that it needed to lock down new funding streams—whether it was posturing for jihadist donors abroad or staging a hostile takeover of nationalists’ diesel smuggling operations along the Turkish border. Whatever the motivation, on the ground Nusra’s new posture was clear.

“‘Brother, we’re the ones responsible for you, we’re your emirs,’” said al-Dugheim, channeling the new Nusra. “‘You need to obey us, we need to head the operations rooms, we need to be leading the army.’ This happened without the [other] brigades’ consent—that’s the problem. They didn’t come through dialogue, they came by force.”

And all of this really started with Nusra’s destruction of south Idlib rebel commander Jamal Marouf and his Syrian Revolutionaries Front, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the debate over Azzam’s testimony has in part turned into a re-litigation of Nusra’s showdown with Marouf.

Azzam has criticized Nusra’s campaign on Marouf, reproaching Nusra for targeting a morally compromised but still valuable rebel ally—violating his father Abdullah’s dictum that a hash-smoking warrior for right is better than someone religiously pure sitting idle. Yet Azzam’s critics argue that, in painting Nusra as the aggressor, he has minimized Marouf’s alleged crimes, up to and including murder.

Marouf was seen as a rebel hero at the revolution’s outset, but with time he and his brigade gained a reputation for criminality. Marouf played a key role in driving the Islamic State out of northwest Syria in January 2014, after which he was aggressively marketed in the Western press as the new face of the Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, his relationship with Nusra deteriorated, while resentment grew among Idlib residents who felt Marouf and his men had run amok.

In October 2014, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front moved on the Idlib town of al-Barah in pursuit of one of its own commanders who had gone rogue. Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa responded to locals’ appeals for help and drove Marouf from his Idlib stronghold and into Turkish exile. They were reportedly joined by individual members of other factions and even local civilians.

“There were people in the town who [first] took up arms that day against Jamal Marouf,” said the director of the Idlib News Network, who goes by the revolutionary alias “Abu al-Baraa.” Abu al-Baraa hails from al-Barah, although he lives now in Saudi Arabia. “They only took up arms against Jamal Marouf, they didn’t even do that against [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s army.”

Speaking to The Daily Beast, Jamal Marouf and Syrian Revolutionaries Front spokesman Nidhal Sbeih both strenuously denied allegations of corruption and murder, although Sbeih acknowledged that some individual fighters might have crossed lines. “We’re in a revolution, and a revolution is chaos,” he said. “It’s not possible to prosecute and hold members perfectly accountable.”

The surge of popularity Nusra enjoyed immediately after removing the Syrian Revolutionaries Front seems to have given it cover to eliminate other nationalist brigades it said were also criminal or had supported Marouf. It crushed several smaller Idlib and Hama brigades immediately after, and several months later it eliminated a U.S.-backed brigade called Hazm in Aleppo.

Jamal Marouf told The Daily Beast that Nusra’s campaign on corruption was really just a project to liquidate moderates.

“In reality, Nusra fought the Syrian Revolutionaries Front because it represents the Free Syrian Army, which prevents [them] from coloring the whole revolution as al Qaeda,” he told The Daily Beast over a messaging app. “After they won their war against us, now you see the north is practically empty of the FSA. It’s all covered in black.”

The allegation that Nusra’s campaign against “corruption” is a ruse is central to the debate over Nusra’s intentions and just how far it will go in fighting rival factions. Nusra’s critics say that in private, Nusra has pronounced “takfir” on its enemies—declaring them apostates from Islam and sanctioning their death.

“Da’esh [the Islamic State] pronounces takfir, and so does Nusra, but only in its private meetings,” said Idlib cleric al-Dugheim. Al-Dugheim was close to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, in addition to other local factions.

Al-Dugheim said that normal disputes can be settled over WhatsApp, tea, and group readings of the Quran. But when one side has declared the other apostates, the fight becomes a war of extermination.

Nusra media official Abu Khattab said the main justification for fighting the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Hazm was their corruption and abuses, although he said Nusra also fought them because they were an “American project.”

“It’s not necessarily a war on apostates just because they were an American project,” Abu Khattab told The Daily Beast. He acknowledged, however, that some leaders in the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Hazm had been judged guilty of apostasy for their service to idolatrous foreign governments.

Yet the 13th Division is not the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and many say Nusra has now overreached. “Since [Nusra] came and attacked the 13th Division in Ma’arat al-Nu’man, all it has left in Idlib is its cheering section,” said the Idlib journalist.

“If these factions don’t stop Nusra now, it’s going to attack all of them and establish its emirate with ease,” he continued.

But the messiness of Azzam’s narrative—the interlocking familial ties, the quiet compromises—is a reminder that things may not be as simple as a righteous public ready to rise up against jihadist oppressors. Nusra undoubtedly retains a well of popular support in Idlib, even if its popularity has suffered lately. And some like the Idlib News Network’s Abu al-Baraa caution against deciding some factions are heroes and others villains in what he calls “a jungle.”

“If Jabhat al-Nusra could seize all the liberated areas, it would. If [rival faction] Feilaq al-Sham could, it would,” he said. “Let’s not philosophize and talk about patriotism, we all know—we live in a small neighborhood. We know each other.”