Al Qaeda wasn’t about to take ISIS’s defection from its ranks lying down. In Part III of an exclusive series, an Islamic State insider describes the events that led to civil war within the anti-Assad ranks.
Since its creation, we have learned about the Islamic State from its enemies. Its story has largely been told by those fighting the group in Iraq and Syria, traumatized civilians who have escaped its brutal rule, and the occasional defector. That is about to change. This is the story of Abu Ahmad, a Syrian operative for the Islamic State who witnessed the group’s lightning expansion firsthand and spent months among its most notorious foreign fighters.
In this series of three articles, he provides unique insight into how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s political scheming paved the way for its expansion into Syria, al Qaeda’s efforts to stem the group’s rise, and the terrifying weapons in the arsenal of the self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Some names and details have been omitted to protect Abu Ahmad.Read part one here and two here.
It was May 2013, and the newly formed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was intent on cementing its status as the world’s most fearsome jihadi force. But before it could do so — or use the new cache of chemical weapons it had obtained — it would have to contend with a new challenge from senior al Qaeda figures.
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership was not about to accept Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to authority — particularly in light of his brazen lie that he had been instructed to do so by al Qaeda leader Ayman-al Zawahiri. One month after the historic meeting between the ISIS chief and other jihadi leaders in Kafr Hamra, a small group of men, including a few armed guards, secretly traveled in a couple of vehicles through Syria. Fearing that they might be discovered by Baghdadi’s loyalists or targeted by the Syrian regime, they moved quietly and carefully.
This group was called Lajnat Khorasan, or the “Khorasan Committee.” Its members had emerged from their underground lairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and come to Syria on behalf of Zawahiri, who remained in hiding.
One of the Khorasan Committee members, a Syrian by the name of Abu Osama al-Shahabi, told his associates to be extremely cautious during their travels. “I have information [Baghdadi] was planning to assassinate [Nusra] emir Abu Mariya al-Qahtani,” Shahabi said to the others, according to Abu Ahmad. “So we too should be careful.”
The mission of the Khorasan Committee was to investigate Baghdadi’s expansion into Syria. Their findings were to be given to Zawahiri, who would then decide al Qaeda’s response to the situation in Iraq and Syria, where the rivalry between ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front clearly had gotten out of control.
The Khorasan Committee’s existence would only become public knowledge in September 2014, when the U.S.-led coalition targeted its members in the first airstrikes in Syria. By then, the al Qaeda veterans who made up the committee had moved on from investigating Baghdadi’s maneuvering to planning attacks abroad. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said about the group, “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”
But back in summer 2013, the Khorasan Committee was directing its attention not to the United States, but its jihadi rival. The task could not have been more urgent: Each day, it seemed, another jihadi opposition group switched loyalty from al Qaeda to ISIS. If Zawahiri couldn’t regain the loyalty of some groups in Syria, or at least stop this mutiny in its tracks, the al Qaeda leader ran the risk of becoming a general without soldiers.
Six members of the Khorasan Committee visited the headquarters of ISIS in Kafr Hamra, which previously served as the headquarters of the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. Abu Ahmad personally met four of them: Abu Osama al-Shahabi; the Kuwaiti Muhsen al-Fadhli, born in Kuwait (killed in a U.S. airstrike on July 8, 2015, in the Syrian town of Sarmada); Sanafi al-Nasr, a Saudi also known as Abu Yasser al-Jazrawi (killed by a U.S. drone in the northern Syrian town of al-Dana on Oct. 15, 2015); and Abu Abdel Malek, another Saudi national (killed in the same October strike in al-Dana).
Abu Ahmad said that the members of the Khorasan Committee were all friendly and had good knowledge of the Quran. All of them had spent years with bin Laden or Zawahiri in “Khorasan,” an old Islamic historical term for a region covering parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
Abu Ahmad didn’t spend much time with Fadhli. They spoke briefly during a meeting in the northern Syrian town of Sarmada; at the time, Abu Ahmad did not know that he was such a senior figure in al Qaeda. But two years later, after the airstrike killed Fadhli, Abu Ahmad saw a picture online of the man he had met. The photo was part of a Reuters article that quoted a Pentagon spokesman describing him as “among the few trusted al Qaeda leaders that received advanced notification of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.” In 2012, the U.S. State Department had even issued a $7 million reward for information leading to finding Fadhli.
Abu Ahmad knew the two Saudi members of the Khorasan Committee better. He once traveled in a car with both men, and knew Malek rented a house in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab. Jazrawi, meanwhile, was the head of the Nusra Front’s political bureau. He was based in Latakia countryside, in northwestern Syria.
When Abu Ahmad heard the news that the duo was killed by an American strike, he felt sad. “They looked and behaved like normal guys,” said Abu Ahmad. “Although they were leaders, they did not behave in an arrogant fashion.”
Among all the Khorasan Committee members, Abu Ahmad was closest to Shahabi, a Syrian in his forties from al-Bab. Shahabi was in direct contact with Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s commander in chief. It had taken him one and a half months to move unnoticed from Afghanistan to Syria. He traveled with his pregnant wife, which made the trip even harder. He said to Abu Ahmad: “I’m already 20 years in jihad, so hardship is nothing new to me.”
The Khorasan Committee’s goal was fundamentally political. They were tasked with convincing jihadi commanders who had already pledged allegiance to Baghdadi during the five-day meeting in Kafr Hamra to change their minds.
Baghdadi’s claims were nonsense, they told everyone. Zawahiri had never sent Baghdadi from Iraq into Syria. Zawahiri had never said that other commanders could pledge allegiance to ISIS and to Baghdadi himself.
But the Khorasan Committee had a tough sell ahead of them. Shahabi managed to convince an important commander who had recently joined ISIS to meet in a town close to the Turkish border.
“It is very clear,” Shahabi told him, “that Baghdadi only created ISIS because he felt Nusra was becoming very powerful. He knew that [Nusra chief] Julani was becoming too big of a leader.”
“We thought Baghdadi was acting on orders from Zawahiri,” replied the commander. “What you are telling me comes as a shock.”
Shahabi suggested that he should immediately rescind his allegiance to ISIS. But the commander wasn’t ready to do that. “I pledged my allegiance to him [Baghdadi],” the commander said. “Give me time to think and discuss this with others. But I just cannot undo this all of a sudden.”
“Anyhow, we have sent most of the messages and letters [about the investigation] already to al-Zawahiri,” replied Shahabi, according to Abu Ahmad’s recounting of the conversation. “He will rule in favor of Nusra, not ISIS.”
Nusra Front fighters wave their group’s flag in the Yarmouk refugee camp, south of Damascus, in July 2014. (RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images)
The civil war begins
Until this point in May 2013, the rivalry between ISIS and Nusra had been more or less peaceful. Fighters from the rival groups could still travel through the areas the other controlled, and could still visit each other’s headquarters. The jihadi organizations were still trying to resolve their differences peacefully, and Abu Ahmad had known many of the commanders in the Nusra Front for over a year while fighting under the same banner — which is why he was able to meet and speak with members of the Khorasan Committee.
But as the balance of power tilted further toward ISIS, the friendship and camaraderie between both groups’ supporters was replaced by distrust. Nusra members were disgusted by what they perceived as ISIS’s moves to split and weaken the jihadi movement in Syria. ISIS members accused Nusra of becoming soft and mainstream. Many within the group did not even consider their former friends in Nusra to be Muslims any longer.
As the battle lines hardened, the Khorasan Committee finished their field investigation into Baghdadi’s plans. Zawahiri, upon receiving it, ruled in favor of Nusra and against ISIS. He called on Nusra to lead the jihad in Syria, and made clear that Baghdadi’s organization should return to Iraq.
“[Al-Baghdadi] was wrong when he announced the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham without asking permission or receiving advice from us and even without notifying us,” Zawahiri wrote in a letter published on May 23, 2013.
The ruling made clear that Baghdadi was never Zawahiri’s man and that the expansion plans were his alone. Some jihadis felt duped by this revelation and reversed course. According to Abu Ahmad, around 30 percent of the Nusra members who had switched sides returned to Nusra after al-Zawahiri’s ruling. Some factions declared themselves “neutral” in this growing conflict. Groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa hoped to stay out of this power struggle. They were fighting to kick Assad out of power, not to bicker with fellow jihadis.
Of the roughly 90 Dutch and Belgian Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) jihadis — Abu Ahmad’s fellow fighters — who had joined ISIS, around 35 returned to Nusra; the remainder stayed with ISIS. Abu Ahmad also heard that the high-ranking ISIS commander who Khorasan Committee member Shahabi had tried to convince to defect, in a meeting near the Turkish border a month before, had also left ISIS and rejoined Nusra.
People mill around a former ISIS base in the northern town of al-Dana after rebel fighters captured it in January 2014. The al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front regrouped in early 2014 after previously suffering significant defections to ISIS, participating in an offensive against the group that saw it driven from northwest Syria. (ABDALGHNE KAROOF/Reuters)
Abu al-Atheer, the emir of MSM who had joined ISIS, was firmly committed to staying with the group. He glorified Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But Atheer was worried about losing more Dutch and Belgians to Nusra. “You are not allowed anymore to speak to Nusra members over the internet,” Abu al-Atheer commanded. “You must cut all communication with them.”
He even sent a message to the Nusra fighters from Belgium and the Netherlands at their headquarters in Urum al-Sughra, in Aleppo province. “Do not dare to contact my men,” he threatened the Dutch and the Belgians, who were staying with Abu Suleyman al-Australi, an Australian al Qaeda ideologue.
Atheer threatened to confiscate the passports of any foreign ISIS fighters so they could not leave. But this proposal was met with anger from the foreign fighters, who accused their emir of not trusting them. Atheer eventually backed down — his men could keep their passports.
But old friends now were becoming foes. Each side tried to convince the other to defect. Abu Ahmad noticed a sudden increase of the activities of the ISIS secret police, known as al-Amneyeen. A rumor in ISIS territory was circulated that anybody who wanted to defect or quit would be shot on sight.
One of Abu Ahmad’s friends in ISIS made clear he wasn’t happy about the rivalry between the various jihadi groups. He criticized Atheer and Baghdadi for their uncompromising stance and even altered the lyrics in a famous ISIS nasheed — a type of vocal chant that does not violate the jihadis’ rules forbidding the use of musical instruments — from “our emirs are distant from suspicion” to “our emirs are distant from the frontline.”
That same night Abu Ahmad’s friend sang this nasheed, the secret police rolled up in a car and carted him away to jail. He was kept there for a couple of days but wasn’t tortured. Instead, he received a textbook ISIS punishment: He had to torture others.
Baghdadi’s successful coup in April 2013 had brought Nusra almost to the verge of collapse. But now Nusra was regaining strength. They started to reorganize themselves and forged alliances with jihadi Salafi groups like Ahrar al-Sham and even some units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
As the tensions between the two camps reached a climax, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the FSA started to kick out ISIS from Idlib and parts of Aleppo province. In Daret Izza, where Nusra had stolen the barrels of chlorine and sarin from the Syrian Army base, Regiment 111, Nusra and its allies retook the town. From Daret Izza, ISIS retreated to al-Dana, near to the Turkish border. But after another battle, this town was also lost. From al-Dana, ISIS pulled back to the town of al-Atarib. Here too the same scenario played out: ISIS was defeated by Nusra.
Eventually ISIS decided to give up the whole northwest of Syria. On March 4, 2014, it retreated from the strategically crucial border town of Azaz. ISIS regrouped most of its forces near to Kafar Joum, not far from the old MSM headquarters, where the five-day meeting had taken place between Baghdadi and the various jihadi commanders.
The fractures that emerged during this period still define the battlefield in northern Syria. Two years on, the Islamic State has dropped the “of Iraq and the Levant” from its name, but it and Nusra still very much live separate lives — and are fighting separate wars. The Islamic State lords over its caliphate in Syria’s north and east, and has killed or kicked out moderate rebels from its territory. Nusra, meanwhile, has bolstered its influence in Syria’s northwest, becoming a dominant player in Idlib province. The two groups’ territories barely even border each other any longer — the only front line where they stand against each other is in the northern Aleppo countryside. Yesterday’s allies today live in separate worlds.
On Jan. 20, 2014, the split between Syria’s two jihadi powerhouses became final. In Kafar Joum, ISIS prepared a convoy of over 200 vehicles. The cars and trucks were packed with fighters, family members, weapons, and foreign hostages. In the convoy, Abu Ahmad noticed three of the 15 chemical containers he saw Nusra capture from Regiment 111.
Then, the huge ISIS train of steel and bodies roared off to the east, toward the city of Raqqa.
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