Discords mount between foreign jihadists, Tahrir al-Sham

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (R), and the French jihadist Omar Omsen (edited by Enab Baladi)

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (R), and the French jihadist Omar Omsen (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Firqat al-Ghurabaa, an aligned group with al-Qaeda, vowed to release a series of videos to respond to the fabrications of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that were circulated against its leader Omar Omsen and his fellows in northwestern Syria.

The jihadist group, led by the French jihadist Omar Omsen, 47, (Known as Omar Diaby), stated in a video recording on May 23 that the series deals with case after case of “false” allegations by the HTS and proves that the powerful group that controls swathes of the northwestern region lacks “honesty and integrity, and cannot be trusted, because it betrayed the Syrian people and the Mujahideen.”

Two days after the recording, news spread about the arrest of the French jihadist Abu al-Siddiq, one of the members of the Firqat al-Ghurabaa, by the HTS through an ambush without explaining the reasons, which was denied by Tahrir al-Sham.

The news of the arrest was met with a statement of condemnation and denunciation from the Firqat al-Ghurabaa, to reveal the features of a new dispute and friction between Tahrir al-Sham, which has a security grip in the region and is experienced in excluding factions, and the foreign jihadists who were subjected to restrictions by Tahrir al-Sham during the past years after their arrival in Idlib in 2013.

Exposing fabrications, arresting a “jihadi”

Firqat al-Ghurabaa said through the recording that there are malicious accusations promoted by Tahrir al-Sham and members who left the group with hostility.

Al-Ghurabaa added to Tahrir al-Sham a great interest in the case of the kidnapping of a child in 2018 and accusing Omsen of that before handing her over to her mother in Belgium, and the case was widely promoted in order to obtain international confessions and reap financial profits.

The foreign jihadist faction considered that there is no choice but to refute the fabrications by producing a series of videos, especially after Omsen was imprisoned by Tahrir al-Sham for 17 months, and his release on January 31, 2022, and the increase in slander against him despite the complaint to Tahrir al-Sham, but to no avail.

On May 25, Tahrir al-Sham arrested the French jihadist Abu al-Siddiq in Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib, and he was one of the last two to join the Omsen group in July 2021.

France 24 journalist Wassim Nasr, who specializes in jihadist movements, said on Twitter that Abu al-Siddiq was not one of those living with the squad in their camp north of Idlib.

On the same day, Firqat al-Ghurabaa issued a statement saying that it denounced the “arbitrary and unjust” arrest and demanded Tahrir al-Sham to release him after arresting him by ambushing him when he went out to buy equipment needed to secure his “guard” point.

In the statement, it stated that acts of repression and intimidation against the “Mujahideen” could not be justified in any way and that the division had never posed a threat to public security, calling for an end to the “repressive campaign,” as it described it.

For its part, the Media Office of Tahrir al-Sham denied to Enab Baladi, via an email, the arrest of Abu al-Siddiq.

‘No military clash’

Discords between the French group and Tahrir al-Sham are not new to both sides, as Tahrir al-Sham harassed all factions that did not comply with its policy in the region, especially foreign fighters, despite its denial of the existence of a systematic policy towards them.

Orabi Orabi, an expert in jihadist groups, told Enab Baladi that Firqat al-Ghurabaa spoke about the lack of any outlet for foreign jihadist groups in the region in terms of financing and employment, and the Tahrir al-Sham taking control of affairs, imposing conditions on them by swearing allegiance or leaving.

Orabi added that the atmosphere is currently available for Firqat al-Ghurabaa and its fighters to talk about the state of restrictions, in conjunction with demonstrations rejecting the policy of Tahrir al-Sham in some cities and towns in northern Syria, pointing out that the foreign fighters did not react to Omsen’s arrest three years ago.

Evening and morning demonstrations are witnessed daily in the villages and towns of Deir Hassan, al-Sahara, Killi, and Atmeh, demanding the release of detainees in the HTS prisons and rejecting the policy of “arbitrary arrests” that it implements, following a campaign of arrests against family members belonging to Hizb al-Tahrir (Liberation party).

The researcher of jihadi groups believes that the division will not escalate its dispute on the ground to the stage of a military clash, with the possibility of escalating it in the media, because the power difference is large and tends to Tahrir al-Sham, and because the group of 30 to 50 fighters is unable to confront Tahrir al-Sham, and because it (Firqat al-Ghurabaa) does not possess power cards to impose on the HTS.

Orabi considered that what Firqat al-Ghurabaa is currently doing is riding on the wave of demonstrations, taking advantage of the state of inflaming the atmosphere and increasing the existing tension, in order to obtain some gains through the media pressure, such as the release of detainees.

Who are al-Ghurabaa?

Firqat al-Ghurabaa resides in a camp near the Turkish border in northern Idlib, surrounded by a wall built by its members to preserve their privacy with their families.

The division is headed by Omar Omsen, who the French authorities say is responsible for recruiting 80% of the French-speaking jihadists who went to Syria or Iraq and was the first to launch propaganda videos to motivate young people in France to join the jihad in Syria.

Omsen was born in Senegal and moved to France when he was a child before adopting “extremism” after spending time in prison. He moved to Syria in 2013 and headed his “jihadist” battalion in the forests of Latakia and is considered the spiritual leader of his group.

Omsen posted a series of videos under the name HH 19, named after the 19 people who carried out the September 11 attacks in 2001.

In 2016, the US State Department classified Omar Omsen as a “global terrorist” and said that “Diaby leads a group of about 50 foreign fighters in Syria, which participated in terrorist operations with the extremist Islamic (al-Nusra Front), which changed its name to (Fatah al-Sham Front) before it later became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Firqat al-Ghurabaa, in a previous video released in 2020, said that it is independent in terms of administrative and internal organization, which allowed its members to protect themselves from all the conflicts that erupted in Syria, but “independence does not prevent them from responding to the summons issued by the (Tahrir al-Sham) courts.”

The fighters of Firqat al-Ghurabaa are “stationed” near the joint contact lines with the Syrian regime forces, as is the case with the fighters of the factions in the area.

On January 16, Firqat al-Ghurabaa mourned French jihadist Sufyan Murabit (Abu Hamza), who was shot dead in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, southern Idlib.

Arrest of spiritual leader

On September 1, 2020, Tahrir al-Sham confirmed Omsen’s arrest and justified, through a statement to Enab Baladi, his arrest by the Public Relations Office under the pretext of “having a unique mini-administration for himself and the people of his region, which includes most of the civil procedures related to personal status, such as marriage, divorce, and transactions.”

On the other hand, the Omsen group responded to the accusations by issuing a video on the 24th of the same month and said that it is independent and that it has an abstract internal system set by all members of the group, and has established rules to facilitate group life, and that the rules that are based on the Book of Allah (Quran) and the Sunnah of His Messenger have been verified by many religious cadres over the years.

On January 31, 2022, Tahrir al-Sham released Omsen, according to France 24. “I spoke to his son, and he was really released,” said the director of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism in Paris, Jean-Charles Brissard, adding that Tahrir al-Sham imposed conditions that it did not want to disclose in exchange for Omsen’s release.

In the recording issued by Firqat al-Ghurabaa recently in May, it said that the reason for producing the video series, titled “Refutation,” is to avoid any new betrayal and accusations of “ISIS ideology” or “aggressive” groups, which legitimizes the attack on the group and its camp north of Idlib.

Thorny issue, exclusion and secrecy

The issue of foreign fighters is one of the thorny issues in the areas of Tahrir al-Sham, which includes Idlib governorate, part of the western countryside of Aleppo, the countryside of Latakia, the al-Ghab Plain, and northwestern Hama.

In the regions of northern Syria, there are foreigners who came from different countries of the world, especially in 2013 via Turkey, and most of them got involved in the fighting, and some of them worked in the medical and relief fields. Journalists also entered to cover the conflict.

The foreign fighters organized themselves into groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party and the Uzbeks, and some of them joined other factions and organizations such as Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham previously.

Tahrir al-Sham worked to extend its control and strengthen its military presence by dissolving and displacing some factions and confiscating their weapons or forcing them to comply with its policy.

Then it moved to dismantle the “jihadist” groups whose military formations were dominated by foreign fighters.

Tahrir al-Sham confined all military actions within the operations room of al-Fateh al-Mubin and fought against other factions, and was able to fragment them. This is what happened with the “Be Steadfast” operations room, which included jihadist factions headed by the Hurras al-Din (HaD) group, the branch of al-Qaeda in Syria.

The HTS conceals the arrests and release of foreigners and avoids talking about them in the media, and this is what happened in the case of Omsen’s release, and it conceals the departure of the leader of the “Soldiers of the Caucasus” group, Rustam Aziev, known as Abdulhakim al-Chechani and 25 members of his group in the countryside of Latakia in October 2022 to fight the Russian forces invading Ukraine.

Tahrir al-Sham denies the existence of a systematic policy against the factions and foreign fighters and justifies the harassment and arrest operations by “organizing military action and holding some aggressors accountable.”

During an interview he gave to the Turkish edition of the Independent newspaper on September 5, 2021, the HTS Commander-in-Chief, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, praised the efforts of what he described as “Al-Muhajireen are brothers who came to help” and promised not to abandon them, in response to a question about the existence of a place for them in the future of Syria.

Al-Jolani said, “These fighters are part of us; they mix with the people, they are happy with the people, and the people are happy with them, and they do not pose a threat to our state, and they exist under the policy we established.”

Jabhat al-Nusra (Tahrir al-Sham) arose in Syria at the end of 2011. It is a faction that emerged from the womb of al-Qaeda, the most prominent jihadist faction on the world stage, and later announced its separation from any group and considered itself a local Syrian force.



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