Mystery circumstances surround al-Muhajir arrest by Tahrir al-Sham
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
More than 50 days have passed since the Islamic State (IS) announced the arrest of the organization’s spokesman, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, at the hands of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in its stronghold in the Idlib region, northwestern Syria.
The ambiguity still surrounds his case without any talk about him by Tahrir al-Sham.
The organization’s announcement indicates that Idlib was the last station for Abu Omar al-Muhajir, the fourth IS spokesman, and the region had previously witnessed the killing of three “Caliphs” out of four who were targeted.
The position of IS spokesman was assumed by five personalities; three were killed, and Abu Omar al-Muhajir was the fourth before the appointment of the current new spokesman, Abu Hudhayfah al-Ansari.
The HTS controls Idlib and has a long history in the fighting of the Islamic State over the past nine years after they were allies in the same organization, which opened the door to questions about the reasons that kept the leaders and elements of the IS organization in an area subject to a tight security, and not to choose Aleppo countryside since it is a wide area in order to avoid being “easy hunting for the HTS.
Accusations were denied
On August 3, the Islamic State’s new spokesman, Abu Hudhayfah al-Ansari, accused Tahrir al-Sham of killing the former IS leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi.
He said that he was killed after a direct confrontation with what he called the “HTS of Apostasy and collaboration with enemies” in a town in the Idlib countryside after they tried to capture him while he was at work. He clashed with them with his weapon until he died from his wounds, according to the spokesman.
Al-Ansari added, during his audio speech, that HTS members lurked nearby the organization’s spokesman, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, with some of his brothers, while they were “directing some missions, and they plotted against him and made him prisoner, and captured the women and bargained with them over some files and secrets in the service of Erdogan and to win his approval.”
Al-Ansari stated that the HTS handed over Abu al-Hussein to the Turkish government as an “offering of loyalty and allegiance” to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to give him an achievement in his electoral campaign.
On the other hand, the spokesman for the General Security Service working in Idlib, Diaa al-Omar, “totally and completely” denied the validity of the IS claim that Tahrir al-Sham is responsible for targeting Abu al-Hussein and handing him over to the Turkish side.
Al-Omar said in a statement published on August 4 that if the “Caliph” of the IS organization had been killed by the General Security, he would have “congratulated the Muslims and announced it directly,” without al-Omar mentioning any information about the capture of IS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir, in Idlib.
Hideout for IS caliphs
Despite the existence of rivalry, hostility, and fighting between IS and HTS, which emerged from the womb of al-Qaeda and later announced its separation from any formation, the organization’s first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took refuge in Idlib and was killed in a US airdrop on the Barisha village in the northern countryside of Idlib on October 27, 2019.
The operation resulted in the killing of seven civilians (three men, three women, and a child girl).
The second leader, Abdullah Qardash (Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi), was killed on February 3, 2022, by an American airdrop on a house in the border village of Atma, which resulted in the killing of at least 13 people, including six children and four women.
Last August, IS accused Tahrir al-Sham of killing its fourth leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi, despite Tahrir al-Sham’s denial of this.
The third Caliph, Abu al-Hassan al-Qurashi, was killed in a Free Syrian Army operation in the southern Daraa governorate in October 2022, according to Joe Buccino, the spokesman for the US Central Command (CENTCOM).
Aaron Y. Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who covers jihadist groups in North Africa and Syria, told Enab Baladi that IS believes (from its perspective) that HTS areas are safer for its activity and a safe haven comparing to the strongholds of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army in northwestern Syria.
Zelin suggested that the reason for staying in Idlib is the presence of stronger historical networks in Idlib than in the neighboring Aleppo governorate.
Also, the targeting of three leaders of the IS organization in Idlib leads one to believe that the organization will rethink this strategy because it is clear that it is not successful, especially since the HTS attacks did not only target top-level IS figures but also many mid-to-lower-level cells/operatives as well, meaning that the organization violates expectations, according to the academic expert.
Al-Muhajir puts HTS in an “embarrassing” situation
The HTS or the General Security Service operating are repeatedly announcing the arrest of IS sleeper cells and members in its areas of control in Idlib without talking afterwards about their fate or their trials, which remain mysterious and do not appear to the public.
The General Security’s data is limited to some clarifications, including what it published in June 2022 about the details of the arrest of a number of people linked to IS.
Diaa al-Omar, the official spokesman for the General Security Service, said at the time that among those arrested were officials and leaders affiliated with what is known as the “Levant State,” and holding sensitive positions, the most important of which is securing roads and supplies.
They were found in possession of explosive belts, weapons, and ammunition, including rifles and pistols of various calibers, laptops, and others, without further details about their fate, methods of trial, or punishments imposed on them.
The arrest of al-Muhajir has a different specificity than the rest of the elements because messages and data pass through him, and perhaps plans and even communications, and the locations of IS elements and sleeper cells.
The issue that opened the conversation about the possibility of Tahrir al-Sham benefiting from his presence under its control or the possibility of using him as a card with one of the parties or countries fighting the IS organization.
Orabi Orabi, a Syrian researcher who focuses on jihadi groups, told Enab Baladi that the organization can avoid and evade the information possessed by Abu Omar al-Muhajir, whatever it may be, pointing out that he may possess information that has a “simple” impact and influences the organization within a local scope at the level of Idlib, and perhaps about the presence of IS elements in the region.
Orabi believes that the arrest of al-Muhajir, if it took place, would be a moral blow to the Islamic State, so to speak, and perhaps the organization does not see it that way because it was the one who acknowledged his arrest and had it not been announced, no one would have heard about it.
He pointed out that Tahrir al-Sham has an interest in hiding many detainees from the media facade or talking about them.
Orabi believes that IS had deliberately referred to the arrest of Abu Omar al-Muhajir in order to put HTS in an embarrassing situation and send a message that IS does not care or that the arrest of al-Muhajir does not affect the group’s course of action and does not threaten its operations.
Orabi pointed out that the delay in IS’ announcement of the killing of the fourth caliph and the arrest of al-Muhajir for more than three months indicates that IS was in the stage of building internal balances and getting approvals from the Shura Council in order to agree on a certain personality.
For his part, Zelin suggested the possibility that there were hidden (secret) discussions about the use of al-Muhajir with one of the countries, without estimates of the size of the gains that HTS would obtain in exchange for IS spokesman, except perhaps paying it in cash in exchange for access to this person.
At the same time, Zelin believes that meeting al-Muhajir may not arouse the interest of the Americans at this time, given their strong focus on the organization’s activity in Syria and the killing and arrest of many other leaders earlier this year.
Tahrir al-Sham has never announced negotiations to hand over leaders or members of IS to other parties or countries, while it has a history of negotiations to hand over kidnapped people within areas of its control, with the payment of a financial ransom in return, which the latter concealed while press reports and investigations revealed it.
Enab Baladi had previously monitored deals to release Syrian activists and fighters from kidnappers affiliated with extremist factions, the value of which was estimated on average at $100,000 per person.
Three spokesmen dead
Taha Subhi Falaha, better known as Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, was the first official spokesman for the IS group.
Al-Adnani was born in the city of Binnish in the Idlib countryside in 1977 and joined the Islamic State of Iraq organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the American invasion of Iraq.
Al-Adnani was appointed spokesman for IS upon his entry into Syria in mid-2013, and he was considered the organization’s second-in-command after al-Baghdadi at the time.
On August 30, 2016, IS announced the killing of al-Adnani in Aleppo countryside while “inspecting the repulsion of the military campaigns against Aleppo.” Russia claimed responsibility for his killing, but the US described the Russian statements as ridiculous and attributed the targeting to itself.
In December 2016, the organization announced that Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir was the new spokesman, succeeding al-Adnani. Not much was known about his true identity, but his nom de guerre indicated that he was not Syrian, according to experts in the jihadist movements.
In 2019, the commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, announced the killing of the spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, in an air strike a few hours after the killing of IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Days after Abdi’s announcement, the organization’s third spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, appeared via an audio speech, in which he mourned the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the previous spokesman, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, and said that the latter hails from “the (Arabian) Peninsula of Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him,” meaning that he is of Saudi nationality.
He pointed out that Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir was one of the first to come to fight the Americans in Iraq after the invasion in 2004.
The term of the organization’s third spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, lasted three years and IS did not announce his death.
However, researchers believe that he was killed along with the organization’s fourth leader in an American airdrop in Atma, north of Idlib, because the fourth spokesman, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, published an audio speech for the first time on March 10 in which he announced the killing of Abdullah Qardash.
The last speech of the fourth speaker, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, was on November 3, 2022, when he announced the killing of the third IS leader, Abu l-Hassan l-Hashemi l-Qurashi, and the appointment of Abu al-Hussein al-Hashemi al-Qurashi as successor.
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