In Syria, another hardline group gathers strength

A new organisation is in the making in Syria, says Hassan Hassan

Mahommad Oudeh, the former Palestine Liberation Organization and Black September leader. Adel Hana / AP
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In a 2008 documentary by Al Jazeera, two senior Palestinian operatives explained the reasoning behind the establishment of the Black September organisation, ostensibly a splinter group founded in 1971 after the expulsion of Fatah from Jordan.

Ahmad bin Bila spoke of a founding meeting with Salah Khalaf, Fatah’s second man at the time. “He told us: ‘You have a daunting mission ahead of you. The people and the world are saying the revolution is dead and you have to demonstrate that the revolution’s hands are long and that it’s not finished’.”

Bin Bila said the official told them that Fatah would expel the members and disassociate itself from them. The group went on to launch high-profile operations, including kidnapping and murdering 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Mohammad Oudeh, the mastermind of the Munich massacre, who died in Syria in 2010, told Al Jazeera: “We thought of creating an organisation, like we did when the Storm Forces was launched, which we called the Storm to protect Fatah. If the Storm failed, Fatah won’t be affected. Likewise, the Black September can do all the dirty work and Fatah stays clean. We set up cells, from fighters we had.”

A similar model might be at play in Syria today. A number of high-level members of Al Qaeda’s recently-rebranded affiliate, Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (formerly Jabhat Al Nusra), seem poised to establish a new faction.

The defectors might revive what the Americans call the Khorassan group – Al Qaeda operatives in Syria focused on foreign operations. The Khorassanites, as Syrian rebels call them, were thought to have been all but wiped out in a series of US air strikes. Intriguingly, the US-led coalition against ISIL launched its first air strikes inside Syria against the Khorassan group, rather than ISIL.

The members announced their defection after Jabhat Fateh Al Sham began talks with Syrian rebel groups to unite under one banner. That Jabhat Fateh Al Sham truly split from Al Qaeda is in dispute. Some members were nonetheless worried that the rebranding would lead to a slippery slope, and they regarded the unity talks with rebels to be a vindication of those fears.

Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi – a Jordanian ideologue associated with Al Qaeda, and a former mentor of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the founder of what is now known as ISIL – calls such jihadists in Syria the “hawks”. The hawks include Iyad Al Toubasi, better known as Abu Jelaybib, a Jordanian-Palestinian veteran of the Iraqi insurgency and a brother-in-law of Al Zarqawi. Among the hawks are other Jordanians close to Al Maqdisi, including Bilal Khuraysat, also known as Abu Khadijah.

Another hawk, the Jordanian Sami Al Aridi, Jabhat Al Nusra’s former top cleric, has not yet made his position publicly known. He is close to the defectors but he does not fit the profile of a disgruntled official. He has long been known as close to the leader of Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, as well as to Al Qaeda’s senior leadership. According to sources speaking to Jordanian newspaper Assabeel last September, Al Aridi asked to be relieved of his position several times at around the time he met Khaled Al Aroudi, a senior Al Qaeda member who was released by Iran last year in a swap deal.

Abu Jelaybib, too, is known as a loyalist to the current leader. In March, he was removed from his leadership position in Deraa and was reassigned as the emir in the coastal region. The move was supposedly a response to his behaviour in Deraa, where he was engaged in torture and assassination of rebel rivals. In reality, the new assignment was not a demotion and Abu Khadijah, the other Jordanian defector, was behind his reassignment, which came not long after another founder of Jabhat Al Nusra, Abu Mariyyah Al Qahatni, relocated from Deraa to the north.

Another piece of the puzzle is Farouq Al Suri, who also seemingly left Jabhat Fateh Al Sham following the unity talks. Intriguingly, Al Suri was known as a Khorassanite. An old associate of Zarqawi, Al Suri was announced dead twice, in March last year and April this year. If he is indeed still alive, he could be an important player in any new formulation – primarily because he is a Syrian and a long-standing operative.

The profiles of these individuals follow a pattern: they are well-established Al Qaeda operatives, close associates to the senior members of Al Qaeda released in September, and some of them are close associate of the Jordanian ideologue Al Maqdisi. The relationship between those individuals and the core Al Qaeda leaders, who moved to Syria after their release, is too close and strong for Al Qaeda to agree to a split against their wish. It is simply a risky move for Al Qaeda in terms of loyalty.

Three possible explanations for the defections can be pointed out. Members could be truly disgruntled at the Syrianisation of an Al Qaeda affiliate and wanted out. Another possibility is that they were fearful of the new direction and wanted to establish a front group similar to Black September, to absorb defections and to attract jihadists with groups such as Jund Al Aqsa while Jabhat Fateh Al Sham attracts Syrians with a national agenda. A third possibility is that the members intend to establish a group, also similar to Black September, to revive the so-called Khorassan group.

Regardless of which scenario will play out, one thing is clear: a new organisation is in the making in Syria, and it will be more hardline than the original one.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: hxhassan