For the first-time, al Qaeda-linked Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia, the Caucasus and China’s Xinjiang province fighting in northern Syria have involved themselves in ideological disputes and internal confrontations.
The players are the al-Qaeda breakaway group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the Guardians of Religion, which has remained loyal to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Foreign fighter groups in Idlib such as the Uyghurs’ Turkestan Islamic Party, the Uzbeks’ Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar all affirmed their support to HTS in a joint statement released in February.
The statement was also signed by the Albanian militants group Katibat al-Alban, Iran’s Harakat al-Muhajireen al-Sunna, Saudi Arabia’s Rabitat al-Ma’ali, the Maldivian Mujahideen and other smaller foreign groups fighting under the leadership of HTS — which broke with al-Qaeda in 2017.
The move violates the traditional neutrality foreign Salafi-Jihadi groups have maintained with al-Qaeda’s various branches and the first time they have openly supported a breakaway group. As is well known, Uzbek and Uyghur militants have always tried to keep their neutrality, without interfering in intra-jihadi rivalries between HTS and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
In the one-page and three paragraphs statement, foreign fighters clearly stated their strong support and loyalty to HTS.
“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, represented by its leadership and fighters, is the dignity and the force of Ahl al-Sunnah [Sunni Islam] in Bilad al-Sham,” reads the statement. The authors praise HTS as “the best to have borne the banner of jihad in this blessed land; the one that defends the frontlines; it has protected Muslims security and established the courts that rule by God’s law in all the areas subjected to them.” Special attention is paid to the centralized role of HTS “around whose leadership the mass of the Ansar [natives] and Muhajireen [foreign fighters] has gathered”.