At the end of February 2018, six local groups of jihadists operating in northern Syria announced their withdrawal from the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the establishment of a new organization called the Guardians of the Religion Organization. The new organization is headed by Abu al-Humam al-Shami, a veteran Al-Qaeda senior operative who fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and was sent to Iraq where he joined forces with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (the founding father of ISIS). Prominent among the leadership of the new organization is a group of Jordanian Al-Qaeda operatives who oppose the independent line of Abu Mohammad al-Julani, leader of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front).
In the background of the (additional) split in the ranks of Al-Qaeda supporters in Syria is a fierce dispute between the leadership of Al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, on the one hand, and Abu Mohammad al-Julani, leader of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, on the other. The dispute focuses on the question of the nature of the connection between Al-Qaeda and its branch in Syria: is the Al-Qaeda branch allowed to conduct its own independent “Syrian” policy, which adapts itself to the severe constraints imposed on it, or is it subject to the instructions of Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose perception of the situation in Syria (from afar) and set of considerations regarding the organization’s conduct in Syria are completely different.