The recent arrest of a well-known Uzbek jihadist leader Abu Saloh al Uzbeki (Sirajuddin Mukhtarov) by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and thereafter resumption of armed clashes between former and current al Qaeda’s jihadi formations in northwest Syria in June 2020 will directly affect the activities of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), dozens were killed during an armed clash between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), former al Qaeda’s strongest branch in Syria, and the newly formed alliance led by current al Qaeda’ s-affiliate Hurras al-Din (HD).
It should be noted that on June 16, 2020, the HTS arrested the fierce ideologist of al Qaeda and former emir of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) Abu Saloh, which caused tension among Russian-speaking militants in Sham and raised eyebrows of the global Salafi-Jihadi movement. A week later, on June 22, the HTS arrested its former senior commander, member of the group’s Shura Council Abu Malek al-Talli, accusing him of fomenting division, insurrection and disarray after his new faction Liwa al-Muqatileen al-Ansar helped establish an al Qaeda-leaning operations room in Idlib.
The cruelty of the HTS’ repressive apparatus towards its former members and the armed clashes between jihadist groups in Idlib was caused by the creation of the new Joint Operations Center Fathbutou (Be Steadfast) on 12 June 2020, which included al Qaida-inspired “hardliners” such as HD, Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JaD), Tansiqiyat al-Jihad (TJ), Ansar al-Islam (AI) and Liwa al-Muqatileen al-Ansar (LMA).
Strengthening the position of al Qaeda’s allies seriously undermined the HTS’ stance in the northwestern Idlib province, where it rules over the local Salvation Government with an iron hand and where it established so-called Sharia rule. In order to maintain its status quo and keep dominant position over other rebel groups, HTS began large-scale arrests of those jihadists who broke away from its “Clear Victory Operations Room” and joined al Qaeda-linked Fathbutou Operations Center. At the personal instruction of the HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani the KTJ’s former amir Abu Saloh and its dissenting commander Abu Malek al-Talli were arrested.
If the arrest of Abu Malek al-Talli was seen as an intra-group showdown, the arrest of Abu Saloh caused a broad resonance among al Qaeda members in Central Asia and the Middle East, and it was widely reported in the Arabic, English and Russian press. The US FDD’s Long War Journal devoted twoarticles in a row to the Abu Saloh’s arrest and carefully assessed his Jihadi activity, with one exception. The Washington-based hawkish think tank, for some reason, never mentions the fact that Abu Saloh and his KTJ fighters swore allegiance (bayat) to al Qaeda, and that the main reason for Abu Saloh’s conflict with HTS and his current dissident demarche is related to his unwillingness to break the bayat to al Qaeda.
But some Arab and Russian media were also inaccurate in assessing the reasons for his arrest. Especially Russian experts on the Telegram channel, referring to Zaman alWasl, the Syrian outlet close to HTS, claimed that Abu Saloh was arrested for financial debts (over$ 60,000) to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
However, such a simplistic and superficial assessment neglects to analyze the complex processes taking place inside the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups and the influence of al Qaeda’s ideology on them. The true reasons for Abu Saloh’s demonstrative demarche, who defied Syria’s most powerful militant faction, are due to his ideological differences with HTS and the dominance of al Qaeda’s global ideology among Uzbek and Uyghur Islamists.
Abu Saloh’s radical supporters see the future of Holy Jihad not only within the framework of only one state, as the HTS in Syria does. They are seriously worried about the future of global Jihad in the event of the fall of Syria’s last bastion of resistance if the Assad regime were to succeed in retaking the Idlib province entirely.
In his Jummah Khutbah (Friday Sermon) speeches, he urges jihadists not to “get stuck” in one place, but “to rush to the aid of those Muslims where they need the help of the Warriors of Allah.” That is, his views on global jihad are compatible with the ideological doctrine of al Qaeda.
Abu Saloh’s position on the problem of Jerusalem is identical with al Qaeda. He believes that the Al-Aqsa Mosque can only be liberated with the help of jihad. He claimed that after the victory of jihad in Syria, their path will be directed to Palestine.
Abu Saloh Between Two Fires: Al Qaeda and HTS
Under the Abu Saloh leadership, KTJ grew out of an unobtrusive regional group into a formidable and tough member of the global Salafi-Jihadi movement. KTJ, created by him in 2013, consists of Central Asian militants, mostly Uzbeks and Kyrgyz from the Ferghana Valley.
In early 2015, Abu Saloh and his militants swore allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. In September 2015, however, KTJ rejoined the al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusrah Front (NF) as part of Al Nusrah’s efforts to consolidate various foreign groups inside Syria. Since that period, HTS has become a combat mentor of KTJ’s Uzbek militants. During this time Abu Saloh demonstrated his brilliant ability to successfully spread the al Qaeda ideology on a global scale. He was and remained a faithful and aggressive propagandist of the Jihadi idea into Central Asia.
His ideological disagreements with HTS’s predecessor Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)began after it publicly distanced itself from al Qaeda, its original parent organization. Although Abu Saloh never openly criticized the Jihadi line of HTS and its leader Julani, he regularly defended the ideological views of al Qaeda’s former and current leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. And, of course, Julani, from whom Ayman al-Zawahiri openly demanded further submission to al Qaeda, did not like Saloh’s step out of HTS line
Abu Saloh’s growing authority beyond HTS and his close contacts with prominent ideologists of global Jihadism, such as Abu Qatada al-Falastini, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and others also irked Julani. Dissatisfied with his arrogant ideological behavior, HTS decided to remove Abu Saloh from the leadership of KTJ. According to the UN, in April 2019, Abdul Aziz Uzbeki (Khikmatov), a native of the Fergana Valley and deputy leader of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ.
The intrigues and regional division of jihadists within KTJ also played an important role in the resignation of Abu Saloh. Being a native of southern Kyrgyzstan with Uighur roots, he was considered a “stranger” among jihadists from Uzbekistan, who make up the majority of KTJ. Together with him some jihadists from Kyrgyzstan left KTJ’s leadership.
After his resignation, he actively conducted a preaching mission for Muhajireen (foreign fighters) in Idlib, becoming the ideological mouthpiece of Central Asian jihadism. In his public speeches, he was even more deeply imbued with the ideas of al Qaeda. His Telegram channel has the largest audience among other jihadist figures of post-Soviet countries. He combined the image of a conservative Imam and a modern lecturer with stylish glasses, drawing complex diagrams of the Quran’s Surahs and Ayahs on the blackboard.
Under HTS pressure, the new KTJ leadership continued to further reduce the role of Abu Saloh when his preaching responsibilities were transferred to the new Uzbek imam, Ahluddin Navqotiy, who arrived from Turkey. From March 2020, his public audio and video performances and sermons gradually began to disappear from the KTJ’s website, which pushed him into the arms of al Qaeda.
In ideological friction between al Qaeda’s HD and HTS, which often developed into an armed clash, Abu Saloh sided with al Qaeda. On the sidelines, he supported HD’s demands handing over all of al-Qaida’s weapons from HTS to HD because Julani had broken his bayat to al Qaida. HD has consistently been at odds with HTS, criticizing the group for diluting the religion and monotheism (Tawhid), for adopting the Sochi ceasefire agreement and for establishing a modus vivendi with secular Turkey.
Amid Idlib’s local residents’ dissatisfaction with HTS policies that allowed the Russian patrols to enter the M4 highway, HD managed to convince more jihadists to join its ranks and attempted to lead a rebellion in northern Syria. Step News Agency has confirmed that Abu Saloh recently defected from HTS to Jabhat Ansar al-Din alongside 50 other members of KTJ. HTS regarded such a step as a betrayal and arrested Abu Saloh and Abu Malek al-Talli.
After the arrest of “defectors”, the situation in Greater Idlib sharply escalated. Fathbutou slammed the arrests and accused HTS of betraying jihad and complying with the “secular” Astana agreement. HD captured checkpoints in the Harem, Armanaz, Kuku and Sheikh Bahr districts, and blocked traffic, demanding the release of the detainees. More than 30 people were killed as a result of the four-day clashes between HD and HTS.
Al Qaeda expressed its support for HD and the arrested pro-al Qaeda’s leaders, urging HTS’ jihadists not to fight against Fathbutou. Famous sheikhs Abu Qatada al Falastini, Abu Muhammad Al Makdisi, Sodik Abu Abdullah Al-Hashimi (Sudan) and others called on the conflicting parties to put down their weapons, stop the bloodshed and focus on the “revolution in Syria”. On June 26, HD and HTS signed an agreement to end the clashes, open all checkpoints, as well as unhindered exit of all civilians from conflict zone under the guarantees of Russian-speaking Jihadi groups Ajnad Al-Kavkaz and Jund Ash-Sham.
Despite the reached “peace” agreements, Abu Saloh still remains in prison.Abu Mohammad al-Julani put forward a condition in which Abu Saloh and his accomplices would be released if they rejoined the HTS. If they refuse, HTS promised to accuse Abu Saloh of embezzlement of money and property, and apostasy against the HTS.
In conclusion, his suffering for loyalty to al Qaeda and his “spiritual heritage” will have an important impact on the development of Jihadism in Central Asia, in spreading the al Qaeda’s ideology and in attracting young Muslims to the path of religious extremism.