In Interview With U.S.-Born Jihadi Reporter, Canada-Based Pro-Al-Qaeda Cleric Predicts Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Will "Sell Out" Foreign Fighters, Advises Them To Unite And Stand Firm

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January 3, 2022

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On December 29, 2021, On the Ground News (OGN), a pro-jihad media outlet run from northern Syria by U.S.-born journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, posted a video on YouTube titled "Where did the Syrian Revolution Go Wrong? Part 2."[1] The 36-minute film features an interview in English which was held via video conference with Canada-based, pro-Al-Qaeda cleric Tariq Abdelhaleem, and is subtitled in Arabic. In the interview, Abdelhaleem lays most of the blame for the waning of the revolution on Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), accuses the jihadi group of persecuting foreign fighters, and advises these fighters to unite in order to protect themselves against HTS attempts to kill them or return them to their home countries.

The above is a screenshot from the OGN video, which was posted on YouTube.

The first video in the OGN series was released on December 21, 2021, and features an interview in Arabic with pro-rebel Sheikh 'Ali Nayef Al-Shuhoud, the head of the Homs Scholars Body,[2] who currently resides in the part of northern Syria controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), as does Abdul Kareem since his release from HTS prison in Idlib, in February 2021.[3]

The above is a screenshot of the OGN interview with Sheikh 'Ali Nayef Al-Shuhoud, which was posted on YouTube.

Abdul Kareem, a convert to Islam from Mount Vernon, New York, whose name was originally Darrell Lamont Phelps, traveled to Syria after the outbreak of the civil war and founded the pro-rebel, OGN news outlet. Although he was initially aligned with HTS, he eventually became an outspoken opponent of the group and was arrested by HTS in August 2020, after he accused it of mistreating and torturing prisoners. HTS issued a statement accusing Abdul Kareem of "working with groups that harm the general security in the liberated areas" and "disseminating lies harming [local] institutions without proof or evidence," among other offenses. Even after his release from HTS prison, he has continued to accuse HTS of torturing and "disappearing" prisoners, particularly foreign fighters, and has suggested that it is colluding with the West to crack down on foreign jihadis in Syria.[4]

Although Abdul Kareem does not openly express support for Al-Qaeda's agenda of global jihad and OGN focuses mainly on the Syrian arena, he is considered to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, and many Al-Qaeda supporters condemned his arrest and celebrated his release from prison. Since his release, his views on the Syrian jihad and events in Idlib have largely coincided with those of Al-Qaeda supporters.

The Egypt-born Abdelhaleem has been living in Ontario, Canada since the late 1980s, where he opened an Islamic educational institute in the 1990s, which has since closed. While his son Shareef was convicted of participation in a 2006 plot to perpetrate terrorist attacks in Toronto, when he was questioned during the trial his father insisted that he, himself, did not support attacks on civilians.

Abdelhaleem has been a consistent supporter of Al-Qaeda and has been endorsed by Al-Qaeda supporters. He was one of several pro-Al-Qaeda clerics addressed by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a 2015 open letter.[5] Abdelhaleem is also an outspoken critic of HTS and was one of those who condemned the group for arresting Abdul Kareem.[6] In November 2021, Abdelhaleem published a Telegram post calling for the death of a Saudi journalist in response to a Tweet that the jihadi cleric viewed as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad.[7]

At the start of the video, Abdul Kareem asks what has happened to the Syrian revolution to bring it to its current weakened state, and explains that OGN has decided to "go back to the basics" by speaking to "the people of Islamic knowledge" to understand how the revolution "went off track." The U.S.-born journalist describes Tariq Abdelhaleem as a "distinguished guest" and an "Islamic scholar – analyst" with more than 50 years of experience.

In the above screenshot from the video, Abdelhaleem is described as an "Islamic scholar – analyst."

In response to Abdul Kareem's question: "Where did the Syrian revolution go wrong?" Abdelhaleem says many factors have contributed to the decline of the rebel cause – including the "Russian invasion" which has intervened to support Bashar Al-Assad – but that the "number one reason" the revolution has not succeeded is due to internal shortcomings within the rebel ranks. Criticizing the people of Syria and most of the Islamic world for their apathy regarding their rulers' injustice and un-Islamic leadership, and contrasting them with the people of Afghanistan, whose jihad he views as a success, the pro-Al-Qaeda cleric asserts that 80% of Syrians did not participate in the revolution, unlike the Afghans who served as the "incubator" of the mujahideen. Abdelhaleem particularly criticizes his own countrymen, saying that the Egyptians are "the worst of the worst" in their indifference to their government's oppression.

The Canada-based jihadi cleric further condemns rebel leaders, asserting that they did not take the mujahideen in the right direction, particularly criticizing the Islamic State (ISIS) and HTS. Abdelhaleem says that the "Khawarij,"[8] led by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, harmed the revolution even more than the Russians did by dividing the people and killing Muslims whom they claimed were apostates. He also claims that HTS, headed by Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, is responsible for keeping the Syrian people under the control of Turkey and "those who [don't] really want the Syrian revolution to flourish."

Abdelhaleem expands on his opposition to Al-Joulani, insisting that although the HTS leader initially seemed like a sincere jihadi commander, he never really wanted to wage jihad or to establish an Islamic system of government. According to the pro-Al-Qaeda cleric, even Al-Joulani's ostensibly good actions, like founding Jabhat Al-Nusra and swearing allegiance to Al-Zawahiri, were undertaken to advance his own interests. He proceeds to present a "psychological analysis" of Al-Joulani, claiming that he is "imbalanced" and is constantly changing his ideology, and adding that he is surrounded by "very bad characters" like senior religious official Maysarah Al-Jubouri, known as Abu Mariyah Al-Qahtani. The jihadi cleric adds: "Some people say: […] Those [HTS] are going to be those who will invade and liberate Al-Quds [Jerusalem]. I don't understand how."

Abdul Kareem asks Abdelhaleem his opinion of the HTS arrests of many muhajireen [foreign fighters] who "come from other countries to fight for the sake of Allah and to help the Syrian people," noting that they are some of the weakest people in Syrian society, since they have no family or tribe to support them, and alleging that since "there is no real court system" in Idlib, many of them are tortured and are not given the opportunity to defend themselves. The jihadi reporter asks Abdelhaleem what advice he would give to foreign fighters who are in danger both from the Assad regime and from HTS.

The pro-Al-Qaeda cleric responds that it is "the utmost haram [forbidden act] and ma'siyah [sin]" to arrest and torture those who have left their homes and made such great sacrifices for their fellow Muslims. Abdelhaleem lashes out at HTS, alleging that its treatment of foreign fighters is reminiscent of the behavior of the intelligence apparatuses of the Assad regime or the Egyptian government, adding: "I won't even say the FBI […] They don't go that far. There are laws to contain them." He says of HTS that: "They will […] be with [Egyptian President] Al-Sisi in the same place in Jahannam [Hell] if they keep doing this."

Advising the muhajireen to "stick together" and form unions of foreign fighters to protect and advocate for each other, Abdelhaleem suggests that they follow the example of Saudi-born jihadi cleric 'Abdallah Al-Muhaysini who created a union of Saudi foreign fighters. At the same time, he criticizes Al-Muhaysini for refusing to accept non-Saudis, saying that is "quite an indication of who Al-Muhaysini is."[9]

Abdelhaleem further notes that internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria who are currently residing in the Idlib area are suffering, claiming that HTS has the money to help the IDPs but "nothing is being done" for them. Noting that many IDPs live in tents in refugee camps where they suffer extreme weather and flooding, he asks: "What kind of Islamic behavior is this?" Abdul Kareem also mentions that there was recently a "bread crisis" in Idlib and there is currently a "fuel crisis," claiming that prices are higher in Idlib than in other parts of Syria because HTS has a monopoly on these commodities.[10]

Returning to the topic of foreign fighters in Idlib, Abdul Kareem maintains that they are "living in fear" since they don't know if they will be "sold" to their countries of origin or imprisoned. He adds that: "Some people are even saying that we may have to take arms up against it [HTS] at some point," but insists that an "ugly situation like that […] would be in no one's interest." The jihadi cleric predicts that HTS will renounce the foreign fighters, saying: "I think they will […] sell them out." He concurs with Abdul Kareem that muhajireen should not take up arms against HTS because they do not have sufficient strength and power, but warns that if HTS attacks them, "they are walking into a death trap." Abdelhaleem accordingly urges foreign fighters to prepare for a military confrontation in case it becomes necessary for them to fight against "the people who are going to kill them" and to "be aware of what is going on."

The jihadi reporter asks Abdelhaleem whether those who object to HTS policies but continue to work for it because it is the most powerful group are doing the right thing or whether they are violating Islam. The cleric responds that working for HTS security forces is "completely haram [forbidden]" and can even be considered an act of unbelief in some cases,[11] but those who are "coerced" into working for an HTS government ministry or the like so they can support their families should not be blamed, nor should Muslims who work for "any tyrant's government" in such auxiliary roles. However, he says, they should quit HTS if they can.

When Abdul Kareem wonders whether fighters should leave HTS, as this may weaken the rebels and make them vulnerable to enemy attack, the jihadi cleric clarifies that working with HTS on the frontlines to "fight Nusayriyah [a pejorative term for the Alawite sect, i.e. the Assad regime]" is "okay," but fighters must not "protect other secular groups" or provide security for Russian or Turkish patrols.

 

In the above screenshot from the end of the video, Abdul Kareem thanks Abdelhaleem for granting the interview.

 

[1] Youtube.com, OGN TV, December 29, 2021.

[2] Youtube.com, OGN TV, December 21, 2021.

[8] The Kharijites, or Khawarij, were an early Islamic sect which declared Muslims to be apostates for committing even minor sins. Today the term is used pejoratively by Muslims to denounce jihadi groups they view as extremist, specifically ISIS.

[11] This is along the lines of a ruling by another pro-Al-Qaeda cleric, Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi; see MEMRI JTTM Report: Pro-Al-Qaeda Ideologue Al-Maqdisi Rules Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)-Linked General Security Service Violates Islam; HTS General Shari'a Council Responds By Labeling Al-Maqdisi An Extremist, October 13, 2020.

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