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memri
February 5, 2018 No.
1372

Jaysh Al-Badiya, Al-Qaeda's Standard-Bearer In Syria

By: N. Mozes*

Introduction

On January 11, 2018, the Telegram channel of the jihadi organization in Syria Jaysh Al-Badiya ("The Desert Army") published a photo of some of its fighters and fighters from another jihadi organization in Syria, Jaysh Al-Malahem, en route to a battlefront in the southern rural region of Idlib, Syria. Alongside the fighters in the photo was a tank flying a flag saying "Qaedat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham" ("The Jihadi Al-Qaeda in the Land of Greater Syria").[1]

This is the first time since July 2016, when the Jabhat Al-Nusra movement declared its split from its mother organization Al-Qaeda, that an armed group is shown flying the Al-Qaeda flag in Syria. The photo brought a great deal of attention to Jaysh Al-Badiya and Jaysh Al-Malahem, which had until then not stood out among the Syrian rebel organizations. It also prompted questions about the strength and status of Al-Qaeda in Syria, and whether it intends to step up its presence and visibility in this country and establish a new framework under its name.

Jaysh Al-Badiya was formed in 2015 by top Jabhat Al-Nusra official Abu Turab Al-Hamawi, who was killed in May 2016 in the battle for Abu Al-Duhur Air Force base in northern Syria. Today, it is led by Bilal Al-San'ani; Abu 'Amara Al-Hadidi is in charge of its administrative affairs, and Abu Ali Ghouta handles its military affairs.[2] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, reported that Abu Maria Al-Kahtani is considered the "spiritual father" of the organization. Its numbers are not clear, but there are indications that many of its fighters are from abroad. 

According to a video released by Jaysh Al-Badiya, its motto is "Our jihad continues until the instatement of the rule of Islam on the face of the earth."[3]


Jaysh Al-Badiya's emblem. Source: T.me/Armebadea257, December 19, 2017.

In recent weeks, the close cooperation between Jaysh Al-Badiya and Jaysh Al-Malahem, headed by Saudi cleric Abu 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Makki, has become evident. Jaysh Al-Malahem commanders Qasura Al-Hamawi and Abu Muhammad Sahhal were killed in recent battles in the southern rural region of Idlib. Not much is currently known about the group, and apparently until recently it has not been a major player in battles.


Emblem of Jaysh Al-Malahem. Source: T.me/Armebadea257, January 17, 2018.

Jaysh Al-Badiya Adheres To Its Oath Of Allegiance To Al-Qaeda, Fights Under Al-Qaeda Flag

Until recently, Jaysh Al-Badiya had fought as part of Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), in its desert division. But in recent disputes between HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani and Al-Qaeda, that followed HTS's November 27, 2017 arrest of a number of Al-Qaeda officials, Jaysh Al-Badiya sided with Al-Qaeda. Its leaders signed a communique demanding that Al-Joulani release the Al-Qaeda officials, which included a warning that if he did not, Jaysh Al-Badiya would stop cooperating with the HTS.[4]

Two days after the release of this communique, Jaysh Al-Badiya leader Bilal Al-San'ani explained that his fighters were adhering to their oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda. In a message published on the Telegram channel of Al-Qaeda supporters in Syria on November 30, Al-San'ani wrote: "Some military commanders told them [Jaysh Al-Badiya members], 'We want only HTS [members here].' The [Jaysh Al-Badiya] brothers replied that they were maintaining their oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda." In this message he also countered the claim, made by HTS and others, that his men had abandoned their posts, saying: "we did not abandon and will not abandon our posts."[5]

On December 11, 2017, after Telegram channels close to HTS announced that the HTS organization had ordered Bilal Al-San'ani's replacement, Jaysh Al-Badiya announced that it was severing its connection with HTS, and clarified: "We are an entity that is independent of HTS, and we are cooperating with everyone against the aggressive forces in the desert, until the clerics who are working on the reconciliation initiative [between HTS and Jaysh Al-Badiya] announce their decision."[6]  

Against the backdrop of the complaints that the fighters loyal to Al-Qaeda had abandoned their posts and were refusing to come to the aid of other groups in the war against the Syrian regime forces, on November 28, 2017 Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zawahiri and the Al-Qaeda leadership called on their fighters in Syria not to abandon their posts and to cooperate with the Muslim factions fighting the Syrian regime.[7] Some in the Arab media interpreted this Al-Qaeda announcement as a call to its men to establish a new Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. It is possible that Jaysh Al-Badiya will be the main element in this new Al-Qaeda branch. Following this announcement by Al-Zawahiri, Jaysh Al-Badiya indeed circulated the photo showing its fighters on the battlefront accompanied by a tank flying the Al-Qaeda flag. [8]


Jaysh Al-Badiya fighters and tank flying flag of Al-Qaeda. T.me/Armebadea257, January 11, 2018.

There have been other indications that Jaysh Al-Badiya remains loyal to Al-Qaeda. One is its inclusion of an "Al-Qaeda in Syria" hashtag in its posts on its Telegram channel, which has over 3,000 subscribers. 


A post on the Jaysh Al-Badiya Telegram channel with #Al-Qaeda in Bilad Al-Sham (Al-Qaeda in Syria) hashtag. Source: T.me/Armebadea257, December 5, 2017.

Additionally, several videos disseminated by Jaysh Al-Badiya have featured statements by Al-Qaeda officials Al-Zawahiri; the late Al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu Yahya Al-Libi, who was killed in 2012, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official Sheikh Khaled Batarfi. Other videos featured additional mottos associated with Al-Qaeda, such as "Oh Al-Aqsa, we are coming."[9]

Journalist 'Izz Al-Din Al-Shahari, who on his Telegram channel identifies himself as "an Al-Qaeda supporter," called the two Jaysh Al-Malahem officials who were recently killed "lions of the Jihadi Al-Qaeda." [10]

Jaysh Al-Badiya's Relations With Other Fighting Organizations

Apparently in response to Al-Zawahiri's call to cooperate with all the jihadi forces in Syria, Jaysh Al-Badiya began again to cooperate with HTS fighters in the field, but this time under its own banner along with the Al-Qaeda banner. On December 12, it posted on its Telegram channel a message stating: "Jaysh Al-Badiya, in cooperation with its brothers in HTS and with Jaysh Al-Ahrar, are stopping the attempt of the Alawi [i.e. Syrian regime] army to advance towards the villages of Ramla and Siala, in the southern rural area of Aleppo..."[11]

Jaysh Al-Badiya is also working together with fighters from the Uyghur jihad group Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).

Jaysh Al-Badiya's Forces On The Ground

As noted, so far Jaysh Al-Badiya has not been prominent among the jihadi groups, and it is not known how many fighters it has. According to its posts on its Telegram channel, it has shock troops, a training camp named for its founder Abu Turab Al-Hamawi,  and an information office. It also has tanks and armored personnel carriers, RPG launchers, and a lot of small arms. It also has the capability of filming its activity with drones.


Jaysh Al-Badiya and Jaysh Al-Malahem shock troops en route to the village of Al-Mashirfa, south of Idlib, Syria.[12] Source: T.me/Armebadea257, January 11, 2018.


Photos from Jaysh Al-Badiya training camp. Source: T.me/Armebadea257, December 15, 2017.

Jaysh Al-Badiya In First Official Announcement: Remember Bin Laden; "Where Are The Men Who Will Remind You Of The Attacks On Manhattan?"

Jaysh Al-Badiya's independence from HTS was also expressed in a threatening December 9, 2017 post on its Telegram channel, following U.S. President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, labelled "Announcement No. 1" and titled "Our Meeting Place Is Al-Aqsa." It referred to President Trump as "the enemy of Allah" and called on the Muslims to defend Al-Aqsa. It also touted Al-Qaeda's major attacks on the U.S. over the years: "The Islamic ummah, particularly the mujahideen for the sake of Allah, must respond to the enemies of Allah however they can. Where are the men who will remind you of the attacks on Manhattan, on the USS Cole, on the Twin Towers? This is your day. You must keep the issue of aiding your holy places before your eyes. You must fill their [i.e. the e enemies'] lives with fear and undermine their security. Do not forget the words of the fighting sheikh Osama bin Laden, Allah's mercy be upon him: 'America and those who live in America will not feel secure until we live in security in Palestine'... To our people in Palestine, I pray that Allah will help you. There is no way but intifada against the Zionists... Prepare, draw your swords, carry your knives so that the blood of your enemies drips from them."[13]

Jaysh Al-Badiya's "Announcement No. 1."  Source: T.me/Armebadea257, December 9, 2017.

 


[1] T.me/Armebadea257, January 11, 2018.

[2] Baladi-news.com, November 28, 2017.

[3] T.me/Armebadea257, December 19, 2017.

[4] T.me/alkasda, November 28, 2017. See MEMRI JTTM report on the arrest and reactions to it: HTS Arrest Of Senior Al-Qaeda Figures Stirs Discontent In Its Ranks, November 28, 2017.

[5] T.me/alkasda, November 30. 2017.

[6] T.me/Armebadea257, December 11, 2017.

[8] T.me/Armebadea257, January 11, 2018.

[9] T.me/Armebadea257, January 12, 2018.

[10] T.me/ez_aldeen2, 14, January 4, 2018.

[11] T.me/Armebadea257, December 20, 2017.

[12] T.me/Armebadea257, January 11, 2018.

[13] T.me/Armebadea257, December 9, 2017.