Center for Strategic Communication

A top official in Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front, Hassan Abboud, has sharply criticized the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) and its emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in a written statement and audio message released on social media pages.

Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front have been engaged in an ongoing and heated dispute with ISIS.

In his written statement, Abboud poses three questions for Baghdadi. The first question chides Baghdadi for rejecting a reconciliation initiative put forward by Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini. Abboud asks Baghdadi if it is appropriate to reject such an initiative by imposing conditions that are not found in the book of Allah.

Second, Abboud asks Baghdadi if he agrees with the ISIS sharia officials who have “branded Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front as infidels.” ISIS’ habit of labeling other jihadist groups as infidels was criticized in a recent audio message from Ayman al Zawahiri. The al Qaeda emir did not name any specific groups in his message, but he clearly took aim at ISIS.

Sheikh Muhaysini’s reconciliation plan, named the “Initiative of the Ummah,” was released just hours after Zawahiri’s message. And Muhaysini specifically cited Zawahiri’s message both in his social media posts and in a video announcing his new proposal.

Third, and finally, Abboud introduces a clever argument that is intended to throw Baghdadi’s accusations of apostasy back in his face. In rejecting Muhaysini’s initiative, ISIS demanded that the jihadists set forth a clear policy for working with foreign states throughout the region. Multiple factions within the Islamic Front, including Ahrar al Sham, reportedly receive support from Gulf States, either officially or unofficially.

Abboud asks Baghdadi if he agrees with ISIS sharia officials who would brand all of the Taliban “as apostates,” and especially Taliban emir Mullah Omar, simply because Omar has said that he desires “good relations with the rest of the world’s countries.” It is not clear if ISIS officials have made this specific accusation, or if this is simply the logical conclusion of the sharia arguments ISIS has made.

Abboud cites a Tunisian sharia official within ISIS who has apparently argued that if the emir of a group “commits apostasy,” then everyone who has “pledged allegiance to [the emir] also becomes an apostate.” By this logic, Abboud writes, then al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri would be “an infidel.” Al Qaeda’s emirs long ago swore fealty to the Taliban head when it comes to the jihad in Afghanistan.

And if Zawahiri is an infidel, Abboud continues, then so is Baghdadi because ISIS has said that Baghdadi “pledged allegiance” to Zawahiri. It “follows” that all of ISIS must be an “infidel” organization because Baghdadi is its emir.

Abboud argues that if Baghdadi persists in this line of argument, then the ISIS emir would have to “disavow” his previous claims of allegiance and “revert to Islam all over again.”

At the heart of the conflict between Baghdadi and the other jihadist leaders is ISIS’ exclusionary claims with respect to implementing sharia law within Syria. ISIS and its sharia officials have refused to recognize the legitimacy of officials from other organizations.

Abboud’s barbs at Baghdadi are, therefore, a clever way of turning the stances taken by ISIS against the group. According to Abboud’s logic, either Baghdadi has made an unreasonable demand in rejecting Muhaysini’s proposal, or he must disavow all of the senior jihadists above him, including respected figures such as Mullah Omar and Ayman al Zawahiri.

Abboud’s mention of the Taliban is not the first time that Mullah Omar’s organization has entered the discussion of how the Syrian rebels should organize themselves.

After Sheikh Muhaysini reviewed and approved the Islamic Front’s charter, which was released late last year, the Saudi commented that the jihadists in Syria should view Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar as their role models. Muhaysini said that bin Laden and Omar were the “vanguards” of the jihad because of the success they had in marrying their organizations in the face of global opposition.

Muhaysini’s comparison may be an apt description of the alliances forming inside Syria today. The Al Nusrah Front is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri while working closely with “local” jihadist groups inside Syria, including Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front. Moreover, Ayman al Zawahiri’s main representative in Syria is a founding member of, and senior leader in, Ahrar al Sham.

However, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi sees himself as the rightful ruler and does not want to share power with anyone.