The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, praised a Chechen jihadist commander who was killed during recent fighting to take control of a prison in Aleppo. The Chechen, known as Saifullah al Shishani, had defected from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham last fall and joined the Al Nusrah Front.
Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front who has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, praised Saifullah as a “heroic knight,” in a statement that was released on Al Nusrah’s Twitter account. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“Here the heroic knight has dismounted after a good march of jihad, which began in the Caucasus and ended in the Levant,” Julani said, according to SITE. “Saifullah was killed while moving with all his might to liberate the Muslim men and women from the prison of the tyrant [Bashar al Assad].”
Julani confirmed that Saifullah swore allegiance to the Al Nusrah Front.
“He gave only one condition to me before he extended his hand in pledging allegiance, which was to storm the prison and liberate it, and he did not accept an alternative.”
Julani’s statement confirmed reports last week that Saifullah was killed while fighting alongside Ahrar al Sham, a jihadist group that is allied with Al Nusrah, to take control of a hospital and prison in Aleppo. [See Threat Matrix report, Chechen commander for Al Nusrah Front reported killed in Aleppo.]
Abdul Halim Shishanov, “a member of the Shariah Committee” of the Muhajireen Army, according to SITE, also confirmed Saifullah’s death, and noted the Saifullah and his cadre of fighters had all sworn allegiance to the Al Nusrah Front.
“The group of Saifullah had over 500 mujahideen and they all supported him in his oath to the Al Nusrah Front and stood under that banner. “
Background on Saifullah
Saifullah led the “Al-Khilafa army,” or Army of the Caliphate, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It is likely that this is a reference to the Ansar al Khilafah, of Supporters of the Caliphate, an Al Nusrah Front unit that was formed in December 2012. [See LWJ report, Syrian jihadists form ‘Supporters of the Khilafah’ Brigade.] The Al Nusrah Front and Ansar al Khilafah seized a village near Aleppo in July 2013 and executed Syrian soldiers.
Saifullah was previously a commander in the Muhajireen Army, which has now split. The other faction is led by Chechen commander Abu Omar al Shishani; he has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. Last year, Saifullah and another Chechen commander split with Abu Omar and the ISIS.
“Saifullah al Shishani defected with 400 of his men three months ago, followed by Sheikh Salah al Shishani with 800 of his men,” Al Akhbar reported in early January.
Al Qaeda General Command disowned the ISIS last week. The denunciation took place after months of infighting between the ISIS on one side and the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front on the other, as well as a very public leadership dispute between the leaders of the ISIS and Al Nusrah. Al Qaeda attempted to mediate the dispute, and the ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, rebuffed the efforts.
Pro-al Qaeda clerics are now calling on members of the ISIS to defect. While al Qaeda’s denunciation has weakened the ISIS in Syria, jihadists such as Saifullah who have been or currently are abandoning the group are largely flocking to the Al Nusrah Front.
Video of Saifullah killed in a mortar attack: