Center for Strategic Communication

Abu Hammam al Shami.jpg

Abu Hammam al Shami, as pictured in a new Al Nusrah Front video, joined al Qaeda in the late 1990s and swore an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

An Al Nusrah Front video released on March 23 features Abu Hammam al Shami, an al Qaeda operative who swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden and who has long served al Qaeda’s senior leaders.

Abu Hammam is the latest al Qaeda veteran to criticize the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) in an Al Nusrah Front video. ISIS and Al Nusrah, which is al Qaeda’s official branch inside Syria, have been engaged in a heated propaganda war.

Previous anti-ISIS videos produced by the Al Nusrah Front have featured Abu Firas al Suri, an experienced al Qaeda member who has waged jihad since the late 1970s, and Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, an extremist preacher from Australia who migrated to Syria and assumed a leadership position within Al Nusrah. Both Abu Firas and Abu Sulayman sought to undermine ISIS’ legitimacy, and Abu Hammam’s video expounds upon similar themes.

The Al Nusrah Front video was translated by Oren Adaki, an Arab-language specialist and research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Abu Hammam’s video centers on his experiences trying to broker a ceasefire with ISIS. The problems began, according to Abu Hammam, when ISIS fighters attacked an Al Nusrah Front brigade. Despite meeting with several ISIS leaders, Abu Hammam could not find any responsible officials within the group.

Abu Hammam claims that he even met with one of ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s chief deputies. Baghdadi’s deputy supposedly told Abu Hammam that either ISIS will annihilate everyone else, or ISIS itself will be annihilated. When Abu Hammam suggested that their differences could be settled in a common sharia court, Baghdadi’s deputy replied that they will bring their disagreements to a sharia court when the fight to the death is over.

The Al Nusrah Front finally brokered a ceasefire with ISIS when Abu Hammam met with Omar al Shishani, the Chechen ISIS leader. But the ceasefire agreement, which is shown during the video, was short-lived. Some ISIS leaders urged Shishani not to sign the agreement, Abu Hammam says, but Shishani entered into it. The deal required ISIS to stop fighting all of the other factions and to settle its disputes in a common sharia court.

Shishani asked Abu Hammam how long it would take for the agreement to take effect, and Abu Hammam says that he explained it would take two days to notify all of the relevant parties. Shishani told Abu Hammam to expedite the process, but before the deal could be ratified, ISIS detonated a car bomb. The bombing presumably brought the peace process to a halt.

Abu Hammam tries to underscore ISIS’ reckless disregard for civilians. Although it is ironic to hear al Qaeda operatives denounce jihadists for killing civilians, al Qaeda’s senior leadership and the Al Nusrah Front are attempting to take a more pragmatic approach to the jihad in Syria. They seek to avoid the mistakes of the past, which led to the alienation of the population. Al Qaeda is trying to build a broader base of popular support inside Syria and beyond.

In this vein, Abu Hammam claims that when ISIS withdrew from a Syrian town that was being attacked by the Free Syrian Army, it left behind booby traps. The ISIS headquarters was packed with explosives, including chlorine bombs. If the Al Nusrah Front had not subsequently defused the bombs, Abu Hammam says, the civilians in the village would have been devastated.

The predecessor to ISIS, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is known to have used chlorine bombs in Iraq. So Abu Hammam’s claims are at least plausible.

Swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, works for top al Qaeda leaders

The Al Nusrah Front provides a detailed biography of Abu Hammam before he speaks in the video. His life story is filled with details connecting him to al Qaeda’s most senior leaders.

Abu Hammam joined the jihad in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and spent one year at the al Ghuraba military camp, which was run by Abu Musab al Suri, a major jihadist ideologue whose teachings are still widely read.

He then moved on to al Qaeda’s Al Farouq training camp, which provided basic instruction for new recruits, and was selected for more advanced training.

Abu Hammam finished second in his class at an al Qaeda special forces training facility. One of the 9/11 hijackers finished first in Abu Hammam’s class, according to the Al Nusrah Front video.

Saif al Adel, who was a top al Qaeda military commander prior to 9/11 and remains a senior leader to this day, appointed Abu Hammam as the emir of a region in Kandahar. He was also named a trainer in one of al Qaeda’s camps.

Abu Hammam swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden with a handshake and was named the head of the Syrian jihadist contingent in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. He fought alongside al Qaeda in major battles, according to the Al Nusrah Front’s biography.

In late 2001, after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had begun, Abu Hammam fled with Saif al Adel. And he was appointed by another senior al Qaeda leader, Mustafa Abu al Yazid, to work in Iraq prior to the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Yazid was one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants and became al Qaeda’s general manager in 2005. Yazid was killed in a US drone strike in May 2010.

Abu Hammam stayed in Baghdad “on official duty from [al Qaeda’s] general leadership in Khorasan” for four months prior to the Iraq War. During that time, he met with both Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who went on to head AQI before being killed in 2006, and Abu Hamza Al Muhajer (a.k.a. Abu Ayyub al Masri), who took over as head of AQI after Zarqawi’s demise. Al Muhajer, a longtime subordinate of Ayman al Zawahiri, was subsequently killed in April 2010.

Abu Hammam was arrested by Iraqi intelligence and transferred to Syrian custody. But he was freed by the Syrians.

At the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, Abu Hammam was appointed as the head “of the mujahideen services office that was working in the benefit of the jihad in Iraq.” Zarqawi “would send him men and he would train them militarily and return them to” Zarqawi’s terrorist enterprise.

The Al Nusrah video does not indicate where this training took place, but it was likely inside Syria, which housed a significant training and facilitation network during the Iraq War. Not only was Abu Hammam released inside Syria, he mentions a series of arrests by “the Shiites” in 2005 that forced him to flee to Lebanon. He “then returned to Afghanistan another time at the request of the sheikhs there.”

Sheikh Attiyah Abd al Rahman, “who was in charge of the foreign activities of the organization at that time,” then “charged him with working inside Syria directly for al Qaeda.” Rahman succeeded Yazid as al Qaeda’s general manager, but he too was killed in an August 2011 drone strike.

Before Abu Hammam could assume his leadership duties in Bashar al Assad’s Syria, however, he was arrested in Lebanon and imprisoned for five years. He was eventually released and “currently works in the position of the general military leader” in the Al Nusrah Front.