ABU ABD ALLAH AL-SHAMI: A LEADING SALAFIST MILITANT COMMANDER IN SYRIA
Nicholas A. Heras
The Islamist rebel campaign Jaysh al-Fateh (Conquering Army) has begun an operation called Ma’arakat al-Nasr (Battle of Victory) in order to seize control of the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur in the northwestern Syrian governorate of Idlib, near the Turkish border (al-Hayat, April 24; al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 23; al-Jazeera, April 23; Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2015). One of Jaysh al-Fateh’s allies in the operation is Jabhat Ansar al-Din (Partisans of Religion Front), an umbrella organization of three constituent Salafist jihadist armed groups with a large foreign fighter composition that is “neutral” in the conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra (JN—Victory Front) and the Islamic State and is seeking to overthrow the al-Assad government and implement a Shari’a state (El-Nashra [Idlib], April 23; al-Quds al-Arabi, March 8). The most important Syrian jihadist organization within Jabhat Ansar al-Din is Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya (Movement of the Dawn of the Islamic Levant).
Doctor Muhammad Hassan (a.k.a. Abu Abd Allah al-Shami) leads Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya and is also a deputy commander of Jabhat Ansar al-Din. He is a native of Jabal Badro, a northeastern district of Aleppo city. Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, he was an inmate in the Saidnaya prison, where a number of prominent militant Islamist Syrian activists were held by Syrian security forces. Al-Shami and many others became prominent rebel fighters and leaders after they were released in June 2011 as part of an early al-Assad government effort to appease the nascent opposition movement (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 9; Militant Leadership Monitor, November 2013).
When al-Shami established Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya in the western suburbs of Aleppo city in 2012, he intended the organization to serve as the nucleus of a Syrian jihadist movement that sought to overthrow Alawite control over the Syrian state and to establish a Salafist regime based on Shari’a that can serve as “the focus of the hope of the Muslims on the planet Earth” (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 9; Hibr Press [Aleppo], November 7, 2014; Zaman al-Wasl [Aleppo], March 11, 2014). The organization, although not the largest militant Salafist faction operating in the Aleppo battle space, is believed to have more than 1,500 fighters, the majority of whom are Syrians from Aleppo governorate, and it has been an active combatant in several areas in and around the city of Aleppo, in addition to Idlib, Lattakia and Hama governorates (Hibr Press [Aleppo], November 7, 2014; Zaman al-Wasl [Aleppo], March 11, 2014).  Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya was featured at length in a 2014 documentary on developments in the conflict for control over Aleppo, during which its status as a frontline fighting force against the al-Assad government, its incorporation of foreign jihadists and its relationship with local, Aleppo-based Islamist opposition activists were highlighted (Vice News, March 21, 2014).
Under al-Shami’s leadership, Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya was a founding member of Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Sooria (Syrian Islamic Front—SIF), the first prominent militant Islamist Syrian rebel umbrella organization and the predecessor to Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front —IF). Al-Shami has sought to position Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya as a “neutral” Islamist faction that avoids bloodshed with its ideological peers (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 9; Hibr Press [Aleppo], November 7, 2014; 3arabi Online [Aleppo], April 6, 2014; al-Hayat, December 22, 2012; YouTube, December 21, 2012). After leaving SIF, purportedly due to disputes with SIF’s leading faction—Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant)—over the division of the spoils of war and what Abu Abd Allah al-Shami has referred to as “administrative difficulties,” Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya has cooperated in a number of armed opposition campaigns in Aleppo, including with Jabhat al-Nusra, before joining Jabhat Ansar al-Din in 2014 (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 9; Halab News [Aleppo], February 7, 2014; Zaman al-Wasl [Aleppo], March 11, 2014; YouTube, January 11, 2013).
Jabhat Ansar al-Din has a large number of foreign Salafist jihadists in its ranks. The organization’s overall leader is Salah al-Din al-Shishani, and al-Shishani’s fighting group, Jaysh al-Muhajareen wal-Ansar (Army of the Emigrants and Partisans), is composed predominately of Chechen and Caucasian fighters and has also incorporated a number of Saudi jihadist fighters from the group Kateeba al-Khudra (Green Battalion) (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 9; YouTube, October 3, 2014; YouTube, July 25, 2014; al-Akhbar [Beirut], March 1, 2014; Islam Times, August 30, 2013; Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2013). In addition to its close operational relationship with the foreign jihadist fighters who comprise the majority of the combatants within the overall structure of Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Harakat Fajar al-Sham al-Islamiya is also reported to have incorporated Central Asian jihadists into its ranks, including Afghans, a process that is encouraged by Abu Abd Allah al-Shami in order to unify foreign and local jihadist fighters (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 21, 2014; Vice News, March 21, 2014; Zaman al-Wasl [Aleppo], March 11, 2014).
Abu Abd Allah al-Shami is believed to be an important adviser to Salah al-Din al-Shishani on building relationships with Syrian Salafist fighters and in reaching out to local Syrian communities.  Recently, al-Shami has threatened to commit Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya against U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict, denounced U.S. airstrikes and stated that the United States is seeking the preservation of the Syrian (i.e. Ba’athist) state in order to support a Western occupation of Syria (Aleppo Media Center, September 21, 2014; El-Dorar [Beirut], September 20, 2014). He maintains an active Twitter account where he typically lectures on good conduct under Shari’a for Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya fighters and supporters. 
Al-Shami is one of the leading militant Salafist commanders in the Syrian civil war, especially as the operational intensity of Jabhat Ansar al-Din increases in key battle spaces such as Aleppo, Idlib and Lattakia. As one of the Syrian Salafist rebel leaders who is allied and actively working with thousands of foreign jihadists, al-Shami’s organization is an important node in the international network of foreign fighters seeking to fight in Syria. Like Salah al-Din al-Shishani, Abu Abd Allah al-Shami’s desire to remain as neutral as possible in the internecine Salafist jihadist conflict between JN and its allies and the Islamic State makes him an important “swing” commander among the Salafist jihadist movement fighting inside of Syria
1. Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya maintains a regularly updated Twitter site that chronicles its participation in various fronts throughout northwestern Syria. The site can be found at: https://twitter.com/islamicfajer; Skype interviews with Syrian activists from the city of Aleppo and its neighboring suburbs that are based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep and who travel frequently to the area of Aleppo, interview conducted on April 17, 2015 and April 19, 2015.
2. Skype interviews with Syrian activists, op. cit.
3. For Abu Abd Allah al-Shami’s Twitter account, see: https://twitter.com/alhakemalhabeb8.
ISLAMIC STATE’S SAUDI CLERIC: ANAS BIN ALI BIN ABDUL AZIZ AL-NASHWAN
Nicholas A. Heras
In April, fighters from the Islamic State beheaded 30 Ethiopian Christian workers that it had kidnapped in Libya (al-Jazeera, April 19). Shaykh Anas bin Ali bin Abdul Aziz al-Nashwan (a.k.a. Abu Malik al-Tamimi al-Najdi), a leading interpreter of Shari’a in the Islamic State organization, provided commentary in support of these executions (al-Aalem [Baghdad], April 23). He asserted that the Ethiopian Christians, like Iraqi Christians in Mosul and surrounding areas, were killed by the Islamic State because they refused to convert to Islam or pay jizya (tax) (YouTube, April 21).
A native of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, al-Nashwan studied at the Institute for Imam of Da’wa Science and graduated from the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh with a degree in interpreting Shari’a (Sawt Beirut, April 21; YouTube, April 21; YouTube, April 19). Al-Nashwan was offered a position as a state-sanctioned qadi (judge of Shari’a) in the Saudi Ministry of Justice, which he rejected in order to wage jihad in Afghanistan (Sawt Beirut, April 21; YouTube, April 21; al-Watan [Riyadh], January 10, 2011). As a supporter of jihad in Afghanistan against the Coalition and Afghan forces, al-Nashwan had also delivered public lectures in Saudi Arabia to recruit Saudi fighters for al-Qaeda’s organization in Afghanistan (Elaph, June 26, 2014; YouTube, February 9, 2011).
Al-Nashwan left Saudi Arabia in late 2009 or early 2010 to join al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. While there, he was appointed to a top post as an interpreter of Shari’a in Kunar and Nuristan provinces before leaving al-Qaeda and Afghanistan to join the Islamic State (YouTube, April 21; al-Alam [Riyadh], April 20; YouTube, April 19; al-Wasat [Manama], September 5, 2014). In January 2011, the Saudi Interior Ministry published a list of its 47 most-wanted Saudi nationals who had been jihadist fighters abroad and were suspected of attempting to establish al-Qaeda cells inside the Kingdom; al-Nashwan was prominently listed as the third most-wanted individual on the list (As-Sakina, January 25, 2014; al-Riyadh, January 10, 2011; al-Youm [Riyadh], January 9, 2011).
Al-Nashwan is believed to have arrived in Raqqa from Afghanistan in June 2014, after which he pledged baya’a (allegiance) to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and assumed his jurisprudent position within the Islamic State organization (Sawt Beirut, April 21; al-Wasat [Manama], September 5, 2014; Elaph, June 26, 2014). Al-Nashwan is the author of a popular jihadist e-book entitled “The Jihadists’ Guide to the Most Important Provisions on the Apostate in Religion,” in which he calls on young Muslims to wage jihad in areas including Syria, Iraq, Mali, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia, and details his interpretation of Shari’a that justifies the execution of “apostates” (Elaph, June 26, 2014). Considered a mujahid shaykh who fights in addition to preaching, al-Nashwan’s defection from the al-Qaeda organization to join the Islamic State is believed to be an important coup legitimizing the Islamic State model for a rising generation of jihadists (Sawt Beirut, April 21; YouTube, April 19; Elaph, June 26, 2014).
Al-Nashwan has the potential to be an important figure within the Islamic State, especially for attracting Saudi jihadists and providing a counter-narrative to Saudi attempts to undermine the religious credentials of the Islamic State’s Shari’a administration. As a Saudi cleric who was trained in the Wahhabi tradition of his country and who rejected a potentially comfortable career path in the state-sanctioned Shari’a jurisprudence hierarchy, al-Nashwan’s rejection of Saudi Arabia’s ruling clerical establishment and his defection from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State could have powerful symbolic value for the latter organization. The symbolic power of his active participation in the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate could be particularly magnified as international jihadists decide whether to fight under the banner of the Islamic State or its rivals in the militant Salafist movement, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.