The US-designated terrorist Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Salafi Jihadi Saudi cleric, and another prominent Saudi Jihadist Muslih al-A’layani visited Afrin last week on 1 December.
Formed in 2012, the Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliated Nusra Front was one of the main extremist groups in Syria fighting the Syrian government and Kurds. Al-Muhaysini was placed on the US terrorist list for links to Nusra. Nusra itself publicly broke with al-Qaeda in mid-2016 and is now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and dominates the Idlib province.
Although HTS broke with al-Qaeda, many countries, including the US, continue to consider HTS as an al-Qaeda front. Also Turkey designated HTS as a terrorist organization in 2018, although the Turkish army has several observation points in the HTS-dominated Idlib province. The HTS last year also endorsed Turkey’s operations against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini in a video posted on Telgram on 2 December denied reports that claimed he was arrested, but confirmed he was initially stopped by a checkpoint of al-Hamza, a Turkish-backed group that is part of the Turkish created Syrian National Army (SNA). Al-Muhaysini was also accompanied by Muslih al-A’layani, a prominent Saudi Jihadist and a senior HTS member, wanted in Saudi Arabia.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on 2 December reported that in the video al-Muhaysini says that he moved from Idlib province to the areas held by Turkish-backed factions in the Janderas area (in the Afrin region) to offer condolences to a leader of the Turkish-backed affiliate al-Sham Legion (Faylaq al-Sham), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“While he was passing by one of the checkpoints of the Turkish-backed al-Hamza Division, they welcomed and saluted him as a sign of respect,” SOHR said.
According to independent analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi al-Muhaysini was visiting Faylaq al-Sham to offer condolences to the general Sharia official in Faylaq al-Sham after some of his relatives and the general administrative official of Faylaq al-Sham passed away.
“Faylaq al-Sham is part of the National Front for Liberation, which is technically part of the Syrian National Army (SNA). And Faylaq al-Sham has some presence in north Aleppo countryside, but it is primarily in Idlib. So that is the reason for the visit. Al-Muhaysini has relations with all factions in Idlib and its environs.”
“You should also remember that he (al-Muhaysini) was supportive of the idea of Turkish intervention inside Idlib earlier this year (February 2020).”
In the video, al-Muhaysini said the members of the Hamza Division initially stopped him at a checkpoint and asked what he was doing in Syria, after he responded he is from Saudi Arabia. “I am coming here to offer my condolences to someone,” he told the members of the checkpoint.
But after other members of the group recognized the Saudi cleric, they were happy to meet him and welcomed him.
Nicholas Heras, of Washington DC’s Institute for the Study of War, said that the visit “should present a major concern to the U.S. team led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rayburn. Muhaysini is a godfather figure to al Qaeda linked Salafi-Jihadi operatives and his visit as the guest of honor for a major, Turkish-intelligence backed Syrian armed opposition group should raise the alarm in Washington, D.C.”
“There is every reason to suspect that Turkish-controlled areas of northwest Syria are becoming a haven for al Qaeda and associated groups. These Turkish-run areas of Syria are a gaping chink in the armor of NATO counterterrorism policy,” he added.
Moreover, according to a Syrian stabilization coordinator focused on northern Syria the visit shows how Al Qaeda and ISIS jihadist members can move freely from Idlib to Turkish-controlled areas after Turkey occupied Afrin in March 2018.
“Even people (ISIS families) that are being smuggled from al-Hol camp are being brought to Tal Abyad back and from that area back to Idlib and so forth. Those people have close relations with Turkish-backed groups, specifically this group Faylaq al-Sham.”
Unidentified drones have also previously targeted ISIS Jihadist leaders in Turkish-occupied areas such as Afrin and al-Bab. Both former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and former Islamic State spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Muhajir were killed in US operations in Syria near the Turkish border in October.
During a Wednesday hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Brad Sherman (D–Calif.) asked Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria to what extent is the Turkish government working with Al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria”
However, according to Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria Turkey, there are no indications that Turkey works with Jihadist groups and added that Turkey sees “Al Qaeda and ISIS as threats”.
The Syria-based Rojava Information Centre (RIC), however, in a tweet stated that the danger of (former) ISIS members in Turkish-occupied areas is real. Research by the RIC has shown several former ISIS members have joined Turkish-backed forces in Serekaniye and Tal Abyad that have been occupied by Turkey since October 2019.