NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.
By Sam Heller
In late October, ex-Jabhat al-Nusrah shari’ah official Sultan bin Eissa al-Atwi made what had been private recriminations over Nusrah’s loss of its eastern Syria stronghold very public. Over Twitter and TwitMail, Al-Atwi released a hyper-critical open letter to the global jihadist community, and the letter in turn sparked a series of acrimonious rebuttals. The episode may have been the most public, detailed airing of grievances from members (or ex-members) of a single al-Qaeda branch since the splits in Somalia’s al-Shabab in 2013. Many of the points were personal and hyper-specific, often revolving around the leadership of Nusrah’s former top shar’i (religious-legal official) Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. To the extent that Abu Mariya has been identified with a specific intellectual and political strain within Nusrah, however, the personal here is also political. Even the most ad hominem elements of these texts, which I’ve translated below, reflect real divisions within Nusrah over its strategy and identity as it works to retain relevance opposite the Islamic State (IS). They also help us partially reconstruct the slow-motion fall of eastern Syria to IS.
For much of the first half of 2014, Jabhat al-Nusrah in al-Sharqiyah – eastern Syria, and primarily oil-rich Deir al-Zour – had waged a losing battle against IS (then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS). In May, Nusrah had taken the exceptional step of uniting with other Deir rebels (including “Free Syrian Army” elements) to form the Mujahideen Shura Council and defend the province against IS, yet IS continued to make headway. By the summer, IS had effectively encircled Deir and was picking off outlying towns. Still, it was only after IS staged its dramatic June surge in Iraq, including the capture of Mosul, that Deir resistance to IS really imploded. IS quickly funneled the advanced weaponry it had captured from a collapsing Iraqi army back to Deir al-Zour, using it to totally crush rebel and jihadist resistance. By July, IS had taken all of Deir al-Zour and linked its Syrian holdings in Aleppo and al-Raqqa with Iraq’s al-Anbar.
More than any other part of Syria, it was the East where Jabhat al-Nusrah had been the undisputed dominant force. When IS took the province, Nusrah lost its desert stronghold, as well as the province’s lucrative oil fields. Those members left alive were forced to flee across the al-Badiyah desert to western Syria.
Among them was Saudi national Sultan bin Eissa al-Atwi (AKA Abu al-Leith al-Tabbuki). Al-Atwi had been one of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s top officials in the East. He had reportedly risen from a shari’ah official and judge to become al-Nusrah’s emir (commander) for the al-Shamiyah (western) bank of the Euphrates River. He was also one of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s most prominent representatives on social media, sometimes to al-Nusrah’s chagrin – al-Atwi was occasionally accused of inflaming the escalating conflict with IS with his public belligerence.
Two other Nusrah shar’is in the East who enjoyed similar prominence were Kuwaiti Ali al-Arjani (AKA Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti) and Iraqi Maysar al-Jubbouri (AKA Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, al-Gharib al-Muhajer). The latter was, at the time, Nusrah’s top shar’i and reportedly one of its top officials and strategists. He seems to have since stepped down (or been pushed aside) in favor of the Jordanian Dr. Sami al-Oreidi, but he reportedly continues to steer events in the southern province Dara’a (more on which later).
In July, it was announced that al-Atwi had been removed from his leadership position and expelled from Nusrah. Abu Hassan seemed to (obliquely) deny this at the time, but all parties now seem to have confirmed that al-Atwi either quit or was run out of Nusrah in June / July of this year. Al-Atwi himself didn’t confirm that he had left Nusrah until October, about the time he began to take a more critical tone with Nusrah and advocate more forcefully for a truce with IS. This came amid a new wave of prominent jihadists inside and outside Nusrah defecting publicly to IS.
Still, it was al-Atwi’s 23 October open letter, promoted with the hashtag “#لله_ثم_للجهاد” (#For_God_Then_the_Jihad), that really set off this ugly public back-and-forth. Al-Atwi accused the commanders of Eastern Nusrah of, among other things: disregarding the leadership of Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani; acting as a tool of the al-Shuheil clan; squandering oil wealth; indulging corrupt and useless FSA partners; posing on Twitter instead of leading their troops; and obsessing over IS, both dragging all of Deir into a losing war and unjustly purging their own ranks of those tarred as “Dawa’ish” (IS members or supporters). Al-Atwi spools out a narrative in which he was one of the lone voices of right and reason. He maintains that he fought IS until the end, but he acknowledges that he pushed for some sort of truce and encouraged Deir locals to take deals if offered. Since fleeing to Dara’a, he claims to have been targeted by vindictive members of Eastern Nusrah after repeatedly complaining about Abu Mariya to al-Oreidi.
The key rebuttals to al-Atwi are translated below, including angry tweets from Abu Mariya and al-Atwi’s erstwhile friend Abu Hassan. The most interesting comes from Abu Omar al-Ageidi, an East Nusrah media representative who writes a really lacerating takedown of al-Atwi. Al-Ageidi’s narrative centers on a craven al-Atwi who was out of his depth as a military commander and who repeatedly betrayed his comrades by undermining morale in the fight against IS.
The truth is likely somewhere in between the point and counterpoint. You hardly need al-Ageidi to mock al-Atwi’s three (!) self-aggrandizing poems to realize that al-Atwi’s account is not perfectly objective. Al-Atwi claims, for example, that Eastern Nusrah’s leadership never played an active role in military planning or command, “they only used to take pictures of themselves ‘planning.’” In May, of course, Nusrah had released photos of commanders “planning” featuring Abu Mariya and, surprise, al-Atwi. It seems reasonable to assume that al-Atwi is motivated by animus towards Eastern Nusrah’s commanders and Abu Mariya in particular, whom he portrays as a sort of desert Ahab in his obsessive campaign against IS.
And yet many of al-Atwi’s points, both in broad terms and on the particulars, seem to have some basis – at least enough to take them seriously when looking at Nusrah and the East. The oil trade in Deir al-Zour was, by all accounts, a mess of tribal influence and corruption. Jabhat al-Nusrah had indeed been identified with the al-Shuheil. And al-Atwi is probably right that, by mid-summer, the fight against IS in the East was a lost cause. IS was riding high from its successive, dramatic gains, and the East’s rebels had seen all their supply lines cut. When al-Atwi talks about the Nusrah commanders in Albukamal who pledged allegiance to IS and paved the way for IS to take the border town, he says sympathetically that they made “the appropriate decision… the lesser of two evils” – and he’s arguably correct. By that point, taking a really unyielding stand against IS probably would have been suicide.
Some of al-Atwi’s critiques of Abu Mariya also seem worth reading closely. Abu Mariya has an influence and appeal in Syria that goes beyond Nusrah. He also, you might recall, figured prominently in freelance writer Theo Padnos’s account of his captivity with Nusrah. It was Abu Mariya who took responsibility for ferrying Padnos from Deir al-Zour to Dara’a when Nusrah left ahead of IS’s final advance. The Abu Mariya who told Padnos that “ISIS are the worst… They have made me very sad,” sounds a lot like the IS-fixated Abu Mariya described by al-Atwi. Al-Atwi’s accusation that Eastern Nusrah’s leadership thought that “if we (Nusrah) lost, then everyone had to lose,” sounds like a sort of darker take on the consensual, inclusive strategy with which Abu Mariya has been identified. Al-Atwi also likely exaggerated only a little when he talked about Eastern commanders’ Twitter use – Abu Mariya (or maybe an assistant) has only gone from “prolific” to “ultra-prolific” on Twitter since relocating to Dara’a.
Al-Atwi has now, true to his word, quit Twitter. It is unclear if he’ll suffer repercussions for airing Nusrah’s business so publicly. Abu Mariya, meanwhile, seems to have been somewhat marginalized – Nusrah in northern Syria has apparently abandoned the flexible, collaborative strategy with which Abu Mariya was associated in favor of a harsher jihadist purism. During the recent fighting with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib, his calls for restraint went conspicuously unheeded. Still, there are reports that he is reproducing his Deir strategy in Dara’a: bringing other Islamist or jihadist factions into a “shura council” while ruthlessly policing Nusrah’s ranks for those he suspects to be IS sympathizers. IS has so far failed to penetrate Dara’a; if it does, however, it will likely be the disgruntled foreign fighters boxed out by Abu Mariya who form its fighting core.
Sultan al-Atwi’s open letter, “For God, Then the Jihad,” 23 October 2014:
[Translator’s note: For some reason, al-Atwi’s letter prints its introduction and its first fifteen or so points twice. I’ve omitted the first introduction, which seems mostly identical to the second. One maybe relevant exception is this line, from the first introduction: “Fourth: It’s important that you know that I was a shar’i and judge, then an emir for the al-Shamiyah region (the western bank of the Euphrates); then a military commander and a member of the Shura Council in the East.” I’ve also merged the two in one instance by bringing footnote  from the first introduction to the corresponding line in the second.
There’s also one line in al-Atwi’s first poem that I and other Arabic speakers and translators I consulted were just unable to decipher. I’ve left it marked as “[Unclear].”]
Praise be to God, and peace be upon the Prophet of God, his family, his companions and those who supported him.
Lord, may I reveal the truth and defend it, and may I triumph over and destroy falsehood.
Mighty God said, “Those who invent falsehoods are those who do not believe in the verses of God, and it is they who are the liars.” (16:105)
Sacred God said, “Or they say [of the Prophet Muhammad], ‘He invented it?’ Say, ‘If I invented it, then [the consequences of] my crime are upon me; but I am innocent what crimes you commit.” (11:35)
The battlefields of jihad have been surrounded in mystery. Many have based their positions on news that is mistaken and false, behind which lies a love for command, revenge or ignorance. Those outside the jihadist battlefield have been stirred up, when [in reality] they don’t know the truth that is hidden from them on the basis of al-maslahah (religious/public interest). [It is] al-maslahah that makes you keep silent about the shedding of blood and the loss of the jihad; about the [deliberately] stirring up of anger and bitterness; about division between the mujahideen and the spreading of enmity among them; and about the duping of young men, cheating and tricking when [supposedly] providing advice [in the name of] God, his Prophet, and the Islamic nation. The al-maslahah that they claim, what is it but an equivalent to Satan saying to you, “For I am your protector” (8:48), only for the one providing advice to quickly turn on his heels.
There is no room for silence, as the Islamic nation has had enough trickery and lies. The matter is greater than people and groups whose truth might be shown to the public. The matter is one of a nation, of a religion that has been awaiting this jihad and these moments for years and years.
This “maslahah” is a sort of treason – lies and betrayal. It is the maslahah of a group and of individuals, whose interest cannot be put ahead of the interests of the Islamic nation.
How can I silence the voice of truth while falsehood spreads and is spread; while it echoes; while it is made victorious by the sincere, who are used but know it not.
Silence is the most treasonous thing in this dark period
And when there is no voice but prideful villainy.
1. I will record here what I swear to be true before God, with no motive other than the interest of the Islamic nation and religion and the interest of this wounded people in Syria, the people whom we came to aid.
2. I also do this to advise those remaining sincere mujahideen who identify with their Islam, who are driven by their shari’ah, and who do not side chauvinistically with any group or organization, for they are above partisanship.
3. And I do this to stanch some of the bleeding wounds that have been concealed and have continued to bleed until they have nearly killed us. I have to point them out so we might be able to treat them before it is too late.
4. There are matters I want to point out first, before I move forward with my intended discussion, and they are points that help in understanding the discussion properly.
5. First, Jabhat al-Nusrah in the East is entirely detached from the command of [Jabhat al-Nusrah head Abu Muhammad] al-Jolani, and he has no relation to it. No command from him has force in [Eastern Jabhat al-Nusrah].
6. Second: Many of al-Jolani’s decisions were not implemented in the region (the East). Third: Al-Jolani had only one channel [of communications], only with Abu Mariya [al-Qahtani] and his group.
7. Third [sic]: I intended to aid the oppressed, and I always repeat that; that is why my goal was exploited in the interest of another, [different] project.
8. Fourth: I didn’t take the State (ISIS) as my enemy. Rather, I was intent on advising and containing them to the extent possible, but they were mobilizing against us. 
9. Fifth: Jabhat al-Nusrah was also mobilizing against them, and I witnessed that from Abu Mariya in what he said and in his policy of agitation against them.
10. Sixth: The problem of Jabhat al-Nusrah and the State didn’t concern me, and I didn’t intend to find out what lay behind it. I was eventually forced to learn that, however.
11. Seven: Twitter had a [substantial] impact on the battle, as did personalities outside Syria, including sheikhs and writers.
12. Eight: Many preachers, sheikhs and commanders received a picture [of what was happening] that was upside-down. I swear this before God: The ‘reality’ they heard, by God, it was false.
13. Nine: What facts I relate [here], I swear to their truth before God. I will record what my eye saw, what my ear heard, and what my heart knew, and I will tell you if something has reached me second-hand.
14. Tenth: I ask you – by God, next to Whom there is no other – to deliver this speech to the sheikhs and leaders in Syria and elsewhere.
15. We’ve grown used to what happens on the field of jihad to suffer one of two things: being silenced or covered up; or being reported in a false, backwards fashion. And each one has killed the jihad before and has helped to distort its image.
16. It is said to those who know the truth and silence it on the field of jihad that publishing something will lead to some corruption or ill, when the truth is that the ill is only harmful for a particular group.
17. What I record will be met – as usual, and as before – with expletives and accusations, or “May your hands perish all this day. It is for this purpose you have gathered us?” Even though the [newly] disgruntled had said before, “We have never known you to lie.”
18. I said before:
Whatever might be gained by speaking the truth, I will continue to say what is right and will not be turned;
I will continue to speak the truth, standing tall like the mountain that the coward cannot destroy.
19. I return to an important matter: my aim, on which my thoughts turn; the reason for making hijrah and for jihad, is it not to make the “rite of jihad” and to aid the oppressed? Anything else is only a means.
20. And so, from the time I joined Jabhat al-Nusrah, that was never my end – rather, it was my means to realize my aim of carrying out the rite of jihad and aiding the oppressed [Syrian] people. Thus, I never pledged allegiance to anyone.
21. So when I was put in front of the choice between loyalty either to a group or to the oppressed, I could stand for nothing other than aiding the oppressed and standing alongside them, and I left Jabhat al-Nusrah.
22. I left Jabhat al-Nusrah at the end of Sha’ban (late June 2014) for doctrinal, religious-legal and military reasons, after my efforts at reform met with a dead end…
23. I didn’t come to aid a [jihadist] organization, and I didn’t come to aid a clan that wanted control for itself. I am not some tool for an opportunist to rise up on my back and on the body parts of my brothers. So I left al-Nusrah behind when it left al-nusrah (aid) [for the weak] behind.
24. I waged a grinding war – intellectual and military – with the State (IS). I devoted my pen and sword to them because of nothing other than what I swear before God was their aggression against us, and is there anyone who would deny that?
25. But there were things hidden of which I was not informed, facts that would reach me incorrectly in the midst of the battle with [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]. In brief, my motives for [waging that] battle differed from those of the leadership.
26. I’ve been quiet for a long time in hopes that I might be able to change things, but nothing of the sort happened.
27. How can I be quiet when mouths have been shut, fearful of discussing the injustice through which we are living.
28. Many friends have fallen today into a sort of confusion that is playing on them. It’s necessary, then, to speak out and advise, so that he who would live might live upon clear proof and he who would be perish might perish upon clear proof. (8:42)
29. The battle we waged against the State was not a fair one. We put forward many martyrs, but we were failed greatly by the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusrah and other factions.
30. I was intent on [ensuring] that Jabhat al-Nusrah in the East – where I was – was a model for other areas. But I was shocked by the betrayal, the failure, the lies and injustice.
31. The region is governed by clans, and Jabhat al-Nusrah was subject to one among them and enjoyed its protection and care. This was an obstacle before me and an obstacle to my aim; I am no soldier for their clans.
32. The clans were tyrannical. They controlled the oil wells and [benefited from the oil] instead of thousands of the homeless, the deprived and the displaced. The clans armed themselves and were oppressive and unjust.
33. The clans grew strong with the arms that came from the oil – the rightful property of the nation – and Jabhat al-Nusrah could do nothing but flatter its clan in al-Shuheil and be harsh with the others.
34. The Shari’ah Commission was formed out of the clans of al-Shuheil, but the Commission exercised its authority over the city of al-Mayadin and did nothing in al-Shuheil!
35. The city of al-Mayadin – the center of Deir al-Zour now – was deprived of electricity, as was the whole al-Shamiyah (the western bank of the Euphrates), over which I was emir. There was constant electricity, on the other hand, on the clans’ river bank, al-Jazirah (the eastern bank of the Euphrates).
36. Al-Mayadin was deprived of even its dignity when the clans’ battalions would storm it with no fear of anyone, even Jabhat al-Nusrah, because these battalions’ funding came from Jabhat al-Nusrah itself!
37. Jabhat al-Nusrah received vast sums of money from the oil wells and the gas facilities, but, to our surprise, we found during our battle with the State that we had no advanced weaponry! Even rifles were scarce! 
38. The lion’s share [of blame] for the fall of the East went to poor preparation, planning and administration. The top positions were reserved for the al-Shuheil clan, and the rest answered to them, which would cut into the morale of the soldiers.
39. I used to advise the leadership there and criticize them sharply, but, by God, I became convinced that they were not up to the battle and could benefit from nothing around them. They didn’t have the competence or the capability.
40. The State was working according to planning and precision, while Jabhat al-Nusrah was blundering. Its leadership had no [moves] other than throwing its soldiers into the middle of battle to be killed, just drawing the battle out further.
41. Al-Baghdadi’s emirs would come to the front line and wage war; the leaders of the East, meanwhile, never reached the front lines except for what you would see in Hollywood-style pictures that, by God, were all false.
42. Al-Jolani sent a number of messages to [Jabhat al-Nusrah’s Eastern] Shura Council, of which I was a member, but I knew nothing about them. Even the East’s Shura Council (the Mujahideen Shura Council), I knew nothing about its formation and I was not consulted on it.
43. The Eastern Shura Council (the Mujahideen Shura Council) received almost a million dollars to fight the State from [Saudi preacher and fundraiser Adnan] al-Ar’our, and it was led by Abu Mu’az, whom Jabhat al-Nusrah considered murji’. Remarkable!
44. A Free Syrian Army commander from Jabhat al-Asalah wal-Tanmiyah  was named to lead the fight against ISIS, which resulted in a number of withdrawals from Jabhat al-Nusrah and in many being killed.
45. The Free Syrian Army allied with us was an evil omen for us, with their deviancy in battle: stealing from the spoils; robbing houses; embezzling ammunition; some of them even cursed God. And despite all that, the leadership [of Jabhat al-Nusrah] would not abandon them.
46. Jabhat al-Nusrah’s money was spent on the Free Syrian Army, which would come to battle, grab ammunition, then turn around and sell it.
47. The Free Syrian Army and the clans’ battalions retreated and left us a number of times, causing our men to die. I saw their retreats myself on the battlefield.
48. I swore to God in a meeting of the [Jabhat al-Nusrah] Shura [Council] that it was impermissible to fight alongside the Free Syrian Army, but the entire council rejected my view and considered it extremist !
49. Our soldiers would celebrate if the Free Syrian Army and the clans would flee from the battle, because they too saw that they were an albatross on us, but the leadership thought otherwise.
50. I would fight with the Shura Council over the Free Syrian Army and their retreats and their theft from us and how they made us complicit [in their criminality], but I was met with hostility from the leadership, as the matter was now a tribal one.
51. When I was present in battle and fighting alongside the soldiers, the top leadership in the East was on Twitter, waging their wars. Even in sensitive meetings, they couldn’t do without Twitter!
52. The leadership wasn’t fit for the battle; they could only wail on Twitter and receive donations. But going to the battlefields, no, by God, they never did.
53. Based on my study of al-Qaeda’s policies and reading [the writings of] its leaders and thinkers, I swear by God, al-Qaeda never came to the East.
54. The leadership in the East never contributed to the battle, not with planning, not with organization, not with anything. They only used to take pictures of themselves “planning.”
55. In the Shura Council and after the killing of Abu Aishah al-Iraqi, I called for the removal and trial of Abu Mariya al-Qahtani and the emir of the East, Abu Mus’ab, but nothing happened.
56. Every so often, they would install a military commander, and I would say to them, “You have to go the battlefield and plan and contribute,” but they wouldn’t do it.
57. Accusations of disloyalty were characteristic of the East’s leadership, a theory Abu Mariya brought with him from Iraq: everyone is a traitor, everyone is a liar.
58. He accused a number of his military commanders of betrayal and sidelined them, but he trusted the Free Syrian Army and the clans, so he never accused them of anything.
59. When I assumed military command, I went to the commanders who had been accused of treason by Abu Mariya. I restored their honor, which had been insulted, and returned them to the battlefield, where they made a real contribution.
60. Accusations of betrayal touched the most honorable soldiers and brothers there; even those who had sacrificed themselves, orders came down to kill them, and why?!
61. They accused Abu Ahmad al-Shami – the valiant hero who had punished the PKK – and gave the order to kill him because he defied them and said, “Why is Jabhat al-Nusrah reaching a truce with the PKK?!”
62. Abu Ahmad al-Shami was among the best commanders, and he had broad popularity on the battlefield. But as a commander, he was foreign to them, because he would go the battlefield himself.
63. Accusations of treason touched everyone, including me in the end, because I refused to kill our brothers and throw them into battles that would fail, and because I refused to be a tribal soldier.
64. I refused to fight a battle in Kabajeb when the Shura Council asked me to start a battle within 24 hours, without any scouting or preparation.
65. They no longer cared that our brothers would be killed, as many had been killed before by their accursed, irresponsible actions, like what happened in al-Buseirah. The best of our youth [died] there, from al-Shuheil and others.
66. The treasonous clansmen, including their commanders and judges, spread [the rumor] out of spite that I was the one who had retreated from those battles, even though it was the Free Syrian Army that was the model when it came to retreats.
67. One of their evil judges  came to the men of al-Shamiyah and told them that Abu al-Leith had been the cause of the retreats. They responded by insulting him, as they knew that I would lead them from the front.
68. I waged the battle and it was the Free Syrian Army that fled and betrayed us, but the tribesman is despicable his whole life, even if he’s a commander or a judge or a sheikh.
69. So Jabhat al-Nusrah’s leadership asked me to fight a battle in Muhassan and to lead the clans. I refused, because this battle was tribal, between the al-Sha’eitat and al-Buseid and the people of Muhassan.
70. I rejected that battle entirely and washed my hands of it, and I wrote a statement about it and warned them from engaging in it. But they paid no need to the bloodshed and waged the fight; many of them were killed, and the State took Muhassan.
71. The people of Muhassan were forced to reconcile with the State, and the scales were weighted towards the State, but the clan commanders had decided that you were either with us or against us.
72. Then there was the battle of Albukamal, and here I returned to the issue of accusations of treason by Abu Mariya and the sinful leadership of the East. Albukamal had given a lot to us, before and after.
73. But they were met by accusations of betrayal. Abu Mariya and the al-Shuheil leadership would repeat incessantly that [Jabhat al-Nusrah in] Albukamal were Dawa’ish (ISIS members), even though they fought alongside us in Markadeh and their best men  had been killed.
74. This sort of behavior is low and cheap, and it’s an accursed, filthy attitude that is prevalent new: slanderous accusations of being ISIS.
75. So Abu Malek al-Qalamoun (Abu Malik al-Shami) is “Da’ishi,” and Abu Ahmad al-Shami is “Da’ishi,” and Albukamal’s Jabhat al-Nusrah are “Dawa’ish,” and Dara’a’s Jabhat al-Nusrah are “Dawa’ish,” most of the muhajireen (foreign fighters) are “Dawa’ish,” and al-Katibah al-Khadra are “Dawa’ish,” and most of [Jabhat] Ansar al-Din are “Dawa’ish.”
76. This filthy accusation was ready to be used against anyone who defied them or, at a minimum, couldn’t imagine what the [real] battle was. And today you see the truth of this canned accusation.
77. There was no dirtier way they could have used to bring down everyone who challenged them and to detract from them. In fact, it resembles the tactics of the intelligence services and the tyrants.
78. Going back to the battle of Albukamal and the local Jabhat al-Nusrah [branch’s] oath of allegiance to [ISIS], the clansmen in the Jabhat al-Nusrah leadership called that oath “treason.” I saw it as an appropriate decision, and the lesser evil.
79. Albukamal [Jabhat al-Nusrah cum ISIS] swore not to fight us, but those vengeful ones set out for Albukamal to fight them, and what did they gain? More killing.
80. At that time, I was pushing Abu Mariya and our brothers to reconcile with the State. The State was advancing and we were totally encircled, with no supply lines. I asked them to spare more bloodshed! But they refused.
81. All indications pointed to the battle going in favor of the State and to us collapsing entirely, but I feared for the people here and for the troops. So I asked them to reconcile, as it was high time for them to understand this.
82. We don’t drag the people into our battles. But there’s a theory among Jabhat al-Nusrah’s leadership that works to drag the people into it when the battle is Jabhat al-Nusrah’s alone.
83. When I entered Khasham with almost 40 brothers, all Jabhat al-Nusrah, I told the leaders in Khasham, “If the State asks you for a truce and a reconciliation, then reconcile with them. I didn’t come here to involve you in this.”
84. But they got themselves involved when they called the FSA to the area, and they went to the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusrah and told them this. In the end, they all fled.
85. I refuse to render people homeless; the battle is between us and the State.
86. But, regrettably, they differ totally with this opinion. Their style, then, was for everyone to fight the State alongside us. If we lost, then everyone had to lose. And that is what happened.
87. So when al-Mayadin and al-Shuheil were surrounded and al-Shuheil pledged allegiance [to ISIS], the order came to withdraw the day after.
88. Why did people withdraw? Because al-Shuheil pledged allegiance to its own people.
89. At the time, people were overcome by fear and terror. I was in al-Mayadin that night, and the battle was near, so I announced that I would never pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, even if I were given the Sun and the Moon.
90. Of course, I had left Jabhat al-Nusrah immediately after the battle of Khasham, which is when everything had become clear to me: the wide-ranging corruption; the dead end for reform; the imminent defeat; that no one would listen to me.
91. I left Jabhat al-Nusrah in, roughly, the middle of Sha’aban (mid-June 2014). I had intended to go on to Aleppo to do something I had been planning for months, join [Jeish] al-Muhajireen [wal-Ansar].
92. I was of the view that the muhajireen (foreign fighters) had to join together and become independent instead of waging internal battles, as the muhajireen had done alongside Sheikh Osama [bin Laden].
93. Sheikh [Osama bin Laden] and the muhajireen with him hadn’t interfered in internal fights, and that was wise. I hoped for this plan to come to fruition, but God chose Dara’a for us.
94. But I call on my muhajireen brothers to join together, given how they understand each other. They should cooperate with other battalions made up of ansar (local fighters), but they should remain independent.
95. In Dara’a, I broke away along with those muhajireen would didn’t want [to remain in] Jabhat al-Nusrah – especially the Jabhat al-Nusrah of the East. We [set ourselves up] alone, and I asked then that the emirs of the East be put on trial.
96. I sat with [Jabhat al-Nusrah’s now-chief shar’i] Dr. Sami al-Oreidi and I warned him about the emirs of the East, especially Abu Mariya. [I said he would] divide their ranks, and that is what happened.
97. A number of men have left Jabhat al-Nusrah in Dara’a because of Abu Mariya, who has no program except for [revenge on] the State – only the State. I already told you about this idea of, “Either with us or against us.”
98. I warned the Doctor about [the eastern leaders’] politics and their approach – that they belong to [al-Qaeda] but slander it day and night. That’s what happened with Abu Mariya [and] Muthar Luweis in front of al-Oreidi, [Jabhat al-Nusrah southern commander] Abu Juleibib and all of Dara’a’s commanders.
99. Slander in secret and reverence in public, that is the ill approach used by Abu Mariya and those Jabhat al-Nusrah emirs from the East with him. They didn’t even spare al-Jolani.
100. According to Abu Mariya, al-Jolani only disagrees with the State in administrative terms, out of his love for command. [Abu Mariya] used to always repeat this, and nobody could deny it.
101. This [behavior] was present among the Jabhat al-Nusrah emirs who [were active] on Twitter, like Abu Mariya and Abu Muhammad Saleh Hama, “Us al-Sara’ al-Shami.”
The Night of Betrayal
They were afraid because evil was their trade
And I was without evil, and without trade
Because I knew their failings
And because they had been traitorous and I had not
102. On the night of Eid al-Fitr, an emissary from Abu Mariya came to meet and requested that I attend a meeting, along with [Jabhat al-Nusrah shar’i] Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti. So we went together.
103. When I entered the meeting, I was surprised to find rifles pointed at me. A treacherous group from the Jabhat al-Nusrah of the East – al-Shuheil, specifically – came to me and told me to surrender my weapon.
104. They say, “We have an order to arrest you.” I told them, “Your emirs mean nothing to me, as do their orders.”
105. But I knew that they were deaf and dumb, only tools in the hands of their emirs. So I handed over my weapon – which I hadn’t planned to use anyway – and I was put in one [of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s] bases as a prisoner.
106. At the same time, the muhajireen with me were also betrayed. They were encircled in the market in Saida, Dara’a, in front of everyone. They were then released, and only two were taken.
107. Abu Mariya, the judges of villainy and the emirs of betrayal lied to Dr. al-Oreidi when they told him that Abu al-Leith was to be put on trial in Deir al-Zour, so al-Oreidi refused to allow them to participate in the matter.
108. I was released after pressure on Abu Mariya from some of the commanders and sheikhs. Even though I demanded again that they be put on trial, they refused. When I repeated the demand to the chief shar’i (al-Oreidi), they refused.
109. They refused to appear before a court because they know that they are tricksters and frauds. Did I mean anything to them in the first place, compared with the hundreds who were killed because of their foolishness?
110. The East had fallen, collapsed totally. There had been tremendous financial, military and administrative corruption. And yet al-Jolani didn’t request a single investigation into the matter.
111. I had meant to announce that I had left Jabhat al-Nusrah since Sha’aban (June). Some brothers advised me not to do so, however, for fear of fitnah (division and infighting). I also received messages from some sheikhs who urged me to remain quiet.
112. I was quiet for a long time, but my silence kept me up at nights. It killed me, especially as I saw them spread lies and distort events on Twitter.
113. Look at the massacre of the al-Sha’eitat [tribe], how they dragged them into the fight with the State, then retreated and left them. They even fired off tweets supporting the al-Sha’eitat. And what did they benefit?
114. They would throw people into the fire just to burn them. They aren’t capable of fighting a battle or planning for it. They can’t make a correct decision.
115. What I swear before God is that there were hidden fingers pushing the battle in the East not to stop. It was possible to stop it, but there were contacts that stoked the fire. The days ahead will reveal them.
Written, may he be held accountable before his Lord, by
Abu al-Leith al-Tabuki
Sultan bin Eissa al-Atwi
 I mentioned this previously in my discussion of meeting them in al-Shaddadi (al-Hasakeh).
 With sniper rifles, [for example,] we couldn’t find anything other than worn-out rifles that could have been counted on one hand. So where did the money go?
 This one [the Jabhat al-Asalah wal-Tanmiyah commander] had also received $500,000 from the [Deir al-Zour] Military Council to fight ISIS. It was a proxy war, without a doubt.
 [This happened] even though I hadn’t said that because I considered the Free Syrian Army apostates; rather, because they would run from battle and betray us in combat.
 This, even though this slanderous judge had never seen a battle, much less fought in one.
 Including the commander Abu Sham, Jabhat al-Nusrah’s military commander in Albukamal, as well as his men, may God accept them.
Abu Mariya al-Qahtani’s response, 23 October 2014:
In the name of God, most gracious and merciful. Regarding this statement from al-Atwi, it is against the East’s jihad. [As for] him accusing our brothers of tribalism, that sort of talk came out of him months ago when the brothers sat him down and accused him of treason. He had been promoting this idea that [we were on our way to] ruin, and he had been tempting and misleading [others]. He wrote this to one of the sheikhs, asking him to announce an end to the fight with ISIS. So the brothers had doubts about him, and they confronted him with everything he had done to spread falsehoods and try to sow division. And despite all this, we thought it enough to remove him, as the battle [against ISIS] was ongoing. The brothers Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti and Abu al-Abbas al-Omani and a number of commanders can bear witness to that. Most of what he said is false. The goal behind it is to cover for his own failure and his flight from the battlefield.
As for what he said slanderously about me, I won’t defend myself. I only say to him, This is the reward for someone who treated you honorably. I won’t pay you any further consideration, just like your brother Abu Dhirr before you, [who spread the same] falseness and immorality. Those better than me have been slandered – Uthman and Ali were defamed by the Sab’iyyah and the Kharijites, and the ranks [of the mujahideen today] are not free from Sab’iyyah and Kharijites. So let us endure what you have done to harm us. That is the way of God.
There’s no shame in having fought the modern Kharijites. In Aleppo, were [those fighting ISIS] clans? Or in the Ghouta? God most high is capable of revealing the hypocrites and of sorting and purifying the ranks of the mujahideen. Jabhat al-Nusrah is still being purified, thanks to God, from the extremists and those driven by worldly lusts.
I don’t want to respond to everything al-Atwi fabricated, but some of my friends asked me to reply and clarify; the statement announcing al-Atwi’s expulsion is available and is sufficient to answer him. But the way he timed the publication of these lies to coincide with some brothers in extremism going to join ISIS, this is a soap opera meant throw al-Nusrah’s ranks into disarray. I say, if there remain 100 sincere men with al-Nusrah, that’s better than having extremists and lackeys of tyrants in its ranks.
The East and its efforts are well-known, and someone who failed can’t cover for his failure with slander and falsehood. History is full of those who retreated and praised themselves. It’s nothing but a tempest this miserable person is creating to entertain himself; hours spent stirring up teenaged supporters of extremists and tyrants on Twitter. The caravan goes on, and we’ve been obliged to stoop to respond to every minor matter, every menial sin and vice. For two years, the Awadi gang (ISIS) and their supporters have spread lies day and night, and we’ve disregarded it. The battlefield of Syria has spit out [their] scum, and the caravan has gone on.
I say to our people in the East, remain determined and suffer those who slander you, who lie about you and fail you. God is the source of all good fortune.
Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti’s response, 24 October 2014:
A “one-eyed” testimonial. And if we were to write that which we swear before God, we would say much of this testimony comes from arrogant self-righteousness, from argument between disputing parties, and from short-sightedness from which the mob benefits. The testimony of two equal disputing parties cannot be taken into consideration [as evidence], either logically or legally. I write here not as an antagonist to anyone; rather, my relationship with the one testifying (al-Atwi) is among the strongest relationships on the battlefield. And I hope that he stays true to his word in saying, “This is the last of what I have, and I’ll close my account forever.” If he had done that before delivering his testimony, it would have been better for Muslims, and for him as well.
[Abu Hassan returned to Twitter ten hours later, this time more critically.]
He wrote about events that took place and embellished them based on his ideas, his deductions and his fanciful suspicions. Some of them he didn’t witness, some he reported as if had total certainty and knowledge of them! I swear to this. I came across a number of contradictions in what he said and the opinions he expressed in what he wrote here and what he said when he was with us. Let him fear God. Brother “Mujahid Jazrawi” sent me his testimony regarding Abu al-Leith (al-Atwi), and it contains a clear statement regarding his character and his positions. I don’t want to be forced to publish it. So let him fear God.
This isn’t the first instance of fitnah (discord) that you’ve (al-Atwi) brought down on our battlefield. We managed the first one, preserved our friendship with you and defended you, even despite ourselves. With this second time, we won’t allow it. To meet God and have Him be satisfied with me and to live in obedience to Him is better than writing some testimonial I’ve filled with my ideas and a response meant to get revenge. Standing for what’s right is better to me than life on Earth.
Abu Omar al-Ageidi’s response, 25 October 2014:
[Translator’s Note: In his original response on Twitter, some of Abu Omar’s numbered tweets were transposed – that is, published out of order. The JustPaste.it compilation of Abu Omar’s tweets linked above reflects that mis-ordering. The sequence has been corrected in the translation below.]
In the name of God, most gracious and merciful. Mighty God said, “Those who invent falsehoods are those who do not believe in the verses of God, and it is they who are the liars.” (16:105)
I’ll start from where this slanderer did, and I’ll clarify some of his lies. He lied to the Islamic nation and to the mujahideen when he said, “#For_God_Then_the_Jihad.” How can you be for God, when everyone – near and far, enemy before friend – knows that everything you’ve written is backwards? Whatever mistakes have happened recently, the cause has been traitorous calls for reconciliation [with ISIS], cowardly retreats, and the distribution of fatwas (religious rulings) that it’s permissible to repent to the Kharijites (ISIS).
Sultan al-Atwi, if you wrote those and you’re still al-Sham (Syria), then what can I say about this sort of immorality in a dispute; if you plan to return to your country, God will reveal and disgrace you.
First: So that everyone knows, I hadn’t wanted to write about [al-Atwi] before, even though I had known all the hidden details of his betrayal. I had been satisfied with what the eastern command published in its statement removing him.
Second: I was responsible for communication between Jabhat al-Nusrah’s [geographic] sectors. I would see all the messages, and I was present in the operations room. As an i’lami (media representative), I had total knowledge of the Shura Council.
Third: What al-Atwi wrote is mostly fabricated, falsified, and inverted. As for administrative, military and organizational mistakes, no field of jihad or active [jihadist] group is without them. On what he said about the Free Syrian Army, he’s turned the truth upside down. After he assumed [military command] and saw the pressure of military work, he said – in front of everyone – “I’m proud to be a soldier under the command of Abu Feisal [from Liwa] Bashair [al-Nasr].”
[Al-Atwi] said he didn’t want to fight the Dawa’ish (ISIS). Lies – he was the first shar’i who went to al-Shaddadi (al-Hasakeh) with [Jabhat al-Nusrah’s commander for the East] Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Shuheil to resolve the dispute. He came back totally convinced that ISIS wanted to fight, that ISIS was addressing all factions with threatening, escalatory language and that they had to be fought. Brothers [Abu Hassan] al-Kuwaiti and Mujahid Jazrawi can testify to that.
He said that the overall military [commander was from Liwa] Bashair al-Nasr. When [Abu Feisal] came up in conversation, he had said, “This is the bravest man, a wise man. We could never afford to lose him. He deserves to lead the battle.” He used to always say, “Hello, my emir,” and praise him. So what happened, you liar?!
Then he says that the military men were shut out. The ones he said were arrested in Dara’a weren’t removed for those reasons he mentioned, and they know that. He said that brother Abu Ahmad al-Sham was removed from his position, when everyone knows that he had refused to be installed as military [commander] to start with – then he stopped on the grounds that there was a Free Syrian Army truce with the PKK in Aleppo and Jabhat al-Nusrah had signed onto one of the clauses! The battle was ongoing, and he was replaced. That’s why he was replaced, not like what the plaintiff (al-Atwi) said, and everyone knows that. Then when [Abu Ahmad] was replaced, [al-Atwi] rose up and said, “Didn’t I tell you he wasn’t fit for military command!”
As for his story of reaching Jabhat al-Nusrah in the East’s Shura Council – going from the shar’i in al-Mayadin (Deir al-Zour) to the emir of al-Mayadin to the emir of al-Shamiyah, that was one of those administrative and organizational mistakes. He would dupe everyone with his false insight and his honeyed talk, taking advantage of every group member’s weaknesses. That’s why he was promoted.
He started to look at the fighters and say the battle was a failure militarily. They said to him, “Here’s the battlefield!” So he asked for what he needed and he was provided it, then he waged a battle in which most of the brothers from al-Mayadin died: Sheikh Qasem al-Sa’ran; Sheikh Abu Dujanah from al-Shuweit; lots of commanders were martyred, Jazrawis (Saudis/Gulfis) and others; the shar’i Abu al-Dihdah. [Al-Atwi] cried into his radio, “Whoever believes in God and the End of Days, let him charge!” So Brother Abu Zeinab al-Jurzi advanced and answered the call alongside the group with him, and that was in the presence of Abu Mus’ab al-Shuheil and Dr. Abu al-Baraa al-Shami. This was [al-Atwi’s] first battle with the Kharijites, even though it was two months before [Jabhat al-Nusrah left Deir al-Zour]. Great men died because of his mistakes in that battle.
After that shock, he began to pull away from the military theater little by little on the grounds that al-Shamiyah was in danger. So he started to spread the idea that al-Shamiyah shouldn’t fight in al-Jazirah, despite the Kharijites’ advance on al-Jazirah and the fact that it was seeing the fiercest battles. Because of the intensity of the battle in al-Jazirah, Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Shuheil asked him to open up the battle of Khasham. About 40 fighters were brought in from the Euphrates to Khasham, so he brought them across [the river] and sat on the bank of the river and claimed to be commanding the battle. Then Brother Hazem al-‘Askari called Abu Mus’ab al-Shuheil and told him that the situation in Khasham was under control but they needed reinforcements. So Abu Mus’ab went to reinforce Khasham and found al-Atwi out of the battle. He pressed him to join in battle along his soldiers or to go in his place, as the battle of Khasham was a strategic one, given its proximity to the Kharijites’ command center.
After that, there was an order for Jabhat al-Nusrah to withdraw from Khasham at night, and al-Atwi intended to withdraw in the afternoon, according to Abu al-Abbas al-Omani. The order to withdraw from Khasham came like a lightning bolt. There had been a comprehensive, well-studied plan to storm al-Sour under the command of Abu al-Yaman, in addition to another, simultaneous battle in which the “Seven Kilometer” facilities in al-Hatlah and Murat would be charged. Sheikh Abu Hazem al-Balad charged al-Hatlah and laid waste to them, Abu al-Yaman stormed the al-Hreijiyah and al-Fidein area and swept seven villages, and the military commander and shar’i Abu Feisal al-Hajar was martyred. After all that, the mujahideen’s retreat from Khasham ruined the entire plan, and things started to go progressively downhill in the region.
After that, al-Atwi was asked to open up the battle of Kabajeb with the help of [fighters from] Albukamal and the western bank [of the Euphrates]. The fighters spent 15 days waiting for the battle, and al-Atwi didn’t move a muscle. The Shura Council met and demanded he clarify the reasons for delaying the battle, and he said that the scouting hadn’t been completed yet. Abu Muhammad al-Shuheil replied, “This scout is a traitor. He’s ISIS.” Al-Atwi replied coldly, “Your words are meaningless.” There was a fight, and Brother Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti was appointed to adjudicate the issue and it was settled.
After that al-Atwi was changed out and he started to want revenge, so he started to tell those close to him that the battle was a tribal one and that it was in al-maslahah not to fight the State. He was going to men in the villages and telling them that and, by God, because of this traitor the Kharijites advanced to Muhassan.
Then the men of al-Toub rose up. They wanted to charge Muhassan or at least put in place a line of defense. So they were given arms, and they numbered in the tens. Then this bad luck charm (al-Atwi) went to them and convinced them to reconcile [with IS] and that they didn’t have the strength to fight Da’ish, so the men of al-Toub stood down. Even now, this traitor says that’s he in favor of reaching a truce with Da’ish and not pushing the villages into a fight with them – by God, what’s more treasonous?
Then he mentions the killing of the leaders of Muhassan – and he compares them with the leaders of al-Shuheil. By God, if he were responsible for this operation, during which these heads of oppression and raucous immorality from the Military Council were killed, let him be proud for the rest of his life. But personal revenge and spite led him not to distinguish between those heads and those who pledged allegiance after al-Nusrah pulled out, after they were made to choose. After that, most of those who pledged allegiance left, and now he wants to go back to fight most of them?
As for the matter of the al-Sha’eitat [tribe], this traitor sees everyone else as traitors, too. By God, we didn’t leave them – before we pulled out with all the commanders, we gave them the choice. The matter was put forward with all transparency, and the conclusion was that the al-Sha’eitat’s leaders would leave with us and the tribe would reach a conditional reconciliation [with ISIS]. So you, who inflamed this dispute, who sold them out?
He said that the [Shari’ah] Commission was formed from the al-Shuheil [tribe]. He knows, and people know, that he’s a liar. The Commission was formed out of all the factions and all the villages. Let’s look back at the battles of Conoco and al-Omar [oil field] to know all the factions that participated in the Commission, distributed all along the Euphrates. I don’t want to tally them all so I don’t run on.
Then there’s the issue of oil. We don’t deny that some of the tribes were the ones who controlled the oil. The Commission was only formed after the corruption that happened and was formed for that reason. Those benefiting from the oil were thieves, mercenaries, and most of the clans. When the Commission started to take hold of the wells, the first to hand over oil wells to the Commission were the al-Shuheil, and then there were steps taken to take over the wells from the rest of the clans. There were occasionally clashes, and the oil stopped [flowing] for months. As for the Commission sanctioning [aggression against] al-Mayadin, like he claims, God knows that this was after blood had run in the streets and a number of its clansmen were killed. The Commission intervened to solve the problem, and until now the people of al-Mayadin thank the Commission for stopping the bloodshed between the al-Smakah and al-Waheibi families and reconciling them. This was even though this issue had hung over them for almost 100 years.
We’d like to note that those he describes as munbatiheen (prostrating themselves) are those who led the battles. The military emir in the fight against the Kharijites was Abu Muhammad al-Shuheil. He was shot, and he’s still suffering from it. Before him, there was the martyr “Bladen” – Abu Muayyad al-Shuheil – the military [commander] of the countryside; the noble martyr Abu al-Fadl Tayyanah; the lion Abu Jandal; the shar’i for the Deir al-Zour countryside, Abu al-Hassan al-Hajar; the military [commander] Abu Aishah; the martyred military [commander] Abu Mikhlif al-Shuheil; Abu Hamzah al-Tibah; the military [commander] Abu Sham; the crusher of Khawarij, Abu Raddad; and others. Tens of men from the whole countryside, may God accept them. As for Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Shuheil, he was present at most battles. There are those who roar over the radio from their holes, and there are those who stand silently to man the fronts and observe the battle.
Whoever claims to be faultless, writing poetry to praise himself and calling others ostriches – take it easy, al-Atwi. Those lions used to charge checkpoints at night and organize protests in the day.
I only wrote this after he ignited this dispute. God knows I wanted to publish it three months ago but my emirs stopped me for what they saw as al-maslahah.
Sam Heller is a Washington-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow him on Twitter: @AbuJamajem