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Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria praises Taliban, Shabaab operations

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“Guardians of Religion” fighters train for operations in Syria.

The Guardians of Religion Organization (Tanzim Hurras al-Din) has praised recent operations by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Shabaab in Somalia. The one-page statement is intended to signal, once again, the group’s commitment to al Qaeda’s war against the “Crusader-Zionist” alliance — a motif employed by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their loyalists since the 1990s.

The Taliban’s suicide assault on Camp Shorabak in Helmand province and Shabaab’s attack on a popular hotel in Mogadishu both occurred within hours of each other on Mar. 1. Both “martyrdom” operations are explicitly praised in the Guardians of Religion’s message, which was released on Mar. 9.

These “heroic” attacks were carried out by “soldiers of Islam” and intended to punish the “infidels” for their supposed transgressions against Islam, the Guardians of Religion’s “General Command” says in the statement.

The Syria-based group praises “our brothers” for these “successful” operations targeting the enemy’s military, security and intelligence headquarters. Guardians of Religion praises the Taliban and Shabaab for their “patience” in planning the attacks, adding that both are on the “path to defeating the Crusader-Zionist coalition,” which will “retreat” from the “lands of our ummah” in “defeat.”

It isn’t surprising that Guardians of Religion would praise the Taliban and Shabaab. The organization is led by Abu Hammam al-Shami, an al Qaeda veteran who originally worked as a trainer at the Al Farouq camp in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Al Farouq served as al Qaeda’s primary paramilitary training facility in Afghanistan at the time. Jihadists who fought for the Taliban were also trained at its facilities.

The Guardians of Religion organization grew out of a leadership dispute that erupted in the jihadists’ ranks in Syria. Members of its “General Command,” including Abu Hammam, are known al Qaeda loyalists.

Abu Hammam and his comrades have been very critical of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its emir, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Despite the fact that the top figures in both organizations all once belonged to Al Nusrah Front, significant disagreements emerged after a series of controversial moves taken by Julani and his men. Under Julani’s command, Al Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al-Sham in mid-2016 and was relaunched as part of HTS in early 2017.

Despite numerous disagreements between the two sides, HTS and the Guardians of Religion entered into a new accord in mid-February. It is likely that the agreement was brokered by Abu ‘Abd al-Karim al-Masri, a veteran jihadist who is a member of al Qaeda’s shura council. HTS provides logistical support to Abu Hammam and his men, as both sides fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies.

Guardians of Religion conducts its own operations, but also cooperates with several other factions as part of the “Incite the Believers” joint operations room.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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