On October 4, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) published a voice message of Bushr al-Shami, the head of its General Shari’a Council. In the voice message al-Shmai talked only about “Shahadah” an Islamic term used to describe those who were killed while fighting the enemy or by it.
The voice message might be a sign of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) attempt to promote al-Shami as a replacement for the group’s current leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who was supposedly badly injured in a Russian airstrike on October 3. Although HTS denied that al-Julani was injured, the group didn’t publish any voice, video or even any written message of him to prove that he is in a “good shape” as it claimed on October 4.
While the absence of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been a strong evidence that he was killed or injured, al-Julani case is different. Unlike al-Baghdadi, al-Julani is a fan of media attention. Usually HTS releases photos of him before or during major attack. Al-Julani have even made few interviews, one of them with the Qatari al- Jazeera news TV channel.
Moreover, HTS would usually – unlike now – take advantage of such claims to gain public support, and boost its credibility among its supporters. So, the absence of al-Julani could really mean that he is indeed injured or even dead.
Who is Al-Shami?
Unlike most HTS leadership very little is known about this religious scholar beside that he is a Syrian citizen. The fact that HTS kept the man “under the radar” could mean that he was a very trusted and important person in the group. A qualification that make him more suitable for the al-Julani position. Al-Julani himself was unknown before he became a founder of the al-Nusra Front in Syria, although he was among the highest ranking al-Qaeda commanders in Iraq for years.
Al-Shami is a supporter of peaceful negotiations with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, according to the Islamic researcher Hassan al-Dughaim who meet HTS leadership in Syria in August in an effort to fix Idlib governorate problems.
Al-Dughaim said back than after the visit that there is an “internal division” within HTS.
“There is an extreme front led by the so called Abu Yakzan al-Masri and Abu Abd Ashda’a, those are who were standing against a dialog [with Ahrar al-Sham Movement]. In the other side there is individuals who vow to dialog, among them Bishr al-Shami,” Al-Dughaim said.
So why would HTS chose someone who have a different political view from al-Julani to make him its next leader? The answer might be easier than what many believe… Al-Shami is a Syrian citizen while most other HTS leaders are not Syrian like the Egyptian Abu al-Harith al-Masri.
For sure there are many other Syrian commanders within HTS. However, they are only military commanders like Abu Ibrahim Salamah, HTS commander in Aleppo, or they have a bad reputation like Abu Jaber Shaykh who took responsibility for the failed HTS attack in the northern Hama countryside.
According to at all of this, it’s very logical that HTS is grooming al-Shami as its next leader if al-Julani is indeed dead. However, this message can’t be described as a solid evidence on its own as al-Shami released another voice message in March of 2017. That message was released before the first HTS attack in 2017 in the northern Hama countryside.