by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi • Mar 13, 2022
Recently the United States designated the group Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (“Battalion of Tawhid and Jihad”) as a terrorist organisation, claiming that the group is affiliated with al-Qa’ida
and has been responsible for attacks abroad such as the bombing of the St. Petersburg metro in Russia and an attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan. In response, the group has issued a statement denying all of these accusations.
For context, the Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad is an Uzbek-led group. Although the group maintains its own media output in Uzbek and indeed has an extensive archive of such material, Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad is in fact now being integrated into the ranks of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as a part of the organisation’s fighting brigades, rather than being an independent ally of the group in the way that the Turkistan Islamic Party’s branch in Syria is an ally of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. The integration of the Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad was shown fairly recently with photos of a course being given to Uzbek fighters in the Abu Obeida bin al-Jarrah brigade of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham- something that was also advised in the Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad’s own media output. Note for general context that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s primary forces, which were previously organised into armies named for the four Rashidun caliphs, have been reconstituted as multiple brigades, at least ten of which are named for the ten companions promised Paradise by the Prophet Muhammad
I would therefore agree with Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad’s point that it is not an al-Qa’ida affiliate, on account of its integration into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which broke ties with al-Qa’ida and ended up cracking down on the al-Qa’ida-loyalist rival Hurras al-Din because it was a supposed threat to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s authority. It would have made more sense for the U.S. to designate simply on the grounds of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham connection, but the U.S. designation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on the grounds of a supposed al-Qa’ida affiliate status remains.
As to the issue of the attacks in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, I have no idea what is the U.S. basis for the claim that Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad is responsible for them. There is no record of the group’s claiming responsibility for these attacks. Is it possible instead for instance that the perpetrators of those attacks were in contact with leaders or individual members of Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad in Syria, who may have advised the perpetrators or provided some support for the attacks? Perhaps, but we have no way of knowing that from the U.S. terrorist designation announcement.
On a wider scale, it should be noted that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s connections with foreign fighter blocs are probably one of the main reasons why the Western and international terrorist designation of the group will persist for the foreseeable future. In all likelihood, the international community is concerned that these foreign fighter blocs, which work with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, may serve as inspirers, facilitators and supporters for those who conduct attacks abroad, even if those blocs do not actually conduct those attacks and claim responsibility for them.
Contrary to what some of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s critics claim, I actually do not buy the idea that the group is somehow turning against ‘muhajireen’ (‘migrants’/foreigners) in its territory in general, and in fact the group quite happily boasts of its relations with its foreign fighter allies as proof of its Islamic credentials. On the other hand, this is a problem for the group in its attempt to present itself as a reasonable actor to the West and wider international community.
Below is the Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad statement in English.
Here is my Arabic translation of the statement:
كتيبة التوحيد والجهاد
بسم الله الرحمن الرجيم
الحمد لله رب العالمين والعاقبة للمتقين ولا عدوان الا على الظالمين
بيان بشأن تصنيف كنيبة التوحيد والجهاد من قبل وزارة الخارجية الأمريكية
مهما قويت حكومة او مجتمع، فانها لن تكون كبيرة عند الناس ما لم تحكم بالعدل وتُزح الظلم.
وأفاد الأعلام في الفترة الأخيرة بان وزارة الخارجية الأمريكية صنفت كتيبة التوحيد والجهاد كتنظيم “إرهابي عالمي” بناءً على ما وصفته كدليل على قيامها بعمليات في بعض البلدان.
ان هذه التهم بعيدة عن الصحة ويمكن سوء فهمها لأنّ كتيبة التوحيد والجهاد تتكون من أناس استجابوا على صرخ المظلومين في سوريا، فتكون حماية المظلومين واجباً على كل إنسان.
فكيف يعتبر ذلك جريمة؟ اليس بشار الأسد الذي يقتل ملايين الناس ظلماً الإرهابي الحقيقي؟ اليست روسيا التي تدعم بشار الأسد دولة إرهابية حقيقية؟
ليس من سياسة كتيبة التوحيد والجهاد إطلاق عمليات خارج سوريا، ونشدد على ان جماعتنا غير تابعة لتنظيم القاعدة او جماعة الدولة.
اما العمليات في عامي ٢٠١٦ و٢٠١٧ التي جاء ذكرها في بيان وزارة الخارجية الأمريكية، فليس لكتيبة التوحيد والجهاد اي علاقة بها. نحن ضد قتل النساء والأطفال والشيوخ والتحرش بهم حتى في حال الحرب.
(Update 14 March 2022): on the issue of the attacks in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, it would appear that the line of reasoning I suggested was right. Caleb Weiss pointed out to me that a possible basis for the U.S. claim is that Abu Salah al-Uzbeki and/or people linked to him had connections to the perpetrators of the attacks. It is also alleged that Abu Salah directed those attacks. For context, Abu Salah was the leader of Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad until 2020, when he defected to Jabhat Ansar al-Din, an ally of Hurras al-Din. His defection was one of the reasons for the escalation that led to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown on the ‘So Be Steadfast’ operations room. He was arrested by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and then reportedly released in March 2021, probably under strict conditions of release set by the group.
Links of relevance provided by Caleb:
Update (15 March 2022): a source in Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad clarifies the issue as follows:
“Regarding the issue of the attacks in Russia or Kyrgyzstan, this was by the work of our brother Abu Salah, but this was not by the decision of the Shura Council. This was only an idea particular to our brother Abu Salah. The Shura Council disagreed with this idea, but our brother Abu Salah performed ijtihad and carried out this matter, and God knows best.”