Who was Syria’s Al-Nusra founder Abu Maria Al-Qahtani?

Abu Maria Al-Qahtani was the founder of Al-Nusra Front, one of the key groups in Syria’s war, and was killed in bombing on Thursday.

As a leading military commander in the revolt against the Syrian regime and Islamic State group, Abu Maria Al-Qahtani, who was killed on Thursday, was a divisive figure within the Islamist wing of the insurgency.

Last year, Abu Maria was detained and then released in March by his own organisation, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), on charges of “treason”.

Weeks later, he was assassinated following a bitter fallout with the HTS leadership and the group’s more extremist elements.

We explain more about this elusive figure and his role in Syria’s Islamist movement.

Who was Abu Maria Al-Qahtani?

Maysr Al-Jabouri, better known as Abu Maria Al-Qahtani, was born in Mosul province, Iraq in 1976 and fought coalition forces after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Prior to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, he reportedly served in the elite ‘Fedayeen Saddam’ branch of the Iraqi army until the de-Baathification of the Iraqi military.

During his period in the Iraqi police, he became a member of the Islamic State of Iraq, a brutal jihadist group led by the Jordanian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi which pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda but operated independently.

When the Syrian war broke out in 2011, he was dispatched to eastern Syria by Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to help establish Al-Nusra Front, which became one of the key Islamist groups fighting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

Abu Maria was to be sanctioned by the US in 2012 for his links to Al-Qaeda.

Opposition groups and Al-Nusra, which had seized control of eastern Syria early in the revolution, were to be chased out by the Islamic State group.

These remnants would later make Idlib their bastion after the complete takeover of the province by the Al-Nusra-led Jaish Al-Fatah alliance in 2015.

What was his role in Al-Nusra Front?

Abu Maria was a well-known critic of Al-Baghdadi and sought to cut ties with IS to work directly under Al-Qaeda, led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s.

Ultimately, he wanted a more independent role for Al-Nusra, positioning himself in the driving seat due to his battlefield experiences and credentials as a religious figure.

Early on, Abu Maria became a deputy—and later an apparent rival—of Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani, serving as a liaison for him with other factions and Syrian tribal groups.

His good relations with these groups were said to be key to Al-Jolani’s decision in 2017 for Al-Nusra to join ranks with more moderate Islamist forces and cut ties with Al-Qaeda during the formation of the Tahrir Al-Sham coalition.

Abu Maria became one of the most prominent Islamist opponents of IS, seeing them as misguided extremists and earning him the title ‘the Conqueror of Kharijites’.

His more inclusive approach to governance and desire to work with Syrians made him popular within the rebel-Islamist framework, yet he also made enemies across the Syrian landscape.

What happened next?

A camp emerged around Abu Maria that opposed the more extremist elements of Al-Nusra, led by Jordanian Sami Al-Aridi.

Infighting within the ‘moderate/extremist’ factions of Al-Nusra continued into the years of HTS.

Last year, Abu Maria and a number of HTS commanders were detained and accused of “treason” with claims the commander had links to the US-led coalition and planned a coup against the HTS leadership.

Another dead man walking https://t.co/WqQqvpZQ5d — Suhail AlGhazi (@putintintin1) March 11, 2024

Protests that erupted in Idlib province earlier this year against HTS were in part linked to Abu Maria’s detention and the treatment of the detainees, which included allegations of torture.

Abu Maria was released in mid-March with a photo shared showing him standing with a small band of armed men.

Respected Syrian researcher Suhail AlGhazi shared the photo with the caption “another dead man walking”, highlighting the fraught environment Abu Maria now faced in Idlib, where extremist groups that despised him were rampant.

On Thursday, Abu Maria reportedly greeted a man in Sarmada, Idlib, who triggered a bomb belt, killing the commander and injuring three others.

HTS confirmed Abu Maria’s death on Friday and blamed IS. Questions remain about who is the culprit.

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