In a significant and surprising turn of events, on the evening of April 5, a prominent Iraqi leader in the Syrian Sunni Islamist group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Maysar bin Ali al-Juburi, also known as Abu Maria al-Qahtani or “al-Harari,” was reportedly killed in an attack in Idlib’s northern countryside. His personal bodyguard and fellow HTS Political Bureau member Dr. Youssef al-Hajar were both injured in the attack as well.

According to the information available, al-Qahtani was killed in a guesthouse in the city of Sarmada to which he had been invited; three people entered and offered him a gift — a sword held in a box rigged with explosives, which detonated when he opened it.

Al-Qahtani’s assassination came just one month after HTS released him following a seven-month-long detention on charges of collaborating with foreign parties. His release was expected to put an end to the controversy around collaborators that shook HTS and caused a rift within its ranks.

Upbringing and education

Abu Maria al-Qahtani’s real name is Maysar bin Ali bin Musa bin Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Saleh bin Dandan bin Salem bin Ajal bin Jamus al-Juburi al-Qahtani. He was born in the village of al-Rasif in 1976, the only son among eight daughters. He later moved with his family to the village of Harara in Iraq and was brought up by his father Abu Maysara, known for his Salafi thought, which earned him the nickname “al-Wahhabi.”

Al-Qahtani went to primary school in Harara and middle school in al-Qayyarah, before going on to receive a diploma in business administration from the University of Baghdad. After graduating, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in sharia law. During his years of studying sharia and as a member of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, he wrote several books, including Loyalty to the Families of Mujahideen and MartyrsCorruption of Jihad, On the Reality of Organizations, Al-Harari’s Explanations and Wisdoms, and The Ummah Between al-Sham’s Zouabri and Algeria’s Zouabri, which was his final work.

Al-Qahtani’s journey in Iraq

Al-Qahtani’s first direct involvement with jihadist groups was in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq. He was a member of a Salafi group headed by Mohammad Khalaf Shakara, known as Abu Talha al-Ansari, which was the nucleus of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad before Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Abu Maria fought in the first and second battles of Fallujah, as well as other battles in Tal Afar, Mosul, and Baghdad. At the end of 2003, he was appointed the leader of al-Tahlika Battalion, and a few months later he was made a military commander in Mosul and Saladin.

In 2004, he was injured in an ambush set up by US forces west of Mosul; he was arrested and sentenced to prison for a year and a half. He was released in 2006 and was later appointed as a sharia official for western Mosul and put in charge of public relations with the Arab tribes.

After the Mujahideen Shura Council announced the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq, al-Qahtani was appointed as the head of its Diwan al-Hisbah (Public Morality Bureau) and a member of the Sharia Committee in Nineveh, Iraq, where he began to gain popularity. That year, US forces announced a financial reward for anyone who offered information about him.

In early 2007, US forces managed to capture al-Qahtani in an ambush west of Mosul, in which he sustained severe injuries along with his companions. He spent four years in US prisons before being released. The leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq tried to convince al-Qahtani to resume his activities afterwards, offering him the position of head of the Public Relations Bureau and the wilayah of western Mosul. However, al-Qahtani rejected the offer and moved to Syria. He settled in Damascus to undergo medical treatment and work in commerce.

Al-Qahtani in Syria

Al-Qahtani was in Syria from the beginning of the uprising there, specifically in Damascus. He had contacts with some leaders in the Ahrar al-Sham Movement and some factions of the Free Syrian Army. When Abu Mohammad al-Julani arrived in Syria as an envoy from the Islamic State in Iraq on a mission to set up a similar organization there, al-Qahtani received him, as the two men had already met in Mosul.

After al-Julani settled in Syria, he asked his group’s leaders in Iraq to reinstate al-Qahtani. The request was approved on orders from Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a member of the Islamic State in Iraq’s Shura Council and one of the group’s most prominent members.

Al-Qahtani was appointed as a sharia official and general mufti for the al-Nusra Front, in addition to his role as general commander of eastern Syria (Raqqa, Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zor). Al-Qahtani stayed in those positions until late 2014, when he was discharged and replaced by Jordanian sharia official Sami al-Oraydi. However, al-Qahtani remained a member of al-Nusra Front’s Shura Council.

After its formation, al-Nusra Front went through many ideological transformations. From its inception until mid-2014, it was controlled by a relatively “moderate” current led by Abu Maria al-Qahtani; after that period, it was under the control of an extremist, conservative faction favoring the approach of the parent organization, al-Qaeda.

During al-Qahtani’s time as general mufti, al-Nusra Front was relatively moderate, as he believed that the organization should join the Syrian revolution and steer clear of religious ideology. Al-Qahtani supported the less extremist current within al-Nusra Front, enabling it to control the organization by giving authority to several prominent figures. He also controlled the oil-rich eastern region, which at the time was al-Nusra’s main source of revenue.

However, al-Qahtani’s faction lost control after he was discharged and Sami al-Oraydi became the Front’s general mufti. After that, the extremists who wanted to apply al-Qaeda’s thought took control, leading to al-Nusra’s takeover of several Free Syrian Army factions and Islamist groups.

Al-Qahtani’s relationship with the Arab tribes

Among jihadi figures, Al-Qahtani had the closest relationship with the Arab tribes, owing to his unique ability to curry favor with them. His first contact with them dates back to 2006, when he was in charge of public relations with the tribes.

His appointment by the Islamic State in Iraq as mufti and emir of eastern Syria — an area known for its tribes — was a calculated move; the organization was aware of al-Qahtani’s ability to operate in those regions and appeal to the local population, 90% of which consists of Arab tribes.

Al-Qahtani’s policy toward the tribes proved effective amid the disagreement between al-Nusra Front and the leadership in Iraq, which split the organization into two entities: al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The major tribes sided with al-Nusra Front, while the foreign fighters sided with ISIS.

During that time, al-Qahtani and al-Nusra had built strong relationships with the Arab tribes and the local community. However, this was not the case with ISIS, whose stance toward the tribes was more confrontational. In fact, most ISIS leaders in Syria were raised in urban areas, especially those coming from Morocco, Tunisia, and East Asia, who did not have any knowledge or experience of dealing with tribal communities.

Conflict with ISIS

Al-Qahtani was ISIS’s staunchest opponent. He had warned people about the threat that ISIS’s extremism posed early on. ISIS considered him responsible for the devastating war between factions in Syria, especially in Deir ez-Zor.

Al-Qahtani’s antagonism with ISIS began before the latter’s rift with al-Nusra Front. In fact, al-Qahtani and Mohammad al-Shahil, an al-Nusra leader in Deir ez-Zor, tried to convince the Front’s Shura Council of the need to arrest Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and put an end to ISIS when al-Baghdadi was visiting Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside, but al-Nusra Emir Abu Mohammad al-Julani opposed the idea.

When fighting erupted between the two organizations, al-Qahtani mobilized the Arab tribes and Islamist factions to combat ISIS, supplying those factions with funds and weapons. However, seven months later, ISIS emerged as the victor, after having captured Mosul and besieged Deir ez-Zor.

The failure of al-Nusra leaders to support al-Qahtani was another reason why ISIS took control of eastern Syria. After the battle in Deir ez-Zor, al-Qahtani and his supporters moved to Daraa in southern Syria. A few days later, he was removed from his position as general mufti and replaced by Sami al-Oraydi.

Al-Qahtani stayed in Daraa for several months, during which he fought against ISIS in the region. He then moved to Idlib with other members and leaders of his group who were originally from eastern Syria, passing through regime-controlled areas on the way. According to sources within al-Nusra Front, he paid the regime large bribes to do so.

Accusations of treason

On Aug. 14, 2023, HTS’s security apparatus arrested al-Qahtani on the charge of coordinating with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, based on the confessions of cell members who were also arrested.

However, the charge brought publicly by HTS against al-Qahtani was not the main reason for his arrest. Rather, influential HTS leaders, such as Deputy Commander-in-Chief Abu Ahmad Hudood and al-Mughira al-Badawi, the brother-in-law of HTS Commander-in-Chief Abu Mohammad al-Julani, were concerned that al-Qahtani was acting on his own without coordinating with them.

Over the past few months, al-Qahtani had been in close contact with Syrian National Army commanders, former Ahrar al-Sham Movement leaders, and other figures dissatisfied with HTS, trying to convince them to start a new chapter and coordinate with each other.

Al-Qahtani contacted political activists opposed to HTS, promising them that he would implement a reform process. However, several powerful leaders who rejected those steps convinced al-Julani that al-Qahtani was acting in his own best interests to expand his influence in northern Syria. They also told al-Julani that they had information implicating al-Qahtani in a planned “coup.”

After al-Qahtani’s arrest, several leaders, including HTS judge Mazhar al-Wiss, intervened to convince the HTS General Command to release him. HTS partially agreed to the demands, placing al-Qahtani under house arrest and restricting his movement. However, HTS insisted on trying him on charges of coordinating with the Global Coalition and planning to target HTS leaders, in addition to other administrative and financial charges.

Sources confirm that al-Qahtani was indeed in contact with the Global Coalition. The two parties had been communicating for the past few years, but they had been coordinating more closely since the beginning of this year, as HTS grew concerned about a move by Turkey to dismantle the organization according to the Astana agreements.

However, the sources explained that HTS was aware of al-Qahtani’s communication with the Global Coalition and that he was not acting alone without coordinating with it. In addition, the sources added that al-Qahtani had proposed to the Global Coalition, with al-Julani’s approval, the idea of taking part in any potential operation launched from al-Tanf Base against Iranian militias and offered to have HTS’s Ajnad al-Sharqiyah force join.

On March 7, HTS acquitted Abu Maria al-Qahtani of the charges and released him after 205 days in detention, putting an end to the accusations of treason.

All parties benefit

Al-Qahtani’s death is in the interest of all of his opponents. The first of those is al-Julani, since Abu Maria was his main competitor for the position of commander-in-chief. Al-Qahtani’s death also benefits other movements that he fought and tried to dismantle, such as ISIS, Hurras al-Din, and others. While Abu Maria al-Qahtani’s controversial days are over, only time will tell who was responsible for his assassination and the impact it will have on the Syrian landscape.


Mohammed Hassan is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Syria Program and a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Journalism in Paris. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies.

Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

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