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Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups

Connections between al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham demand close scrutiny

An alliance of jihadist groups called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) currently controls much of Syria’s Idlib province.

After the sixth round of Astana talks in September, Turkey, Russia and Iran announced they had agreed to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib. Turkey has begun an operation to set up observation points in Idlib province with Free Syrian Army rebels and Turkish forces on the ground, while Russia and Iran will control the province’s borders. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Russia will provide air support.

HTS is led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front, Victory Front), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Nusra was founded by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who is currently also leader of HTS.

HTS is not a party to the de-escalation agreement, but Senior Fellow and Director of Extremism and Counter-Terrorism at the Middle East Institute Charles Lister wrote that, according to opposition and jihadist sources, the “Turkish move into Idlib was the result of an intensive negotiation process between HTS and Turkey.” Lister also said that Russia was involved in negotiations with HTS, but he downplays the link between HTS and al-Qaeda, and suggests that Turkey’s long-term approach to HTS is “a slow, methodical campaign of subversion — seeking to create divisions rather than open warfare.”

Reporting al-Qaeda in Idlib

There is wide variance in reporting of who these groups are and their relationship to al-Qaeda.

In the past month, Reuters has said that Nusra “was al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch until last year, when it changed its name and broke formal allegiance to the global movement,” that HTS is “spearheaded by al-Qaeda’s former affiliate” and that it is “led by militants formerly linked to al-Qaeda“; the BBC has said Nusra has “broken off formal ties with al-Qaeda” and that HTS is led by “a former branch of al-Qaeda“; AP consistently described HTS as “al-Qaida-linked.” There are many more – and widely variant – examples.

But what’s correct? Did JFS “break ties” with al-Qaeda? Is it a “former affiliate” or a “former branch”? Is it “linked” or “formerly linked”? What’s the best way to characterise the relationship between JFS and al-Qaeda, and how does this extend to HTS?

Al-Nusra front

“Affiliated is the word I use,” Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and past president of the Syria Studies Association told The Defense Post.

Julani, who is believed to be Syrian – al Julani is a reference to the Golan area of Syria – fought for al-Qaeda in Iraq in the 2000s, becoming a close associate of its then leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He later worked with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then leader of Islamic State of Iraq, and was appointed head of ISI in Nineveh Province.

Julani returned to Syria after the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, and founded Nusra as a sub-group of ISI. Nusra said its goals were first to overthrow Assad’s regime and then to create an Islamic emirate.

In December 2012, the U.S. State Department amended its designation of al-Qaeda in Iraq – which also included Islamic State of Iraq – to include Nusra as an alias.

“Julani was sent to Syria to create a branch of al-Qaeda by Baghdadi and eventually broke from Baghdadi and al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham over the dispute about Baghdadi’s leadership,” Landis said. “Julani insisted he was only under oath to Zawahiri.”

Landis was referring to the merger of ISI and Nusra as the newly branded ISIS, announced by Baghdadi in 2013. Julani refused Baghdadi’s instruction to dissolve Nusra and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and its current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also rejected the merger. Zawahiri ordered ISIS to disband and made Nusra responsible for activity in Syria, but Baghdadi rejected the order. Months later, al-Qaeda publicly disavowed ISIS.

Open fighting broke out between Nusra and ISIS, which led to Nusra being largely expelled from eastern Syria by mid-2014. The group focused on the west, particularly in Idlib province, where it actively cooperated with other militant groups, giving it a degree of legitimacy particularly among some Islamist Syrian rebels.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham released images of its fighters preparing for the Aleppo offensive in July 2016. Image: Hassan Ridha/Twitter

Jabhat al-Nusra Fateh al-Sham

In July 2016, Julani publicly declared that Nusra was changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-ShamDuring the announcement, he did not explicitly state that the organisation was splitting or breaking from al-Qaeda, and said only that the “new organization has no affiliation to any external entity.”

Aaron Y. Zelin is Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where he researches Sunni Arab jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria as well as foreign fighters and online jihadism. He is the founder of the acclaimed Jihadology.net.

“Julani never broke his baya to Zawahiri,” Zelin told The Defense Post, referring to the oath of allegiance to the al-Qaeda leader.

Zelin described Julani’s statement that JFS has no affiliation to any external entity as “sleight of hand,” pointing out that “al-Qaeda has sent a number of key leaders from Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iran to Syria over the past five years.”

One of those leaders, Abu al Khayr al Masri, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Idlib in February 2017. An Egyptian, Masri was identified as Zawahiri’s “general deputy,” and had travelled with him to Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan. After 9/11, Masri moved to Iran, where he was detained for years before being released in September 2015 under a hostage swap deal negotiated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Syria, Masri paved the way for the Nusra/JFS name change – in an audio message released by Nusra just before its own announcement, Masri said Nusra should “take the appropriate steps” in regard to safeguarding the interests of Islam and Muslims, with the goal of building an Islamic government.

A failed re-branding

Landis told The Defense Post that any Nusra break from al-Qaeda was “largely tactical, an attempt to avoid U.S. designation as a terrorist organization.”

The attempt failed – in November 2016, the Obama administration added JFS as an alias to its terrorist designation of Nusra, and claimed that al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan remained important to the organization, especially a core group that was training operatives for operations in Europe and the U.S.

“The split was messy and ambiguous as are almost all the factional alliances, reformations and reconfigurations of the many militias,” Landis said. “In the end Julani remains dedicated to an Emirate and jihad. There do seem to be tensions between him and Zawahiri – how important or definitive is not clear,” Landis concluded.

Dr. Ahmet Yayla, Adjunct Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University, Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, co-author of “ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate” and former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police service, sees the situation similarly.

“Al-Qaeda is trying to re-brand itself,” Yayla told The Defense Post.

“By rebranding frequently, they are trying to ditch the negative labelling associated with al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra,” he added, comparing the re-branding efforts to the strategy adopted by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) during the noughties, when it frequently changed its name so that it would not appear on internationally recognized terrorist lists, particularly the U.S. Department of State list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

“They never cut their ties with the central al-Qaeda and its leadership,” he said. “They are al-Qaeda and they believe in the same ideology. To me, they are a satellite of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda being the umbrella organization.”

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters before an offensive to break the siege of Aleppo in 2016. Image: Felix Legrand/NOIRA

“Affiliation to al-Qaeda can be nimble”

Hassan Hassan is from Al Bukamal in the Deir Ezzor governorate of eastern Syria near the Iraqi border. He is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-wrote the 2015 New York Times bestseller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”

“We don’t know whether [Julani] renounced the bayat,” Hassan told The Defense Post, adding that he might not need to since JFS could “argue Zawahiri had given them the permission to go separate ways if they could unite with other groups.”

“Affiliation to al-Qaeda can be nimble,” he continued. “ISIS says they stopped being affiliated when they announced the Islamic State of Iraq. But they started saying that in 2013, when they broke up with Nusra. In one of his speeches, [ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike this year] addresses this question of affiliation by saying ISI had had no allegiance to al-Qaeda since 2006, but that it continued to address al-Qaeda leaders as their emirs and elders out of respect for their longstanding jihadi service.”

“So ISI had no bayat but continued to consider al-Qaeda as their parent organization, did that mean it was accurate to regard ISI as Al Qaeda in Iraq? I’d say yes.”

He added, “I heard observers mocking those who called ISI al-Qaeda because it stopped being AQ in 2006, but Adnani belied those. That’s not to speak of the ideology itself.”

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance is formed

In early 2017, former Ahrar al-Sham leader Hashim al-Sheikh – also known as Abu Jabir – announced the formation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. HTS is an alliance (sometimes described as a merger) between JFS and four other jihadist groups – Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq and Ḥarakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki.

Julani was named as military commander, and Abu Jabir as its overall leader.

More groups and individuals – including many from Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham – joined later, but things quickly deteriorated. In July, Nour al-Din al-Zenki withdrew from the alliance after conflict between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib. More recently, one of HTS’ biggest factions, Jaysh al-Ahrar, left the alliance, and on October 1, HTS announced the resignation of Abu Jabir and the appointment of Julani as interim leader.

“HTS in many ways is still a front for al-Qaeda even if they want to act as if it’s not,” Zelin said. “The message regarding this was more about the local Syrian audience than anyone in the west.”

Aron Lund, fellow at The Century Foundation, author of “Struggling to Adapt: The Muslim Brotherhood in a New Syria” and previously a nonresident fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program, has published extensively on Syrian opposition movements and military dynamics.

“What sort of relationship Tahrir al-Sham and its leadership has to al-Qaeda is a good question,” Lund told The Defense Post. “They claim to have cut organizational ties after giving up the Nusra Front name. The United States – among others – says it has evidence there remains a link between al-Qaeda and the former Nusra Front leaders who run Tahrir al-Sham today. I’m unfortunately not privy to the secrets of either Tahrir al-Sham or the U.S. government, so I don’t know.”

“They may be lying or they could be engaged in some subtle word games concerning the meaning of ‘external entity.’ There could also exist secret ties that are different from the previous relationship, perhaps representing a different type of link, but still a link. Or they could indeed have ended the organizational relationship, but still be burdened by personal and historical ties, a shared ideology, shared allies and enemies, working alongside and hosting “real” al-Qaeda members, and so on.”

“It’s not likely to matter in the long run, since it all adds up to the fact that they’re going to continue being treated as an al-Qaeda faction,” Lund concluded.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters drive in southwestern Aleppo
Fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in southwestern Aleppo on August 5, 2016. Image: Reuters

Coalition governments agree

Lund’s analysis of how the group is perceived and will be treated is borne out by governments involved in the U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS.

A French diplomatic source told The Defense Post that Nusra’s name change has no impact on French policy because the group still conducts terrorist attacks, adding that the fight against terrorism is one of the top priorities of French diplomacy. Similarly, a U.K. Foreign Office official told The Defense Post that the U.K. sees JFS and HTS as aliases for al-Qaeda.

The U.S. State Department was somewhat more direct.

“Al-Nusrah Front is al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria and its largest affiliate across the globe,” a State Department spokesperson told The Defense Post. “It is committed to ousting Assad, but it also seeks to expand its reach regionally and globally, consistent with core al-Qa’ida’s longstanding approach.”

“Whether the group calls itself al-Nusrah Front or another name (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), it remains al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria,” the spokesperson added.

“Despite public denials and a deliberate effort to mask its terrorist affiliation, al-Nusrah Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West. There is increasing concern about the Nusrah Front’s growing capacity for external operations.”

Postscript and further reading

Debate among academics and analysts about the relationship between JFS, HTS and al-Qaeda continues, as does debate about the nature of Turkey’s incursion.

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