Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
Established By: Abdullah al-Muhaysini, Abu Taher al-Hamawi, Abd ar-Razzaq al-Mahdi
Also Known As: Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, Levant Liberation Committee, Tahrir al-Sham, HTS
Country Of Origin: Syria
Leaders: Abu Mohammad al-Julani, Abu Jaber Shaykh
Key Members: Abu Mohammad al-Julani, Abu Jaber Shaykh
Operational Area: Syria, Lebanon
Number Of Members: 12,000–30,000
Involved In: Suicide bomb attacks, Armed attacks, Bomb attacks
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Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” or “Levant Liberation Committee”), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, is an active Salafist jihadist militant group involved in the Syrian Civil War. The group was formed on 28 January 2017 as a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), the Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement.
Abu Jaber, one of Tahrir al-Sham’s leaders, has Salafist jihadist beliefs. This has resulted in him being arrested several times by the Syrian government. He was imprisoned at the Sednaya Prison in 2005 and released among several jihadist prisoners in 2011 who would form several Salafist rebel groups during the Syrian Civil War. Abu Jaber has also professed a belief in “Popular Jihad”, a bottom-to-top approach in which jihadists would win the hearts and minds of the people, before setting out to establish jihadi governance, after receiving enough popular support, which is notably the opposite of ISIL’s “elite Jihad” top-to-bottom approach.
Analysts have also argued that the group continues to maintain many of al-Nusra Front’s al-Qaeda ideologies. Syrian reporter Abdullah Suleiman Ali also said that many of the former Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters still answered to al-Qaeda, and held an increasing amount of sway over the new group, despite its public rebranding. Tahrir al-Sham continues to harbor the former al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic Emirate (run by al-Qaeda) if such a governing entity were declared, it would be similar to ISIL’s declaration of a Caliphate, according to Kremlin diplomats.
The Combating Terrorism Center also reported that despite public statements by some of Tahrir al-Sham’s top figures, the group was still largely the same al-Qaeda-aligned group it was, back when it was known as al-Nusra. Lebanese researcher Muhammad Alloush said that the goal of forming Tahrir al-Sham was to unite all groups with al-Qaeda’s extreme ideology under one banner, and to obtain as many weapons as possible.
In July, 2017, according to a pro-government blog, the organization published an infographic showing some of its objectives. Among them were; “rejection of secularism and democracy”, “establishment of an Islamic state”, “rule by the Islamic scholars based on the sharia law” and “rejection of political rapprochement with the criminal regime (i.e. Syrian government)”.
After the announcement, additional groups and individuals joined. The merged group is currently led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and former Ahrar al-Sham leaders, although the High Command consists of leaders from other groups. Many groups and individuals defected from Ahrar al-Sham, representing their more conservative and Salafist elements. Currently, a number of analysts and media outlets still continue to refer to this group by its previous names, al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The Ansar al-Din Front and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement have since split off from Tahrir al-Sham.
Despite the merger, Tahrir al-Sham has been accused of working as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch on a covert level, and that many of the group’s senior figures, particularly Abu Jaber, held similarly extreme views. However, Tahrir al-Sham has officially denied being part of al-Qaeda and said in a statement that the group is “an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions”.
Furthermore, some factions such as Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which was part of the merger, were once supported by the US. Russia claims that Tahrir al-Sham shares al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate run by al-Qaeda. Abdullah al-Muhaysini, Abu Taher al-Hamawi, and Abd ar-Razzaq al-Mahdi worked on the formation of the group.
On 28 January 2017, the same day that Tahrir al-Sham was formed, the group announced the formation of its elite units, the “Inghimasi”, some of whom were deployed in Idlib city. They could also be used for suicide infiltration operations and as assault troops.
On 30 January, there were reports of mobilizations by Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham at the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing and other nearby areas, and that the two groups were preparing for another round of clashes. On 30 January, it was reported that there were around 31,000 fighters in Tahrir al-Sham, while in March analyst Charles Lister described is as “likely commanding 12,000 to 14,000 fighters”.
Soon after the group’s formation, many local Syrians began referring to the group as Hetesh, which was an Arabic acronym meant as a pejorative, similar the “Daesh” label applied to ISIL by much of the Arab World. This labeling indicated that many Syrians saw Tahrir al-Sham, as no different than ISIL, especially given the similarities between Tahrir al-Sham’s recent attacks and ISIL’s massive offensive on rebel forces in 2014.
HTS suffered losses from air attacks by Coalition forces. On 1 February 2017, it was reported that the US had conducted an airstrike on Carlton Hotel, in the city of Idlib, which was used by Tahrir al-Sham’s former al-Nusra component for troop housing, and hosting meetings of prominent commanders. On the same day, the Elite Division of the FSA was attacked by Tahrir al-Sham. On 3 February, a US airstrike struck a Tahrir al-Sham headquarters in Sarmin, killing 12 members of HTS and Jund al-Aqsa. 10 of the killed militants were HTS members. The airstrike also killed militant commander Ibrahim al-Rihaal Abu Bakr.
There has been resistance to HTS by civilians in rebel areas it controls. On 3 February, hundreds of Syrians demonstrated under the slogan “There is no place for al-Qaeda in Syria” in the towns of Atarib, Azaz, Maarat al-Nu’man to protest against HTS. In response, supporters of HTS organized counter-protests in al-Dana, Idlib, Atarib, and Khan Shaykhun.
In Idlib pro- Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham protests were held waving pictures of its leader Abu Jaber on 3 February 2017. Attendance at a speech by HTS cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini was manipulated by drawing internally displaced persons and impoverished people with promises of motorcycles and refrigerators through a raffle. On 4 February 2017, a US airstrike killed al-Qaeda commander Abu Hani al-Masri, who was a part of Ahrar al-Sham at the time of his death. It was reported that he was about to defect to Tahrir al-Sham before his death.
On the same day, Tahrir al-Sham official Muslah al-Alyani criticized other groups for not joining Tahrir al-Sham, arguing that any group that “fought for Islam” would be bombed, regardless of terrorist designations. In his statement, he indicated that one of the reasons why most Ahrar al-Sham fighters refused to join Tahrir al-Sham was because the latter group contained terrorist-designated individuals.
Around 8 February, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi confirmed that 2 senior Jabhat Fateh al-Sham leaders, including former al-Nusra deputy leader Sami al-Oraydi, left Tahrir al-Sham after its formation. A speech was released by Abu Jaber on 9 February. He emphasized his group being an “independent entity” and praised his “brothers” in the “Syrian Jihad”. The statement included derogatory rhetoric on Shia Muslims.
On 12 February, the Bunyan al-Marsous Operations Room, of which Tahrir al-Sham is a member of, launched an offensive against the Syrian Army in Daraa’s Manshiyah district. Tahrir al-Sham forces reportedly began the attack with 2 suicide bombers and car bombs.
On 13 February, clashes erupted between the previously-allied Tahrir al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa, also called Liwa al-Aqsa, in northern Hama and southern Idlib. On 15 February, Ahrar al-Sham published an infographic on its recent defections, claiming that only 955 fighters had defected to Tahrir al-Sham. There were also reports that Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Legion, Jaysh al-Izza, the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, and the Tamkin Brigade would soon merge to form a new organization called the “Syrian Liberation Front”, with websites close to the organizations reportedly disclosing this.
On 19 February, HTS arrested local FSA commander Anas Ibrahim in Atarib, and in response, an anti-HTS protest was held in the town.
On 20 February, a Ma’arat al-Numan Shura Council was created by the Sham Legion, Ahrar al-Sham, and Tahrir al-Sham.
On 22 February, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that Russia feared that Tahrir al-Sham would declare a new Islamic Emirate in northwestern Syria within a month, patterned after ISIL’s self-styled “Caliphate” in Ar-Raqqah. On the same day, the Combating Terrorism Center reported that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham had formed the Tahrir al-Sham group due to its fear of being isolated, and to counter Ahrar al-Sham’s recent expansion during the clashes in the Idlib Province.
On 22 February, the last of Liwa al-Asqa’s 2,100 militants left their final positions in Khan Shaykhun, with unconfirmed reports in pro-government media that they were to join ISIL in the Ar-Raqqah Province after a negotiated withdrawal deal with Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Afterward, Tahrir al-Sham declared terminating Liwa al-Aqsa, and promised to watch for any remaining cells.
On 26 February, a US airstrike in Al-Mastoumeh, Idlib Province, killed Abu Khayr al-Masri, who was the deputy leader of al-Qaeda. The airstrike also killed another Tahrir al-Sham militant. In early March 2017, local residents in the Idlib Province who supported FSA factions accused Tahrir al-Sham of doing more harm than good, saying that all they’ve done is “kidnap people, set up checkpoints, and terrorize residents.”
On 16 March, a US airstrike struck an al-Qaeda meeting in the village of al-Jinah, just southwest of Atarib, killing at least 29 and possibly over 50 civilians; the US claimed the people targeted in the strike were “al-Qaeda militants” but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), local residents and local officials have said that the building struck was a mosque filled with worshipers.
On the morning of 21 March (local time), according to local activists, a US drone strike in Darkoush, Idlib Province, killed Abu Islam al-Masri, a high-ranking HTS commander. HTS commander Abu al-‘Abbas al-Darir was also killed in the drone strike. On the same day, Tahrir al-Sham launched the 2017 Hama offensive against Syrian Government forces.
On 24 March, two flatbed trucks carrying flour and belonging to an IHH-affiliated Turkish relief organization were stopped at a HTS checkpoint at the entrance to Sarmada. HTS then seized the trucks and the flour, which was intended for a bakery in Saraqib. The seizure caused 2,000 families in the area to be cut off from a free supply of bread.
On 3 May, HTS arrested Suhail Muhammad Hamoud, “Abu TOW”, a former FSA fighter, in a house raid in Idlib. Earlier, al-Hamoud had published a photograph of him smoking in front of a HTS billboard that prohibited smoking. On 20 May, the main faction of the Abu Amara Battalions joined Tahrir al-Sham, which “now boasts a fighting force of some 50,000 militants” according to one source. However, the covert operations unit of the Abu Amara Battalions based in Aleppo remained independent.
On 27 May, Tahrir al-Sham and Saraya Ahl al-Sham clashed with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the western Qalamoun Mountains near Arsal, Lebanon–Syria border. 33 fighters were killed from both sides. On 29 May, Tahrir al-Sham arrested opposition activist and FSA commander Abdul Baset al-Sarout after accusing him of participating in an anti-HTS protest in Maarat al-Nu’man.
On 2 June 2017, defectors from the Northern Brigade’s Commandos of Islam Brigade reportedly joined Tahrir al-Sham, although Captain Kuja, leader of the unit, stated that he is still part of the Northern Brigade.
On 20 July 2017, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement led by Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin announced its withdrawal from Tahrir al-Sham amid widespread conflict between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham, and became an independent Islamist group.
On 23 July 2017, Tahrir al-Sham expelled the remnants of Ahrar al-Sham from Idlib, capturing the entire city as well as 60% of the Idlib Governorate. On 18 August 2017, Tahrir al-Sham captured 8 rebel fighters from the town of Madaya after it accused them of wanting to return to Madaya during a ceasefire agreement.
On 1 October 2017, the ibn Taymiyyah Battalions based in the town of Darat Izza defected from Tahrir al-Sham. In November 2017, violent clashes erupted between the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and Tahrir al-Sham in northern Idlib and western Aleppo, mainly in the area between Atme and Khan al-Asal.
Terrorist groups connected to Tahrir al-Sham:
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham; Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar; Green Battalion; Khorasan group; Suqour al-Ezz; Imam Bukhari Jamaat; Tawhid and Jihad Battalion; Army of Muhammad; Jamaat al-Murabitin; Bin Laden Front; Al-Bara; Dhu Nurayn; Al-Sawa’iq; Army of the Levant; Supporters of Jihad; Liwa al-Haqq; Jaysh al-Sunna (Idlib and Aleppo; Ashida’a Mujahideen Brigade; Rashid Battalions; Battalions of Companions;
Qawafil Shuhada; Abbas Brigade; Free Men of the Central Mountain; Saraya al-Aqsa; Katibat Aswed al-Harb; Lions of Rahman Battalion; Jamaat Fursan al-Sunna; Al-Sa’b al-Abiya tribal militias; Tamkin Brigade; Ahmad Asfan Battalions; Taliban Battalion; Mohamad al-‘Asfourah Battalion; Asaad al-Khilafah; Abu Islam’s Armored Brigade; Al-Khattab Battalions; Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman Battalions; Knights of the Levant Battalion; Riya al-Jannah Battalion; Lions of Hamza Battalion; Al-Qadisiyah Brigade;
Jihad in the Path of God Battalion; Kurdish Janah; Haryatan Mujahideen Battalions; Four artillery and rocket brigades; Company of Victory Brigade; Mountain Lions Battalion; Knights of the Caliphate Battalion; Martyrs of Islam Front; Tawhid Battalion; Martyr Ibrahim Qabbani Battalion; Katibat Bayt al-Maqdis; Ansar al-Sham; Abu Mohammed al-Hamawi Battalions; Al-Oqab; Jabhat as-Sadiqin; Katibat al-Shahid Abu Usid;
Katibat Ashbal al-Sunnah; Kata’ib al-Sayf al-Umri; Jabhat al-Sadiqin; Liwa Ahl al-Sham; Lightning Battalion; Supporters of Justice Brigade; Katibat al-Siddiq; Abu Talhah al-Ansari Battalion; 1st Regiment (Idlib); Martyr Omar Djaluk Battalion; Mufid A’awar Battalion; Former Ahrar al-Sham Manufacturing Administration members; Banner of Islam Battalion; Special Forces Brigade; Inghimasi unit; Movement of Mujahideen of the Sunnis of Iran; Jaysh al-Sham; Abu Amara Battalions (main unit); Qassem Battalion; Lions of Tawhid Battalion; Martyr Khalid Zaarour Battalion;
Desert Regiment; Sham al-Salayn; Dawn of Islam Brigade; Farouq Company; al-Hijra Brigade;Victory of Islam; Ahrar Mariyaan; Sunni Islam Brigade; Ghuraba al-Sham (not to be confused with Ghuraba al-Sham, Jabhat Ghuraba al-Sham or Katibat al-Ghuraba); Urim al-Jaws; Central Forces; al-Hasakah group; Katibat Khateeb; Sariya Saeed Brigade (disputed); Conquest Brigade (Kafr Nabl group); Lions of Islam Brigade; Lions of Banu Umayya; Ahrar al-Sham unit in Darat Izza; Ahrar al-Sham unit in Turmanin;
Abu Darda Islamic Union Brigade; al-Ukhwat Brigade; Hani al-Nasr Brigade; Army of Hama; Abdullah Azzam Brigade; al-Imam Brigade (disputed); Usud al-Harb Brigade; Ahl al-Bayt Brigade; al-Majd Brigade; Lions of Islam Brigade Artillery and Infantry Battalion (Junud al-Sham remnants); Ajnad al-Sham (left in June 2017 to join Ahrar al-Sham, rejoined HTS in November 2017); Jaysh Usrah; Imarat Kavkaz; Soldiers of the Epics; Mountain Army; Qatih Badiya;
Since October 2017, the “general commander” or emir of Tahrir al-Sham is Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who is also Tahrir al-Sham’s “military commander” and the emir of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, who also led its predecessor organisation al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
Previously, the general commander of Tahrir al-Sham was Hashim al-Shaykh, also known as Abu Jaber, who was the leader of Ahrar al-Sham between September 2014 and September 2015. On 1 October 2017, Abu Jaber resigned from his position as the general leader of Tahrir al-Sham and was replaced by Abu Mohammad al-Julan. Abu Jaber took another position as the head of HTS’s Shura council.
Individuals in italic are defectors from Ahrar al-Sham, which either left to join Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in the last few days of its existence, or directly joined Tahrir al-Sham.
Abu Jaber (emir)
Abu Mohammad al-Julani (overall military commander)
Abu Khayr al-Masri (senior leader)
Abu Salih Tahan (military commander
Abu Ashida’a (military commander)
Abu Ismael (military commander)
Abu Musab Tunsi (military commander)
Abu Islam (military commander)
Abu Malik al-Shaami (military commander)
Major Abu Hashem (military commander)
Abu Yaqub (military commander)
al-Hajj Baha’ al-Sharm (military commander)
Osama al-Homsi (military commander)
Rachid Baradedi (military commander)
Abu Badr al-Hijazi (military commander)
Abu Hafs Manbij (judge)
Abu Al-Battar Al-Jazrawi (judge)
Abu Bara Al-Qahtani (media official)
Abu al-Yazid Taftanz (media official)
Abu Abdel Ghani al-Hamawi (administrator)
Abu Mohammad al-Shari
Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri (sheikh)
Abu al-Harith al-Masri (sheikh)
Musleh Aliani (sheikh)
Abu at-Tahr al-Hamwi (sheikh)
Abu al-Fatah al-Farghli (sheikh)
Abu Yusuf al-Hamwi (sheikh)
Abu Mohammad al-Sadeq (sheikh)
Suraqa al-Makki (sheikh)
Abu Yahya al-Shami (sheikh)
Iyad Mahmud (sheikh)
Hamza Abu Husayn (sheikh)
Abu al-Waleed al-Hannafi (sheikh)
Abu Muhammad Nu’maani (sheikh)
Abu Talha Shaib (sheikh)
Abu Taher al-Hamawi (sheikh)
Ayman al-Zawahiri has opposed the split of HTS from Al Qaeda, stating that it was done without his consent. Several Al-Qaeda circles and supporters have also condemned Joulani and compared him to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because of the group’s conflicts with other rebel groups, and have described him as an ‘opportunist’ as well as making claims that he is an agent of foreign powers.
According to Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, who was a leading scholar in Tahrir al-Sham, the groups do not particularly hate one another in the political or social battlefield. Certain members, however, do believe that a war between the two would be possible, since Ahrar al-Sham’s attendance at the Astana talks labels it as a “moderate” faction, often seen as blasphemy within groups such as Tahrir al-Sham.
In February 2018 Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement merged and formed the Syrian Liberation Front then launched an offensive against Tahrir al-Sham seizing several villages and the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man.
Campaign of violence:
On 25 February 2017, 5 Tahrir al-Sham suicide bombers attacked the headquarters of the Syrian military intelligence in Homs, killing dozens of security forces, including the head of the military security in Homs. Pictures of the attackers were released on Twitter. One of the attackers was a Khan Shaykhun native called Abu Hurayra (Safi Qatini), according to social media sources. The State Security branch chief and Military security branch chief died in the attack, according to social media sources.
Hassan Daaboul was among the 40 assassinated by Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham. The explosion killed Ibrahim Darwish, a Brigadier General and the state security branch’s chief. Syrian reporter Moussa al-Omar posted pictures of officers and soldiers who were killed. The War Center Media gave a figure of six suicide attackers and a death toll of thirty. The death toll was given at twenty by Moussa when he posted it a breaking. The death toll was given at thirty five on 24 February according to Moussa.
The injured numbered fifty four and the dead numbered forty seven on 25 February according to Moussa. Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, a Tahrir al-Sham military spokesman was interviewed by Human Voice on the bombings. Twenty-six names were released. Sheikh Samir bin Ali Ka’aka Abu Abdurrahman from Eastern Ghouta suggested that the attack was carried out by Iranians in a dispute between Russians and Iranians. Geneva-based opposition Syrians claimed that the Homs strike was carried out by the government.
The attack took place the same time as the beginning of the Geneva Four talks. The attack was praised by Liwa Omar al-Farouq Brigade leader in Ahrar Al-Sham, Abu Abdul Malik (Mahmoud Nemah). The attack was mentioned in an article in the publication Al-Masra by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani mentioned the Homs attack, stating that it was a message for the “defeatist politicians” to “step aside.” It has been disputed that the raid did resulted in the death of Ibrahim Darwish. Tariq Abdelhaleem posted a tweet on the Homs attack by Tahrir al-Sham.
On 11 March 2017, Tahrir al-Sham carried out a twin bombing attack in the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus’s Old City, killing 76 and wounding 120. The death toll included 43 Iraqi pilgrims. The attacks were at a shrine frequented by Shi’ite pilgrims and militiamen. They were described in a statement attributed to Tahrir al-Sham as targeting Iran-backed militias and pro-Assad fighters.
In February 2018, Tahrir al-Sham was accused of killing Fayez al-Madani, an opposition delegate tasked with negotiations with the government over electricity delivery in the northern Homs Governorate, in the city of al-Rastan. Hundreds of people, including fighters of the Men of God Brigade, part of the Free Syrian Army’s National Liberation Movement group, proceeded to demonstrate against HTS in the city on 13 February. In response, HTS withdrew from Rastan and handed over its headquarters in the city to the Men of God Brigade. A breakway faction of former HTS members was formed in February 2018, called the Guardians of Religion Organization.