Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Formerly Jabhat al-Nusra)

FormedDecember 2011
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackDecember 23, 2011: Two Al-Nusra suicide bombers attacked military intelligence facilities in the city of Damascus. This was Al-Nusra’s first official attack (44 killed, 150+ injured). [1] [2]
Last AttackFebruary 25, 2017: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fighters carried out a suicide attack in the city of Homs. The attack killed General Hassan Daabul, a senior military intelligence advisor who was close to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and critically wounded Ibrahim Darwish, the head of the State Security Branch (40 killed, 50+ wounded). [3] [4]
UpdatedJune 25, 2017

Narrative Summary

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Tahrir al-Sham, also known as HTS and The Assembly for the Liberation of Syria), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra) and as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is a Sunni opposition group and designated terrorist organization that aims to overthrow the Assad Regime and establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria. [5] [6] [7] [8] Al-Nusra was formed in late 2011, when Al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent AQI operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to organize regional jihadist cells. [9] Though Al-Nusra began conducting operations in December 2011, the group formally declared its existence in January 2012. [10] [11] Since 2012, the group has expanded its operations to 11 of Syria’s 13 governorates, including parts of Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir el Zour, Daraa, and Idlib, and has conducted operations in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. [12] [13] In 2012, Al-Nusra also began harboring the Khorasan Group, an experienced cell of approximately two-dozen Al Qaeda jihadists who were sent to Syria by central AQ leadership in order to develop international terror plots. [14] [15] Al-Nusra leader Muhammad al-Julani later denied the Khorasan group’s existence. [16]

Al-Nusra became prominent in early 2012, and was the first Syrian opposition group to claim responsibility for suicide attacks that involved civilian casualties. [17] At its inception, Al-Nusra had stable funding from Al Qaeda in Iraq, and began to finance its operations by gaining control of oil fields that generated income. [18] [19] [20] Militarily, Al-Nusra began conducting operations with prominent Sunni opposition group Ahrar al-Sham, and began coordinating attacks with a wide range of opposition groups in order to foster the idea that the success of the overall Syrian revolution was dependent on military coordination with Al-Nusra. [21] Although Al-Nusra initially faced hostility from some opposition forces, the group developed a strong enough reputation that a number of opposition groups, including fighters from the moderate Free Syrian Army, protested against the United States’ decision to designate Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012. [22] [23]

In April 2013, Al-Nusra came into conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) when AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed, without consulting Al-Nusra or Al Qaeda (AQ) that Al-Nusra was considered a part of the Islamic State of Iraq. [24] In June 2013, AQ commander Ayman al-Zawahiri insisted that AQI and Al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement."[25] Al-Nusra leader Julani also denied the merger, maintained Al-Nusra was an independent AQ branch, and reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri. [26] After a period of rising tensions, Al-Nusra began targeting the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as AQI) in January 2014, and drove the group out of the Syrian city of Raqqa in a combined offensive with Ahrar al-Sham and members of the Islamic Front umbrella organization. [27] After hostilities broke out between the two organizations, IS began capturing Al-Nusra oil fields, which severely depleted Al-Nusra’s sources of income. [28] However, IS and Al-Nusra still cooperated on few occasions in 2014. Al-Nusra had begun targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by March 2014, and in August 2014, both Al-Nusra and IS released an anti-Hezbollah video after they took a unit of Lebanese soldiers hostage in the eastern mountains of Lebanon. [29] [30] In addition to the Lebanese soldiers, Al-Nusra took many other high profile hostages in 2014, but ultimately released American journalist Peter Theo Curtis and 45 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers without conditions. [31] [32] In prior kidnappings, the group had usually secured between $4 million and $25 million in ransom for hostage releases, which were often mediated by Qatar. [33] 

In September 2014, Al-Nusra’s relations with U.S.-backed groups soured after the United States began targeting the Khorasan Group and launched air strikes against Al-Nusra bases in the Idlib governorate. [34] Allegedly in response to U.S. strikes, Al-Nusra began a successful military campaign against the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm, both U.S.-backed groups. [35] Since these attacks, the group has continued targeting U.S. backed groups because it believes opposition alliances with the United States pose a threat to its operations. [36] 

In late-2014 and early 2015, Al-Nusra began to increase its operations in the Idlib governorate. Though some Free Syrian Army affiliated brigades coordinated with Al-Nusra, Al-Nusra’s most important alliance in the Idlib governorate was the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization, which included Ahrar al-Sham and several smaller groups (Ferliq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunnah, al-Haq Brigade, and Jund al-Aqsa). [37] [38] In March 2015, Al-Nusra coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization to seize the city of Idlib from the Assad Regime for first time since the outbreak of the civil war. [39] Following this successful attack, Al-Nusra continued coordinating with Jaysh al-Fatah and pushed the Assad Regime out of the Idlib governorate in June 2015. [40]

In late July 2015, Al-Nusra expanded its operations against U.S. backed forces and attacked the U.S.-trained Division 30 (D30) in the town of Azzaz, kidnapping seven of its fighters. [41] [42] Neither American intelligence officials nor D30 leaders had believed that Al-Nusra would attack because D30 had announced it would target the Islamic State and would not target Al-Nusra. [43] Al-Nusra justified the attack by accusing D30 members of being American agents. [44] The United States deployed drones to defend D30, and reportedly killed between 30 and 40 Al-Nusra fighters. [45] Though Al-Nusra later released seven of the D30 members it had kidnapped, the attack against the group and its surrender of U.S. weapons to Al-Nusra prompted the United States to end its training programs for Syrian opposition groups in October 2015. [46] [47] [48]

Despite their successful military alliance, tensions rose between Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra after Al-Nusra created governing bodies in the Idlib governorate. Until mid-2015, Al-Nusra minimized the extent to which it unilaterally controlled area, instead opting to share power with other groups while working to endear itself to local Syrians. The group prefers to provide social services and food in an effort to embed itself with the local population before translating those social services into more overt forms of governance. [49] However, its influence grew very rapidly within the Idlib governorate, which lead to violent skirmishes with Ahrar al-Sham over how to govern the area they jointly occupied. [50] The two groups also clashed over Al-Nusra’s relationship with Al Qaeda (AQ) and pursuit of global jihad, which Ahrar al-Sham deemed counterproductive to the Syrian revolution. [51] During this time, Al-Nusra itself began to question if it should maintain its AQ ties, but forced cofounder Saleh al-Hamawi out of the group after he was branded a “regionalist” for prioritizing victory in Syria over the global jihad movement. [52] [53]

In December 2015, Al-Nusra’s control in the Idlib governorate was threatened after other Syrian opposition groups began negotiations with the Assad Regime. Analysts claim that Al-Nusra’s value to the opposition was contingent on asserting itself as an irreplaceable military ally. As a result, the negotiations with the Assad Regime and the ensuing cessation of hostilities empowered the Syrian opposition and civilians to challenge Al-Nusra’s authority in the Idlib governorate by leading protests and expressing support for the moderate Free Syrian Army. [54] Al-Nusra was not involved in opposition negotiations because of its status as a terrorist organization, and was not included in the cessation of hostilities that was enacted in February 2016 and lasted until late April. [55] [56] [57]

In July 2016, Al-Nusra ended its affiliation with Al Qaeda (AQ) and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (The Front for the Conquest of the Levant). [58] AQ central command supported the group’s decision. [59] Though Fatah al-Sham was a separate entity from AQ, analysts suggested that the group was attempting to endear itself to local Syrians and erode the international communities justification for targeting the group, and that the split with AQ does not represent a shift in the group’s ideology or goals. [60] [61] Fatah al-Sham also became active in the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization’s campaign to recapture the Aleppo governorate, and on August 7, 2016, Fatah al-Sham coordinated with Jaysh al-Fatah and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad Regime’s siege on the city of Aleppo. On August 10, the Assad Regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in the city of Aleppo. [62] [63] [64]     

In October 2016, tensions rose between Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa, a prominent Sunni-Salafi opposition group that was initially a subunit within Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham) until it left Fatah al-Sham to become an independent group in 2013. Tensions escalated after Jund al-Aqsa kidnapped a member of Ahrar al-Sham in response to Ahrar al-Sham's arrest of a Jund al-Aqsa fighter who allegedly worked for the Islamic State. As a result of this incident, Ahrar al-Sham began to target Jund al-Aqsa. [65] [66] On October 10, 2016, Jund al-Aqsa remerged into Fatah al-Sham, and Fatah al-Sham leaders negotiated a ceasefire with Ahrar al-Sham. [67] 

In January 2017, tensions began to rise among Syrian opposition groups due to increased U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham) that were part of a campaign to dissuade Idlib opposition groups from merging with Fatah al-Sham. [68] Inter-opposition violence further escalated when Fatah al-Sham began attacking militant groups in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates that sent representatives to peace talks with the Assad Regime in Kazakhstan. As a result of these attacks, Jaysh al-Mujahedeen, the Levantine Front’s Aleppo-based fighters, and Jaysh al-Islam’s Idlib-based fighters merged with Ahrar al-Sham. Following these mergers, Ahrar al-Sham stated that any attack on new Ahrar al-Sham factions would be considered “a declaration of war.” [69] [70]  Following these attacks, Fatah al-Sham changed its name to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Tahrir al-Sham) and accepted mergers with Sunni opposition groups such as Jaysh al-Ahrar, a sub-faction within Ahrar al-Sham that was lead by former Ahrar al-Sham leader Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh. As part of this merger, Abu Muhammad al-Julani abdicated his role as the group’s leader, a position now held by Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh, and became Tahrir al-Sham’s military leader. [71] On February 9, 2017, Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh released his first public statement since becoming Tahrir al-Sham’s leader, and called for unity in the Syrian insurgency. [72]

Leadership

  1. Muhsin al-Fadhli (Unknown to July 21, 2015): Fadhli, also known as Muhsin Fadhil ‘Ayyid al Fadhli, Muhsin Fadil Ayid Ashur al Fadhli, Abu Majid Samiyah, and Abu Samia, was a Kuwaiti national who allegedly commanded the Khorasan Group, an Al Qaeda (AQ) cell reportedly harbored by Al-Nusra. Fadhli moved to Syria after the United States State Department identified him as the leader of AQ in Iran in 2012. He was killed by a U.S. drone strike in July 2015. [73]
  2. Maysar Ali al-Juburi (2011 to 2014): Juburi, also known as Abu Maria al-Qatani helped found Al-Nusra and was its top religious official. Juburi first came to Syria in 2010, after he was wounded in a fight in Iraq with American forces as a member of the Islamic State. Though he had clashed with AQ’s Iraqi leadership, he was chosen to help create Al-Nusra. He served as Al-Nusra’s top religious official until he was replaced by Sami al-Oreidi in 2014, and was demoted to a standard member.[74]
  3. Saleh al-Hamawi (2011 to 2015): Hamawi, also known as Abu Mohammed, is a Syrian national from the Hama governorate. Hamawi allegedly helped found Al-Nusra and held a leadership position in Al-Nusra’s Shura Council until he was expelled from his leadership role in 2015. Hamawi claims that tensions erupted between him and the rest of the council after he was branded a “regionalist” for prioritizing victory in Syria over the global jihad movement. [75]
  4. Abu Muhammad al-Julani (January 2012 to Present): Julani is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (Tahrir al-Sham) current military leader. Julani is a Syrian national, and he became a close associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after moving to Iraq. Julani briefly left Iraq after Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2006, and after he was released from a U.S. military camp known as Camp Bucca, he resumed militancy work with future Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Julani was later dispatched to Syria to connect with local AQ networks, and founded Al-Nusra in 2012. In 2017, Julani abdicated his role as the group’s leader (a position now held by Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh) and became Tahrir al-Sham’s military leader.[76]
  5. Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (2013 to Present): Sharikh is a Fatah al-Sham leader and strategist. Before he traveled to Syria in spring 2013 to become a senior leader in the group, Sharikh coordinated AQ financial networks in Pakistan and Iran. Sharikh is on Saudi Arabia’s list of most wanted terrorists, and is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.[77]
  6. Sami al-Oreidi (2014 to Present): Oreidi, also known as Abu Mahmoud al-Shami, is Fatah al-Sham’s top religious figure and second in command. Before he replaced Juburi as the group’s top religious figure in 2014, Oreidi served as the second highest Shariah authority under Juburi.[78]
  7. Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh (January 28, 2017 to Present): Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, became Ahrar al-Sham’s interim leader after Hassan Abboud’s death. Prior to the Syrian civil war, Sheikh was imprisoned by the Assad Regime in 2005 for transferring foreign fighters to Islamic insurgents in Iraq but was released in September 2011. Before he joined Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council, Sheikh commanded units in the Free Syrian Army and then Ahrar al-Sham battalions in Aleppo. Under his leadership, Ahrar al-Sham launched a successful military campaign in Idlib and moderated its rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to the West. In September 2015, Sheikh stepped down as commander in order to found Jaysh Halab, an umbrella organization of Aleppo-based militant groups that includes Ahrar al-Sham. In late 2016, Sheikh formed a sub-faction with Ahrar al-Sham known as Jaysh al-Ahrar in response to contested leadership elections. After Jaysh al-Ahrar merged with Tahrir al-Sham, Sheikh became Tahrir al-Sham’s leader.[79]

Ideology & Goals

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Tahrir al-Sham) seeks to overthrow the Assad Regime and establish an Islamic state in the Levant that is governed by Shariah law. [80] [81] However in 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Julani clarified that the group would not declare such a state until it had consensus from "the sincere mujahideen and the pious scholars." [82] Though Tahrir al-Sham stresses its Syria focus, it still supports establishing multiple Islamic Emirates and an Al Qaeda (AQ) caliphate over time. Initially, the group operated as an AQ affiliate. [83] In mid 2016, analysts have argued that the group’s decision to end its affiliation AQ and change its name from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham did not indicate an ideological split with AQ but was part of a strategy to increase the group’s appeal within Syria. [84]

Tahrir al-Sham follows a brand of Salafi-Jihadism that is espoused by religious ideologues such as Marwan Hadid and Abu Musab al-Suri. [85]  

Name Changes

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Resources

Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), receives funding from a variety of sources. A large portion of its resources and funding initially came from foreign donors, such as Kuwaiti national Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali, also known as Hamid bin Hamad al-Ali. [92] [93] Before the conflict between Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al-Nusra, the group received half of its operating budget from AQI. [94] Overtime, the group began to finance its arms and attacks by gaining control of oil fields that generated income. [95] [96] The group’s increased dependence on oil fields led to a financial crisis in mid-late 2014 when the Islamic State began capturing Al-Nusra’s oil fields. The loss of the Conoco gas field alone cost Al-Nusra $5 million in February 2014. [97] To supplement its income, the group also secures funding through ransoms for kidnappings, and usually receives between $4 million and $25 million for hostage releases. [98] These releases are usually mediated by Qatar, who was accused of facilitating Al-Nusra’s rise to prominence after it paid the group $150 million for the release of nine Shiite Iranian pilgrims in 2013. [99] 

Tahrir al-Sham became one of the best-equipped Syrian opposition groups by purchasing weapons from Iraqi arms dealers and by converting munitions from existing Syrian military equipment in Syria. [100] [101] [102] [103] Tahrir al-Sham also targets U.S.-backed groups in order to capture their weapons. In 2014, the group allegedly captured 10 Tanks and 80 TOW missiles from the U.S.-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front. [104] Additional reports indicate that some U.S. trained fighters have surrendered machine guns, ammunition, and vehicles in exchange for safe passage through Tahrir al-Sham controlled areas. [105] [106] 

Second only to the Islamic State, Tahrir al-Sham attracts the most foreign fighters among opposition groups. These fighters mostly come from the Middle East, but Tahrir al-Sham has also accepted recruits from Chechnya and European states, as well as a few fighters from more distant countries like Australia and the United States. As of June 2015, Julani claimed that the group’s fighting force was about 30% foreign. [107] [108] Private financiers, such as Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali, often provide funding for foreigners to travel to Syria and join Tahrir al-Sham. [109]

Due to its intensive recruiting process, Tahrir al-Sham receives highly skilled fighters. With the exception of fighters from groups already allied with Tahrir al-Sham, all recruits must receive a personal recommendation from an existing member of Tahrir al-Sham in order to be accepted to the group’s training program, where they receive religious, physical, and military instruction for six to eight weeks. [110] From February to June 2016, the group added 3,000 fighters from northern Syria. [111]

Tahrir al-Sham is among a number of Syrian opposition groups, including the Islamic State and Ahrar al-Sham, that employ child soldiers. [112]

External Influences

Qatar usually facilitates hostage negotiations between foreign countries and Tahrir al-Sham. [113] In 2015, the U.S. Treasury designated Sa’d bin Sa’d Muhammad Shariyan Al Ka’bi, a Qatari national who had negotiated hostage transfers with Al-Nusra, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist after discovering his fundraising campaign for Al-Nusra. [114] 

In March 2015, rumors surfaced that Al-Nusra was considering severing ties with Al Qaeda (AQ) to receive support from a group of Gulf states. Sources close to the group alleged that intelligence officials from Gulf states had been meeting with Al-Nusra commander Julani throughout 2015, and promised funding if Al-Nusra rebranded. Al-Nusra officially broke ties with AQ on July 28, 2016, changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but it is unclear if the group began receiving direct funding from these Gulf states as a result of this rebranding. [115]