Ahrar al-Sham

FormedDecember 2011
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackNovember 1, 2012: Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra attacked a military post, killing several soldiers and seizing weapons and vehicles. While it is clear that Ahrar al-Sham carried out attacks before November 2012, none were reported by credible media outlets. (Unknown casualties)
Last AttackJanuary 6, 2014: January 6, 2014: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with al-Nusra, other Islamic Front units, and affiliated with the Supreme Military Council to drive ISIS out of Raqqa. (Unknown casualties)
UpdatedNovember 5, 2014

Narrative Summary

Ahrar al-Sham (also Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) is one of the largest members of the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization of Sunni Islamist militants who are fighting the Assad regime in Syria and plan to replace it with an Islamic government. [1] The group was founded in late 2011 and it first emerged as a significant force on the Syrian battlefield in January 2012. [2] [3] Most of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding members, including commander Hassan Aboud, were former political prisoners of the regime that released in a May 2011 amnesty deal in an attempt to placate religious protestors when the Arab Spring began to threaten regional governments. [4] [5] [6] The group was originally headquartered in Idlib but expanded so that by summer 2013 it was carrying out operations across the country. [7]

 

Ahrar al-Sham quickly became one of the largest military organizations operating in Syria, and it has been active in efforts to unite the Islamist opposition under a single banner. It rejects the idea of Western intervention but sometimes works alongside Free Syrian Army brigades. It routinely cooperates with al-Nusra and, until relations soured in 2013, also worked with ISIS. In February 2014, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence called Ahrar al-Sham one of the three most effective rebel groups in Syria. [8]

 

Like many of the stronger militant groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham maintains relationships with the population by providing for basic needs and government services in the towns that it controls. While it does aim to establish a government that follows Shariah, it is seen as a more moderate Islamist alternative to al-Nusra and ISIS, the other two strongest Islamist opposition forces in the civil war.


Leadership

  1. Abu Khalid al-Suri, also known as Abu Omeir al-Shami (Unknown to February 23, 2014): Suri was a co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham and acted as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s representative in Syria, charged with facilitating reconciliation amongst Islamist militants in the region. Suri was killed in a suicide bombing against Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters. Ahrar al-Sham and other militant organizations blamed ISIS. Suri's close ties with Al Qaeda became clear after his death, when AQ commander Ayman al-Zawahiri published a eulogy for the fallen Ahrar al-Sham leader and AQ posted a video documenting his participation in Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan, including photos of him with Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri.[9]
  2. Hassan Abboud, also known as Abu al-Hassan or Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (2012 to September 9, 2014): Abboud co-founded Ahrar al-Sham and was its commander and the leader of the political office of the Islamic Front. During Ahrar al-Sham’s rise Abboud made no public appearances, but finally emerged in mid-2013 with an interview on Al Jazeera and continued to maintain a media presence. He was killed in a car bombing in Idlib that also killed other senior leaders in the Islamic Front.[10]
  3. Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber (September 11, 2014 to Present): Sheikh was named the leader of Ahrar al-Sham a day after Hassan Abboud was killed in a car bombing. According to a biography posted by the Islamic Front, he was imprisoned by the Assad regime and was released in September 2011. He then fought as a member of the al-Fajr Islamic Movement and as a leader of the Musab Ibn Omayr battalion, both of which were once units in the Free Syrian Army. He became a member of the Shura Council of Ahrar al-Sham and a leader of the organization in Aleppo before becoming the commander of Ahrar al-Sham.[11]

Ideology & Goals

Ahrar al-Sham seeks a Sunni Islamic state in Syria. It does not claim to have any ambitions outside of Syria. [12] [13] Although more moderate compared to hardline groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham is generally counted among the more extreme Islamist rebel groups in Syria. [14]

Name Changes


Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Ahrar al-Sham is not designated as a terrorist organization, despite its links to AQ (see "Relationships with Other Groups"). [18]

Resources

Ahrar al-Sham has a variety of funding sources. It receives funding from Islamist networks in the Persian Gulf and is reportedly backed by Qatar. [19] Prominent Salafi fundraiser Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami was one of its key donors in 2012. [20] Humanitarian efforts in particular have been sponsored in part by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation and Qatar Charity. [21]

 

Ahrar al-Sham is one of the best-equipped opposition forces in Syria. It originally accepted foreign fighters, but reports on its stance toward foreign volunteers have varied since 2013; most recently, foreign fighters have tended to join ISIS and al-Nusra over Islamic Front organizations. [22] [23] [24]

External Influences

Some believe that Qatar has been a supporter of Ahrar al-Sham. [25]

Geographical Locations

At its inception in 2012 Ahrar al-Sham operated primarily in Idlib. It soon added brigades in Hama and Aleppo and spread from there. [26] [27]  As of June 2013, Ahrar al-Sham had a large military presence in Idlib, Hama, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour, and Daraa, and it is most active in the north and east. [28] [29] [30]

Targets & Tactics

Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first groups in Syria to use IEDs and to target military bases in order to capture weapons. [31] However, while its early operations consisted mostly of IEDs and small arms ambushes, the organization increased its role in large-scale assaults and now Ahrar al-Sham is one of the best-armed opposition forces in Syria. It possesses tanks, mobile artillery, anti-tank missiles, and rocket and grenade launchers and even has a “Technical Division” devoted to cyber attacks. [32] There are conflicting reports on whether or not Ahrar al-Sham carries out suicide attacks. [33]

Political Activities

The organization has played a leading role in the formation of Islamist rebel coalitions and is now the head of the Islamic Front’s political office. [34]

Major Attacks

Ahrar al-Sham was involved in every major rebel victory from September 2012 through summer 2013, and it played a key role the first rebel seizure of a provincial capital at Raqqa in March 2013. [35]

  1. November 1, 2012: Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra attacked a military post, killing several soldiers and seizing weapons and vehicles. (Unknown casualties).[36]
  2. December 2012: After a pro-government militia took NBC correspondent Richard Engel hostage, Ahrar al-Sham gained media attention by freeing him after a gun battle with the militia. (Unknown casualties).[37]
  3. January 11, 2013: Ahrar al-Sham stormed an air base in Taftanaz with al-Nusra and an organization called the Islamic Vanguard. The base fell to the rebels and it becomes one of the most celebrated early rebel victories. (Unknown casualties).[38]
  4. March 8, 2013: Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham seized Raqqa from government forces, making it the first provincial capital to come completely under rebel control. (Unknown casualties).[39]
  5. December 13, 2013: Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS, and al-Nusra coordinated an attack on Hezbollah’s headquarters in Damascus. (Unknown casualties).[40]
  6. January 6, 2014: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with al-Nusra, other Islamic Front units, and battalions from the Supreme Military Council to drive ISIS out of Raqqa. (Unknown casualties).[41]

Relationships with Other Groups

Ahrar al-Sham was founded by members of Al Qaeda and maintains links to AQ’s core leadership. [42] While neither group formally claims a partnership, senior AQ officials, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, openly mourned Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Khalid al-Suri when he died. Additionally, AQ posted video of Suri attending an Afghan training camp and photos of him with Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. [43] Similarly, after Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Abboud was later killed in a bombing, senior AQ figures mourned his death on Twitter. One of those senior figures, Sanafi al-Nasr, has also claimed that AQ sent experienced jihadists to assist Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, while another senior leader claimed that Abboud had been in contact with Zawahiri. [44] It regularly cooperates with AQ affiliate Jabhet al-Nusra in battle and has coordinated military operations with them since mid- to late-2012. [45] [46] [47]

 

The organization has been an active leader and participant in Islamist opposition coalitions in Syria. In December 2012, it led the formation of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), an umbrella organization whose goal was to unite the Islamic opposition and ultimately establish a Syrian government under Shariah rule. [48] While the SIF refused to come under the command of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), it did regularly coordinate military maneuvers with SMC affiliates. [49] In January 2013 three smaller SIF members (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya, Jamaat al-Taliaa al-Islamiya, and Kataeb al-Iman al-Muqatila) merged into Ahrar al-Sham. [50] Now, Ahrar al-Sham operates in Syria as a member of the Islamic Front, another umbrella organization of Syrian militant organizations that seeks an Islamic government to replace Assad. [51] As one of the largest and most influential members of the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham leads both the Shariah Office and the Political Office of the organization. [52] Ahrar al-Sham commander Hassan Abboud also reportedly played a role in the creation of the Kurdish Islamic Front, the smallest member organization of the Islamic Front. The creation and inclusion of the Kurdish group in the Islamic Front may have been an attempt to draw Kurdish support for the umbrella organization, whose members, including Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes come into conflict with more established Kurdish militias. [53]

 

In addition to fighting the regime and its supporters, al-Sham regularly comes into conflict with ISIS and some Kurdish groups operating in Syria. Tensions with ISIS began in the summer of 2013. In January 2014, Abboud publicly criticized ISIS in a written and audio statement. He condemned ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for rejecting reconciliation efforts between the Sunni militant groups in Syria and argued against ISIS’s tendency to classify other jihadists as infidels. [54] Soon after the public criticism, ISIS arrested and killed a member of Ahrar al-Sham in January 2014. [55] Conflict between the two organizations then flared in Raqqa, where other Islamist militants like al-Nusra and Islamic Front member Liwa al-Tawhid worked with Ahrar al-Sham to fight ISIS. [56]

 

In late February 2014, Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters was bombed in a suicide attack that killed Abu Khalid al-Suri, a founding member of Ahrar al-Sham and also AQ’s representative in Syria. Suri has been tasked with mediating the growing conflict between jihadist groups on the ground. While no group ever claimed responsibility for the attack, Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel organizations blamed ISIS. [57]

Community Relationships

Like many rebel groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has been active in providing what would normally be government services in areas that it controls. [58] It maintains a “relief office” that engages in humanitarian missions and provides the population with food and fuel, and the organization  also operates water pumping stations, damns, and a road and bridge repair team. [59][60]

 

Group commander Abboud did not make public appearances until mid-2013, but since then has had a strong media presence and has been interviewed on stations like Al Jazeera and al-Nas TV. [61] He also was the only Syrian attendee at a 2013 conference of senior Muslim clerics who gathered to call for jihad. [62]


References

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  2. ^ Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi
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