Five insurgency groups in Syria, including Al Qaeda’s rebranded branch, have announced the creation of a “new entity” to fight Bashar al Assad’s regime. The five organizations that have merged are: Jabhat Fath al Sham (formerly known as Al Nusrah Front), Harakat Nur Al Din Al Zanki, Liwa Al Haqq, Ansar Al Din and Jaysh Al Sunnah.
In a statement released online, the joint venture partners say they have merged to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, or the “Assembly for Liberation of the Levant.” It is led by a jihadi known as Abu Jaber (also known as Hashem al Sheikh), the former head of Ahrar al Sham, which continues to operate under its own name in Syria. A photo of Abu Jaber from his Twitter feed can be seen on the right.
Various groups tried to unite behind Abu Jaber’s leadership in Aleppo early last year, but it appears that effort never took off. Still, the unity initiative in Aleppo indicates that the jihadis have been pushing for Abu Jaber to serve as a possible front man for some time. Some reports have identified Abu Jaber as a former member of al Qaeda in Iraq. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Aleppo-based rebel groups reportedly unite behind Ahrar al Sham’s former top leader.]
Abu Jaber quickly announced on his Twitter feed that he had resigned from Ahrar al Sham. He also said that his newly-created entity would enter into a ceasefire with other groups in northern Syria. Jabhat Fath al Sham, al Qaeda’s rebranded arm, had been clashing with smaller rebel organizations in recent weeks.
A new logo for Tahrir al Sham has already been created and disseminated online. It can be seen on the right.
The five organizations say they decided to unite “[d]ue to what the Syrian revolution is undergoing today [with] plots that plague it and internal conflicts that threaten its presence,” according to a translation of their statement published by Bilad al Sham Media, a small, pro-al Qaeda jihadi outfit. The groups say it required “great effort from us in order to unite the word and the ranks.”
“And we call on the factions in the arena to fulfill this covenant and to join this new entity in order to unite our banners and to preserve the fruits and the jihad of this revolution, so that this may be the seed of unifying the capacities and strength of this revolution,” their statement continues. The merger is intended to “preserve” the “course” of the revolution, such that “its desired objectives” can be “reached,” including “most notably the overthrow of this criminal [Assad] regime.”
Al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria was originally known as Jabhat al Nusrah (Al Nusrah Front). The group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani, announced that it was changing its name to Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS) in July of 2016. Julani’s message was intended, in part, to sow confusion about al Qaeda’s role in Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham.]
Al Qaeda’s senior leaders know that their brand attracts additional, unwanted attention from Western counterterrorism forces and can also limit the amount of support their insurgents receive. During an interview that aired on Al Jazeera in 2015, Abu Jaber himself complained about Al Nusrah’s overt al Qaeda role. Therefore, as part of its guerrilla warfare strategy, al Qaeda attempts to hide organizational affiliations, as well as the extent of its influence. Indeed, Al Qaeda has employed multiple names in Syria. And senior al Qaeda figures have been embedded in other groups, such as Ahrar al Sham and Jund al Aqsa, as well.
It is not clear what position Julani will hold in Tahrir al Sham. Earlier this year, US officials told FDD’s Long War Journal that Julani may be appointed as the military commander of a new entity. He could also assume some other post.
Al Qaeda’s longtime partners in Syria
The four organizations that agreed to merge with JFS (previously Al Nusrah) have long cooperated with one another on the Syrian battlefields.
Nur Al Din Al Zanki, Liwa Al Haqq, and Jaysh Al Sunnah were all part of the Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) alliance. Jaysh al Fath overran the Idlib province in early 2015 and then launched operations elsewhere, including in Aleppo in 2016.
Nur Al Din Al Zanki, which was once considered a CIA “vetted” group and received American-made anti-tank TOW missiles, had a strong presence in Aleppo. Zanki joined Jaysh al Fath last year. Liwa Al Haqq and Jaysh Al Sunnah both fought under the Jaysh al Fath banner. Ansar al Din, another al Qaeda-linked group, has been a reliable partner for JFS as well.
Some of Nur Al Din Al Zanki’s fighters reportedly decided to join still another group, Faylaq al Sham, instead of merging into Tahrir al Sham. However, Faylaq al Sham, which is Islamist, has also fought alongside Jaysh al Fath and its constituent members.
Reported infighting in northern Syria
The establishment of Tahrir al Sham comes after weeks of reported clashes and fierce disagreements between different jihadi factions and other insurgents in northern Syria. It is difficult to discern how the situation unfolded, but JFS and Ahrar al Sham have reportedly disagreed over the direction of the insurgency, leading to some clashes. The two groups have long fought side-by-side against the Assad regime and others. Indeed, Ahrar al Sham has its own links to al Qaeda and openly models itself after the Taliban.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that several other Ahrar al Sham leaders may have already defected from Ahrar al Sham, just as Abu Jaber did. According to the Al Fustaat, a jihadi Telegram channel, the purported defectors include: Abu Yusuf Muhajir (Ahrar al Sham’s official military spokesman), Abu Saleh Tahan (Ahrar’s deputy leader), and Abu’l-Fath al Ferghali (a “scholar and former jurist”). Their defections have not been confirmed yet.
Influential al Qaeda cleric from Saudi Arabia joins group
Tahrir al Sham has released a statement saying that six leading jihadi scholars have joined the newly formed group. One of them is Sheikh Abdullah Mohammed al Muhaysini, a Saudi al Qaeda cleric who was designated as a terrorist by the US government last year.
Muhaysini (seen on the right) has long advocated for rebel unity inside Syria, but claimed to be an “independent” ideologue. As FDD’s Long War Journal first reported, however, there are numerous details in Muhaysini’s biography indicating that he is really a senior al Qaeda sharia official. This assessment was confirmed by the Treasury Department when Muhaysini was designated in Nov. 2015. Treasury described Muhaysini as “an accepted member of al Nusrah Front’s inner leadership circle.” Still, this is the first time that Muhaysini has openly joined an organization in Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US Treasury designates Saudi jihadist cleric, three others in Syria.]
The other five senior jihadi clerics who have joined Tahrir al Sham are: Abdul Razzaq al Mahdi, Abu Harith al Masri, Abu Yusuf al Hamwi, Abu Taher al Hamwi, and Moslih al-Ulyani. All five have helped lead the jihadists’ cause in Syria.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.