Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (the “Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant,” or HTS), an insurgent coalition of several groups, claims to have launched security operations targeting Islamic State cells throughout the Syrian province of Idlib.
Earlier today, the jihadist joint venture, which includes the organization formerly known as Al Nusrah Front, announced the arrests of more than 100 fighters accused of being Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists.
HTS identified some of those detained as key figures in the Islamic State’s clandestine apparatus. One of them is a young man known as Abu Sulayman al-Rusi (the Russian), who supposedly led the self-declared caliphate’s security service in Idlib. A picture of the alleged Baghdadi operative (seen below) was posted on the Telegram channel maintained by HTS’s official propaganda arm, Ebaa News Agency.
Another Islamic State security officer was identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Iraqi. Several would-be suicide operatives, along with other members of the network, were also detained.
HTS says it has recovered weapons, cash, and suicide belts during its security sweeps. And Ebaa has produced additional photos documenting the well-advertised campaign, including shots of security checkpoints and houses being raided. Some of the images can be seen below.
HTS has repeatedly accused the Islamic State of implanting cells to launch attacks throughout Idlib.
In June, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked, Saudi cleric in HTS, accused one of Baghdadi’s men of trying to kill him after Friday prayers at a mosque in Idlib city. Other jihadists in Syria echoed the allegation. Dr. Sami al Uraydi, who is openly loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, expressed his good wishes for Muhaysini after the assassination attempt failed.
HTS has pointed to the existence of Islamic State cells in Idlib province, including those responsible for building improvised explosive devices and bombing an Islamic school, since the beginning of the year. So the new campaign is unsurprising.
However, the effort could also be used as a pretext for cracking down on the organization’s other opponents and rivals. Idlib province is central to the jihadists’ effort to build an Islamic emirate in Syria, independent from the Islamic State’s crumbling caliphate. Therefore, maintaining control over the province is a key part of their plans.
Although the group formerly known Al Nusrah Front has much in common with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise, and was originally the Syrian branch of the Islamic State, the two sides have battled one another repeatedly since 2013. Al Nusrah pursued its own state-building project after publicly announcing its allegiance to al Qaeda in Apr. 2013. Idlib fell to the Jaysh al Fath coalition, which was led by Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham, in 2015. Other organizations have operated in the province as well, but the jihadists dominate the environment.
Still, infighting between various insurgent groups has flared up repeatedly in Idlib. A faction from Jund al Aqsa, which served as an al Qaeda front group, caused problems beginning last year. After Al Nusrah rebranded itself as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS) in July 2016, claiming to disassociate from al Qaeda, much of Jund al Aqsa decided to join JFS and its successor organization, HTS. The general command of Jund al Aqsa and other senior figures were folded into their bigger jihadist cousin. But at least several hundred fighters went their own way, forming a pro-Islamic State group that clashed with other anti-Assad forces in Idlib and elsewhere.
Assuming HTS’s claims are at least partially accurate, it is possible that some of the Islamic State cells targeted in Idlib were once tied to Jund al Aqsa.
Some Islamic State defectors have reportedly moved to Idlib as the caliphate has crumbled. Baghdadi’s rivals have an interest in absorbing battle-hardened fighters, if they can be integrated into their ranks. But such defections also open up new opportunities for Islamic State die hards to lash out at their foes.
Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s photos from the campaign targeting alleged Islamic State operatives in Idlib: