Jihadi 'Counterterrorism:' Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Versus the Islamic State.

AuthorZelin, Aaron Y.

Since Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) broke from al-Qa'ida in the period July 2016-July 2017, (1) it has sought to build up different forms of legitimacy. (2) One way it has attempted to show its bona fides as a legitimate actor and local government has been to conduct a form of 'counterterrorism' against the Islamic State. This is distinguished from the overt military fighting between the two groups in 2014. Unlike battlefield fighting, this is in the context of a governance structure that ostensibly has monopoly on violence over a particular territory. This effort is mainly being conducted not by HTS' military apparatus but by HTS' General Security Service (GSS), (3) one of many administrative and security bodies set up in northwest Syria and portrayed as independent of HTS, but in reality closely connected with it. Essentially, the GSS is HTS' version of the FBI, though existing in an authoritarian framework and with far less sophisticated means of forensic investigation.

While this article will only focus on the case of HTS, it is worth noting that this sort of 'counterterrorism' has also been happening in Afghanistan since the Taliban's seizure of power in mid-August 2021. The Taliban's General Directorate of Intelligence has also gone after various Islamic State cells. (4) Of course, in both cases, there are limitations to these so-called 'counterterrorism' efforts. In the case of the Taliban, for example, there is no effort against al-Qa'ida or other regional jihadi groups. Not much has changed on this front since the Taliban's first state in the 1990s. The Taliban have been gaslighting the international community about al-Qa'ida by repeatedly denying its presence in Taliban-controlled territories. Following the U.S. killing of al-Qa'ida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in late July 2022, for example, the Taliban put out a statement claiming "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri's arrival and stay in Kabul." (5) They issued this denial despite the fact that it has been reported that al-Zawahiri was living at a home owned by a top aide of the Taliban's interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and that subsequently the Haqqanis (6) covered up evidence of the airstrike. (7)

This article will explore various checkpoints in the history of HTS' relations with the Islamic State. First, it will provide background on the early relations between the two groups. Then it will explore the Islamic State's former 'Wilayat Idlib' in 2013 to better highlight that the group's interests in the area are not new. This will lead to showing how the Islamic State transitioned from attempted territorial control over the area to a terrorism campaign before looking into how HTS' GSS then combated the Islamic State's campaign. It will then assess what this all means in the context of HTS' push for international legitimacy over the past few years.

Early Relations Between HTS and the Islamic State

Abu Muhammad al-Julani originally led Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), a predecessor group of HTS, as a project of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a predecessor group of the Islamic State. (8) Unlike the typical modus operandi of jihadis at the time, when JN built itself up in Syria over the course of 2012, it increasingly did so not as some isolated, clandestine organization, but rather in open collaboration with other insurgents fighting against the Assad regime. Through providing basic social services and not targeting ideological rivals in the early years of the civil war, JN was able to become more embedded within the social fabric of the population. The initial fruits of this labor were seen after the United States designated JN as a foreign terrorist organization and an extension of ISI in December 2012. In response, the Syrian opposition and rebels backed JN. (9)

While JN's success grew, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi likely became concerned that JN would break off from him completely, as al-Julani was reportedly ignoring al-Baghdadi's requests to begin liquidating opposition activists and rebel factions that were deemed 'un-Islamic' (meaning most, if not all, from ISI's perspective). (10) In all likelihood, al-Baghdadi had intended for the subsumption of JN under ISI and ISI's formal expansion into Syria anyway, but al-Julani seemed reluctant to go along with this move. Thus, without al-Julani's agreement, al-Baghdadi announced the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (also called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) in April 2013, asserting that JN was a mere extension of ISI and the time had come for it to be formally subsumed under ISI to form ISIL. (11) It seems al-Baghdadi partly intended to force al-Julani to make a public decision on his relation with ISI: Either he would be cowed into the merger, or he would make clear his real agenda. Rather than accepting al-Baghdadi's authority, al-Julani pivoted and pledged bay'a (a religious oath of allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri, moving JN outside the ISIL orbit. (12) In doing so, al-Julani had also likely intended to have al-Zawahiri intervene in the dispute in his favor. While al-Zawahiri did so in ordering ISIL to return to Iraq as ISI while nonetheless cooperating with JN, ISIL rejected this order, which constituted a de facto confirmation of ISIL's having left the al-Qa'ida network. A number of JN's foreign fighters and more hardline members accepted al-Baghdadi's side of the dispute and defected to ISIL. ISIL's attempts to expand its power in insurgent-held territories in Syria at the expense of other factions led to outright fighting between it and those other factions, with JN eventually siding actively with the latter in Syria by spring 2014, thus cementing the splintering of the jihadi movement. (13)

It took a while for the relationship between JN and ISIL to break down. Even when al-Julani rebuffed al-Baghdadi's announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in April 2013, al-Julani praised him for the help in providing essential resources when JN was created: (14) "that honorable Shaykh who gave the people of al-Sham their right... he aided us... despite the hard days that [ISI] was enduring." (15) Similarly, the two groups continued to conduct joint operations together alongside other jihadi and more mainstream insurgent groups. The most notorious of these incidents was the "A'isha Umm al-Mu'minin" (16) campaign against Alawi territories in rural Latakia in August 2013. While JN and other groups described it as the "Battle to Liberate the Coast in Rural Latakia," ISIL called it "Cleansing of the Coast Operations." (17) Human Rights Watch later concluded that "the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses committed [from this operation]... rise to the level of crimes against humanity." (18)

Even in mid-December 2013, just before ISIL was ejected from many Syrian rebel enclaves in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in late December and early January 2014, al-Julani explained in an interview with Al Jazeera that the situation between JN and ISIL was "a conflict between individuals within the same house." (19) This illustrated the frame within which al-Julani at the time still viewed ISIL.

While JN, on the whole, initially tried to stay out of the rebel infighting with ISIL, the situation became more irreconcilable once al-Qa'ida released a statement on February 2, 2014, disaffiliating itself with ISIL and after ISIL's assassination of key al-Qa'ida liaison and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyah (HASI) senior leader Abu Khalid al-Suri on February 23, 2014. (20) Regarding the latter, al-Julani called ISIL out for hypocrisy stating that Abu Khalid's killers are just like the sahawat (Awakening Councils) in Iraq that turned away from ISI in favor of the United States: "Oh you disgraced people, have you not known the meaning of 'Sahawat' and who they are? The sahawat in Iraq are those who abandoned fighting America and the rafidhah [derogatory term for Shi'a], and began fighting the mujahidin alongside the enemy. As for in al-Sham, who are those who have abandoned fighting the nusayri [derogatory word for Alawis], and started fighting those that the nusayris fought?" (21)

Al-Julani was willing to concede some validity to ISIL's stance on certain factions, saying: "We don't deny that among those fighting you are groups who have fallen into apostasy and disbelief, as is the case with the General Staff [of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)], the coalition [the political opposition in exile] and those who undertake the project of the "National Army' through which they strive to establish a secular government and destroy the sound Islamic project." However, he then added that "it has not been proven that the majority of the groups that fight you have fallen into apostasy or disbelief," likely referring to the "Islamic Front" factions that had become involved in the infighting with ISIL. (22)

After Abu Khalid's assassination, JN took increasing steps to distinguish its approach and methodology from that of ISIL. JN released an essay clarifying its manhaj (methodology), partly in response to claims by ISIL that it had 'deviated' but also aimed at refuting claims that it (JN) was an "extremist takfiri group," clearly trying to distance itself from the idea that it was somehow indistinguishable from ISIL. (23) In April 2014, JN released a video explicitly condemning ISIL's manhaj by showcasing an ISIL assassination operation that targeted a JN official and also killed members of his family and relatives. (24)

History of the Islamic State in Idlib Region

The Idlib region is where HTS controls much of its territory today alongside small parts of western Aleppo province. However, at one time prior to its aforementioned ejection, ISIL exerted varying degrees of control in a number of cities and villages in 2013. It is worth understanding this history since it provides crucial backdrop to the fact that while the Islamic State no longer controls areas in the...

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