Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria detains former commander who defected

Jamal Zeina split from group once known as Nusra Front earlier this year to set up a new hardline organization.

The main al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria on Monday detained one of its own former commanders who had defected and set up his own hardline outfit earlier this year after coming out against a cease-fire, opposition activists said.

The activists said a big force from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, raided the house of Jamal Zeina, better known as Abu Malek al-Tali, on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Idlib and detained him.

Al-Tali was behind major operations for the group that used to be known as Nusra Front, including the December 2013 kidnapping of 12 Orthodox nuns from Maaloula, a Christian village in Syria that insurgents controlled for a few months during the country’s nine-year conflict. Nusra Front exchanged the nuns four months later for women held in Syrian government prisons.

In 2014, militants under al-Tali’s command briefly stormed the Lebanese border town of Arsal and captured more than two dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen. Nusra Front exchanged the troops it was holding with prisoners held in Lebanon.

Al-Tali, a Syrian citizen, is known to be a hardliner who is opposed to a truce reached in March between Russia and Turkey that stopped a Syrian government offensive on Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country. The three-month offensive under the cover of Russian airstrikes killed hundreds and sent a million people fleeing toward the Turkish border.

Al-Tali defected in April and set up his own group that became close to al-Qaeda-linked Horas al-Din group, Arabic for “Guardians of Religion.” Horas al-Din are hardcore al-Qaeda elements who broke away from HTS.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al-Tali defected from HTS in April, adding that he had personally acquired large sums of money from the deal to release the nuns.

The Shaam Newtork, an activist collective, said al-Tali and other former HTS commanders have been opposed to recent policies adopted by the group’s top commander, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, who has been taking cautious steps since Turkey sent thousands of soldiers into Idlib earlier this year.

Al-Tali’s son, Orwa, was shot dead in 2017 in an apparent internal feud between militants in northwest Syria.

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