Twenty Years After 9/11: The Fight for Supremacy in Northwest Syria and the Implications for Global Jihad

Abstract: Over the past decade, nowhere in the world has exerted as profound and transformative an impact on the global jihadi landscape as Syria. For al-Qaida, Syria had once been the source of its greatest hope, where dozens of its most experienced leading operatives were dispatched to enhance prospects of building a jihadi state. But in recent years, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate distanced itself and then broke away altogether, establishing a new locally oriented movement: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). In pursuit of local dominance and ultimately survival, HTS has broken one jihadi taboo after another, including turning against al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State and dealing crippling defeats to both in Syria’s northwest. The implications and consequences of these developments are manifold. On the one hand, not only does HTS no longer represent the international terrorism threat that its predecessor once had, it has also almost entirely squashed the global threat posed by its more extreme rivals and played a role in maintaining the longest ceasefire in a decade of war in Syria. On the other hand, however, HTS’ de facto rule of northwestern Syria threatens to ‘mainstream’ a local jihadi model that looks set to experience a substantial boost by the Taliban’s surge to power in Afghanistan. Should conditions dramatically change, it could also come to represent a strategically significant terrorist safe haven once again—on Europe’s doorstep.

Over the past decade, nowhere in the world has exerted as profound and transformative an impact on the global jihadi landscape as Syria. It was on Syrian soil that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) first emerged in 2013 and where its behavior then sparked its expulsion from al-Qaida. That break-up and the Islamic State’s mid-2014 unilateral declaration of a caliphate caused shockwaves worldwide, catalyzing a split of the jihadi community into two rival and later globally hostile movements. As the world collectively mobilized against the Islamic State, al-Qaida was left reeling when faced by the Islamic State’s unprecedented challenge to its authority.

In response to the Islamic State’s transnational challenge, al-Qaida chose Syria as the focal point for its push back, dispatching many of its most senior and experienced operatives there to reinforce al-Qaida’s standing, through its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. While the arrival of the so-called “Khorasan Group” drew U.S. counterterrorism strikes, it also catalyzed internal tensions and an erratic process of introspection within Jabhat al-Nusra that eventually led to its departure from al-Qa`ida in 2017 and the advent of a third model of salafi-jihadi activity: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its nationally oriented effort.

The subsequent consolidation of HTS as the de facto governor of northwestern Syria, thanks in large part to its cooperation with Turkey, would have been considered controversial enough within al-Qaida’s global movement, but the fact that it was achieved while aggressively and effectively cracking down on al-Qaida and the Islamic State has stirred intense reaction. Syria and the conflict that has persisted there since 2011 has therefore fostered not two but three worldwide jihadi currents—and the nature of all three, and how they emerged and how they have engaged with each other since, has had significant consequences for the kinds of threats and challenges presented by jihadism across the world.

As a result of events in Syria and indeed elsewhere, today’s global jihadi landscape differs significantly from the threats faced in 2001 when the U.S. homeland was hit so dramatically by al-Qa`ida on September 11. In fact, while the United States and its allies may have become particularly adept at the kinetic aspects of counterterrorism, success in that regard has amounted to a string of tactical victories but continued strategic failure. Two decades later, the challenge posed by jihadi terrorism and ideology has never been more diverse, globally distributed, better experienced, or present in so many conflict theaters. Far from defeating terrorism, we have won many battles, but we are losing the war.

This is a story of al-Qaida in Syria and how an affiliate’s pursuit of self-preservation catalyzed its eventual exit from the global movement and evolution into something altogether new. Through its embrace of local jihad, or ‘revolutionary Islamism,’ HTS has broken many taboos within the salafi-jihadi world, but created a modus operandi now being replicated in the Middle East, Africa, and further afield. With a semi-technocratic governing body and an active desire to engage external actors, HTS seeks legitimacy, but remains autocratic and politically authoritarian. For al-Qaida, Syria might have represented its most promising front of operation five years ago, but its former affiliate is now its local conqueror, having methodically subjugated and later crippled its operations in Syria. The counterterrorism implications and lessons to be learned from developments in northwestern Syria are many, and they relate directly to troubling emerging trends in Afghanistan, Mali, and elsewhere.

This article is composed of two core sections, the first of which is an in-depth analysis of HTS’ emergence in January 2017 and how the movement has sought to methodically consolidate its rule and dominance ever since. From initially pre-empting threats posed by mainstream members of Syria’s armed opposition to taking the consequential decision of acquiescing to Turkey; countering HTS’ jihadi competitors, al-Qaida, and the Islamic State; establishing and empowering a semi-technocratic governing body known as the Salvation Government; and restricting dissent and employing sophisticated attempts to control narratives within its territories, HTS’ comprehensive and taboo-busting strategy to dominate northwestern Syria is laid out in detail. Second, the article turns to assessing the emergence and subsequent downfall of Tanzim Hurras al-Din (HAD), a faction established by veteran al-Qaida loyalists as a counter to HTS. HAD’s creation represented a determined attempt by al-Qa`ida to reassert itself in Syria, but HTS swiftly enforced severe restrictions on its ability to operate and later added to that with a campaign of arrests, killings, and then full-blown hostilities. By mid-2020, HAD had been driven to ground and HTS had begun turning its attention to weakening HAD allies.

Through deep research, interviews with actors involved, and extensive monitoring of jihadi social media material, this article is a tale of jihadi rivalries, adaptations, and intra-jihadi and geopolitical intrigue. HTS’ pursuit of local dominance saw it evolve in ways few might have expected and, for now, seal its survival. Al-Qa`ida’s intransigence, on the other hand, and its absolutist view against change appear to have secured its downfall in the Syrian context, especially when confronted with the more flexible and opportunistic HTS. Ultimately, as the article’s concluding section states, this might have dealt a substantial blow to any international terrorist threat emanating from Syria, but it also raises troubling dilemmas for counterterrorism.

Part One: Consolidation of HTS
Today in September 2021, HTS stands as the unchallenged, de facto governor of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, a small pocket of territory that constitutes roughly three percent of the country but contains 3.5 million people, or more than 20 percent of the in-country population. Within the Syrian context, HTS’ significance is therefore considerable, particularly as it controls the most populous region of Syria outside of regime control, the fate of which will almost certainly play a key role in determining the viability and shape of any future political process. Moreover, HTS’ evolution and the decisions and actions it has taken to consolidate its control in Syria’s northwest have had a profound impact on the Islamist and jihadi milieu worldwide.

As this author explained in CTC Sentinel in February 2018,1 Jabhat al-Nusra’s methodical integration and assimilation into Syria’s broader opposition movement, combined with Russia’s 2015 intervention and the resulting decline in opposition fortunes on the ground created conditions that led to Jabhat al-Nusra’s evolution away from al-Qa`ida and transition into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and then HTS. There can be no doubt that self-preservation and opportunism played key roles in driving this transformation. HTS is unquestionably a very different organization to Jabhat al-Nusra, but the extent to which that is sustainable remains to be seen.

Ultimately, HTS’ emergence and continued adaptation fit within the group’s longstanding and overriding quest to subjugate rivals and exert unilateral dominance. The path that led to today was far from straight, and the strategy that facilitated it could best be described as a constant balancing act, managed and forced forward by its longstanding leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani. Whether balancing complex internal dynamics unique to the group (local versus foreign, hardline versus opportunistic or pragmatic); inter-factional relationships (with the Free Syrian Army, mainstream Islamists, salafis, and groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida); or geopolitics involving the West, the Gulf, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, al-Julani’s strategy of balancing had always been oriented toward minimizing internal and external threats, while sustaining group advancement.

Until late 2016, al-Julani’s guiding agenda had been to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of Syria’s opposition while retaining at least a semblance of credibility within the al-Qaida-aligned jihadi community. By then, however, accomplishing progress on both of those tracks was no longer a tenable objective, and as such, the formation of HTS in January 2017 represented not just the final nail in its relationship with al-Qaida, but also the most consequential step taken in pursuit of supremacy within territories still controlled by Syria’s armed opposition.

Preempting Threats
The decision in January 2017 to rebrand for a second time and establish HTS appears to have represented the beginning of the end of al-Julani’s balancing strategy. After months of negotiations, HTS’ desire to force a broad merger of armed factions in the northwest had repeatedly hit brick walls. In January 2017, it lashed out, pre-emptively attacking opposition groups deemed to be possible threats and coercing the most vulnerable to subsume themselves into the newly formed HTS.2

Despite its best attempts to frame HTS’ establishment as a “unity” initiative, it was nothing of the sort. By undertaking such an aggressive reformation, HTS burned years of hard-won trust in many opposition circles, abruptly earning the moniker, “Hitish”—a verbalization of the HTS acronym that by design sounded like the opposition’s derogatory use of “Da’ish” to refer to the Islamic State. The term “Julani or we burn the country” caught on across opposition circles too, as a play on a phrase embraced by regime loyalists since 2011 to threaten their opponents: “Assad or we burn the country.”

With HTS established, the broad spread of opposition groups in the northwest pulled together. Leading figures within Jabhat al-Nusra’s most consistent opposition ally, Ahrar al-Sham, began taking to the streets clutching the revolution’s ‘green’ flag alongside Free Syrian Army (FSA) representatives.3 Even the U.S. State Department sought to stir the pot, issuing a letter in Arabic from then Special Envoy Michael Ratney declaring that HTS was a terrorist organization and Ahrar al-Sham (a group founded by veteran salafis with links to al-Qa`ida) was a “dedicated protector of the revolution.”4 By the summer of 2017, tensions boiled over for good, and after a swift spate of fighting in July 2017, HTS vanquished Ahrar al-Sham altogether, before cracking down on several other factions in the weeks that followed, including Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, which had defected from HTS in protest at its assault on Ahrar al-Sham.5

Though Jabhat al-Nusra had attacked and defeated a number of FSA-branded factions as far back as 2014, the dramatic about-turn from 2016’s pursuit of mergers to 2017’s all-out assaults on what were previously longtime allies caused shockwaves. One senior Ahrar al-Sham leader described the effect of their losses at the time as “more than military defeat, much more”6—indicating that the impact was felt far beyond Ahrar al-Sham itself.

By late 2017, HTS had ruthlessly asserted itself across the opposition-controlled northwest, establishing de facto military dominance and control of key urban centers, border crossings with Turkey, and the region’s main roadways. Having dealt with rival groups as a whole, it then stood widely accused of running a covert campaign of assassinations targeting influential detractors both inside the group and previously part of the group, critical of HTS’ attacks on the likes of Ahrar al-Sham. In September 2017, prominent clerics Abdullah al-Moheiseni and Musleh al-Alyani had quit HTS,7 along with the formidable military commander Abu Saleh Tahhan and his Jaish al-Ahrar fighters.8 Though he chose to remain within HTS, Jaish al-Ahrar’s leader, Abu Jaber, then resigned from his post as HTS’ overall leader in October, clearing a path for al-Julani to reassert himself once again.9

In many ways, 2017 was a formative period that could be described as ‘the great sorting out,’ in which others within HTS with especially hardline positions defected in protest against its perceived betrayal of al-Qa`ida. Though al-Julani has since expressed some purported regret for such inter-factional strife, he has also made clear that such actions were pursued “to avoid harm and to fend off threats,”10 underlining that self-interest was the primary driver. In fact, given the context in which this all took place, a ‘great sorting out’ was precisely in al-Julani’s interests.

Acquiescing to Turkey
Having quelled any and all possible opposition challenges to its authority, HTS’ next step in its pursuit of self-preservation and geographical supremacy was to accede to a relationship with Turkey. A Russian-pushed diplomatic initiative earlier in 2017 had established northwestern Syria as one of four so-called de-escalation zones, with Turkey as a guarantor.11 For Ankara, Idlib was a source of substantial strategic interest and security concern. To its east, the largely Kurdish-commanded Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had established itself as a formidable and expanding actor, thanks in large part to support from the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. Idlib itself, meanwhile, offered Turkey a strategically significant zone of influence, but a spike in hostilities there threatened to catalyze an uncontrollable refugee flow toward its border, which had the potential to deal a hammer blow to President Erdogan’s domestic political standing.

Given Ankara’s concerns and its role as a guarantor, it declared its intent to deploy troops into Idlib using private channels with HTS in the late summer of 2017. On al-Julani’s instruction, HTS commanders and the group’s Political Office, led by Zaid al-Attar, swiftly entered into negotiations with officers from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), and in early October 2017, HTS fighters escorted the first convoys of Turkish troops into Idlib, where they began establishing observation posts to monitor the de-escalation process. Hundreds and later thousands of Turkish troops subsequently deployed into Idlib, where their presence was at first permitted and later guaranteed by HTS itself.12

Of all the decisions HTS has taken since 2016, this was arguably the most consequential. Within the jihadi community worldwide, Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are widely perceived as an unofficial government front for or ally of the Muslim Brotherhood—a movement whose pivot into nation-state politics is understood by the likes of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State to have placed it into apostasy.

For HTS to talk with Turkey would have been controversial enough but entering into a form of military-to-military relationship was enormously contentious. While Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrand to JFS and then HTS, and HTS’ attacks on longtime Islamist allies may have initiated a ‘great sorting out’ within and around HTS, the decision to accept Turkish troops within its midst put that process on steroids. By all accounts, this was the decision that broke HTS out of the salafi-jihadi mold altogether—into something al-Julani himself has called “revolutionary Islamism.”13 Leading al-Qa`ida commentators have been unanimously brutal in condemning HTS’ decision to side with Turkey, with one prominent figure, Adnan Hadid, labeling al-Julani “Jolanov”—a reference to the similarity between his perceived betrayal of the cause and that of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, who “submitted” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.14

By mid-2021, Turkey had somewhere between 7,000-15,000 troops15 deployed inside Syria’s HTS-dominated northwest, operating out of at least 71 military bases and observation posts.16 Following an aggressive Assad regime offensive in February 2020 that posed an existential threat to HTS-ruled Idlib, the Turkish military launched an unprecedented five-day air and ground military intervention that killed hundreds of Assad regime troops and destroyed at least 83 regime tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces.17 A fragile ceasefire has held ever since, offering HTS ample opportunity to further consolidate its position and seal its ties with Turkey. One likely sign of that has come in the form of images of HTS training and military operations from 2020 and 2021 showing its personnel operating Turkish-provided (U.S.-made) M114 howitzers18 and M113 armored personnel carriers,19 as well as Turkish-made MKE mortars.20

Countering the Jihadi Competition
Turkey’s entry into Idlib may have helped HTS consolidate its position of supremacy, but it did not come without conditions, or expectations. While Turkey officially considers HTS a terrorist organization, security threats posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaida are perceived to be far more significant and immediate. From a Turkish perspective in mid-2017, despite fervent Russian objections, HTS arguably presented the most viable—albeit complicated and controversial—option for maintaining a semblance of internal stability inside Idlib and for confronting or containing both the Islamic State and al-Qaida there. This is not to say that HTS was Turkey’s only partner in northwestern Syria—Ankara maintained close working ties with Islamist opposition factions like Faylaq al-Sham and the remnants of Ahrar al-Sham—but HTS was the actor most capable of securing ends that met Turkish interests.

Having achieved factional dominance in 2017, the next phase of HTS’ military consolidation was to tackle covert threats, beginning with the Islamic State. Beginning in July 2017 but gaining speed through 2018, HTS launched a sustained campaign of armed raids targeting Islamic State sleeper cells across Idlib. From mid-June to late August 2018 alone, elite HTS fighters conducted more than 60 such operations.21 HTS also imposed a complete ban on the ownership or distribution of Islamic State propaganda across Syria’s northwest.22

Although Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces in the village of Barisha in Idlib’s northernmost tip, HTS was also reportedly searching for him in the days and weeks leading up to his death in October 2019. One HTS raid had been launched in pursuit of al-Baghdadi in the Idlib town of Sarmin in August 2019 and another raid sometime after that captured a close aide of al-Baghdadi, Abu Suleiman al-Khalidi.23 In the immediate aftermath of al-Baghdadi’s killing, non-HTS-aligned journalists in Idlib cited an HTS leader as claiming that HTS had been actively searching for him in the Barisha area the day before the U.S. raid.24

The fact that the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate was living its final months in 2018 meant it was no surprise that some of its operatives would have sought to hide in Idlib and HTS’ longstanding hostility to the Islamic State dating back to early 2014 explains why it sought to uproot Islamic State cells from the beginning.

HTS’ dynamic with al-Qaida was different, however. While the establishment of HTS sealed the break from al-Qaida and sparked a bitter and very public falling out, accusations of betrayal and apostasy did not translate into hostility—at least not immediately.

Beyond a months-long war of words,25 HTS’ initial approach to al-Qaida loyalists was to treat them as potential challengers of its authority. The formation of Tanzim Hurras al-Din (HAD) in February 2018 by a network of prominent al-Qaida veterans and loyalists was the first official gauntlet laid down as a challenge to HTS. After months of resulting negotiations, HTS forced through a one-sided agreement with HAD in March 2019 stipulating that HAD permanently dissolve all of its sharia and security-related facilities (courts, prisons, checkpoints, training camps); submit all of its arms stores to HTS control and oversight; and relinquish any right to plot operations outside of Syria.26 HAD’s presence was also restricted to seven frontline posts and 16 bases or facilities in the Jisr al-Shughour district, in Idlib’s northwest.27

Despite enforcing such restrictive conditions upon HAD, the al-Qa`ida-affiliated group continued to push the limits of the deal and tensions steadily increased over time, interspersed with periodic HTS arrests of HAD figures accused of criminality or Islamic State links.a Those tensions began to finally boil over in the spring of 2020, following Turkey’s dramatic military intervention that stalled a major regime offensive and ultimately forced a region-wide ceasefire negotiated in Moscow.

That Turkish-Russian deal did not just pause fighting; it paved a path for the de facto surrender by HTS and rebels of Idlib’s strategically crucial M4 highway by way of a demilitarized zone to its north and south and then joint Turkish-Russian military convoys patrolling the roadway. HTS conveyed its agreement to the deal along private channels to Ankara28 and then in public, issued a statement on March 7, 2020, that critiqued the deal, but did not reject it.

Despite HTS’ attempt to publicly blur its stance toward the ceasefire, its clear refusal to reject it—as all other notable jihadi groups did—was sufficient evidence for al-Qa`ida’s loyalists to prove their suspicions: HTS had in their minds fully capitulated and become a tool of foreign agendas. Tensions continued to escalate, further added to by the initiation of joint Russian-Turkish patrols of the M4, under the watchful eyes of HTS. Weeks later, HAD launched a major behind-enemy-lines assault on the village of Tanjara in northern Hama on May 9, 2020, killing at least 21 Assad regime soldiers.29

That attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back and effectively broke the March 2019 agreement between HTS and HAD altogether. In so dramatically violating the Idlib ceasefire, HAD had made a bold statement, both of intent and total opposition to HTS-defined rules. A month later, in June 2020, HAD led the formation of a consolidated al-Qa`ida-aligned military operations room known as Fa’ithbitu (Be Steadfast), which triggered a series of HTS arrests of high-level HAD-linked figures and an intense week of fighting (to be expanded upon below in “Demise of Hurras al-Din”) in late June 2020 that left HAD in tatters—with no territory, no bases, and no meaningful sources of financial income.30

In short order, HTS had to a significant degree dismantled al-Qa`ida’s newly formed Syrian affiliate and in the months that followed, it pursued an aggressive security campaign that placed dozens of HAD-linked commanders in HTS detention.31 The HTS net was cast wider too, to include well-known Western activist-type personalities, including American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem,32 British aid worker Tauqir Sharif,33 and French journalist Moussa al-Hassan.34

Within this context, a spate of U.S. drone strikes through 2020 and 2021 that killed senior al-Qaida operatives such as Khalid al-Aruri,35 Saleh al-Karuri (Mohammed al-Sudani),36 and Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni)37 sparked widespread allegations that HTS, or elements within HTS, were leaking the whereabouts of individuals for foreign targeting.38 Al-Qaida loyalists have also alleged that some arrested by HTS and held in detention in Idlib—like French national Omar Omsen, for example—have been interrogated by officials from their countries of origin.39 Others like Sirajuddin Makhtarov (Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki) were allegedly detained by HTS in an attempt to negotiate a financial reward in exchange for deportation40—in Makhtarov’s case, to Russia, where he is wanted for involvement in the 2017 Saint Petersburg metro bombing.41

By early 2021, what remained of HAD’s leadership was operating in hiding, forced to issue only periodic audio and written statements42 calling on its supporters to remain committed to the cause. Some had allegedly fled to the comparatively lawless northern Aleppo region, controlled by a hodgepodge of Turkish-backed FSA militias.43 As of early September 2021, HAD continues to be an actor of negligible relevance in northwestern Syria. Although HAD’s claim of responsibility for a bomb attack on a military bus in Damascus on August 4, 2021,44 illustrated its capacity to operate covertly behind enemy lines, the attack was both minor in scale and likely a one-off.

While it took four years to accomplish, HTS, through its crackdown on HAD and sustained campaign against Islamic State cells, has now arguably established unchallenged hegemony in the opposition-controlled northwest. In so doing, it has demonstrated a clear willingness to combat globally oriented terrorist organizations, which, though clearly driven primarily by self-interest, correlates with the changed—or reformed—image that HTS is currently attempting to sell to the international community.

It was therefore no surprise that HTS’ subsequent step—initiated in the summer of 2021—was to begin pressuring smaller jihadi outfits to merge into HTS or disband and/or depart Idlib altogether. While these so-called “independent” jihadi factions had long avoided involvement in inter-factional strife, their continued existence nonetheless represented a potential threat to HTS. Some of the groups, like the Uighur-rooted Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), were engaged gently and due to their not insignificant size, afforded some leniency provided they submit to HTS rules.45 Smaller groups like Kataib al-Sahaba, Jund Allah, Ajnad al-Kavkaz, and the Chechen-led Junud al-Sham were pressured more aggressively in a methodical campaign of intimidation.46 As it had done frequently during its crackdowns on al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, HTS’ justification for pressuring these factions was framed around alleged corruption and criminality47—though such allegations were clearly a cover for HTS’ pursuit of total hegemony and its attempt to demonstrate to the likes of Turkey and Russia that it can be a constructive or useful actor in the hornets’ nest that is Idlib.

The ‘Salvation Government’
Given the geopolitics surrounding the fate of Idlib, HTS’ military subjugation of rival opposition factions and ruthless containment of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State were steps toward self-preservation, but only part of the necessary path. To assuage Turkey’s concerns about Idlib’s stability, to deter or undermine the Assad regime’s instincts to reinitiate hostilities, and to rebuild some trust with the local population, HTS also needed to enhance preexisting levels of governance and service provision.

Whereas al-Julani had explored the feasibility of establishing an Islamic emirate in Idlib in early 2016, through extensive consultation with the region’s Islamic community,48 his tone shifted with the formation of HTS and the resulting break with al-Qa`ida. By mid-2017, al-Julani had begun discussing the prospects for electing a “Prime Minister of Liberated Northern Syria,” according to three Idlib notables who met with him at the time.49 That shift in rhetoric, while likely tailored to specific audiences, translated in part into the establishment of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in November 2017 and the election of its first prime minister, Dr. Mohammed al-Sheikh,50 who until then had been president of Idlib University.

Initially comprising 11 different ministries, the SSG was a largely technocratic body run by individuals from the educated middle class, almost all of whom had little or no link to HTS or its predecessors. Among its leadership were academics such as Taher Samaq and Mohammed Bakkour of Aleppo University; civil society figures like Salah Ghaffour, Yahya Naema, and Abdulmoneim Nassif; independent Islamists like Bassam Sahyouni and Farouq Kishkish; and a host of local businessmen.51

The SSG’s creation presented a formidable challenge to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), an opposition governmental body largely based in Turkey that enjoyed recognition by many foreign governments, but only limited financial support. Over time, a persistent SSG pressure campaign managed to effectively expel or neutralize the SIG’s influence in Idlib and subjugated the region’s local councils either directly or into de facto SSG control.52 Though there is no evidence to suggest that HTS personnel were directly involved in these non-military coercive efforts—enforced through public deadlines, economic and service cut-offs, and political rhetoric—the clear linkage between HTS and the SSG undoubtedly empowered the SSG’s calls for authority. When tensions developed between the SSG and local council bodies, difficulties frequently arose in parallel between HTS and local armed opposition factions—lending the SSG its necessary advantage.53 That was unlikely to have been a coincidence.

The SSG, often acting in cahoots with HTS, has also invested heavily in tribal engagement as a method of acquiring localized legitimacy and backing in parallel to preexisting council structures.54 As a non-state actor with limited resources, neither HTS nor the SSG actually controls Idlib per se; they exert unchallenged influence over it. To do so requires not just respect through fear, but also an extent of credibility versus any other viable alternative. Given HTS’ challenged ties with mainstream opposition groups, societal structures such as tribes and clans have offered HTS and the SSG their best chance of acquiring and maintaining that control.

In addition to achieving control over much of the local council network, the SSG also focused attention squarely toward service provision and particularly to taking control over critical sectors linked to the local economy. Oil and gas came first, in 2018, when HTS fronted the establishment of Watad Petroleum (a business front created to control the import of oil and gas into northwestern Syria, in coordination with the SSG, at a value of roughly $1.5 million per month55) and transformed the HTS-linked Al-Wasit hawala company into what would become Idlib’s de facto central bank, Sham Bank.56

The most lucrative and strategically vital source of revenue—and broader influence—was HTS’ control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, estimated to be worth $15-20 million of monthly customs duties. While governed on paper by the SSG, the crossing was in practice managed by HTS and specifically by HTS magnates Mohammed Zeineddine and “al-Mughira.”57 Financed in large part by crossing income, HTS developed through 2020 and 2021 a complex network of business entities, fronts, and individuals through which it steadily acquired a near-monopoly over Idlib’s economy writ large, from construction, agriculture, and transportation to local industry, food production, and internal trade.58

In 2019, telecommunications came under the SSG’s radar, with the establishment of the SSG Department of Telecommunications and the expansion of fiber optic cabling along areas close to the Turkish border and the construction of telephone towers in several rural areas across HTS-controlled western Aleppo and Idlib.59 As the Syrian Pound (SYP) collapsed in early 2020 and Turkey further deepened its position in Idlib following its military intervention and ceasefire agreement with Russia, the SSG moved to remove the SYP from Idlib’s market altogether and replace it with the Turkish lira.60 Within hours of it announcing the currency switch, truckloads of Turkish lira began arriving in Syria’s northwest from Turkey, via Afrin.b Shortly thereafter, the SSG announced that all salaries province-wide would be issued in Turkish lira.61

The embrace of Turkey’s currency served to underline the SSG’s methodical move to integrate Idlib with core components of Turkish infrastructure—such as telecommunications and also electricity supply62—and Turkey’s clear willingness to facilitate it.63 In each sector in which Turkish products are extended into Idlib, the SSG has provided monopoly control to an HTS front—Sham Bank controls the Turkish Lira;64 Watad manages oil and gas65 (though later diversified by the addition of “Kaf Trading” and “al-Shahba Petroleum”66); and “Green Energy” controls Turkish electricity.67

That HTS and the SSG have focused most heavily on revenue-generating sectors is no surprise, given their lack of external sources of financial backing, the need to support a level of service provision necessary to avoid an uncontrollable rise in popular opposition,c and in all likelihood, to funnel funds to HTS itself. The SSG’s lack of resources has also translated into its divestment of control to foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of sectors such as health and education. Idlib’s provincial health service has been almost entirely sub-contracted to external actors, many initially funded by Germany’s Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).68 The Education sector, meanwhile, is run largely on a volunteer basis in coordination with at least 20 local and foreign NGOs, including Qatar Foundation, which provides teaching materials and textbooks based on U.N.-approved curricula across much of HTS-controlled territories.69 As a reflection of its lack of resources as well as a pragmatic investment in tribes, the SSG has also devolved Idlib’s justice sector almost entirely to tribal bodies.

Beyond generating income, managing core service provision, and devolving secondary services to external parties, the SSG’s “General Security Service” has also been the primary actor responsible for countering organized crime and both al-Qa`ida and Islamic State inside HTS areas. Though this force is distinctly separate from HTS in terms of manpower, it remains associated and heavily—albeit covertly—influenced by HTS.d Inside Idlib, the SSG’s General Security Service presents itself as an elite force whose mission is intelligence and law enforcement-related, rather than military.

Narrative Control and Restricting Dissent
To close the circle, HTS’ broad-spectrum approach to consolidating its influence in Idlib has included a focused effort to control narratives and restrict dissent. In contrast to the likes of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, this effort has not been defined by a severe imposition of religious creed and behavioral norms on the local population. Instead, it has been a primarily political initiative seeking to control the breadth of socio-political expression—and more specifically, to limit political views that run contrary to HTS’.

The SSG’s Directorate of Information was established in 2019 in large part to monitor and control the existence and output of the wide range of opposition and civil media outfits existing across Syria’s northwest. While no explicit blanket ban was served, the SSG and HTS exerted a mostly unstated opposition to outlets presenting views that critiqued or opposed HTS and the SSG’s work or vision. Those who most visibly contravened those expectations were duly detained and many reportedly tortured. One local media activist, Samer al-Salloum, died in HTS custody in early 2019, more than a year after his arrest.70 The assassination of internationally renowned activist and humanitarian Raed Fares is widely blamed on HTS.71

Meanwhile, HTS-linked media outlets have enjoyed unchallenged access, as the group has sought to control the information environment. The Ebaa News Network has long been the group’s most consistent and high-volume outlet, along with dedicated accounts on Telegram managed by distinct SSG bodies that update on construction, trade, security, and similar issues. However, Ebaa went silent on July 19, 2021, and appears to have been replaced by the preexisting Amjad Media Foundation, which released HTS’ Eid al-Adha message on July 19 (for the first time, instead of Ebaa), as well as an August 18 statement congratulating the Taliban on their victory in Afghanistan.72

In 2021, speculation surrounded a new and expanding media organization known as “Creative Inception,” whose output includes news as well as television shows and movies. Headquartered in the northern town of Sarmada, Creative Inception has branched out across Idlib and also into SNAe-controlled northern Aleppo, where HTS is not officially active. Beyond its standard media production, the SSG granted the company a monopoly over advertising banners along Idlib’s road network in July 2021 amid an unprecedented Creative Inception recruitment drive targeting Idlib’s youth. The company has since been labeled “a new front” of HTS in an extensive investigation by local journalists.73

On the religious side, HTS and the SSG have maintained a far less interventionist posture. The SSG is reportedly responsible for over 1,200 mosques across Idlib, most of which remain in the same hands as they were prior to the SSG’s creation.74 As influential SSG Sharia Council member Anas Ayrout has explained, “Sufism is the religious orientation with which most preachers and the general public identify. We are not going to war with them when people really have other concerns.”75

HTS and the SSG remain salafi in orientation and in northwestern Syria have exerted a monopoly in terms of the authority to determine the boundaries of what is acceptable, such as banning takfir (excommunication) and prohibiting the dissemination of Islamic State propaganda and the writings of critics of HTS like Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. While smoking is technically prohibited in HTS territories, that law is rarely if ever enforced, as is the case regarding female dress.76 All fatwas produced in Idlib must be passed through HTS’ Sharia Council.77

But rather than issuing Islamic State or al-Qa`ida-style judicial dictums on the legality of menial issues like purchasing a Western product, for example, HTS is far more likely to focus its energies on dictatorially cracking down on acts of political opposition. On August 24, 2021, HTS took the bold step of banning one of the Syrian opposition’s most well-resourced television and online news outlets, Orient News, from operating within Idlib – accusing it of “violations,” including the illegitimate use of the words “armed militias” in its descriptions of HTS itself.78

In taking the approach described above, HTS is operating in a grey zone for jihadis. Some have explained HTS’ approach as an example of Ibn Taymiyya’s concept of al-siyasat al-shari’a, or sharia-compliant politics79—a blending of flexible political positions within a loosely defined religious construct. To justify and maintain this approach, HTS leader al-Julani has required an intensely loyal and dependable leadership circle. HTS’ senior leadership in 2021 resembles a command structure composed of individuals with profiles well suited to a more locally oriented, less ‘jihadi’ movement.

At the top of the pyramid is Ahmad al-Shara’a (al-Julani), a chameleon-like leader in his mid-30s; clearly intelligent, ideologically flexible, and demonstrably unafraid of taking controversial steps necessary to protect HTS’ (and his) interests. Al-Julani’s deputy and HTS’ chief of security, Anas Hassan Khattab (Abu Ahmed Hudud), has been by his side since being one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s seven founding members in late 2011.80 In his pre-2011 role as the Islamic State of Iraq’s (ISI) emir of the Syrian border region, Khattab was willing to maintain covert ties with Syrian military intelligence.81 Years later, it is widely claimed that Khattab has maintained ties with intelligence officials from several Gulf states since 2011.82

Another key figure in HTS is Abu Muhjen al-Hasakawi, a native of Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli who worked in the United Arab Emirates before returning to Syria in 2011, is known for his brutality (as a lead interrogator in HTS’ infamous Oqab Prison in Idlib), his willingness to turn on former allies (in coordinating HTS’ assault on HAD’s stronghold in Arab Said), his dedication to securing Russian-Turkish patrols of the M4 highway, and as a suit-wearing participant at SSG-convened conferences.83 Opportunists who have elevated themselves by way of absolute loyalty to al-Julani, such as Abu al-Khayr Taftanaz, Huzayfa Badawi, and Abdulqader Tahhan, will most likely remain stalwart defenders of HTS’ evolving approach, while HTS’ general military commander, Abu Hassan al-Hamawi (also known as Abu Hassan 600), is widely known for advocating a closer relationship with Syria’s mainstream opposition while fighting the likes of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State even more aggressively.

That latter narrative—of openness to recovering HTS’ relations with components of Syria’s moderate armed opposition—has provided space for veteran senior HTS leaders such as Abu Tawfiq, Maysar Ali Musa al-Juburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), and Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmed Zakour) to remain engaged in secret channels of dialogue with FSA factions based in neighboring northern Aleppo, in search of a mutually beneficial détente.84

Maintaining such a loyalist cadre will be critical if al-Julani is to have any hope of sustaining HTS’ evolution and hegemony in Idlib. Preserving HTS interests only seems possible if the group continues to evolve away from its Jabhat al-Nusra past, but transforming in that direction will necessitate increasingly controversial steps. The intensification of secret negotiations with a number of influential FSA groups in northern Aleppo in mid-2021 appears aimed toward some form of formalized agreement, which would trigger an earthquake far more powerful than the furor that surrounds HTS’ ties to Turkey. Some substantial progress was allegedly made in these talks in early August 2021, with at least two leading SNA groups expressing an interest in some form of cooperation with HTS.85 Similarly, according to two sources, Turkey is inserting itself more aggressively into HTS’ military wing—not just by allegedly providing small quantities of weaponry, but also attending new recruit graduation ceremonies and inspecting HTS’ weapons development facilities.86

Part Two: The Rise and Fall of Hurras al-Din
HAD’s emergence in February 2018 represented the culmination of over a year of deliberations within al-Qaida and its loyalist community in northwestern Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrand to JFS and then HTS had catalyzed a steady stream of defections by those who saw al-Julani’s opportunism as evidence of his unauthorized breaking of baya and for some, of his apostasy. Among the earliest defectors, in the fall of 2016, were Iyad Tubasi (Abu Julaybib al-Urduni), Abu Khadija al-Urduni, and Abu Hammam al-Suri as well as at least 11 other senior, veteran al-Qa`ida figures.87 By late 2016, moves had already begun to create a counter-faction and once HTS came into existence in January 2017, the impetus to do so intensified markedly.

Bitter recriminations built up steadily through 2017, amid rumors of al-Qaida’s plans to establish a new loyalist faction and an escalating, bitter public feud between leading figures loyal to al-Julani and al-Qaida. Those tensions culminated in HTS’ arrest of Tubasi and Jabhat al-Nusra’s former sharia chief and de facto deputy leader Sami al-Oraydi in November 2017 in an attempt to prevent the formation of the widely rumored new group. Within days of those arrests, Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly revealed his outright opposition to Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrands, labeling them as a betrayal of baya—a great sin.88 Then on January 7, 2018, a statement by al-Qaida’s General Leadership made it official, declaring for the first time that al-Qa`ida’s presence in Syria was distinct from HTS.89

While HAD’s creation was clearly a direct response to Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrands, it was also a natural conclusion to a far longer but less visible internal tension between al-Qaida’s most loyal contingent (and their globalist tendencies) and the largely Syrian circle surrounding al-Julani. Those strains began in early 2013 as a wave of senior al-Qaida veterans began arriving in northwestern Syria following an order from central leadership90 to reinforce al-Qa`ida’s standing in Syria amid the challenge posed by the Islamic State.

The earliest arrivals included al-Qaida Shura Council member Abdulrahman Mohammed al-Jahani, as well as Abdulmohsen Abdullah al-Sharikh (Sanafi al-Nasr), Mohsen al-Fadhli, Abu Layth al-Yemeni, Haydar Kirkan, Abu Yusuf al-Turki, and Said Arif.91 Though al-Julani did accede to al-Qaida pressure to restructure Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership—by replacing deputy leader Maysar Ali Musa Abdullah al-Juburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani) with hardline ideologue Sami al-Oraydi92 and appointing Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri) as military chief and Radwan Nammous (Abu Firas al-Suri) as spokesman—he was reportedly opposed to the group’s embrace of more severe theological rhetoric and behaviors,93 but largely powerless to prevent it.

As Jabhat al-Nusra’s internal dynamic grew increasingly strained in late 2014, al-Julani moved aggressively to block newly arrived al-Qaida figures from joining the group’s Shura Council. Four sources from within Idlib’s jihadi community told the author that Sanafi al-Nasr played an instrumental role in a short-lived plot to encourage an internal coup aimed at unseating al-Julani, while other al-Qaida loyalists allegedly wrote to Iran-based al-Qaida senior leader Saif al-Adl calling for al-Qa`ida’s permission to make a move against al-Julani, a request that could feasibly have come to something had al-Zawahiri not been unreachable through late 2014 and early 2015.94

The initiation of a U.S. air campaign targeting the newly arrived clique of al-Qaida’s loyalists—labeled the Khorasan Group—in northwestern Syria in September 2014 proved to be a double-edged sword for al-Julani—killing off a handful of powerful rivals but offering his opponents what they claimed was evidence of his complicity. As American precision strikes continued to kill senior al-Qaida operatives known to be in open disagreement with al-Julani, a purported Jabhat al-Nusra investigation accused veteran French al-Qa`ida member Abu Abdullah al-Fransi of being a spy.95 He was subsequently captured, interrogated, and according to some, executed, though others claim he remains alive in HTS custody as of mid-2021.96

While the Khorasan Group was effectively neutralized by U.S. strikes by late 2015, senior al-Qaida leaders continued to flock to Syria’s northwest. Some months after their release by Iran in March 2015 and after a brief visit to Iraq,97 the arrival of Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (who was appointed as the deputy leader of al-Qaida) and Khalid al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni), not to mention the likes of Mohammed al-Sudani, Abu Abdulkarim al-Masri, and al-Qaida Shura Council member Mohammed al-Ahmed (Shaqran al-Urduni)f continued to reinforce the widening gap in visions held by al-Julani and al-Qaida’s most loyal supporters in Syria and beyond. That gap sustained itself through 2016 and provided the kindling that was set alight following the emergence of JFS and then HTS.

HAD and al-Qaida Assert Themselves HAD’s creation was al-Qaida’s attempt to forcefully reassert itself in Syria and the decision to appoint Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri)—a Syrian with years of experience within Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership—as its overall leader underlined its intention to compete with HTS. Originally from Damascus’ outer agricultural region of Eastern Ghouta, Abu Hammam had traveled to Afghanistan in 1998 and, thanks to his close relationship with fellow Syrian Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), had risen to become chief trainer at al-Qa`ida’s Al-Farouq Camp near Kandahar. Like many in Afghanistan at the time, Abu Hammam fled to Iran in late 2001 following the U.S. invasion, and after brief periods in detention in Iran and Syria, he moved to Lebanon, where he was arrested and reportedly imprisoned until 2012.98

Once in Syria, Abu Hammam joined Jabhat al-Nusra in the Qalamoun and then the central Badiya desert, before linking up with arriving al-Qa`ida leaders in the northwest late in 2013, where he was propelled into Jabhat al-Nusra’s military leadership.99 As has been documented by HTS detractors, Abu Hammam was rarely in agreement with al-Julani, and by mid-2015, he had effectively been frozen out of his command position and isolated alongside surviving members of the Khorasan Group. Though Abu Hammam did not officially leave until JFS’ formation in mid-2016, the author was told he had been the target of two attempted assassinations in 2015, which allies blame on al-Julani—one in March 2015, which he exploited to fake his own death, and another in April 2016, which killed Abu Firas al-Suri and left Abu Hammam wounded.100

Alongside Abu Hammam, HAD’s leadership was a ‘who’s who’ of veteran al-Qa`ida operatives, including:101

        Khalid al-Aruri
        Shaqran al-Urduni
        Abu Abdulrahman al-Urduni
        Abu Khadija al-Urduni
        Sari Shihab (Abu Khallad al-Mohandis)
        Mohammed al-Sudani
        Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki
        Abu Abdullah al-Suri
        Abu Hurayrah al-Masri
        Sami al-Oraydi
        Abu Dhar al-Masri
        Abdulrahman al-Turki
        Abdulrahman al-Fransi
        Sayfullah al-Fransi
        Bilal Khoraysat
        Abu Ahmed al-Raqawi
        Abu Zayd al-Urduni
        Abu Abdulkarim al-Masri
        Bilal Sanaani

Just as Jabhat al-Nusra had sought to do in its earlier years, HAD surrounded itself with a loose web of allied factions, such as Ansar al-Tawhid,g Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Din, Liwa al-Muqatilin al-Ansar, and Tansiqiyat al-Jihad. Many of these groups were led by former Jabhat al-Nusra commanders, including Abu Abdullah al-Shamih and Abu Malek al-Talli.i HAD also formed coalitions—most notably, the Incite the Believers operations room in October 2018—to enhance and protect its position vis-à-vis HTS.102

Yet such strategic positioning did not prevent HTS from forcing, after months of negotiations, a disadvantageous arrangement upon HAD in March 2019, whereby the group was permitted to operate in Idlib on the condition that it renounce external operations; dismantle all sharia courts, prisons, and security checkpoints; and limit its military activities to seven frontline posts and to 16 facilities.103 Perhaps most constraining of all, HTS was granted oversight over all HAD arms storage and money exchange houses.104

HAD largely acquiesced to HTS’ terms, but disagreements mounted throughout 2019. A particular point of contention surrounded the increasingly unsustainable threat posed by the Syrian regime’s continued shelling and attacks on HTS-opposition frontlines in northern Hama. HTS’ virtual monopoly over frontline commands and its jurisdiction over HAD movements and supplies presented a dilemma for HAD, whose most extreme members opposed any contribution to any frontlines controlled by HTS.

In June 2019, a group of HAD ultra-hardliners—led by Abu Yahya al-Jazayri, Abu Dhar al-Masri, Abu Amr al-Tunisi, Abu Yaman al-Wazzani, and Abu Musab al-Libi—banded together in protest against HAD’s role in fighting the regime under HTS tutelage, with Abu Yahya al-Jazayri publishing a fatwa explicitly forbidding it.105 An internal feud within HAD swiftly erupted and the group’s ultra-hardline detractors were expelled106 and forced to relocate to Aleppo’s western countryside, where they were then killed in a U.S. drone strike on June 30, 2019—the first such strike since March 2017.107

For some within al-Qa`ida’s loyalist community, the timing and target of the June 30, 2019, U.S. strike was too much to be coincidental, and it heightened suspicions about moles. When senior al-Qa`ida figure Sari Shihab (Abu Khallad al-Mohandis, Saif al-`Adl’s father-in-law) was killed by a bomb concealed inside his vehicle in Idlib city on August 22, 2019,108 those suspicions rose further and continued to as a spate of U.S. strikes hit high-level al-Qa`ida operatives across Idlib throughout late 2019 and into 2020.109

The sudden resumption of U.S. precision strikes in Syria’s northwest—many utilizing the state-of-the-art ‘flying ginsu’ R9X inert bladed missile110—was a clear indication of HAD being a U.S. counterterrorism priority. In January 2019, the annual U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report had, for the first time, acknowledged HAD as al-Qa`ida’s Syrian affiliate, and in a map detailing al-Qa`ida’s network of branches, HTS had intriguingly gone entirely unmentioned. Months later, in late 2019 and early 2020, U.S. officials told this author on background that HAD was internally assessed at the time to represent the most significant external attack threat worldwide.

That assessment aligned with multiple independent claims conveyed to this author by members of Idlib’s Islamic community between late 2018 and mid-2019 that HAD members had repeatedly raised during large gatherings the importance of broadening the aperture of the Syrian jihad to include striking the far enemy. Though such recommendations were, according to the sources, swiftly refuted by others in attendance, the mere fact that HAD operatives were willing to raise the issue in public, in company largely unaligned with global jihad, spoke volumes about HAD and its potential threat.

It was therefore not a surprise when then-U.S. Special Envoy for Syria and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey, stated in September 2019 that HAD plots had been foiled “on the spot” and “far away,”111 while the U.S. government formally designated HAD as a terrorist organization112 and offered $5 million rewards for information on Abu Hammam, Sami al-Oraydi, and Abu Abdulkarim al-Masri.113 As HAD rose rapidly in global stature, al-Qa`ida reportedly maneuvered to have Khalid al-Aruri appointed as HAD’s military leader—a role that according to reports at the time thrust him into an unacknowledged position of co-leader, alongside Abu Hammam.114

HAD’s Precipitous Fall
Given HTS’ well-established insistence on control in Idlib, HAD’s rise as a global concern and its apparent presentation of an international terrorism threat contributed to a perpetual rise in tensions. As mentioned earlier, these tensions boiled over following HTS’ de facto accession to a Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement, which effectively surrendered the strategic M4 highway and accepted joint Turkish-Russian military patrols. Enraged by HTS’ further submission to Turkey, HAD members began issuing threats to Russian and Turkish forces.115 HAD’s dramatic assault on the regime-held village of Tanjara on May 9, 2020,116 illustrated for the first time that HAD was not just openly critical of HTS, but an active and aggressive threat to its ability to sustain the newly established delicate dynamic in the northwest.

The Tanjara attack severed the March 2019 HTS-HAD deal. And tensions would then get worse between the groups. HAD’s creation of the Fa’ithbitu (So Be Steadfast) operations room on June 12, 2020—alongside Ansar al-Islam, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Liwa al-Muqatilin al-Ansar, and Tansiqiyat al-Jihad—represented a direct challenge to HTS’ status quo. Two days after Fa’ithbitu’s emergence, al-Aruri was killed in a U.S. drone strike alongside Syrian HAD commander Amin al-Assi (Bilal al-Sanaani).117

Al-Aruri’s killing was a major loss, not just for HAD but for al-Qa`ida’s global movement, and his death intensified longstanding allegations of HTS complicity. According to multiple pro-al-Qa`ida sources, al-Aruri had been aware of HTS trailing his movements and had confronted HTS’ Abu Mariya al-Qahtani for allegedly photographing his vehicle.118 One week after that encounter, al-Aruri’s vehicle was targeted by a road-side bomb, which wounded him and his wife,119 and sometime thereafter, he was struck from the air by an American R9X missile, whose blades tore a hole clean through the windshield, killing him and al-Sanaani.120 Additionally, al-Qa`ida loyalists have lodged allegations against HTS’ political chief Zayd al-Attar, accusing him of having maintained ties with foreign governments (since his previous post was to lead Jabhat al-Nusra’s “external affairs”j) and of bringing sophisticated tracking devices into Idlib for use against al-Qa`ida operatives.121 The same set of accusations describe HTS deputy Anas Khattab as the central figure in the tracking of high-level al-Qa`ida figures.122

Just over a week later on June 24, 2020, HAD’s chief of military logistics, Mohammed Khattab (Abu Adnan al-Homsi), was killed in another U.S. strike,123 two days after HTS-linked SSG security forces had arrested Jamal Hassan Zayniya (Abu Malek al-Talli), who had recently defected from HTS and aligned himself with Fa’ithbitu.124 The capture of Abu Malek was the latest in a series of HTS arrests targeting Fa’ithbitu figures, including Sirajideen Makhtarov (Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki) and Abu al-Abd al-Ashida. That night, in response, HAD mobilized its forces in its stronghold of Arab Said and began establishing checkpoints in northern areas of Idlib city and along roadways leading to Idlib’s SSG-controlled central prison.125

Although Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-`Adl had both reportedly conveyed orders to HAD not to engage HTS in any form of conflict,126 the escalatory tit-for-tat dynamic in motion since early 2020 virtually guaranteed hostilities. HTS swiftly responded to HAD’s mobilization in Arab Said, and fighting broke out late on June 22, 2020, focused primarily around Arab Said, where HAD was commanded by Abu Omar Manhaj.127 As HTS brought its force to bear and HAD began to buckle under the pressure, Sami al-Oraydi demanded a ceasefire on June 24, 2020, in a statement128 released seemingly in coordination with another issued by al-Qa`ida’s General Command, which condemned HTS and called for calm.129

Despite a flurry of attempted mediation initiatives,k HTS pushed forward, and by June 27, 2020, HAD had been broken and forced out of all of its military bases and populated towns (Arab Said, Armanaz, Darkush, Yacoubiya, Hamameh, Harem, and Jisr al-Shughour).130 The group’s fighters swiftly dispersed into largely unpopulated areas in central and northeastern Idlib, as well as northwestern Latakia and western Aleppo’s countryside, while HAD’s leadership went into hiding.131 Although Arab Said’s local population protested against HAD’s expulsion, HTS retained control.132 After HAD’s striking rise, its rapid incapacitation by HTS in a matter of days was a crippling blow to al-Qa`ida’s aspirations in Syria.

Having paralyzed HAD and blunted Fa’ithbitu as a meaningful entity, HTS sustained its pressure against al-Qa`ida’s loyalist community, primarily through an arrest campaign led by the SSG’s Public Security Apparatus and General Security Service. According to critics, HTS and the SSG now have more than 170 al-Qa`ida commanders and senior figures in detention and the whereabouts of more than 100 others is unknown.133 Among those reported to be in HTS detention are 12 members of al-Qa`ida’s international leadership, including global Shura Council members like Abu Hamza al-Darawi and Mohammed al-Ahmed (Shaqran al-Urduni), and other veteran leaders like Abu Abdulrahman al-Makki, Abu Sulayman al-Libi, Abu Yahya al-Jazayri, and Abu Basir al-Shami.134

Beyond figures of global command, HTS and the SSG have also captured HAD’s general administrator Abu Abdullah al-Suri (the son of Abu Firas al-Suri), sharia chief Abu Hurayrah al-Masri (the son of Abu Dhar al-Masri), and dozens of mid-level commanders—many of them of European origin—since mid-2020.135 HTS (rather than the SSG) has also gone after influential foreign individuals operating in the media and humanitarian space, such as Bilal Abdul Kareem (American),136 Tauqir Sharif (British),137 and Moussa al-Hassan (French),138 detaining them for months at a time while accusing them of conspiring with HAD-linked factions.

A plethora of HAD figures have also been killed by the SSG’s General Security Service, including Aby Zayd al-Urduni, Abu Ahmed al-Raqqawi (Khalid al-Aruri’s chief aide), Abu Yunus al-Almani, Abu Muaz al-Fransi, Abu Aisha al-Tajiki, Abu Abdulrahman al-Uzbeki, and the notorious Abu Abdulrahman al-Tunisi,139 who was accused of directing a plot to kill the SSG’s Minister of Education, Dr. Faiz al-Khalif.140 Other senior al-Qa`ida operatives, including Saleh al-Karuri (Abu Mohammed al-Sudani),141 Abu Yusuf al-Maghrebi,142 and Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki,143 have been lost to additional U.S. drone strikes through late 2020 and early 2021.

While many arrests have gone largely unreported, most of the deadly raids have been described by HTS and the SSG as targeting criminal gangs and Islamic State cells144 in an apparent attempt to conceal the continued crackdown on al-Qa`ida to try to blunt inevitable criticism. The SSG’s General Security Service have released bountiful imagery detailing weapons, explosives, cash, and other equipment seized during the raids, but rarely has HAD been named, even though subsequent revelations as to the identities of those killed swiftly connects them to the group.145 The reality behind this HTS-SSG campaign has therefore been palpably clear, and the effect has been to place HTS in a likely irreversible state of animosity with al-Qa`ida.

With the exception of an unusual HAD suicide raid on a Russian military base in rural Raqqa in January 2021 and a minor attack on a bus in Damascus in August 2021, HAD and its allies have conducted little of note militarily since June 2020. HAD and its Fa’ithbitu allies have taken to social media to launch recruitment drives and calls for financial donations,146 in clear signs of their struggles. Since its military defeat in mid-2020, the only HAD leader to appear publicly has been Sami al-Oraydi, in a video address released on May 12, 2021.147 An HAD video released on January 24, 2021, to mark its attack in Raqqa did, however, contain old footage of prominent al-Qa`ida figures, including Ibrahim al-Qusi, Abu al-Yazid, and notably at the end, Khalid Batarfi, who in the footage called for supporters to conduct attacks in the West on al-Qa`ida’s behalf, the first public acknowledgment by HAD of its support for such actions.148

HAD Allies Suppressed
With Syria’s opposition subjugated, the Islamic State contained, and HAD driven to ground, HTS and the SSG’s security services began to pivot toward cracking down on HAD allies in the spring of 2021. Throughout the first year of the Russian-Turkish negotiated ceasefire, which came into force in March 2020, jihadis opposed to HTS’ rule and policies had initiated and sustained a shadowy guerrilla insurgency responsible for attacks against the Turkish military and HTS itself. At least six mysterious groups have been engaged in these attacks: Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq,149 Tanzim al-Tali’a al-Mujahida,150 Kataib Khattab al-Shishani,151 and Kataib al-Shaheed Marwan Hadid152 against the Turkish military, and Jamaat Abdullah bin Unais153 and Katibat al-Nuzza min al-Qaba’il154 against HTS.

While their precise identities remain unknown and none have been concretely linked in public to other better-known groups, their existence and persistent operations have posed a consequential challenge to HTS’ outward claims of control. Given that the primary driver responsible for much of HTS’ decision-making in recent years has been self-preservation, the existence of a covert insurgency capable of killing and injuring Turkish troops inside Idlib has catalyzed a response. Some of that HTS reaction has been realized through the SSG’s campaign of raids targeting “criminality” and “terrorism” (al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State), but it has also extended in 2021 to a coordinated pressure campaign against smaller jihadi groups like Kataib al-Sahaba, Jund Allah, Ajnad al-Kavkaz, and the Chechen-led Junud al-Sham.155

Though technically ‘independent,’ these groups represent low-hanging fruit in HTS’ continued push of hegemony in Syria’s northwest. As such, they have been the target of an aggressive and methodical campaign of intimidation, justified by HTS as part of its quest to fight corruption and criminality.156 Much of this activity has taken place away from the public eye, but al-Qa`ida loyalists continue to accuse HTS of maneuvering against its allies in Syria.157

On June 10, 2021, pro-al-Qa`ida Telegram account Rad Udwan al-Bughat alleged that HTS was moving to destroy Ansar al-Islam,l the one member of Fa’ithbitu to have remained at least minimally and publicly operational. According to the account, HTS had severed Ansar al-Islam’s sources of funding and was “arbitrarily” arresting its leadership158—the latter accusation aligning with reports that among those in HTS detention were Ansar al-Islam military leader Abdulmateen al-Kurdi and senior leaders Abu Shihab al-Kurdi, Ammar al-Kurdi, Abu Abdulrahman al-Shami, and Abu Ali al-Qalamouni.159 Forty-eight hours before Rad Udwan al-Bughat’s allegations emerged, SSG forces raided the headquarters of Jund Allah, capturing six commanders.m

Beyond these and similar efforts, HTS’ attempt to force the dissolution of nine-year-old Chechen-led group Junud al-Sham caused a storm in June-July 2021. Despite its relatively small contingent of several hundred fighters, Junud al-Sham’s reputation for military dedication and non-involvement in social or political matters made its victimization a source of considerable controversy. Junud al-Sham was founded in early 2012 by Murad Margoshvili (Muslim al-Shishani), a longtime veteran of the Chechen jihad who fought alongside Shamil Basayev and was a one-time aide to notorious Saudi commander Samir Saleh al-Suwailem (commonly known as Khattab, Ibn al-Khattab, and “Emir Khattab”).160 Amid northwestern Syria’s many spates of inter-factional fighting, Junud al-Sham has consistently remained a neutral actor, but on June 22, 2021, the SSG’s Public Security Apparatus delivered a written directive to Junud al-Sham’s headquarters commanding Muslim al-Shishani to present himself to an HTS Security Office in Jisr al-Shughour the following day.161

Though virtually every detail that followed remains disputed, al-Shishani met with HTS on June 23, 2021, and according to him, “they asked me to dismantle the group and leave Idlib.” According to HTS’ Jordanian spokesman, “Taqi al-Din Omar,” al-Shishani was accused of harboring individuals “involved in security and criminal cases,” which HTS-linked sources have claimed include an Islamic State-linked cell broken up by the SSG; another terror cell responsible for a deadly attack on HTS; and a squad of burglars known for targeting jewelry stores while dressed as women.162 For his part, al-Shishani has acknowledged the existence of criminal elements formerly part of Junud al-Sham, but refuted allegations that they remained members of his group. That, however, was contradicted by video confessions of several Junud al-Sham members, including Murad Jandamirtash and Sayfullah Abdullah al-Daghestani, whose testimonies—feasibly under duress—were leaked by HTS sources on July 6,2021.163 Despite HTS’ denial that it was seeking Junud al-Sham’s coerced dissolution, Junud al-Sham was reported to have at least partially dissolved on July 8, 2021,164 and following several HTS raids on July 15, 2021, al-Shishani all but admitted to his apparent ordered expulsion from HTS territories.165

The Good and Bad News for the Global Jihadi Threat
The Junud al-Sham crisis sparked a significant furor, with some HTS critics labeling the group “a criminal mafia” and others warning not so subtly that when “a dangerous group of people with nothing to lose” are pushed into a corner, “bad things can happen.”166 Nevertheless, it was hard to ignore the reality: each and every step taken by JFS-HTS and the SSG against its rivals since 2016 has further consolidated its dominance and de facto hegemony inside Syria’s northwest.

At no point throughout those five years has HTS been meaningfully challenged, and the only actor arguably capable of doing so from the inside—Turkey—appears to have become closer to HTS and to be operating more directly in coordination with it than ever before. Given the nature of Ankara’s concerns in Idlib, it is hard to envision a strategic reason that would drive it to challenge today’s status quo—hence, HTS’ continued push to solidify its dominance. Despite the disquiet and uncertainty that HTS’ intimidation campaign created for some, the consolidation of a wider ‘new normal’ of HTS rule may have encouraged an apparent resumption of limited foreign fighter flows to northwestern Syria. For example, the Uzbek-majority Tavhid va Jihod showed off a contingent of 16 newly trained arrivals in a July 2021 photo release,167 illustrating a trend experienced by other groups in 2021.168

HTS’ violent suppression of al-Qa`ida in northwestern Syria is a remarkably consequential development, especially considering the previously largely unchallenged investment the al-Qa`ida movement had made there in waves since 2013. That the principal driver of al-Qa`ida’s strategic defeat in Syria has been a group once part of the al-Qa`ida movement makes this all the more significant—and the ripples will continue to be felt worldwide for years to come. With the Islamic State sustaining a persistent, though still relatively low-level insurgency across swathes of Syria and Iraq, al-Qa`ida looks to be decidedly struggling in the regional race for jihadi supremacy.

While some longtime jihadi ideologues associated with al-Qa`ida, like Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, have launched an onslaught of criticism169 against HTS and its leader, al-Julani, others have slowly come around to the idea that HTS’ model of operation might possibly represent the most effective path forward. A notable example of this latter group has been Abu Qatada al-Filistini and his prominent student, Ismail Kalam (Abu Mahmoud al-Filistini).170 Al-Maqdisi, for his part, has experienced a meteoric collapse in credibility among jihadis in recent years.171 HTS went as far as to prohibit al-Maqdisi’s writings altogether in Idlib, accusing him of being unqualified, deviant, having Islamic State sympathies, and being a “platform from which the odors of extremism, takfir and the causing of failure emanate.”172

Beyond HTS’ effect upon al-Qa`ida, the list of those killed in U.S. drone strikes in Syria in recent years is a ‘who’s who’ of the group’s most dedicated and experienced veteran generation. Notwithstanding the ongoing allegations that HTS, or elements within HTS, have been complicit in facilitating U.S. strikes—for which there continues to be no evidence that has been publicly disclosed, though the possibility is not beyond the realm of reality—the U.S. intelligence community has likely achieved a remarkable penetration of the very highest levels of al-Qa`ida’s senior command in the region, whether through human sources or other tactics, techniques, or procedures.

Despite its real challenges in Syria, indications of HAD’s close integration within al-Qa`ida’s central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan have repeatedly emerged, making the group’s demise even more consequential. Claims in late 2020 that al-Zawahiri had perished173 originated in HAD circles, when the group found its communication channels to al-Zawahiri silent. Furthermore, when al-Qa`ida’s de facto media chief, Hossam Abdul Raouf (Abu Mohsen al-Masri), was killed in Afghanistan in mid-October 2020, encrypted direct communications to Syria were discovered on his computers, and within 10 days, two senior al-Qa`ida operatives (Abu Mohammed al-Sudani on October 15, 2020; Hamoud Sahara, on October 22, 2020) were killed in U.S. strikes in Syria.174

While Syria was clearly al-Qa`ida’s favored strategic fallback option for many years after the Arab Spring,n that no longer appears to be a viable option. With al-Zawahiri dead or very sick,o al-Qa`ida has an existential succession crisis on its hands, as the highest-ranking leader in line to take over from al-Zawahiri is Saif al-`Adl, who, according to U.S. intelligence175 and the United Nations,176 currently resides in Iran. The other two known members of al-Qa`ida’s trio of top deputies—Abu Mohammed al-Masri and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri—are both dead, killed in Iran in 2020177 and Syria in 2017,178 respectively. While Saif al-`Adl’s leadership credentials and jihadi credibility are arguably unrivaled,179 it remains difficult to imagine, should he remain in Iran, that even he could be capable of exerting meaningful command over a network of increasingly decentralized affiliates that if anything, have grown more distrustful and hostile to Iran in recent years.

In the process of JFS-HTS breaking from al-Qa`ida, senior leaders from JFS-HTS had repeatedly made clear their inherent suspicion surrounding orders originating from Iran, and ultimately, they refused to abide by any of them.180 Seeing that dynamic go global would be potentially catastrophic for al-Qa`ida. Iran is also unlikely to remove its current travel restrictions on Saif al-`Adl, given the invaluable source of intelligence, control, and diplomatic leverage that it affords. In all likelihood, al-Qa`ida will have to look to another individual to eventually take over from al-Zawahiri, most likely a senior operative based in Afghanistan, where a hurried U.S. withdrawal and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban has created conditions that the jihadi group could only have dreamt of a year or two ago. Who that alternative candidate might be remains unclear, but with multiple Haqqani network leaders being promoted into positions of national command in Afghanistan,p al-Qa`ida looks all but guaranteed to have the space to consider its options.

Judging by the response from al-Qa`ida’s global movement, the Taliban’s victory is unsurprisingly seen as a historic victory.q For HTS, the Taliban’s achievements in Afghanistan are not just a “great victory” against “occupiers,” but also an example of the kind of “steadfastness” that it believes it is attempting to accomplish in Syria.181 In the wake of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, HTS fighters took to the streets distributing sweets to civilians, and senior HTS leader Abu Mariya al-Qahtani went as far as not just to celebrate, but to hint at a newly emerging Islamic entente tying together activities of Turkey, Pakistan, the Taliban, and others.182 The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan may reveal a further benefit to HTS in offering an attractive alternative theater for al-Qa`ida loyalists and ‘independent’ foreign fighter factions. In the spring of 2021, small numbers of TIP fighters were already departing northwestern Syria, en route to Afghanistan.183

From a strictly counterterrorism perspective, the most significant consequence of HTS’ pivot away from and then turn against al-Qa`ida is that the global jihadi threat emanating from Syria has been dramatically reduced. All recent evidence in northwestern Syria lends a great deal of credibility to the otherwise provocative claim that “HTS’s hegemonic project is not an incubator of global jihad; it is its gravedigger.”184 In current conditions, the mere existence of a meaningful external terror threat based in northwestern Syria would pose a potentially existential challenge to HTS’ survival. Such a dynamic would have been hard to imagine five years ago.

More broadly however, HTS hegemony is far from an encouraging development. The ‘Gazafication’ of Idlib, as a semi-besieged, densely populated territory controlled by a locally oriented jihadi outfit, might possibly promise a semblance of stability when compared to its other alternatives, but the threat of debilitating hostilities will be ever present. HTS is also a decidedly dictatorial actor, determined to use its position of supremacy to subjugate any and all who are willing to challenge its authority, to include not just al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State but also civilian journalists and progressive civil society groups. It is therefore, in many ways, remarkably similar to the many politically and socially dictatorial regimes now in place across the Middle East, in terms of its exploitation of a wide range of constituents to maintain its rule while brutally cracking down on those willing to stand or speak against it.185

The ‘mainstreaming’ of al-Julani’s “revolutionary Islamism” model, if sustained or eventually legitimized in some form, will undoubtedly be replicated by others and should thus be viewed as representing a challenge of international significance. In earlier years of Syria’s crisis, Ahrar al-Sham used to portray parallels to its vision with that of Afghanistan’s Taliban,186 and in 2021, HTS appears to be pursuing a very similar path. In doing so, the operationalization of sustained territorial control appears to have catalyzed an organic and self-sustaining process of forced pragmatism, induced by dynamics that produce decisions that run contrary to terrorism, hardline extremism, or exclusivism, but encourage authoritarian and despotic tendencies in their place.

For HTS’ model to survive, the group will almost certainly need to continue along its current path of evolution. Though it may have achieved de facto hegemony inside Syria’s northwest, the external threat posed by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies persists, as illustrated bloodily by the marked uptick in aerial and artillery strikes against the area through the summer of 2021.187 While rumors persist that an increasingly confident and publicly visible al-Julani may have received (via intermediaries) some form of assurance of his personal safety from Western counterterrorism strikes,188 his position as HTS leader arguably remains vital to the group’s current form. As the face and mind behind HTS’ localization, al-Julani’s death would present a formidable challenge to HTS’ ability to remain united and would almost certainly re-incentivize a return to a more extreme, global posture. That scenario would be of particular value to the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran—actors that could also benefit from a gradual squeezing or dramatic assault on HTS-held Idlib and the damage that would do to HTS’ dedication to a strategy of localism.

Clearly aware of the delicate nature of its current predicament, HTS has visibly welcomed the opening of Idlib to foreign media in 2020 and 2021, with visits made by PBS,189 The New York Times,190 The Washington Post,191 CNN,192 and several European outlets193—some of whom were provided access to al-Julani and a host of senior leaders. HTS has done the same, though privately, for Western researchers. This encapsulates a surge in the soft power—or propaganda—aspect of HTS’ attempt to sell its new identity to the world.

Whether this will be enough to protect HTS, and northwest Syria’s more than three million civilians, from perpetual attack and eventual assault remains to be seen. While HTS’ survival, let alone success, therefore remains on a delicate and uncertain path, significant aspects of the model it embraced to get to where it is today are clearly being replicated by a number of al-Qa`ida affiliates. From forming alliances with irreligious bodies, mediating local conflicts, espousing non-violent tactics for political gain, seeking to engage nation-state governments, establishing semi-legitimate business interests,r and most notably de-prioritizing or doing away altogether with any external agenda, affiliates in Yemen,194 the Sahel,195 the Maghreb,196 and elsewhere have at times decidedly not been operating according to the globalist guidance of al-Zawahiri. Even some branches of the Islamic State appear to be orienting their activities and front-facing postures to decidedly local audiences and goals.s

It is hard to argue against the contention that the last five years of interplay between HTS and al-Qa`ida in Syria has played a role in encouraging the increasingly visible embrace of localism and its various associated tactics by much of al-Qa`ida’s movement and by at least some of the Islamic State’s network. Should this trend sustain itself, locally oriented jihadis are likely to reap a great many gains, especially so given the other dominant trend that is emerging in parallel: the desire by much of the West to disengage from theaters of conflict involving the likes of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. The rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 was a stunning example of the gains that can be made possible when locally oriented jihadis demonstrate strategic patience, outlasting or outfighting local governments and the West. Weak government actors, like in Mali and Somalia, lack the capacity to fill the vacuums caused by the withdrawal of Western forces and should similar withdrawals eventually occur elsewhere, a similar picture will almost certainly follow.

While the jihadis that stand to benefit from this emerging trend may be locally focused and invested in consolidating local control, the proliferation and growth in scale of jihadi-controlled zones raises the very real risk of safe havens from which small groupings of externally focused extremists can exist and plot terrorism. The September 11, 2001, attacks developed from just such an environment and to see one redevelop in Afghanistan in time for the 20-year anniversary of the attacks is a particularly bitter moment.

It is not enough for policymakers to proclaim that the U.S. homeland is safer today from a spectacular terror attack than at any time since 9/11 and therefore, the counterterrorism job is done. That is a prescription for dangerous complacency. Moreover, the proliferation of local safe havens and the persistence of the jihadi movement represents one of the most dynamic fronts in the battlefield of great power competition. To argue that counterterrorism should be de-prioritized in favor of great power competition is illogical—and actually doing so only serves to provide the United States’ peer competitors with additional opportunities to undermine it.

In reality, the threat posed by jihadi terrorism has never been more diverse, globally distributed, better experienced, or present in so many conflict theaters as it is today. Far from defeating terrorism, the terrorists have adapted to operate in more sustainable ways, creating a false sense of security. To back off now and fail to adapt to the new challenge laid out in this article would be a recipe for eventual disaster.  

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