New jihadist threat looms in Syria’s Idlib

News that a rift has been forming between HTS and al-Qaeda in Syria is not fresh.
Friday 08/06/2018
Festering within the ruins: Civil defense workers and civilians inspecting damaged buildings after airstrikes hit in the village of Zardana, in Idlib province, Syria, on June 8. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
Festering within the ruins: Civil defense workers and civilians inspecting damaged buildings after airstrikes hit in the village of Zardana, in Idlib province, Syria, on June 8. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

TUNIS - The Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is no longer an al-Qaeda proxy as had been reported. However, attention on the group’s previous links to al-Qaeda is drawing focus from a smaller group operating in HTS-held territory that has a global outlook that poses a direct threat to Western interests, a US analyst claimed.

Writing for the Defense One blog, analyst Charles Lister argued that the West’s preoccupation with HTS was blinding it to the activities of Tanzim Huras al-Din (Religious Guardians’ Organisation), headed by al-Qaeda veterans with a jihadist worldview similar to that championed by Osama bin Laden.

Smaller in scale than HTS, Tanzim Huras al-Din, Lister argues, has been left free to operate in Syria’s shadows, pursuing global terror aims leaving little or no footprint.

Tanzim Huras al-Din, which established itself within HTS-controlled Idlib, is headed by at least three members of al-Qaeda’s global leadership. Several of the group’s leaders are said to have played roles in al-Qaeda’s brief 2014 foray into using Syrian territory to stage attacks on international targets, comprising a cell the US government at the time labelled the Khorasan Group.

Other members of Tanzim Huras al-Din were reported to be in Syria on the direct instructions of al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri from jihadist conflict zones around the world.

News that a rift has been forming between HTS and al-Qaeda is not fresh. HTS — formerly Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, for­merly al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra — ostensibly severed links with al-Qaeda in 2016. However, many of HTS’s senior leadership retained ties to al-Qaeda and it was assumed the break had been engineered to make the franchise of al-Qaeda a more palatable prospect for other rebel groups and their inclusion within any future peace deal.

Nevertheless, many Western observers continue to view HTS as the natural Syrian extension of al-Qaeda central, with the United States updating the group’s terror designation on May 31 to reflect its links to the larger terror group.

Despite the US classification, the two groups have shown little interest in collaborating. In the last year, al-Qaeda and HTS have threatened and fought each other repeatedly, Lister noted.

Moreover, senior al-Qaeda figures have publicly criticised the Syrian group for its state-building efforts in northern Syria, moves in direct contravention to instructions from al-Qaeda central.

That tension has grown, forcing significant numbers of committed jihadists, disillusioned with HTS’s efforts to secure and build on its gains in Syria, to coalesce around the new group, one seemingly truer to the original aims of al-Qaeda.

Whether the group will expand to the same scale as its jihadist forebearers is unclear. However, with both the Assad regime and Russia seeking to exert control over the province and Turkey looking to co-opt many of its militias to serve as bulwarks against Kurdish influence on its border, the freedom of movement the group has enjoyed may soon rapidly shrink.