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Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham
al-Nusrah Front
Jabhat al-Nusrah
Jabhet al-Nusra
The Victory Front
Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant

Idlib Province, whose population has grown to more than 3 million people during the civil war in the Syrian Arab Republic, is dominated by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) organization, which was affiliated with Al-Qaida. As of early 2020 HTS had 12,000 to 15,000 fighters and concentrates on combating Syrian government forces. HTS controls everything in Idlib, border crossings, courts, fuel supplies and so on.

Idlib's most powerful rebel group, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, now eschews much of Al Qaeda's ideology after decoupling from the group in July 2016, and it has sought to portray itself as borne out of resistance to the Assad regime and ridding the country of Iranian and Russian forces. Leader Abu Muhammad al Jolani signalled in late February 2020 that the group was willing to move towards a more political manifesto, but it is far from a monolithic entity and as the regime advances on Idlib it could lose its bargaining power. The danger for al Jolani is whether his rhetoric in English language mediums and Arabic become so disparate that the rank and file become disillusioned.

"He [al Jolani] is sending a message to the US and other countries that he is ready to change HTS towards a more local group and if there will be a safe zone around Idlib, HTS can disappear," said Muhsen Almustafa, a researcher at Omran, an independent think tank based in Istanbul, speaking to TRT World. Al Jolani, however, would have a tough balancing act and will need to carry HTS with him, which is far from a monolithic organisation. One activist on Idlib's frontline, who wished to remain anonymous, told TRT World: "There is nothing wrong with seeking international legitimacy; however, it shouldn't be at the expense of one's principles."

On 18 May 2018 the US Department of State amended the designation of Al-Nusrah Front as a foreign terrorist organization to include the following new aliases: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, also known as Hay’et Tahrir alSham, also known as Hayat Tahrir alSham, also known as HTS, also known as Assembly for the Liberation of Syria also known as Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant, also known as Liberation of al-Sham Commission, also known as Liberation of the Levant Organisation, also known as Tahrir alSham, also known as Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at.

With the January 2017 announcement of its creation, HTS assumed the leading role in northern Syria’s insurgency.36 Then, in July 2017, HTS defeated Ahrar al-Sham, its one-time ally and main rival.37 Defections and internecine fighting with other factions reduced HTS’s size and territorial dominance in early 2018, but it resurged in January 2019. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) benefitted organisationally from factors including the past experience and institutional legacy of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Qaeda, its rigorous training, its fighters’ ideological motivation and those fighters’ discipline and obedience to commands. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham's attacks on the FSA and other armed opposition groups in late January 2017 were prompted by the group's desire to prevent a military union between the FSA, Ahrar al-Sham and various other rebel factions. The standoff had its roots in a long-term rivalry between the two groups, and in the refusal of Ahrar al-Sham to join Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in establishing an Islamic emirate. Ahrar al-Sham was among the seven armed groups that Russia declared as "moderate opposition", which were part of the ceasefire announced on December 30, 2016. However, Ahrar al-Sham opted not to participate in the recent Astana talks, while the FSA, Jaish al-Islam and other armed opposition groups sent a delegation. Nusra is trying to present it as though the FSA factions want to surrender, to have the Assad regime stay in power and reach a settlement with Russia. By attacking them, it supposedly is preventing such a settlement from taking place.

In his first public appearance the jihadist group was formed in 2012, on 27 July 2016 the head of Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Jolani, announced that he was breaking ties with al-Qaida. Just hours after al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri gave his blessing for the severing of formal ties, al-Jolani said Jabhat al-Nusra would change its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. He expressed gratitude to the "commanders of al-Qaida for having understood the need to break ties."

In November 2016 Khaled Khouja, the head of the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition Groups, called on al-Nusra to end its association with al-Qaeda, stressing that his coalition was committed to a political solution to the Syrian war. Jolani had indicated previously that his group affiliation with al-Qaeda was not something "holy" and that if Muslim scholars deemed it permissible to end this affiliation, he would do just that. Analysts said this would not absolve them from the "terrorism" label many in the West and the region had given them.

The radical Islamist group "Al-Nusra Dzhebhat" ("Victory Front"), associated with the terrorist network "Al-Qaeda", was established in 2011 on the territory of Syria. Its leader - Abu Mohammed al Dzhaulani (real name Adnan al-Haj Ali) - was sent from Iraq to Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now - the leader of the terrorist group "Islamic State") for the organization of the armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The group officially declared itself in February 2012, circulated on the Internet a video message and taking action against government forces in Syria.

Syria's Nusra Front spearheaded the fight against President Bashar al-Assad. The Nusra Front burst into prominence early last year, when it claimed responsibility for several powerful bombings in the Syrian capital Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo. Since then it has expanded operations nationwide, winning recruits among rebels who see it as the most effective fighting force against Assad's troops, and it has taken a leading role in capturing territory in the north, south and east of Syria.

The violent, sectarian vision of al-Nusrah was at odds with the aspirations of the Syrian people, including the overwhelming majority of the Syrian opposition, who seek a free, democratic, and inclusive Syria and have made clear their desire for a government that respects and advances national unity, dignity, human rights, and equal protection under the law – regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender.

There was said to be a fierce competition between the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and the Jabhat al-Nusrah. These two groups, which did not have a foothold before the revolution, have become a reality in Syria. Their first manifestation emerged with the appearance of what became known as Jabhat al-Nusrah in the Levant, which claimed most bombings in Syria since the start of events. Members of this jihadi group, whose leader was known as “al-Fatih Abu Muhammad al-Julani,” had come from nearby jihadi areas to overthrow the oppressive Alawi regime. Despite questions about the group’s genuine jihadism and the Syrian regime’s role in creating it, it gained legitimacy in jihadi circles after publishing videos claiming attacks on jihadi websites used by al-Qaeda (al-Fajr Media Center, Shumukh al-Islam Network and others). In addition, jihadis have provided reliable information claiming that al-Qaeda endorsed the emerging Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Nusra and the Islamic State

Jabhat al-Nusra was briefly the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the merger of "Dzhebhat en Nusra" and "Islamic State of Iraq" into a single "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (LIH). However, in November 2013 between the Iraqi and Syrian factions split. "Dzhebhat anti-Nusra" declared its loyalty to the head of "Al-Qaeda" Ayman al-Zawahiri, and again began to operate independently.

AQI emir Abu Du’a was in control of both AQI and al-Nusrah. Abu Du’a was designated by the State Department under E.O. 13224 on October 3, 2011, and by the United Nations under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 on October 5, 2011. Abu Du’a also issues strategic guidance to al-Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and tasked him to begin operations in Syria.

Al-Qaida's Iraqi wing and Syria's Islamist insurgents share a hatred for Assad's Alawite-based power and for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government, which they see as oppressors of Sunnis in both countries. Al-Qaida in Iraq, which suffered setbacks before U.S. troops left at the end of 2011, bounced back with suicide bombings and coordinated attacks in 2013, including an ambush which killed 48 Syrian soldiers who had fled across the border. Iraqi security officials have said since 2012 that the militants were again active in Iraq's western desert region next to Syria, where cross-border Sunni tribal ties are strong.

On April 10, 2013 the head of Syria's main Islamist rebel group swore allegiance to al-Qaida, deepening a rift with moderate rebels over how to rule the nation if they topple President Bashar al-Assad. Abu Mohammad al-Golani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, made the pledge of loyalty to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message posted on militant websites. Golani also acknowledged that his group receives logistical support and training from al-Qaida's Iraq-based affiliate, AQI. He expressed "pride" in AQI’s achievements, but said it did not consult him before declaring that both groups had merged under the banner of the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." AQI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the alliance in a separate audio message posted on the Internet a day before. Earlier in the week, Zawahiri sent out his own Internet message urging all Islamist militants in the region to join forces to create an Islamist state in Syria.

This upset Nusra, which affirmed its loyalty to Zawahri but said it had not been told of any merger. Nusra leaders, aware that many Syrians had joined the Front because of its military prowess, rather than for ideological reasons, sought to minimize the use of tactics such as indiscriminate attacks on civilians and Islamist crackdowns which had alienated many Iraqis from al-Qaida in Iraq during the struggle against the U.S.-led occupation after 2003.

On 10 June 2013 Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri intervened in a dispute between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of his network, telling both to "stop arguing." Qatar-based Al Jazeera television reported. According to a letter purportedly from Zawahri and posted on Al Jazeera's website, the al-Qaida leader annulled the merger declared by the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying each group was separate. "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is cancelled, and work continues under the name the Islamic State of Iraq," he said in the letter posted on the website. "The Nusra Front for the People of the Levant is an independent branch" of al-Qaida, Zawahri said, urging both groups to "stop arguing in this dispute, and to stop the harassment among the Muslims." He also said Baghdadi and Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani would continue to head their groups for a year, pending a decision by their respective consultative assemblies.

"Nusra and the Islamic State have adopted very different public images,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism scholar and lead author of the study, "The War between the Islamic State and al-Qaida." Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria is building a larger base of support among insurgents in the war-torn country, and is having some success in persuading regional governments that it should be seen as a useful partner, by marketing itself as the moderate alternative to Islamic State extremists. By restraining its fighters from enforcing as strict a Sharia law code as the Islamic State group and developing ties with Islamist rebel militias, Jabhat al-Nusra is becoming an “organic part” of communities in insurgent-held areas.


The main goals "Dzhebhat en Nusra" called the overthrow of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, followed by the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the territory of Syria. Militants groups attacking government targets are fighting against the army and supporters of the regime. In addition, the group has repeatedly stated its intentions to "cleanse Syria of the Alawites and Christians." To this end, the attacks are carried out, mass executions, hostage-taking.

In May 2015 the leader of the group, Abu Mohammed al-Dzhaulani gave an interview to television channel "Al Jazeera", in which he noted that despite some ideological differences, members of the "Jaish al-Fatah" are committed to the common goal of overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He also reiterated the commitment of the leader of "Al Qaeda" Ayman al-Zawahiri, and said that "Dzhebhat al-Nusra" intends not only to overthrow the Assad regime, but also to win over its allies, primarily over the group "Hezbollah" (Shiite Islamist organization in Lebanon).

Al Dzhaulani stressed that his group tolerant of Christians and friends, but is going to take revenge for the suppression by the Alawite regime of Hafez al-Assad Sunni performances in 1981, / so-called massacre in Hama /. Al Dzhaulani said that "Al-Nusra Dzhebhat" does not receive financial support from foreign governments, the sources of financing are the local trade and donations from individuals living outside Syria and are supporters of "Al-Qaeda".

Armaments and Funding

Presumably the supply of weapons and funding "Dzhebhat en Nusra" provides the "Al-Qaeda". There is information that falls into the hands of militants weapons that the United States and several other countries have supplied "moderate" Syrian opposition. It is noted that in comparison with other groups fighting against the regime, "al-Nusra Dzhebhat" stands high level of training fighters.

In an interview with Al Jazeera in May 2016, the head of Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Jolani said al-Nusra refuses any funding from governments, organisations or intelligences services. He argued that "funding that comes from governments does not come without conditions ... We are funding ourselves from war gains and Syria is rich and bountiful, therefore we don't need anyone to give us charity," he said.


The group’s cadre is predominately composed of Syrian nationals, many of whom are veterans of previous conflicts, including the Iraq war. Thousands of fighters from around the world have traveled to Syria since early 2012 to support oppositionist groups, and some fighters aspire to connect with al-Nusrah Front and other extremist groups. Several Westerners have joined al-Nusrah Front, including a few who have died in suicide operations. Western government officials have raised concerns that capable individuals with extremist contacts and battlefield experience could return to their home countries to commit violent acts. The number of militants, according to various estimates, ranging from 6 to 10 thousand men. In addition to the Syrians its members are mercenaries from the Gulf, North Africa and Europe. November 4th, 2014 the leader of "Al-Nusra" Abu Muhammad al-Dzhaulani said that foreign fighters make up 30-35% of the total group. The most active "Dzhebhat en Nusra" operates in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, Deraa, El Quneitra, Raqqa, Hama and Homs.

In March 2015 it was reported that "Al-Nusra Dzhebhat" and seven other smaller groups ("Ahrar al-Sham", "Liwa al-Jihad" and others.) Formed a coalition called "Jaish al-Fath ". The number of coalition is 10-12 thousand militants.

While it may be getting stronger, US intelligence officials caution Jabhat al-Nusra itself is still not nearly as big as its rival, the Islamic State, estimating Nusra had about 5,000 fighters as of early 2015. In contrast, the US estimated there are 20,000 to 30,000 fighters aligned with the Islamic State. But the numbers can be misleading, especially with a group like Jabhat al-Nusra, which puts a high priority on operational security.


As the Syrian people continue their struggle against the repressive Asad regime, al-Nusrah Front has sought to exploit the instability inside Syria for its own purposes, using tactics and espousing an ideology drawn from AQI that the Syrian people broadly reject. Since November 2011, al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 terrorist attacks – ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations – in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr, killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians. Through these attacks, al-Nusrah sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition. These activities are attempts by AQI to hijack the struggles of the legitimate Syrian opposition to further its own extremist ideology.

Senior Lebanese security officials confirmed that there had been a noticeable increase in jihadist elements associated with al-Qaeda within Lebanon. This increase is naturally linked to armed elements in Syria and the stated and covert positions taken by some Lebanese political forces towards the conflict in Damascus. However, the same security apparatus has revealedthat their investigations determined that a late December 2012 statement made by Jabhat al-Nusra was authored in north Lebanon.

One of the well-known operations, "Al-Nusra" was the abduction in December 2013, of 12 novices of the monastery in the Syrian town of Maaloula. In March 2014 the nuns were transferred to the Lebanese and Qatari mediators in exchange for the release by the Syrian authorities, the group in prison members of the armed opposition.

At the end of August 2014, gunmen kidnapped 45 peacekeepers (Fiji citizens) of the contingent forces UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. In September, the hostages were released thanks to the mediation of the government of Qatar. The militants managed to seize weapons, equipment and vehicles of peacekeepers. Due to the deterioration of the situation the UN forces on the territory of the Golan from May 1974 were withdrawn from the region.

In addition, in August 2014, militants captured Lebanese soldiers. Five of them were killed, 25 are still being held hostage. In December 2014, a field commander Abu Ali al-Shishani made death threats over the military. According to some reports, his wife was arrested by security forces in Lebanon.

As published in the July 2014 annual report of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on Children and Armed Conflict noted that "Al-Nusra Dzhebhat" recruiting children as fighters of jihad. August 15, 2014 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for sanctions against six persons associated with the activities in Iraq and Syrian organizations "Islamic state" and "Al-Nusra Dzhebhat." "Dzhebhat en Nusra" actively distributes online photos and videos with scenes of the massacre of government soldiers and civilians.

In June 2014 the group chose to abandon its stronghold in Deir ez Zor rather than confront the Islamic State in battle. Jabhat al-Nusra did not fade away. Instead, it “doubled down” on its outreach to Syria’s other jihadist groups, even setting up a court system to mediate and resolve disputes in order to help keep different factions united in their efforts to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Nusra leaders focused on setting up a new, but smaller base of operations, choosing Idlib province in western Syria.

US Actions

The Department of State amended the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 designations of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) on December 11, 2012 to include the following new aliases: al-Nusrah Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah, Jabhet al-Nusra, The Victory Front, and Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant. The Department of State previously designated AQI as an FTO under the Immigration and Nationality Act and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under E.O. 13224 on October 15, 2004. The consequences of adding al-Nusrah Front as a new alias for AQI include a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with, al-Nusrah Front, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organization that are in the United States, or come within the United States or the control of U.S. persons.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury on 11 December 2012 designated two senior leaders of the Syrian-based al-Nusrah front, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab, pursuant to Executive Order 13224 (E.O. 13224) for acting on behalf of al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI). This designation was taken in coordination with the U.S. Department of State action to list the al-Nusrah Front as an alias of AQI. Also, the Treasury Department sanctioned two armed militia groups that operated under the control of the Syrian government, Jaysh al-Sha'bi and Shabiha, as well as two Shabiha commanders, pursuant to E.O. 13582, which blocks the property of the Syrian government. These actions represent continued U.S. government efforts to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people as they seek to free themselves from the oppression of the Asad regime and to deny al-Qa’ida’s attempts to subvert the Syrian opposition.

“The United States will continue to aggressively pursue those who undermine the desires of the Syrian people to realize a representative government that does not employ violence against its own people. We will target the pro-Asad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.

On 16 May 2013 the US Department of State designated al-Nusrah Front leader Muhammad al-Jawlani as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism. Al-Jawlani was considered the leader of al-Nusrah. He stated in videos that his ultimate goal was the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the institution of Islamist shari’a law throughout the country. Al-Jawlani was specifically tasked by al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) to carry out these objectives. Under al-Jawlani’s leadership, al-Nusrah Front carried out multiple suicide attacks throughout Syria. These attacks were primarily in Damascus but the group targeted other areas of the country as well. Many of these attacks killed innocent Syrian civilians.

The US and its allies carried out at least 50 airstrikes on 22 September 2014 against the militants operating inside Syria. CNN reported that "The airstrikes killed the leader of al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, according to a statement released by the group. It identified the leader as Abu Yousef al-Turki, also known as “the Turk.” The al-Nusra statement was accompanied by a so-called proof-of-death — a photograph — of the former fighter". Other sources identified Abu Yousef al-Turki as "a key al-Nusra Front leader," or "a prominent JaN sniper and sniper instructor".

Al-Nusra’s popularity among fighters with some of the most powerful rebel militias -- grouped together in an effective alliance called the Army of Conquest -- presented U.S. war planners with a dilemma in the West’s intervention in a highly complex battle with multiple fronts involving the Syrian regime, Islamist, and more moderate rebels, jihadists and Kurdish forces. Retired U.S. General David Petraeus, a former CIA director, triggered a debate among Western officials and analysts by suggesting in late September 2015 that some al-Nusra fighters could be co-opted to join the international coalition’s fight against the Islamic State group.

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