Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, has recently stepped up its arrest campaign against al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din.
News circulated Feb. 2 about HTS’ arrest of Abu al-Bara al-Tunisi, a prominent Hurras al-Din leader, as well as two other leaders of Moroccan nationality. The arrests took place during raids carried out by HTS’ security apparatus in the town of Kansafra, in the Jabal al-Zawiya area.
Tunisi is one of the most prominent figures in Hurras al-Din and is close to al-Qaeda. He was a former member of Jabhat al-Nusra, but defected from it after the latter's dissassociation from al-Qaeda in 2016.
News outlets close to Hurras al-Din had announced in September 2021 that two prominent leaders of the organization, namely Abu al-Bara al-Tunisi and Abu Hamza al-Yamani, were killed in a drone attack by the US-led international coalition targeting their car near the city of Binnish, in northwestern Idlib province. However, the recent reports of Tunisi’s arrest may indicate that another leader was targeted in the 2021 attack.
Earlier on Jan. 29, HTS raided several positions and homes of Hurras al-Din members in the city of Jisr al-Shughur and its surroundings, in Idlib's western countryside. It arrested 11 leaders of Hurras al-Din, including a number of Moroccan nationals working within the jihadi Sham al-Islam group.
HTS’ security campaign against leaders and members affiliated with or close to Hurras al-Din coincided with the Feb. 3 airdrop of US helicopters near the Deir Ballut crossing in the Atmeh area, near the border with Turkey, that led to the killing of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, leader of the Islamic State.
Sources close to jihadis in Idlib who spoke to Al-Monitor said that HTS arrested some leaders of Sham al-Islam, accusing them of attacking Turkish convoys and harming the interests of civilians in Idlib by inciting against the Turkish presence.
HTS also arrested a number of prominent members of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish jihadi group most of whose leaders are Iraqi Kurds — before shortly releasing a number of them, including Mughirah al-Kurdi, Abdul-Mateen al-Kurdi and Abu Ali al-Qalamuni.
Abu Abdul Rahman al-Kurdi, the military official of the group, is still detained by HTS.
Sources from inside Idlib told Al-Monitor that HTS is hunting down jihadi figures for fear of their growing strength and influence.
On Feb. 2, HTS released French jihadi Omar Diaby, also known as Omar Omsen, who is suspected of recruiting a large number of French citizens to move to Syria. HTS had been detaining Diaby for more than a year and a half.
Sources told Al-Monitor that Diaby was released on the condition that he keeps away from the media and refrains from threatening the West’s interest in any way.
Mohammed al-Sukari, a researcher of jihadi groups in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “HTS managed to foil plans against it by Hurras al-Din in mid-2020. It also forced the Jund al-Sham faction to leave its positions in the Latakia countryside at the end of 2021. At the beginning of 2022, it seems to be pursuing independent ‘jihadi’ figures, some of whom are affiliated with the Salafist movement. HTS believes these represent a danger no less than that of their counterparts in Hurras al-Din and Jund al-Sham. This is why HTS arrested Abu al-Bara al-Tunisi and a group of other Salafist figures.”
He said, “HTS has also been arresting some of its own members and leaders in light of the opposition within its own ranks against the arrest campaign it [HTS] is leading against other jihadi groups. It fears this wave of opposition may undermine its own structure. Therefore, it is constantly seeking to contain the situation in Idlib in order to maintain its control over the military scene.”
Sukari noted, “It seems the jihadi current’s options in Idlib have become limited in light of the alliance between the major jihadi currents, i.e., HTS and the Turkistan Islamic Party, which implies a complete control over Idlib.”
He said that HTS wants to convince regional parties of its role as a de facto authority, which would give it the opportunity to assume a security role in Idlib. “The more trust and confidence it gains, the more it will attract external forces to deal with it as a moderate player capable of achieving the interests of international players,” he added.
He noted that HTS will remain a mere de facto authority with no popular acceptance, stressing, “The possibility of HTS’ survival is shrouded by doubt.”
Abbas Sharifeh, Turkey-based researcher of jihadi group affairs, told Al-Monitor, “HTS’ security campaign against Hurras al-Din and other groups aims to weaken their ability to reshuffle their cards and rearrange their ranks. The arrests target the field leaders of Hurras al-Din, who claim to have become independent and operating outside the jihadi activity sphere. HTS fears that these figures will secretly form cells hostile to it.”
He explained that HTS fears jihadi currents would have more power and influence, especially since these independent jihadi figures have not joined its ranks after their withdrawal from the groups they were affiliated with. “HTS also fears some of its own members will join these groups, such as Hurras al-Din,” he noted.
Sharifeh noted, “Through these arrests, HTS is seeking to weaken its rivals who compete with it for legitimacy and the right to control. It is trying to portray itself as a local partner in the fight against terrorism by thwarting any cross-border operations that could target some countries like Turkey.”
He concluded, “In light of these arrest campaigns, jihadi groups could opt for covert activity through small cells, decentralized work and operations behind enemy lines. These measures, however, may change at any moment if these groups manage to emerge with greater strength.”