In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, rebranded itself by changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and then Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (after entering into a coalition with a number of groups), declaring its rift with Al-Qa‘eda. This alienated hardliners in the group, mostly foreign fighters. A few months ago, these fighters established their own group, Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the Guardians of Religion, which has remained loyal to Al-Qa‘eda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and is now on the verge of entering into an all-out confrontation with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
A number of jihadists with a long history of fighting with Al-Qa‘eda from Afghanistan to Iraq have joined the ranks of the new group. The most prominent of these is Hurras al-Din’s leader, the Syrian Samir Hijazi, known as Abou Humam al-Shami. It also includes a large number of Jordanians, including Ayad al-Toubassi, known as Abu Juleibib Toubas, Sami al-‘Areidi, and Khaled al-‘Arouri, known as Abou al-Qassam.
While stressing the group’s loyalty and allegiance to Al-Qa‘eda, Hurras al-Din’s first statement, in March, called for a halt in the fighting in Idlib and Rural Aleppo Governorates between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and another coalition of local groups named Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (Syria Liberation Front). Hurras al-Din stressed that it was necessary, instead, to save the besieged East Ghouta. However, since then the group’s rhetoric against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has escalated.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, probably drawing the lessons of the Islamic State and Al-Qa‘eda, subscribes to the regional order, respects deescalation zones with the Syrian regime, and restricts its activity to Syrian territory. Recently, reports have suggested it might be flirting with the idea of disbanding, to allow its members to join a unified army in the north in areas currently under Turkish control.
Hurras al-Din, in contrast, with its foreign jihadi core and explicit Al-Qa‘eda affiliation, has reflected the transnational organization’s propaganda in its publications and has looked beyond Syria. Its operations have targeted Turkish-Russian understandings. For example, last week Hurras al-Din attacked Syrian regime positions in Lataqqiyeh Governorate, triggering an aerial bombardment on a front that had been quiet thanks to a Russian-Turkish understanding.
In areas held by the Syrian opposition and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a string of mysterious assassinations has exacerbated tensions lately. Many people have pointed the finger of blame at Hurras al-Din sleeper cells. The assassinations have targeted cadres and fighters of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), the Uyghur jihadi organization. TIP had broken its neutrality on inter-opposition fighting in Idlib by joining Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in its war against Jabhat Tahrir Souriya, and now its fighters appear to be paying the price.
Such attacks seem compatible with Hurras al-Din’s structure. Although it has engaged in mergers with lesser-known groups, mostly Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham offshoots who pledged allegiance to Al-Qa‘eda, estimates of its numbers range from the several hundred to around 2,000 combatants. This remains low compared to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and other militias in northern Syria. However, Hurras al-Din sleeper cells and guerilla tactics, such as motorcycle assassinations and car bombings, allow it to play a destabilizing role, adding to its strength.
Another source of strength is Hurras al-Din’s experienced fighters. In addition to veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurras al-Din is now attracting Islamic State fighters from Idlib and Deir Ezzor. These recruits bring great skill in warfare, and potentially in intelligence gathering. The group’s Afghan experiences have consolidated its connection to the central Al-Qa‘eda leadership, in addition to a network of allegiances and personal relationships within other parts of the organization.
Another common denominator—namely shared experiences in Iran—has also contributed to creating a network of ties between the Hurras al-Din leaders and the central Al-Qa‘eda leadership, in particular its rising star, Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden and possible heir to Zawahiri. Both Toubassi and ‘Arouri were imprisoned in Iran, alongside leading members of Al-Qa‘eda such as Hamza bin Laden and Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan (Seif al-‘Adl). All were freed in a mysterious exchange deal in 2015 between Iran and Al-Qa‘eda. In addition, the mentor of Samir Hijazi was Abou ‘Abdul Rahman ‘Atiyatullah al-Libi, at one time Osama bin Laden’s emissary to Iran. Abou ‘Abdul Rahman was killed in a drone attack in Pakistan in August 2011.
These relations are important in strengthening Hurras al-Din’s cohesiveness, and perhaps its future role inside Syria and outside. If Hamza bin Laden is poised to become Al-Qa‘eda’s next leader, the individuals who shared the same experiences as he did will have a significant role to play in the movement he leads, and a number of them are now in Hurras al-Din. The group’s agenda is already shaking the status quo in northern Syria, further embarrassing Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and encouraging its fighters to defect to Hurras al-Din. Only time will tell what role Hurras al-Din will play in Al-Qa‘eda’s future, as the transnational organization seeks to reinvent itself.