Syria Weekly: Is Al-Qaeda 2.0 emerging in Idlib?

Syria Weekly: Is Al-Qaeda 2.0 emerging in Idlib?
A rare US airstrike on a shadowy militant group in Aleppo province this week could be the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Syria, experts have warned.
7 min read
06 July, 2019
Syria's Idlib could witness new tensions between HTS and Hurras Al-Din [Getty-file photo]
The US announced on Monday that it had carried out rare airstrikes on a Salafi jihadist group in northwestern Syria, which was allegedly plotting attacks on Americans and civilians.

The targeted organisation was Hurras al-Din, said to be Al-Qaeda's new representatives in Syria with globalist ambitions and whose leaders were said to be plotting operations against the US or its allies from their hideout in Aleppo province when the missile struck last week.

"US forces conducted a strike against Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) leadership at a training facility near Aleppo Province, Syria 30, 2019," the US Central Command said in a statement. "This operation targeted AQ-S operatives responsible for plotting external attacks threatening US citizens, our partners and innocent civilians."

Foreign fighters

The nationalities of those killed in the strikes were significant as it pointed towards multi-national make-up of the jihadist organisation's leadership - with Tunisians, Algerians, an Egyptian, along with one Syrian, among the dead.

Hurras al-Din is viewed as a breakaway group of militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - previously known as Fatah al-Sham, and before that as Al-Nusra Front - unhappy with the more moderate and pragmatic Islamist outlook of the organisation under Mohammed al-Jolani following its formal split with Al-Qaeda.

Hurras al-Din's unwavering commitment to the global jihadist cause has seen it recruit a wide range of fighters from runaway Islamic State group militants - following the collapse of its "caliphate" in Iraq and eastern Syria - to foreign members of HTS, particularly its Jordanian component, analysts have said.

It has established a network of bases in Idlib and Aleppo provinces which the US fears could become an incubation site for Al-Qaeda radicals, with the potential to export jihadi militancy beyond Syria's borders.

"We don't know how senior those killed in the air strike are and we haven't seen them in senior leadership positions before, but it's an airstrike based on intelligence which means the coalition have the capability of locating such meetings and it also infiltrators to a certain extent," Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications and a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center told The New Arab.

"Thinking of that you would go back to what we know about the tensions between Hurras al-Din and HTS, specifically the accusation from Hurras al-Din to HTS of their collaboration with the Turkish side."

HTS has been repeatedly accused of collaborating with Ankara in Idlib. Turkey has established observation posts along the so-called demilitarised zone of the opposition province, which is largely under the control of HTS.

Charges that the former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate's dealings with "apostate Turkey" has seen a large contingent of mostly foreign fighters break ranks. Such ruptures have led to the arrests of suspected IS or Hurras al-Din sympathisers by HTS in Idlib. IS sleeper cells and suspected Al-Qaeda loyalists are believed to have carried out a series of bomb attacks and assassinations on HTS militants in Idlib.

"Given that Turkey is a member of NATO, Turkey for them is a secular apostate state. The [coalition strike] will also lend more credibility to Hurras al-Din who were targeted because they are a 'real jihadist group', not like HTS," said Hage Ali.

"I feel the results will be embarrassing for HTS and will increase tensions as Hurras al-Din tries to attract former IS defectors and more disgruntled jihadists from the ranks of HTS. If [HTS fighters] sit down and watch Hurras Al-Din being bombed by the Americans and see HTS conspire with Turkey against Hurras Al-Din, then they are likely to attract more HTS fighters."

Al-Qaeda in Syria

Foreign fighters in Hurras al-Din are believed to see an opportunity in using Syria as a staging post for foreign attacks. US airstrikes on Hurras al-Din could serve as a priceless PR tool for the group in attracting more recruits, said Hage Ali. Hurras Al-Din's next project could be to establish itself as an important franchise of Al-Qaeda with a globalist outlook that attracts jihadists from across the world.

Hurras al-Din has already distinguished themselves from HTS and Free Syrian Army factions of Idlib in that their primarily concern is on expanding its networks and establishing cells, rather than defending the opposition province from regime attacks or gaining new territories.
Hurras Al-Din is off the grid. They are focused on building their capacities, expanding their cells attracting fresh recruits - and their ultimate goal is not Syria, it is beyond.
- Mohaned Hage Ali, Carnegie Middle East Center

"The premise of its foundation is to resume links with Al-Qaeda Central and the fact that non-Syrian jihadists are the core base of its leadership means its logical to assume that it was plotting an attack and using Syria for this," Hage Ali added.

"Hurras al-Din is not keen on land grabs, as such, but they are focused on attacks, establishing capabilities and expanding networks, and one would assume they are not interested in land grabs because they want to resume operations for Al-Qaeda and launch terror attacks abroad."

Hage Ali argues that the quagmire in Syria and efforts of international security agencies make it difficult for Hurras Al-Din to export militancy beyond its borders. The group could still use its cantons in Syria as training camps for foreign fighters, just as Afghanistan was used by Al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

Establishing a base in Syria would also be a major boost in Hurras al-Din's efforts in competing with IS and establishing itself as a major faction in the global Al-Qaeda brand.

"If Hurras al-Din is to evolve and compete with post-2017 ISIS then they will need to launch major overseas operations. If we are looking at a transition in Al-Qaeda from (current leader) Ayman Al-Zawahiri to Hamza bin-Laden (son of Osama) then perhaps such an escalation would be required for legitimacy."


Hage Ali also believes there could be a link with the Hurras Al-Din leadership and Hamza bin Laden due to their suspected joint dealings in Iran. It is not clear when, or if, Hamza will take over the reins of Al-Qaeda from its current aging Egyptian leader, but his connection with Hurras Al-Din would inevitably strengthen the Syrian-based group's brand. This could put it on a collision course with HTS if Hurras Al-Din expands its territories in Idlib or poaches more of its fighters.

Hage Ali said that given the whole premise of Hurras Al-Din is to remain the untainted representative of Al-Qaeda in Syria, then confrontation with HTS is inevitable.

"HTS is proven to be flexible and different than the ideological Al-Qaeda. They do have some focus on operations and building capacities but they are more focused on power politics and the need and necessity of having a relationship with Turkey," he said.

"Hurras Al-Din is off the grid. They are focused on building their capacities, expanding their cells attracting fresh recruits - and their ultimate goal is not Syria, it is beyond."

Adi Smajic, who has followed rebel groups in Syria and spoken to members of Hurras Al-Din, said the organisation has become particularly attractive to foreign fighters who came to Syria for the purpose of jihad rather than the fight against the Assad regime.

"Hurras Al-Din is the only known military and security organisation in Syria that directly follows the rule of Al-Qaeda and serves as its off-shoot. That's the reason why they were targeted by the coalition - the group was always going to be a target," he told The New Arab.

He said that while Hurras Al-Din's current stragegy is to sit back and survive, other rebel groups continue to be focused on fighting the Syrian regime. HTS' suspected dealings with Turkey during a Russian-led regime assault on Idlib has angered many jihadists who see Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate as a sell out and "obedient" to Ankara, he said.

"The number in the group is small and most of the frontline operations in Idlib are carried out by other groups who have outside backing. Hurras Al-Din stays behind and controls their areas of greater Idlib," said Smajic.

This has made Hurras al-Din a prime rival of HTS and both have taken fighters prisoner from the other.

"The fact that a number of HTS fighters were killed in the coalition airstrikes proves that Hurras al-Din had detainees in their prison from the group."

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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin