From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, what has changed?


Similar to both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Syrian conflict had until 2016 been a magnet for Jihadi fighters from all over the world. Syria, the war-ravaged country, has witnessed the emergence, demise, and reconfiguration of dozens of Jihadi groups. One of them, however, has managed to survive the intractable conflict by adapting to the constantly changing political realities. Today, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the most potent Salafi-Jihadi faction in Syria and controls almost the entire city of Idlib in northwest Syria.

HTS’s trajectory can be conceived of through four main phases: during the first phase, which lasted between January 2012 and April 2013, the group emerged under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and maintained secret ties with Islamic State in Iraq or ISI. Phase two started in April 2013 and marked the group’s divorce from ISI, instead giving an oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda (AQ).[1] Another ostensible schism took a place in July 2016 when the it announced the severing of ties with AQ and rebranding itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). The last phase, beginning in January 2017, has witnessed the final rebranding to HTS and a more serious split from AQ.

Phase One - The emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra:

Taking advantage of the political instability and security vacuum in Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISI, sent Abu Muhammed al-Jolani, the former emir of Ninawa in ISI territories, together with a group of six prominent figures from ISI to establish its wing in Syria. The bearded men secretly entered Syria in August 2011 and traveled between Hasakah, Homs, Northern Damascus and Aleppo to connect with ISI-linked cells that had already been established.[2] While receiving 50 percent of ISI’s entire budget, as well as other funding coming from pre-existing AQ private financers in the Gulf, JN, ISI and AQ had agreed on hiding the former’s affiliation with any of them.[3]

In January 2012 the media wing of JN, al-Manara al-Bayda, issued a sixteen-minute video titled ‘For the People of al-Sham from the Mujahidin of al-Sham in the Fields of Jihad,’ in which the group’s vision was outlined. Using his filtered voice, al-Jolani declared the establishment of the group, and stated that its goals were represented in “returning Allah’s authority to the Earth and taking revenge for the violated chastity and the bleeding blood” in Sham (Syria).[4]

While few details were provided on the operational aspect of JN, which has been a point of strength throughout the conflict, al-Jolani declared the responsibility of his group for its first suicide attacks against major military facilities in Damascus in December 2011. The death toll of the attacks reached forty people and were followed by a long series of similar operations throughout 2012 and 2013. What could be noticed from these kind of warfare tactics was JN’s militarily capabilities in undermining the Syrian government’s control over the capital, and its developed skills in infiltrating the military facilities of the Assad government, enabling JN to target the regime’s forces.

In December 2012, the US announced that JN had carried out more than 600 attacks and accused it of being ISI’s wing in Syria and enlisted the group as a terrorist organization. The enlistment, however, did not affect JN’s popularity among many locals nor did it hinder the group’s endeavors to cooperate with other Syrian armed opposition groups. On the contrary, one week after the US’s recognizing the group as a terrorist organization, civilian-led protests spread in many Syrian cities under the slogan “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”[5]

Additionally, JN’s fierce and disciplined fighters and its effective modus operandi, which includes Inghimasi tactics[6] and suicide attacks, swift ambushes and accurate assassinations, placed the group as a decisive actor in the battles against the Assad government. Therefore, other armed groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham and others kept their contacts with JN. Furthermore, JN presented itself as social actor by providing relief work and services for locals living under its zone of influence. Food, education, drinking water, and heating gas were commodities secured by the group. As Charles Lister put it, JN managed to embed itself within both the Syrian armed opposition and local societies under its zone of influence.[7]

On the governance level, JN approached the local community with a relatively ‘lenient’ application of Sharia law. Contrary to ISI’s excommunication-based method in applying Al-Hakimiyya or Allah’s rule, JN fostered a gradual and systematic approach based on educating locals about the “true” teaching of Islam and thereafter applying punishment to those who do not follow them.[8] Winning the hearts and minds of locals and establishing cooperative relationships with other Islamist factions, combined with ISI’s constant excommunication-based approach, guaranteed  JN a distinguishable position within the fabric of the Syrian opposition.

Phase Two - JN leaves ISIS to AQ:

On the morning of the 8th of April 2013, the world woke up to Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi, the leader of what was called ISI, announcing the expansion of his group from Iraq into Syria. Al-Baghdadi also announced the merger of ISI and JN into a new group called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS.[9] Only two days after the announcement, JN released a recorded speech from its leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, in which he denied the merger while accepting the ties between the two groups. To make things complicated, al-Jolani announced renewing his oath of allegiance to the head of al-Qaeda Central Command (AQC), Aymen Al- Zawahiri.[10] Tension escalated between the two groups until the dispute was referred to al- Zawahiri in his capacity as the head of AQC.

In June 2013, al-Zawahiri’s supposedly secret letter, which included the verdict, was leaked to the media. The head of AQ stated that both groups had made a mistake, ISI in establishing ISIS, and JN for announcing its ties with AQC, as neither group had consulted him in these issues. In addition to announcing the abolishment of the newly formed ISIS, the letter declared JN an independent entity from ISI and affiliated with AQC. Moreover, al- Zawahiri’s letter stated that each group should operate under its old territories, meaning ISI operates in Iraq and JN in Syria. Finally, a jihadi veteran called Abu Khaled al-Suri was assigned by al-Zawahiri to oversee the execution of his verdict.[11]

In June 2013, al-Baghdadi issued a recorded speech in which he refused to obey and insisted that the newly established ISIS would remain in Iraq and Syria. Al-Baghdadi’s refusal to comply with al-Zawahiri’s letter marked an irremediable rupture between ISIS and AQC on the one hand, and ISIS and the JN on the other. It also pushed al-Zawahiri to recognize JN as the sole representative of AQ in the Levant. The recognition, nonetheless, could not prevent many foreign fighters from leaving JN and joining ISIS.

It might be true that JN’s rising popularity and strength as an independent group was behind ISI’s decision to clip al-Jolani’s wings through merging the two groups into one entity. However, the dispute between them highlighted deeper differences in their visions. According to the experts on Jihadi movements, Hassan Abu Haniya and Muhammad Abu Ruman, ISI’s vision of empowerment has been influenced by Abu Bakr Naji’s book ‘The Management of Savagery’, which was written in 2004. Naji urges Jihadis to carry out constant violent attacks against states until states become weak and unable to control the chaos. Only then savagery would prevail, and this would be the most ‘convenient’ opportunity for Jihadis to substitute the states by offering security, services, and most importantly, applying Sharia and laying the foundations for the dreamed-of caliphate.[12]

Al-Jolani, on the other hand, drank from the well of the pragmatic AQ strategist Abu Musab al-Suri. In his book ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’, al-Suri calls on Muslims to build a Jihadi community and create a public incubator among locals,[13] thereby pursuing a less confrontational approach with other factions and a lower tendency towards territorial control. JN followed al-Suri’s vision by prioritizing building deep ties with the local society even if it required showing flexibility in some Islamic principles. The goal, argued al-Suri, is to transform jihad from being an elitist act into a popular one, in other words, to create a jihadi community.[14]

Phase Three - JN ostensibly breaks ties with AQ:

Perhaps JN’s decision to sever its ties with ISIS and renew or give a new oath of allegiance to the Amir of AQ Aymen al-Zawahiri was the only way to get rid of ISI’s ascendancy over its command. However, it opened the door for a long military confrontation with ISIS, pushed many fighters (particularly foreigners) to join ISIS, and confirmed US’s allegations about the presence of AQ in Syria. The decision, furthermore, made it more complicated for other opposition factions to cooperate or merge with JN fearing both the embarrassment of their funders (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) and the crediting the Assad government’s narrative of labelling all opposition factions as terrorist groups.

By September 2014, the US Central Command announced that it had started to conduct a series of air strikes against what it called the ‘Khorasan group’. That is, according to the US administration, a group of AQ seniors which had moved to Syria and hid under the cover of JN with the intention of targeting the US and the West. The US air strike campaign targeting the ‘Khorasan group’ lasted between September 2014 and January 2017.[15] Although the US immediately confirmed the killing of few members of the group, the leader of JN denied its existence, claiming that that al-Qaeda's Syria branch had no intention to target the West unless provoked.[16]

Carrying the label of AQ came at a high price for JN. The US intensified its airstrikes, other local armed factions expressed their concerns regarding cooperating with the group, and ISIS launched military offensives to drive out JN from northeastern major cities such as Deir ez-Zor.[17] All these factors pushed the pragmatic Jolani to change the calculus and reconsider his decision to represent AQ in Syria.

On the 28th of July 2016, he appeared in a video showing his face to public for the first time, and announced the ‘cancellation of all operations under the name JN and the formation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or JFS’. Al-Jolani also stated that his group ‘is not affiliated with any external entity’, referring obviously to AQ.[18] Throughout the video, al-Jolani tried to present JFS as local faction formed with the blessing of AQ. His attempt to combine both global and local Jihadism into the new group was reflected by the presence of AQ’s well-known senior member in Syria, Abu al-Faraj al-Masri, and the local head of Shari’, Abed al-Rahim Attoon.[19]

The establishment of the new group was problematic and raised controversy among Salafi-Jihadis ideologues. Shortly after, Attoon wrote a long testimony through which he claimed the split from AQ was ‘nominal’ and JFS was still connected with its mother organization. While some hardliners from inside JN rejected the split, blessings for the decision came from prominent Salafi-Jihadi ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who seemed convinced that it had been done with al-Zawahiri’s approval.[20]

The response of the head of AQ, however, was belated and surprising. Al-Zawahiri pointed out that JN can only break its oath of allegiance with AQ if it gains the consensus of the Shura (consultation) council of AQ, or if the ‘legitimate’ Islamic caliphate has been established. The reactions to al-Zawahiri’s response denote his significant position within both global and local Salafi-Jihadism. First, both Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi withdrew their support and rebuked al-Jolani for making such a move without consulting the Amir of AQ. Al-Maqdisi even accused al-Jolani of ‘diluting’ the religion by undermining the Islamic classical legal concept of al-Baya, or oath of allegiance. Second, loyalist hardliners of AQ such as Abu Khadija al-Urduni, Sami al-Oraydi and Abu Julaybib al-Toubasi, who once held high positions in JN, defected and established a new group called ‘Hurras al-Din’ or Guardians of Religion Organization.[21]

Phase Four - The Last Rebranding to HTS:

By January 2017, it became clear that JFS had reached a dead end with its relationship with AQ, particularly after al-Zawahiri’s public rejection of the split and the defection of his loyalists from JFS. Seeking to present his group as part of the wider umbrella of the local Syrian opposition, and to delist JFS’s name from the US terrorist list, al-Jolani started to build a new alliance with other local armed opposition groups, especially those which were supported by the US such as Nour al-Din al-Zinki. On the 28th of the same month, his effort calumniated in the formation of a new group under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or HTS. This was a merger of JFS and other local armed factions including Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Liwa al-Haqq, and Jaysh al-Sunna, as well as al-Zinki.[22]

The schism from AQ was not ‘nominal’ anymore and it was reflected by a new vision from HTS. Since the first half of 2017, one can easily notice the absence of the narrative of establishing the Islamic Caliphate, which is one of the most essential goals of AQ.[23] Instead of that, the group has promoted locally focused objectives such as toppling the Assad regime, expelling Iranian militias from Syria, and establishing Islamic rule in Syria.[24] This time, however, HTS was not willing to share religious courts and public services with other factions. Unlike JN, HTS began to enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia law in an attempt to appease foreign hardliners who accepted and stayed in the group despite the two rebranding processes.

According to research published by Omran Institute for Strategic Studies, HTS has pursued a new strategy to control the city of Idlib based on following factors: strong political leadership (obviously by al-Jolani), and maintaining good relationship with funders while keeping some sort of independence and effective governance. In November 2017, HTS announced the formation of a civilian ‘Salvation government’ in Idlib, which included 11 ministries, while keeping military power under its control.

Simultaneously, HTS has worked on balancing its relationship with Turkey while keeping some sort of independence.[25] Although al-Jolani has frequently criticized and fought local groups funded by Turkey, such as those which participated in Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations, HTS not only accompanied the Turkish patrol in Idlib but also facilitated the establishment of 12 Turkish observation posts as part of Sochi and Astana agreements between Turkey, Russia, and Iran.

While it is not easy to capture the chilly relationship between HTS and Turkey, it has become clear that the latter is not willing to militarily confront the most hegemonic faction in Idlib. In January of this year, HTS launched major offensive against local groups of the National Front of Liberation supported by Turkey. Through this offensive HTS wiped out groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki from areas in northern Hama and southern Idlib, imposing control over almost the entire city of Idlib and its peripheries. In return for Turkey’s silence regarding the offensive, al-Jolani expressed his support for the potential Turkish operation in northeast Syria to uproot the PKK as the latter ‘represents the enemy of the Syrian revolution.’


From JN to HTS, the group went through considerable ideological and political shifts. First by distancing itself from ISIS and pledging an oath of allegiance to AQ after establishing ties with other armed groups, and creating a local incubator that stood behind it regardless of its ideological affiliation. Realizing the high cost of being categorized under the name of AQ, JN reneged on its pledge to al-Zawahiri to ease the concerns of local factions and their funders in order to forge durable and solid alliances. Its efforts culminated in the formation of HTS and its governmental body represented by the Salvation government. To preserve the current of hardliners  inside the group – mainly foreign fighters - HTS shifted from a relatively tolerant application of Sharia law – one that used to apply under the name of JN to distinguish itself from ISIS - to one that is strict and extreme.

Today HTS, along with the entire body of armed opposition located in Idlib, Hama, and the Latakia countryside, are standing against the Syrian government and the Russian offensive on Idlib. Most of these groups have battled with HTS in different occasions during the Syrian conflict. However, through political pragmatism, military power, and relatively effective governance, HTS proved to be an irreplaceable actor that all actors have to deal with in order to approach the conflict in Syria. 

[1] The usage of the terms ISI and ISIS and IS is not random. ISI refers to the Islamic state in Iraq which lasted from October 2006 until April 2013, ISIS is the name of the organization from April 2013 until June 2014 and finally IS or the Islamic State or the caliphate which was declared in June 2014 and lasted ever since.

[2] See Rania Abouzeid, “The Jihadi Next Door”.

[3] Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, “About the Fields of Al-Sham” April 2013

[4] Sham or Bilad al-Sham refers to the greater Syria which includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, western Iraq, and Lebanon.

[5] Bill Roggio, “Syrian National Coalition Urges U.S. to Drop al-Nusrah Terrorism Designation, Long War Journal, December 12, 2012,

[6] Inghimasi is a jihadi fighter who deliberately aims to stay alive, killing his enemies with firearms before having the option to detonate his vests when overwhelmed.

[7] Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Charles Lister, Brooking project p 5

[8] For more on Al-Hakimiyya see Orwa Ajjoub, Despite the failings of Salafi-jihadist groups in the Arab Revolutions, the contest over ideology continues.

[9] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Give Good News the Believers”, 8th April 2013

[10] Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, “About the Fields of Al-Sham”, 10th April 2013

[11] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Letter to Resolve the Dispute between JN and ISI”, 9th June 2013

[12] See Abu-Baker naji, ‘Management of Savagery’ 

[13] Abu Musab al-Suri, ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’

[14] For more about Al-Suri see Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, The life of al-Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri. 

[15] During the military campaign, the US confirmed the killing of prominent AQ seniors from ‘Khorasan groups’ such as Muhsin al-Fadhli, Mohammed Islambouli and Abu Yusuf Al-Turki, Abd al-Jalil al-Muslimi and others. Most of them had fought with Bin Laden in Afghanistan and worked under AQ’s command until they were killed.  

[16] Interview with the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Muhammad al-Jolani on al-Jazeera, May 2015

[17] Though in March 2015 JN joined forces with other Islamic armed group such Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Awsa, Ajnad al-Sham and others to form the Jaish al-Fatah or Army of the Conquest. The decision to form this army was made and funded by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. It is believed that this alliance was the most powerful umbrella for the Syrian Islamist opposition during the Syrian conflict. However, it lasted only for one year and it did not culminate in any form of merger.


[19] Shari’ is a religious male figure who is responsible for the theological aspect of each Islamic faction. He is in charge of teaching religion, issuing fatwa and encouraging fighters before battles.


[21] Kyle Orton, A New Branch of Al-Qaeda Emerges in Syrian,

[22] Thomas Joscelyn, Al Qaeda and allies announce ‘new entity’ in Syria,

[23] Backgrounder, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,

[24] “HTS Condemns U.S. Terror Designation, Demands Evidence of AQ Link,” Site Intelligence Group, June 1, 2018, of-aq-link.html.

[25] Omran institute for Strategic Studies, Local governance in HTS,الإصدارات/الأبحاث/الدراسات/الحكم-المحلي-لهيئة-تحرير-الشام-ومنظورها-للمجالس-المحلية.html