Tore Refslund Hamming, senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)
Is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), one Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch known as Jabhat al-Nusra, still an Al-Qaeda affiliate, or does it operate within the larger orbit of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s network? Does the group carry out or support terrorism? And is it in fact still a jihadist group or is it better understood as a revolutionary-political actor battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime in northern Syria’s Idlib province?
These are some of the questions that policy makers, analysts, and researchers have grappled with and found difficult to answer ever since HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani announced, in July 2016, the dissolution of Al-Nusra.
Few are better situated to answer these questions than Aaron Zelin, the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he does an excellent job in his new booklet, The Age of Political Jihadism: A Study of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The study and analysis of jihadism has for too long been fraught with methodological laziness and analytical simplifications, especially when discussions turn to the matter of ideology. But a defining feature of Zelin’s work is that it never succumbs to simplified narratives. Rather, he produces complex and nuanced explanations based on comprehensive examinations of primary sources. This booklet is no exception.
Zelin frames the primary questions that the booklet engages with as a discussion of HTS’ current status and its listing as a designated terrorist entity. Yet, to provide thorough answers he offers an ample review of the group’s history and its organizational and ideological evolution, while hypothesizing about its future prospects. The general confusion surrounding HTS, its organizational allegiance, and ideological convictions is precisely why a comprehensive study diving into the group’s actual discourse and action is necessary if we are to develop sound policies to engage with it. Especially because, as Zelin begins the booklet, “the challenge that HTS presents now is different and more complex from the one it presented when it was part of the ISI [Islamic State of Iraq] or AQ [Al-Qaeda].”
On the question of whether HTS should remain listed as a terrorist organization, Zelin concludes, based on five criteria defined for a terrorism designation under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that “it does make sense for Washington to continue to designate HTS as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” While he briefly mentions the thought experiment that delisting could serve as an interesting strategy to set a precedent that encourages other groups to distance themselves from hard-core extremist ideologies, he could have entertained the idea a bit more.
Emphasizing the complexity of the assessing HTS, a large portion of the booklet is an acknowledgement that HTS has indeed changed over the past half-decade or so, both in terms of its organizational allegiance, its domestics politics and priorities, and its leadership culture. In that way, he writes himself into the tradition of other scholars such as Jerome Drevon and Patrick Haenni, who have done incredible fieldwork within HTS-controlled territory, and this author.
Diving into the primary sources issued by HTS, its senior leaders, and most prominent supporters, Zelin offers a detailed account of how complex an organization HTS currently is and he outlines a transformation process that is still ongoing. Directed to an external audience, HTS is speaking a language acceptable to the West, distancing itself from extremist beliefs and actions, while framing its organization as a protector and service-provider to the people of Idlib. In contrast, in its communication addressing a local audience the discourse strikes a different tone, playing on more traditional militant and extremist tunes.
Despite this discrepancy, Zelin convincingly argues that HTS represents a new ideological trend within the historical trajectory of the jihadi movement that favors pragmatism over theological rigidity and that is more open to engagement with “external actors”. Rather than following in the footsteps of its previous mother organizations, the Islamic State and then Al-Qaeda, it is the Taliban and its victory in Afghanistan that is serving as a strong inspiration for the HTS leadership. A similar, albeit less radical, development is witnessed in the Sahel with the regional Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), which is slowly adopting a more moderate stance on the issue of negotiations.
In the case of HTS, its ideological evolution is grounded in the concept of fiqh al-waqi (jurisprudence of reality), a concept Zelin does not, but probably should have, engaged with to explain HTS’ transformation and not least how it legitimizes it within the hyper-critical extremist milieu. Within a changing political, security, and social context, HTS is arguing that its methodology too should change and adapt. All this, of course, is legitimized by references to theology.
A point that Zelin explains particularly well is his untangling of the relationship between HTS and the National Salvation Government, the entity that formally governs Idlib and frames itself as independent, but which to a great extent falls under the authority of HTS. Attempting to appear as a military organization fighting to protect Idlib’s population from falling under the control of the Assad regime, HTS is in fact in charge of all aspects of governance in the region. Through an approach resembling classical authoritarianism, it consequently seeks to monopolize authority in Idlib city and its countryside, and in the process, it keeps other non-state military and political groups and institutions on a short leash.
Another great contribution of the booklet is Zelin’s ability to avoid succumbing to the fallacy of describing HTS through exclusivist notions such as Jihadi-Salafism and jihadism. While HTS in some respects might be classified as jihadi, it would make little sense to define it as Jihadi-Salafi, and it would entirely disregard the internal diversity that exists within the group. Zelin is able to do this because of his rich engagement with primary sources, which enables him to capture nuances that are otherwise easy to neglect.
Back to the question of the designation of HTS as a terrorist entity, Zelin ends the booklet detailing the actions and elements that in his view justify a continued designation. This includes among others the rhetoric HTS addresses to its domestic audience and its history of brutal human rights violations amounting to war crimes. One aspect that he may slightly overestimate, or insufficiently engage, is HTS’ historical dedication to global jihad as the concept is generally perceived in the West.
Reading Zelin’s The Age of Political Jihadism, you not only learn about the transformation of HTS as a group, but you come to better understand how non-state militant groups transform over time, even militant Islamists, who otherwise claim to follow the words of the Quran rather than falling victim to conventional politics. Not only is this interesting from a research perspective, but it is acutely important to understand when we design our politics and counter-terrorism strategies.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.