Kyle Orton, a national security and terrorism analyst based in Britain
The United States announced on 12 July that it had killed the Islamic State’s (ISIS) governor of Syria in a drone strike in the village of Galtan in the Jinderes district of the north-western Syrian province of Efrin on the border with Turkey. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) statement identified the slain man as “Maher al-Agal”, though a more precise transliteration is Maher al-Aqal (ماهر العقال). Riding on the motorcycle alongside Al-Aqal when he was killed was a “senior ISIS official” with whom he was “closely associated”. This ISIS official was “seriously injured during the strike”, CENTCOM notes, adding that the Jinderes strike caused no civilian casualties.
While Al-Aqal, a Syrian from Suluk in the Tel Abyad area of Raqqa province, was hardly a household name before this strike, he did not come from nowhere and his role within ISIS in Syria had been important for some time. A crucial ISIS operative in northern Syria was killed on 20 June 2020 in an airstrike assumed to be the U.S.’s handiwork, though never claimed. The operative was Fayez al-Aqal (Abu Saad al-Shamali), Maher’s brother.
Fayez was known as an extremist, even by ISIS’s standards, and had been released from Syria’s infamous Sednaya prison at the outset of the uprising in 2011. Fayez’s trajectory is familiar—it echoes that of Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), for example—because it forms part of one of the major underlying facts about Syria’s war: the Bashar al-Asad regime’s strategy to divide and radicalize the insurgency against it by bolstering the jihadists in the hopes of making the only alternative to the regime so unacceptable that the international community would in effect support Asad in suppressing it, which is more or less what ended up happening. (ISIS was willing to play along with Asad’s ploy to make the struggle a binary one between them, obviously hoping for a different outcome.)
Fayez would become the top amni (security official) in Syria, seemingly had some responsibility for the foreign wilayats (provinces), and was appointed wali or governor of Raqqa during the “caliphate” period. Fayez was very close the “caliph” at the time—by some accounts chairman of the ISIS executive body, the Delegated Committee—and a potential successor as overall leader. Fayez was killed near Al-Bab, which had been the headquarters of ISIS’s foreign attacks campaign until the summer of 2016 when Turkey took over the city. By the summer of 2020, Al-Bab was showing signs of becoming a centre of ISIS activity once more. Fayez had been moving around using a fake identity card, showing the name “Ahmad al-Darwish”, issued by the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), the Turkish proxy force that administers northern Aleppo. Maher also had one of these identity cards in the name of “Khalid Subaih”.
In January 2021, Turkey’s security forces launched a series of raids against ISIS cells across the country. The raid in Sanliurfa (a.k.a. Urfa), the province just across the border from Syria’s Raqqa province, arrested an ISIS leader soon named as Azzo Khalaf Sulayman al-Aqal. Sulayman was reported to have confessed to supplying the explosives for two consequential terrorist attacks in Turkey: the 20 July 2015 bombing in Suruc, right on the Syrian border in Urfa province, which massacred more than thirty people at rally of Turkish Leftists and Kurds, and the 20 January 2016 suicide attack in Sultanahmet in Istanbul, near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, which killed thirteen people.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group murdered two Turkish policemen on 22 July 2015 in Ceylanpinar, east of Suruc, adjacent to Ras al-Ayn on the Syrian side, and explicitly framed the crime as retaliation for the Turkish “collaboration” with ISIS. With this, the Turkey-PKK ceasefire put in place in March 2013 collapsed, restarting the war, and snap elections in November 2015 restored the majority that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party had lost at the June 2015 elections. The Sultanahmet atrocity had targeted the tourist district—the victims were twelve Germans and one Peruvian—and damaged Turkey’s already shaky economy. Sulayman allegedly testified that he had acted at the instructions of none other than Maher al-Aqal.
According to Iraqi researcher Raed al-Hamid, quoted in Alhurra, Maher and one Abu Ibrahim al-Safrani had been a targets of the 16 June 2022 U.S. raid in northern Aleppo, but they escaped. The raid did net Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi (Salim), “an experienced bomb maker and operational facilitator who became one of the top leaders in the Syrian branch of ISIS … [Al-Kurdi was involved in] instructing others on making explosive devices, supporting the construction of improvised explosive device facilities, and facilitating attacks on U.S. and partner forces.” Another analyst quoted by Alhurra says that Maher was very much of Al-Kurdi’s mould, a field commander experienced in kinetic operations, who had risen up from this “second row” position as the “first row” were eliminated by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS Coalition, making him in some ways more dangerous than the senior bureaucrats who spend many years issuing instructions from safehouses.
Maher al-Aqal used the kunyas “Maher al-Shamali”, “Abu Ayman al-Shamali”, and “Abu al-Bara al-Shamali”, according to Al-Hamid, who makes the additional sensational claim that Maher was the ISIS spokesman appointed in March 2022, known so far only as Abu Umar al-Muhajir. (There was a flurry of speculation about ISIS’s spokesman being dead after a misprint in the weekly newsletter, Al-Naba 339, on 19 May, but that seems unrelated to the question of whether Maher was Abu Umar.)
Time will tell what Maher’s exact role was in ISIS. For now, it is clear that CENTCOM’s claim Maher was “one of the top five ISIS leaders” is plausible. An implication of this is that the U.S. has reasonably good visibility on ISIS’s leadership and cells in northern Syria to be able to kill the spokesman and the caliph in February, carry out the raid in June (whether or not Maher was the target), and kill Maher a month later.
Documenting the Islamic State Leadership
Assessing Maher al-Aqal’s position within ISIS is difficult for the obvious reason that it is a clandestine organization, where, by definition, keeping its leadership structure secret is a top priority, and they have proven capable at this task.
The Islamic State movement was able to conceal the fact that the U.S. forces in Iraq had arrested Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari) in 2006, the would-be successor to the founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh, far better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Qaduli was released in 2012, becoming important in laying the groundwork for the “caliphate” in Syria, and we would never have known about his captivity had ISIS not chosen to tell us. With the man who actually did succeed Zarqawi in late 2006, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, ISIS was able to cultivate uncertainty over whether he even existed, despite his regular speeches and even after local sources revealed his name was Hamid al-Zawi in May 2008. The issue was not fully resolved until Al-Zawi was killed in April 2010. Al-Zawi’s successor, probably ISIS’s most famous leader—the declared “caliph” after June 2014—was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: it took more than a year after Abu Bakr’s appointment in May 2010 to learn that his name was Ibrahim al-Badri. One way Al-Badri had kept his identity concealed, as ISIS rebuilt in 2010-12, was by delaying his first major public speech until July 2012, delegating the duties of spokesman to Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani).
There have been windows into the Islamic State leadership, however. The killing of Al-Badri’s deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), by Syrian rebels in Tel Rifaat in January 2014, captured documents that shone some light on how ISIS had moved into Syria and the structure of the police state they were beginning to construct. The most serious breaches in ISIS’s secrecy came after the U.S.-led coalition went to war with the ISIS caliphate in late 2014. The U.S. had adopted an “Iraq-first” approach to ISIS, concentrating resources on that side of the border, but in May 2015 launched its first raid into Syria, targeting a crucial financial official, Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi). The documents recovered in that raid and others as the war ground on would allow a fairly detailed picture to emerge in 2016 and 2017 of the ISIS leadership structure, and other information since has filled in some of the gaps.
ISIS made its last stand at Baghuz in eastern Syria, led by Abu Umar al-Khlifawi. With Baghuz’s fall and the final destruction of the caliphate in March 2019 a drop-off in information about ISIS’s leadership was inevitable: there is both less available as the tempo of capture-and-kill missions declines, meaning less of ISIS’s internal documentation is falling into enemy hands, and there is less interest—partly as a result of the news cycle moving on to things like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and partly because the ISIS threat has receded. The sense of urgency has reduced as the group “departs into the desert” to rebuild and the frequency and scale of its foreign attacks campaign in the West drastically declines, albeit ISIS continues operations at the centre and its expansion in Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere.
Still, the information has not stopped. Iraqi intelligence has obviously maintained its interest in who runs ISIS, and this was important in one of the most substantive reports of the organization’s post-caliphate leadership by the late Husham al-Hashimi. And while the loss of the caliphate has moved ISIS down the public priorities list in the West, the crumbling of the statelet also led to the capture of several senior ISIS officials, who could provide historical information about the group, if not always actionable intelligence.
Among the ISIS captives in the 2018-20 period were some lower officials like Saddam al-Jamal and Usama al-Awaid and Jamal al-Mashadani (Abu Hamza al-Kurdi); some of the prominent foreign jihadists, such as the British “Beatles” responsible for murdering hostages, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey; and some very senior operatives: Ismail al-Ithawi (Abu Zayd al-Iraqi), Abd al-Nasr al-Qardash (whose real name might be Taha al-Ghassani), and Sami Jassim al-Jaburi (Haji Hamid). It is presumably with the assistance of intelligence gathered from these men that the U.S. was able to identify Muhammad Khadr Musa Ramadan (Abu Bakr al-Gharib) as one of ISIS’s key media officials and put a bounty on him in May 2020.
It might also be that this trickle of information allowed the U.S. to put together the target packages that eliminated Fabien Clain (Abu Anas al-Firansi), the Frenchman who had guided some of ISIS’s worst atrocities in Europe, just before the caliphate’s demise, and later Moataz Numan al-Jaburi (Haji Tayseer), a member of the Delegated Committee. ISIS has also lost two emirs or caliphs in this period. The U.S. SEALs finally caught up with Al-Badri in October 2019 and in February this year his successor, Amir Muhammad al-Mawla (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi), was struck down.
The Turkish Dimension
When Al-Badri was killed there was a particularly surprising aspect to it: the location. Al-Badri was killed on 27 October 2019 in the village of Barisha in Idlib province, in northern Syria, rather than in Iraq, where it had been assumed the caliph would be hiding. Idlib was—and is—controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Al-Qaeda derivative in Syria formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was once an ISIS front group. HTS’s publicly declared a separation from Al-Qaeda’s command structure in July 2016, rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), and, in January 2017, JFS was further refashioned as HTS. HTS has since evolved in some interesting and complicated ways, perhaps above all by engaging with Turkey. Despite the changes to and with HTS over the last five and more years, it has always been shadowed by doubts about exactly where the allegiances of its leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), lie and what the group is doing. The circumstances of Al-Badri’s demise spotlighted these issues once more.
First, some background is necessary.
Turkey has launched three operations in Syria: EUPHRATES SHIELD in August 2016 that took over northern Aleppo from ISIS; OLIVE BRANCH in early 2018 that captured the adjacent Efrin province to the east from PKK, which calls itself the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) in Syria; and BARIS PINARI, which took northern Raqqa province and a chunk of north-west Hasaka province from the PKK.
These three areas do contain Turkish soldiers, but the bulk of the administrative and security responsibility falls on the SNA, which is comprised of some former rebels and a lot of recruits from refugee camps in Turkey, desperate young men who need income and are angry at their dispossession by the Asad/Iran system and/or the PKK, which they tend to equate after the PKK helped the regime coalition crush Aleppo city, the final urban bastion of the rebellion, in late 2016. Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), while overseeing “all decisions, big and small” in the SNA, has been unable to fashion it into a cohesive governing and military structure, and its nature—multiple factions staffed by men motivated by wages, many of whom come from eastern Syria and thus have no social ties with the people they are ostensibly governing—makes it unlikely this will happen.
The outcome in the Turkish-ruled zones is a chaotic archipelago of warring fiefdoms, with the SNA groups fighting each other for territory and resources, and civilians caught in the crossfire, when they are not being directly targeted by predatory militias that in a number of cases are more like mafia syndicates. Some Syrian nationalists decry the Turkish presence as “colonialism”, but most are pleased to have Turkish soldiers in their areas to prevent intra-SNA clashes and where the Turkish military presence is strongest, nearest the borders, Syrians experience substantially better human security and economic development.
Idlib, which is bordered by the Turkish-controlled Efrin to the north and Turkey itself to the west, has an exceptional, if ambivalent, status in Syria. Al-Nusra/HTS fought alongside, and tried to co-opt, the Syrian rebellion between 2012 and its defeat at Aleppo in 2016. In July 2017, HTS set aside all subtlety and, after “merging” some rebel groups, violently seized Idlib province. Some rebels who were later reflagged as part of the SNA were allowed to stay in Idlib, but only once they had been stripped of all autonomy. HTS’s message internally was that anyone left wanting to continue the revolutionary struggle against the regime had to rally to its banner, and to the outside world anyone wanting a solution to Idlib that did not involve a genocidal regime reconquest and a flood of millions of refugees into Turkey and thence Europe had to deal with HTS. The group soon got its way.
In October 2017, seeking to prevent the PKK (which still held Efrin at this time) turning westwards after capturing ISIS’s Syrian “capital” Raqqa, Turkey set up a series of military “observation posts” in Idlib after an “intensive negotiation process” with HTS. Turkey’s explanation for what looked like confirmation of the worst accusations levelled against her about collaborating with jihadists in Syria was two-fold. First, that military options to uproot HTS were impossible—the group was too entrenched in Idlib—and any direct attack would provoke terrorist attacks inside Turkey. Second, the Turks’ presence in Idlib was part of a “de-escalation” deal with Russia under the Astana framework (which also includes Iran) and would remove “all radical terrorist groups”; it was just that this would have to be through a longer campaign of political and covert warfare. Indeed, it was argued, this had already begun by forcing HTS to cross a jihadist ideological red line in treating with an “infidel” state, and over time HTS would be “drawn deeper into compromise”. And there were some signs of this process, including the emergence of Tandheem Hurras al-Deen in February 2018, a professed split of hardline Al-Qaeda loyalists (many of them Jordanians) away from HTS, one of whose stated objections was HTS’s dealings with Ankara. Events, however, soon turned in a rather different direction.
The destabilisation operations against HTS stopped and the group was able to tighten its rule over Idlib. Turkey expanded its presence in Idlib, clearly without HTS’s objection. Using HTS’s continued presence as a pretext, the pro-Asad coalition began an offensive against Idlib in December 2019, and Turkey provided the HTS-led resistance to the incursion with support. After a 27 February 2020 airstrike—almost certainly Russian—killed thirty-three Turkish soldiers in Balyun, Turkey directly attacked the Asad/Iran system in a devastating week-long air and artillery war, primarily using the Bayraktar TB2 drones that had already proven themselves in Libya, would decide the Armenia-Azerbaijan war months later, and have now become so famous helping Ukraine against Russia.
Turkey’s government felt it had made its political point in Idlib by the time of the ceasefire on 5 March 2020, at least to the Turkish people who demanded vengeance, but the settlement was much less decisive than that. The regime coalition offensive over the prior three months had taken large portions of Idlib, including the strategic M5 Highway and territory surrounding eight of Turkey’s twelve observation posts. Turkey ratified the new frontline. Within what remained of Idlib outside regime control, however, there had been a significant change: HTS confessed itself “broken”, and subject to Turkish whims. Yet here HTS still is, two-and-a-half years later.
That Turkey had not fulfilled its pledge to the Russians to wipe out HTS was neither here nor there; the Astana process was an exercise in insincerity by parties acting in mutual bad faith. There was, it must be conceded, fairness in Ankara’s argument that it was its right to prioritise its own narrow national security—after all, everyone else in Syria had—by containing instability on its borders. What cannot be avoided, though, is that implicit in this policy is preserving HTS: dissolving HTS would open Idlib to the regime coalition and the fallout Turkey was seeking to avoid, namely further waves of refugees and domestic blowback from HTS. Whether or not HTS would have disintegrated without Turkish support after the spring of 2020, this is a highly dubious approach to a group on Turkey’s own terrorism list. And it gets worse.
The crux of the issue was summarised by a Crisis Group report:
As Turkish officials see it, the real problem in Idlib is a smaller subset of mostly foreign extremists, one that includes Hurras al-Din but not necessarily the whole of HTS. They point to the split between HTS and Hurras al-Din as potentially useful, insofar as it highlights the distinction between [Syrian] militants ready to deal and [mostly foreign] hopeless irreconcilables … These Syrians purportedly are invested in their governing project and their own survival. Given enough time, they could potentially be convinced to quash internationally dangerous radicals.
A caveat: What cannot be avoided here, again as documented by the Crisis Group, is that Turkey’s theory of the situation in Syria is influenced by the ideological outlook of its political elite: “Turkish officials point specifically to Jordanian and Egyptian militants as provocateurs and troublemakers and suggest they may be foreign intelligence assets.” The Turkish media and leadership regularly say things in public that, to put it charitably, diverge sharply from known reality, and too often this is dismissed as being “for domestic consumption”. The reality is that conspiracy theories have a deep hold over the Islamist-derived ruling party in Turkey, and Erdogan has now consolidated power to a point where there are no high officials left to contradict his more unhinged notions. A classic case is Erdogan’s understanding of economics, long dismissed as a private eccentricity, now implemented—and the disastrous effects blamed on outside forces in terms that clearly refer to Jews, drawing on the inherent antisemitism in the version of Islamist ideology Erdogan absorbed from inter alia his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, and the poet Necip Fazil Kisakürek.
The Wilderness of Mirrors: Jihadist Edition
If the Turkish theory of the case is to utilise (part of) HTS to suppress Hurras al-Deen, it requires examining the relationship between HTS and Hurras al-Deen, and by extension Al-Qaeda. There is no question that the original claim of a severing of relations between HTS and Al-Qaeda when Al-Nusra was rebranded as JFS in 2016 was a ruse. Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had signalled his support for this course—which amounted to Al-Qaeda “giving up the name for the sake of the thing (an Islamic state or emirate)”—and left his deputy, Abdullah Rajab Abd al-Rahman (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri), in Syria to oversee and communicate with Al-Shara. From internal documents leaked in late 2017, it clear that Al-Shara and Al-Zawahiri remained in communication after HTS’s formation, despite some public rhetorical sparring and Abu al-Khayr’s death in February 2017.
There has been no public repudiation by Al-Shara of his bay’a (oath of allegiance) to Al-Zawahiri, and Al-Zawahiri has not—as he did with ISIS—expelled HTS from Al-Qaeda. As analyst Hassan Hassan has noted, the war of words “came to an abrupt end in early 2018” with, according to jihadist sources in Syria, a compact worked out between the two sides to co-exist, leaving them in a place where they “could still be considered as part of Al-Qaeda’s school or orbit”. This would not be unprecedented: such would be analogous to the ambiguous relationship Al-Qaeda had with ISIS from 2006 to 2013. In terms of what this status can mean, while one Al-Qaeda leader complained in 2011 that Al-Qaeda’s “relations” with ISIS had been “practically cut off for a number of years”, there was still enough command capacity that when Al-Qaeda ordered ISIS to cease and desist from attacks on Iran, rhetorical or kinetic, ISIS obeyed. ISIS’s spokesman later admitted that the group had heeded this “guidance” and mockingly stated: “Let history record that Iran owes an invaluable debt to Al-Qaeda.”
When it comes to the HTS-Hurras relationship, it is again what has not happened that is most notable in ideological terms: where ISIS has publicly excommunicated Hurras al-Deen, HTS has not. In practical terms, there is even less ambiguity: Hurras al-Deen is dependent on HTS, both directly—HTS supplies weapons, money, and other resources to Hurras—and indirectly, in the sense that HTS could wipe out Hurras if the enmity was truly mortal. There have been some arrests of Hurras members by HTS, though these intermittent incarcerations tend not to last very long; Hurras believes that HTS is behind the U.S. drone strikes that target its leadership, the notion being that HTS passes intelligence to Turkey, which hands it on to the Americans; and there was some direct fighting in June 2020. To say this led to the “destruction” of Hurras goes too far: with Hurras put in its place, the skirmishes ended with an accord. The latest report by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, published earlier this month, notes that Hurras “is estimated to retain a few thousand fighters”.
The U.N. report picked up on these clashes, and hints at what really might be going on here: “HTS continues to seek to portray itself as opposed to international terrorism”, and “regularly conducts hostile operations” against Hurras to try to buttress this narrative. Yet, as the report notes, “HTS has also released a few [Hurras] prisoners”. HTS justifies this catch-and-release policy by saying it has secured promises from freed Hurras operatives that they will not carry out external terrorism. It might be questioned how seriously to take such promises, assuming they were made.
One way to read this situation is it demonstrates “the differences between HTS and the Taliban. The latter effectively ignores the issue of [Al-Qaeda] in Afghanistan and attempts to deceive everyone about [Al-Qaeda’s] presence and/or its connections to the Taliban. In contrast, HTS has gone after [Al-Qaeda] in Syria”, if only to assure its monopoly on authority in Idlib, making the HTS and the Taliban “very different” in their approach to Al-Qaeda.
A second way to look at it is possible. By keeping Hurras around, it positions HTS as more “moderate”, and Hurras’ sometimes-public criticism of HTS engaging with Turkey and of HTS’s other theological-political and diplomatic maneuverers reinforces the idea that HTS is drifting from its jihadi-Salafist origins. This allows HTS to present itself, to Syrians and the outside world, as Syria-focused—and to that extent, less of a threat; certainly not one whose annihilation is a Western priority. On the other side of this set-up, Hurras absorbs those jihadists who dislike the HTS approach; keeps them from undertaking genuinely destructive actions against HTS; and keeps them available for when they are needed in joint efforts, such as the HTS and Hurras attempt to hold back the regime coalition offensive into Idlib in early 2020.
If this or something like it is the contours of the relationship, it makes the two groups complementary rather than antagonistic and means that, as Hassan has suggested, Hurras is to HTS what “Black September” was to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO): a deniable front intended to absorb the opprobrium for doing the group’s dirty work, while the group itself makes inroads in legitimising itself in the international system.
A third possibility, of course, is that what started as the second scenario has, over time, become the first.
There is a further potential complication with Hurras al-Deen. A report by Asaad Almohammad for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism days after Al-Badri was killed, relying significantly on “three networks of informants” cultivated in northern Syria, purported to document an effort by ISIS to infiltrate and co-opt the pro-Qaeda elements of HTS, who were dissatisfied with the course Al-Shara was taking, in the year before they formally announced themselves as Hurras in February 2018.
Almohammad points to Ali Musa al-Shawakh (Abu Luqman), ISIS’s wali of Raqqa in 2017, as the point-man “charged with restructuring” ISIS in the time period between the liberation of Mosul in July 2017 and the liberation of Raqqa in October 2017, when ISIS had given up on maintaining the caliphate and was transitioning back into being an insurgency. ISIS was looking for alternative strongholds in Syria and saw Idlib, from which it had been completely expelled in March 2014, as a viable candidate. Al-Shawakh, who might have been killed in April 2018, set out to do this by building up the Al-Qaeda loyalists who became Hurras, providing them “a strong security apparatus and a strong media office”, says Almohammad, and eliminating those HTS operatives who would stand in ISIS’s way, as well as engaging in the broader “recruitment of locals from greater Idlib”. By Almohammad’s account, after ISIS’s deal with the PKK for the jihadist remnants to leave Raqqa, and the same arrangement in Baghuz eighteen months later, many of the ISIS operatives went to Idlib with assistance from the ISIS agents in Hurras.
Almohammad’s conclusion was: “Throughout the establishment and formation of [Hurras], [ISIS] used its agents and resources to configure [Hurras’] organizational structure in a manner that facilitates merging the two groups’ assets and aligns their modes of operation. … [I]t is hard to determine the effectiveness of [ISIS’s] co-optation of [Hurras] and whether this operation is still active or has reached its desired outcome.”
This became important as background because it was reported that the house in Barisha where Al-Badri had been hiding since July 2019 had been signed for by Abu Muhammad al-Halabi or Abu Muhammad al-Salama, apparently the same person, a known Hurras al-Deen commander, who was secretly loyal to ISIS. A later report claimed the man who arranged the caliph being hosted in Barisha was Salam Haj Deeb, an IS operative. No relationship between Deeb and Hurras was discussed: Was there one? Is Deeb the same person as Al-Halabi and/or Al-Salama? We simply do not know. Likewise, the discovery that a set of documents produced by some of Almohammad’s informants, ostensibly showing ISIS paying Hurras to protect the caliph, were forged, did not prove much one way or the other; even Almohammad’s sternest critics, while ruling out the possibility of Hurras’ institutional coordination or capture conceded there was every possibility of ISIS penetrations of the organization. It is no more than common sense that ISIS has infiltrated Hurras and HTS as it converged on Idlib in 2017: ISIS has managed to do so with every other insurgent milieu it has operated in; the unusual thing would be if it hadn’t. Where those agents are now, and the scale of the compromises at the present time, are, as was once said, known unknowns.
The analytical controversy about Hurras al-Deen when Al-Badri was killed in October 2019 had long faded by the time his successor, Amir Muhammad al-Mawla, was killed in February 2022, but the unanswered questions raised the first time around recurred. Al-Mawla was also killed in Idlib, in Atma, about fifteen miles south of Barisha, in a compound where he had been resident since March 2021.
If the doubts that hung over HTS and Turkey with Al-Badri were faint and somewhat convoluted—Hurras’ relationship with HTS and through HTS to Turkey—the questions were rather sharper with Al-Mawla: there was no question this time that HTS had brought Hurras to heel and taken “firm control” over the rump of Idlib, nor was there any doubt about Turkey’s “unstated alliance with HTS” that gives it, at the least, “indirect influence over Idlib”. It might be thought that Al-Mawla’s large compound and the parade of couriers would attract some attention from HTS’s otherwise rather efficient secret police, especially after Al-Mawla broke cover in January 2022 to organize the massive jailbreak in Hasaka, and that some of this intelligence might find its way back to MIT. Nonetheless, incompetence is a perennial in espionage matters and it can be said Idlib is a chaotic zone, not directly controlled by Turkey and its proxies, swollen with displaced Syrians, where it is no longer unusual for people to be surrounded by strangers.
The issue is altogether starker with Maher al-Aqal: killed in a province, Efrin, that is controlled by Turkey, and in an area of that province, near the border, where Turkey has a stronger military and intelligence presence.
Turkey has been persistently criticised for its policy towards ISIS, which some activists and analysts consider as at best turning a blind eye because of Ankara’s concentration on the PKK, and at worst some form of collusion. Though some regard elements of this as unfair, the criticism—already pronounced after the discovery of Al-Badri and Al-Mawla—will only grow louder given the circumstances of Al-Aqal’s demise.
Idlib “continues to serve as a strategic location for” ISIS, this month’s U.N. report notes, a helpful zone of strategic depth as ISIS escalates its “Breaking the Walls” campaign to free jihadist prisoners, among other things, and this “despite [Idlib’s] near total control” by HTS. Turkey’s engagement with HTS, regarded with deep suspicion in many Western capitals at the outset, has taken Ankara into treacherous waters. Though the Turkish government still has HTS on its terrorist list, it regards at least parts of HTS as the answer to the Hurras al-Deen “irreconcilables” that must be eliminated, but HTS shows no sign of wanting to eradicate Hurras—a failure on its own terms of the rationale for engaging HTS. At its most charitable, it can be said the security architecture created by what is a “single socioeconomic order” in northern Syria has not worked: two ISIS caliphs have managed to hide out in Idlib and one of ISIS’s most senior leaders in the SNA areas, using SNA documentation, and—by their own account—HTS and Turkey had no idea they were there. Many, obviously, will have a darker read of what is happening here. Western governments need to ask some very difficult questions about what Turkey is doing in northern Syria and begin formulating policies to mitigate the security risks.
Finally, on the subject of questions to be addressed to Turkey, a Turkish media channel reported—and senior government officials “confirmed”—on 26 May that the Islamic State’s new leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, had been arrested in Istanbul a week earlier. Photographs circulated on social media and details were promised “in the coming days”. Two months later, we are still waiting. The present Turkish government has rather a habit of putting out something outlandish where the facts substantiating it will “be shortly announced” and then never are. It would be salutary to clarify if the Abu al-Hassan arrest report is such a case by extracting some kind of on-the-record explanation from the Turks about what happened.
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.