Established by Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud 2005 - Homs

Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda's latest incarnation in Syria

| 2017-02-12 10:29:50
Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda's latest incarnation in Syria
(BBC)- The Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), known as al-Nusra Front until it broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda last July, has merged with four smaller Syrian factions and rebranded itself as "Tahrir al-Sham".

The new group's leader has been named as Hashim al-Sheikh, who previously served as the head of the powerful Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham.
Ahrar al-Sham itself has refused to join the new body and has been at loggerheads with JFS in northern Syria.

On 9 February, al-Shaikh delivered the group's first leadership message in which he insisted the new entity was independent and not an extension of former organisations and factions.

By reinventing itself again, JFS appears to be trying to distance itself from its al-Qaeda past and embed itself more deeply within the Syrian insurgency.
No mention has been made of JFS leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in any of the new group's communications. But he is widely believed to be serving as its military commander.

'Full merger'

JFS announced the creation of "Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham" (which translates in English as Liberation of Levant Organisation) in a statement that was released on 28 January via its channel on the messaging app Telegram.
The statement indicated that the groups which had agreed to join would dissolve themselves and "merge fully" into the new entity.

This was further reiterated in al-Shaikh's recent message which described the new body as a "melting pot for all factions".
In addition to JFS, Tahrir al-Sham founding groups included: Nur al-Din Zinki Movement (one of the most important opposition factions in Aleppo); jihadist Ansar al-Din Front; the Homs-based Jaysh al-Sunnah; and Liwa al-Haqq (operates in Idlib, Aleppo and Hamah).

The new entity also received the endorsement of six prominent Syria-based jihadist clerics, including the charismatic Saudi-born Abdullah al-Muhaisini. The clerics signed a separate statement announcing their intention to join Tahrir al-Sham.

Since the creation of the new entity, JFS has issued no new propaganda under the JFS brand, suggesting that it has been dissolved.

Hashim al-Shaikh (Abu-Jabir)

The head of the new group, Abu-Jabir, had been appointed as Ahrar al-Sham leader after the group's entire leadership was wiped out in a bomb blast in September 2014. He held the leadership seat until September 2015.

According to mainstream accounts, Abu-Jabir was born in 1968 in Aleppo, Syria. He is said to have fought alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and helped Syrian jihadist fighters travel to Iraq. Reports indicate he was arrested later in Syria and was one of many Islamists released from prison in 2011.

Abu-Jabir's appointment as the leader of Tahrir al-Sham marks the culmination of tensions between moderate and hardline elements within Ahrar al-Sham, which escalated in recent months over disagreements on the notion of a merger with JFS.
As attempts for a merger including both JFS and Ahrar al-Sham failed, hardliners within Ahrar al-Sham, including some prominent figures led by Abu-Jabir defected to Tahrir al-Sham.

This places the new entity in the position of a rival to Ahrar al-Sham, which in turn took a number of smaller factions under its wing.

In his message, Abu-Jabir reached out to other factions urging them to "forget the past" and join his group with the aim of continuing the fight until the goals of the uprising were realised and the Syrian government overthrown. But Abu-Jabir's dismissal of political negotiations as a means to achieve that goal might alienate some factions that have shown willingness to engage in talks.

Latest rebranding

The announcement of the new body is the second rebranding undergone by the group formerly known as al-Nusra Front in a relatively short period of time.
It follows its public severing of ties with al-Qaeda and rebranding as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham at the end of July 2016.

These moves represent attempts by the group to embed itself more deeply within the wider Syrian insurgency and distance itself from the al-Qaeda brand.
But if anything, the latest initiative is an indication that JFS's dream of winning over key Syrian factions appears to have failed, at least for the time being.

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