“Idlib’s Guantanamo”: Foreign Fighters in HTS Prisons

On June 8, Muzamjir al-Sham, a popular Twitter personality who has dropped scoops related to the jihad in Syria over the years and is believed to have been affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham previously, posted a series of allegations on Twitter related to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, in particular, in relation to foreign jihadis in areas HTS controls. He also notes that Jawlani is joined by key HTS leaders in making these policies that will be discussed below, including: Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani, ‘Abd al-Rahim al-‘Atun, and Mazhar al-Ways. You can read the entire series of tweets here.

Muzamjir claims that since Jawlani left al-Qaeda’s fold he and his organization have been killing, arresting, torturing, and in even some cases allegedly extraditing wanted jihadists to foreign governments abroad. Most notably, those affiliated with Huras al-Din and Ansar al-Islam. According to Muzamjir these alleged deals with foreign intelligence services is done to try and extract money. As a consequence, he claims that this is the reason a number of al-Qaeda-related figures were also killed: such as, Abu Zayd al-Urduni, Tariq al-Turki, Faruk al-Tunisi, Abu Yunis al-Almani, Abu Mu’adh al-Faransi, and Abu ‘A’ishah al-Tajiki, among others. Likewise, Muzamjir says that there are more than 170 foreign fighters detained by HTS another 100 who were allegedly disappeared, but he cannot corroborate those individuals’ names yet. As for those imprisoned, see below for a list of some of them that Muzamjir and his sources on the ground claim to have confirmed:

Huras al-Din

Top Leaders:

  • Shaykh Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Makki (Commander of Jaysh al-Malahim)
  • Shaykh Abu Hamzah al-Dar’awi (Member of the Shura Council)
  • Sahl al-Jazrawi (Qadi)
  • Shaykh Abu Sulayman al-Libi
  • Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Jaza’iri
  • Shaykh Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Urduni
  • Shaykh Abu al-Zubayr al-Libi
  • Shaykh Abu Mariyam al-Jaza’iri
  • Shaykh Abu Dhar al-Masri
  • Shaykh Abu Basir al-Shami
  • Shaykh Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Suri
  • Shaykh Abu Ghadiyah al-Jazrawi

Military Commanders and Field Cadres:

  • Khalal al-Jawfi (Military Commander)
  • Abu ‘Umar al-Faransi (Field Commander)
  • Abu Radwan al-Turki (Field Commander)
  • Abu Mus’ab al-Turki (Field Commander)
  • Zayd al-Kurdi
  • Abu Husayn al-Turki
  • Abu Sulayman al-Mulla
  • Abu Safiyah al-Faransi
  • Abu al-Layth al-Masri
  • Abu Anas al-Masri
  • Abu Satif al-Khashir
  • Abu Bilal Daragham
  • Abu Hurayrah al-Masri

Independent Foreign Fighter Leaders and Individuals

  • Abu Usamah al-Jaza’iri
  • Abu al-Darda’ al-Jaza’iri
  • Abu Basir al-Libi
  • ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Faransi
  • ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Turki
  • Turab al-Turki
  • Jund Allah al-Turki
  • Khatab al-Irani
  • Abu Ahmad al-Libi
  • Abu Ayub al-Maghribi

French Foreign Fighters

  • ‘Umar Omsen (Leader of Firqat al-Ghuraba’)
  • Abu Basir al-Faransi (Military Commander of Firqat al-Ghuraba’)
  • Abu Salih al-Faransi (Field Commander)
  • Abu Yusuf al-Faransi
  • Sayf Allah al-Faransi
  • Musa al-Faransi
  • Abu Asiya al-Faransi

Jama’at Ansar al-Islam

  • ‘Abd al-Matin al-Kurdi (Military Commander)
  • Abu Sihab al-Kurdi (Field Commander)
  • ‘Amar al-Kurdi
  • Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami
  • Abu ‘Ali al-Qalamuni
  • Khatab al-Turki

According to Muzamjir, while these individuals were under interrogation, so-called ‘external parties’ were involved to know more about these jihadis’ activities in Afghanistan and Europe prior to their arrival in Syria. As a consequence, he argues that Idlib is like a new version of Guantanamo Bay Prison.

Abu Khalid al-Shami Killed in Russian Airstrikes

On June 10, Abu Khalid al-Shami, the official military spokesperson for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was killed in the village of Iblin, in the region of Jebel al-Zawaya. He was killed alongside Abu Mus’ab, HTS’s military media chief, and Mu’ataz al-Nasr, a senior HTS commander. They were killed when they were attempting to rescue and respond to Russian airstrikes that killed up to 13 individuals, including women and children. HTS confirmed their deaths in a statement released in the afternoon of June 10.

Local news outlet Syria TV released details on Abu Khalid’s biography that haven’t been published previously (as far as I’m aware). At this moment, his relatives would not provide his real name due to security concerns. However, he’s originally from Jisrin in Eastern Ghutah in Rif Dimashq. Prior to joining HTS, he went by Abu Khalid Jisrin. Prior to the 2011 revolution, he had worked locally in a sewing factory before moving to Saudi Arabia for work. He allegedly returned home in mid-March 2011 to join in with the demonstrations in his home town.

At the beginning of the uprising he joined the Jisrin Local Council, but later shifted to the military fight and was involved in many key battles in the Eastern Ghutah region from 2013-2017. Originally he was a member of Liwa’ al-Qa’qa’ Bin ‘Umru al-Tamimi, which was within Alwiyah al-Habib al-Mustafa, which was itself a part of the broader coalition al-Itihad al-Islami al-Ajnad al-Sham. This formation had an Islamist bent, most likely of the Muslim Brotherhood variety.

In mid-February 2016, the Ajnad al-Sham coalition merged with Faylaq al-Rahman, another broader coalition in the Eastern Ghutah region that was a rival to the stronger salafi group Jaysh al-Islam. However, many fighters instead decided to choose a different path when this occurred with some joining Jaysh al-Islam or al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusrah, which would become Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July 2016 and later HTS in January 2017. At this point, Abu Khalid joined up with JN.

Abu Khalid moved up the ranks in various security positions until he became first the JN/JFS/HTS military commander for the Eastern Ghutah region and later the general commander for the entire group in the region. Yet, like many other fighters and fighting forces in that region, the Assad regime with the assistance of Russia and Iran via sieges and starvation campaigns over a few years eventually took over the area with a military operation between February and April 2018. As a consequence, those that did not flee or were not killed were sent via infamous green buses from Eastern Ghutah to Idlib.

Once in Idlib, Abu Khalid was assigned the role of official military spokesperson for HTS in June 2018. Since that time, Abu Khalid appeared in at least thirteen releases from HTS. Mainly releasing statements, conducting interviews with HTS’s official news agency Iba, or delivering video messages. Most of them dealt with updates on the most recent military developments as they related to HTS in the war. His most recent official public pronouncement was a statement released in late March 2021 responding to the latest round of Russian airstrikes on various installations and infrastructure in Idlib.

One among a number of martyrdom posters created by HTS supporters

Since he was killed, Abu Khalid has not only been eulogized by HTS and its ideologue Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani, but also its military wing and media relations office as well as its local front group Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’abiyah and by the Salvation Government’s General Shura Council.