Road to the Caliphate: April 10, 2013

Primary Source:

Audio message from Jabhat al-Nuṣrah’s Abū Muḥammad al-Jawlānī: “About the Fields of al-Shām”

Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib (post 1 and post 2)

Secondary Sources:

In Syria, the Jihadist Campaign for Hearts and Minds |

Al Nusrah Front leader renews allegiance to al Qaeda, rejects new name – The Long War Journal

Nusra Front members in Syria have never masked al Qaida ties | McClatchy

Jabhat al-Nusra Declares Allegiance to Al-Qaeda – Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East

HTS’s Self-Proclaimed Accomplishments in 2022

On January 1, HTS’s municipal governance apparatus the Administration of the Liberated Areas released a series of infographics (below) about self-proclaimed achievements over the past year. Instead of framing it as achievements for HTS or the Salvation Government (the civilian-led executive governing body in HTS-controlled areas) for that matter, the post discusses these achievements as ones for the Syrian revolution. This is because from HTS’s perspective they view everything that is being done in its territories as for the benefit of the revolution and that the revolution is not about a particular individual or faction, but everyone. Thus, this is line with HTS’s broader messaging strategy in recent years since it began to co-opt the language of the revolution. Of course, other groups and activists that are against and disagree with HTS would argue otherwise, but this is how HTS projects the issue. Alongside the infographics just released, I will also provide more primary sources on each self-proclaimed achievement and note anything specific about it, if a comment and analysis is warranted.

January: Formation of the new government

Every year since the Salvation Government (SG) was formed in 2017, there has been an elite-led process amongst the consultative council, tribal elders, and key town and displaced notables, whereby a prime minister is nominated to manage those in charge of the various ministries that make up the SG. These ministries currently include Interior; Justice; Endowments, Proselytization, and Guidance; Education; Health; Local Administration and Services; Economy and Resources; Development and Humanitarian Affairs; Higher Education; and Agriculture and Irrigation.

January: Rehabilitation of the Bab al-Hawa – Halab Road

The opening of the rehabilitated road was noteworthy because it was the first time that the leader of HTS, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, was publicly inaugurating a services-related project instead of the usual meetings he would have with military officials or notables. This came on the heels of him in November 2021 appearing at an emergency session of the General Shura Council to alleviate the bread price crisis at the time. Thus, the end of 2021 and through 2022 saw more appearances of Jawlani acting as a political figure alongside his more traditional role as the overall military commander for HTS and its fight against the Assad regime and rival factions in the insurgency. More of these types of actions by Jawlani are touted as other achievements below too. During this inauguration, Jawlani spoke and said this achievement is a “success of the revolution,” and that it should be celebrated by anyone who supports the revolution. One of the more interesting quotes that Jawlani said during this speech too was that: “freedom comes from military strength… and dignity comes from economic and investment projects, through which the people, and the citizens, live a dignified life that befits Muslims.” Therefore, according to Jawlani, each of these projects matters because it is a “step towards Damascus, and a step towards Aleppo, and step towards all the rest of Syria.”

February: Solving the murder of the two children in Atme

This is likely highlighted to showcase the competence of the Interior Ministry’s police force and investigative prowess from the perspective of HTS.

March: Opening of the Military College

I’m not quite sure why they noted that the Military College was opened in March 2022 since it was originally announced in December 2021. The only thing noteworthy about March for the Military College was that the college had its final exam for its first batch of cadets. Plus, the above image is from September 2022 when the Military College had a graduation ceremony. Nevertheless, the announcement of the Military College was another step in the professionalization of HTS’s fighting forces and structure from one that was involved in terrorism (mainly when it was Jabhat al-Nusrah and Jabhat al-Fatah al-Sham) and insurgency to a formalized body that could eventually lead to a Ministry of Defense within the SG.

June: Bab al-Hawa Industrial City

The Bab al-Hawa Industrial City was originally announced in mid-September 2021, however, the development of the area started being built in June 2022. The most recent aerial update of its progress is from January 4, 2023 (bottom image).

July: The Irrigation Project From ‘Ayn al-Zarqa’

The project will pump water from ‘Ayn al-Zarqa’ to Sahl al-Ruj. This was another governance project that Jawlani inaugurated. During this inauguration, Jawlani had another speech. One of the points that Jawlani made was that there needed to be investment in irrigation as this is the biggest barrier to increasing agricultural production. Jawlani also laid out a whole agricultural plan, which I wrote about here, among other issues.

August: The Idlib Book Fair

It took place from August 18-25, 2022.

September: Issuance of ID Cards

Another mechanism that further consolidates HTS’s governance project through bureaucratic measures to gain a better understanding of who is actually living in its territory. While some might view this as a way to better spy on local residents, there is also another plausible reason for this: the transient nature of those that come and go through HTS’s territory, especially with the Syrian National Army territories. Plus, 3/4 of the population in HTS-controlled areas are displaced individuals from different parts of Syria. Thus, from HTS’s perspective it would make sense to formalize this process.

September: Honoring Memorizers of the Qur’an

This is through the private Dar al-Wahi al-Sharif Qur’anic school, which is run by Hisham al-Shaykh, the original leader of HTS when it formed in January 2017, prior to Jawlani retaking the mantle in October 2017.

October: Rehabilitation of the Bab al-Hawa – Jindires Road

Work on upgrading this road actually began in late August 2022. What’s noteworthy about this road is that when it first began being changed from dirt to asphalt, HTS did not actually control the town of Jindires. This was the first possible indication of HTS’s interest in eventually taking it over from Syrian National Army (SNA) factions, which HTS eventually attempted to takeover in mid-October 2022. While Turkey eventually forced HTS out, it is believed that secretly HTS still has a presence there and acts as shadow rulers via a puppet SNA faction.

October: Supporting the Education File

This occurred at the tenth session of the General Shura Council, whereby Jawlani made another appearance. Other key leaders in the Salvation Government spoke on improving the educational sector including the Prime Minister of the SG Ali Kida and the Ministers of Education and Higher Education. They sought to interrogate problems in the educational sector in the liberated areas. During Jawlani’s speech at the session, he opened by focusing on the education process, which Jawlani views as “the foundation for any renaissance of societies that have gone through wars and crises.” Jawlani sees this issue as a generational project: “The real revolution is bringing up an educated generation capable of managing itself, and of bringing up children on a high standard for the benefit of the whole community.” Jawlani is self-aware and argues that it will take a long time for this to develop, and “cannot be solved in one session or one month.” Thus, Jawlani calls for the creation of a strategic plan for education since 200,000 people in the liberated areas have dropped out of school, leading to potential “illiteracy that leads to ignorance, which is a precursor to crime, unemployment, begging, and many other things.”

November: Idlib Municipal Stadium

The new stadium for various sports activities was inaugurated.

November: Re-opening the National Hospital

This is seen as a major victory since the prior national hospital in Idlib had been bombed by the Assad regime in late May 2016, a heinous tactic the regime has used against civilian healthcare facilities all over Syria. Interestingly, HTS’s Dr. Mazhar al-Ways was at the dedication. Currently, he is a key ideologue for HTS and also is on the SG’s Ministry of Justice’s Supreme Judicial Committee. However, when he was younger, he received a medical degree from Damascus University, hence why he’s still described as a doctor whenever mentioned in HTS materials.

December: Winter Warmth Campaign

This was yet another campaign that Jawlani was a part of to announce greater assistance for those living in IDP camps ahead of the rugged winter weather. While this campaign was announced in mid-December 2022, the efforts to help individuals is still ongoing and is highlighted almost daily by the SG’s Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs. These efforts have also been funneled through HTS’s General Zakat Commission to assist the super needy amongst the IDPs. It should also be noted that this campaign comes a month-and-a-half earlier than last winter’s ‘Your Warmth Is Our Duty’ campaign in late January 2022. Suggesting that HTS has learned to get ahead of the issue this time around before there is an actual crisis. During the most recent announcement, Jawlani said that these provisions will help 15,000 families and provide necessary resources and funds. Jawlani also framed this campaign as a way to distinguish HTS’s governance with the mendacity of the Assad regime: “The blessed Syrian revolution, based on strength and dignity, continues to care for the people, god willing, to not enable the criminal regime, and to support the people despite all the bombing, destruction, and explosives campaigns.” Therefore, according to Jawlani, despite the regime’s failures, HTS will continue to strive to build the “Syria of the future.”

December: The Opening of Clock Square

This can be seen as in line with broader “beautification” projects to re-establish a sense of normalcy within the cities and villages of HTS-controlled areas by making the design of the central corridors have a new aesthetic that could make locals proud since they built it themselves and can now take advantage of the urban space beyond the rubble that the Assad regime created through its campaign of destruction.

From The Archives: The Founding of Jabhat al-Nusrah

On January 22, 2012, a new post on the Shamukh al-Islam Forum teased a big announcement from Syria. It included the below banner:

Urgent: Soon… The Expected Historical Moment – Glad Tidings to the People of al-Sham!!

A day later, on January 23, Jabhat al-Nusrah announced itself via its al-Manarah al-Bayda’ Foundation for Media Prouction, which included an audio message from the leader of the new group Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani.

Now… Glad Tidings to the People of al-Sham – al-Manarah al-Bayda’ Foundation for Media Production presents “Declaration of the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nuṣrah): For the People of Syria from the Mujahidin of Syria in the Fields of Jihad”

A week later, I wrote a short analysis of the video, maybe the first, if not one of the first to look at the group before it became more well-known by the end of 2012. Interesting reading it back now a decade later, considering where its successor group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is today and how Jawlani now is front and center compared to the first few years when he wouldn’t show his face. Here is the original video release:

Jabhat al-Nusrah’s original logo

“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.