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Will Tahrir al-Sham close ‘collaboration’ file and al-Qahtani case?

Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the military controller in Idlib, is trying to end and get rid of the ‘collaboration and penetration’ issue that has plagued its ranks, at least media-wise, after a recent statement from the Public Security Apparatus stating that the latter has addressed all aspects of the file and thwarted a security plan that aimed to split the ranks.

The statement carried reassurances, but it did not close the ‘collaboration’ chapter with internal and external parties, and it was preceded by leaks from ‘auxiliary media’ that carried confessions of dealing with the International Coalition, Russia, and the Syrian regime to split the HTS ranks, and executing a coup from the faction’s second leader, Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri or al-Harari known as ‘Abu Maria al-Qahtani’ (his powers are frozen and is detained in the faction’s prisons).

The pace of talk about the ‘collaboration’ file within the faction, led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, has calmed down compared to the last weeks when the faction’s third leader, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour), defected from it. But the chapter of conflict and disagreement between the HTS streams has not been closed, especially with the presence of Abu Ahmad Zakour outside the faction’s control, and al-Qahtani behind its bars.

Statement with four messages

The Public Security Apparatus operating in Idlib announced that, during the past months, it had managed to thwart a security plot backed by what it called ‘hostile entities’, aiming to recruit some individuals to ‘sow discord and divide the ranks, and destabilize security and stability in the region.’

Through a statement, on January 15, it said that with the announcement of completing investigations and covering the elements of the case and its evidence, it reassures everyone that it is close to ending security operations related to the penetration file, considering the failure of the plan and breaking it as ‘a new achievement to be added to the achievements of the revolutionary project in Idlib.’

Since 2020, the Public Security Apparatus has become active in Idlib as a body responsible for pursuing security wanted operations, and it regularly announces the arrest of wanted individuals and ‘sleeping cells’, or ‘agents of the regime’, and the communication office of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham previously denied to Enab Baladi its affiliation with it, but as the years passed, it became clear that it was the security arm of it.

The researcher in jihadist groups, Orabi Orabi, told Enab Baladi that what is noticeable from the statement is that it did not mention full closure of the ‘collaboration’ file, but rather addressing all elements of the case and what it includes in terms of investigation, the names involved, etc., which means that they have set potential targets and reached the threads of the matter and that they continue to investigate, and what confirms that is the arrest of some individuals by the Public Security after the statement.

Orabi believes that the statement came in the context of reassuring the surrounding environment, and it carries a primary message to the popular incubator that the faction has reached the actors, there was no disregard for security issues, and there is control over the matter of ‘agents’.

The statement also carries a second message to the personalities who defected from Tahrir al-Sham from members and leaders, that their exit from the faction will not have any negative impact, and a third message to the parties who want to defect that Tahrir al-Sham is aware and knowledgeable of their plan, according to the researcher.

Orabi believes that the statement carries a fourth message to the international bodies, that Tahrir al-Sham has surrounded the case and knows all the details, and this opens a ‘bazaar’ for negotiations and bargaining with those parties that have fingers or hands or arms inside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Leaks without denial

At the beginning of this year, leaks started to come out through the ‘auxiliary media’ for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (widespread Telegram channels in the area convey the HTS narrative and are close to it) as they were parts of the interrogation records with the leader Abu Maria al-Qahtani and confessions from him about the charges attributed to him.

The circulated confessions came out after four months of freezing al-Qahtani’s powers, on August 17, 2023, due to ‘his mistake in managing his communications without consideration for the sensitivity of his position’, according to a statement from the HTS, and recently the leaks included:

  • Al-Qahtani admitted that he was subordinate to the operations room of the International Coalition in the city of Erbil, Iraq, where the room is headed by an Iraqi officer, an agent who visited Idlib more than once and met with him.
  • The room includes the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the British external intelligence service (MI6), the French intelligence agency (DGSE), the Israeli foreign intelligence agency (Mossad), and the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
  • There is high coordination between the Erbil room and the Russian intelligence through a Syrian officer naturalized as Russian.
  • Al-Qahtani admitted that he has been recruited to work for the benefit of the International Coalition since 2018 and that his work with the Erbil room was to pursue the faction ‘Guardians of Religion’ and the ‘Islamic State’ organization.
  • A command came to al-Qahtani to start recruitment operations within the ranks of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, preparing for an internal coup (coup of the agents) and controlling the north by force, to make the decision of the region entirely in the hands of the Coalition, and he started that more than two years ago.
  • Al-Qahtani raised, before his arrest, a report for the Erbil room stating that the Public Security Apparatus became with him and under his control after recruiting most of the apparatus leaders, as well as the Salvation Government (the political cover for the HTS) after recruiting some ministers and officials in it and that he began recruiting within the military wing, and he needs a full year to ensure the readiness of the wing, i.e., till mid-2024, and at that time, he will be ready to start the coup.
  • Execution of a coup on Tahrir al-Sham by the end of 2024, where the Syrian regime and Russia launch a military campaign on the region and occupy the villages of Taftanaz, Maarat al-Numan, al-Foua, Taum, Binnish, and the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4), in cooperation with ‘the agents’.
  • During the campaign, al-Qahtani begins the execution of the coup by killing the princes and leaders of the factions through the bodyguards who had been recruited, and several scenarios and contingency plans were put in place to carry that out, including kidnapping some faction leaders and handing them over to the regime so that the regime portrays them as having returned to the embrace of the state.
  • After that, al-Qahtani, along with the Security Apparatus leaders and some of those close to him, forms the Coup Leadership Council and imposes a curfew from north of Idlib city to the border strip with Turkey, and Turkish special forces are deployed to help al-Qahtani in his coup and controlling the area.
  • The International Coalition forms a ‘special cell’ chaired by al-Qahtani escort, to kill most of the coup leaders who participated in it to monopolize the command.

With the plethora of information and news circulating about confusion, strife, and defections in the ranks of Tahrir al-Sham, a channel appeared on Telegram named ‘Denial/Confirmation Tahrir al-Sham’, which followed the circulated news and denied several news at the level of the front line, including the denial of the escape of Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Zirba, responsible for the economic file in the HTS, and denial of placing the Sharia jurist and member of the Fatwa Council, Mazhar al-Wais, under house arrest, and the denial of arresting the military leader Abu Osama Munir.

The channel neither denied nor confirmed the authenticity of the leaks related to confessions of Abu Maria al-Qahtani, and Enab Baladi contacted the media office of Tahrir al-Sham to find out the truth of the circulated leaks, but it had not received a response until the moment of publishing this report.

The defected leader from Tahrir al-Sham, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh, previously told Enab Baladi, that the coup issue against the faction leader al-Jolani is a pretext by the latter to purge a segment of the HTS that does not have absolute loyalty to him, and al-Sheikh considered that the coup was not true, and that al-Qahtani’s biggest dream is to return to Iraq.

The researcher in jihadist groups, Orabi Orabi, does not believe that the leaks are a gateway to liquidating al-Qahtani, and he predicts the possibility of his liquidation later on, but not in the context of the current security operation, perhaps after a year or two, so that the internal atmosphere calms down and accepts any process of accountability and liquidation.

And the researcher predicted that currently, Tahrir al-Sham would sacrifice some ‘smaller’ elements without sacrificing the big leaders at the level of the front line.

Exclusive leadership role

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) first appeared in Syria in early 2012 under the name ‘Al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant’, a faction that distinguished itself by emerging from the womb of al-Qaeda, the most prominent ‘jihadist’ faction on the global scene, and later announced its separation from any organization, considering itself a local Syrian force.

The HTS militarily and security-wise controls the province of Idlib, a part of the western countryside of Aleppo, the countryside of Latakia, and the al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama, led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, who is still listed among those wanted by the United States, with a reward of up to ten million US dollars for whoever provides information about him.

As for a question previously posed by Enab Baladi to the leader Jihad Issa al-Sheikh about al-Jolani’s dominance in setting the strategies of Tahrir al-Sham, changing its discourse, and its communications with external parties, and who participates with him in this process, al-Sheikh answered that al-Jolani is the sole leader.

He mentioned that al-Jolani relies in his leadership on three people: Zaid al-Attar regarding external files, Abu Ahmad Hudud concerning internal security files and the elimination of opponents, and Abdul-Rahim Atoun for religious fatwas and ‘patching and beautifying the HTS project in the eyes of the fighters.’