Haid Haid

Who is assassinating Ahrar al-Sham members?

Although most attacks against the group have been blamed on the Syrian regime or ISIS, increasing evidence points to an internal power struggle with the movement

Ahrar al-Sham fighters. (image via Eldorar.com)

There has been a significant increase in the number of assassinations taking place in Syria, especially ones targeting the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. The latest attack against the group took on June 20, with two explosions striking the group’s military base and the house of a military commander in the city of Harem, Idlib, leading to two civilian casualties. Labibi Nahas, the foreign affairs spokesperson for Ahrar al-Sham, recently described the increasing number of attacks as a systematic campaign to destroy the group. There are several theories about who is perpetuating these attacks and why, which vary from the usual suspects, the Syrian regime and ISIS, to members within the group itself who are engaging in a secret power struggle over the future of the movement.


In the past twenty days, at least 13 members of the Ahrar al-Sham movement have been killed, mainly in Idlib province, to go along with a number of unsuccessful assassination attempts. The majority of the assassination attempts were either carried out by planting explosive devices under the cars of targets or by ambushing fighters in public. A quick look at the profiles of the targeted individuals reveals that the main victims are leaders or explosive experts within the movement. The killing of the group’s chief of staff Majed Hussein al-Sadeq, aka Abu Hussien Binish, with three other members on April 23 was the latest significant attack in a string of unsolved assassinations against the movment. It is also worth mentioning here that many of Ahrar al-Sham’s top leaders were assassinated in September 2014 while meeting in one of the group’s secret locations. However, despite the numerous attacks, it is still not clear who is targeting the group.


It has become a habit for rebel groups in Syria to immediately link all violent incidents against them to sleeper cells affiliated with either the Assad regime or ISIS. This tendency is due to the long history of the Syrian regime and ISIS secretly targeting and eliminating their opponents during the conflict. For instance, Mohammed al-Shami, a leader in Ahrar al-Sham, told al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that Ahrar al-Sham has been suffering from assassinations for more than a year in Idlib province committed by sleeper cells loyal to ISIS and the regime. “The movement is one of the most infiltrated by ISIS due to the strong relations that Ahrar al-Sham members had with ISIS before the latter was forced out of rebel areas in 2015,” claims Ahmed Yousef, a former rebel fighter based in Turkey.


Recent efforts by Ahrar al-Sham to portray itself as a moderate group may be linked to the increasing number of assassination attacks against the group. According to Syrian journalist Akil Housain, the Ahrar al-Sham movement is in the process of purging its traditional leadership, which is considered more radical, and replacing it with younger leaders in an effort portray itself as a moderate group. Housain adds that Ahrar al-Sham was advised to do this in order to avoid being targeted by Russia warplanes. However, this process has apparently angered Ahrar al-Sham ally and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. “The tension between Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham is increasing because it’s becoming clear that Ahrar al-Sham is trying to distance itself from Nusra. In response, Nusra has begun targeting Ahrar al-Sham leaders in order to weaken their military capacity and maintain the group’s reliance on Nusra,” said a rebel fighter in Idlib, who spoke under condition of anonymity for safety reasons.


Responding to the wave of assassinations, Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson Labibi Nahas released a statement accusing multiple actors, including ISIS and international intelligence agencies, of targeting members of the movement in order to expedite its dismantlement from within via infiltrations and internal coups. Although the statement is vague, it acknowledges publically for the first time that some with the group believe that some of the assassinations may have been inside jobs. “Some of the more radical members of Ahrar al-Sham are not happy with the new direction the group is taking so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out later that many of these attacks were part of an internal power struggle,” said a media activist in ldlib who spoke under condition of anonymity.  


Ahrar al-Sham does not usually reveal the results of investigations into attacks against the group, which makes it difficult to know definitively who is behind the recent uptick in assassinations. However, by not immediately blaming the usual suspects of ISIS and the Syrian regime for all attacks and examining who is benefiting from the recent instability within the group, one can understand the many theories and uncertainty over who is targeting the Ahrar al-Sham movement and why. 


Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution and Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22 

Ahrar al-Sham fighters. (image via Eldorar.com)

he movement is one of the most infiltrated by ISIS due to the strong relations that Ahrar al-Sham members had with ISIS before the latter was forced out of rebel areas in 2015.

  • MattMarriott

    War by terror and fake truces, meant as a psy-op with the same goal: to destroy the soul of the freedom loving syrians. The tactics that since Feb 2015 worked to neutralize (before destroying) the rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk didn't work by far as good in Syria. That's why in Syria the illuminati only partly staged a "truce" (not for "jihadists") to start with, while each Minsk "ceasefire" (Sep 2014 and Feb 2015) was propagated as applying everywhere. Reminder from Jan 2016 Ongoing in Syria: Same tactic as in Donetsk and Lugansk: infiltrators dressed as rebels murder the real rebel commanders. Next step: the traitors convince the real rebels to sign "truces" and disarm. BASICS "Putin", Zakharchenko, Plotnitsky are not only traitors but also assassins: from commanders Mozgovoi and Bednov to mayor Ishchenko and militias ...

    June 22, 2016