Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Arabic: حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية), commonly referred to as Ahrar al-Sham, is a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist units that coalesced into a single brigade and later a division in order to fight against the Syrian Government led by Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War. Ahrar al-Sham was led by Hassan Aboud until his death in 2014. In July 2013, Ahrar al-Sham had 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, which at the time made it the second most powerful unit fighting against al-Assad, after the Free Syrian Army. It was the principal organization operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Islamic Front and was a major component of the Islamic Front. With an estimated 20,000 fighters in 2015, Ahrar al-Sham became the largest rebel group in Syria after the Free Syrian Army became less powerful. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam are the main rebel groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On 18 February 2018, Ahrar al-Sham merged with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement to form the Syrian Liberation Front.
The group aims to create an Islamic state under Sharia law.
While both are major rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham is not to be confused with Tahrir al-Sham, its main rival and former ally. Before 2016, Ahrar al-Sham cooperated with the al-Nusra Front, originally an affiliate of al-Qaeda. However, from 2017 onward it increasingly fought against al-Nusra, which rebranded as Tahrir al-Sham with a former Ahrar leader, Abu Jaber, as emir, and recruited some of Ahrar al-Sham’s most hardline units.
Ahrar al-Sham has defined itself in this way:
The Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant is an Islamist, reformist, innovative and comprehensive movement. It is integrated with the Islamic Front and is a comprehensive and Islamic military, political and social formation. It aims to completely overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and build an Islamic state whose only sovereign, reference, ruler, direction, and individual, societal and nationwide unifier is Allah Almighty’s Sharia (law).
According to the International Crisis Group in 2012, Ahrar al-Sham, along with the al-Nusra Front, has “embraced the language of jihad and called for an Islamic state based on Salafi principles.” The group has a Syrian leadership and “emphasizes that its campaign is for Syria, not for a global jihad”. However, according to US intelligence officials, a few al-Qaeda members released from prisons by the Syrian government have been able to influence actions of the group, and install operatives within the senior ranks of Ahrar al-Sham. Such ties were not disclosed publicly until January 2014, when a former senior leader of Ahrar al-Sham, the now deceased Abu Khalid al-Suri, acknowledged his long-time membership in al-Qaeda and role as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s representative in the Levant.
In its first audio address, Ahrar al-Sham stated its goal was to replace the Assad government with a Sunni Islamic state. It acknowledged the need to take into account the population’s current state of mind. It also described the uprising as a jihad against a Safawi plot to spread Shia Islam and establish a Shia state from Iran through Iraq and Syria, extending to Lebanon and Palestine. Ahrar al-Sham has claimed that it only targets government forces and militia and that it has cancelled several operations due to fear of civilian casualties. It provides humanitarian services and relief to local communities, in addition to pamphlets promoting religious commitment in daily life.
Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Aboud stated that Ahrar al-Sham worked with the Nusra Front and would have no problems with al-Nusra as long as they continued fighting the regime. Aboud also said Ahrar worked with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in some battles, but that their agenda was disagreeable. He said all parties, whether they were ISIL, al-Nusra, the Islamic Front, or the FSA, shared the same objective of establishing an Islamic state, but they differed as to the “tactics, strategies or methods”. Aboud claimed that in Syria “there are no secular groups”. Aboud condemned democracy in an interview with Al-Jazeera, saying that “Democracy is people governing people, according to rules they please. We say that we have a divine system whose law is Allah’s for his creatures and his slaves who he appointed as viceregents on this Earth.”
Mohamed Najeeb Bannan, an Islamic Front Sharia Court judge in Aleppo, stated, “The legal reference is the Islamic Sharia. The cases are different, from robberies to drug use, to moral crimes. It’s our duty to look at any crime that comes to us. … After the regime has fallen, we believe that the Muslim majority in Syria will ask for an Islamic state. Of course, it’s very important to point out that some say the Islamic Sharia will cut off people’s hands and heads, but it only applies to criminals. And to start off by killing, crucifying etc. That is not correct at all.” In response to being asked what the difference between the Islamic Front’s and the Islamic State’s version of sharia would be, he said “One of their mistakes is before the regime has fallen, and before they’ve established what in Sharia is called Tamkeen [having a stable state], they started applying Sharia, thinking God gave them permission to control the land and establish a Caliphate. This goes against the beliefs of religious scholars around the world. This is what [ISIL] did wrong. This is going to cause a lot of trouble. Anyone who opposes [ISIL] will be considered against Sharia and will be severely punished.”
Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic Front in general, issued condolences for Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar upon his death.
In August 2015, Ahrar al-Sham commander Eyad Shaar said “We are part of Syrian society and the international community. … We want to be part of the solution.”
Ahrar al-Sham’s political representative stated in December 2015 that Ahrar al-Sham are “not related with al Qaeda, we only fight with them against Assad and ISIS”.
In an Amnesty International report in July 2016, Ahrar al-Sham, along with al-Nusra Front, was described as having “applied a strict interpretation of Shari’a and imposed punishments amounting to torture or other ill-treatment for perceived infractions.” A political activist was abducted and detained by Ahrar al-Sham for having not worn a veil and accused of affiliation with the Syrian government. At least three children have been recorded to be abducted by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham between 2012 and 2015. Lawyers and political activists have faced reprisal attacks by Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist rebel groups due to their political activities and perceived religious beliefs.
In May 2016, Ahrar al-Sham released an address by then deputy general director Ali al-Omar in which he distinguished Ahrar al-Sham’s militancy from the Salafi jihadism of al-Qaeda and ISIL, and defended its political engagement.
On 18 June 2017, Ahrar al-Sham adopted Unified Arab Law in its courts in Syria. On 21 June, the group issued a fatwa permitting it to display the Syrian independence flag.
Ahrar al-Sham started forming units just after the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, and before the Syrian uprising started in March 2011. Most of the group’s founders were Salafist political prisoners who had been detained for years at the Sednaya prison until they were released as part of an amnesty by the Syrian Government in March–May 2011. At the time of its establishment in December 2011, Ahrar al-Sham consisted of about 25 rebel units spread across Syria. On 23 January 2012, the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions was officially announced in the Idlib Governorate. In the same announcement, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on the security headquarters in the city of Idlib. “To all the free people of Syria, we announce the formation of the Free Ones of the Levant Battalions,” the statement said, according to a translation obtained by the Long War Journal. “We promise God, and then we promise you, that we will be a firm shield and a striking hand to repel the attacks of this criminal Al Assad army with all the might we can muster. We promise to protect the lives of civilians and their possessions from security and the Shabiha [pro-government] militia. We are a people who will either gain victory or die.”
By July 2012, the group’s website listed 50 units, and by mid-January 2013, the number had increased to 83 units. Most of these units are headquartered in villages in Idlib Governorate, but many others are located in Hama and Aleppo Governorates. Some Ahrar al-Sham units that have been involved in heavy fighting include the Qawafel al-Shuhada and Ansar al-Haqq Brigades (both in Khan Shaykhun), the al-Tawhid wal-Iman Brigade (Maarat al-Nu’man, Idlib), the Shahba Brigade (Aleppo City), the Hassane bin Thabet Brigade (Darat Izza, Aleppo), and the Salahaddin and Abul-Fida Brigades (both in Hama City).
Members of the group are Sunni Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham cooperates with the Free Syrian Army; however, it does not maintain ties with the Syrian National Council. Although they coordinate with other groups, they maintain their own strict and secretive leadership, receiving the majority of their funding and support from donors in Arab countries.
Ahrar al-Sham was credited for rescuing NBC News team including reporter Richard Engel, producer Ghazi Balkiz, cameraman John Kooistra and others after they were kidnapped in December 2012. While Engel initially blamed pro-Assad Shabiha militants for the abduction, it later turned out that they were “almost certainly” abducted by an FSA affiliated rebel group. There were around 500 people in Ahrar al-Sham in August 2012.
In December 2012, a new umbrella organization was announced, called the Syrian Islamic Front, consisting of 11 Islamist rebel organizations. Ahrar al-Sham was the most prominent of these, and a member of Ahrar al-Sham’s, Abu ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Suri, served as the Front’s spokesman.
In January 2013, several of the member organizations of the Syrian Islamic Front announced that they were joining forces with Ahrar al-Sham into a broader group called Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham).
In September 2013, members of ISIL killed the Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Obeida Al-Binnishi, after he had intervened to protect a Malaysian Islamic charity; ISIL had mistaken its Malaysian flag for that of the United States.
In August 2013, members of the brigade uploaded a video of their downing of a Syrian Air Force MiG-21 over the Latakia province with a Chinese-made FN-6 MANPADS, apparently becoming the first recorded kill with such a weapon.
In mid-November 2013, after the Battle for Brigade 80 near the Aleppo International Airport, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant beheaded a commander of Ahrar al-Sham forces, mistaking him for an Iraqi Shiite pro-government militiaman.
In November 2013, the SIF announced that it was dissolving, and that its components would henceforth operate as part of the newly formed Islamic Front.
In December 2013, there were reports of fighting between ISIL & another Islamic rebel group in the town of Maskana, Aleppo; activists reported that the Islamic rebel group was identified as Ahrar al-Sham.
On 23 February 2014, one of the top commanders and al-Qaeda representative, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was killed in a suicide bombing in Aleppo, organized by ISIL. In March 2015, the Suqour al-Sham Brigade merged with Ahrar al-Sham, but left in September 2016. Later in September, Suqour al-Sham joined the Army of Conquest, a group which also has Ahrar al-Sham as a member.
Assassination of Hassan Abboud:
On 9 September 2014, a bomb went off during a high level meeting in Idlib province, killing Hassan Abboud, the leader of the group, and 27 other senior commanders, including military field commanders, members of the group’s Shura council, and leaders of allied brigades. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack. The day after the bombing Abu Jaber was announced as replacement leader. Ahrar al-Sham received condolences from the al-Qaeda organization Nusra. Ahrar also received condolences from other al-Qaeda members.
In early November 2014, representatives from Ahrar al-Sham reportedly attended a meeting with al-Nusra Front, the Khorasan Group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Jund al-Aqsa, which sought to unite the groups against the Syrian government. However, by 14 November 2014, it was reported that the negotiations had failed.
During the night of 6 November 2014, a US airstrike targeted the group for the first time, hitting its headquarters in Idlib governorate and killing Abu al-Nasr, who was in charge of receiving weapons for the group. On 24 November 2014, a US airstrike on the ISIL headquarters building in Ma’dan, Raqqa killed another Ahrar al-Sham fighter, who was being held prisoner by ISIL.
The New York Times reported that the pro Al-Qaeda Saudi cleric Abdullah Al-Muhaisini ordered that Christians in Idlib were not to be killed, and that Christians were being defended by Ahrar al-Sham. However, there were subsequent unconfirmed reports of Ahrar al-Sham executing two Christians in the city.
On 26 April 2015, Ahrar al-Sham, along with other major Aleppo based groups, established the Fatah Halab joint operations room.
Mohannad al-Masri, known by the alias Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, was appointed leader in September 2015. Ali al-Omar, known by the alias Abu Ammar al-Omar, was appointed leader in November 2016.
On 13 May 2016, Amnesty International named Ahrar al-Sham as one of the groups responsible for “repeated indiscriminate attacks that may amount to war crimes” and reported allegations of their use of chemical weapons. On 12 May 2016, Al-Nusra Front fighters attacked and captured the Alawite village of Zara’a, Southern Hama Governorate. Pro-government media reported that Ahrar al-Sham fighters were involved. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that civilians had been kidnapped and the Red Crescent reportedly confirmed that 42 civilians and seven National Defence Force (pro-government militia) fighters were killed during the militant attack. Additionally, some pro-Syrian government news sources reported that around 70 civilians, including women and children were kidnapped and taken to Al-Rastan Plains. Some of the captured were pro-government troops. A number of houses were destroyed and local property was looted following the rebel capture of the village.
On 10 December 2016, 16 Ahrar al-Sham units under Hashim Sheikh, known by the alias Abu Jaber, formed a quasi-independent group within Ahrar called Jaysh al-Ahrar, or the Free Army, for similar reasons as Ashida’a Mujahideen Brigade leaving 3 months prior.
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the best-armed and most powerful rebel factions active in the Syrian Civil War. It progressed from the use of improvised explosive devices and small-arms ambushes in early 2012 to assuming a lead role in large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts by 2013. The capture of materiel from the Syrian Armed Forces enabled Ahrar to regularly deploy tanks and mobile artillery and anti-tank guided missiles. It occasionally employed 1990s-era Croatian rocket and grenade launchers. Ahrar al Sham was involved in every major rebel victory over Syrian Government forces between September 2012 and mid-2013. Ahrar grew significantly by absorbing into its ranks other rebel factions from the Islamic Front and the Syrian Islamic Front which preceded it.
Donations from supporters abroad were important for Ahrar’s growth. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been reported to have actively supported Ahrar al-Sham. A statement issued by Ahrar al-Sham thanked Turkey and Qatar for their help. By 2013, the Kuwaiti private fund Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People, managed by Sheikh Ajmi and Sheik Irshid al-Hajri had supported Ahrar with US$400,000, for which Ahrar recorded a public thank you.
Ahrar al-Sham is not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, or the European Union. Since December 2015, the UN Security Council has been trying to assemble a list of terrorist groups in Syria. Russia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates support classifying Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group, but they have not been able to achieve a unanimous consensus.
Ahrar al-Sham’s relationships with U.N. designated terrorist organizations has been, and continues to be, a key point of contention in U.S. and Russian foreign relations and in their Syrian ceasefire negotiations. The U.S. Department of State has said that “Ahrar al-Sham is not a designated foreign terrorist organization”. However, some U.S. officials have reportedly considered designating it as a terrorist organization because of its links to al-Qaeda subgroups such as the al-Nusra Front.
But the most important thing, frankly, is seeing if we can reach an understanding with the Russians about how to, number one, deal with Daesh and al-Nusrah. Al-Nusrah is the other group there – Jabhat al-Nusrah. They are a designated terrorist group by the United Nations. And there are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated – Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusrah – Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly – who brush off and fight with that – alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime.
before which he had said of Ahrar al-Sham that:
From Orlando to San Bernardino to the Philippines and Bali, we’ve seen pictures and we’ve heard testimony of shocking crimes committed by al-Qaida, by Boko Haram, by Jaysh al-Islam, by Ahrar al-Sham, by al-Shabaab, Daesh, other groups against innocent civilians, against journalists, and against teachers particularly.
It was reported that administration officials disapproved this mention and thought that it would potentially harm the U.S. government efforts to convince the Russians and the Syrian government not to attack Ahrar al-Sham with one senior administration official reportedly saying that despite the fact that “for months, we’ve been arguing to make sure the Russians and the Syrian regime don’t equate these groups with the terrorists, Kerry’s line yields that point.” Explaining these comments, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that “secretary Kerry was simply trying to describe the complexity of the situation in Syria, noting that we aren’t blind to the notion that some fighters shift their loyalties.” It was also reported that some Syrian groups see Kerry’s comments as an example of how the Obama administration has slowly moved toward the Russian view of Syria, which includes painting all opposition groups as terrorists in order to justify attacking them.
Although Ahrar al-Sham is not officially designated as a terrorist organization in Germany, on 6 October 2016 a German court has convicted four German-Lebanese men who supplied the group in Syria of “supporting a terrorist organization”, and, on 30 March 2017, two Syrian refugees who were members of Ahrar al-Sham were placed on trial in Munich, Germany for being members of a terrorist organization. According to the prosecutor, the goal of the group is to “overthrow the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and establish an Islamic regime”.