The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate is not included in the official Canadian or American list of terrorist organizations, CBC reported Sunday.
While the group, now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“the Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”), has undergone several name changes in recent months, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate’s latest iteration has escaped the terrorist designation despite the fact that its prior versions were included on the list.
The affiliate originally went by Jabhat al-Nusra, or “the Victory Front,” and began operating in Syria in 2011, just as the ill-fated Syrian war kicked off. Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, who now has a $10 million bounty on his head, Nusra would quickly take a leading role in the armed Syrian opposition, a position it still holds, eventually subordinating other rebel factions under its own umbrella organization.
In the summer of 2016, Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), seeking to distance itself from the al-Qaeda brand in hopes of securing western aid in its fight against the Assad regime. To demonstrate its new commitment to moderation, as one of the first acts under the new moniker JFS kidnapped American journalist Lindsey Snell and held her for two weeks before she escaped.
Apparently the re-branding didn’t work, as the United States and Canada simply added JFS to the terrorism list as an alternate name for Nusra. By early 2017 the group would undergo another name change, this time to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which it remains today. HTS, in contrast to Nusra and JFS, is an umbrella organization that contains several different rebel groups.
While these cosmetic alterations might convince the credulous that the group has genuinely moved away from its jihadist roots, it is simply not so.
A State Department memorandum dated Mar. 10, 2017, prepared by U.S. Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratney, states in no uncertain terms that HTS is a terrorist organization and still maintains close ties to al-Qaeda.
“The main component of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is the al-Nusra Front, an organization on the terrorism list,” the memo said. “This classification is valid regardless of the label the group works under, and regardless of any other groups with which it merges.”
The memorandum was originally posted to the Twitter page of the U.S. Embassy in Syria on Mar. 11, and, apparently targeting a Syrian audience, is written in Arabic. To date, no official English version of the document has been released, but an original translation by the author can be found here.
“Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham mimics moderation, but this is only a simulation,” the document continues. “The leaders of the al-Nusra Front within Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham remain committed to al-Qaeda’s objectives and loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri. They will try to deny this, but they are lying.”
Indeed, in July of 2016 al-Qaeda leader and figurehead Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a recorded statement addressed to the group’s Syrian affiliate, said the group may drop its public ties to the international al-Qaeda organization in order to more effectively achieve its goals in the war.
“You can sacrifice without hesitation these organizational and party ties if they conflict with your unity and working as one body,” Zawahiri said in the statement. “The brotherhood of Islam among us is stronger than any organizational affiliation […] Your unity and unification is more important to us than any organizational link.”
The United States and its allies have supported a myriad of jihadist rebel factions throughout the Syrian war, such as Ahrar al-Sham and the child-beheading Nour ad-Din al-Zenki Brigade, the latter of which is now under the HTS umbrella.
This could explain the failure to include HTS on the terrorism list, as the U.S. earlier in the war supported the al-Zenki Brigrade with training and weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles. The U.S. cut off aid to the group last September amid accusations of war crimes, but designating HTS a terrorist group now would amount to an admission that it backed terror groups in the past.
Canada typically follows the United States in its terror list designations, explaining the country’s decision to leave HTS off its own list.
Whatever the reason, the failure to include HTS will make it harder to prosecute members and backers of the organization. At the moment, there are no legal barriers to prevent anyone from supplying the radical Islamist group.
Dr. Max Abrahams, assistant professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, may have got it right when he joked in a tweet that the new definition of “terrorist” is “Nonstate actors who use violence against civilians for a political goal and haven’t been supported by the U.S.” [Emphasis added]
Good enough for government work.
[This article was originally published at The Daily Sheeple.]