Hashim al-Sheikh

Hashim al-Sheikh—also known as Abu Jaber—is the former leader of the umbrella Islamist coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS (“Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”).Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php. The coalition comprises five Islamist militant groups, including the Nusra Front—also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda and allies announce ‘new entity’ in Syria,” Long War Journal, January 28, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/01/al-qaeda-and-allies-announce-new-entity-in-syria.php;
“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206.
Before leading HTS, Sheikh acted as the emir (leader) of Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham from September 2014 until September 2015.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206. Sheikh had previously led two fighting units in the Free Syrian Army and facilitated the travel of Syrian foreign fighters to join al-Qaeda in Iraq.Bill Roggio, “New leader of Ahrar al Sham previously led Free Syrian Army unit,” Long War Journal, September 11, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/new_leader_of_ahrar_al_sham_pr.php;
Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php.

The Nusra Front announced the creation of HTS on January 28, 2017, via Telegram, the encrypted messaging app.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206. In addition to the Nusra Front, the HTS consists of Islamist rebel groups Harakat Nur Al Din Zanki, Liwa Al Haqq, Ansar Al Din, and Jaysh Al Sunnah.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda and allies announce ‘new entity’ in Syria,” Long War Journal, January 28, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/01/al-qaeda-and-allies-announce-new-entity-in-syria.php. Sheikh’s former rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, has reportedly refused to join HTS due to quarrels with the Nusra Front in northern Syria.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206.

Sheikh tweeted his resignation from Ahrar al-Sham on January 28, 2017—the same day that HTS’s formation was announced.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda and allies announce ‘new entity’ in Syria,” Long War Journal, January 28, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/01/al-qaeda-and-allies-announce-new-entity-in-syria.php. On February 9, 2017, Sheikh released his first formal statement as HTS’s emir, claiming that “it is an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions. It is a merger where all factions and titles were dissolved and disintegrated.”Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php;
“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206.

Sheikh—reportedly born and raised in Syria—received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Aleppo. According to a profile on Sheikh released by Ahrar al-Sham, he began working in Syria’s “Defense Factories” but was “arrested several times” due to his Salafi-jihadist beliefs.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206;
Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php;
Bill Roggio, “New leader of Ahrar al Sham previously led Free Syrian Army unit,” Long War Journal, September 11, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/new_leader_of_ahrar_al_sham_pr.php.
In the early 2000s, Sheikh began to work as a facilitator for al-Qaeda in Iraq, helping Syrian fighters travel to the group. He was arrested by the Syrian government in 2005 and incarcerated for six years, before being released from Syria’s Sednaya prison in September 2011 as part of a mass release of Islamist prisoners following anti-government protests.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206;
Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php;
Rania Abouzeid, “The Jihad Next Door, Politico, June 23, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/al-qaeda-iraq-syria-108214_full.html#.WKIYRYWcGM8.

Sheikh and several other prisoners joined militant Islamist groups opposing the Syrian government.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206;
Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php;
Rania Abouzeid, “The Jihad Next Door, Politico, June 23, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/al-qaeda-iraq-syria-108214_full.html#.WKIYRYWcGM8.
Sheikh soon became a senior leader in the Free Syrian Army’s Al Fajr Islamic Movement, later commanding its Musab Bin Umayr Battalion in Aleppo.Bill Roggio, “New leader of Ahrar al Sham previously led Free Syrian Army unit,” Long War Journal, September 11, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/new_leader_of_ahrar_al_sham_pr.php. Sheikh and his unit reportedly fought closely alongside the Nusra Front against the Syrian governmentThomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php. until the groups eventually assimilated into Ahrar al-Sham. Following the merger, Ahrar al-Sham appointed Sheikh as a member of its shura council and head of its operations in eastern Aleppo.Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php.

In September 2014, much of Ahrar al-Sham’s former leadership, including its then-leader Hassane Abboud, was killed in a bombing in Idlib, Syria. The group’s shura council elected Sheikh as Abboud’s temporary predecessor for a year-long term.“The Shifting Face of Ahrar al-Sham,” The Soufan Group, September 16, 2015, http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-the-shifting-face-of-ahrar-al-sham/. The following September, Sheikh ceded his position to the newly elected emir, Muhannad al-Masri, also known as Abu Yahya al-Hamwi.“The Shifting Face of Ahrar al-Sham,” The Soufan Group, September 16, 2015, http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-the-shifting-face-of-ahrar-al-sham/. In February 2016, Sheikh attempted to unify several Aleppo-based Islamist rebel groups with Ahrar al-Sham.Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php. The attempted alliance, though ultimately unsuccessful, demonstrated his desire to merge various rebel groups to form a unified coalition.Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php.

HTS announced Sheikh’s resignation as the group’s leader on October 1, 2017. Sheikh was succeeded by Nursa Front founder Abu-Muhammad al-Julani.Fergus Kelly, “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups,” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017, https://thedefensepost.com/2017/11/03/al-qaeda-idlib-syria-nusra-jfs-hts/.

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