Also Known As:
- Al-Qaida in Syria
- Guardians of Religion
- Hurras al-Deen
- Tandhim Hurras al-Deen
- Tanzim Hurras al-Din
- Sham al-Ribat
Hurras al-Din (HaD) was formed on February 27, 2018, by a merger of seven hardline Syrian rebel factions. Ten more minor rebel factions joined the group in the months following its formation, all with a history of ideological and leadership ties to al-Qaeda. At least half of the group’s 700-2,500 members are foreigners. HaD is avowedly loyal to al-Qaeda and its leadership is dominated by non-Syrian al-Qaeda veterans. HaD’s leadership is split along two ideological currents: one following the teachings of al-Qaeda scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and the other following the Libyan cleric Jamal Ibrahim Ashityawee al-Musratti. Both currents, however, view al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as their “defining authority.”
Despite its small size, HaD claims to have carried out over 200 attacks in Syria’s Idlib, Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo provinces, often in conjunction with other Syrian rebel factions. The group holds no territory and largely uses small arms and light weapons such as mortars and technicals in its raids of Syrian regime positions. While HaD’s core leadership and fighters are mostly defectors from the former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the two groups have worked together to carry out combat operations against the Syrian regime.
On September 10, 2019, the United States listed HaD and its founding leader, Samir Hijazi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. These listings came just 10 days after the U.S. executed its third airstrike in two months against the organization in Syria’s Idlib province. On June 14, 2020, the United States reportedly carried out a fourth targeted airstrike on the group, killing its overall leader Khaled al-Aruri (a.k.a. Abu al-Qasim al-Urduni) and another senior commander Bilal al Sanaani. However, a spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition stated that the coalition “has not conducted any airstrikes in northwestern Syria in recent weeks.” U.S. officials believe that, given enough freedom to plan and prepare, HaD will carry out attacks against American interests domestically and abroad.
The United States continued to carry out airstrikes against HaD members in the second half of 2020. On September 15, 2020, the U.S. launched a drone strike in Idlib, targeting and killing Sayyaf al-Tunsi, a former HaD leader. Al-Tunsi was targeted due to his alleged responsibility for the 2015 massacre of 20 Druze villagers in Idlib province when HaD was operating under the banner of the Nusra Front. Additionally, al-Tunsi was allegedly a senior planner of al-Qaeda attacks against the West. U.S. military officials believe al-Tunsi’s death will disrupt the operational capacities of HaD.
The United Nations assesses that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is the “defining authority” for HaD and that the group has a “more international outlook” compared to most other opposition groups in Syria, which have directed their efforts against each other and the Syrian regime. International Crisis Group profile of HaD states the group “embraces an uncompromising global jihadist worldview.” The hardline faction of HaD leaders follow the ideological outlook of al-Qaeda–linked scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most prominent Salafist figures worldwide. According to Syrian-based Islamist figures, HaD leaders have repeatedly expressed a desire to conduct external attacks against the United States.
In mid-2019, analysts estimated that HaD consisted of 16 local factions that together comprise between 700 and 2,500 fighters, half of whom were foreigners. HaD foreign fighters come from most Middle Eastern and North African countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria, as well as from Central Asia. The group’s factions operate in Aleppo, Latakia, Idlib, and north Hama. The group has also allied itself with other Syrian militants for specific operations. These partners have ranged from small pro-al-Qaeda groups like Jabhat Ansar al-Din and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam to major local factions like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
In October 2018, HaD allied with HTS and pro-al-Qaeda groups Ansar al-Din and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam to form the Incite the Believers (Wa-Hardh al-Muminin) Operations Room. However, as HTS began to assert its power in northern Syria through seizing territory from rival rebel groups, on June 12, 2020, HaD formed a new operations room alongside four other small, hardline militant groups in Idlib. The new operations room is called “Be Steadfast” and includes the previous HaD operations room “Incite the Believers.” In 2020, HTS began cracking down on HaD and has arrested many of its leaders.
Syrian activists have accused HaD is of running four secret detention centers where it holds at least 113 prisoners, including local aid workers.
Despite the harsh rhetoric between the leaderships of HTS and HaD, the former does provide some limited material support to the group, especially when the two groups participate in joint combat operations. HaD also raises funds through online campaigns, stating that “money is the backbone of jihad, and the abilities of the mujahedin would be weakened without it.” Prospective donors are given details for bank accounts in which they can deposit funds.
Most of HaD’s members appears to be defected fighters from other Syrian rebel factions, including a large percentage of foreign fighters dissatisfied with the less-hardline ideology they believe HTS has adopted.
HaD also conducts extensive outreach programs, pushing its ideology on locals and other militants through Friday sermons, youth lectures, public dawa (outreach) forums, dawa tours, cultural courses, and hospital visits.
HaD operates at least four military-training camps in the greater Idlib area, three of which are named after prominent al-Qaeda loyalists who died in Syria: Abu Khalad al-Muhandis, Shaykh Abu Firas al-Suri, and Shaykh Abu Islam.