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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Fights Opponents on Social Media

Source Al-Monitor
Friday , 04 March 2022
Photo credit: Ahval News

After armed confrontations on the ground for the past two years, the fight between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib and its jihadi opponents has now moved to social media.

Over the past couple of years, HTS tightened its security grip and dismantled several opposing jihadi groups in Idlib, notably the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion Organization), as well as Jund al-Sham and Jundallah. HTS also arrested dozens of members and leaders of these groups, and several other breakaway jihadis who joined opposing groups.

These security crackdowns, however, did not completely end the influence of jihadi groups. Today, several remnants of those organizations have moved their fight to Telegram — the preferred social networking site for jihadis.

On Feb. 23, HTS’ so-called electronic jihad army announced the closure of several Telegram channels run by opposing jihadis. HTS said on Telegram, “our efforts are ongoing, and we will continue our work until the closure of the last channel of any extremists, spoiler, and criminals.” 

Among the figures whose personal Telegram channels were closed is Abu al-Abed Ashdaa, a Syrian jihadi from the city of Aleppo, who was a prominent leader in HTS before he defected in 2019. He was arrested and detained in HTS prisons because of his public remarks about its corruption and his attack on its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani.

Since his release from prison at the beginning of 2020, Ashdaa has taken to Telegram to attack HTS. In February of that year, he established an armed battalion dubbed the “Jihad Coordination Committee,” which later joined a military alliance called the “So Be Steadfast Operations Room,” which included several jihadi groups, notably Hurras al-Din.

The establishment of the operations room prompted a wide security and military campaign by HTS in 2020, which ended up dismantling the alliance and cracking down on its members, notably Hurras al-Din and Ashdaa’s Jihad Coordination Committee.

Talha al-Masir, an Egyptian jihadi also known as Abu Shuaib al-Masry, also had his Telegram channel closed. Masir served as a legal official in HTS before he was expelled from the group in 2019, and later became closer to Hurras al-Din and other HTS-opposing groups in Idlib.

The jihadis whose accounts were closed created new channels on Telegram, including Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the leader of Ansar al-Din Front, as well as Abu al-Alaa al-Sham and Abu Yahya al-Shami, among others whose names were not announced.

In a Feb. 23 Telegram statement, Abu Yahya al-Shami said, “The so-called electronic jihad army is boasting about deleting some jihadis’ channels. … But what is certain is that those who care about HTS’ leadership are trying to silence its opponents who are exposing its truth.”

A military source close to HTS in Idlib told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Telegram has turned into a battleground between HTS and its opponents who are lying low in Idlib. These channels are followed by thousands of people and are meant to attack HTS, dwelling on its mistakes, and [claiming] that its members are corrupt and commit crimes.”

“The jihadis’ Telegram accounts carefully monitor HTS’ security and military movements, warning jihadis about the locations where HTS members are deployed so they avoid getting arrested. They also incite the people in Idlib to rise up against it,” the source added.

“These jihadis are calling for a coup against HTS’ civil administration represented by the Salvation Government in Idlib, and they usually support the protests against it by reporting on the events,” the source said.

Muhammad al-Sukari, a researcher on Syrian affairs based in Gaziantep, Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “There is no doubt that cyberspace is one of the most important platforms that need to be controlled. Many anti-HTS groups and figures take on these channels to mobilize the public opinion against the organization, taking advantage of the popular dissatisfaction with its arbitrary policy.”

Because of the power of cyberspace, he said, "HTS believes it is very important to control such platforms and prevent any military breakthroughs in its structure, especially given the internal factors that encourage polarization within its ranks.” 

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