Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya (Arabic: حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية Ahrār ash-Shām, meaning "Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant") is a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist units, which coalesced into a single brigade during the Syrian Civil War, in order to fight against the Ba'athist government lead by Bashar al-Assad. Ahrar ash-Sham was led by Hassan Aboud. As of July 2013, Ahrar ash-Sham had 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, making it the 2nd single 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 is a major component of the Islamic Front.
The first Ahrar ash-Sham brigades were formed just after the Egyptian revolution, and before the Syrian Revolution started in 2011. Most of the group founders were Islamist 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 late 2011, Ahrar ash-Sham consisted of about 25 rebel units spread across Syria. It has expanded since then; 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. Some Ahrar ash-Sham units that have been involved in heavy fighting include the Qawafel al-Shuhada and Ansar al-Haqq Brigades (both in Khan Sheikhoun, Idleb Province), the al-Tawhid wal-Iman Brigade (Maarrat al-Nouman, Idleb Province), the Shahba Brigade (Aleppo City), the Hassane bin Thabet Brigade (Darat Ezza, Aleppo Province), and the Salahaddin and Abul-Fida Brigades (both in Hama City).
Members of the group are Islamists. Ahrar ash-Sham cooperates with the Free Syrian Army and other secular rebel groups; 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 Kuwait.
Through donations from supporters abroad and the capture of material from the Syrian Armed Forces, Ahrar ash-Sham became one of the best-armed most powerful rebel factions active in the Syrian Civil War, having 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. It regularly deployed tanks and mobile artillery, anti-tank guided missiles, and occasionally 1990s-era Croatian rocket and grenade launchers and was involved in every major rebel victory over Syrian Government forces between September 2012 and mid-2013. It grew significantly by absorbing into its ranks other rebel factions from the Islamic Front and Syrian Islamic Front coalitions.
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 ash-Sham. Such ties were not disclosed publicly until January 2014, when a former senior leader of Ahrar ash-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 ash-Sham stated its goal was to replace the Assad government with an Islamic state, however 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 Shiism and establish a Shiite state from Iran through Iraq and Syria, and extending to Lebanon and Palestine. Ahrar ash-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 ash-Sham was responsible for rescuing NBC journalists Richard Engel, Ghazi Balkiz, John Kooistra Aziz Akyavas, and Ammar Cheikhomar after they were kidnapped by the pro-Assad government Shabiha in December 2012. However, this version of events was called into question by an April 2015 investigation by the New York Times.
In December 2012, a new umbrella organization was announced, called the Syrian Islamic Front, consisting of 11 Islamist rebel organizations. Ahrar ash-Sham was the most prominent of these, and a member of Ahrar ash-Sham's, Abu 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Suri, served as the Front's spokesman. 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 January 2013, several of the member organizations of the Syrian Islamic Front announced that they were joining forces with Ahrar ash-Sham into a broader group called Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Movement of Ahrar ash-Sham). In September 2013, members of ISIL killed the Ahrar ash-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 ash-Sham forces, mistaking him for an Iraqi Shiite pro-government militiaman.
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 ash-Sham.
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.
In early November 2014, representatives from Ahrar ash-Sham 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 several hard-line groups against the US-led coalition and other moderate Syrian rebel groups. However, by 14 November 2014, it was revealed that the negotiations had failed.
During the night of 6 November 2014, a US airstrike targeted the group for the first time, hitting it's headquarters in Idlib governorate and killing Abu al-Nasr, who was the person in charge of receiving weapons for the group. On 24 November 2014, a US airstrike on the ISIL headquarters building in Ma'dan, Ar-Raqqah killed another Ahrar ash-Sham fighter, who was being held prisoner by ISIL.
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