IDLIB, Syria — The leader of an insurgent group that rules much of northwest Syria rose to notoriety over the past decade by claiming deadly bombings, threatening revenge against Western “crusader” forces and dispatching Islamist religious police to crack down on women deemed to be immodestly dressed.
Today the man known as Abu Mohammed al-Golani is trying hard to distance his group, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, known as HTS, from its al-Qaida origins, spreading a message of pluralism and religious tolerance.
As part of the rebranding, he has cracked down on extremist factions and dissolved the notorious religious police. For the first time in more than a decade, a Mass was performed recently at a long-shuttered church in Idlib province.
Al-Golani told a recent gathering of religious and local officials that Islamic law should not be imposed by force. “We don’t want the society to become hypocritical so that they pray when they see us and don’t once we leave,” al-Golani said, pointing to Saudi Arabia, which has relaxed its social controls in recent years after decades of strict Islamic rule.
The pivot comes at a time when al-Golani’s group is increasingly isolated. Countries that had once backed insurgents in Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war are restoring relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Saudi Arabia, a one-time Assad foe, reversed course and led a push resulting in Syria’s return to the Arab League last week, after 12 years of regional isolation.
Even Turkey, the main remaining state backer of armed opposition groups in Syria, has signaled a shift. Last week, the Turkish foreign minister met with his Syrian counterpart in Moscow, the first such meeting since 2011. The foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, Assad’s main allies, also attended.
The meeting marked a significant step toward Damascus and Ankara restoring ties, even as the presence of Turkish troops in northwest Syria remains a sticking point.
At the same time, the United States considers HTS a terrorist group and has offered a $10 million reward for information on al-Golani’s whereabouts. The United Nations also designates it a terrorist organization.
Earlier this month, the U.S. and Turkey jointly slapped sanctions on two people who allegedly raised money for militant groups, including HTS.
Al-Golani rose to prominence in the early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011, when he became the leader of al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, known at the time as the Nusra Front. Militants and top officials from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida flocked to the group’s base of operations in northern Syria, where many of them were later killed in U.S. strikes.
In July 2016, the Nusra Front changed its name to Fatah al-Sham Front and said it was cutting ties with al-Qaida, in what was seen by many as an attempt to improve its image. Fatah al-Sham later merged with several other groups and became Hayat Tahrir al Sham.
During that period, al-Golani showed his face publicly for the first time and changed his style of dress from white turbans and robes to shirts and trousers. His fighters went after Islamic State group militants who fled to Idlib after their defeat and cracked down on Horas al-Din or “Guardians of Religion,” another militant group that includes hardcore al-Qaida members who broke away from HTS.
The change in al-Golani’s public image appears not to have impressed the U.S. government.
Posts on social media accounts of the U.S. government’s Rewards for Justice show a photo of al-Golani wearing a light blue shirt and dark blue blazer with a caption in Arabic that reads: “Hello, handsome al-Golani. Nice shirt. You can change your uniform, but you will always be a terrorist. Don’t forget the $10 million reward.”
In 2017, HTS set up a so-called “salvation government” to run day-to-day affairs in the region. At first, it attempted to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Religious police were tasked with making sure that women were covered, with only their faces and hands showing. Its members would force shops to close on Fridays so that people could attend the weekly prayers. Playing music was banned, as was smoking water pipes in public.
In March 2020, Russia and Turkey, which support rival groups in the conflict, reached a truce. Since then, rebel-held northwestern Syria has witnessed relative calm, and HTS focused its efforts on cracking down on the remnants of IS and other jihadist groups. The International Crisis Group think tank, in a report earlier this year, said HTS has evolved and “distanced itself from global jihadism.”
HTS has also sometimes portrayed itself as a defender of minorities in the primarily Sunni Arab northwest.
In March, members of a Turkish-backed armed group shot dead four Kurdish men in the town of Jinderis as they lit a fire to celebrate the Kurdish new year. Al-Golani met with the victims’ families and other Kurdish residents of the area and promised revenge against the perpetrators.
In a 2021 interview with PBS, al-Golani called his group’s terrorist designation “unfair” and “political,” saying that while he had criticized Western policies in the region, “we didn’t say we want to fight (them).”
Al-Golani said his involvement with al-Qaeda has ended, and that even in the past his group was “against carrying out operations outside of Syria.”
The State Department said in a statement that al-Golani remains a designated terrorist and that it does not comment on possible deliberations about changing such designations.
Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century International research center, said he believes it’s unlikely the U.S. will remove HTS and al-Golani from its terrorism list. “As far as I can tell, the U.S. government remains genuinely concerned about the group’s links to global jihadism,” Lund said.
Waiel Olwan, a researcher at the Turkey-based think tank Jusoor for Studies, said he believes al-Golani is trying to show he is in control of Idlib and to guarantee a place for himself in Syria once the conflict ends.
Asim Zedan, an activist whose group tracks violations by HTS, said the ongoing terror designation is a blow to al-Golani’s self-image.
“After forming the salvation government and setting up ministries, al-Golani now sees himself as a head of state,” Zedan said.
Mroue reported from Beirut.