(CBC) The Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, currently calling itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has succeeded in getting itself off Canada’s list of designated terrorist entities following its latest identity shift.
That complicates the task of prosecuting Canadians who travel to join the group, send it money or propagandize on its behalf.
It also illustrates the pitfalls of Canada following the lead of the U.S. in designating terror groups.
HTS escapes being listed at a time when it is absorbing other jihadi groups and attracting more recruits, even as the Islamic State retreats on multiple fronts.
HTS has a history of renaming itself and altering its structure to confuse outsiders, and the Syrian population, about its true affiliations. But until now, few observers have accepted its claims to have distanced itself from its parent organization.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (the Organization for Conquest in the Levant) began life as an expeditionary force called Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front), despatched into Syria in 2011 by the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now “caliph” of the Islamic State (ISIS). Jabhat al-Nusra was led by Syrian jihadist Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani.
The United States put the group on its terrorist list in 2012, as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and Canada followed suit.
Al-Baghdadi soon crossed into Syria himself, renouncing his allegiance to al-Qaeda and founding ISIS in April 2013.
Al-Jawlani’s group remained loyal to the mother organization founded by bin Laden, and Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have been at each other’s throats ever since. Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition focused its bombing on Islamic State, not al-Nusra.
The reasons for the reluctance to list the new al-Qaeda formation may have to do with one of its new members, the Nour ed-Dine Zenki Brigade, a jihadi group from the Aleppo governorate.
The Zenki Brigade was an early and prominent recipient of U.S. aid, weapons and training.
Zenki was cut off by the State Department only after Amnesty International implicated them in killings of Orthodox Christian priests and members posted a video of themselves beheading a young boy.
For the U.S. to designate HTS now would mean acknowledging that it supplied sophisticated weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles to terrorists, and draw attention to the fact that the U.S. continues to arm Islamist militias in Syria.
Canada’s longstanding reliance on U.S. listings exposes it to the increasingly politicized nature of those listings, which are influenced by the U.S. strategy of backing groups fighting the Syrian government and its Russian allies.
It also means that Canada currently does not list any active branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, the world’s most important jihadi battleground.