Context and power… Points of differences between Taliban and Hayat Tahrir al-sham

Taliban’s leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani (edited by Enab Baladi)

Taliban’s leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

As the power and control of the Islamic State (IS) declined in its two main strongholds in Syria and Iraq, other jihadist groups expanded their influence in the region, without IS’ mindset based on regional fighting with no limits to proliferation or control.    

Among jihadist groups that came to power lately is Taliban, which had seized power in Afghanistan two weeks before the US was set to complete its troop withdrawal in late August. Another group is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib governorate of northwestern Syria.

Even though Taliban and HTS are similar in terms of objectives, they are surrounded by different local and regional contexts.     

After declaring victory in Afghanistan, Taliban issued successive decisions and released statements about its future policy with yesterday’s enemies, pledging that the Taliban of 2021 will adopt a leadership approach different from that of its first control period between 1996 and 2001.     

The HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, which in turn had ties with IS, advocated global jihad and hostility against western countries.

Lately, HTS has been trying to gain western countries’ favor by indicating to them that it has no animosity towards the west and its military operations are restricted within Syrian territories to topple the Syrian regime.  

This shift in policy raised questions about whether there is a fundamental change in Taliban and HTS’ political mindset, how jihadist groups in Syria view the recent developments in Afghanistan, and how the change will be reflected on the two movements’ rhetoric.   

Contexts are key… The pragmatic approach

Researcher in jihadist groups Hassan Abu Haniyeh told Enab Baladi that the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan had raised many questions about the movement’s attitudes. The Taliban’s latest positions regarding local and foreign issues and its announcement of its readiness to open the door to new relations with the international community were seen as a clear development in its political mindset, which can also be said about HTS.     

Abu Haniyeh pointed out that Taliban and HTS’ policy changes in terms of political and social openness and building of relations reveal the impact of the context of events on the development of the two movements.  

He added, most researchers, particularly orientalists, study these movements by merely focusing on their ideologies and codes of conduct. They overlook the study of jihadist groups’ domestic and international positions and accumulated political experience over time as if these groups are confined to religious texts, Islamic codes, and ideologies.   

According to the researcher, these groups’ policy adjustments are attributed to a shift in the course of events, not in ideologies. He added that today’s Taliban had shown significant changes different from its first ruling of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Likewise, the HTS also witnessed noticeable changes since its beginning in 2012 and 2013.   

These changes indicate that Taliban and HTS are willing to adjust their policies under political necessity. They evolved politically after accumulating experiences over time and accepting to negotiate with domestic, regional, and international powers, Abu Haniyeh said. 

He added, although Taliban and HTS have shown their ability to be pragmatic forces on the ground, they remain religiously motivated movements, Their religious conservatism (jihadist Salafist ideology) will frame their pragmatism to produce a religiously accepted rhetoric, which is evident in both movements’ current positions.   

Political recognition: Far fetched for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and at hand for Taliban

A statement by the G7 (Group of Seven) released after a meeting held on 24 August on the recognition of Taliban said that the movement would be judged based on its actions, not words, indicating that the legitimacy of any future government in Afghanistan depends on the approach it takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable situation in Afghanistan.

The statement added, “Afghanistan must never again become a safe haven for terrorism, nor a source of terrorist attacks on others,” stressing the need for all parties in Afghanistan to work together in good faith to “establish an inclusive and representative government, with the meaningful participation of women and minority groups.”

Abu Haniyeh said that there is almost universal recognition of Taliban as the new de facto rulers of Afghanistan, but it is a different case for HTS in Syria, as the regime still holds legitimacy and is supported by Russia.    

A comparison between Taliban and HTS would have been valid had Russia and Iran withdrawn from Syria, but they did not, leaving comparisons between the two movements limited to rhetoric and policies. In this regard, HTS has softened its rhetoric towards the United States and Europe while it kept hostile rhetoric against Russia and Iran.     

Taliban has imposed itself as the sole ruling power of Afghanistan, while HTS remained subject to regional and international calculations and could not monopolize power in northwestern Syria.  

Even though HTS tried on many occasions to open channels of dialogue with the west, Washington did not remove HTS from its terrorist list, overlooking the movement’s changed policies and rhetoric.  

Last February, American journalist Martin Smith made an interview with HTS’ leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani in Idlib. During the interview, al-Golani discussed the issue of HTS’ prisons and the designation of HTS as a terrorist group by the US.   

On 4 September 2020, the general Sharia jurist of HTS, Abdul Rahim Attoun (also known as Abu Abdullah al-Shami), spoke to the Swiss newspaper Le Temps about normalizing relations with western countries.

Attoun told the newspaper, “HTS was the last faction to fight the Syrian regime and its allies; however, it cannot eliminate it without help,” seeking western countries’ support to end Bashar al-Assad regime’s rule in Syria.

He also stressed that “HTS wishes to be removed from the terrorist list… and only then the region will recover.”

Competition between jihadist movements; power is key

The new policies of Taliban and HTS indicate that there are variables within rival jihadist movements, including IS, al-Qaeda, and local factions, Abu Haniyeh said. 

Taliban’s new pragmatism did not undermine its power as the new ruler of Afghanistan. Even though the movement was engaged in negotiations and made concessions to achieve this purpose, it never backed down on its positions, unlike HTS, which made concessions but received no positive response in return. This reveals the role of radicalism in winning political gains for jihadist movements.    

However, it is still early to determine the success or failure of the Taliban experience. The movement has succeeded in waging war and imposed its control, but now it faces a real challenge trying to establish a state in Afghanistan, Abu Haniyeh said. 

He added, it is not clear what future threats lie ahead of Taliban, but it is safe to say that the movement’s firm stands helped it impose its conditions.     

The Taliban experience has shown that consistency in positions and not concessions will ensure world respect and recognition. The Taliban only agreed to negotiate with the US on American troops’ withdrawal and made little concessions. It never pledged to rule with democracy and elections but announced that it would establish an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, contrary to HTS or other Islamist movements’ positions.    

On 19 August, Taliban announced the formation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan less than a week after it took over Kabul, prompting Afghan President Mohammed Ashraf Ghani to flee to Tajikistan and then to the United Arab Emirates on 18 August.  

Other moderate Islamic movements like the al-Nahda movement in Tunisia have made significant concessions but to no avail.  

According to Abu Haniyeh, the latest suicide bombings outside the international airport in Kabul by the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) were intended to send a message that IS will not make concessions to previous rulers of Afghanistan, US collaborators, or the US. This radical approach puts more pressure on jihadist movements undertaking settlements and being pragmatic in their policies like HTS and Taliban.    

IS-K claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing at Kabul airport, which led to the killing of 170 persons last week.

The researcher added that the next phase would probably witness intense competition between Islamic movements, leading to the dissolving or end of al-Qaeda, leaving the scene to IS with its global Jihad ideology and movements with local agendas like HTS, Taliban, and others.     

Taliban’s takeover celebrated in Syria, but the two experiences are different

Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was celebrated by almost all jihadist groups except for IS, and this was clear in Syria, Abu Haniyeh told Enab Baladi.  

He added that the Taliban’s return to power would have repercussions and increase competition between jihadist groups over positions and control. 

Nevertheless, the Taliban experience in Afghanistan has shown that contexts are more important than ideologies. Unlike the Taliban, HTS could not impose its conditions on any side; instead, it pleaded to Europe, the US, and Turkey to help it face another enemy within the framework of the international political game. 

“Despite little similarities, there are profound differences between the Taliban and HTS experiences,” Abu Haniyeh said. 

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