Hurras al-Din ("Guardians of the Religion") is a jihadi group based in the northwest of Syria and ideologically loyal to al-Qa'ida and its leader Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri. Hurras al-Din originated as a break-off from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which declares that it has broken its ties with al-Qa'ida.
To learn more about Hurras al-Din and its current situation, I interviewed a muhajir originally from the Maghreb and a member of Hurras al-Din.* This interview was conducted on 4 July 2019 and is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: When did you first come to Bilad al-Sham?
A: I came 5 years ago.
Q: And for what reasons did you come? Did you come by yourself or you brought your family too?
A: I came to support the people of Syria. No, I did not bring them [my family]. We only got married here.
Q: And you first joined Jabhat al-Nusra?
A: Correct. We were first in Aleppo, before our disagreement with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sam, and after Aleppo was handed over by some of the factions we came to Idlib, and we separated from the Hay'a and we came Hurras al-Din.
Q: And in which battles have you participated in addition to Aleppo?
A: In all of them more or less.
Q: I see, so Latakia, Hama etc.
Q: What is the dispute between Hurras and the Hay'a in the present time?
A: It is not a dispute for the group, but rather they [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] have left the amirship of the learned hafiz sheikh al-Zawahiri (may God protect him). They broke their allegiance to the organization. And we did not come to Syria to be independent or break a pact and covenant.
Q: So you were a supporter of al-Qa'ida and al-Zawahiri before you came to al-Sham?
Q: Most of the Maghrebis are with Hurras or Hay'a currently?
A: No, Hurras now.
Q: I thought most of the Maghrebis are with the Hay'a, because Harakat Sham al-Islam supports the Hay'a
A: It is not so. A portion are with Hurras and another with Hay'a, but [the latter are] few.
Q: How do you assess the situation in the al-Sham today?
A: Matters are very good: we have broken the heads of kufr [disbelief] here.
Q: But the regime and its allies control the biggest towns in al-Sham, and the [insurgent] groups are confined to Idlib and its environs. Some people say that this is a strategic defeat.
A: It is not so, but rather it is the shuffling of cards, and bringing together of the mujahideen, so that they will have the initiative again. For we today have known the weak points of our enemy, and we have prepared ourselves to conquer Bilad al-Sham. In days to come there will be good things.
Q: What are these [weak] points exactly?
A: Only for the mujahideen [to know]. I cannot speak [about them].
Q: Fine. But regarding the mujahideen, I overview the situation and I see big disputes for example between you and the Hay'a.
A: We are preparing deeds.
Q: Even the Turkestanis have disagreed. There is the Turkestan Islamic Party, and Katibat Ghuraba' Turkestan.
A: They are simple disputes, which may blaze up and be strange. We do not care for the dispute, because we are facing the same fate.
Q: Yes, but even in the recent time there was a dispute within Hurras al-Din. Now a contingent of its mujahideen have been martyred in the Crusaders' strike.
A: It is not a dispute. They have their opinions and therefore they were separated.
Q: What happened exactly?
A: They [those who were separated] do not want to fight in Hama. And we want to resist the enemy. They say we will not work with factions that work for the interest of Turkey.
Q: So some members rejected fighting in Hama in cooperation with factions of the Free Army?
A: Not [an ordinary] member, but rather they [those who rejected fighting in Hama] are Shari'i officials.
Q: I see. So they were separated from the group by the leadership?
Q: And most of the members of Hurras support the leadership decision in participating in the Hama battles against the enemy?
A: Correct. We are resisting a transgressor. We must be together and leave aside the dispute.
Q: I see. The leadership is in the hand of the mujahid Abu Humam al-Shami and the Shari'i Sami al-Oraidi correct?
A: Of course.
Q: Yes, and now the Shari'is who disagree have been martyred.
A: They were struck by the coalition and killed in Aleppo countryside.
Q: Those who rejected participating in the Hama battles declare takfir on the Free factions?
A: Not as such. But rather they will not be subordinated in command under any name.
Q: Yes, meaning under any name with the Free factions.
A: No, [they want to be] outside [the command of] Turkey.
Q: Do you expect that one day Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham will return to the embrace of the al-Qa'ida organization led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri?
A: No, I don't expect.
Q: Currently Hurras al-Din is participating in the Wa Harridh al-Mu'mineen ops room right?
A: Yes, they more or less have the weight [in it].
Q: Meaning Hurras al-Din is the main force in it?
Q: This room cooperates with the other factions currently? I mean the Hay'a and the Free etc.
A: Yes but they are on their own. The Hay'a participates in the al-Fatah al-Mubin room in Hama, in which a number of factions participate.
Q: Are you on the Hama front now?
A: No, we are on ribat on Tallat al-Kabina [in Latakia].
Q: Right, but also some of the fighters are in Hama?
*(Update): Interviewee's kunya removed at his request.