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Who’s Who – Abu Ahmed Zakour: From His Rise in HTS to Clash with Julani

Despite initially being part of Al-Julani's crisis management cell, Zakour later found himself wanted by HTS.

Abu Ahmed Zakour, born Jihad Issa Al-Sheikh from Al-Nayrab in Aleppo, is a notable figure within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). He has held various roles in the organization, including positions related to public relations and economic affairs, leveraging his tribal influence to strengthen his standing. Zakour’s involvement with HTS and his influence became more visible as he endeavoured to infiltrate factions of the Syrian National Army in the Aleppo countryside.

Zakour’s growing influence and strategic alignments

Although not widely recognized by the Syrian public, Zakour’s presence grew, especially on social media, where he shared updates about his movements and interactions with leaders in northern Aleppo. In a notable instance on July 2, 2021, he tweeted about his visit to Azaz and meeting with National Army leaders, receiving a response from leader Abu Maria Al-Qahtani.

The connection between Zakour and HTS leader Al-Julani appears significant, highlighted by a 2016 incident where ISIS supporters revealed Al-Julani’s face in a photo, with Zakour alongside him. This photo was reportedly taken in Iraq.

Zakour’s strategic efforts in recent years have focused on weakening the National Army by luring its factions with promises of money and influence, leading to the formation of the “Al-Shahba Gathering” north of Aleppo. This group included factions that had split from the National Army.

Despite initially being part of Al-Julani’s crisis management cell, Zakour later found himself wanted by HTS after siding with Abu Maria Al-Qahtani. In 2021, Zakour started to publicly disclose more personal information, including his family background and involvement with groups like “Ansar al-Sunnah” and “Tawhid and Jihad.”

In May of the same year, the US and Turkish Treasury Departments imposed sanctions related to terrorism financing on individuals linked to HTS and the Tawhid and Jihad Battalion in Syria, with Zakour being one of the individuals targeted by these sanctions.

The statement from the US Treasury Department identifies “Omar al-Sheikh,” also known as “Abu Ahmed Zakur” or by his real name “Jihad Issa al-Sheikh,” as a prominent leader in “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) and its predecessor, “Al-Nusra Front.” He has been involved in various capacities since the group’s inception in 2003.

The statement elaborates that Sheikh holds significant roles within HTS, including being a member of the Shura Council, the Emir of the Aleppo Sector, and overseeing HTS’s economic portfolio and financial operations abroad.

Diverse roles and responses within HTS

Sheikh’s roles within HTS have been diverse. He has served as the security prince since March 2022, the director of public relations and communication with military commanders since October 2022, and the financial officer since February 2019.

After the imposition of financial sanctions, Zakour commented that the sanctions were insignificant to him personally, as he claimed not to have assets outside Syria and denied being responsible for the group’s financial affairs.

Zakur has also been critical of Turkey, accusing Turkish intelligence of involvement in the assassination of Saddam al-Moussa, a leader in Ahrar al-Sham, in January of the same year. He expressed concern over Turkey’s alleged treacherous methods and their implications for the region.

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Jihad Issa Al-Sheikh is recognized for his tribal influence and is a challenging figure within HTS, contrary to HTS’s alternative media portrayal of him as an “ordinary individual.” His move to the northern countryside of Aleppo is significant, given his influence over military groups formerly associated with the National Army and his role in facilitating their alignment with HTS.

The conflict between Zakur and HTS’s leadership presents various potential outcomes, particularly if he decides to establish a military presence in North Aleppo. The Turkish response and Zakur’s economic resources will be key factors in how this situation evolves.

Jihad Issa al-Sheikh, better known as “Abu Ahmed Zakur,” a notable leader within Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), recently announced his defection from the group amid significant disagreements with HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Zakur, known for his close ties with detained leader Abu Maria al-Qahtani, accused the HTS leadership of betraying and overpowering other Syrian revolutionary factions.

Zakur’s statement, released on the “X” platform, revealed that he initially left Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (HTS’s former name) in 2017, criticizing its policies. He later rejoined and managed relations with the Syrian National Army. Despite an initial agreement with HTS to resolve differences and collaborate with other factions, Zakur claimed that HTS began to dominate militarily, economically, and security-wise in National Army areas, engaging in practices like kidnapping without coordination.

The escalation and defection of Zakur from HTS

Consequently, Zakur publicly declared his organizational and political departure from HTS, disavowing all their actions.

This development comes after months of escalating tensions between Zakur and Al-Julani, following the HTS’s arrest of Al-Qahtani. Despite attempts at mediation, the rift between Zakur and Al-Julani grew, culminating in a failed arrest attempt of Zakur’s associates by the HTS security apparatus. Zakur then moved to the Afrin region to avoid arrest.

Sources indicate that the strain in relations between “Al-Sheikh” and “Al-Julani” is part of a larger crisis within HTS. HTS’s desire to arrest Zakur was reportedly avoided due to internal considerations and fear of the consequences given Zakur’s influence.

Recently, HTS raided Zakur’s properties in several areas, including his farm and residence in Ras al-Hosn and affiliated group headquarters, as a move to diminish his influence within HTS. This action is seen as part of HTS’s pattern of dealing with dissenting leaders.

The latest we know

Days before Christmas 2023, Turkish forces and their allied military police intercepted and arrested Abu Ahmed Zakur, in a dramatic episode in Azaz, north of Aleppo. HTS had initially launched an operation to capture Zakur, whose real name is Jihad Issa al-Sheikh after he holed up in a military headquarters in Wadi Hamada. Despite their use of heavy weaponry, HTS forces were stopped by a National Army checkpoint while transporting Zakur, leading to his arrest by Turkish forces and the military police.

The operation resulted in the deaths of two of Zakur’s cousins and the injury of his brother, Qutaiba Issa Al-Sheikh. Following the incident, Turkish forces increased their presence in Azaz, deploying armored vehicles and tanks. Zakur, through audio clips, claimed he was safe and criticized HTS leader Al-Julani, accusing him of a 2016 bombing at the Atma border crossing. Concurrently, HTS conducted an arrest campaign in Dana, targeting members of the Bakara tribe, to which Zakur belongs. This has sparked tribal calls for support against HTS’s actions.

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