The Syrian opposition is constituted by a broad spectrum of factions, polarized at one end by FSA-branded secularists and by international Salafi-jihadists at the other. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki falls within the non-static independent Islamist middle ground. Its orientation has oscillated between these two poles throughout its five year history. From 2014-15 Nour al-Din al-Zenki was a CIA-vetted opposition group supplied with TOW anti-tank missiles through the Military Operations Command in Turkey (known as the ‘M.O.M.’ in Turkish). By the end of 2015, despite having lost its vetted status, the group came into direct conflict with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In 2016, however, the group has drifted in the opposite direction, a trend which has led to Nour al-Din al-Zenki joining the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room alongside Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) on 24 September.
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki was founded on 4 November, 2011 in response to the Syrian government’s violent repression of the protest movement. The organization’s name refers to Nur al-Din, the 12th century Zengid atabeg of Aleppo and predecessor to Saladin, remembered for conquering a wide swath of territory across the Levant, including Aleppo and Damascus, and defeating Crusaders and Muslim rivals in the process. Zenki coalesced around the northwestern Aleppo town of Qabtian al-Jebel, home to the group’s founder Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin. Shahabuddin, a former camel-meat butcher, reportedly sold most of his property in order to raise money for the opposition during the very beginning of the war. Over the past year Zenki has been estimated to field somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 fighters.
In July 2012, at the outbreak of the Battle of Aleppo, Zenki entered the southwestern neighborhood of Salah al-Din fighting under the banner of northern Aleppo-based group Liwa al-Tawhid. According to Shahabuddin, the group spent forty four days fighting within the city but was forced to retreat back to the western countryside due to ammunition shortages. Zenki announced that it would be ending its association with Liwa al-Tawhid a couple months after this withdrawal. This one be the first in a number of local coalitions that Zenki would participate in.
Nour al-Din al-Zenki participated in the siege and taking of the Sheikh Sulayman Base towards the end of 2012. Base 111, as it is also known, was the last major base held by government forces in western Aleppo. The two month siege was reportedly led by Jabhat al-Nusra and allied foreign jihadist groups, but Zenki’s role was large enough for Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin to be interviewed on the subject by the international press.
At some point in 2013, Zenki was a member group of Saudi-backed quietist Salafist coalition Jabha al-Asala wa’l Tanmiya. Then, as wide scale fighting between Syrian opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham broke out in early 2014, it helped found anti-ISIS coalition Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Zenki reportedly left the group in May of the same year. A Carter Center report in September of 2014 suggests this falling out was largely due to Saudi-Qatari rivalry. Saudi involvement in the MOC was increasing in mid 2014 as Qatari influence declined. Jaysh al-Mujahideen “was reportedly considered by the MOC to be a Muslim Brotherhood outfit,” implying links to Qatar. Zenki became vetted, while the rest of Jaysh al-Mujahideen was passed over, leading to tensions. It would not be until after Zenki left the coalition that this vetted status would result in TOW shipments. From December 2014 to the following April they were a member group of Jabhat al-Shamiya. Jabhat al-Shamiya existed as a coalition of local Aleppo groups with an Islamist bent. It quickly disbanded and reappeared as a singular faction made up of former Liwa al-Tawhid elements.
Zenki has remained independent since the disintegration of the Jabhat al-Shamiya coalition, coordinating with other rebel organizations through several regional operations rooms. Within Aleppo city Zenki belonged to the Fatah Halab operations room since its founding in April of 2015. However since the group’s joining of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in September 2016 it has ceased to use the Fatah Halab logo on its official videos and images from inside the city, using Jaysh al-Fatah’s instead. On the northern Aleppo frontlines the group coordinates with other rebels through the Hawar Kilis operations room.
For most of Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s existence the group was led by its founder. However, on 30 April 2015, it was announced that Zenki’s Shura Council had decided to exempt Shahabuddin of his duties due to health reasons. Sheikh Ali Saido was selected to replace him. Some have speculated that this change was actually related to Saudi dissatisfaction with Shahabuddin’s ties to Qatar. Then, on September 17, Zenki announced another change in leadership following a merger with Harakat al-Zahir Baybar and City of Aleppo Brigade. The group’s Shura Council selected Mohammed Said al-Masri, a defected police officer and member of one of the two newly merged groups. On 16 April 2016 it was announced that Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin would be returning as the group’s Commander in Chief, a title he still holds.
The T.O.W. Program
It appears that Nour al-Din al-Zenki received its first BGM-71 TOW shipment from the Military Operations Center in Turkey in the summer of 2014 on the heels of its departure from Jaysh al-Mujahideen. On 11 July the group published a video of a TOW strike targeting a T-72 tank on the Sheikh Najjar front of northeastern Aleppo city. Zenki’s relationship with the MOC appears to have been tumultuous. The founding of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) on 25 December of 2014 and subsequent coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra appears to have angered Washington and possibly led to a suspension of TOWs. Zenki had managed to maintained MOC support prior to this, despite a late 2014 aid cutoff that affected Idlib and Hama following a rise in the power and assertiveness of Jabhat al-Nusra.
According to Charles Lister “Turkey led the move to cut [Zenki’s] funding” in July and August of 2015, with the group being completely cut off by the following month. Human rights allegations are among the main reasons given by pundits as to why MOC support for Zenki was severed. A recent Amnesty International report has accused Zenki of abductions and torture. The September 2015 severance of support for Zenki corresponded with its incorporation of Harakat Zahir al-Baybar, a local Aleppo Turkmen group, into its ranks. This group was allegedly involved in the kidnapping of two Italian aid workers who ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. Interestingly, it appears that a Zenki court convicted one of negotiators for pocketing a large part of the 11 million Euro ransom.
During July and August of 2015, while Turkey was reportedly pushing to cut them off, Zenki posted ten videos of ATGM strikes featuring TOWs. The situation did not change for Zenki despite the Russian intervention beginning in September of 2015 and the subsequent boost of rebel TOW usage in Idlib and Hama. The group posted no ATGM videos in September and only two in October. These two happened to be TOW videos, though this itself does not necessarily mean MOC support as the weapons could have either been stockpiled or acquired from another group. Zenki published three ATGM videos in November of 2015, but instead of TOWs they only depicted the Russian-made Metis and Kornet. Zenki would not fire an ATGM again until May of 2016. The group has posted around ten ATGM videos since, some of which do feature TOWs. However, it appears that the group is still outside MOC support. Some have claimed that these TOW videos actually feature operators and weapons from vetted opposition groups, though the reason behind such a move is unclear.
Conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra
Fighting between Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Jabhat al-Nusra broke out on October 6, 2015 in the western Aleppo countryside. Two Zenki checkpoints were attacked and a car bomb was detonated at one of their headquarters. The dispute was reportedly over a contested checkpoint between the town of Atarib and the Regiment 46 Base captured by the opposition in 2012. Tens of Zenki fighters were arrested by Nusra forces. Eventually an agreement facilitated by Ahrar al-Sham and civil and religious authorities was reached. Nour al-Din al-Zenki subsequently released a announcement apologizing for statements made by members on social media attacking Nusra. Charles Lister attributed the conflict to a hardline Nusra leader named Abu Hajer al-Homsi redeployed from Idlib to Aleppo and creating tensions between the two groups. At the time some feared that Zenki might be doomed to the same fate as Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two moderate groups that were attacked and completely defeated by Jabhat al-Nusra. Zenki has avoided such a turn of events however, and has militarily collaborated with Nusra since.
Nour al-Din al-Zenki entered the international spotlight on July 19th 2016 with circulation of a beheading video throughout social media. Following a failed loyalist attack on the Handarat Camp (northern Aleppo city), a very young-appearing fighter named Abdullah Tayseer al-Issa was captured by Zenki. Abdullah Issa allegedly fought for the Liwa al-Quds loyalist militia, made up of ethnic Palestinians living in Handarat Camp and other Palestinian refugee centers. In the aforementioned video Issa is seen sitting the the bed of a truck with a cast on his right leg, surrounded by Zenki fighters. After asking to be shot rather than “slaughtered,” the men around him taunt him and one asks for his knife. Issa is laid face down off the bed of the truck and subsequently beheaded. Abdullah Issa’s identity has remained in dispute since the story broke, as rebel sympathizers have claimed him to have been a nineteen year old SAA soldier from Homs who suffered from Thalassemia, while government supporters maintain that he was a Palestinian civilian kidnapped by Zenki.
The beheader appears to have been an Aleppo local named Matin Abo Ahmad. Also seen in the video are Zenki Aleppo commanders Omar Salkhu and Mohammad Ma’yuf. The same day as the incident Zenki published a statement referring to the incident as an individual error not indicative of the group as a whole and announced that it had formed a judicial committee to look into the matter. Whether this actually occurred is unclear. Several days later it was reported that Matin Abo Ahmad had been killed in fighting on the Handarat front. Both Omar Salkhu and Mohammad Ma’yuf later appeared in Zenki media during the August offensive to break the siege of Aleppo, leading one to assume the appointed judicial committee had not found them culpable for the incident.
While the group’s on-the-ground allegiances have changed throughout the war, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s ideological orientation is general Islamist with Salafist leanings. According to analyst Charles Lister, Tawfiq Shahabuddin has maintained “strong connections to Salafist sources in the Gulf” since early on in the war. A twitter account exists for the group’s ‘Sharia Bureau,’ highlighting the da’wah activities the group engages in in the western Aleppo countryside. The account was only active from April to June of 2016 posting a total of five tweets, all featuring official Zenki pictures and video. These included youths undergoing Quranic studies, a public Sharia lecture by Sheikh Shahabuddin, a graduation of the movement’s members through a Sharia program, and the hanging of banners featuring Islamist and pro-revolution slogans in western Aleppo towns. One of these banners features a quote from al-Qaeda co-founder Abdullah Azzam, stating “to bear arms without raising the doctrine of Tawhid [the Oneness of God] would turn the weapon bearers to bandits and hooligans.” In public statements Zenki maintains that, for the time being, the group is primarily focused on the military aspects of the revolution. When asked about the group’s political aspirations for a post-Assad Syria, Sheikh Shahabuddin told al-Jazeera “We are not the only ones who will determine the political future of Syria, there are plenty of people marched and fought and fought to bring this system, when the system drops these are will determine the fate of Syria's political future.” On September 24 2016, Zenki published a press release declaring the group’s joining of the Jaysh al-Fatah military operations room. This announcement now places Nour al-Din al-Zenki in a formal military alliance with jihadist factions such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and the ethnically Uighur ‘Turkistan Islamic Party,’ as well as the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham. Following the Abdullah Issa incident and the recent joining of Jaysh al-Fatah, it is doubtful that Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki will ever receive MOM support again.
Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s home region is the western Aleppo countryside, where they maintain control over a number of towns. The group oversees local administration in Qabtian al-Jebel, Sheikh Suleiman, Mansoura, Hour, and other locations in the region. Zenki maintains a presence on practically all frontlines across Aleppo governorate. From the period of June to August 2016, the group’s social media accounts showed it to be active on the western edges of Aleppo city, targeting al-Zahra and the New Aleppo districts, in the city neighborhoods of Ramouseh, al-Ameria, and Salahuddin, in al-Aziza to the southeast, and on the northern fronts of Sheikh Najjar, Handarat, and Mallah. Outside of Aleppo city and the western countryside, the group is active the Azaz pocket to the north, and has been involved in the fight there, against the Islamic State. Nour al-Din al-Zenki is one of the rebel groups involved in the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield, fighting both the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State in the territory south and west of Jarabulus.
From June to August 2016, Nour al-Din al-Zenki published 79 videos on their official YouTube channel. The majority of these were under two minutes and highlight their use of different weapons, on fronts across Aleppo governorate. Six of these videos featured the use of ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). Three of these were U.S. made BGM-71 TOW’s, that enter northern Syria through the Turkish-based Military Operations Command (abbreviated M.O.M. in Turkish). Two of these took place just south of the Turkish border in northern Aleppo, during fighting with the Islamic State. The third TOW used in this time period was fired on the Mallah front, targeting a loyalist 23mm cannon. Other Nour al-Din al-Zenki ATGM usage within this time period includes two firings of the Russian-made Kornet, and one of the Russian-made Metis. These were located in Kafr Kalbin, just south of the border town of Azaz, New Aleppo, a western Aleppo suburb, and on the Mallah front, respectively. Russian-made ATGMs are either supplied to opposition groups through the M.O.M., or are captured from loyalist forces.
Other videos published on the Zenki YouTube account portray the usage of an array of weapons, from mortars, to Katyusha rockets, to technicals mounted with 23mm guns, to the ‘Hell Cannon;’ an improvised ‘mortar-like cannon’ popular throughout Syria. On certain occasions, Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s media office has put out higher quality, longer length videos, such as for the holiday of Eid, or one highlighting the case of a man who lost three sons fighting within the movement’s ranks, or after offensives in Mallah, Northern Aleppo, and Ramouseh.
As the end of 2016 approaches, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki remains one of the most important factions across the front lines of Aleppo. The group has been particularly active within Eastern Aleppo city, attempting to hold off encroaching loyalist forces, and across the northern Aleppo countryside, fighting the Islamic State and the Syrian Democratic Forces alongside the Turkish Army. Zenki's size has continued to grow, as it was announced on 15 October that a former Liwa al-Tawhid faction was joining the movement. Since joining Jaysh al-Fatah in late September, Nour al-Din al-Zenki has ceased to use the Fatah Halab logo or hashtag on Twitter. Perhaps as a sign of their recent realignment, a recent video of theirs, featuring Zenki as well as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham fighters, ended with an image of the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki logo in black and white, without the 'revolutionary' green.