Zelin, a researcher of Sunni jihadist movements, seeks both to outline and to analyze the trajectory of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist movement founded in Syria in the course of the civil war. HTS today maintains an autonomous area of control in Idlib province in Syria's northwest. It governs through a body known as the Syrian Salvation Government, but HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani is the acknowledged true ruler of this area.
Zelin outlines the trajectory of HTS from a closed, clandestine al-Qaeda franchise called Jabhat al-Nusra, which emerged in 2012, to its current status as a ruling authority (or "inchoate polity" as Zelin calls it). He also asks the question of whether the group's current status as a de facto ruling power should lead to its delisting from the U.S. terror list. He notes that this is clearly a goal that HTS and its leader Jawlani are seeking, as may be seen from the latter's efforts to present the movement via regional media as a responsible governing authority.
By way of an answer, Zelin examines the evidence, noting HTS's crushing of Huras al-Din in 2020. The latter group had emerged from more purist, doctrinaire cadres of HTS's forerunner, Jabhat al-Nusra. He also looks into the earlier differences between HTS and the Khorasan group, which was part of al-Qaeda and linked to the overall leadership of that network. He concludes that the differences between Nusra and Khorasan were genuine and that HTS should be taken seriously in its claims that it is no longer seeking to initiate international operations but, rather, is focused on Syria.
Interestingly, Zelin notes that HTS in Idlib has come in many ways to resemble a "traditional Arab government" in its repressive nature, but also in its orientation towards power and politics, rather than a purist approach to global jihad. He further observes that Turkey maintains an "unstated alliance" with HTS. This partial transition to governing authority represents, as Zelin correctly points out, a unique direction so far for an Arab Sunni jihadist movement. The author terms the current position of HTS as "political jihadism." He concludes by recommending that Washington not remove HTS's terror designation yet, but rather work, perhaps through back channels, to present a list of demands that the group could fulfil in order to move towards delisting.
The Age of Political Jihadism is an important work on a significant subject. HTS and Jawlani are among the less likely survivors of the Syrian war. It is not yet clear if the "political jihadism" of HTS and its exercise of authority will remain an anomaly or prove a harbinger for Arab Sunni jihadist organizations. This reviewer suspects that it may well prove the former. Still, Zelin has succeeded in providing a succinct, well-researched, and readable account of the key aspects of the group's changing nature, along with a cogent analysis of the significance of its trajectory.