Media Manipulation: How HTS Crafts and Disseminates its Propaganda Messages
Azzam Al Kassir
In the intricate web of the Syrian conflict, information becomes a potent tool wielded by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a controversial organization harboring certain extremists and ideological fanatics whilst fighting others. In this article, I elaborate on one key finding of a recent extensive research paper published by Harmoon Center on HTS’s survival strategies, i.e., the group’s strategic media and propaganda manipulations. HTS strategically resorts to media manipulation techniques to carefully craft an acceptable image and exert influence over public opinion, both locally and globally. This article attempts to expose the multi-faceted propaganda strategies HTS employs and sheds light on the strategic art of narrative control and its impact on perceptions, especially regarding HTS’s acceptability and long-term survivability.
Formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, HTS has maneuvered through the complex challenges of the Syrian conflict and undergone discursive and organizational metamorphoses. It has pragmatically curated its public face, utilizing a sophisticated blend of media alliances, social media propaganda, and strategically tailored messages. A deep understanding of these tactics is vital to comprehending the organization’s influence, mobilization dynamics, and the evolving landscape of information warfare in Syria.
This exploration delves deep into HTS’s strategic utilization of international media outlets, providing unique insights into how such exposures grant HTS much-needed access to global platforms. Through a series of exclusive interviews with influential research centers and widely watched TV channels, and meticulously crafted content disseminated across platforms like X (previously known as Twitter), Facebook, and Telegram, HTS pragmatically molds its image for diverse audiences, both locally and internationally.
On the local front, HTS employs subtle yet powerful methods to manipulate sentiments within the territories it governs, i.e., most parts of the densely populated Idlib province in addition to parts of Aleppo countryside. This manipulation ranges from community outreach initiatives to the strategic distribution of humanitarian aid, all designed to not just maintain control but to also garner unwavering support and allegiance from the local populace.
Besides, this exploration intends to reveal HTS’s outward media strategies, local mobilization methods, and tactics in countering narratives presented by opposition groups such as factions of the so-called Syrian National Army in the north. By discrediting rival factions and presenting itself as a capable unifying force, HTS attempts not only to evade the reprecussions of being designated a terrorist organization but also to diminish internal discord, win other smaller factions, and overall solidify its social, military, and political position.
Outward Media Strategies: Shaping HTS’s Global Narrative
The armed group endeavors to carefully manage its image globally through targeted media outreach. The group’s leadership has effectively engaged with international media outlets such as PBS and Sky News, seeking to ensure its narrative reaches and resonates with diverse global audiences. These well-planned interactions and exposures extend beyond a mere strategy of openness; they signify HTS’s intentional efforts to shape perceptions and ultimately garner a favorable public opinion that may one day lead to it being removed from the lists of terrorist organizations. By providing select channels and journalists with exclusive interviews and access, HTS cultivates a distinct image for specific demographics, influencing the international discourse on the Syrian conflict and presenting itself as an integral part of the opposition against the Syrian regime.
Delving into specific instances, we witness HTS’s meticulous orchestration of media interactions. Journalistic collaborations become pivotal moments for HTS, allowing them to present their ideology, objectives, and humanitarian efforts in a favorable light. Through strategic leaks, carefully framed and timed interviews, and calculated revelations and discursive shifts, HTS navigates the realm of opinion-making, ensuring its narrative reaches wide audiences externally and resonates and remains dominant and unchallenged locally.
Beyond traditional outlets, HTS harnesses the power of social media as a potent propaganda tool. Online platforms such as X (previously known as Twitter), Facebook, and Telegram serve as battlegrounds where HTS disseminates its desired content. Through strategic image selection, emotional appeals, and well-crafted messaging, the group captures the attention of wider audiences. These efforts extend HTS’s influence into the digital realm, where viral content shapes opinions and perceptions.
Exclusive Interviews and Narrative Shaping
HTS’s media manipulation techniques extend to exclusive interviews with foreign journalists, strategically orchestrated to convey specific messages abroad and sculpt a carefully crafted narrative about the situation in the areas under HTS control and its evolving nature. These interviews play a significant role in shaping international perceptions and policy decisions.
One notable example is the extensive interview conducted by investigative journalist Martin Smith of Frontline with Abu Mohammed al-Julani in early February 2021. The interview aimed to “shed light on the reality of the Syrian revolution,” discuss the HTS’s perspective on the West, and address the issue of the organization’s inclusion on terrorist lists.
During the interview, al-Julani appealed to Western countries to reconsider their classification of HTS as a terrorist organization. He emphasized that his organization has distanced itself from al-Qaeda and urged the United States and European countries to understand the underlying circumstances that have driven some individuals towards extremism. Al-Julani portrayed himself as an ordinary middle-class Syrian citizen who was compelled by significant political circumstances to join the armed revolution, oppose dictatorship, and defend the oppressed. He attempted to disassociate himself from the terrorist legacy of al-Nusra, asserting his early divergence from his main project’s supporter and financier, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Julani even refuted any claims of deliberately targeting or abducting civilians during his involvement in jihadist activities.
Between April 29 and May 2, 2023, HTS hosted the esteemed France 24 journalist Wassim Nasr. Nasr was granted access to tour certain areas under HTS control, capture photographs, and engage in conversations with several officials, including al-Julani and Abu Maria al-Qahtani.
Nasr reported the absence of military presence and the widespread display of the flag of the Syrian revolution in the areas he visited, including Idlib, Sarmadah, Dana, Harem, and Jisr al-Shughur. He noted that his escorts mentioned their surprise at the visible presence of armed forces and military displays in the streets of western cities, as this tends to intimidate civilians. Meanwhile, HTS seeks to reassure the local population and deploys armed individuals to the frontlines.
Nasr openly expressed his admiration for al-Julani, describing him as intelligent and straightforward. He noted that al-Julani’s attire consisted of jeans and a Hugo Boss shirt. Nasr also expressed his excitement at being the first journalist to meet Abu Maria al-Qahtani, whom he described as a tall, imposing, and knowledgeable individual. During his visit, Nasr also went to the town of Yakoubiyyah to learn about the situation of the Christian population there. He was surprised to witness Muslim workers involved in renovating the town’s church, which “coincided” with his visit.
Social Media Warfare: HTS’s Propaganda Machinery
In the digital age, HTS strategically exploits social media platforms as battlegrounds to disseminate propaganda and meticulously control public discourse. HTS’s social media strategy hinges on the art of content curation. Every video, image, and infographic is meticulously selected and crafted to evoke specific emotional responses. By tailoring content to trigger empathy, anger, or fear, HTS captures the attention of diverse audiences. Through this calculated emotional manipulation, the organization steers discussions, swaying opinions, and perceptions in their favor.
Visual storytelling lies at the heart of HTS’s social media propaganda. Engaging videos portraying humanitarian efforts, military triumphs, and community initiatives flood platforms, creating a powerful visual narrative. These carefully choreographed visuals evoke strong emotions, fostering solidarity among supporters while trying to instill fear in adversaries. HTS’s adept use of imagery crafts a compelling story that resonates with its audience, further cementing its influence.
Figure 1 A Grenade made with keycaps. Source: Al Risalah magazine, issue 4
HTS strategically employs different platforms recognizing their potential to amplify messages and maximize their impact. X allows for rapid dissemination of news bites, while Facebook provides a space for more in-depth discussions and emotional appeals. Telegram, with its encrypted channels, remains a favorable platform and communication medium where HTS disseminates exclusive content to select audiences, fostering a sense of reliability and exclusivity.
Practically, HTS has expanded its reach through informal channels, including the Creative Syrians platform, which maintains an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other “alternative media” outlets. Amjad Media Corporation stands out among its channels, producing video content of relatively high quality. On the other hand, the HTS’s “Ebaa News Agency” remained active and continued to publish a weekly printed bulletin until the beginning of last year. However, it appears that the organization’s new media strategy shifted towards relying on Creative Inception company, which currently monopolizes funding, trains local media professionals, and channels propaganda efforts, including setting standards and shaping media content.
Crafting a Moderate Image: HTS’s International Messaging
In a bid to affect international perceptions, HTS meticulously crafts its narrative, particularly concerning its stance on terrorism. Central to this effort is the organization’s relentless emphasis on its fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, positioning itself as a moderate force tirelessly combating extremism.
Figure 2 An early anti-ISIS propaganda message used in al-Nusra Front’s affiliated publications. Source: Al Risalah magazine, issue 3.
HTS’s messaging strategy pivots around showcasing its robust counterterrorism initiatives. By highlighting its ongoing battle against ISIS and al-Qaeda, the organization strategically distances itself from the extremist ideologies these groups represent despite its closeness to them in previous phases. This deliberate emphasis not only serves to create a clear contrast but also has recently tried to position HTS as a reliable ally in the global fight against terrorism, a perception carefully nurtured for international consumption.
Understanding the values, concerns, and historical backdrop of Western audiences holds paramount importance for HTS’s propaganda machinery. By aligning its messaging with present-day Western concerns, HTS endeavors to establish a resonance with global audiences, striving to attain a form of unspoken acknowledgment. Employing purposefully crafted statements, interviews, and strategically curated media releases, the organization strives to depict itself as a bastion of moderation and a stabilizing influence within the turbulent conflict-prone region, subtly influencing international outlooks.
By presenting itself as a force combatting the very extremist elements that threaten international security, HTS aims to garner understanding, acceptance, and, at times, sympathy from the international community. The complexity and intensity of the Syrian conflict often led to complex narratives and sometimes conflicting stories and HTS’s efforts to simplify its image and role for global consumption significantly impact how the organization is perceived publicly and even politically on the international stage.
Shaping Local Allegiance: HTS’s Manipulation of Local Sentiments
HTS strategically engages in community outreach programs, ranging from educational initiatives to health services, designed to foster a sense of trust and dependency among the local populace. By providing essential services through the bodies of its affiliated “Salvation Government”, the organization positions itself as a provider of much-needed stability and support, ingraining the perception that its presence is essential for the well-being and preservation of the local community. Through these initiatives and activities, HTS not only gains local trust but also establishes a foundation for its influence, even beyond its area of direct control.
One of HTS’s key tactics involves instrumentalizing the distribution of humanitarian aid. By controlling the flow of essential resources such as food, water, and medical supplies, the organization effectively manipulates local sentiments. Communities reliant on this aid perceive HTS as their lifeline, breeding a sense of allegiance, which was felt in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on 6th February 2023. This dependency serves as a potent tool for HTS to exert influence, making it difficult for the voices of dissenting groups and rival factions to gain traction among those who rely on the organization’s assistance.
HTS invests in cultural initiatives that resonate with the local population, reinforcing a shared sense of identity and allegiance. Through literature and religious teachings, the organization reinforces its narrative and ideology, subtly embedding itself into the cultural fabric of the community. By intertwining its messages with local traditions and beliefs, HTS creates an enduring emotional connection, further solidifying its grip on the hearts and minds of a sizeable portion of the population.
Since its inception, HTS frequently altered its strategic approach, eventually engaging more deeply in local matters and adopting the rhetoric and symbols of the Syrian revolution. This transformation necessitated a shift in the organization’s narrative, presenting a considerable challenge. Al-Julani found himself compelled to distance from followers inclined towards a universal jihad and an open confrontation with the “far enemy”. To rationalize these strategic shifts and the organization’s process of “Syrianization,” Al-Julani leaned on religious discourse which was made possible through the work of notable scholars close to him, including Mazhar al-Wais, Abd al-Rahim Attoun, and Maysar al-Jubouri (Abu Maria al-Qahtani).
After each significant political or military event, representatives of HTS would step forward to articulate the organization’s vision and vindicate its stance. They adeptly utilized Islamic discourse, infusing a religious and ideological dimension into their organization’s mobilization and persuasion efforts. For example, Al-Qahtani’s remarks regarding the deployment of forces near Afrin in October 2022 underscore this approach. He stated, “Perhaps these events will mark the inception of a new phase and a new dawn, where people can live securely, safeguarding their religion, themselves, their families, and their wealth.” Al-Qahtani consistently communicates implicit messages using religious language: “This might signify the beginning of the end of corruption and injustice, as it obstructs integration among the perpetrators of corruption and those who adhere to ungodly desires in all their forms. Nevertheless, the laws of Allah Almighty show no partiality, and the Divine Way continues to replace those falling short in their duties, let alone those opposing the sit-in for personal gains and ungodly whims! Allah is triumphant in His decree, yet most people remain oblivious.”
The amalgamation of Islamic terminology and the language of the anti-Assad revolution serves the purpose of tailoring propaganda for local consumption. The selection of legitimizing, mobilizing, and persuasive discourse is purposeful and aims to garner a support base within the local populace, a well-known strategy long documented in the literature on social movements. HTS strives to evoke terms, symbols, and concerns that resonate with the culture and daily language of the target audience and at the same time remain pertinent to their immediate surroundings and lived experiences. Hence, the shift towards rhetoric infused with the terms and expressions of the Syrian revolution is both reasonable and strategic since it enables HTS to maintain an Islamic façade while embedding locally, directly addressing local concerns, and distancing the organization from globalized jihad.
In a nutshell, HTS’s manipulation of local sentiments serves a dual purpose: immediate compliance and long-term loyalty. By strategically shaping perceptions and instrumentalizing the provision of essential needs, the organization establishes a foundation for enduring allegiance to it. This careful cultivation of support at the grassroots level forms the bedrock of HTS’s long-term survival strategy, ensuring that its control over the territories it governs remains unchallenged.
Undermining Dissent: HTS’s Strategies in Countering Opposition Narratives
HTS utilizes sophisticated propaganda campaigns to discredit rival factions. Through carefully crafted messaging, it highlights the weaknesses, internal discord, and external affiliations of opposing groups, aiming to erode their credibility in the eyes of the public. By magnifying the flaws of rival factions, HTS positions itself as the superior and more stable choice, effectively undermining any competition for local allegiance.
A central pillar of HTS’s narrative is its portrayal as a unifying force in the region. The organization strategically emphasizes its ability to maintain stability, especially in contrast to the purported chaos within rival factions. By projecting an image of cohesion and strength, HTS attempts to attract individuals dissatisfied and disillusioned by the internal conflicts of other groups. This unifying image not only bolsters its support base but also weakens the appeal of opposition narratives, creating an environment where dissenting voices struggle to find a foothold.
HTS employs surveillance and intimidation to deter and neutralize dissenting voices within its territories. For instance, HTS’s crackdown on leading members of the popular Hizb al-Tahrir included an extensive media campaign focused on revealing the Islamist party’s fanaticism and lack of strategic thinking since it openly opposed collaboration with Turkey. In such campaigns, HTS dedicates an extensive network of informants, mainly members of HTS’s powerful General Security Apparatus, and strict control over public discourse, to swiftly identify and suppress any opposition. Dissidents, journalists, and civil society activists face the threat of severe consequences, creating a climate of fear that stifles dissent and ensures the dominance of HTS’s narrative. In countering criticism and opposition narratives as such, HTS employs a multifaceted approach, leveraging propaganda, stability projection, and intimidation to secure its position as the unchallenged authority in Idlib and its environs.
In conclusion, in the complex dynamics of the Syrian conflict, HTS’s media manipulation techniques emerge as a powerful instrument, shaping its image on both local and global stages. Through selective media exposures, adept social media propaganda, and tailored messaging, HTS has long manipulated public opinion.
The careful curation of its story has not only bolstered HTS’s local influence but also introduced it to a global audience. By projecting an image of a stability and unity provider, and moderation champion, HTS works on altering international perceptions regarding the sociopolitical and military situation in northern Syria, and HTS’s position within the Syrian conflict.
Understanding these sophisticated tactics is more than a glimpse into HTS’s strategies; it unveils the adaptability and pragmatism of groups widely deemed rigid and intransigent. In a world where truth is as malleable as perception, HTS’s mastery of this art exemplifies the depth to which armed factions will go to secure not just territorial control but also the hearts and minds of those they govern in a purposeful effort to sustain their presence and survival.
 See for example the statement by the spokesperson for HTS’s General Security Agency outlining the reasons for launching a security campaign to arrest Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders. See: Dia al-Omar. Telegram, 14/05/2023, accessed 18/05/2023. https://2u.pw/Bm4uGiE . Also, refer to Aqeel Hussein. “Did the jihadists reject the Idlib deal?” Al-Modon, 24/09/2018, accessed 03/05/2023. https://2u.pw/vt0QN3d