Over the past four years, HTS has witnessed several changes and shifts in its ideological and military structures as its leadership works to transform the organization from a faction of the Global Jihad movement into the de facto local military and governing power in NW Syria, with aims to have a seat at the political negotiations table as an internationally recognized political and military actor. This shift necessitates that the group seek sources of funding other than al-Qaeda and its donors; consequently, HTS began its slow but steady takeover of the economy in NW Syria.
HTS’s earliest attempts to generate revenues and income from NW Syria were mainly limited to spoils captured from the regime and opposition factions, estimated to be at least $149 million U.S. dollars (USD) by early 2018. HTS has also received at least $94 million USD in a number of prisoner-exchange deals with several entities, including the regime, Iran, the Lebanese government, and the Italian government. In addition, unknown sums have been received from the families of detainees in regime prisons, paid in return for including demands for these detainees’ release in the aforementioned deals. Along with kidnap ransoms, HTS demanded payments from Iran and Hezbollah in exchange for the bodies of their fighters who were killed in action.
As HTS established itself in Syria, particularly in the north-west, its commanders sought a variety of revenue and income sources. In 2013, HTS, known then as Jabhat al-Nusra, began ransacking historical sites, creating large networks in order to smuggle and trade in artifacts.