Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Formerly Jabhat al-Nusra)

FormedDecember 2011
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackDecember 23, 2011: Two Al-Nusra suicide bombers attacked military intelligence facilities in the city of Damascus. This was Al-Nusra’s first official attack (44 killed, 150+ injured). [1] [2]
Last AttackAugust 7, 2016: Jabhat Fatah al-Sham coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad Regime’s siege on the city of Aleppo. On August 10, the Assad Regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in the city of Aleppo (unknown casualties). [3] [4] [5]
UpdatedAugust 25, 2016

Narrative Summary

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), is a Sunni opposition group and designated terrorist organization that aims to overthrow the Assad Regime and establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria. [6] [7] [8] Al-Nusra was formed in late 2011, when Al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent AQI operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to organize regional jihadist cells. [9] Though Al-Nusra began conducting operations in December 2011, the group formally declared its existence in January 2012. [10] [11] Since 2012, the group has expanded its operations to 11 of Syria’s 13 governorates, including parts of Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir el Zour, Daraa, and Idlib, and has conducted operations in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. [12] [13] In 2012, Al-Nusra also began harboring the Khorasan Group, an experienced cell of approximately two-dozen Al Qaeda jihadists who were sent to Syria by central AQ leadership in order to develop international terror plots. [14] [15] Al-Nusra leader Muhammad al-Julani later denied the Khorasan group’s existence. [16]

Al-Nusra became prominent in early 2012, and was the first Syrian opposition group to claim responsibility for suicide attacks that involved civilian casualties. [17] At its inception, Al-Nusra had stable funding from Al Qaeda in Iraq, and began to finance its operations by gaining control of oil fields that generated income. [18] [19] [20] Militarily, Al-Nusra began conducting operations with prominent Sunni opposition group Ahrar al-Sham, and began coordinating attacks with a wide range of opposition groups in order to foster the idea that the success of the overall Syrian revolution was dependent on military coordination with Al-Nusra. [21] Although Al-Nusra initially faced hostility from some opposition forces, the group developed a strong enough reputation that a number of opposition groups, including fighters from the moderate Free Syrian Army, protested against the United States’ decision to designate Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012. [22] [23]

In April 2013, Al-Nusra came into conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) when AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed, without consulting Al-Nusra or Al Qaeda (AQ) that Al-Nusra was considered a part of the Islamic State of Iraq. [24] In June 2013, AQ commander Ayman al-Zawahiri insisted that AQI and Al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement."[25] Al-Nusra leader Julani also denied the merger, maintained Al-Nusra was an independent AQ branch, and reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri. [26] After a period of rising tensions, Al-Nusra began targeting the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as AQI) in January 2014, and drove the group out of the Syrian city of Raqqa in a combined offensive with Ahrar al-Sham and members of the Islamic Front umbrella organization. [27] After hostilities broke out between the two organizations, IS began capturing Al-Nusra oil fields, which severely depleted Al-Nusra’s sources of income. [28] However, IS and Al-Nusra still cooperated on a few occasions in 2014. Al-Nusra had begun targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by March 2014, and in August 2014, both Al-Nusra and IS released an anti-Hezbollah video after they took a unit of Lebanese soldiers hostage in the eastern mountains of Lebanon. [29] [30] In addition to the Lebanese soldiers, Al-Nusra took many other high profile hostages in 2014, but ultimately released American journalist Peter Theo Curtis and 45 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers without conditions. [31] [32] In prior kidnappings, the group had usually secured between $4 million and $25 million in ransom for hostage releases, which were often mediated by Qatar. [33] 

In September 2014, Al-Nusra’s relations with U.S.-backed groups soured after the United States began targeting the Khorasan Group and launched air strikes against Al-Nusra bases in the Idlib governorate. [34] Allegedly in response to U.S. strikes, Al-Nusra began a successful military campaign against the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm, both U.S.-backed groups. [35] Since these attacks, the group has continued targeting U.S. backed groups because it believes opposition alliances with the United States pose a threat to its operations. [36] 

In late-2014 and early 2015, Al-Nusra began to increase its operations in the Idlib governorate. Though some Free Syrian Army affiliated brigades coordinated with Al-Nusra, Al-Nusra’s most important alliance in the Idlib governorate was the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization, which included Ahrar al-Sham and several smaller groups (Ferliq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunnah, al-Haq Brigade, and Jund al-Aqsa). [37] [38] In March 2015, Al-Nusra coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization to seize the city of Idlib from the Assad Regime for first time since the outbreak of the civil war. [39] Following this successful attack, Al-Nusra continued coordinating with Jaysh al-Fatah and pushed the Assad Regime out of the Idlib governorate in June 2015. [40]

In late July 2015, Al-Nusra expanded its operations against U.S. backed forces and attacked the U.S.-trained Division 30 (D30) in the town of Azzaz, kidnapping seven of its fighters. [41] [42] Neither American intelligence officials nor D30 leaders had believed that Al-Nusra would attack because D30 had announced it would target the Islamic State and would not target Al-Nusra. [43] Al-Nusra justified the attack by accusing D30 members of being American agents. [44] The United States deployed drones to defend D30, and reportedly killed between 30 and 40 Al-Nusra fighters. [45] Though Al-Nusra later released seven of the D30 members it had kidnapped, the attack against the group and its surrender of U.S. weapons to Al-Nusra prompted the United States to end its training programs for Syrian opposition groups in October 2015. [46] [47] [48]

Despite their successful military alliance, tensions rose between Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra after Al-Nusra created governing bodies in the Idlib governorate. Until mid-2015, Al-Nusra minimized the extent to which it unilaterally controlled area, instead opting to share power with other groups while working to endear itself to local Syrians. The group prefers to provide social services and food in an effort to embed itself with the local population before translating those social services into more overt forms of governance. [49] However, its influence grew very rapidly within the Idlib governorate, which lead to violent skirmishes with Ahrar al-Sham over how to govern the area they jointly occupied. [50] The two groups also clashed over Al-Nusra’s relationship with Al Qaeda (AQ) and pursuit of global jihad, which Ahrar al-Sham deemed counterproductive to the Syrian revolution. [51] During this time, Al-Nusra itself began to question if it should maintain its AQ ties, but forced cofounder Saleh al-Hamawi out of the group after he was branded a “regionalist” for prioritizing victory in Syria over the global jihad movement. [52] [53]

In December 2015, Al-Nusra’s control in the Idlib governorate was threatened after other Syrian opposition groups began negotiations with the Assad Regime. Analysts claim that Al-Nusra’s value to the opposition was contingent on asserting itself as an irreplaceable military ally. As a result, the negotiations with the Assad Regime and the ensuing cessation of hostilities empowered the Syrian opposition and civilians to challenge Al-Nusra’s authority in the Idlib governorate by leading protests and expressing support for the moderate Free Syrian Army. [54] Al-Nusra was not involved in opposition negotiations because of its status as a terrorist organization, and was not included in the cessation of hostilities that was enacted in February 2016 and lasted until late April. [55] [56] [57]

In July 2016, Al-Nusra ended its affiliation with Al Qaeda (AQ) and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (The Front for the Conquest of the Levant). [58] AQ central command supported the group’s decision. [59] Though Fatah al-Sham is a separate entity from AQ, analysts suggest that the group is attempting to endear itself to local Syrians and erode the international communities justification for targeting the group, and that the split with AQ does not represent a shift in the group’s ideology or goals. [60] [61] Fatah al-Sham also became active in the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization’s campaign to recapture the Aleppo governorate, and on August 7, 2016, Fatah al-Sham coordinated with Jaysh al-Fatah and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad Regime’s siege on the city of Aleppo. On August 10, the Assad Regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in the city of Aleppo. [62] [63] [64] 

Leadership

  1. Muhsin al-Fadhli (Unknown to July 21, 2015): Fadhli, also known as Muhsin Fadhil ‘Ayyid al Fadhli, Muhsin Fadil Ayid Ashur al Fadhli, Abu Majid Samiyah, and Abu Samia, was a Kuwaiti national who allegedly commanded the Khorasan Group, an Al Qaeda (AQ) cell reportedly harbored by Al-Nusra. Fadhli moved to Syria after the United States State Department identified him as the leader of AQ in Iran in 2012. He was killed by a U.S. drone strike in July 2015. [65]
  2. Maysar Ali al-Juburi (2011 to 2014): Juburi, also known as Abu Maria al-Qatani helped found Al-Nusra and was its top religious official. Juburi first came to Syria in 2010, after he was wounded in a fight in Iraq with American forces as a member of the Islamic State. Though he had clashed with AQ’s Iraqi leadership, he was chosen to help create Al-Nusra. He served as Al-Nusra’s top religious official until he was replaced by Sami al-Oreidi in 2014, and was demoted to a standard member.[66]
  3. Saleh al-Hamawi (2011 to 2015): Hamawi, also known as Abu Mohammed, is a Syrian national from the Hama governorate. Hamawi allegedly helped found Al-Nusra and held a leadership position in Al-Nusra’s Shura Council until he was expelled from his leadership role in 2015. Hamawi claims that tensions erupted between him and the rest of the council after he was branded a “regionalist” for prioritizing victory in Syria over the global jihad movement. [67]
  4. Abu Muhammad al-Julani (January 2012 to Present): Julani is Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s current leader. Julani is a Syrian national, and he became a close associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after moving to Iraq. Julani briefly left Iraq after Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2006, and after he was released from a U.S. military camp known as Camp Bucca, he resumed militancy work with future Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Julani was later dispatched to Syria to connect with local AQ networks, and founded Al-Nusra in 2012.[68]
  5. Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (2013 to Present): Sharikh is a Fatah al-Sham leader and strategist. Before he traveled to Syria in spring 2013 to become a senior leader in the group, Sharikh coordinated AQ financial networks in Pakistan and Iran. Sharikh is on Saudi Arabia’s list of most wanted terrorists, and is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.[69]
  6. Sami al-Oreidi (2014 to Present): Oreidi, also known as Abu Mahmoud al-Shami, is Fatah al-Sham’s top religious figure and second in command. Before he replaced Juburi as the group’s top religious figure in 2014, Oreidi served as the second highest Shariah authority under Juburi.[70]

Ideology & Goals

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in the Levant that is governed by Shariah law. [71] [72] However in 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Julani clarified that the group would not declare such a state until it had consensus from "the sincere mujahideen and the pious scholars." [73] Though Fatah al-Sham stresses its Syria focus, it still supports establishing multiple Islamic Emirates and an Al Qaeda (AQ) caliphate over time. Initially, the group operated as an AQ affiliate. [74] Recently, analysts have argued that the group’s decision to end its affiliation AQ and change its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham does not indicate an ideological split with AQ but are part of a strategy to increase Fatah al-Sham’s appeal within Syria. [75]

Fatah al-Sham follows a brand of Salafi-Jihadism that is espoused by religious ideologues such as Marwan Hadid and Abu Musab al-Suri. [76] 

Name Changes

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Resources

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), receives funding from a variety of sources. A large portion of its resources and funding initially came from foreign donors, such as Kuwaiti national Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali, also known as Hamid bin Hamad al-Ali. [83] [84] Before the conflict between Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al-Nusra, the group received half of its operating budget from AQI. [85] Overtime, the group began to finance its arms and attacks by gaining control of oil fields that generated income. [86] [87] The group’s increased dependence on oil fields led to a financial crisis in mid-late 2014 when the Islamic State began capturing Al-Nusra’s oil fields. The loss of the Conoco gas field alone cost Al-Nusra $5 million in February 2014. [88] To supplement its income, the group also secures funding through ransoms for kidnappings, and usually receives between $4 million and $25 million for hostage releases. [89] These releases are usually mediated by Qatar, who was accused of facilitating Al-Nusra’s rise to prominence after it paid the group $150 million for the release of nine Shiite Iranian pilgrims in 2013. [90] 

Fatah al-Sham became one of the best-equipped Syrian opposition groups by purchasing weapons from Iraqi arms dealers and by converting munitions from existing Syrian military equipment in Syria. [91] [92] [93] [94] Fatah al-Sham also targets U.S.-backed groups in order to capture their weapons. In 2014, the group allegedly captured 10 Tanks and 80 TOW missiles from the U.S.-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front. [95] Additional reports indicate that some U.S. trained fighters have surrendered machine guns, ammunition, and vehicles in exchange for safe passage through Fatah al-Sham controlled areas. [96] [97] 

Second only to the Islamic State, Fatah al-Sham attracts the most foreign fighters among opposition groups. These fighters mostly come from the Middle East, but Fatah al-Sham has also accepted recruits from Chechnya and European states, as well as a few fighters from more distant countries like Australia and the United States. As of June 2015, Julani claimed that the group’s fighting force was about 30% foreign. [98] [99] Private financiers, such as Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali, often provide funding for foreigners to travel to Syria and join Fatah al-Sham. [100]

Due to its intensive recruiting process, Fatah al-Sham receives highly skilled fighters. With the exception of fighters from groups already allied with Fatah al-Sham, all recruits must receive a personal recommendation from an existing member of Fatah al-Sham in order to be accepted to the group’s training program, where they receive religious, physical, and military instruction for six to eight weeks. [101] From February to June 2016, Fatah al-Sham added 3,000 fighters from northern Syria. [102]

Fatah al-Sham is among a number of Syrian opposition groups, including the Islamic State and Ahrar al-Sham, that employ child soldiers. [103]

External Influences

Qatar usually facilitates hostage negotiations between foreign countries and Fatah al-Sham. [104] In 2015, the U.S. Treasury designated Sa’d bin Sa’d Muhammad Shariyan Al Ka’bi, a Qatari national who had negotiated hostage transfers with Al-Nusra, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist after discovering his fundraising campaign for Al-Nusra. [105] 

In March 2015, rumors surfaced that Al-Nusra was considering severing ties with Al Qaeda (AQ) to receive support from a group of Gulf states. Sources close to the group alleged that intelligence officials from Gulf states had been meeting with Al-Nusra commander Julani throughout 2015, and promised funding if Al-Nusra rebranded. It is unclear if the group began receiving direct funding from these states after it ended its affiliation with AQ in 2016. [106] 

Geographical Locations

In 2013, Al-Nusra was active in 11 of Syria’s 13 governorates, including parts of Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir el Zour, Daraa, and Idlib. [107] By June 2015, the group had pushed the Syrian army out of the Idlib governorate after coordinating attacks against the Assad Regime with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization. [108] In early August 2015, Al-Nusra announced that it would withdraw from the frontline against the Islamic State in northern Syria due to increasing Turkish and U.S. involvement in the region. [109] 

Fatah al-Sham has also targeted Hezbollah in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, which is near the border with Syria. [110]

Targets & Tactics

Initially, Al-Nusra targeted Assad Regime forces and the groups that support Assad, such as Hezbollah. In January 2014, Al-Nusra began targeting the Islamic State (IS) in a successful opposition campaign to drive IS out of the city of Raqqa. Despite a formal rivalry between the two groups, there have been instances of cooperation since January 2014, such as when Al-Nusra and IS threatened to kill a unit of Lebanese soldiers they had taken hostage if Hezbollah did not withdraw from Syria. [111] Additionally, the group targets U.S.-linked forces in Syria, and its attacks on Harakat Hazzm, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and D30 caused all three groups to collapse in 2015. [112] [113] [114] 

In 2015, Al-Nusra claimed that it did not target noncombatant members of groups that it considers to be heretics, like Alawites and the Druze. [115] [116] However in June 2015, Al-Nusra targeted Druze villagers in Idlib. [117] Additionally, Al-Nusra commander Julani encouraged attacks against Alawite civilians in response to alleged indiscriminate Russian attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians in October 2015. [118] 

While the group has a wide range of targets, it concentrates the majority of its attacks against the Assad Regime in order to maintain close military alliances with mainstream Syrian opposition groups. [119]

Al-Nusra’s involvement in the Syrian civil war began with suicide bombings and car bombs, most of which targeted government forces. [120] It began to take part in more conventional military-style operations in 2012 as its membership increased, attacking Assad Regime airports and checkpoints and maintaining no-fly zones with anti-aircraft weaponry. [121] [122] [123] [124] [125] The group has also executed captured Syrian soldiers. [126]

Currently, Fatah al-Sham conducts kidnappings to raise money through ransom or to motivate political and military action. The group has taken Lebanese soldiers and members of United States backed opposition forces as hostages, as well as western reporters and UN peacekeepers. [127] [128] [129] [130] [131]

Political Activities

Al-Nusra was not invited to peace talks in Riyadh in 2015 and views peace talks with the Assad Regime as a threat to its security. [132] In particular, Al-Nusra viewed Jaysh al-Islam’s decision to negotiate with the Assad Regime in December 2015 as treason, and established the Fustat Army political alliance to challenge Jaysh al-Islam’s political dominance in Eastern Ghouta. [133] Al-Nusra was not party to the February 2016 national ceasefire. [134]

Fatah al-Sham governs with its interpretation of Islamic law in areas it controls, largely following more moderate governing practices than the Islamic State. [135] [136] Until mid-2015, the group minimized the extent to which it unilaterally controlled area, instead opting to share power with other groups while working to endear itself to local Syrians. It typically prefers to provide social services and food in an effort to embed itself with the local population before translating those social services into more overt forms of governance. [137] However, the group’s influence grew very rapidly within Dar al-Adl fi al-Hawran, a court system that deals with military, criminal, and administrative law, and also settles disputes between civilians and militant groups, as well as the areas it controls in the Idlib governorate. [138] [139] [140] Fatah al-Sham has consolidated its control of Idlib to the point that analysts predict Idlib will play a crucial role in the group’s attempt to establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria. [141]

Major Attacks

  1. December 23, 2011: Two Al-Nusra suicide bombers attacked military intelligence facilities in the city of Damascus. This was Al-Nusra’s first official attack (44 killed, 150+ injured).[142]
  2. March 17, 2012: Al-Nusra conducted two suicide bombings in the Damascus governorate against the Assad Regime (27+ killed, 100+ wounded).[143]
  3. November 5, 2012: Al-Nusra carried out a suicide bombing in the Hama governorate against the Assad Regime. At the time, this bombing represented the highest amount of casualties inflicted on the Assad Regime through an attack by opposition forces (50+ killed, unknown wounded).[144]
  4. February 10, 2013: Al-Nusra coordinated with other opposition forces to capture the Syrian army’s Tabqa encampment in the Raqqa governorate. The groups secured artillery and ammunition, and gained control of a key checkpoint in the town of Tabqa (unknown casualties).[145]
  5. August 4, 2013: Al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State (IS), Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suqquor al-Izz attacked Alawite villages as part of an offensive in the Latakia governorate. They killed 190 civilians, while Al-Nusra only lost 3 fighters. IS and Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar took 200 hostages (193+ killed, unknown wounded).[146]
  6. January 6, 2014: Al-Nusra coordinated with Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic Front umbrella group, and battalions from the Supreme Military Council to drive IS out of the city of Raqqa. IS retook Raqqa in July 2014 (100 killed, unknown wounded).[147]
  7. March 16, 2014: Al-Nusra began targeting Hezbollah with a suicide bombing in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, near the boarder with Syria (4 killed, unknown wounded).[148]
  8. May 25, 2014: An Amerian citizen known as Abu Huraira al-Amriki carried out a suicide truck bombing in the Idlib governorate. This is allegedly the first instance of an American conducting a suicide attack in Syria (1 killed, 0 wounded).[149]
  9. November 3, 2014: Al-Nusra attacked and defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib. The two moderate opposition groups were linked to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and both surrendered local towns to Al-Nusra. Some of their members were arrested while others defected to Al-Nusra (unknown casualties).[150]
  10. March 2015: Al-Nusra coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization to seize the city of Idlib from the Assad Regime. It was the first time that opposition groups controlled the city of Idlib since the outbreak of the civil war. The battle was part of a successful Jaysh al-Fatah campaign to push the Assad Regime out of the Idlib governorate by June 2015 (unknown casualties).[151]
  11. July 31, 2015: Al-Nusra kidnapped several members of D30, an opposition group that received weapons and training from the United States, and began an offensive against the group (35-45 killed, 18+ wounded).[152]
  12. August 7, 2016: Jabhat Fatah al-Sham coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad Regime’s siege on the city of Aleppo. On August 10, the Assad Regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in the city of Aleppo (unknown casualties).[153]

Relationships with Other Groups

Al-Nusra harbors the Khorasan Group, an experienced cell of approximately two-dozen Al Qaeda (AQ) jihadists who were sent to Syria in order to develop international terror plots, and originally took orders from both Al Qaeda in Iraq and AQ central leadership. [154] [155] [156] Al-Nusra was AQ’s only official branch in the Syrian conflict after global AQ emir Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disowned the Islamic State for disobeying AQ orders. [157]  In 2015, rumors surfaced that Al-Nusra was considering severing ties with AQ in order to receive support from a group of Gulf states such as Qatar. [158] Since Al-Nusra nominally split from AQ and renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham) in July 2016, it is unclear if the group has begun to receive direct funding from Gulf states. [159] Though Fatah al-Sham is a separate entity from AQ, analysts suggest that the group is attempting to endear itself to local Syrians and erode the international community’s justification for targeting the group, and that the split with AQ does not represent a shift in the group’s ideology or goals. [160] [161]

Al-Nusra received funding and personnel from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, but came into conflict with the group when AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed, without consulting Al-Nusra or AQ, that Al-Nusra was considered a part of the Islamic State of Iraq. [162] In June 2013, Zawahiri insisted that AQI and Al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement."[163] Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani also denied the merger, maintained that Al-Nusra was an independent AQ branch, and reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri. [164] After a period of rising tensions between the Islamic State (IS, formerly AQI) and Al-Nusra in 2013, Al-Nusra began targeting IS in January 2014 when it drove the group out of the Syrian city of Raqqa. [165] Despite their larger conflict, Al-Nusra and IS still cooperated in a few instances in 2014, such as when both groups released an anti-Hezbollah video together in August 2014 after they took a unit of Lebanese soldiers hostage in the eastern mountains of Lebanon. [166] After fighting intensified in 2015, Julani claimed that there was no foreseeable end to the conflict with IS and that the two groups would continue fighting each other. [167] However, Zawahiri released a recorded statement in September 2015 that decried Baghdadi’s Islamic State as illegitimate but also suggested that Al-Nusra and IS should cooperate on the ground to combat larger enemies, presumably the Assad Regime and the Untied States. [168]

In addition to the Islamic State, Al-Nusra began targeting Hezbollah, a Shiite group that supports the Assad Regime, with a number of suicide bombings in Lebanon in 2014. [169] The groups have remained enemies throughout 2015 and 2016. [170] [171]

While Al-Nusra maintained military alliances with many Sunni opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham is it’s closest ally. The two groups began coordinating attacks together in late 2012, and with the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization where Ahrar al-Sham was an influential member, in 2014. [172] [173] Currently the groups coordinate operations through the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) umbrella organization, which led a successful campaign to push the Syrian Army out of the Idlib governorate in mid 2015, and through the Fatah Halab control room. [174] [175] [176] While Al-Nusra’s close military relationship with Ahrar al-Sham helped facilitate the former’s rise to power, the two groups have engaged each other in violent skirmishes over disagreements on how to govern the areas they jointly occupy. While Al-Nusra favored a system of governance similar to AQ, Ahrar al-Sham pursues a nationalistic approach to political Islam. [177] The two groups also clashed over Al-Nusra’s relationship with AQ and pursuit of global jihad, which Ahrar al-Sham deemed counterproductive to the Syrian revolution. [178] Ahrar al-Sham welcomed the formation of Fatah al-Sham and the spilt with AQ. [179] Prior to the Fatah al-Sham’s inception, analysts indicated that Al-Nusra’s AQ ties where the last obstacle preventing a merge with Ahrar al-Sham, but as of August 2016, Ahrar al-Sham has not announced a merge with Fatah al-Sham. [180]

Al-Nusra’s relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was complex in part because the FSA is a loose affiliation of moderate groups with decentralized leadership. Although FSA brigades had different ideologies and goals, some brigades cooperated with Al-Nusra in a 2013 offensive against Syrian military positions in towns near the Jordanian border and against the Assad Regime’s forces in the Idlib governorate in 2014 and 2015. [181] [182] [183] However, Al-Nusra has also conducted kidnapping operations and attacks against other FSA linked opposition brigades throughout the course of the war. [184] In 2013, a number of FSA soldiers joined Al-Nusra, considering it the better-armed and more influential group. [185] 

Al-Nusra regularly targeted U.S.-backed opposition groups because it believed their alliance with the United States posed a threat to Al-Nusra operations. [186] After U.S. airstrikes targeted the Khorasan Group at Al-Nusra bases in the Idlib governorate, Al-Nusra attacked and defeated the U.S.-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm in November 2014. [187] By March of 2015, Harakat Hazzm dissolved after suffering continuous Al-Nusra attacks. [188] In late July 2015, Al-Nusra attacked the U.S.-trained Division 30 (D30) in the Syrian town of Azzaz and kidnapped seven of its fighters after D30 returned to Syria from its training camps in Turkey. [189] [190] Neither American intelligence officials nor D30 leaders had believed that Al-Nusra would attack because D30 had announced that it would target the Islamic State and would not target Al-Nusra. [191] Al-Nusra justified the attack by accusing D30 of being American agents. [192] The U.S. deployed drones to defend D30, reportedly killing between 30 and 40 Al-Nusra fighters. [193] Though Al-Nusra later released seven of the D30 members it had kidnapped, the United States eventually ended its training programs for Syrian opposition groups in October 2015. [194] [195]

Al-Nusra also opposes Syrian Kurdish groups, such as the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) which was involved in attacks in 2012 and 2013 around the town of Ras al-Ayn. [196]

Community Relationships

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham governs with its interpretation of Islamic law in areas it controls, largely following more moderate governing practices than the Islamic State. [197] [198] Fatah al-Sham typically prefers to provide social services and food in an effort to embed itself with the local population before translating those social services into more overt forms of governance. [199] To an extent, local Syrians are dependent on Fatah al-Sham in areas it controls for basic services. In 2013, the group managed to reopen a number of bakeries in Aleppo to ease a hunger crisis, but retained control of the supply of flour. [200] In the areas where Fatah al-Sham has created more formal governing bodies, it has also created Shariah court systems that focus on military, criminal, and administrative law, and also settle disputes between civilians and militant groups [201] [202] [203]

Syrian citizens have mixed perceptions of Fatah al-Sham. While secularists deplore Fatah al-Sham, many citizens protested when the United States designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2012. [204] [205] In 2015, residents in the Idlib governorate protested the group’s governing practices. Its fighters responded by firing their weapons at protestors. [206]


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