Jabhat al-Nusra

FormedFebruary 2012
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackJanuary 6, 2012: A suicide bomber blew up buses that were carrying riot police to an anti-government protest in central Damascus. (26 killed, unknown wounded). [1]
Last AttackJuly 31, 2015: Al-Nusra kidnapped several members of D30, a rebel group that received weapons and training from the United States, and then al-Nusra attacked the group again a few days later. D30 leaders and American officials were reportedly surprised by the attack because D30 had publicly claimed that its target was the Islamic State, not al-Nusra. The U.S. carried out airstrikes in support of D30 during the second al-Nusra attack, reportedly killing between 30 and 40 al-Nusra fighters. (5+ killed, 18+ wounded, 20+ captured).
UpdatedOctober 1, 2015

Narrative Summary

Jabhat al-Nusra (sometimes translated as the Nusra Front) was formed in late 2011, when Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent AQI operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to organize jihadist cells in the region. [2] [3] [4] In 2012, al-Nusra began to rise to prominence among rebel organizations in Syria for its reliable supply of arms, funding, and fighters that came from a combination of foreign donors and AQI. Considered well trained, professional, and relatively successful on the battlefield, al-Nusra earned the respect and support of many rebel groups, including many moderate-leaning groups, early in the war. However, although it has avoided tactics like the brutal executions and sectarian attacks that made AQI unpopular, al-Nusra engendered opposition among some Syrians at the beginning of the conflict by imposing religious laws in areas it controlled. Al-Nusra was also the first Syrian force to claim responsibility for suicide terrorist attacks that killed civilians in early 2012. [5] Still, the group's reputation among rebels and the Syrian population was strong enough that when the United States designated it as a terrorist organization in December 2012, a number of anti-government groups including some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters protested the designation. [6]

Throughout 2012, a group of Al Qaeda (AQ) veterans known by Western media as the "Khorasan Group" allegedly began to arrive in Syria, reportedly using their relatively safe haven there to develop international terror plots. The group is reportedly directed by AQ central leadership and harbored by al-Nusra. [7] Al-Nusra has denied the existence of the group. [8]

In 2013, tensions developed between al-Nusra and its parent organization AQI when Baghdadi unilaterally proclaimed that the two organizations had merged to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). [9] Julani agreed that AQI had aided al-Nusra from the beginning, but rejected the merger and renewed his pledge of allegiance to Al Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri. [10] Despite Zawahiri’s public denial of the merger, a number of al-Nusra fighters defected to ISIS, furthering tension between the groups. [11] By March 2014, over 3,000 fighters had been killed in battles between ISIS and al-Nusra. [12] In the summer of 2014, after ideological and tactical differences continued to develop between ISIS and Islamist groups including al-Nusra, ISIS drove al-Nusra and a number of its allies from out of one of its key strongholds in Deir al-Zor, which included oil fields that were an important source of al-Nusra's income. [13] [14] There was evidence of continued cooperation between ISIS and al-Nusra on the battlefield in some areas in 2014, but by 2015 there were no publicly reported instances of cooperation between the two organizations. [15]

Throughout 2014, al-Nusra was involved in a number of high-profile hostage cases. In December 2013, al-Nusra took a group of Greek Orthonox nuns hostage from their convent in Maaloula. Al-Nusra reportedly treated the nuns well, and released them in March 2014 after officials from Qatar and Lebanon negotiated a prisoner exchange with the Syrian government. [16] In August 2014, al-Nusra released American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who had been the group’s hostage since 2012. The release came less than a week after ISIS made global news for its beheading video of American journalist James Foley. Qatar facilitated Curtis’ release. [17] That same month, the group released a video in collaboration with ISIS that threatened that it would kill a unit of Lebanese soldiers they had taken hostage if Hezbollah did not withdraw from Syria. [18] Al-Nusra killed four of the hostages over the course of 2014, and in summer 2015, negotiations between Lebanon and al-Nusra to free the remaining hostages were still ongoing. [19] [20] In September 2014, al-Nusra kidnapped around 45 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers from the Syrian-Israeli border, alleging that the peacekeepers were aiding Assad’s forces. Al-Nusra released the peacekeepers two weeks later. [21]

Some time after summer 2014, al-Nusra began showing signs of long-suspected internal leadership disputes when it pushed founding member Maysar Ali al-Juburi out of his leadership position. Throughout al-Nusra’s rise in the battlefield from 2014 through 2015, it is likely that tensions continued at the leadership level, although details are scarce. [22]

In September 2014, after maintaining that it had only carried out airstrikes against ISIS, the U.S. government announced that it had also begun to target the so-called Khorasan Group that allegedly operated out of al-Nusra territory. [23] U.S. officials reported that a strike against the Khorasan Group hit al-Nusra bases in Idlib on September 23, 2014. In the same region that November, after a long period of relatively cooperative relations, al-Nusra attacked and defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm, both moderate rebel groups linked to the FSA and the U.S. Some members of the attacked groups claimed that they were targeted by al-Nusra because of the U.S. strikes and because al-Nusra believed that they were spies for the U.S. [24] By November 2014, the U.S. government had not fired any more missiles against the Khorasan Group, but was considering the possibility of expanding airstrikes to target al-Nusra. [25]

Simultaneously, beginning in fall and winter 2014, al-Nusra increased its engagement in the Idlib province of Syria, attacking both government positions and moderate rebel groups that were backed by the U.S. [26] [27] Other rebel groups collaborated in al-Nusra attacks against the government in Idlib, ranging from the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which became a regular ally to al-Nusra around this time, to units of the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra was widely reported as the leader of these collaborative attacks. [28] 

Later, in March 2015, al-Nusra’s ongoing attacks in Idlib forced Harakat Hazzm to dissolve, and its members were absorbed into other groups. Al-Nusra reportedly seized U.S. weapons after defeating Harakat Hazzm. [29] 

At the same time, rumors surfaced that al-Nusra was considering severing ties with Al Qaeda to instead receive support from a group of Gulf states, perhaps led by Qatar. Sources close to al-Nusra alleged that intelligence officials from the Gulf states had been meeting with al-Nusra commander Julani throughout 2015, promising funding if al-Nusra rebranded. Whether or not the rumors are true, al-Nusra did not follow through and as of summer 2015 remained AQ’s sole recognized affiliate in Syria. [30] 

Syrian government forces claimed to have killed an al-Nusra military chief, along with three other group leaders, in a March 2015 airstrike following a major al-Nusra attack in Aleppo. [31] But by the end of the month, al-Nusra had rebutted by seizing the city of Idlib from the government after leading other Islamist groups in the battle for the city for months. It was the first time that rebel groups controlled the city of Idlib since the outbreak of the civil war. [32] Throughout April and May, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies carried out a successful campaign to seize control of the remaining towns in the province of Idlib. [33] [34] Reports alleged that al-Nusra experienced a surge in popularity around this time. News of its successes combined with its reputation for being well-resourced began to entice rebels who had fled to Turkey to return to Syria to join al-Nusra. [35]

Despite its successes, al-Nusra continues to face challenges in areas it controls. It clashes with groups that do not share its religion or ethnicity. Al-Nusra also has unidentified violent enemies within its borders; a July 2015 bombing killed at least 25 members of al-Nusra at a mosque in Idlib when they gathered to break the Ramadan fast. [36] Additionally, some reports also claim that al-Nusra and its allies—particularly the powerful Ahrar al-Sham—have had violent disputes over governance of territory they control, and that residents have protested al-Nusra’s governing practices, sometimes drawing heavy fire from al-Nusra at demonstrations. [37] [38] Further, during summer 2015, some journalists reported that al-Nusra was dismissing large numbers of leaders, suggesting that the internal divisions beginning with Maysar Ali al-Juburi’s dismissal had continued behind the scenes throughout 2015. [39] [40] Finally, American officials claimed that a U.S. drone strike had killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the reported leader of the Khorasan Group, in spite of al-Nusra’s denial that the group exists. [41]

As U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict has increased, so has al-Nusra’s opposition to U.S. policy and U.S.-linked rebel groups. In late July 2015, al-Nusra attacked and kidnapped seven members of the U.S.-trained rebel group Division 30 (D30) just two weeks after the group returned to Syria from its training camps in Turkey. A few days later, al-Nusra carried out another assault against the group as it was traveling to the Syrian town of Azzaz. The U.S. deployed drones to defend D30, reportedly killing between 30 and 40 members of al-Nusra. [42] [43] Neither American intelligence officials nor D30 leaders had apparently believed that al-Nusra would attack D30, since D30 had made it clear that it intended to target the Islamic State and not al-Nusra, and at least one D30 leader alleged that D30 had even coordinated with al-Nusra before D30 moved toward Azzaz. Al-Nusra justified the attacks by accusing D30 of being American agents. [44] Al-Nusra made a statement claiming that it would aim to destroy D30, but also released at least some of the D30 members it had kidnapped. [45] [46] In early August, 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. [47] Later, D30 dissolved, and in October 2015 the U.S. announced that it would end its training program for Syrian rebels. [48]

In September 2015, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a recorded statement that decried Baghdadi’s Islamic State as illegitimate but also suggested that al-Nusra and the Islamic State should cooperate on the ground in the face of greater enemies, despite commander Julani’s claims in June 2015 that there was no foreseeable end to its conflict with ISIS. [49] [50]

Leadership

Al-Nusra is secretive about its exact leadership structure, but the organization is headed by Abu Muhammad al-Julani and supposedly supervised by a Shura Council. Public leadership expulsions and statements from former leaders suggest that al-Nusra faced or continues to face internal dissent at the leadership level. [51]

  1. Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali (Unknown to Present): Ali is an AQ member who has served as a leader for al-Nusra, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the organization and helping foreign individuals travel to Syria to join al-Nusra.[52]
  2. Muhsin al-Fadhli (Unknown to July 21, 2015): Fadhli was the alleged commander of the Khorasan Group, an AQ cell reportedly harbored by al-Nusra. Al-Nusra has denied the existence of the group. A U.S. drone strike reportedly killed Fadhli in July 2015.[53]
  3. Maysar Ali al-Juburi, also known as Abu Maria al-Qatani (2011 to 2014): Juburi was originally a member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but after reportedly coming into conflict with the Iraqi leadership, he moved to Syria to help found al-Nusra. He became a top religious official in al-Nusra but was reportedly replaced by Sami al-Oreidi in 2014 and was demoted to a standard member.[54]
  4. Saleh al-Hamawi, also known as Abu Mohammed (2011 to 2015): Hamawi was allegedly a founding member of al-Nusra. Julani and the Shura Council expelled him from his leadership role privately in winter 2015, and publicly that summer. He subsequently accused the Shura Council of being a sham, and accused some leaders of being more loyal to the global jihad movement than they were to Syria.[55]
  5. Abu Muhammad al-Julani (February 2012 to Present): Julani is the founder of al-Nusra and its current leader. He was originally a member of AQI/ISIS.[56]
  6. Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (2013 to Present): Sarikh is an AQ member who traveled to Syria in spring 2013 to become a senior leader in al-Nusra.[57]
  7. Sami al-Oreidi, also known as Abu Mahmoud al-Shami (2014 to Present): Oreidi reportedly replaced Juburi as the top religious figure in al-Nusra in 2014.[58]

Ideology & Goals

Al-Nusra’s stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime, and it has called for an Islamic government to replace it. [59] In contrast to rival group ISIS, it claimed that it would not establish a new religious state without support from other Islamist groups. It clarified its position on founding an Islamic emirate after Julani gave a fiery speech in summer 2014, declaring that "the time has come" to establish an Islamic state in the Levant. After the speech became popular on jihadist sites, al-Nusra emphasized that the speech had not been a declaration of the creation of an Islamic state, and that it would not declare such a state until it had consensus from "the sincere mujahideen and the pious scholars." [60]  A year later, Julani claimed that if the regime were to fall, all factions would be involved in deciding whether or not to make Syria into an Islamic state. [61]

Name Changes

Al-Nusra has never changed names, although some media outlets may have referred to it as “ISIS” for a brief period in 2013 when AQI/ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi unilaterally declared that the his group had merged with al-Nusra. Al-Nusra never agreed to the merger or name change.

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Resources

Al-Nusra is one of the best-equipped rebel groups in Syria. [66] A large portion of its resources initially came from foreign donors, but it later began to convert munitions from existing military equipment in Syria and soon began to finance its arms and attacks by gaining control of oil fields that generated income. [67] [68] Before the conflict between AQI and al-Nusra, AQI claimed to supply al-Nusra with half of its operating budget. [69]  Al-Nusra also reportedly secures funding through ransoms for kidnappings, which it also uses for publicity. [70]

Second only to ISIS, al-Nusra attracts the most foreign fighters among rebel groups in the Syrian civil war. These fighters mostly come from the Middle East, but also from Chechnya and European states, with a smaller number from more distant countries like Australia and the United States. The first al-Nusra attack by an American citizen was carried out in May 2014. As of June 2015, Julani claimed that al-Nusra’s fighting force was about 30% foreign. [71] [72] [73]

External Influences

Al-Nusra’s connections to Qatar have become clear in hostage negotiations and U.S. reports. Qatar has facilitated hostage negotiations between foreign countries and al-Nusra, securing the release of a group of Greek Orthodox nuns in March 2014 and an American journalist in August 2014. [74] At least one Qatari involved in hostage negotiations was also named by the U.S. Treasury as a major al-Nusra fundraiser. He was not a member of the government, and Treasury officials reportedly claimed that Qatar has increased efforts to block terrorist funding networks in 2015. [75] In March 2015, rumors surfaced that al-Nusra was considering severing ties with Al Qaeda to instead receive support from a group of Gulf states, perhaps led by Qatar. Sources close to al-Nusra alleged that intelligence officials from the Gulf states had been meeting with al-Nusra commander Julani throughout 2015, promising funding if al-Nusra rebranded. Whether or not the rumors are true, al-Nusra did not follow through and as of summer 2015 remained AQ’s sole recognized affiliate in Syria. [76] 

Geographical Locations

In 2013, al-Nusra was active in eleven of Syria’s 13 provinces, including parts of Aleppo, Al-Raqqah, Deir el Zour, Daraa, and Idlib. [77] As of January 2014, al-Nusra controlled at least a dozen Syrians towns, establishing Sharia courts and carrying out government services in areas that included parts of Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa, Homs, Hama, and the outskirts of Damascus. [78] By summer 2015, it had gained control of most of Idlib province, including the city of Idlib, working alongside other rebel groups. [79] [80] 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. [81]

Targets & Tactics

Al-Nusra targets Bashar al-Assad's government forces and the groups that support the regime, such as Hezbollah, and groups with links to the United States. Al-Nusra’s early involvement in the war began with suicide bombings and car bombs, most of which targeted government forces. However, many of their attacks also killed civilians, such as the October 2012 car bombing that targeted a known officers’ club in a public square. [82] By June 2013 al-Nusra had claimed fifty-seven suicide attacks. [83] It began to take part in more conventional military-style operations in 2012 as its membership increased, attacking regime bases like airports and checkpoints and claiming to maintain no-fly zones with anti-aircraft weaponry, and it has since taken and governed territory as a more traditional military unit. [84] [85] [86] [87] [88] 

Al-Nusra also conducts kidnappings to raise money through ransom or to motivate political and military action. In August 2014, the group released a video in collaboration with ISIS that threatened to kill a unit of Lebanese soldiers it had taken hostage if Hezbollah did not withdraw from Syria. [89] It executed four of the hostages throughout 2014, and reportedly began negotiating with Lebanon to release the remaining hostages in 2015, but by late 2015 the hostages still had not been released. [90] [91] Also in August 2014, al-Nusra released American writer Theo Curtis, reportedly without ransom, after keeping him as a hostage for two years. [92] In September 2014, the group released forty-five Fijian UN peacekeepers that it had held for two weeks. After initially claiming that the peacekeepers were being held because of the UN’s failure to aid Syrians during the war and subsequently demanding a prisoner exchange and delivery of humanitarian aid for the peacekeepers’ release, al-Nusra claimed that the peacekeepers were released without condition. [93] In 2015, it kidnapped and subsequently released members of Division 30 (D30), a rebel unit trained and armed with the assistance of the United States. [94] [95] 

Julani has claimed that AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has commanded al-Nusra not to attack the U.S. or Europe, because doing so would likely jeopardize the group’s mission to establish an Islamic state in Syria. However, he noted that al-Nusra would defend itself against U.S. attacks, and al-Nusra makes a point of targeting U.S.-linked forces in Syria. [96] [97] consistently attacked Harakat Hazzm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), both FSA brigades supported by the U.S., ultimately forcing Harakat Hazzm and the SRF to collapse. [98] The U.S. then developed a more hands-on support program, and began vetting rebels to join D30 and subsequently training them at camps in Turkey. Soon after newly trained D30 troops entered Syria, al-Nusra attacked the group, and continued its attacks until D30 dissolved. In October 2015, after D30 had dissolved, the U.S. ended training programs for Syrian rebels. [99]

Al-Nusra has claimed that it does not target noncombatant members of groups that it considers to be heretics, like Alawites and the Druze. [100] [101] However, some residents have reported that al-Nusra has forced some of the Druze to convert to Sunni Islam, and that the group has desecrated Druze shrines and graves. [102]

Political Activities

Al-Nusra practices Shariah law and early in the conflict signaled that it aimed to implement it in Syria should the group gain control of the government. It has governed with its interpretation of Islamic law in areas it has controlled since then, largely following more moderate governing practices than ISIS. [103] [104] As of 2015, Julani began to claim that should the Assad regime fall, all rebel factions would be involved in deciding whether to make Syria into an Islamic state. [105]

Major Attacks

  1. Unknown: Amid growing tensions between ISIS on one side and al-Nusra and its Islamist allies on the other, ISIS drove al-Nusra out of Deir al-Zor. (Casualties unknown).[106]
  2. January 6, 2012: January 6, 2012: A suicide bomber blew up buses that were carrying riot police to an anti-government protest in central Damascus. (26 killed, 63 wounded).[107]
  3. May 10, 2012: Al-Nusra carried out two suicide bombing attacks in Damascus. (55 killed, unknown wounded).[108]
  4. October 3, 2012: Three suicide bombers detonated car bombs in the center of Aleppo, targeting government forces. (12+ killed, unknown wounded).[109]
  5. November 5, 2012: Al-Nusra carried out a suicide bombing in Hama. (50+killed, unknown wounded).[110]
  6. January 24, 2013: Al-Nusra targeted the Syrian Military Intelligence headquarters in Damascus with a suicide bombing. (53 killed, unknown wounded).[111]
  7. February 10, 2013: Al-Nusra fighters, working with other rebel forces, took over an army encampment in Tabqa along the Euphrates River, securing large amounts of artillery and ammunition and giving them control of a key checkpoint in the town. (Casualties unknown).[112]
  8. May 25, 2014: American citizen Abu Huraira al-Amriki carried out a suicide truck bombing in Idlib in what is believed to be the first instance of an American conducting a suicide attack in Syria. (No reported casualties).[113]
  9. November 3, 2014: In early November 2014, al-Nusra attacked and defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib. The two groups, moderate rebels linked to the FSA, surrendered local towns to al-Nusra. Some members of the FSA-linked groups were arrested, and others defected to al-Nusra. (Casualties unknown).[114]
  10. March 2015: Al-Nusra’s ongoing attacks forced the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazzm to dissolve. Al-Nusra seized U.S. weapons from Harakat Hazzm after its defeat. (Casualties unknown).[115]
  11. March 2015: Al-Nusra worked alongside other rebel groups to seize the city of Idlib from the government after leading other Islamist groups in the battle for the city for months. It was the first time that rebel groups controlled the city of Idlib since the outbreak of the civil war. Throughout April and May, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies carried out a successful campaign to seize control of the remaining towns in the province of Idlib. (Casualties unknown).[116]
  12. July 31, 2015: Al-Nusra kidnapped several members of D30, a rebel group that received weapons and training from the United States, and then al-Nusra attacked the group again a few days later. D30 leaders and American officials were reportedly surprised by the attack because D30 had publicly claimed that its target was the Islamic State, not al-Nusra. The U.S. carried out airstrikes in support of D30 during the second al-Nusra attack, reportedly killing between 30 and 40 al-Nusra fighters. (5+ killed, 18+ wounded, 20+ captured).[117]

Relationships with Other Groups

Al-Nusra originally took orders from both Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda central leadership. [118] Al-Nusra is AQ’s only official branch in the Syrian conflict after global AQ emir Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disowned ISIS following months of ISIS disobedience to AQ orders. [119] In March 2015, rumors surfaced that al-Nusra was considering severing ties with Al Qaeda to instead receive support from a group of Gulf states, perhaps led by Qatar. Sources close to al-Nusra alleged that intelligence officials from the Gulf states had been meeting with Julani throughout 2015, promising funding if al-Nusra rebranded. Whether or not the rumors are true, al-Nusra did not follow through with the offer. [120] 

Beginning in 2012, AQ reportedly sent members of the “Khorasan Group,” an experienced cell of AQ jihadists, to Syria in order to use the relatively ungoverned territory to develop international terror plots. Al-Nusra harbored the cell of approximately two dozen men, which U.S. airstrikes targeted in September 2014. [121] [122] In July 2015, American officials claimed that a U.S. drone strike had killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the reported leader of the Khorasan Group, in spite of al-Nusra’s denial that the group existed. [123]

Al-Nusra received funding and personnel from ISIS (which at the time operated as Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) that helped establish al-Nusra at the beginning of the civil war, but came into conflict with the group when AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed that al-Nusra was an agent of the Islamic State of Iraq and would now be considered a part of it, without consulting al-Nusra or AQ. [124] In June 2013, Zawahiri insisted that AQI and al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement." [125] The leader of al-Nusra also denied the merger, claiming the group was an independent branch of Al Qaeda, and reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri. [126] Over the course of 2013, tensions increased between ISIS and al-Nusra, and in 2014 battles between the groups began, resulting in 3,000 casualties by March 2014. [127] However, despite the larger conflict, there was evidence of some ground-level cooperation between al-Nusra and ISIS units in certain areas of the country. For example, in August 2014, they released an anti-Hezbollah video together from the eastern mountains of Lebanon, where they each had taken Lebanese soldiers hostage, apparently in collaboration. [128] However, the fighting intensified over the next year, and in June 2015, al-Nusra commander Julani claimed that there was no foreseeable end to the conflict with ISIS, and that the two groups would continue fighting. [129] However, in September 2015, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a recorded statement that decried Baghdadi’s Islamic State as illegitimate but also suggested that al-Nusra and the Islamic State should cooperate on the ground to combat larger enemies, presumably the Assad regime and the Untied States. [130]

Like most militant organizations in the Syrian conflict, al-Nusra’s relationships with other groups are complex and constantly change on the ground. It typically maintains strong relationships with Islamist groups that are not ISIS. It is not a part of the Islamic Front, a collective of more moderate Islamist rebels, and was not asked to join; however, it often collaborates with Islamic Front members in different locations in Syria. [131] Al-Nusra often works with the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, arguably the strongest organization in the Islamic Front, and the two were key allies in seizing Idlib province from the government throughout 2014 and 2015, although there have been reports of violent disputes over governance of territory they control together. [132]

The relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is complex, in part because the designation “FSA” is a loose term that includes secular and moderate rebels who have some affiliation with the Supreme Military Council or who have claimed the title of “FSA” for themselves. Some of these groups are more amenable to working with al-Nusra than others. Although al-Nusra and FSA-linked brigades ultimately have different ideologies and different goals for the future of Syria, they have coordinated to overthrow Assad and to compete with ISIS in some cases. [133] [134] For example, in late 2013, an FSA/al-Nusra offensive captured a number of border towns, and in 2014 and 2015 some FSA groups were involved in the rebel collaboration led by al-Nusra against the Syrian army in Idlib. [135] [136] In other cases, al-Nusra and the moderate rebels have clashed on the battlefield. Conflicts between the groups have ranged from defections, with a number of FSA men deserting for the better-armed and more influential al-Nusra in 2013, to inter-group kidnappings and battles. [137] 

The U.S. declared al-Nusra a terrorist organization in December 2012, and al-Nusra routinely opposes any groups that have official U.S. support. [138] In November 2014, after U.S. airstrikes that targeted the Khorasan Group at al-Nusra bases in Idlib, al-Nusra attacked and defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm, FSA brigades supported by the U.S., in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib. [139] By March of 2015, al-Nusra’s continued attacks caused Harakat Hazzm to dissolve, and al-Nusra seized its U.S.-manufactured weapons. [140] In late July 2015, al-Nusra attacked and kidnapped seven members of the U.S.-trained rebel group Division 30 (D30) just two weeks after the group returned to Syria from its training camps in Turkey. Al-Nusra kidnapped the D30 operatives and carried out an assault against the group as it traveled to the Syrian town of Azzaz. The U.S. deployed drones to defend D30, reportedly killing between 30 and 40 members of al-Nusra. [141] [142] Neither American intelligence officials nor D30 leaders had apparently believed that al-Nusra would attack D30, since D30 has made it clear that its intended target Islamic State and not al-Nusra, and at least one D30 leader alleged that D30 had even coordinated with al-Nusra before moving toward Azzaz. Al-Nusra justified the attack by accusing D30 of being American agents. [143] Al-Nusra then made a statement claiming that it would aim to destroy D30, but also released at least some of the D30 members it had kidnapped. [144] [145] D30 subsequently dissolved and the U.S. ended its training programs for Syrian rebels. [146]

Because Hezbollah actively supports the regime in Syria, al-Nusra and Hezbollah often come into conflict on the battlefield. Al-Nusra has also claimed a number of suicide attacks on Shiite targets in Lebanon and a January 2014 tweet from the organization’s Lebanon branch declared that all Hezbollah strongholds were legitimate targets for attacks. [147] [148] In summer 2014, after the ISIS beheading of an American journalist caught global media attention, al-Nusra and ISIS released a video of Lebanese hostages they held near Arsal, close to the Syrian-Lebanese border. The hostages were Lebanese soldiers, but pleaded for Hezbollah's withdrawal from Syria in the video. [149] Al-Nusra and Hezbollah have remained enemies throughout 2015. [150]

Al-Nusra is also in conflict with the dominant Kurdish groups fighting in Syria as well, with particularly large clashes taking place between 2012 and 2013 around the town of Ras al-Ayn. [151]

Community Relationships

Like ISIS, al-Nusra governs much of the territory it holds. It establishes Islamic courts, although it does not typically carry out executions as ISIS has been known to do. The security it provides, along with basic services like electricity and food distribution, has earned respect from some parts of the local population. Many citizens protested when the U.S. designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in 2012. [152] In some cases, al-Nusra’s governing practices have fostered dependency. [153] For example, while al-Nusra managed to reopen a number of bakeries in Aleppo to ease the hunger crisis, the organization retained control of the supply of flour. [154] The organization also issues propaganda videos aimed at ordinary Muslims from its media group, al-Manara al-Baida, or The White Minaret. The videos are posted to jihadist online forums, social media, and video-sharing websites. [155]

In 2015, some reports indicated that residents have protested al-Nusra’s governing practices, sometimes drawing heavy fire from al-Nusra at demonstrations. [156] 


References

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