Jabhat al-Nusra

FormedFebruary 2012
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackJanuary 6, 2012: A suicide bomber blew up buses in central Damascus district that were carrying riot police to an anti-government protest (26 killed). [1]
Last AttackNovember 3, 2014: In early November 2014, al-Nusra attacked and defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm 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. [2]
UpdatedNovember 12, 2014

Narrative Summary

Al-Nusra Front (also known as the Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra) was formed in late 2011, when Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to organize jihadist cells in the region. [3] [4] [5] Al-Nusra rose quickly to prominence among rebel organizations in Syria for its reliable supply of arms, funding, and fighters from a combination of foreign donors and AQI. Considered well trained, professional, and relatively successful on the battlefield, they earned the respect and support of many rebel groups, including some groups and individuals affiliated with the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, although it has avoided tactics like the brutal executions and sectarian attacks that made AQI unpopular, al-Nusra has engendered opposition among some Syrians by imposing religious laws in areas it controls. Al-Nusra was also the first Syrian force to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks that killed civilians. [6] Still, al-Nusra’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. [7]

In 2013, tensions rose between al-Nusra and its parent organization AQI when Baghdadi unilaterally proclaimed that the two organizations had been merged to create the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). [8] 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. [9] Despite Zawahiri’s public denial of the merger, a number of al-Nusra fighters defected to ISIS, furthering tension between the groups. [10] By March 2014, over 3,000 fighters had been killed in battles between ISIS and al-Nusra. [11] In the summer of 2014, 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. [12] [13] Regardless of the documented confrontations, there is evidence of cooperation between ISIS and al-Nusra on the battlefield in some areas. [14]

In 2012, a group of AQ veterans known by Western media as the "Khorasan Group" began to arrive in al-Nusra territory in Syria, allegedly using their relatively safe haven to develop international terror plots. The group is reportedly directed by AQ central leadership. In September 2014, the U.S. government announced that, in addition to the airstrikes it began launching against ISIS, it had also targeted the Khorasan cell. [15]

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 Hazm, 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 considered them spies for the U.S. [16] 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 in general. [17]

Despite its internal problems, its losses to ISIS, and its new status as a target of U.S. bombing, al-Nusra continues to thrive as one of the most prominent opposition groups in Syria. It employs both terrorist attacks and more traditional warfare against the government and Hezbollah while continuing to fight against ISIS in some areas. It also maintains complex relationships with other rebel forces like the FSA and the Islamic Front, sometimes cooperating with them in battle and sometimes targeting them as enemies.

Leadership

  1. Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (Unknown to Present): Sarikh is an AQ member who traveled to Syria in spring 2013 to become a senior leader in al-Nusra.[18]
  2. 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.[19]
  3. Abu Yousef al-Turki (Unknown to September 2014): Turki was a senior al-Nusra commander and was known to train members to become snipers. Al-Nusra reported that he was killed by U.S. airstrikes.[20]
  4. Abu Muhammad al-Julani (2011 to Present): Julani is the founder of al-Nusra and its current leader. He was originally a member of AQI.[21]

Ideology & Goals

Al-Nusra aims to overthrow the Assad regime and replace it with a Sunni Islamic state. However, in contrast to rival group ISIS, it claims that it will not do so 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." [22]

Name Changes


Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Resources

Al-Nusra is one of the best-equipped rebel groups in Syria. [29] A large portion of the Nusra Front's resources comes from overseas, including weapons and explosives. It also converts munitions from existing military equipment in Syria. [30] Before the conflict between AQI and al-Nusra, AQI claimed to supply the Al-Nusra Front with half of its operating budget. [31]

Second 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. [32] [33]

External Influences

The organization originally took orders from both Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda senior leadership. [34] After the AQI/ISIS quarrel in 2013, al-Nusra commander al Julani renewed his pledge of allegiance to Al Qaeda. [35]

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. [36] As of January 2014, al-Nusra controlled and 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. [37]

Targets & Tactics

Al-Nusra targets Bashar al-Assad's government forces and the groups that support the regime in Syria’s civil war, such as Hezbollah. Al-Nusra’s early involvement in the war began with suicide bombings and car bombs, most of which target government forces. However, many of their attacks also kill civilians, such as the October 2012 car bombing that targeted a known officers’ club in a public square. [38] By June 2013 al-Nusra claimed fifty-seven suicide attacks. [39] It began to take part in more military-style operations in 2012, attacking regime bases like airports and checkpoints and claiming to maintain no-fly zones with anti-aircraft weaponry. [40] [41] [42] [43] [44]

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 they had taken hostage if Hezbollah did not withdraw from Syria. [45] In that same month American writer Theo Curtis was released, reportedly without ransom, after being an al-Nusra captive for two years. [46] 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. [47]

Political Activities

Al-Nusra practices Shariah law and aims to implement it in Syria should they gain control of the government. As of January 30, 2013, al-Nusra has implemented Shariah in a town in eastern Syria close to the Iraqi border. [48] However, it seeks to gain popular support by distancing itself from ISIS, and has largely followed more moderate governing practices. [49]

Major Attacks

  1. January 6, 2012: A suicide bomber blew up a bus carrying riot police to an anti-government protest in central Damascus. (26 killed, 63 injured).[50]
  2. October 3, 2012: Three suicide bombers detonated explosive laden cars in the center of Aleppo, targeting government forces. (Dozens killed).[51]
  3. 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. (Unknown casualties).[52]
  4. December 2013: Al-Nusra kidnapped thirteen nuns from the Christian town of Maaloula, damaging their ability to frame themselves as a less extreme Islamist militant organization. After negotiations that involved Lebanese, Syrian, and Qatari officials, the nuns were released unharmed in March 2014. (No casualties).[53]
  5. March 16, 2014: After losing a battle against Hezbollah and government forces for control of Yabroud, a town on the Lebanese border, al-Nusra bombed a Bekaa Valley Hezbollah base in retaliation. The bombing follows a trend of violent conflict carrying the Hezbollah/al-Nusra rivalry into Lebanon. (4 killed).[54]
  6. May 25, 2014: American citizen Abu Huraira al-Amriki carried out a suicide truck bombing in Idlib in what was believed to be the first instance of an American conducting a suicide attack in Syria. (No reported casualties).[55]
  7. November 3, 2014: In early November 2014, al-Nusra attacked and defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm 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. (Unknown casualties).[56]

Relationships with Other Groups

Al-Nusra is affiliated with AQ and has pledged allegiance to the organization, serving as its 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. [57] Beginning in 2012, AQ sent members of the so-called “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. [58] [59]

Al-Nusra received funding and personnel from ISIS (which at the time operated as Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) 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. [60] In June 2013, Zawahiri insisted that AQI and al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement." [61] The leader of al-Nusra also denied the merger, claiming they were an independent branch of Al Qaeda and reaffirming his allegiance to Zawahiri. [62] 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. [63] However, despite the larger fight, there is evidence of some ground-level cooperation between al-Nusra and ISIS units in certain areas of the country. For example, they released an anti-Hezbollah video together from the eastern mountains of Lebanon, where they each had taken Lebanese soldiers hostage. [64] Despite the occasional coordination on a tactical level, al-Nusra and ISIS continue to fight each other while also fighting the Assad regime.

Like most militant organizations in the Syrian conflict, al-Nusra’s relationships with other groups are complex. 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. [65] The relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was complicated by the US decision to designate al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December, 2012. The “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 toward 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. [66] [67] For example, in late 2013, an FSA/al-Nusra offensive captured a number of border towns, and in 2014 collaboration led to a victory against the Syrian army in Idlib. [68] [69] In other cases, al-Nusra and the moderate rebels clash 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. [70]

In November 2014, relations between al-Nusra and moderate groups showed signs of increasing hostility. 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 Hazm 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. The SRF had held the area for three years. Members of the attacked groups, which reportedly received some arms from the U.S., claimed that the U.S. airstrikes against al-Nusra caused al-Nusra to call the moderate groups “spies” for the U.S. and had provoked the attacks. [71]

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. [72] [73] 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. [74]

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, have earned them respect from the local population, and in some cases have fostered dependency. [75] For example, while al-Nusra managed to reopen a number of bakeries in Aleppo to ease the hunger crisis, the organization also controlled the supply of flour; the people could not feed themselves without al-Nusra’s oversight. [76] The organization also issues propaganda videos aimed at ordinary Muslims from its media group, al-Manara al-Baida, or The White Minaret. They are posted to jihadist, social media, and video-sharing websites. [77]

Despite some continuing local opposition, some portions of the local population are active supporters of al-Nusra, and many citizens protested when the U.S. designated the group as a terrorist organization. [78]


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