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Jabhat al-Nusra

By:
Aron Lund
Source:
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Jabhat al-Nusra

is a militant group linked to al-Qaida active in Syria and Lebanon. When protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, there was no well-organized Islamist movement in the country. However, as the Syrian conflict began to turn violent over the summer of 2011, al-Qaida and its Iraqi partner organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), decided to invest in the creation of a Syrian jihadi movement. In August 2011 a small team of ISI cadres was dispatched from Iraq on a mission to connect with al-Qaida sleeper cells and other potential sympathizers in Syria, including Iraq War veterans and former political prisoners. The team was led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a Syrian veteran of the Iraq War.

Over the following months, relying on financial support from the ISI and his credentials as an envoy of the ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (real name: Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri) and al-Qaida’s international emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, Jawlani began to organize a nationwide Syrian network under his own leadership. On December 27, 2012 his group carried out its first known attack—a double bombing of security facilities in Damascus—although a claim of responsibility was only issued later.

On January 24, 2012 Jawlani’s group publicly declared its existence as Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad, or the Front for Support to the People of the Levant of the Holy Warriors on the Battlefields of Holy War, in a video released on al-Qaida-linked websites by JN’s own media wing, known as al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret, after one of the minarets of the Great Mosque in Damascus). The group did not acknowledge its connection to al-Qaida or the ISI, in order to avoid a Western counter-reaction or associations with ISI’s sectarian violence, and to safeguard its image as an indigenous Syrian movement.

Having thus established itself, JN went on to advertise its presence through continued bombings, including in Damascus on January 6 and Aleppo on February 10, 2012. Since other rebel factions mainly operated in rural areas, these attacks drew media attention and helped JN recruit the necessary manpower base for more conventional types of guerrilla warfare. By mid-2012 JN units regularly fought alongside other rebels, particularly Islamist factions. By providing strong tactical leadership, well-trained fighters, and suicide bombers—often the only feasible way for rebels to crack the perimeter defenses of army bases—JN established itself as a very useful ally for other rebels and gained influence far beyond its limited numbers.

On December 11, 2012 the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned JN as a terrorist group, arguing that it was a front for the ISI. The ensuing backlash demonstrated the success of JN’s attempt to downplay its radical ideology, emphasized its Syrian roots, and engaged with the rebel mainstream. Virtually the entire Syrian opposition protested the US decision, including Western-backed exile groups such as the Syrian National Council. In many areas of Syria, demonstrations were held under the slogan “Kulluna Jabhat al-Nusra” (“We are all Jabhat al-Nusra”). On December 15 JN’s Aleppo leadership cofounded the Aleppo Sharia Commission (al-Hay’a al-Shar‘iyya fi Halab), together with three powerful Islamist factions: Ahrar al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigade, and Suqur al-Sham. The Sharia Commission quickly attracted support from both Islamist and non-Islamist groups in Aleppo, sidelining Western-backed governance projects and embedding JN at the heart of local politics. Similar institutions were later established in other provinces, though none would prove as successful as the Aleppo version.

In spring 2013 internal conflict upended the ISI-JN relationship and caused a major split between al-Qaida and ISI in the global jihadi movement. It appears that severe mistrust had developed between Jawlani and Baghdadi, perhaps reflecting the fact that JN was now a more successful jihadi group than ISI itself. When Jawlani refused an order to return to Iraq, Baghdadi reportedly entered northern Syria and dispatched envoys to JN commanders to assure himself of their support.

In a speech released on April 9, 2013, Baghdadi admitted his role in creating JN by describing Jawlani as “one of our soldiers” who had been sent to organize JN as “an extension and a part of the ISI.” Baghdadi decreed that JN and ISI would now be fully merged under a new name: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil-Iraq wal-Sham). On the following day, Jawlani issued a counter-statement “reaffirming” his subservience to al-Qaida’s international leader Zawahiri (rather than to Baghdadi, under whom he had served in Iraq), and asserting that although he was thankful for ISI’s support, JN would not merge into ISIS.

In May Zawahiri issued an internal ruling—it was quickly leaked to the media—that scolded both Baghdadi (for creating ISIS and expanding into Syria without consulting him) and Jawlani (for publicly revealing JN’s relationship to al-Qaida), but also essentially endorsed Jawlani’s position by determining that JN and ISI should remain as separate entities in Syria and Iraq, respectively. Many of the foreign jihadis in Syria, and some locals, had by now rallied to Baghdadi’s ISIS, which also controlled the former ISI in Iraq, while others remained loyal to JN in compliance with Jawlani and Zawahiri. On June 15 ISIS responded to Zawahiri’s letter, brushing aside his decision and accusing him of seeking to consecrate an illegitimate colonial border between Syria and Iraq. Both sides have since accused each other of betraying a pledge of allegiance (bay’a), which is a serious issue among jihadi ideologues: ISIS argued that as an ISI member on a mission in Syria, Jawlani was sworn to obey Baghdadi, while JN argued that even as ISI head, Baghdadi had pledged to respect Zawahiri’s decisions.

Over the following months, the power struggle widened into an ideological rift. While ISIS began to implement a harsh interpretation of sharia law wherever it was dominant and demanded that other rebels recognize it as a “state,” JN redoubled its efforts to blend in with other Islamists in Syria.

Despite the destabilizing effects of the split, JN was able to secure several oil fields and tribal areas in the Deir al-Zor Governorate, under the leadership of the powerful eastern commander Maysar Ali al-Juburi (alias: Abu Maria al-Qahtani), an Iraqi national who doubled as JN’s top religious official and was widely perceived as Jawlani’s second-in-command. A small Lebanese wing of JN also emerged in 2013, reportedly led by Usama al-Shihabi (alias: Abu al-Zahra al-Zubaydi).

In early January 2014 the tension between ISIS and other rebel factions erupted into major fighting. Soon JN had been drawn into the war against ISIS, despite the misgivings of many members over what they saw as a fratricidal conflict. ISIS was expelled from northwestern Syria, but seized areas farther east and in western Iraq. In June 2014 ISIS captured Mosul and other Iraqi cities, decisively tipping the scales in its favor. Soon after the group shortened its name to the Islamic State (IS, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya) and named Baghdadi caliph of the Islamic world, a radical move that was predictably rejected by JN and other factions but attracted many within the wider jihadi movement, including some JN members.

IS used its new resources to capture the oil fields of Deir al-Zor, sending Juburi and his followers fleeing to southern Syria. On August 7 US airstrikes began against IS in Iraq and on September 22 the campaign was expanded to Syria, including against JN. However, the US government claimed not to be attacking JN per se—but rather the “Khorasan Group,” which it defined as a small team of international al-Qaida members embedded with JN on orders from Zawahiri, tasked with organizing anti-Western attacks. In response Jawlani released a statement that threatened retaliatory strikes against Western nations.

In order to stem defections to IS, JN began to pursue a more ideological policies aimed at satisfying its hardline jihadi base. It also sought to decrease its reliance on other factions, noting Western and Arab attempts to turn them against the JN. In early July JN announced its withdrawal from the Aleppo Sharia Commission, citing a lack of commitment to sharia law among other member factions as well as their links to Western-backed opposition projects. It then created a rival court system known as the Dar al-Qada, with far less support from other factions. JN forces in Idlib began to “implement sharia” by purging non-Islamist independent and Western/Gulf-connected rebel factions from villages near the Turkish border. A recording was leaked in which Jawlani was heard promising the creation of an “emirate” in Syria. Although JN quickly backtracked, the tape elicited a strongly negative response from other rebels, including Islamists, many of whom had begun to perceive JN’s more unilateral and assertive strategy as similar to that of ISIS in 2013.

In July, too, the anti-IS hardliner Juburi was removed as JN’s top religious functionary and replaced by Sami al-Uraydi (alias: Abu Muhammad al-Shami), a Jordanian, perhaps reflecting internal factional intrigue. JN also appointed its first public spokesperson: Abu Firas al-Suri, a Syrian al-Qaida veteran who had spent years in Pakistan and Yemen.

In October 2014 JN’s escalated its purges of rival groups in northwest Syria, possibly provoked into a preemptive strike by the start of the US aerial campaign. While this put further strain on JN’s relations to fellow rebels, it also cemented jihadi control over more border villages and seemingly left JN the single strongest insurgent faction in the strategic Idlib Governorate.

Bibliography

  • Abouzeid, Rania. “The Jihad Next Door: The Syrian roots of Iraq’s newest civil war.” Politico, June 23, 2014. www.Politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/al-qaeda-iraq-syria-108214.html
  • Audio interview with Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, al-Manara al-Bayda, November 4, 2014. https://archive.org/download/Leqaa_Sound/Leqaa_Sound.mp3 (in Arabic)
  • Benotman, Norman, and Roisin Blake. “Jabhat al-Nusra. A Strategic Briefing.” Quilliam Foundation, January 2013. www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/ jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf
  • Cafarella, Jennifer. “Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.” Institute for the Studies of War, December 2014. www.understandingwar.org/report/jabhat-al-nusra-syria.
  • Heller, Sam. “Recriminations on Social Media Shed Light on Jabhat al-Nusrah’s Inner Workings.” Jihadology, November 4, 2011. www.Jihadology.net/2014/11/04/ guest-post-recriminations-on-social-media-shed-light-on-jabhat-al-nusrahs-inner-workings
  • Katz, Rita, and Adam Raisman. “Special Report on the Power Struggle Between al-Qaeda Branches and Leadership: Al-Qaeda in Iraq vs. Al-Nusra Front and Zawahiri.” SITE Institute, January 15, 2014. https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Articles-Analysis/ special-report-on-the-power-struggle-between-al-qaeda-branches-and-leadership-al-qaeda-in-iraq-vs-al-nusra-front-and-zawahiri.html
  • Lund, Aron. Syrien brinner: Hur revolutionen mot Assad blev ett inbördeskrig. 2d ed. Stockholm: Silc Förlag, 2014 (in Swedish).
  • Lund, Aron. “UI Brief No. 13: Syrian Jihadism.” Swedish Institute for International Affairs, September 14, 2012. www.ui.se/eng/news/aktuellt/syrian-jihadism-new-ui-publication.aspx
  • Taysir Allouni interviews Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani: “Liqa al-Yawm.” Aljazeera, December 19, 2013. www.Aljazeera.net/programs/today-interview/2013/12/19/ أبو-محمد-الجولاني-النصرة-ومستقبل-سوريا (in Arabic).
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