Nusra Front and Jihadists in Syria
In recent months a lot of attention has been focussed on jihadists in Syria. The term is a little controversial because it equates jihad (‘struggle’), which is a concept adopted by all practising muslims but subject to various interpretations, with the aims and methods of a much narrower group of people, namely violent Sunni pan-Islamists. Many Syrians now see themselves as fighting jihad but most are not jihadists because their war is a local revolutionary struggle of self-defence and self-determination rather than part of a global struggle to establish a unified fundamentalist Islamic state. Nevertheless, we will use the word, despite it’s limitations, because it is in common usage among those discussing this issue and because of the lack of a widely-accepted alternative. This note is our attempt to set out and share some of what we know about jihadist groups active in Syria, particularly the group that has achieved the most prominence so far, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Syria was one of the main transit countries for fighters who were going to fight in Iraq, many of them jihadists. The Syrian regime played a role in the flow of fighters, sometimes making their passage easier and other times closing the borders and restricting their flow. Many of these fighters were themselves Syrians. This included some Islamist prisoners at Sednayah who were freed by the Assad regime to go to fight in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. The regime facilitated this flow for a number of reasons. It provided a way to strike at the Americans and challenge George Bush’s “Greater Middle East project”, it reduced the number of jihadists inside the country and also identified them to the Syrian security services who infiltrated the movement with their own agents. So, to a large extent the Syrian jihadists fighting in Iraq were penetrated and regulated by the Syrian regime. However, the regime never exhibited total control over these groups. For example, it is believed that Sheikh Mahmoud Qul Aghassi, who was involved in recruiting and sending fighters to Iraq, was assassinated in Aleppo in September 2007 by another jihadist because of his links to the Syrian security forces.
Over time, lack of funding and waning local support forced most of the jihadists to come back to Syria, bringing with them their experience in fighting an insurgency. Many of them were arrested by the Syrian security service when they returned despite promises this wouldn’t happen, leading to a sense of betrayal. Islamist prisoners who had fought in Iraq played a leading role in the Sednayah prison riots and subsequent massacre during the summer of 2008.
Then in March 2011, inspired by the success of movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians also began to take to the streets, demanding change. In particular, the regime’s heavy-handed response in Daraa fuelled the spread of protests to all major cities by Friday 25th March. With the protests becoming a serious challenge, beginning on 26 March 2011, the Assad regime began releasing Islamists being held prisoner in places like Sednayah. One of the most high profile detainees who was reportedly freed was Abu Mus’ab al Suri, a jihadi ideologue who was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and who the Americans are believed to have handed over to the Syrians. Reports on jihadist forums indicate he had been released by late 2011 but his current whereabouts are unknown.
These releases came at a time when the regime was working hard to discredit it’s opponents as “armed gangs”, “infiltrators” and “terrorists” working for sinister external forces. Rumours began circulating with the effect of spreading division and fear. For example, there was a rumour that the Christian Quarter of Damascus was going to be attacked by “Islamic extremists.” A regime supporter told us that he had heard that gangs in the poorer areas of Damascus were abducting and raping Alawite girls with the blessing of Salafist sheikhs. In this way, sectarian insecurities, fears and prejudices were being played upon.
However, despite the rumours and propaganda, despite increasing violence by the regime and, from summer 2011, by increasingly armed opposition groups, there was little evidence of the emergence of jihadist groups until spring 2012. Since then their numbers and visibility have continued to rise. The most prominent of these groups is Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), which has claimed success in hitting some key targets of the Syrian regime like the Airforce Intelligence base in Harasta and the military headquarters in Ummayid Sq. These attacks have demonstrated the group’s strength and effectiveness and have increased it’s popularity.
They were formed in late 2011, but the first time we heard about Nusra front was on 24th January 2012 when their leader al-Fateh Abu Muhammad al-Golani announced the formation of the group. The tape didn’t get that much attention because most Syrian activists have tried to maintain the civil and secular face of the revolution and reject the kind of jihadi language it used. The initial slogans of the revolution called for freedom and dignity and were non-sectarian and unifying (e.g. ‘Syrian people are one’, ‘Muslims and Christians, we all want freedom!’). In contrast, Nusra Front’s image and language suggest a different vision for Syria’s future, portraying the fight against Assad in starkly sectarian and Islamist terms.
Because of these clear ideological differences, much of the opposition was suspicious and slow to pay attention to Nusra Front and their activities. Nusra Front belatedly claimed responsibility for bombings in Damascus in April 2012 and the execution of 13 detainees in Deir Ezzor in May 2012, but much of the opposition had already blamed these attacks on Assad’s forces. The waters were further muddied by the bombings in Qazzaz, Damascus. On 10 May 2012 a bomb exploded on one of the capital’s busiest highways during the morning rush hour, close to a branch of the Syrian security forces, and once a crowd had gathered a second larger blast was then detonated. Although the target was supposedly the Palestine Branch, it only sustained some superficial damage to the wall of the compound. Instead the timing of the twin blasts seemed designed to maximise civilian casualties, with at least 55 people killed and dozens injured. A video was released on 11 May 2012 claiming Nusra Front’s responsibility but it was different from the group’s normal statements, which are numbered postings issued by their media wing al-Manarah al-Bayda’, and on 15 May the group had issued a denial. It is not clear who would try to frame Nusra Front for this devastating attack and what their purpose was.
Over time, Nusra Front’s operations have become more daring and most devastating to the regime, successfully targeting well-defended military and intelligence bases. It is clear that they are one of the most organised and effective armed groups and they are operating in much of the country, in Daraa, Damascus and its countryside and Homs, but they are most active in Deir Ezzor, Idlib and Aleppo. Most armed groups in Syria are deeply rooted in the areas where they operate, drawing most of their members from the local people and often involved in other social activities, such as providing food and other services. In contrast, Nusra Front members do not socialize with the residents in the areas where they operate. They have shown a willingness to fight alongside other groups for the sake of a larger objective, such as to attack Hananu barracks in Aleppo or the attacks on airbases, but they always keep themselves distant even from other fighters. As one FSA fighter told us: “they just want to fight and to become martyrs.”
There has recently been a lot of talk about foreign fighters, although nobody estimates them to total more than a few thousand which only amounts to a tiny proportion of the overall number of people fighting against the Assad regime. Neither is it right to presume that all foreigners are jihadists. For example, the Liwa’a al-Ummah is a battalion formed by the Libyan Mahdi al-Harati including some other veterans from the Tripoli Brigade who fought against Gaddafi. Al-Harati is an Islamist but he and his men are not fighting for an explicitly Islamic state and seem motivated by feelings of revolutionary as well as religious and ethnic solidarity with Syrians.
Nusra Front is a mixture of Syrians and foreigners. The leader of the group is Abu Mohammed al-Golani, a nickname that suggests origins in southern Syria, in Golan, but his real identity remains a secret. Similarly, the names of those taking part in suicide bombings have all been chosen to suggest Syrian origins (al-Shami, al-Furati etc). We are also aware of the funerals of Syrian members of Jabaht al-Nasra taking place in Idlib province. Nevertheless, from media reports and from first-hand accounts we know there are people of various nationalities fighting for Nusra Front, including Jordanians, Tunisians, Libyans, Saudis, Chechens and perhaps even some Westerners. It seems likely that some of these jihadists gained experience from fighting in Libya, Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq
The links to Iraq in particular are interesting. On December 17 2011, a video from the Islamic State of Iraq announced their intention to get involved in fighting in Syria but the video was later erased from Youtube. Also in December, Sheikh Abi al-Zahra al-Zubaidi, a Lebanese Islamist active on jihadist forums, urged Syrians to take up arms and to work with the Islamic State of Iraq. He has since endorsed Nusra Front, whose ideology, operations and methods, image and media operations all bear a striking similarity to those of the Islamic State of Iraq. Whether this is just because Nusra Front is adopting and emulating what it sees as successful practices, or if the links are stronger than that we do not currently know.
So, in conclusion, Nusra Front represents the best organised and most effective of the growing Jihadist groups in Syria. While the FSA gets it’s strength and legitimacy from local support, and is therefore sensitive to public opinion among it’s constituency, Nusra Front keeps itself aloof from Syrian society. While it puts a lot of effort into presentation, it doesn’t seem to care about being associated with brutal actions like the mass execution of detainees, or causing civilian casualties, like in the bombings in Saadallah al-Jabri Square in Aleppo. Their Islamist jihadi image scares many Syrians and they continue to be viewed with suspicion by many activist groups. However, even as they alienate and worry some sectors of Syrian society, their uncompromising stance and effectiveness in hitting the regime hard is winning increasing support among a brutalised and radicalised population.