NATION

Al-Nusra Front – Who And What Are They?

Al-Nusra Front (also 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
01 Sep 2014 06:56
Al-Nusra Front – Who And What Are They?
Republic of Fiji Military Forces Commander Viliame Naupoto meeting soldiers after the church service at Sukanaivalu Barracks in Labasa on December 15, 2019. Photo: Selita Bolanavanua

Al-Nusra Front (also 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 organise jihadist cells in the region.

The Nusra Front rose quickly to prominence among rebel organisations in Syria for its reliable supply of arms, funding, and fighters—some from donors abroad, and some from AQI. Considered well-trained, professional, and relatively successful on the battlefield, they earned the respect and support of many rebel groups, including some in the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA).

However, al-Nusra also made some enemies among the Syrian people and opposition by imposing religious laws, although the group has shied away from the types of brutal executions and sectarian attacks that made AQI unpopular. Al-Nusra was also the first Syrian force to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks that killed civilians.

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.

In 2013, tensions rose between al-Nusra and its parent organisation AQI when Baghdadi unilaterally proclaimed that the two organisations had been merged to create the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). 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.

Zawahiri declared that there was no merger, but a number of al-Nusra fighters defected to ISIS, and tension increased. By March 2014, over 3000 fighters had been killed in battles between ISIS and al-Nusra.

Al-Nusra continues to sustain a strong influence in Syria. It employs both terrorist attacks and more traditional warfare against the government and its Hezbollah supporters while continuing to struggle against ISIS. It also maintains complex relationships with other rebel forces like the FSA and the Islamic Front.

LEADERSHIP
• Abu Muhammad al-Julani (2011 to present): The official leader is known as Abu Muhammad al-Julani, once a member of AQI.

IDEOLOGY and GOALS

• Islamist

• Salafi

• Sunni

Al-Nusra aims to overthrow the Assad regime and replace it with a Sunni Islamic state.

Although it is affiliated with Al Qaeda, al-Nusra does not emphasise Western targets or global jihad, focusing instead on the “near enemy” of the Syrian state.
NAME CHANGES

• December 2011: Jabhat al-Nusra. The group’s name officially becomes Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of December 2011.

• April 8, 2013: Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announces that al-Nusra is absorbed into AQI, and therefore the merged group should be called the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).

• April 10, 2013: Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani rejects the merger, instead pledging allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and remaining independent of ISIS.

RESOURCES

Al-Nusra is one of the best-equipped rebel groups in Syria. 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. Before the conflict between AQI and al-Nusra, AQI claimed to supply the Al-Nusra Front with half of its operating budget.

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.

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. { Syria’s Insurgent Landscape. Rep. IHS, Sept. 2013. Web. 11 July 2014. <http://www.ihs.com/pdfs/Syrias-Insurgent-Landscape-oct-2013.pdf>. 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.

TARGETS and TACTICS

The Nusra Front 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. By June 2013 al-Nusra claimed fifty-seven suicide attacks. 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.

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. However, it seeks to gain popular support by distancing itself from ISIS, and has largely followed more moderate governing practices while branding itself as a more moderate Islamic alternative to ISIS.

The organisation 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.

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.

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.

In June 2013, Zawahiri insisted that AQI and the Nusra Front had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had “made a mistake on the merger announcement.”

The leader of the Nusra Front also denied the merger, claiming they were an independent branch of Al Qaeda and reaffirming his allegiance to Zawahiri.

Over the course of 2013, tensions increased between ISIS and al-Nusra, and in 2014 battles between the groups began, resulting in 3000 casualties by March 2014. Al-Nusra and ISIS continue to fight each other while also fighting the regime.

Like most militant organisations 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. The relationship with the Free Syrian Army was complicated by the US decision to designate al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation in December, 2012. The FSA is made up of small factions, some of which are more favorable toward working with al-Nusra than others. Although the ideologies are different, the groups have coordinated to overthrow Assad and compete with ISIS.

In late 2013, an FSA/al-Nusra offensive captured a number of border towns, for example, and in 2014 collaboration led to a victory against the Syrian army in Idlib. Conflict between the groups has ranged from defections, with a number of FSA men deserting for the better-armed and more influential al-Nusra in 2013, to kidnappings and battles.

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 organisation’s Lebanon branch declared that all Hezbollah strongholds were legitimate targets for attacks.

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 in the eyes of some of the Syrian population, and also fostered dependency.

For example, while al-Nusra managed to reopen a number of bakeries in Aleppo to ease the hunger crisis, the organisation also controlled the supply of flour.

While many Syrians are unhappy under militant Islamist rule, others are active supporters of al-Nusra, and many citizens protested when the U.S designated the group as a terrorist organisation. web.stanford.edu

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