Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra (Arabic: جبهة النصرة), known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Arabic: جبهة فتح الشام) after July 2016, and also described as al-Qaeda in Syria or al-Qaeda in the Levant, was a Salafist jihadist organization fighting against Syrian government forces in the Syrian Civil War. Its aim was to establish an Islamic state in the country.
Formed in 2012, in November of that year The Washington Post described al-Nusra as "the most aggressive and successful" of the rebel forces. In December 2012 the United States Department of State designated it a foreign terrorist organization, and in November 2013 it became the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
From 2012 to 2013, the al-Nusra Front's full name was the "Victory Front for the People of the Levant by the Mujahideen of the Levant on the Fields of Jihad" (Arabic: جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام من مجاهدي الشام في ساحات الجهاد, transliteration: Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-ahli ash-Shām min Mujahideen ash-Shām fi Sahat al-Jihad).
The al-Nusra Front is primarily made up of Syrian jihadists. Its goals are to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria and to create an Islamic emirate under sharia law, with an emphasis from an early stage on focusing on the "near enemy" of the Syrian regime rather than on global jihad. Syrian members of the group claim that they are fighting only the Assad regime and would not attack Western states; while the official policy of the group is to regard the United States and Israel as enemies of Islam, and to warn against Western intervention in Syria, al-Nusra Front leader Julani has stated that "We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others". In early 2014, Sami al-Oraydi, a top sharia official in the group, acknowledged that it is influenced by the teachings of al-Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Suri. The strategies derived from Abu Musab's guidelines include providing services to people, avoiding being seen as extremists, maintaining strong relationships with local communities and other fighting groups, and putting the focus on fighting the government. On 10 June 2015, al-Nusra fighters shot dead at least 20 Druze civilians in a village after one of them, a supporter of the Assad regime, opposed the expropriation of his house by a Nusra commander. Al-Nusra's leadership issued an apology and claimed that the killings had been carried out against the group's guidelines.
Foreign Affairs magazine, which contends that Al-Jazeera is engaged in actively whitewashing Al-Nusra, said that there is absolutely no reference to the Druze in Al-Nusra's "apology", since Al-Nusrah forced the Druze to renounce their religion, destroyed their shrines and now considers them Sunni. Nusra and ISIL are both against the Druze, the difference being that Nusra is apparently satisfied with destroying Druze shrines and making them become Sunnis while ISIL wants to violently annihilate them as it does to Yazidis.
The tactics of al-Nusra Front differ markedly from those of rival jihadist group ISIL; whereas ISIL has alienated local populations by demanding their allegiance and carrying out beheadings, al-Nusra Front has cooperated with other militant groups and has declined to impose sharia law where there has been opposition. Analysts have noted this could give the al-Nusra Front a greater long-term advantage.
In early 2015, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri instructed al-Nusra Front leader Julani to pursue the following five goals:
- Better integrate his movement within the Syrian revolution and its people
- Coordinate more closely with all Islamic groups on the ground
- Contribute towards the establishment of a Syria-wide sharia judicial court system
- Use strategic areas of the country to build a sustainable al-Qaeda power base
- Cease any activity linked to attacking the West
Both al-Qaeda and al-Nusra have tried to take advantage of ISIL's rise by presenting themselves as "moderate" in comparison. While they have the same aim of establishing sharia and a caliphate, they intend to implement it in a more gradual manner. Al-Nusra criticized the way ISIL alienated people by precipitously instituting sharia, preferring the more gradual approach favored by al-Qaeda of preparing society through indoctrination and education before implementing the hudud aspects of sharia. They particularly criticised ISIL's enthusiasm for punishments such as executing gay people, chopping limbs off, and public stoning. However, Al-Qaeda agrees that hudud punishments should be implemented in the long term. The main criticism of defectors from ISIL is that the group is killing and fighting other Sunni Muslims, and that they are unhappy that other Sunnis like Jabhat al-Nusra are being attacked by ISIL.
A video called The Heirs of Glory was issued by al-Nusra, which included old audio by Osama bin Laden (such as his 1998 announcement that "So we seek to incite the Islamic Nation so it may rise to liberate its lands and perform Jihad in the path of Allah, and to establish the law of Allah, so the Word of Allah may be supreme"). The video glorified the September 11 attacks and the Islamists Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam. Its magazine, Al Risalah, was first issued in July 2015.
Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri urged ISIL fighters to unite with all other jihadists against their enemies and stop the infighting. The Nusra Front praised the November 2015 Paris attacks, saying that even though they view ISIL as "dogs of hellfire", they applaud when "infidels" get attacked by ISIL.
In an Amnesty International report in July 2016, the al-Nusra Front has been accused of torture, child abduction, and summary execution. In December 2014, al-Nusra Front fighters shot dead a woman execution-style on accusations of adultery. They have also stoned to death women accused of extramarital relations. Overall, they have "applied a strict interpretation of Shari'a and imposed punishments amounting to torture or other ill-treatment for perceived infractions."
The leader of al-Nusra, a self-proclaimed emir, goes by the name of Abu Mohammad al-Julani (also transliterated as Mohammed and al-Jawlani, or al-Golani), which implies that he is from the Golan Heights (al-Jawlan, in Arabic). Prior to the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani was a senior member of Islamic State of Iraq, heading operations in Nineveh Governorate. On 18 December 2013, he gave his first television interview, to Tayseer Allouni, a journalist originally from Syria, for Al Jazeera, and spoke classical Arabic with a Syrian accent.
|Abu Mohammad al-Julani||Emir|
|Sami al-Oraydi||Deputy Emir||
Deputy leader and senior religious official in al-Nusra Left the group after the formation of Tahrir al-Sham.
|Abu Maria Al-Qahtani||Emir of the Eastern area|
The structure of the group varies across Syria. In Damascus, the organisation operates in an underground clandestine cell system, while in Aleppo, the group is organised along semi-conventional military lines, with units divided into brigades, regiments, and platoons. All potential recruits must undertake a ten-day religious training course, followed by a 15–20-day military training program.
Al-Nusra contains a hierarchy of religious bodies, with a small Majlis-ash-Shura (Consultative Council) at the top, making national decisions on behalf of the group. Religious personnel also play an important role in the regional JN leadership, with each region having a commander and a sheikh. The sheikh supervises the commander from a religious perspective and is known as dabet al-shar'i (religious commissioner).
Members of the group are accused of attacking the religious beliefs of non-Sunnis in Syria, including the Alawis. New York Times journalist C. J. Chivers cites "some analysts and diplomats" as noting that al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant "can appear less focused on toppling" the Assad government than on "establishing a zone of influence spanning Iraq's Anbar Province and the desert eastern areas of Syria, and eventually establishing an Islamic territory under their administration".
A number of Americans have attempted to join the fighting in Syria, specifically with al-Nusra. Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, also known as Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum, was arrested in California on 11 October 2013, on charges of attempting to travel to join al-Qaeda, after reportedly having fought in Syria. As of November 2013, there had also been five additional publicly disclosed cases of Americans fighting in Syria, three of which were linked to al-Nusra. In February 2015 charges of conspiracy to support terrorism were laid against six Bosnian-Americans who were alleged to have financially supported another Bosnian-American, the late Abdullah Ramo Pazara, who they alleged died fighting with al-Nusra in 2014.
Nusra absorbed Katibat at-Tawhid wal-Jihad, an Uzbek group. Katibat Imam al Bukhari is a part of al-Qaeda. Child soldiers were used by Katibat Imam al-Bukhari. al-Fu'ah and Kafriya were attacked by the group. They also participated in the 2015 Jisr al-Shughur offensive.
Relations with al-Qaeda
In early 2015, there were reports that Qatar and other Gulf states were trying to get al-Nusra to split away from al-Qaeda, after which they would support al-Nusra with money. Western observers and a Syrian observer considered such a split unlikely, and in March 2015, al-Nusra's leadership denied a break-up or that talks with Qatar had occurred. Other Syrian observers considered such a split conceivable or imminent. In December 2015, al-Nusra's emir Abu Mohammad al-Julani refused to dissociate from al-Qaeda's ideology and stated that even if the group leaves al-Qaeda, they would continue to enforce Sharia and wage jihad against their enemies.
With members of al-Qaeda still enmeshed throughout the group's leadership, it can be considered that al-Qaeda is not "external" to the group. After the announcement, numerous senior al-Qaeda members still within the group have been targeted by the US in airstrikes. The group's leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani, in his first recorded video message, stated its new name would be Jabhat Fatah al-Sham ("Front for the Conquest of the Levant"). During the renaming announcement in July 2016, al-Julani thanked al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Khayr al-Masri. Ahmad Salama Mabruk, an associate of al-Zawahiri, sat alongside al-Julani during the announcement.
Despite the group re-branding and announcing no external affiliations, the United States Central Command continued to consider it to be a branch of al-Qaeda and "an organization to be concerned about". Al-Jazeera journalist Sharif Nashashibi noted that immediately after the rebranding, both the US and Russia called it "cosmetic" and promised that air strikes would continue" against al-Nusra. Journalist Robin Wright described the rebranding as an "jihadi shell game" and "expedient fiction"—a tactic known as "marbling" by jihadi groups—and that as of December 2016 Al-Qaeda had embedded "two dozen senior personnel" in the group.
Writing shortly after the rebranding, Nashashibi argued that it might help generate more "regional support", which the group needed in the face of Syrian government and Russian military success. Wright wrote that the move was effective with many conservative Sunnis in the region, and that hundreds of them joined its ranks since the rebranding, believing the group to be "less extreme" than the rival Islamic State.
Upon the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Islamic State of Iraq's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Qaeda's central command authorized the Syrian Abu Mohammad al-Golani to set up a Syrian offshoot of al Qaeda in August 2011, to bring down the Assad government and establish an Islamic state there. Golani and six colleagues crossed the border from Iraq into Syria, and reached out to Islamists released from Syria's Sednaya military prison in May–June 2011 who were already active in fighting against Assad's security forces. The six men who founded Nusra alongside Julani were Saleh al-Hamawi (Syrian), Abu Maria Al-Qahtani (Iraqi), Mustafa Abd al-Latif al-Saleh (kunya:Abu Anas al-Sahaba) (Jordanian/Palestinian), Iyad Tubasi (kunya: Abu Julaybib) (Jordanian/Palestinian), Abu Omar al-Filistini (Palestinian) and Anas Hassan Khattab (Syria).
A number of meetings were held between October 2011 and January 2012 in Rif Dimashq and Homs, where the objectives of the group were determined. Golani's group formally announced itself under the name "Jabhat al-Nusra l'Ahl as-Sham" (Support Front for the People of the Sham) on 23 January 2012.
Iraq's deputy interior minister said in early February 2012 that weapons and Islamist militants were entering Syria from Iraq. The Quilliam Foundation reported that many of Nusra's members were Syrians who were part of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Islamist network fighting the 2003 American invasion in Iraq; Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari agreed to that in 2012. The British The Daily Telegraph stated in December 2012 that many foreign al-Nusra fighters were hardened veterans from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Strength in 2012
By the second half of 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra stood out among the array of armed groups emerging in Syria as a disciplined and effective fighting force. Nusra in October 2012 refused a call for a four-day ceasefire in Syria during Eid al-Adha feast.
In November 2012, they were considered by The Huffington Post to be the best trained and most experienced fighters among the Syrian rebels. According to spokesmen of a moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Nusra had in November 2012 between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, accounting for 7–9% of the FSA's total fighters. Commentator David Ignatius for The Washington Post described Nusra then as the most aggressive and successful arm of the FSA. The United States Department of State stated likewise: "From the reports we get from the doctors, most of the injured and dead FSA are Jabhat al-Nusra, due to their courage and [the fact they are] always at the front line".
On 10 December 2012, the U.S. designated Nusra a foreign terrorist organization and an alias of Al Qaeda in Iraq. That decision made it illegal for Americans to deal financially with Nusra. Days earlier, the American ambassador to Syria, R. Ford, had said: "Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are a problem, an obstacle to finding the political solution that Syria's going to need".
Relations with other Syrian rebels in 2012
In August 2012, there were signs of Nusra co-operating with other rebels. The group took part in military operations with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Abu Haidar, a Syrian FSA co-ordinator in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district said that al-Nusra Front "have experienced fighters who are like the revolution's elite commando troops."
In October–December 2012 Nusra received words of praise and appreciation for their efforts in the "revolution" against Assad from non-specified 'rebels', an FSA spokesman in the Aleppo region, a group of 29 civilian and military groups, and the leader of the Syrian National Coalition. At the same time, two anonymous FSA leaders, and a secular rebel in north Syria, expressed disapproval of the Islamist 'religious prison' Nusra might be wanting to turn Syria into.
Attacks by Nusra (2012–2013)
The 6 January 2012 al-Midan bombing was claimed by al-Nusra, in a video seen by AFP on 29 February 2012. It was allegedly carried out by Abu al-Baraa al-Shami. Footage of the destruction caused by the blast was released on a jihadist forum. The video asserts that the "martyrdom-seeking operation" was executed "in revenge for our mother Umm Abdullah—from the city of Homs—against whom the criminals of the regime violated her dignity and threatened to slaughter her son," SITE reported. The video shows "an excerpt of allegiances, operations, and training of the al-Nusra Front" as well as a fighter "amongst the masses in a public demonstration, advising them to do their prayers and adhere to the rituals of Islam."
An al-Nusra-affiliated group announced the formation of the "Free Ones of the Levant Battalions", in a YouTube video statement that was released on 23 January 2012. In the statement, the group claimed that it attacked the headquarters of security in Idlib province. "To all the free people of Syria, we announce the formation of the Free Ones of the Levant Battalions," the statement said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. "We promise Allah, and then we promise you, that we will be a firm shield and a striking hand to repel the attacks of this criminal Al Assad army with all the might we can muster. We promise to protect the lives of civilians and their possessions from security and the Shabiha [pro-government] militia. We are a people who will either gain victory or die."
The March 2012 Damascus bombings were claimed by Nusra.
The 10 May 2012 Damascus bombings were allegedly claimed by al-Nusra Front in an Internet video; however, on 15 May 2012, someone claiming to be a spokesman for the group denied that the organisation was responsible for the attack, saying that it would only release information through jihadist forums.
On 29 May 2012, a mass execution was discovered near the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor. The unidentified corpses of 13 men had been discovered shot to death execution-style. On 5 June 2012, al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the killings, stating that they had captured and interrogated the soldiers in Deir ez-Zor and "justly" punished them with death, after they confessed to crimes.
On 17 June 2012, Walid Ahmad al-Ayesh, described by Syrian authorities as the "right hand" of al-Nusra Front, was killed when Syrian authorities discovered his hiding place. He was reportedly responsible for the making of car bombs that were used to attack Damascus in the previous months. The Syrian authorities reported the killing of another prominent member of the group, Wael Mohammad al-Majdalawi, killed on 12 August 2012 in an operation conducted in Damascus.
On 27 June 2012, a group of Syrian rebels attacked a pro-government TV station in the town of Drousha, just south of the capital Damascus. The station's studios were destroyed with explosives. Seven people were killed in the attack on Al-Ikhbariya TV, including four guards and three journalists. Al-Nusra claimed responsibility for the attack and published photos of 11 station employees they kidnapped following the raid.
The murder in July 2012 of journalist Mohammed al-Saeed, a well-known government TV news presenter, was claimed by Nusra in a video released on 3 or 4 August, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The 3 October 2012 Aleppo bombings were claimed by Al-Nusra. Three suicide car bombs exploded at the eastern corner of the central Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square killing 48 people. More than 122 people were reported to be heavily injured. The bombs targeted the Officers' club and the nearby buildings of the Touristic Hotel and the historic "Jouha Café". The hotel received major damage while the café was entirely destroyed. A small building within the Officers' club was ruined as well.
Al-Nusra Front also claimed responsibility for attacking numerous Syrian military bases, including:
- Aleppo district: an air defence base, on: 12 October 2012
- Aleppo city: the Hanano barracks
- Raqqah: the Suluq barracks
In the air defence base assault they reportedly destroyed buildings and sabotaged radar and rockets after over-running the base in co-operation with the al-Fajr Islamic Movement and a group of Chechen fighters. During the storming of the Hanano barracks 11 soldiers were killed and they held the complex for six hours before retreating. They also claimed killing 32 soldiers during the raid on the Raqqah base.
In October 2012, they joined other rebels in an attack on the Wadi Deif base around Maraat al Numan, in a prolonged fighting that turned into a siege of the base. They also led an attack on the Taftanaz Air Base in November 2012, an important and strategic base for the Syrian army, containing up to 48 helicopters.
The group seized three army checkpoints around Saraqeb at the end of October 2012, forcing the Syrian Army to withdraw from the area the next day. In the battle, 28 Syrian soldiers were killed as well as five Nusra fighters. Some of the captured soldiers were summarily executed after being called "Assad dogs". The video of these executions was widely condemned, with the United Nations referring to them as probable war crimes.
Members of al-Nusra Front carried out two suicide attacks in early November 2012. One occurred in a rural development center in Sahl al-Ghab in Hama province, where a car bomb killed two people; while the other occurred in the Mezzeh neighbourhood of Damascus, where a suicide bomber killed 11 people. The SOHR claimed a total of 50 soldiers were killed in the Sahl al-Ghab attack.
Al Jazeera reported on 23 December 2012 that al-Nusra Front had declared a "no-fly-zone" over Aleppo, using 23 mm and 57 mm anti-aircraft guns to down planes. This would include commercial flights which al-Nusra believed transported military equipment and troops. In a video sent to Al Jazeera, they warned civilians against boarding commercial flights.
In February 2013, Al Nusra fighters were involved in fighting in Safira with government reinforcements, preventing these forces from reaching their destination of the city of Aleppo. A monitoring group claims this resulted in more than two hundred casualties over a period of two weeks.
As of June 2013, al-Nusra Front had claimed responsibility for 57 of the 70 suicide attacks in Syria during the conflict.
In December 2013, al-Nusra abducted 13 nuns from a Christian monastery in Maaloula. They were held in the town of Yabroud until 9 March 2014, The nuns reported they had not been harassed and could keep religious symbols.
Split with ISIL (2013)
By January 2013, Nusra was a formidable force alleged to have strong popular support in Syria, and it continued to grow in strength during the following months. In January 2013, the Quilliam counter-extremism thinktank estimated its membership at 5,000 fighters with 2,000 trainees. By July 2013, The Economist estimated its strength at 7,000 fighters. Other size estimates, however, were more conservative; a report in the Turkish daily Hurriyet in March 2013 said that the group had increased its membership from around 300-400 jihadists to 1,000 as Syrian fighters in Iraq have returned to their country in the wake of the US designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation.
On 8 April 2013, the leader of the then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a recorded audio message on the Internet, in which he announced that Jabhat al-Nusra was part of his network, and that he was merging Jabhat al-Nusra with ISI into one group, "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham" (ISIL), under his command. Al-Baghdadi also said that Abu Mohammad al-Julani had been dispatched by the ISI to Syria to meet with pre-existing cells in the country and that the ISI had provided Jabhat al-Nusra with the plans and strategy needed for the Syrian Civil War, and had been funding their activities.
The next day al-Julani rejected the merger and affirmed the group's allegiance to al-Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Julani was quoted as saying, "We inform you that neither the al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted." Nusra then split, with some members, particularly foreign fighters, following Baghdadi's edict and joining ISIL, while others stayed loyal to Golani or left to join other Islamist brigades.
In May 2013, Reuters reported that al-Baghdadi had travelled from Iraq to Syria's Aleppo Governorate province and begun recruiting members of al-Nusra. Sometime in May 2013, al-Julani was reportedly injured by an airstrike conducted by the Syrian government. In June 2013, Al Jazeera reported that it had obtained a letter written by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, addressed to both Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Mohammad al-Julani, in which he ruled against the merger of the two organisations and appointed an emissary to oversee relations between them and put an end to tensions. Later in the month, an audio message from al-Baghdadi was released in which he rejected al-Zawahiri's ruling and declared that the merger of the two organisations into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was going ahead. This sequence of events caused much confusion and division amongst members of al-Nusra.
In November 2013, Al-Zawahiri ordered the disbandment of ISIL and said al-Nusra should be considered the (only) al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and bestowed the title "Tanzim Qa'edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham" ("the Qae'dat Al-Jihad organization in the Levant") on them, officially integrating Nusra into al-Qaeda's global network.
Open fights between Nusra–ISIL (2013–2015)
In February 2014, after efforts to end the dispute between ISIL and Nusra had failed, al-Qaeda formally dissociated itself from its onetime affiliate ISIL, leaving Jabhat al-Nusra the sole representative of al-Qaeda in Syria. In the same month, al-Julani threatened to go to war with ISIL over their suspected role in the killing of senior Ahrar ash-Sham commander Abu Khaled al-Souri. Al-Julani gave ISIL five days to submit evidence that they were innocent of the attack to three imprisoned Jihadist clerics, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Falastini, and Suleiman al-Alwan. On 16 April 2014, ISIL killed al-Nusra's Idlib chief Abu Mohammad al-Ansari together with his family, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. In May 2014, open fighting broke out between ISIL and al-Nusra in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.
By July 2014, al-Nusra had largely been expelled from Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Also in July, an audio recording attributed to al-Julani appeared online, in which he said that al-Nusra planned to establish an Islamic emirate in the areas of Syria where they had a presence. A statement issued on 12 July 2014 by al-Nusra's media channel affirmed the authenticity of the recording, but stated that they had not yet declared the establishment of an emirate.
In June 2015, al-Julani stated in regards to ISIL: "There is no solution between us and them in the meantime, or in the foreseeable future [...] We hope they repent to God and return to their senses ... if not, then there is nothing but fighting between us."
Attacks by Nusra (2014–2015)
On 28 August 2014, militants from the group kidnapped 45 UN peacekeepers from Fiji from Golan Heights in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone. The group demanded that it be removed from the UN's list of terrorist organisations in exchange for the lives of the peacekeepers. In addition to UN personnel, the group routinely captures UN vehicles to use as car bombs. At the same time, two groups of UN peacekeepers from Philippines were trapped under fire in nearby Rwihinah. On 31 August, one group of 32 Filipinos soldiers was rescued and the other group of 40 soldiers escaped. The rescue operation was carried out by Irish peacekeepers. Colonel Ezra Enriquez of the Philippines, who oversaw the operations, resigned over disagreements with Indian Lieutenant General Iqbal Singh Singha. Singha had allegedly ordered the Filipinos peacekeepers to surrender arms to ensure the safe release of the Fijian soldiers. On 8 September, Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City, called for Singha's death after he allegedly called the Filipinos soldiers cowards. On 11 September, the kidnapped Fijian soldiers were released.
In late October 2014, al-Nusra began attacking some FSA and moderate Islamist groups that it was formerly allied with, reportedly in a bid to eventually establish its own Islamic state in the cities it controlled in Idlib Governorate and other neighbouring Governorates.
In June 2015, fighters of al-Nusra massacred 20 Druze villagers in Idlib province located in north-west Syria. Al-Jazeera claimed that Al-Nusra's leadership apologized and blamed the incident on a few undisciplined fighters.
In October 2015, al-Nusra offered bounties worth millions of dollars for the killing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Al-Julani said he would pay "three million euros ($3.4 million) for anyone who can kill Bashar al-Assad and end his story".
In December 2015, two Army of Revolutionaries fighters were beheaded by Nusra, according to sources on social media. In December 2015, Nusra fighters celebrated the ransoming and exchange of Lebanese army prisoners in the town of Arsal in Lebanon, according to sources on social media.
Relations with other Syrian rebels in 2015-16
In 2015, rebel factions in southern Syria vowed to distance themselves from the 'extremists' of al-Nusra in April 2015, but were seen cooperating with them in Daraa only days later.
During successful Syrian opposition offensives in the northern Idlib Governorate from March until May 2015 (see also March–April offensive and April–June 2015 offensive), al-Nusra effectively coordinated its operations with Free Syrian Army, moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, and some independent jihadist factions.
On 17 February 2016, nearly half of Jund al-Aqsa, numbering 400 fighters, joined al-Nusra. Five days later, two Damascus-based jihadist groups swore allegiance to al-Nusra. On 25 February, al-Nusra Front withdrew from the town of Sarmada, near the Turkish border in the Idlib Province, in an attempt to prevent Russian warplanes from bombing the town after the implementation of the Syria ceasefire.
Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush gave a speech on the merits of Hajj in 2013 and praised Usama bin Laden, addressing him by the honorific "Sheikh" and the honorific "rahimahu Allah" for making Hajj around 91 or 92 when Alloush was at the Islamic University of Medina. Alloush addressed the Al-Qaeda organization Jabhat al-Nusra as "our brothers", saying that "The summary of this issue is that we in Jaish Al-Islam praise our brothers of the Nusrah Front and we don't consider them Khawarij as is propagated against us, We fight alongside them and they fight alongside us". After the death of Zahran Alloush he received condolences from Nusra
Russian air raids (2015–2016)
In October 2015 Al-Nusra militant Abu Ubaid Al-Madani, who speaks Russian, released a video addressed to the Russians warning that they would massacre Russian soldiers. Abu Mohammad al-Julani called for Russian civilians to be attacked by former Soviet Muslims and called for attacks on Alawite villages in Syria. In November 2015, al-Nusra fighters and Turkish-supported Syrian Turkmen Brigades were engaged in heavy fighting in Syria's northwestern Latakia Governorate against the Syrian government forces supported by the Shiite militias and the Russian air force.
Speculations on a split with al-Qaeda (2015-16)
On 29 July 2016 Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani announced the group changed its name to Jabhat Fath al Sham and had "no affiliation to any external entity". While some analysts have interpreted this to mean breaking away from Al-Qaeda, the group and association with it were not specifically mentioned in the announcement, nor has it been said that Al-Nusra's oath of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri have been renounced. According to Sharif Nashashibi of Al-Jazeera, al-Qaeda had "given the split its blessing", and the separation "meant no change in the group's ideology". With numerous senior members of Al-Qaeda enmeshed within Al-Nusra, it can be considered that Al-Qaeda are not "external" to the group. To this extent, other analysts say that the announcement was cosmetic, a ruse to obfuscate their continued association and membership within Al-Qaeda. In the time after the announcement, a number of senior Al-Qaeda members have been targeted and killed by US air strikes, while operating within Al-Nusra
For over a year prior to this there had been speculation that the group would separate from Al-Qaeda and about what it would mean.
On 12 February 2015, SITE Intelligence Group cited rumours that Nusra leader al-Julani had plans to disassociate from al-Qaeda.
On 4 March 2015, Reuters reported that "sources within and close to al-Nusra" said that in the past months Qatar and other Gulf states had talked with Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani and encouraged him to abandon al-Qaeda, promising funding to Nusra once that break-up was carried out. An official close to the Qatari government had confirmed to Reuters that Qatar wanted Nusra to become purely Syrian and disconnect from al-Qaeda, after which Qatar would start to support Nusra with money and supplies. Muzamjer al-Sham, reportedly a 'prominent jihadi close to Nusra' had said that Nusra would soon merge with Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and other small jihadi brigades and disengage from al-Qaeda, but that not all Nusra emirs had yet agreed to that.
On 9 March 2015, in a statement issued on Twitter, al-Nusra denied "completely all reports of a meeting with Qatari" and reports of a break-up with al-Qaeda. Expert Thomas Pierret at the University of Edinburgh assumed that Qatar was trying to force the hand of Al-Nusra with this "leak" about a split, and said a break with Al-Qaeda was very unlikely. French expert on jihadism Romain Caillet agreed: "The overwhelming majority of Al-Nusra members want to stay in al-Qaeda, particularly foreign fighters who represent at least one-third of the organisation".
But in May 2015 Abu Maria al-Qahtani, the commander of al-Nusra in Deir ez-Zor province, still strongly advocated a split with al-Qaeda. Muhamed Nabih Osman, leading a charitable organisation for former Assad prisoners, said to website The Daily Beast on 4 May 2015: "I think it will happen soon. You have to understand that al-Nusra consists of two very different parts and that one part, mostly local fighters, are not interested in global jihad".
On 7 May 2015, a Turkish official said that Turkey and Saudi Arabia were bolstering Ahrar al-Sham at Nusra's expense, hoping that al-Sham's rise puts pressure on Nusra to renounce its ties to al-Qaeda and open itself to outside help.
A "well-connected Syrian Islamist" cited in May 2015 by Charles Lister in The Huffington Post said: "There are now two main currents... the conservatives are keen on keeping ties to Al-Qaeda and the others are more inclined towards the new Syria-focused approach". Another "Islamist official from Damascus" is cited: "Nusra's disengagement from al Qaeda would be good for the revolution, but Jabhat al-Nusra will always be in dire need of al Qaeda's name to keep its foreign fighters away from IS. Most Jabhat foreign fighters will never accept to fight and die for what looks like an Islamic national project."
In late July 2016, through various sources, the Middle East Eye claimed that an organizational split from al-Qaeda is "imminent", with the proposal reportedly been approved by AQ leaders and proposed a new name called "Jabhat Fatah al-Sham", or the "Conquest of the Levant Front". However, the sources claimed that the move would not affect al-Nusra's al-Qaeda ideology and its plan to commit attacks on the West.
The organisation grew in early 2016. Charles Lister reported that "According to three Islamist sources based in the area, Jabhat al-Nusra successfully recruited at least 3,000 Syrians into its ranks between February and June 2016." In mid-2016, reports suggested it was composed of around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, with the Russian ministry of defence estimating 7,000 fighters in Idlib province.
As Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (July 2016–January 2017)
In July Jabhat Fatah al-Sham kidnapped the American journalist Lindsey Snell in northern Syria. She escaped to Turkey's Hatay Province in August and was subsequently arrested by Turkish authorities for being in a military exclusion zone and imprisoned.
On 8 September an airstrike of unknown origin killed the top JFS military commander, Abu Hajer al-Homsi (nom de guerre Abu Omar Saraqeb), among several other Army of Conquest commanders in the countryside of the Aleppo Governorate, the rebels accused the United States of conducting the strike, but this was denied by the Pentagon and subsequently Russia took responsibility. On 3 October, Ahmad Salama Mabruk, an Egyptian JFS and al-Qaeda commander, was killed by a US airstrike against his vehicle in Jisr al-Shughur.
On 9 October, Jund al-Aqsa, after infighting between them and numerous rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham, merged with JFS. In early October, according to pro-government media, a number of Mountain Hawks Brigade fighters defected to join Jabhat Fatah al-Sham due to several disagreements, mainly due to the established of the Free Idlib Army. On 25 January 2017, they returned, along with their leader, Lt. Col. Nasha'at Haj Ahmad to the Mountain Hawks Brigade.
On 1 January 2017, a US drone strike killed Abu Omar al-Turkistani, a senior Al-Qaeda member and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham military commander, along with 3 other JFS members near the town of Sarmada in the northern Idlib Governorate. The Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party also counted him among their chiefs. The next day, more than 25 JFS members were killed in an air raid by suspected US planes. The Tora Bora battle saw Turkistani's participation. The Islamic Jihad Union enlisted Turkistani as a member. Jabhat Fath al Sham included Turkistani. SOHR identified al-Turkestani from among the dead. Before dying in Syria, al-Turkistani was in the Afghanistan war. He was also the emir for the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Jihad in Central Asia. Europeans make up an amount while Central Asians make up the majority of foreigners in the Afghanistan-based Islamic Jihad Union which is allied to Al-Qaeda
On 19 January 2017, US airstrikes by Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers struck the former Syrian Army Sheikh Suleiman military base in western Aleppo, which was used by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, killing at least 110 al-Qaeda fighters, including Abu Hasan al-Taftanaz, an al-Qaeda senior leader, along with some al-Zenki fighters. Since 1 January 2017, more than 150 AQ members were killed by US airstrikes in 2017. Condolences were issued to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham over the killings, by the Uyghur jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party. The training camp had been operated by al-Nusra Front and al-Zenki since 2013. Outrage over the lack of condolences from other factions over an American bombing and killing of 100+ JFS members was voiced by Muhaysini.
On 21 January 2017, 5 factions from Ahrar al-Sham left to join the al-Nusra Front;- Jaish al-Ahrar, al-Bara, Dhu Nurayn, al-Sawa'iq and Usud al-Har Battalion. On the same day, 2 al-Nusra Shura Council members based in Aleppo announced that they left the group. Ahrar al-Sham, the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Jabhat Ahl al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Fastaqim Union then established a joint operations room to combat al-Nusra and its subfaction Jund al-Aqsa.
Formation of Tahrir al-Sham (January 2017)
On 28 January 2017, several Salafist jihadist groups, including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, agreed upon a merger agreement, resulting in the formation of a new group called Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham ("Organization for the Liberation of the Levant"). With Jabhat Fateh al-Sham being one of the most powerful/influential groups in the new formation, its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani was appointed the high level position of overall military commander of the new group. The only other position of equal or greater authority in the new group is the Emir, to which role was appointed Abu Jaber, who defected from Ahrar al-Sham to join this new group.
At least one Arab government has accused Qatar of helping al-Nusra. In 2015, The Independent reported that Saudi Arabia and Turkey were "focusing their backing for the Syrian rebels on the combined Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, a command structure for jihadist groups in Syria that [included] Jabhat al-Nusra."
Al-Nusra has also been materially supported by multiple foreign fighters. Most of these fighters are from Europe and the Middle East, as pipelines to Syria from those locations are better established and navigable. However, as of November 2013, there were also 6 publicly disclosed cases of American citizens and permanent residents who joined or attempted to join al-Nusrah in 2013 alone.
The US Government has been sending weapons to rebels in Syria since at least late 2013, and perhaps as early as 2012, during the beginning phases of the conflict (CIA's covert program Timber Sycamore). Some of these weapons have been reportedly falling into the hands of al-Nusra. Weapons have been passed on to Nusra by Ahrar ash-Sham according to a Nusra member and rebels. The Pentagon confirmed in September 2015 that a small group of US-trained New Syrian Forces rebels gave six pickup trucks and a portion of their ammunition to al-Nusra Front in exchange for safe passage.
There have been cases of al-Nusra combatants receiving medical aid in Israel and returning to fight. Former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, in an interview for al-Jazeera implicitly confirmed that such practices had taken place, as part of a general Israeli policy of treating wounded rebel fighters on the border. However, Israel denies formal ties of any sort between itself and al-Nusra and Elizabeth Tsurkov has reported that Nusra has refused to cooperate with Israel, in fact kidnapping and assassinating suspected collaborators.
The Emir of Qatar publicly admitted, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour, that he doesn't always see eye to eye with American terrorist designations: "I know that in America and some countries they look at some movements as terrorist movements. ... But there are differences. There are differences that some countries and some people that any group which comes from Islamic background are terrorists. And we don't accept that. It would be a "big mistake," to consider every Islamic movement to be "extremists." It has been suggested that one of the designated groups that the Emir spoke of in this interview at CNN was Al-Nusra Front. According to the Consortium Against Terror Finance (CATF), Qatar has been able to get away with funding Al Nusra, despite their terrorist designation, through Kidnapping for Ransom. Al Nusra has, thus far, kidnapped a diverse group of people from nationalities that span the globe. They have been involved in kidnapping people from Turkey, Fiji, Lebanon, Syria, and Italy among others. In each occasion, Qatar engages in a substantial financial agreement with Al Nusra in exchange for hostages. CATF suggests that the U.S. turns a blind eye to Qatar's funding of Al Nusra because Al Nusra is one of the only groups that poses a plausible threat to both ISIS and Assad. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the reason why Al Nusra is the only plausible threat is because of Qatar's funding: "Jabhat al-Nusra has become the best-armed force among the opposition groups. It has been at the tip of the spear in operations in Eastern Syria, Aleppo, and Damascus. Its combat proficiency and relatively greater access to material and funding have led other opposition groups to tolerate its participation in military operations across the country." Qatar even managed the negotiations with al-Nusra Front that ultimately led to American writer Peter Theo Curtis's release. Suggesting how happy the country is with its relationship to Al Nusra, Qatari Intelligence Chief Ghanim Khalifa al-Kubaisi was said to have sent a contact a text with the words "Done,"— and a thumbs up emoticon — after Curtis's release was completed.
According to The Fiscal Times, Qatar has great influence over the group that goes beyond ransom payments. In many cases, Qatar acts as a political mediator between Al Nusra and other countries like Lebanon: "A prisoner swap between the Lebanese government and al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, Al-Nusra Front in early December showed how powerful the group has become on the ground. The deal released 16 Lebanese soldiers and police officers who were captured during a joint ISIS-al-Nusra operation along with 29 civilians, some of whom are known terrorists." Indeed, Qatar's mediation between Al Nusra and Lebanon ultimately guaranteed al-Nusra freedom of movement inside what was once a safe haven in Lebanon's Hamid valley, bordering Syria, giving Al Nusra access to the Lebanese town of Arsal.
But one Diplomat goes so far as to suggest that, beyond the scope of mediation and paying ransom, "They [Qatar] are partly responsible for Jabhat al-Nusra having money and weapons and everything they need." The diplomat even goes on to say that while Qatar hasn't directly funded ISIS, it is responsible for the fact that ISIS gained Al Nusra weapons as members of Al Nusra are known to defect to ISIS.
Qatar's support of Al Nusra has been highly criticized in both U.S. and U.K media. Indeed, Foreign Policy goes so far as to suggest that Qatar's support for Al Nusra is just one more example of its hand in further destabilizing the entire region. As a result, Qatar had to suppress some of the more overt Al Nusra fund-raising efforts launched publicly by its citizens. It has been suggested that while Qatar supports Al Nusra, it does so in a way to try and not alienate its Western allies. Fellow Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have publicly rebuked Qatar for its support of political Islamists like Al Nusra across the Middle East.
Al-Qaeda and Khorasan group
Khorasan, also known as the Khorasan Group, is an alleged group of senior al-Qaeda members who operate in Syria. The group is reported to consist of a small number of fighters who are all on terrorist watchlists, and co-ordinate with al-Nusra Front. At an intelligence gathering in Washington, D.C. on 18 September 2014, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that "in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as ISIS." The term first appeared in news media in September 2014, although the United States had reportedly been keeping track of the group for two years previously.
Weaponry and tactics
The organisation is believed to have used, at various times and in various places, the following tactics: car-bombs, suicide-attacks, targeting of checkpoints, conventional assault of military bases, assassination of political and military figures and members of the shabiha, targeting (destruction/killing) of pro-government media stations and personnel.
By June 2013, there had been apparently 70 suicide-attacks in Syria. Of these, the group denied responsibility for 13 but claimed responsibility for the other 57. In June 2012, the group attacked the pro-government TV station at Drousha, near Damascus. The following month the government-TV presenter Mohammed al-Saeed disappeared; the group later declared him dead.
In November 2014, al-Nusra claimed to have captured U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles supplied by the United States to moderate anti-Assad rebels. The group allegedly captured tanks, machine guns, ammunition, vehicles and American anti-tank missiles from the U.S.-backed Syrian Rebel Front.
Al-Nusra Front allegedly have an elite sniper unit known as the "Wolf Group". Training is conducted in Aleppo by veteran jihadists who belong to the Khorasan Group, a collection of veteran al-Qaeda operatives sent from al-Qaeda strongholds along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
In October 2015, al-Julani called for indiscriminate attacks on Alawite villages in Syria. He said "There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia".
On 30 May, Turkish newspapers reported that Turkish security forces had arrested al-Nusra fighters in the southern provinces of Mersin and Adana near the Syrian border and confiscated 2 kg of sarin gas. The governor of Adana claimed that the security forces had not found sarin gas but unknown chemicals, without offering further elaboration. The Turkish Ambassador to Moscow later said that tests showed the chemical seized was anti-freeze, not sarin. In September six of those arrested in May were charged with attempting to acquire chemicals which could be used to produce sarin; the indictment said that it was "possible to produce sarin gas by combining the materials in proper conditions." The indictment said that "The suspects have pleaded not guilty saying that they had not been aware the materials they had tried to obtain could have been used to make sarin gas. Suspects have been consistently providing conflicting and incoherent facts on this matter." The suspects were said to be linked to al-Nusra and to Ahrar ash-Sham.
On 29 May 2012, a mass execution was discovered near the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor. On 5 June 2012, the al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the killings.
During the 2013 Latakia offensive by rebel Islamist groups including al-Nusra Front in early August, according to Human Rights Watch, Salafist rebel forces led by al-Nusra systematically killed at least 190 civilians in several Alawite villages.
On 10 September 2013, al-Nusra fighters attacked the Alawite village of Maksar al-Hesan, in Homs province. Al-Nusra later admitted to the killing of 30 civilians overall in three Alawite villages, includes those in Maksar al-Hesan.
On 11 December 2013, the rebel Islamic Front and al-Nusra Front groups infiltrated the industrial area of the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, attacking buildings housing workers and their families. The rebels targeted Alawites, Druze, Christians and Shiites, killing them on a sectarian basis. Some people were shot while others were beheaded.
On 10 June 2015, the al-Nusra killed at least 20 Druze villagers in Qalb Lawzeh in Idlib province.
On 12 May 2016, according to pro-government media, rebels led by al-Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham massacred 42 civilians and seven NDF militiamen while kidnapping up to 70 people after taking control of the Alawite village of Zara'a in Southern Hama.
During the last days of the 17th Aleppo offensive in mid-December 2016, the al-Nusra Front arrested a media activist at a field hospital while he filmed the hospital operations. He was interrogated at al-Nusra's headquarters before the evacuation. During the evacuation of rebels from Aleppo, al-Nusra were the first to leave, along with prisoners whom they kidnapped.
Designation as a terrorist organisation
Countries and organisations below have listed al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation:
|3 January 2012|
|10 December 2012|
|30 May 2013|
|28 June 2013|
|19 July 2013|
|7 November 2013|
|7 March 2014|
|14 May 2014|
|19 May 2014|
|2 June 2014|
|29 December 2014|
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Cooperating with others could also give Al Qaeda a long-term advantage in its competition with the extremists of the Islamic State, analysts said [...] Civilians living in Nusra Front areas, too, say the group has built local support, refraining from imposing Shariah when residents resisted.
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Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, has researched Pazara's activities and called the defense motion "a very novel but uphill battle."
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"I think it will happen soon," says Muhamed Nabih Osman, who oversees a charitable association for former Assad prisoners. "You have to understand that al Nusra consists of two very different parts and that one part, mostly local fighters, are not interested in global jihad." [...] But local fighters—who likely make up 80 percent of al Nusra—have been opposed to deal-making with ISIS and have been critical of the harsh governance methods used by some of their pro-ISIS comrades in territory controlled by al Nusra.
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