Middle East Correspondent – Erin Manth
Is Jabhat al-Nusra More of a Threat Than ISIS?
While ISIS grabs headlines with horrific atrocities and terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, plays the long game in the background. It is likely that Jabhat al-Nusra poses a greater long-term threat to regional security than ISIS. Both groups share the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate, but they use different methods. Al-Nusra takes advantage of the US focus on ISIS and works out of the spotlight, forming relationships with civilians, indoctrinating youth in jihadi ideology, and working with opposition groups against the Assad regime. It aims to use its connections with locals and opposition groups to achieve dominance as the conflict draws on. Unlike ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra is patient, adaptive, effective, and strategic.
Fast Facts About Jabhat al-Nusra[i]
Leader: Abu Muhammad al-Julani
Designations: Considered a terrorist group by the US, UN, and several other nations.
Number of Fighters: 5,000 – 6,000
Jabhat al-Nusra is an official al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate with recognition from AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.[ii] The group originated as a Syrian offshoot of the former al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the same group from which ISIS emerged.[iii] Al-Nusra, made up of both Syrian and foreign fighters, adheres to the similar radical Sunni, Salafist, and jihadist doctrine that ISIS follows and shares its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate.[iv] While ISIS has a more belligerent approach to waging jihad, al-Nusra embeds itself within the local populace, gradually carrying out its mission. Before recognition by AQ in 2013, in the early months of the Syrian conflict, al-Nusra actually kept its AQ affiliation discreet.[v] Al-Nusra exploited the growing instability and portrayed itself as a Syrian nationalist group.[vi] This approach allowed al-Nusra to form strong relationships with local Syrians, who were unlikely to maintain relationships with radicals at the time. Presently, despite its public affiliation with al-Qaeda, al-Nusra still attempts to appear as a populist group.[vii] While ISIS acts with force and brutality, al-Nusra works to propagate its image as a benevolent and responsible guardian of Syrian civilians. Al-Nusra exploits the chaos of Syria and attempts to win the hearts of minds of desperate civilians in a war torn country.
Al-Nusra’s current short-term goal in Syria is to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic theocracy; its main strategy to achieve this end is to entangle its fighters within Sunni opposition groups working against the regime.[viii] Al-Nusra’s three main targets are Assad’s government forces, groups that support the Assad regime, and groups that are US-backed or have links to the US.[ix] A 2012 US Government press release states that al-Nusra is AQI’s attempt to “hijack the struggles of the legitimate Syrian opposition to further its own extremist ideology.”[x] The strategy is working: opposition groups and local Syrians are growing tolerant of al-Nusra’s presence and ideology.[xi] As the conflict draws on, al-Nusra’s method of winning over local civilians and opposition groups allows it to continue to gain influence. This method also makes al-Nusra increasingly difficult to target.
Al-Nusra’s first attacks began in 2012 and involved suicide bombings and car bombs that targeted Assad’s government forces, but left civilian casualties.[xii] As its membership increased, al-Nusra transitioned into more military-style operations, and began conducting kidnappings and executions in order to raise money and politically intimidate.[xiii] Al-Nusra’s main sources of funding are oil sales revenue, ransom money, and private donations from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.[xiv] As an official affiliate of AQ, al-Nusra receives funding, supplies, recruits, and training from the AQ.[xv] Additionally, some experts believe that al-Nusra previously received a monthly salary from ISIS, most likely prior to April of 2013.[xvi] Al-Nusra’s early relationship with ISIS ended in April of 2013 when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that his group would be absorbing al-Nusra.[xvii] Al-Nusra rejected the claim and instead pledged allegiance to AQ.[xviii]
Al-Nusra’s stable financing gives it an advantage in recruitment because it can provide recruits with competitive salaries and quality weapons.[xix] Local recruits make up most of al-Nusra’s fighters. Al-Nusra is the second most popular group in the Syrian conflict to attract foreign fighters; the first is ISIS.[xx] Al-Nusra recruits foreign fighters online using its media wing, al-Minara al-Bayda.[xxi] The fighters come from mostly other Middle Eastern countries, but also from Chechnya, Europe, and occasionally Australia or the US.[xxii] In June of 2015, al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani claimed that the group consisted of about 30% foreign fighters.[xxiii]
Al-Nusra trains both its local and foreign fighters in a series of camps throughout Syria, where it educates its recruits in religious ideology and they undergo rigorous combat and weapons training.[xxiv] In order to provide the next generation of fighters, al-Nusra has an organized education system to indoctrinate young boys. Al-Nusra recruits children through community outreach programs, but instead of sending them to the front lines as child soldiers as most groups in the region do, al-Nusra sends them to religious schools throughout Syria.[xxv] The boys undergo an intense religious education before transitioning into military training in adolescence.[xxvi] Recruitment and training of children aligns with AQ’s core goals of a new generation of jihadists and a multigenerational campaign for an Islamic State. [xxvii] This practice further embeds al-Nusra into Syrian society and normalizes radical ideology in the youth. Additionally, by not sending young boys to fight as child soldiers, al-Nusra is seen by civilians as a philanthropic group focused on educating the young boys.
Al-Nusra currently operates in rebel-held western Syria, including Aleppo City, the Jabal Turkman region of Northeastern Latakia Province, the Jabal Zawiya region in Southern Idlib Province, and Quneitra Province along the Golan Heights.[xxviii] Al-Nusra purposely does not control terrain, which makes it difficult to target, but it does govern in some rebel-held areas.[xxix] Its governance is similar to that of ISIS, with strict Sharia law, including religious laws strictly controlling women’s dress and place in society, a Sharia court system, and s social services and public outreach program.[xxx] Al-Nusra runs several outreach programs, which it uses to disseminate charitable aid and humanitarian supplies, winning over Syrian civilians.[xxxi] It also runs specific Sharia religious outreach institutes, which it uses to provide religious dress to women and carry out free Islamic religious classes for women and children.[xxxii] Outreach and religious programs are concentrated where al-Nusra’s control is the greatest, in rebel-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces.[xxxiii] The programs further embed al-Nusra with Syrian civilians, giving al-Nusra a positive image with the people, spread propaganda, and indoctrinating locals to its radical religious beliefs.
Al-Nusra also acts as a moderator between disagreeing rebel and opposition groups, which furthers its influence. Al-Nusra mediates under the façade of maintaining a uniform front against the Assad regime.[xxxiv] In rebel-held territory, al-Nusra operates Sharia court panels, and most rebel groups and civilians accept their rulings as legitimate law.[xxxv] Often, these Sharia court panels lead to joint-governance of territory between rebel groups and al-Nusra.[xxxvi] The practice of using al-Nusra as a source of judicial rulings further embeds the group within opposition groups and allows them to gain more control.
Ultimately, Jabhat al-Nusra is exploiting the conflict in Syria to gain recruits and power. Many Syrians see al-Nusra as a nationalist group fighting for the people, instead of a terrorist group. Their partnerships with opposition groups, outreach programs, and religious schools normalize their radical ideology amongst the people, making some Syrians dependent on the group. Their strategy of not controlling their own territory, but living and governing amongst rebel groups, makes them difficult for US-Coalition powers to target by airstrikes. Jabhat al-Nusra is dangerously underestimated by the US and other western powers, who are focusing all their efforts in the region on ISIS. A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute stated that the likeliest outcome of al-Nusra’s current strategies, if they are successful is the “…establishment and ultimate declaration of a Jabhat al Nusra emirate in Syria.”[xxxvii] This emirate would have the backing of local civilians and opposition groups, and would end up being a central location for al-Qaeda, and legitimizing the group. Overall, in order to ensure regional security and mitigate threats the west, the US and its allies need to focus on defeating both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, instead of focusing all resources on just ISIS.
The following map depicts Russian Airstrikes in Syria from February 29th – March 15th, but it also shows control of terrain of in Syria, including areas where Jabhat al-Nusra is present and areas which it governs, as well as areas in which Jabhat al-Nusra is present alongside ISIS and rebel opposition groups.