Al Nusra Front: Syria’s Top Islamist Militia

Jan 09, 2013

            On January 8, the Quilliam Foundation released a new strategic briefing on the Al Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra), a powerful rebel group fighting the Syrian regime. The report warned that the hard-line Islamist group is linked to al Qaeda, seeks to create a new jihadist umbrella movement in Syria and ultimately create a caliphate.             The U.S. State Department designated the Al Nusra Front on Dec. 11, 2012 as a foreign terrorist organization for killing innocent Syrian citizens. The group had claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks, including more 40 suicide bombings, since November 2011.
            The following are excerpts from the Quilliam Foundation report, co-authored by Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake. The full text of the State Department announcement is also included below.

Executive Summary

            Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is a Syrian jihadist group fighting against Bashar Al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime, with the aim of establishing an Islamist state in Syria. With approximately 5000 members JN is by no means the largest group fighting in the conflict, although it has often been described as the most effective. There are a number of similarities between JN and al-Qaeda In Iraq (AQI), which serves as evidence of their shared history beginning in the early 2000s. The short-term strategy of JN is primarily military focused, although preparations are being made for long-term sustainability of the group, including the organisation of a humanitarian support group and the procurement of heavy weaponry.

Background

            In the 22 months since the Syrian Arab Spring began in earnest, the conflict has turned into something of a war by proxy, with the foreign policy objectives of various countries being fought out on the ground. A number of separate rebel groups have emerged and preparations are being made for a post-Assad Syria as these groups vie for dominance and international support.

            JN is one such rebel group, and one of the few which is fighting in the revolution on ideological, jihadist, grounds; the majority of rebel groups are concentrating primarily on the matter of a political change in government. Although all of the rebel groups have the same immediate objective of fighting the regime, it seems likely that following the anticipated fall of Assad, serious discrepancies in long-term aims will emerge.

            Many pro-democracy rebels are in favour of asking the international community for help to create a democratic state in Syria. However, the lack of international intervention has left many of the country’s citizens feeling that the rest of the world has abandoned them, or that the coalition plan is not producing the correct results. This is leading to an increase in public support for jihadist groups, such as JN, as they are seen as an effective force.

            JN reject the concept of asking the international community to intervene in their struggle against Assad, since this is seen as encouraging 'Western imperialism'. They also fear that international intervention would subvert their long-term plan for an Islamist state in Syria.

Objectives

            JN began in earnest with a number of meetings between October 2011 and January 2012 in Reef Dimashq (Damascus countryside) and Homs. At these first meetings, the five main objectives of the JN project were decided:

1. to establish a group including many existing jihadists, linking them together into one coherent entity

2. to reinforce and strengthen the consciousness of the Islamist nature of the conflict

3. to build military capacity for the group, seizing opportunities to collect weapons and train recruits, and to create safe havens by controlling physical places upon which to exercise their power.

4. to create an Islamist state in Syria

5. to establish a ‘Caliphate’ in Bilad al-Sham (the Levant)

Click here for the full text.

Press Statement by U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland

            The Department of State has amended the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 designations of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) to include the following new aliases: al-Nusrah Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah, Jabhet al-Nusra, The Victory Front, and Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant. The Department of State previously designated AQI as an FTO under the Immigration and Nationality Act and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under E.O. 13224 on October 15, 2004. The consequences of adding al-Nusrah Front as a new alias for AQI include a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with, al-Nusrah Front, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organization that are in the United States, or come within the United States or the control of U.S. persons.

            Since November 2011, al-Nusrah Front has claimed nearly 600 attacks – ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations – in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr. During these attacks numerous innocent Syrians have been killed. Through these attacks, al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes. AQI emir Abu Du’a is in control of both AQI and al-Nusrah. Abu Du’a was designated by the State Department under E.O. 13224 on October 3, 2011, and by the United Nations under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 on October 5, 2011. Abu Du’a also issues strategic guidance to al-Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and tasked him to begin operations in Syria.

            The United States takes this action in the context of our overall support for the Syrian people. We have provided approximately $50 million in non-lethal assistance to the unarmed civilian opposition and nearly $200 million in humanitarian assistance to those affected by the violence in Syria. The violent, sectarian vision of al-Nusrah is at odds with the aspirations of the Syrian people, including the overwhelming majority of the Syrian opposition, who seek a free, democratic, and inclusive Syria and have made clear their desire for a government that respects and advances national unity, dignity, human rights, and equal protection under the law – regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender. Extremism and terrorist ideology have no place in a post-Asad Syria, and all responsible Syrians should speak out against al-Qa’ida and other extremist elements. By opting for the use of force against its own people, the Asad regime has created the circumstances that attract the violent extremists of al Qa’ida, who seek to exploit civil strife for their own purposes. The sooner the political transition to a post-Asad Syria begins, the better it will be for the Syrian people and the region.

Click here for the State Department’s designation of the Al Nusra front.

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Overview

The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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