Jabhat al-Nusra is the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria and one of the country's most powerful jihadi groups, but little is known about them. Milo Comerford examines its shifting web of affiliations and fluid structure.
At the beginning of 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) was one amongst many Syrian jihadi groups fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and striving to eventually establish a Sunni Islamic State in Syria. However, the impact of ISIS' Caliphate declaration in June 2014, a divisive move in the global jihadi community, cannot be underestimated in its effect on the tactics, organisation and rhetoric of its former ally Jabhat al-Nusra.
The group was formed in 2011 as a Syrian vanguard of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq), when the group's emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now leader of ISIS, sent Abu Muhammad al-Jolani to manage and bring together disparate jihadi groups in the region (little is known about the Syrian Jolani, whose nom de guerre is a reference to the Golan Heights, and was at one point held at Camp Bucca in Iraq by the US military).
Though affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Jabhat al-Nusra leadership did not emphasise global jihad or targeting the West, but instead attacking the "near enemy" of the Assad government, with its fighters largely made up of native Syrians.
Jabhat al-Nusra notably avoided some of the tactics that had made al-Qaeda in Iraq notorious, including sectarian attacks and brutally publicised executions. As such, the group was able to align itself with a broad spectrum of rebels including the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, who the group have fought alongside in battles against regime forces in Aleppo. This long-standing tactical difference with ISI mirrored a dispute in 2005 between al-Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the number two of al-Qaeda Central, who criticised Zarqawi for his execution of hostages and pursuit of a sectarian conflict with the Shia, claiming it was alienating the regional support al-Qaeda previously enjoyed.
The relationship between JN and ISIS remains complex.
The Islamic State of Iraq provided funding and weapons to JN throughout this period, but when Baghdadi proclaimed the unification of the two groups in 2013, Jolani rejected the merger and renewed his pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda. This event simultaneously marked the formal expansion of ISI into Syria, as the group became the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Subsequent conflict between the groups led to the death of over 3,000 Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS fighters by March 2014.
The relationship between JN and ISIS remains as complex as it did two years ago. Jabhat al-Nusra is variously portrayed in media reports as being either at war with, or allied with ISIS. In reality, the relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS is not stable or uniform, and is instead highly influenced by circumstances. Because territory belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria does not form a contiguous unit and is relatively unevenly and widely distributed throughout the country, comprising isolated pockets in the north, centre and south of the country, individual emirs or commanders are required to make tactical judgements about alliance or hostility towards other groups fighting Syrian government forces, including ISIS.
From June to August 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS fought side by side in clashes with Hizbullah and the Syrian army in the Qalamoun region on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border, which spilled over into the Lebanese town of Arsal. This was in response to an offensive launched by the Syrian regime against rebel forces in the region. But over the same period, in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra were engaged in heavy fighting with each other, with both sides aiming to gain control of lucrative oil fields in the region.
Although Jabhat al-Nusra has been on the UN list of designated terrorist organisations since May 2014 and the US State Department list since 2012, international coalition partners have often drawn a distinction between the two groups in their air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, this began to change toward the end of 2014, when JN positions where targeted by airstrikes, partly because of the reported embedding of the 'Khorasan' group within JN ranks, a shadowy unit of senior jihadis seconded from al-Qaeda Central to the Syrian theatre. Rather than fighting Assad, the group's focus is to "develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations", according to US officials.
The group's principle objective is the toppling of Bashar al-Assad.
This tactical emphasis stands in contrast to the majority of JN rhetoric, which adopts few international themes, and has as its principle objective the toppling of Bashar al-Assad. JN started its campaign in the Syrian Civil War with a localised agenda; indeed their full name was given as Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (The Support Front for the People of al-Sham), referencing the Arabic name for 'Greater Syria', a region roughly equivalent to the Levant. Despite its primary anti-state focus, the group occasionally widens its narrative to suit its tactical objectives, including placing a sectarian emphasis on the perceived disproportionate power wielded by Syria's Shia minority.
Although the group aims to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic State, in contrast to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra claims that it will not declare the formation of this emirate without the backing of other jihadi groups in the region as well as consensus from "the sincere Mujahideen and the pious scholars". This seems to pay heed to the strong rejection by many influential salafi-jihadi figures, of ISIS' declaration of a caliphate just a few months earlier, which Jolani described in a summer 2014 speech as "a caliphate based on destroying a jihadi project".
The July speech was leaked, indicative of Jabhat al-Nusra's publicity shy media strategy. Unlike other jihadi groups who try to out-compete each other in media output, JN has a more ambiguous publicity strategy, often failing to claim attacks, and with religious propaganda spread largely via CD recordings between fighters. However, the media strategy does seem to be shifting towards countering the ISIS message and ideology, including online.
Second to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra has attracted the most foreign fighters among rebel groups in the Syrian civil war. However, the motivations of many foreign fighters in Syria are shifting away from a pure focus on protecting fellow Muslims from the tyranny of Assad, toward an idealised image of living in a universal 'Islamic State' that is seen as having already been established. This stands in contrast to the Jabhat al-Nusra leadership's apparently local aims.
This is corroborated by reports emerging in March 2015 about the possibility of JN leaders cutting ties with al-Qaeda Central in favour of the overt support of regional governments such as Qatar. Sources within JN have said that leaders are considering forming a new entity supported by Gulf states attempting to topple President Bashar al-Assad. According to these reports, Qatar has told JN leaders they will boost funding to the group considerably if they change their name and disengage from al-Qaeda (although no mention is made of abandoning their violent Islamist agenda, an unwritten condition for rebel groups receiving American support). The group already has established relations with Qatar, and some accuse the state of providing material support to JN.
If a shift such as this were to occur, the group would turn into a more traditional anti-state proxy force. However there are fears that attempts to detach the military power of Jabhat al-Nusra from their ideology and affiliation may be futile, and there is a risk that it could push disillusioned fighters towards more extreme groups such as ISIS.
Russia's pursuit of Jaish al-Fatah, an umbrella group that includes Jabhat al-Nusra, could strengthen the resolve and capabilities of the group. A member of the group cited the Soviet failure in Afghanistan to foreshadow what Jabhat al-Nusra believes will be similar outcome in Syria, stating that "Syria will become a graveyard for invaders." It is feared that the use of such rhetoric will boost the group's recruitment efforts by rejuvenating its battle with al-Qaeda's original enemy, which is now supporting one of the group's more recent ones.