Abu Firas al-Suri.
Aleppo and Deir Ez-Wor, Syria.1
Ideology & Goals
Sunni, Islamist, Salafi;
Overarching ideology is similar to Al Qaeda’s (AQ): the “global jihad”, the discourse of which focuses on the desire to re-instigate a Caliphate, as the expression of the political unity of the Muslim world.2 Its immediate aim is the overthrow of the Assad regime and its replacement with a Sunni Islamic State. Despite affiliation with AQ, the immediate emphasis has been put by the group not on the “global jihad” but rather on the near enemy embodied in the Syrian regime, although this is allegedly due to the specifity of the context of the Syrian revolution.3 In a statement, the group declared: “We are Syrian mujahideen, back from various jihad fronts to restore God's rule on the Earth and avenge the Syrians' violated honour and spilled blood”.4
In the context of the Syrian revolution, and Jabhat al-Nusra’s alliances with anti-regime groups, the strategy framed as one of retribution against the atrocities committed by the Syrian State, and its militias, on its own peoples. Hence, it has pragmatically aimed at cooperating with actors of all stripes opposing the government.5
The strategy also evolved to one aiming at establishing an Emirate in the north-west of Edlib (Syria), hence arguably the cooperation with the actors of the Syrian revolution opposing the regime as to establish this State with the support of such locally legitimate actors - and differentiate themselves from the imposition of an Islamic State by ISIS. This need to gain credibility and support also involved calls for general mobiliation and vengence by Julani following deadly attacks by the regime.6
January - July 2012: tactics of terrorisation, raiding civilian targets associated with the central regime, urban bombings with significant collateral damage.7
August 2012 - present: insurgent-like guerrilla tactics, often in coordination with other anti-regime groups from all ideological backgrounds.8 Combination of ground attacks on checkpoints and military bases, and classic AQ-type of attacks including suicide bombings, roadside bombings, assassinations.
The group pledged allegiance to decentralised structure of AQ, and retains operational control. Although with its expansion throughout Syria, increasingly there does not appear to be a unified and centralised strategy design and implementation.9
Its lack of unity was demonstrated at the beginning of November when about 10 members defected and revealed compromising information to join the Islamic State, including the alleged desire of Julani to avoid total war and perhaps go back to the IS, and the disrespect for his order which pushed the group to a confrontation with the IS.10
Al Qaeda: originally under the orders of AQI and AQC , since March 2013, and the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shahab, allegiance to AQC solely.11
IS: split of the two groups in March 2013, which resulted in the death of 3,000 fighters, but recent ponctual reconciliation exemplified by coordinated efforts in Arsal, Lebanon.12
In general alliances with the groups fighting the Syrian regime, including islamist groups, salafist non-jihadist groups, moderate rebels...
Kuwait: shifted its support to the group from IS after their division.13
Ideologically, their constituency corresponds to the split of the jihadist movement which was triggered by the proclaimed independence of Jabhat al-Nusra from the IS. The broad tendency appears to be that pro-AQ jihadists support al-Nusra while pro-Islamic State jihadists are with the IS.
Sphere of influence
Self-declared “emirate” in the north-west of Edlib (Syria), arguably created in concertation with the other regime-fighting factions which hold local legitimacy, rather than as an external imposition.
Within this territory, the group established systems of governance including Islamic courts to administer the proper implementation of the Shari’a and distribution systems for basic life necessities, e.g. food, water, electricity. Profits come from their control of power plants and oil fields in their territories.14
Number of troops
Between 5,000 and 7,000.15
If applicable, type of weapons
Initially weapons were provided by AQI, until it became IS in March 2013, c.f. IS profile for type of weapons.
Recently acquired tanks and armoured vehicles from the Hazm base in Khan al-Sobol which was supplied in large part by the US.16
Soft power tools
Propaganda through media group, al-Manara al-Baida, which promotes al Nusra’s activities;
Emphasis put on its efforts to avoid civilian casualties, through documentary style filming of group members and suicide bombers.
History & Politics
After the successor of Abû Mus’ab az-Zarqâwî, ’Umar al-Qurashî al-Baghdâdî renamed the Council ‘the Islamic State in Iraq’ and announced the dissolution of AQ in Mesopotamia, by the end of 2011, a small portion of the group, named Jabhat al-Nusra, was sent to Syria where it gained much power. In April 2013, the leader of the IS declared that both groups were a unique organisation, and renamed it the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), although this declaration was refuted by the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abû Muhamad al-Jûlânî, which led to a division of the latter between supporters of al-Nusra and ISIS. In June 2013, AQ’s leader, Zawahiri, declared ISIS should leave Syria, however the theological argument of the location of the two first caliphates was raised by ISIS - alongside his disregard for the Sykes-Picot boundaries - to justify its refusal to leave. This theological line of argumentation convinced the majority of al-Nusra fighters, especially the foreigners, to join IS. Despite the coalition of most Syrian rebels against ISIS, the group’s power increased as it gained control over many oil fields in Syria, thus threatening the economic viability of al-Nusra. The group was percived in a first moment relatively more moderate than the IS, a fact which made of it an appealing ally for the forces facing Assad’s regime.17
In December 2013, Al-Nusra Front leader Abou Mohammed al-Jawlani said that the Al-Qaeda-linked organization is active on Lebanese soil in order to help the Sunnis of the country face the “injustice” of Shiite Hezbollah.18
During 2014, Al-Nusra has claimed several suicide bombings and attacks mainly against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army. In August, the group shortly took over the area of Arsal. Since then, the Nusra Front and ISIS are holding at least 21 soldiers and policemen they captured.19
Assassination of journalist Mohammed al-Saeed in one of the first suicide bombing attacks of the Syrian civil war on December 23rd, 2011.
[Last updated on November 21, 2014]
- 1. “Syria’s Armed Opposition: A Brief Overview”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=50896&reloadFlag=1 [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 2. The International Crisis Group, Understanding Islamism, Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report N°37, 2005, pp. 1-17, available at: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/North%20Africa/Understanding%20Islamism.pdf [last accessed November 20th, 2014]
- 3. Interview by the Lebanon Support team with Romain Caillet, November 12th, 2014, Beirut.
- 4. “Profile: Syria's al-Nusra Front”, BBC News, April 10th, 2013, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-18048033 [last accessed November 20th, 2014]
- 5. Charles Lister, “The 'Real' Jabhat al-Nusra Appears to Be Emerging”, The Huffington Post, July 8th, 2014, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-lister/the-real-jabhat-al-nusra_b_5658039.html [last accessed November 20th, 2014]
- 6. “Al-Nusra Front Leader Incites for Revenge for al-Houla Massacre”, SITE, May 31st, 2012, available at: http://ent.siteintelgroup.com/Multimedia/al-nusra-front-leader-incites-for-revenge-for-al-houla-massacre.html [last accessed November 20th, 2014]
- 7. NB: such tactics were abandoned due to the consequential ostracisation of the group from the rest of the opposition to the Syrian regime, and the decrease of its popular support.
- 8. Supra note 5.
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. Interview by the Lebanon Support team with Romain Caillet, November 12th, 2014, Beirut.
- 11. “Syria crisis: Al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda”, BBC News, April 10th, 2014, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22095099 [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 12. Alessandria Masi,“Clashes in Arsal and Qalamoun Could Signal Syrian Spillover Into Lebanon”, International Business Times, August 3rd, 2014, available at: http://www.ibtimes.com/clashes-arsal-qalamoun-could-signal-syrian-spillover-lebanon-1647438 [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 13. Fehim Tastekin, “Who supports who in Syria opposition?”, al Monitor, April 16th, 2014, available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/04/turkey-syria-opposition-groups-support-kuwait.html# [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 14. Alessandria Masi,“Clashes in Arsal and Qalamoun Could Signal Syrian Spillover Into Lebanon”, International Business Times, August 3rd, 2014, available at: http://www.ibtimes.com/clashes-arsal-qalamoun-could-signal-syrian-spillover-lebanon-1647438 [last accessed November 20th, 2014]; Ben Hubbard, “Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy”, The New York Times, April 27th, 2013, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/middleeast/islamist-rebels-gains-in-syria-create-dilemma-for-us.html?pagewanted=all%3E [last accessed November 20th, 2014]; Kelly McEvers, 2014, "Jihadi Fighters Win Hearts And Minds By Easing Syria's Bread Crisis", NPR, January 16th, 2014, available at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/01/18/169516308/as-syrian-rebels-reopen-bakeries-bread-crisis-starts-to-ease [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 15. “Syria’s Armed Opposition: A Brief Overview”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=50896&reloadFlag=1 [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 16. “Syria conflict: Jihadists 'beating America's allies'”, BBC News, November 4th, 2014, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29902384 [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 17. Marcelle Champagne, “Entretien avec Romain Caillet - Qu’est-ce que l’Etat Islamique?”, Les Clés du Moyen-Orient, July 8th, 2014, available at:http://www.lesclesdumoyenorient.com/Entretien-avec-Romain-Caillet-Qu.html [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 18. “Al-Nusra Front entered Lebanon to “Protect its Sunnis””, NOW., 22/12/2013, available at: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/lebanonnews/526656-al-nusra-front-entered-lebanon-to-protect-its-sunnis [last accessed November 20th, 2014].
- 19. “Nusra Front claims attack on Hezbollah checkpoint”, The Daily Star, English, September 20th, 2014, available at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Sep-20/271378-suicide-bombing-near-hezbollah-checkpoint-in-east-lebanonsecurity-source.ashx#axzz3JKhnkRrt [last accessed November 20th, 2014].