Overview

Also Known As:

Executive Summary:

The Nusra Front—also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“the Levantine Conquest Front”)—is an internationally sanctioned terrorist group, the second-strongest insurgent group in Syria after ISIS, and a formerly open al-Qaeda affiliate that seeks to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state. Operating as a part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham coalition since January 2017,Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda and allies announce ‘new entity’ in Syria,” Long War Journal, January 28, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/01/al-qaeda-and-allies-announce-new-entity-in-syria.php. the Nusra Front stands accused of serving as a base for global al-Qaeda operations.Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball, “U.S. Spy Chiefs Say Number of Foreign Militants in Syria Rises,” Reuters, January 29, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/29/us-usa-security-syria-idUSBREA0S1XL20140129. In the years since its formation in 2011, the Nusra Front has gradually amassed and sustained territory throughout Syria.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45. As of early 2017, the Nusra Front controls territory in northern, western, and southern Syria, including large portions of Syria’s Idlib province.Bassem Mroue, “AP EXPLAINS: Why Syria’s al-Qaida may be considering a split,” Associated Press, July 27, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d10d759d35824b70b47501d85f0ff8c3/ap-explains-why-syrias-al-qaida-may-be-considering-split;
Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45;
Liveuamap MiddleEast, Twitter feed, accessed February 14, 2017, https://twitter.com/lummideast.

Before its formal dissociation from al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front had a long and proven history of serving as al-Qaeda’s loyal affiliate. On July 28, 2016, al-Qaeda released an audio statement giving the Nusra Front formal permission to break ties if the link was “conflicting with [the Nusra Front’s] unity and working as one body.”Reuters, “Al Qaeda tells Syrian branch Nusra Front it can drop links,” Thomas Reuters Foundation News, July 28, 2016, http://news.trust.org/item/20160728110801-ogl17;
Cole Bunzel, “Abandoning al-Qaida: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Sami al-‘Uraydi,” Jihadica, May 12, 2017, http://www.jihadica.com/abandoning-al-qaida/.
Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani declared a formal split from al-Qaeda after thanking “our brothers, the commanders of al-Qa’eda,” and announcing the group’s name change from Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Victory Front”) to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“the Levantine Conquest Front”).Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs. Analysts had long surmised that a break from al-Qaeda, however artificial, could enable the Nusra Front to attract more funding from Gulf States like Qatar, consolidate local support, and present itself as a legitimate insurgent group in Syria.Bassem Mroue, “AP EXPLAINS: Why Syria’s al-Qaida may be considering a split,” Associated Press, July 27, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d10d759d35824b70b47501d85f0ff8c3/ap-explains-why-syrias-al-qaida-may-be-considering-split;
Reuters, “Al Qaeda tells Syrian branch Nusra Front it can drop links,” Thomas Reuters Foundation News, July 28, 2016, http://news.trust.org/item/20160728110801-ogl17.
The Nusra Front continued to pursue this strategy when, on January 28, 2017, it announced that it was dissolving its organization to be subsumed under a larger Syrian Islamist merger, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant” or HTS), led by Hashim al-Sheikh, the former leader of fellow Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC News, February 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206.

For years before the announced split, however, Golani had reaffirmed his group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda. The Nusra Front’s founder, current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims to have dispatched Golani and others—then al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fighters—into Syria in 2011 in order to take advantage of the power vacuum stemming from the civil war.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity,” Long War Journal, April 9, 2013, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/04/the_emir_of_al_qaeda.php#ixzz3Mw15S2jb. The United States confirms this claim, maintaining that that the Nusra Front was formed by AQI to “hijack the struggles of the legitimate Syrian opposition to further its own extremist ideology.”“Treasury Sanctions Al-Nusrah Front Leadership in Syria and Militias Supporting the Asad Regime,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 11, 2012, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1797.aspx. In April 2013, after Baghdadi unilaterally claimed to subsume the Nusra Front into AQI, now known as ISIS, Golani broke ties with Baghdadi and reaffirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda central.“Syria Crisis: Al-Nusra Pledges Allegiance to Al-Qaeda,” BBC News, April 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22095099.

Despite the group’s origins in Iraq and historical deference to al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front has branded itself as a native rebel group with foreign experience. In Syria, the group continues to profess its goal of toppling the Assad regime and establishing an Islamic state in its place, albeit incrementally. In its effort to consolidate local support, the Nusra Front has adopted military and outreach strategies from al-Qaeda-linked jihadist Abu Musab al-Suri: participating in numerous Syrian-based coalitions and collaborating with other Islamist, and occasionally secular, rebel groups to carry out joint attacks against Assad forces.Hassan Hassan, “A Jihadist Blueprint for Hearts and Minds Is Gaining Traction in Syria,” National, March 4, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/a-jihadist-blueprint-for-hearts-and-minds-is-gaining-traction-in-syria. The Nusra Front, and now HTS, also operates a civil administrative wing called the “Public Services Administration” which provides basic administrative needs and security and governs several rebel-controlled towns under various forms of Islamic law.Favier, Agnes, Luigui Narbone, and Virginie Collombier, Inside Wars Local Dynamics of Conflicts in Syria and Libya, Fiesole: European University Institute, 2016, http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/41644/Inside%20wars_2016.pdf.

Although the group has succeeded in embedding itself in the Syrian insurgency, the Nusra Front remains committed to employing terrorist tactics in order to secure an Islamic state. Since its founding, the Nusra Front has conducted formal military campaigns, assassinations, hostage takings, and ‘lone wolf’ operations, including al-Qaeda’s trademark suicide bombings. By June 2013, the Nusra Front had claimed responsibility for 57 out of 70 suicide attacks conducted during Syria’s civil war.Bill Roggio, “Suicide Bombers Kill 14 in Damascus,” Long War Journal, June 11, 2013, http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2013/06/suicide_bombers_kill_14_in_dam.php. The group has since continued to carry out its signature suicide bombings in Syria and expanded its operations into neighboring Lebanon after Hezbollah joined the war in mid-2013. “Nusra Front, Syrian rebels attack government forces near Aleppo, gain ground,” Reuters, April 2, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-aleppo-idUSKCN0WZ0O5;
“Nusra Front claims Lebanon suicide attack,” Al Jazeera, September 18, 2016, http://video.aljazeera.com/channels/eng/videos/nusra-front-claims-lebanon-suicide-attack/3982582295001.
In Lebanon, the Nusra Front works to stoke sectarian divisions, conducting and attempting suicide bombings against civilian centers like Beirut and Hezbollah strongholds like Hermel, along Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria.“Nusra Front attacks Hezbollah outposts near Arsal,” Daily Star (Beirut), June 2, 2015, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Jun-02/300248-nusra-front-attacks-hezbollah-outposts-near-arsal.ashx;
“Jabhat al-Nusra claims deadly Lebanon bombing,” Al Jazeera, February 1, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/al-nusra-front-claims-deadly-lebanon-bombing-201421221112955650.html;
Alex Rowell, “Bombings in Lebanon since 2011,” Now, September 1, 2016, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/535852-vehicle-explosions-in-lebanon-since-2011.

As of mid-2016, the Nusra Front’s paramilitary force remains one of the strongest rebel forces in Syria, reportedly comprised of around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, including an estimated 7,000 fighters in Idlib province alone.Cameron Glenn, “The Nusra Front: Al Qaeda’s Affiliate in Syria,” Wilson Center, June 17, 2016, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/the-nusra-front-al-qaedas-affiliate-syria;
Lidia Kelly, “Russia Announces Daily Ceasefires in Syria’s Aleppo to Let in Aid,” Reuters, August 10, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idUSKCN10L1WL.
The terrorist group has attracted the largest contingency of foreign fighters to Syria after ISIS.Ryan Browne, “Report: Syria’s al-Nusra ‘more dangerous’ than ISIS,” CNN, January 26, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/25/politics/al-qaeda-al-nusra-isis-threat-experts/.

Doctrine:

The Nusra Front adheres to a Salafist, jihadist ideology with the professed aim of establishing Islamic governance in all areas under its control. In the group’s January 2012 inaugural video, a masked representative outlined its regional objectives. He introduced the Nusra Front as “Syrian mujahedeen” who have come “back from various jihad fronts to restore God’s rule on the Earth [Islamic law] and avenge the Syrians’ violated honour and spilled blood.”Paul Wood, “Syria: Islamist Nusra Front Gives BBC Exclusive Interview,” BBC News, January 17, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-21061018.

Years later, when Golani announced the Nusra Front’s dissociation from al-Qaeda, he reaffirmed the group’s core objectives, saying that despite separating from al-Qaeda, the group would not be “compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs or laxity in the necessity of the continuity of the Jihad of Al-Sham [Syria].”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs;
Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution,’” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nusra-front-announces-official-split-al-qaeda-520293064.
Golani reaffirmed that his group sought to use “Islamically legitimate means” to unify jihadists in Syria and the “masses of people in Al-Sham [Syria]” in order to replace the Assad government with one based on shari’ah (Islamic law).Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs;
Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution,’” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nusra-front-announces-official-split-al-qaeda-520293064.

While the Nusra Front works to establish Islamic law in all areas under its control, it has done so incrementally in order to sustain local support. In this way, the group follows the guidelines and strategy of al-Qaeda-linked writer Abu Musab al-Suri, who sought to win the hearts and minds of locals in order to pursue his Islamist objectives.Hassan Hassan, “A Jihadist Blueprint for Hearts and Minds Is Gaining Traction in Syria,” National (Dubai), March 4, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/a-jihadist-blueprint-for-hearts-and-minds-is-gaining-traction-in-syria. In a statement posted online, Golani said, “Beware of being hard on [the locals]. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion.”Hassan Hassan, “A Jihadist Blueprint for Hearts and Minds Is Gaining Traction in Syria,” National (Dubai), March 4, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/a-jihadist-blueprint-for-hearts-and-minds-is-gaining-traction-in-syria. In a December 2012 interview with the Dubai-based National, Golani said that his group’s “first goal is to get rid of Assad. Then we want a state where the Quran is the only source of law.”Balint Szlanko, “Jabhat Al Nusra's new Syria,” National (Dubai), December 15, 2012, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/jabhat-al-nusras-new-syria.

While the Nusra Front has generally followed these guidelines, there are several instances where regional leaders have been quick to impose harsh interpretations of Islamic law onto local populaces and use violence to force conversions.Jessica Chasmar, “Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels force Christian to convert at gunpoint: ‘He’s one of ours now’,” Washington Times, September 11, 2013, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/sep/11/al-qaeda-linked-syrian-rebels-force-christian-conv/. In January 2015 in the Druze-dominated Jabal al-Summaq mountain in Idlib province, the Nusra Front’s then regional emir, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi, ordered the local Druze to convert to Sunni Islam and destroyed their shrines.Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, “Additional Notes on the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq,” Aymenn  Jawad al-Tamimi’s Blog, October 6, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2015/10/additional-notes-on-the-druze-of-jabal-al-summaq. Tunisi was removed from his position after Nusra Front fighters under his command killed 23 Druze civilians in Qalb Lawza during a land dispute. Although the Nusra Front reprimanded Tunisi for the massacre, the group upheld the validity of the forced conversions.Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, “Additional Notes on the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq,” Aymenn  Jawad al-Tamimi’s Blog, October 6, 2015, www.aymennjawad.org/2015/10/additional-note-on-the-druze-of-jabal-summaq.

Although the Nusra Front publicly emphasizes its regional aims, it has shown signs of a more expansionist ideology in line with al-Qaeda’s brand of global jihadism. Despite the group’s emphasis on its Syrian character, the Nusra Front expanded its operations into neighboring Lebanon after Hezbollah’s 2013 intervention in Syria.“Nusra Front – Lebanon,” Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, accessed December 25, 2014, http://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/nusra-front-lebanon. The group also stands accused of plotting attacks against the West,Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball, “U.S. Spy Chiefs Say Number of Foreign Militants in Syria Rises,” Reuters, January 29, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/29/us-usa-security-syria-idUSBREA0S1XL20140129. seemingly through the elusive Khorasan group, or what one Dubai reporter has exposed as the Nusra Front’s ‘Wolf unit.’Jenan Moussa, “Exclusive: Documents Show that the Khorasan Group Is the Same Group as Wolf’s Nusra,” Al Aan TV, October 1, 2014, http://www.alaan.tv/news/world-news/114998/khorassan-group-is-in-fact-the-wolf-unit-of-nusra-front-documents-show. However, the death of Khorasan commander Said Arif in 2015 signaled the effective end of the Nusra Front’s external operations.Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings Institute, July 2016, p30, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/iwr_20160728_profiling_nusra.pdf. When the Nusra Front was sent to Syria, one of its founding goals was reportedly to establish a safe haven for training recruits and stashing weapons,Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad. A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, accessed February 3, 2015, http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf. allegedly on behalf of al-Qaeda in Iraq (now ISIS).Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity,” Long War Journal, April 9, 2013, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/04/the_emir_of_al_qaeda.php#ixzz3Mw15S2jb.

Organizational Structure:

The Nusra Front is both hierarchical and regionalized. Historically, each region has been equipped with an overall leader, a military commander, and a religious leader.Rania Abouzeid, “Interview with Official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist Militia Group,” Time, December 25, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/12/25/interview-with-a-newly-designated-syrias-jabhat-al-nusra/. The group as a whole has been directed by a small consultative council called Majlis-ash-Shura,Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad. A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, accessed February 3, 2015, http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf. and headed by its emir (“commander” or “prince”), Abu Muhammad al-Golani. For years, Golani has carefully avoided showing his face in public, releasing audio statements and providing in-person interviews to news outlets with his face blurred out. In July 2016, however, Golani appeared in a video to announce his group’s formal split from al-Qaeda.Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs. In early 2017, Golani claimed to have stepped aside from his role as the leader of the Nusra Front to defer to Hashim al-Sheikh, leader of the HTS coalition, while Golani became the military commander of the group.Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php;
Aymenn al-Tammimi, “The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency,” Combating Terrorism Center, February 22, 2017, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-formation-of-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-and-wider-tensions-in-the-syrian-insurgency.
Nonetheless, Golani is believed to retain his authority as the leader of the Nusra Front, despite his nominal deference to Sheikh.Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php.

The Nusra Front’s paramilitary force is reportedly composed of around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, including an estimated 7,000 fighters in Idlib province alone.Cameron Glenn, “The Nusra Front: Al Qaeda’s Affiliate in Syria,” Wilson Center, June 17, 2016, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/the-nusra-front-al-qaedas-affiliate-syria;
Lidia Kelly, “Russia Announces Daily Ceasefires in Syria’s Aleppo to Let in Aid,” Reuters, August 10, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idUSKCN10L1WL.
The Nusra Front has also attracted the largest contingency of foreign fighters after ISIS.Ryan Browne, “Report: Syria’s al-Nusra ‘more dangerous’ than ISIS,” CNN, January 26, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/25/politics/al-qaeda-al-nusra-isis-threat-experts/. Its militant branch is responsible for conducting coordinated attacks against the Assad regime, loyalists, thugs, and perceived colluders, as well as rival groups like ISIS and secular Free Syrian Army factions. The militant branch also conducts ‘lone wolf’ operations (including suicide bombings) and hostage missions targeting Lebanese and Syrian civilians.Al Jazeera, “Jabhat al-Nusra claims deadly Lebanon bombing,” Al Jazeera, February 1, 2014, www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/al-nusra-front-claims-deadly-lebanon-bombing-201421221112955650.html. The group simultaneously stands accused by the U.S. government of plotting attacks against Western targets through its small and secretive ‘Wolf Unit.’Jenan Moussa, “Exclusive: Documents Show that the Khorasan Group Is the Same Group as Wolf’s Nusra,” Al Aan TV, October 1, 2014, http://www.alaan.tv/news/world-news/114998/khorassan-group-is-in-fact-the-wolf-unit-of-nusra-front-documents-show;
Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings Institute, July 2016, p30, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/iwr_20160728_profiling_nusra.pdf.

In addition to the group’s militant branch, the Nusra Front manages civilian services and administration programs, known as Idarat al-Khidamat al-Ammah (Public Services Administration) and Idarat al-Manateq al-Muharara (Liberated Districts Administration)respectively, to govern areas in northern, western, and southern Syria, alongside other rebel groups.Bassem Mroue, “AP EXPLAINS: Why Syria’s al-Qaida may be considering a split,” Associated Press, July 27, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d10d759d35824b70b47501d85f0ff8c3/ap-explains-why-syrias-al-qaida-may-be-considering-split. The Nusra Front’s civilian branch has previously operated under the direction of its reported head of civilian programs at the time, Hajji Rasoul.Ruth Sherlock, “Syria: how jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra is taking over Syria's revolution,” Telegraph (London), February 8, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9857846/Syria-how-jihadist-group-Jabhat-al-Nusra-is-taking-over-Syrias-revolution.html. In the past, the program has coordinated bread rations and enforced Islamist regulations on the Nusra Front’s de facto subjects.Liz Sly, “Islamic Law Comes to Rebel-Held Areas of Syria,” Washington Post, March 19, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/islamic-law-comes-to-rebel-held-syria/2013/03/19/b310532e-90af-11e2-bdea-e32ad90da239_story.html. As part of the group’s governance program, the Nusra Front—alongside its allied rebel groups—levy taxes and control the allocation of special permits to civilian vehicles.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45.

For recruitment and publicity purposes, the Nusra Front has maintained a media branch called al-Manara al-Bayda (“the White Minaret”), which the group has refrained from using since dissociating from al-Qaeda and merging with HTS.Thomas Joscelyn, “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-leader-calls-for-unity-in-syrian-insurgency.php. This branch had previously maintained the group’s public image and media program, disseminating videos and posting statements by the group on jihadist websites, as well as on encrypted messaging applications, video-hosting websites, and social media websites.Rania Abouzeid, “Interview with Official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist Militia Group,” Time, December 25, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/12/25/interview-with-a-newly-designated-syrias-jabhat-al-nusra/;
White Minaret, Telegram, accessed July 28, 2016, https://web.telegram.org/#/[email protected]_Manara.
HTS has, since its formation in early 2017, begun operating accounts on TwitterHayat Tahrir al-Sham, Twitter feed, accessed February 14, 2017, https://twitter.com/tahriralsham1?lang=en. and TelegramAl Maqalaat, Telegram feed, accessed February 14, 2017, https://web.telegram.org/#/[email protected]_Maqalaat_L. among other social media platforms, issuing statements, updates, and propaganda materials in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, and Russian.Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Twitter feed, accessed February 14, 2017, https://twitter.com/tahriralsham1?lang=en.

The Nusra Front had previously pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda“Syria Crisis: Al-Nusra Pledges Allegiance to Al-Qaeda,” BBC News, April 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22095099. and reported to the latter group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. On July 28, 2016, Zawahiri released an audio statement giving the Nusra Front formal permission to break ties with al-Qaeda as needed.Reuters, “Al Qaeda tells Syrian branch Nusra Front it can drop links,” Thomas Reuters Foundation News, July 28, 2016, http://news.trust.org/item/20160728110801-ogl17. Golani accepted the offer, thanking al-Qaeda and its leaders and announcing that the group no longer has “any affiliation to any external entity.”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs. After claiming to break with al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front attempted to merge with other large Islamist opposition groups, including Ahrar al-Sham.“Full Story: The Military Factions of Syria in Seek to Integrate,” el-Dorar al-Shamia, December 23, 2016, http://en.eldorar.com/node/4121. On January 28, 2017, the Nusra Front announced that it was disbanding as a standalone cell and operating under the banner of HTS, a coalition that combines five major Islamist factions – the Nusra Front, Harakat Nur al Din al Zenki, Liwa al Haqq, Ansar al Din, and Jaysh al Sunna – along with dozens of smaller Islamist and secular Free Syrian Army groups under one central leadership, with Golani heading its militant branch.Charles Lister, Twitter post, January 29, 2017, 11:08am, https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/825737487255531524.

Financing:

The Nusra Front has been well-funded since its inception in 2011.Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, “Taking Syria Back From the Extremists,” Washington Post, December 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/taking-syria-back-from-the-extremists/2012/12/27/2b6ce1a6-3d96-11e2-ae43-cf491b837f7b_story.html. By August 2016, the group received streams of funding through a variety of means, including taxation, tariffs, fines, ransoms, international donations, oil sales, looting, and smuggling.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45.

The most stable source of income for the Nusra Front is believed to have come from taxes, tariffs, and fines that the group imposes on locals within its territory. Among the taxes levied by the group are income, business, services and utility taxes, including taxes on access to electricity and water. The Nusra Front also reportedly receives funding by leasing out homes, and is even reported to have levied a tax on internally displaced persons within Idlib province.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45. In addition to taxes, the group has seized assets from religious minority groups and receives funding through an arms and weaponry tariff on other rebel groups.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45. In this way, the Nusra Front is believed to receive roughly half of the ammunition and weapons sent to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45.

Sources of funding for the group also reportedly include private donations from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, who are believed to launder the funds through small money transfers, or by dispatching the money with individuals who cross state borders into Nusra-held territory.Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz, “Special Report: How Syria's Islamists Govern with Guile and Guns,” Reuters, June 20, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/20/us-syria-rebels-governance-specialreport-idUSBRE95J05R20130620;
Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Syrian Al Qaeda Reach Foothills of Israeli-Held Golan,” Reuters, May 22, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/22/us-syria-south-insight-idUSBREA4L03Z20140522;
Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45.
Indeed, the Nusra Front’s decision in July 2016 to dissociate from al-Qaeda is widely believed to have been motivated in large part to enable Qatari-based donors to continue sending money to the Nusra Front without being accused of providing financial support to al-Qaeda.Raf Sanchez, “Al-Qaeda leader gives blessing for terror group to form own 'Islamic state' in Syria,” Telegraph (London), May 8, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/08/al-qaeda-leader-gives-blessing-for-terror-group-to-form-own-isla/;
David Roberts, “What drove Syria's Nusra Front to detach itself from al-Qaeda?” BBC News, July 29, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36922079;
Zvi Bar’el, “Nusra Front Eyes Legitimacy in Syria After Amicable Split With Al-Qaida,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), July 31, 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-1.734333.

In addition to foreign donations, the Nusra Front has also secured revenue from oil sales and smuggling,“Russia intensifies strikes on Nusra Front oil sites -military official,” Reuters, May 27, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idUSR4N18K01I. as well as through cigarette smuggling and extortion.Charles Lister, “An internal struggle: Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is grappling with its identity,” Brookings, May 31, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2015/05/31/an-internal-struggle-al-qaedas-syrian-affiliate-is-grappling-with-its-identity/. Although governments typically deny payment for the release of hostages, the Nusra Front is believed to have racked up millions of dollars through hostage exchanges negotiated by the Qatari government. In one such exchange, the group reportedly received $4 million when it released four Greek Orthodox nuns in March 2014.Christiaan Triebert and Rao Kumar, “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s Income and Resources,” Hate Speech International, August 15, 2016, https://www.hate-speech.org/jabhat-fateh-al-shams-income-and-resources-an-open-source-investigation/#fn-2879-45. In another exchange, the Nusra Front reportedly received $25 million when it released 45 U.N. peacekeepers.Alroy Menezes, “Al Qaeda-Backed Nusra Front Frees Captured UN Peacekeeping Troops After Releasing Video Of Troops,” International Business Times, September 11, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/al-qaeda-backed-nusra-front-frees-captured-un-peacekeeping-troops-after-releasing-video-1685352;
“Report: UN Had Qatar Pay Off Al-Qaida Fighters for Release of Fiji Peacekeepers,” Haaretz, October 11, 2014, http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.620228.
U.S. citizen Peter Theo Curtis was believed to have been released in August 2014 in exchange for anywhere between $3 million and $25 million, although the circumstances of Curtis’s release were not made public.Rukmini Callimachi, “U.S. Writer Held by Qaeda Affiliate in Syria Is Freed After Nearly 2 Years,” New York Times, August 24, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/25/world/middleeast/peter-theo-curtis-held-by-qaeda-affiliate-in-syria-is-freed-after-2-years.html.

Recruitment:

In order to join the Nusra Front, the group has historically required its recruits to procure tazkiyya (a voucher on behalf of the recruit) from two commanders on the front lines.Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad. A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, accessed February 3, 2015, http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf. Once the recruit was accepted, he would swear bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the group, thereby cementing his religious commitment.Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad. A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, accessed February 3, 2015, http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf.

The Nusra Front has also recruited its members online and in private messaging applications through its former media branches, al-Minara al-Bayda and Fursan al-Sham media. Within Syria, the group has attracted recruits by appealing to the locals in a strategy adopted from al-Qaeda jihadist Abu Musab al-Suri.Hassan Hassan, “A Jihadist Blueprint for Hearts and Minds Is Gaining Traction in Syria,” National [UAE], March 4, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/a-jihadist-blueprint-for-hearts-and-minds-is-gaining-traction-in-syria. When it comes to attracting recruits, the Nusra Front holds a financial advantage over competing rebel groups, as it has historically been able to provide members with salaries and weapons.Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, “Taking Syria Back From the Extremists,” Washington Post, December 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/taking-syria-back-from-the-extremists/2012/12/27/2b6ce1a6-3d96-11e2-ae43-cf491b837f7b_story.html. Under HTS, a new media outlet has been created, Ebaa Agency, which produces high-quality videos, infographics, and media statements similar to those of Amaq, ISIS’s media wing.Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Insurgents launch major offensive against Assad regime in Hama province,” Long War Journal, March 24, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/03/analysis-insurgents-launch-major-offensive-against-assad-regime-in-hama-province.php.

In addition to recruiting guerilla fighters through online and in-person efforts, the Nusra Front stands accused of recruiting child soldiers. The U.N. Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission on Syria has issued reports on the Nusra Front’s successful recruitment of child soldiers continuing into 2017. In Idlib province, Nusra fighters include boys under the age of 18 and 15, with some manning checkpoints.“Human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations in the Syrian Arab Republic, 21 July 2016- 28 February 2017,” U.N. Human Rights Council, March 10, 2017, 17, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx. The Commission found that the Nusra Front specifically targets poor, uneducated boys for recruitment, paying them modest salaries used to support the boys’ families.“Human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations in the Syrian Arab Republic, 21 July 2016- 28 February 2017,” U.N. Human Rights Council, March 10, 2017, 17, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx.

Training:

The training process for a new Nusra recruit is believed to last for two months. This training includes a 10-day religious course followed by a six to eight military training program with religious lectures every evening.Rania Abouzeid, “Interview with Official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist Militia Group,” Time, December 25, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/12/25/interview-with-a-newly-designated-syrias-jabhat-al-nusra/;
Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings Institute, July 2016, p30, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/iwr_20160728_profiling_nusra.pdf.
Training reportedly emphasizes small unit tactics, close combat, assassinations, and raids with exposure to common weapons from AK variants to anti-tank missiles.Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings Institute, July 2016, p30, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/iwr_20160728_profiling_nusra.pdf. Recruits that show exceptional promise during training are selected to join the special operations groups Jaish al-Nusra and Quwat al-Nukhba.Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings Institute, July 2016, p30, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/iwr_20160728_profiling_nusra.pdf.

Since as far back as 2016, private military contracting company Malhama Tactical has been training Nusra Front fighters in special operation tactics and assisting in developing the small sub-group Quwat al-Nukhba (Elite Forces).“تحرير الشام” تجهّز “قوات النخبة” وتتحدى النظام,” Arabi 21, March 18, 2017, https://medium.com/arabi-21/%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%AA%D8%AC%D9%87%D9%91%D8%B2-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%AA%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%AF%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85-%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%88-d3589a622f6; Rao Komar, Christian Borys, Eric Woods, “The Blackwater of Jihad,” Foreign Policy, February 10, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/10/the-world-first-jihadi-private-military-contractor-syria-russia-malhama-tactical/. Malhama Tactical was founded by an Uzbek veteran of the Russian military known by his pseudonym Abu Rofiq and initially staffed ten trainers, all with military experience from former Soviet states. Abu Rofiq claims to have founded his organization as a for-profit private military contractor that works exclusively with Sunni-Jihadist organizations. Malhama has reportedly been hired to train and fight alongside both the Nusra Front and the Turkistani Islamic Party in Syria.Rao Komar, Christian Borys, Eric Woods, “The Blackwater of Jihad,” Foreign Policy, February 10, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/10/the-world-first-jihadi-private-military-contractor-syria-russia-malhama-tactical/.

Key Leaders

  • Abu Muhammad al-Golani

    Abu Muhammad al-Golani

    Leader, militant leader of HTS coalition
  • Sami al-Oraidi

    Main sharia authority, second-in-command
  • Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi

    Shari’ah leader; religious and military commander in eastern Syria
  • Hajji Rasoul

    Head of civilian program
  • Anas Hassan Khattab

    Civilian administrative leader

History

 

Violent Activities

Designations

Designations by the U.S. Government:

December 10, 2012: The Department of State designates the Nusra Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (under Executive Order 13224).Department of State, Public Notice, “In the Matter of Amendment of the Designation of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, aka Jam’at al Tawhid wa’al-Jihad, aka The Monotheism and Jihad Group, aka The al-Zarqawi Network, aka al-Tawhid, aka Tanzim Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Bilad alRafidayn, aka The Organization of alJihad’s Base of Operations in Iraq, aka al-Qaida of Jihad in Iraq, aka al-Qaida in Iraq, aka al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, aka al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka al-Qaida of the Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka al-Qaida of Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka al-Qaida Group of Jihad in Iraq, aka al-Qaida Group of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization Base of Jihad/ Country of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization Base of Jihad/ Mesopotamia, aka The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka Tanzeem qa’idat al Jihad/Bildad al Raafidaini, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization pursuant to Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act; To include the aliases Al-Nusrah Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah, Jabhet al-Nusra, The Victory Front, Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, Public Notice 8104,” Federal Register 77, no. 238 (December 11, 2012): 73732, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-12-11/pdf/2012-29870.pdf; Department of State, Public Notice, “In the Matter of the Amendment of the Designation of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, aka Jam’at al Tawhid wa’al-Jihad, aka The Monotheism and Jihad Group, aka The al-Zarqawi Network, aka al-Tawhid, aka Tanzim Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, aka The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in Iraq, aka al-Qaida of Jihad in Iraq, aka al-Qaida in Iraq, aka al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, aka al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka al-Qaida of the Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka al-Qaida of Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka al-Qaida Group of Jihad in Iraq, aka al-Qaida Group of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization Base of Jihad/Country of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka The Organization Base of Jihad/Mesopotamia, aka The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in the Land of the Two Rivers, aka Tanzeem qa’idat al Jihad/Bildad al Raafidaini, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity pursuant to Executive Order 13224; To include the aliases Al-Nusrah Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah, Jabhet al-Nusra, The Victory Front, Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, Public Notice 8105,” Federal Register 77, no. 238 (December 11, 2012): 73732, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-12-11/pdf/2012-29870.pdf. May 14, 2014: The Department of the Treasury designates the Nusra Front as a Specially Designated National.“Kingpin Act Designations and Updates; Counter Terrorism Designations and Updates; Kingpin Act Designations Removals – Special Designated Nationals Update,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, May 15, 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20140514.aspx.

Designations by Foreign Governments and Organizations:

European Union— designated the Nusra Front as a sanctioned group of persons, groups, and entities on May 28, 2014.“Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 583/2014 of 28 May 2014,” Official Journal of the European Union, May 29, 2014, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32014R0583&rid=2. Australia— listed the Nusra Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on June 23, 2013.“Jabhat al-Nusra,” Australian National Security, accessed on January 29, 2015, http://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Listedterroristorganisations/Pages/Jabhatal-Nusra.aspx.
Canada—listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist entity on November 7, 2013.“Currently Listed Entities,” Public Safety Canada, accessed December 21, 2014, http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-eng.aspx#2049. France—listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist entity on May 30, 2013.“Liste Terroriste Unique au 23 Décembre 2014,” Trésor Direction Générale, accessed on December 25, 2014, http://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/File/409144.
New Zealand—listed the Nusra Front as an organization associated with Al-Qaeda on May 15, 2013.“Designated Individuals and Organisations,” New Zealand Policy, November 26, 2014, http://www.police.govt.nz/sites/default/files/publications/designated-entities-26-11-2014.pdf. Russia—listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist group on December 29, 2014.“Supreme Court bans Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Russia as terrorist organizations,” Tass Russian News Agency, December 29, 2014, http://itar-tass.com/en/russia/769731.
Saudi Arabia—listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist group on March 7, 2014.“Saudi Arabia Designates Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Group,” Reuters, March 7, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/07/us-saudi-security-idUSBREA260SM20140307. Turkey—listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization on June 13, 2014.“Turkey lists al-Nusra Front as terrorist organization,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 3, 2014, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-lists-al-nusra-front-as-terrorist-organization.aspx?pageID=238&nID=67322&NewsCatID=359.
United Arab Emirates—listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization on November 15, 2014.“UAE Cabinet Approves List of Designated Terrorist Organisations, Groups,” Emirates News Agency, November 15, 2014, http://www.wam.ae/en/news/emirates-international/1395272478814.html. United Nations—listed the Nusra Front as an entity associated with Al-Qaeda on May 30, 2013.“Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends Entry of One Entity on Its Sanctions List,” United Nations Security Council, May 30, 2013, http://www.un.org/press/en/2013/sc11019.doc.htm.
United Kingdom—listed the Nusra Front as a foreign terrorist group on July 19, 2013.“UK bans Syria's Al-Qaida-Linked Nusra Front,” Associated Press, July 19, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/uk-bans-syrias-al-qaida-linked-nusra-front; “Proscribed Terrorist Organisations,” Britain’s Home Office, last modified January 23, 2015, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/380939/ProscribedOrganisations.pdf.  

Associations

Ties to Extremist Entities:

Al-Qaeda

The Nusra Front has a long and proven history of serving as al-Qaeda’s loyal affiliate in Syria. In July 2016, however, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audio statement giving the Nusra Front formal permission to break ties with al-Qaeda if the link was “conflicting with [the Nusra Front’s] unity and working as one body.”Reuters, “Al Qaeda tells Syrian branch Nusra Front it can drop links,” Thomas Reuters Foundation News, July 28, 2016, http://news.trust.org/item/20160728110801-ogl17. Hours later, Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani formally severed ties with al-Qaeda’s central command.Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs; Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution,’” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nusra-front-announces-official-split-al-qaeda-520293064. Analysts have long surmised that a formal, or at least artificial, break from al-Qaeda could allow the Nusra Front the opportunity to attract more funding from Gulf states, consolidate local support, and present itself as a legitimate insurgent group in Syria.Bassem Mroue, “AP EXPLAINS: Why Syria’s al-Qaida may be considering a split,” Associated Press, July 27, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d10d759d35824b70b47501d85f0ff8c3/ap-explains-why-syrias-al-qaida-may-be-considering-split; Reuters, “Al Qaeda tells Syrian branch Nusra Front it can drop links,” Thomas Reuters Foundation News, July 28, 2016, http://news.trust.org/item/20160728110801-ogl17. Even as the Nusra Front formally declared its independence from al-Qaeda, the group thanked al-Qaeda’s leadership for giving “priority to the interests of the people of Al-Sham, their Jihad, [and] their revolution.”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs.

Yet recent insights have brought into question the artificiality of the Nusra Front’s break from al-Qaeda. According to al-Qaeda scholar Cole Bunzel, there has been a “profound controversy in jihadi circles surrounding the nature of [HTS], which some argue has lost its way.”Cole Bunzel, “Diluting Jihad: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,” Jihadica, March 29, 2017, http://www.jihadica.com/diluting-jihad/. Among the many critics of HTS is al-Qaeda propagandist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. In November 2016, Maqdisi withdrew his support for the Nusra Front’s break from al-Qaeda, stating that his and Zawahiri’s approval came only on the condition that any such break would be a “superficial step.”Cole Bunzel, “Diluting Jihad: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,” Jihadica, March 29, 2017, http://www.jihadica.com/diluting-jihad/. Instead, Maqdisi claims that the Nusra Front’s leadership continued to deviate from al-Qaeda’s central tenets, stating that they “stayed the course till they made it a real breaking of ties” from al-Qaeda.Cole Bunzel, “Diluting Jihad: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,” Jihadica, March 29, 2017, http://www.jihadica.com/diluting-jihad/. Maqdisi and other al-Qaeda hardliners have denounced HTS’s outreach to secular and moderate Islamist rebel factions.Cole Bunzel, “Diluting Jihad: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,” Jihadica, March 29, 2017, http://www.jihadica.com/diluting-jihad/;
Cole Bunzel, “Abandoning al-Qaida: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Sami al-‘Uraydi,” Jihadica, May 12, 2017, http://www.jihadica.com/abandoning-al-qaida/.

For years before the announcement, however, the Nusra Front had reaffirmed its allegiance to Zawahiri, even in the face of competing claims to its leadership. In April 2013, after Baghdadi unilaterally claimed that the Nusra Front answered to his al-Qaeda in Iraq group (now ISIS), Golani broke ties with ISIS and affirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda central.“Syria Crisis: Al-Nusra Pledges Allegiance to Al-Qaeda,” BBC News, April 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22095099.

ISIS

The Nusra Front was allegedly formed as an extension of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, now ISIS), and received a monthly salary from AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity,” Long War Journal, April 9, 2013, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/04/the_emir_of_al_qaeda.php#ixzz3Mw15S2jb. The relationship between the groups deteriorated in April 2013, when Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between the two groups.“Syria Crisis: Al-Nusra Pledges Allegiance to Al-Qaeda,” BBC News, April 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22095099. The two have since engaged in violent clashes, vying for control over rebel-held territory.

Media Coverage

Rhetoric

View All

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“This new organization [the Nusra Front, renamed the Levantine Conquest Front] aims to fulfill the following: 1. Work toward establishing the religion of Allah (swt), having his shariah (law) as legislation…”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs; Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution,’” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nusra-front-announces-official-split-al-qaeda-520293064.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“[We will continue] fulfilling the requests of the people of Al Sham to expose the deceptions of the International community, the leaders being the U.S. and Russia…”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs; Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution,’” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nusra-front-announces-official-split-al-qaeda-520293064.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“[In formally splitting from al-Qaeda, we are not] compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs or laxity in the necessity of the continuity of the Jihad of Al-Sham.”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs; Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution,’” Middle East Eye, July 28, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nusra-front-announces-official-split-al-qaeda-520293064.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“We thank [al-Qaeda’s leadership for their] proper assessment of the general benefits [of] the Jihad. Their noble stance will be recorded in the annals of history. Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group. They have practically implemented the words of Sheikh Osama bin Laden (may Allah have mercy on him).”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“We thank [al-Qaeda’s] for their stance, whereby they gave priority to the interests of the people of Al-Sham [Syria], their [Syrian] Jihad, their revolution.”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“We would like to thank… [leader of al-Qaeda] Dr. Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri and his vice, Sheikh Ahmad Hasan Abu Al-Khayr especially, may Allah protect them.”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, July 28, 2016

“We would like to thank our brothers, the commanders of al-Qa’eda.”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs.

Abu Muhammad al-Golani, June 3, 2015

“We will be the first soldiers for an Islamic government that implements Shariah.”Alessandria Masi, “Jabhat Al-Nusra Leader Interview: 'No Solution' To ISIS, Al Qaeda Tension In Syria, Americans Joined Nusra Front,” International Business Times, June 3, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/jabhat-al-nusra-leader-interview-no-solution-isis-al-qaeda-tension-syria-americans-1951584.

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