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Al Qaeda in Syria: Al Nusra Front

How Strong is Al Qaeda in Syria?

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Al Nusra Front is an Al Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria fighting the government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Although not officially recognized by Al Qaeda’s central leadership, the Nusra Front has been blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the US State Department in late 2012. It’s one of the most effective rebel units in Syria, drawing on foreign fighters, and committed to establishing an Islamic state in Syria.

1. Presence: Battlefronts of Syria’s Civil War

The Syrian civil war has created a new theater for foreign jihadists – radical Islamists committed to a global military struggle against secular governments in Muslim countries and Western targets. Nusra Front (full name "Support Front for the People of Levant") started as a small group of experienced fighters, believed by the US State Department to be a front for Al Qaeda in Iraq trying to "hijack the struggles of the Syrian people".

Through tactical prowess, discipline and the shortcomings of other rebel groups, Nusra Front evolved into a formidable force numbering up to 10 000 fighters who play a key role in the battlefields of northern and eastern Syria, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, but also present in the capital Damascus and in the south close to the Jordanian border.

2. Organization: Syrian Outfit, Backed By International Jihad

Nusra Front was first announced in January 2012 by Abu Muhammad al-Golani, one of the group’s leaders. The UK think-tank Quilliam Foundation has documented close links between the Nusra Front and the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq, the "Islamic State in Iraq", which formed after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Many Syrians were among the militants streaming into Iraq to fight the US forces, allegedly facilitated by the Syrian regime in an attempt to destabilize the new US-backed Iraqi government. The tide turned with the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011/12, when a tight-knit group of Al Qaeda cadres decided to set shop in Syria.

Whether the Nusra Front leaders will announce an independent Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria remains to be seen. While certainly the preferred choice for Sunni jihadists coming to Syria to fight Assad’s secular regime, the bulk of the group’s force is locally recruited. A senior commander told the BBC: "We both use the same language, the same terminology as we are all Arabic speakers. But there is no connection [between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda] - we are Syrians".

3. Goals & Strategy: Islamic State in Syria

Nusra Front considers Assad’s government an infidel regime serving the Alawite minority. But the group also rejects the Western-backed Syrian opposition and openly dismisses the vision of a democratic Syria where all religious groups enjoy equal rights.

Detailed political and economic programs are not Al Qaeda’s strong suit, and in most public statements the group simply calls for a strict Islamic state. Since hardline Islamists don’t recognize national boundaries, seeing all Muslims as part of one community, the Nusra Front may also have designs in the wider region.

  • Goals: A senior commander told The National that the group’s first goal was "to get rid of Assad. Then we want a state where the Quran is the only source of law". However, the Nusra Front has been careful not to rush into imposing a strict religious code or creating parallel government structures. Its main focus is on fighting the government troops. The longer the war continues, the more influence they hope to gain.

  • Tactics: The group’s military tactics are a combination of ground attacks on military bases and checkpoints, and classic Al Qaeda style relying on suicide bombings, roadside bombs, and assassinations. Although the Nusra Front enters tactical alliances with moderate Islamists and secular nationalists in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the original rebel movement, it operates independently. A clash with the FSA over territory and ideological differences seems inevitable.

  • Funding & Propaganda: The Nusra Front has access to the financial largesse of wealthy Al Qaeda sympathizers, particularly in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, one of the key advantages over the FSA. The group runs its own media production website "Al Manara Al Baida" (the White Minaret), where it posts video clips of its operations. But its best propaganda coup was to enforce strict discipline in its ranks. Unlike some other rebel groups, the Nusra Front is not known for looting, and has developed a measure of popular support in some areas of the country by providing charitable services and dispensation of justice.
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