Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is not the only Salafi-Jihadist threat emanating from Syria. Its prominence in U.S. policy has overshadowed a threat of similar magnitude from Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the official al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate in Syria. JN rivals ISIS as a sophisticated, intelligent, strategic actor in the region and continues to enjoy a dangerous freedom to operate in Syria. The two groups share common goals, including a revived Islamic Caliphate. JN, however, is pursuing its aims through a distinct, more patient methodology that is highly threatening despite its low signature. Whereas ISIS has announced its state and tried to legitimize it by conquest, JN is following AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s method of fomenting a religious and social revolution by embedding itself within an indigenous insurgency. The Syrian war has provided JN a nearly ideal environment within which to implement this strategy on behalf of al-Qaeda, and JN has enjoyed worrying success to date.
JN is more subtle and insidious than ISIS, and is therefore more difficult to contain or defeat. While ISIS pursues direct, overt, and top-down control, JN leverages an elite military force to win allies among the Syrian armed opposition and to sponsor locally tailored governance in ungoverned areas of Syria. JN has benefitted from the lack of effective Western intervention in Syria. It has further benefitted from the radicalization of the Syrian opposition after September 2013, when the decision by the U.S. not to intervene in Syria demoralized large segments of the opposition. JN has a flow of foreign fighters and contributes asymmetric “special forces” capabilities to opposition forces, securing prominent victories for rebel campaigns through its contributions to wider military efforts. The significance of this contribution increased in late 2013 and throughout 2014, as a lack of international engagement in Syria increased the relative importance of JN’s contribution to the fighting. As such, JN’s military campaign has earned it significant leverage with other rebel groups. At the end of 2014, the rise of ISIS changed the Syrian wartime environment and forced meaningful shifts in JN’s disposition in Syria. These shifts, over time, may begin to impact its network of rebel allies. However, JN’s success in establishing influence within rebel ranks has kept JN from losing popular support in the short-term, despite an increasingly aggressive stance. It is therefore unlikely that JN’s embedded position within rebel ranks will unravel without additional outside pressure.
JN originated as a Syrian offshoot of the former al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization. It has evolved into a separate and robust al-Qaeda affiliate, recognized by AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the first half of 2013. The group’s membership includes both Syrian and foreign fighters, and draws upon the resources of the al-Qaeda core. JN never downplayed its Salafi-Jihadist orientation prior to its formal incorporation into the al-Qaeda movement. However, in the early years of the revolution it refrained from disclosing its AQ affiliation and its actual goals in Syria. This allowed JN to avoid alienating the local Syrian population, which was unlikely to tolerate its long-term objectives and hardline religious beliefs in the early months of the war. JN instead propagated an image of a nationalist Syrian opposition force, recruiting heavily to establish a base of Syrian fighters and securing the support of other rebel groups. The success of this strategy became apparent in December 2012, when the U.S. designation of JN as a terrorist organization provoked protests in support of JN from within Syria’s moderate opposition. Twenty-nine Syrian opposition groups signed a petition condemning the U.S. designation of JN as a terrorist group. They went so far as to announce “we are all al-Nusra” and urged rebel supporters to raise the JN flag.