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Jabhah al-Nusrah

Earlier this morning, the Islamic State of Iraq, the front name for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), claimed responsibility for a March 4th attack that killed 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. This was the first confirmed case of AQI announcing its involvement in what is now the greater Syrian conflict. As Syrian jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which according to the US government was originally established by AQI, continue to consolidate their hold onborder posts and regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is likely that more cross-border incidents could occur. This attack also highlights the potential for a more permissive jihadist corridor of open coordination between western Iraq and eastern Syria, the zones where jihadists are strongest in each country.

It is unsurprising that the Syrian-Iraqi border would start to heat up. There is a history going back to the US-led Iraq war last decade that connected eastern Syria to the jihadist front in western Iraq. At the time, the Assad regime turned a blind eye to the staging ground that AQI used in eastern Syria for facilitating training, weapons and fighter trafficking, and document forgery. In other words, eastern Syria was a key hub for the lifeline of AQI’s efforts. Not until 2007 did the Assad regime start cracking down on these networks.

This is also one of the reasons for the rapid rise of JN last year. Unlike other groups, they were not completely starting from scratch. Many of the Syrians that lead JN previously fought with AQI during the height of the jihadist insurgency last decade. Further, according to the US Treasury Department’s designation of JN, in the fall of 2011, AQI sent two senior leaders Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab to help establish and prepare the groundwork for the creation of JN in January 2012. Therefore, while JN is majority Syrian, there are past and present links between it and AQI.

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When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the presence of jihadists in the protests was minimal at best. As the rebellion escalated, jihadists began to take advantage of the new landscape. Fighters associated with al-Qa`ida’s worldview quietly entered the fight in the fall of 2011. These Salafi-jihadi fighters officially announced themselves in late January 2012 under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front) and became one of the key fighting forces against the Bashar al-Assad regime by the fall of 2012.[1]

Since the Syrian protest movement turned into an armed insurrection in the summer of 2011, the jihad in Syria has become the du jour locale for fighters who want to topple the “apostate” al-Assad regime for a variety of strategic, geographic, and religious reasons. Similar to the Iraqi jihad at its zenith, users on al-Qa`ida’s official and unofficial web forums began to post unofficial yet authentic martyrdom notices for individuals—both Syrian and foreign—who they perceived to have fought on behalf of the jihadist cause.[2]

This article looks quantitatively and qualitatively at these notices.[3] The data and biographical information collected is based on threads from jihadist web forums[4] dating from the start of the uprising through January 31, 2013. It is likely that some notices have been missed, but it is still useful to piece together each individual’s identity, from where they are from, with whom they fought, and where they died.

It does not, however, include fighters mentioned in Jabhat al-Nusra’s official statements or videos. Therefore, while the data is useful in providing clarity on the role of foreign fighters in Syria, it still suffers from many limitations and should be considered anecdotal.

Quantitative Data: Basic Metrics
There were discrepancies in the amount of data provided in each unofficial martyrdom notice. The quantitative data mainly focuses on city of origin, country of origin, city martyred in, and group joined. There are two levels of data compiled for these four metrics: overall, and in the past four months. Organizing the data by time period helps situate the current trajectories in the conflict.

In total, there are currently 130 individuals in the author’s dataset, and 85 of the 130 have been identified in the past four months. The first recorded unofficial martyrdom notice was posted in February 2012, but this individual, the Kuwaiti Hussam al-Mutayri, actually died on August 29, 2011, fighting with the Free Syrian Army in Damascus.[5] Every individual in the dataset has a record of which country they were from. More than half (70 out of 130) mentioned the group with which the individual fought, while 76 of 130 locations of death were provided. Additionally, the city of origin of the martyrs was detailed 45 out of 130 times. The steep increase in individuals being reported as martyrs on the forums in the past four months, as seen in Table 1 (see attached PDF), provides circumstantial evidence that more foreign jihadists have joined the battlefield recently.[6]

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On January 11, in yet another sign that the Assad regime is increasingly giving way, an assortment of Islamist/jihadist fighters captured the Taftanaz airbase in Syria. While good news for achieving Washington’s seventeen-month-old (and counting) goal of forcing Bashar al-Assad to “step aside,” the capture of the base and its weapons stockpile by groups opposed to U.S. interests comes at the expense of the mainline opposition Supreme Military Council (SMC), an armed affiliate of the U.S.-supported National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC). To accelerate Assad’s departure and dilute the political and military impact of the Islamists, Washington and its allies will need to boost support for the SMC and other mainline nationalist groups while removing obstructions to urgent humanitarian aid amid an unusually harsh winter.

MILITARY IMPLICATIONS

Taftanaz was an important victory for the opposition and a clear defeat for the regime. The rebels succeeded because they were able to concentrate adequate forces, coordinate their actions, bring heavy weapons to bear, and sustain the siege for months under regime air attack. This indicates an improvement in their performance, at least for the units involved. It also repeats rebel successes in taking defended regime positions elsewhere in the country, including Aleppo province, Deir al-Zour, and the Damascus countryside.

The victory brought some important direct gains for the rebels:

  • They destroyed or captured fifteen to twenty helicopters at the airfield. Most of these were Mi-8/17 utility helicopters, some of which had been equipped with rocket pods for an attack role. This represents approximately 20 percent of the regime’s prewar active inventory of a much-relied-upon type of aircraft.
  • They captured additional heavy weapons and large quantities of ammunition. Coupled with the freeing up of rebel forces, the equipment gains should boost the opposition’s ability to assault other regime positions in the north and perhaps bring them under their control sooner. The battle will also be a huge boost for rebel morale, showing they can take even a major defended position.
  • The regime was unable to prevent loss of the base, one of several such failures in the past few months. Damascus did not appear to make any serious attempt to reinforce the airfield or relieve the siege. The number of troops involved in the defense seemed relatively small, and they largely relied on heavy weapons and air power — a regime pattern. In addition, at least some of the defenders were irregular soldiers from the pro-Assad “popular committees,” not regular combat troops; some reports even indicate that officers were evacuated by air before the base fell.

WHO FOUGHT AND WHAT IT MEANS

Three rebel factions took part in the fight: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), and the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF). All three are outside the structure of the SMC, a grouping of provincial military council leaders and battalion (katiba) and brigade (liwa) commanders formed in December. The council’s purpose is to unite Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, implement command and control, funnel SOC support to armed units, and keep weapons out of the hands of extremists.

Jabhat al-Nusra, an independent faction that is not part of the FSA, is a global jihadist group that follows al-Qaeda’s worldview. According to the State Department’s December announcement designating it as a terrorist organization, JN was established as a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq nearly a year ago. Over the past few months, it has gained prominence as one of the country’s best fighting forces, conducting more than 600 suicide bombings, assassinations, improvised explosive device attacks, and strikes on regime checkpoints and security/military buildings, in addition to regular battlefield action. Although JN is capable of attacking most parts of Syria, the majority of its operations have occurred in Aleppo and Idlib, and to a lesser extent Damascus and Deir al-Zour. The group’s ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state in the entire Levant as a starting point to reestablishing the Caliphate.

The Syrian Islamic Front is a conglomeration of eleven “brigades” outside the FSA. Formed last December, it lacks JN’s coherent structure. Ideologically, the SIF can best be described as a collection of locally focused jihadists with no known connections to al-Qaeda. Three of the brigades took part in the Taftanaz battle: Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (the SIF’s leading unit), Jamaat al-Taliah al-Islamiyah, and Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyah. Like JN, the SIF’s goal is to establish an Islamic state based on Salafi interpretations of Islam, but only within Syria proper. The video announcing the group’s creation indicates that its funding comes from the Qatar Charity Organization and Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), which supports U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as Hamas.

The Syrian Liberation Front is another grouping of so-called brigades outside the FSA, founded last September. The smallest faction involved in the Taftanaz operation was Liwa Dawoud, one of the eight battalions within Suqur al-Sham, a leading SLF brigade. Ideologically similar to the SIF, the SLF hopes to establish an Islamic state in Syria; its members are a mix of Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists and Salafists who are less radical than those in the SIF and JN. The SLF is believed to receive funding from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and wealthy Persian Gulf donors.

Given their demonstrated fighting prowess, these Islamist forces have earned much respect from Syrians. Unlike some FSA groups, which have increasingly been accused of corruption in places such as Aleppo, JN, the SIF, and the SLF are viewed as fair brokers that do not take advantage of the downtrodden. Unless something changes, Islamists are likely to play a significant role in northern Syria following the regime’s departure.

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The backlash within Syria to the U.S. decision to designate the Syrian-based jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization has been swift. Opposition to the designation, which was officially announced on Dec. 11, extends well beyond groups ideologically sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra’s radical goals. After more than 40,000 deaths, the starvation and torture of many, and the sadistic tactics of the Assad regime, Syrians now want the fall of the regime more than ever — even if that means temporarily embracing groups with suspect long-term goals.

The Barack Obama administration’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra asserts that the group is an extension of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — merely one of the terrorist organization’s aliases. Whether this is the case or whether the administration is issuing the designation as part of a political effort to convince the opposition to shun Jabhat al-Nusra, the move will likely fail to marginalize the group at this juncture. Following the fall of the regime, however, it could help sideline the most destructive influences trying to gain a foothold in post-Assad Syria.

The reaction among anti-Assad Syrians was perhaps best captured by an image that appeared on Facebook shortly after news of the planned designation broke last week. In the picture, residents of the northwestern town of Kafr Anbel hold up a poster showing Obama pointing accusingly toward aflag associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, saying “Terrorism.” Behind the U.S. president, however, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad standing triumphant on a pile of murdered Syrian civilians.

The image reflects the reality that the Syrian opposition simply does not view Jabhat al-Nusra as the primary threat to the country — that designation still belongs to Assad’s murderous army. Nor is it lost on Syrians that the Obama administration has provided scant military assistance in their efforts to topple the regime — but is now singling out a rebel group that has become perhaps their revolution’s most effective fighting force. This is a view that seems to extend well beyond Jabhat al-Nusra’s ideological milieu: None of the individuals in the Kafr Anbel picture, for example, look like Islamists or Salafis.

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President Barack Obama’s administration is reportedly planning to designate the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Support Front”) as a terrorist organization. The group, which was firstannounced in late January 2012, has become a growing part of the armed opposition due to its fighting prowess — perhaps no surprise, as many of its fighters honed their skills in battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra has carved out an important niche in the fight to oust the Syrian regime even as it remains outside of the mainstream opposition.

The U.S. administration, in designating Jabhat al-Nusra, is likely to argue that the group is an outgrowth of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). While there is not much open-source evidence of this, classified material may offer proof — and there is certainly circumstantial evidence that Jabhat al-Nusra operates as a branch of the ISI.

There’s no denying that Jabhat al-Nusra is deadly: It has claimed responsibility for more than 500 attacks since its creation, including a series of suicide bombings. Unique among rebel groups operating in Syria, it has also earned the legitimacy of top global jihadist ideologues, who have called for grassroots supporters across the world to help fund or join up with the group. And foreign fighters have answered the call: Based on data from al Qaeda’s online forums, of the 46 individuals for which the forums have provided “martyrdom” notices and announced their group affiliation, 20 fought with Jabhat al-Nusra. Since Oct. 1, almost all of the notices that mention affiliation have reported that the fighter was aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra.

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Unlike other actors in the current Syrian conflict, gaining access to Jihadists is fraught with security concerns on all sides.

Broadly, a “Jihadist” is a Sunni Muslim pan-Islamist who subscribes to a worldview that taking part in a violent, military holy war, or Jihad, in the name of Islam is the best means for bringing about the end to “apostate” regimes. The Jihadists then aim to replace these governments with ones that administer Islamic Shariah law based on their interpretation. While Jihadists have been most associated with al-Qaeda over the past decade, not all Jihadists are al-Qaeda and not all Jihadists agree with its global focus even if there is some ideological overlap.

For journalists and researchers, there is hesitation about coming into contact with Jihadists, due to the potential of kidnap or even execution. For Jihadists, concerns over operational security and the potential for infiltration and espionage has loomed large when meeting unknown outsiders.

But there is another way to understand them, and gain access to the Jihadist mindset, conversations and ideology: the Internet. Jihadists provide extensive information about themselves in online forums, on websites and social media platforms — information that can be used to better understand their ideological debates as well as the activities they are conducting on the ground.

The Syrian case is no different. The changes in focus and messaging over time helps one better understand how Jihadists entered the conflict and how far they have come in the past 19 months.

Click here to read the rest.

 

When the Syrian uprising first began, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s justifications for his harsh crackdowns against protesters and, later, armed elements was because he considered them foreign terrorists. At the time, this claim was ludicrous. The overwhelming majority of individuals were Syrians looking to shake off the yoke of Bashar and his father Hafiz’s decades-long Baathist dictatorship.

While most individuals involved with the current rebellion are still Syrian, foreign fighters now have a very real presence that should worry not only the Assad regime but also Syrians in the opposition. Most foreign fighters go abroad to defend their fellow Muslim brethren from being slaughtered. Once in the area of battle, though, many come into closer contact with hardline jihadis as well as fighters from other countries and are exposed to new ideas. Therefore, portions of foreign fighters are not fighting to help establish a future state for Syrian nationals. Rather, they hope to annex it to be part of their grander aims of establishing emirates that will eventually lead to a reestablished Caliphate, however fanciful this project might be.

At this point, on-the-ground media coverage in English, French, Arabic, German, and other languages reports between 800-2,000 foreigners currently in Syria, accounting for less than 10% of the fighters. Most have come since the beginning of the year: a large contingent comes from the states surrounding Syria: Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, while a smaller North African contingent hails from Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. The presence of Westerners at this point has been minimal.

These individuals are linking up with not only the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but also jihadi organizations.The Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Fatah al-Islam, both of them Lebanese jihadi organizations, have entered the fray. So, too, have less-established, but growing organizations like Jabhat al-Nusrah, believed to be the strongest jihadi actor in Syria, as well as Ahrar ash-Sham. Another group, Liwa al-Ummah, comprising 90 percent Syrian fighters, is led by the Irish-Libyan Mahdi al-Harati, previously a commander in the Tripoli Brigade that helped topple the Qadhafi regime a year ago in Libya.

What is problematic with all of this is that although jihadis remain a small portion of the resistance, many have past experience fighting in jihads in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. Therefore, they have sharper skills as well as connections to networks of funding and weapons, which the FSA has dearly needed in the face of lack of support from the international community. As a consequence, jihadi fighters can be force-multipliers as was seen in Iraq during the height of the insurgency against the United States. FSA fighters, in media interviews, explain that because of jihadi experiences, resources, and technologies they have started to begrudgingly work with them, even if they consider them extreme and do not believe in their end goals.

Online jihadis have also posted videos on their forums showing how some jihadi brigades have coordinated operations with elements of the FSA in places like Aleppo. This, however, can cause cross-pollination in ideology and radicalize factions within the FSA. It could also turn these different groups against one another once the fighting ends against the Assad regime, creating further instability in a country looking to regain normalcy and transitioning to a better future.

Unfortunately, this challenge from the jihadis will not go away any time soon. As can be seen in Iraq, although jihadis there are weak compared to a few years ago, the residue from the fighting lingers, continuing to be a spoiler. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community not only work up a plan for dealing with jihadis in Syria post-Assad, but also work with the opposition to help eject these foreign and poisonous elements, which will do more harm than good for Syria’s future.

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