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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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In 1997, employees of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF), a Saudi-based charity, were mulling how best to strike a blow against the United States in East Africa. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, one employee indicated that the plan they hatched ”would be a suicide bombing carried out by crashing a vehicle into the gate at the Embassy.” A wealthy foundation official from outside the region agreed to fund the operation.

The employees’ plans would go through several iterations, but AHIF would eventually play a role in the ultimate attack. In 1998, simultaneous explosions ripped through the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya — attacks eventually traced back to al Qaeda operatives. Prior to the bombings, a former director of AHIF’s Tanzanian branch made preparations for the advance party that planned the bombings, and the Comoros Islands branch of the charity was used, according to the Treasury Department, “as a staging area and exfiltration route for the perpetrators.” The ultimate result was deadly: 224 people killed and more than 4,000 wounded.

This was, of course, before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent crackdown on wealthy Islamist charity organizations such as AHIF, which provided a large portion of the funding that made international terrorism possible. As a monograph produced for the 9/11 Commission noted, prior to 9/11, “al Qaeda was funded, to the tune of approximately $30 million per year, by diversions of money from Islamic charities and the use of well-placed financial facilitators who gathered money from both witting and unwitting donors.”

But despite all the efforts made to shut down such groups, Islamist-leaning international charities and other NGOs are now reemerging as sponsors of jihadi activity. In countries like Tunisia and Syria, they are providing the infusion of funds that have allowed extremist groups to undertake the hard work of providing food, social services, and medical care. Jihadists, meanwhile, have discovered that they can bolster their standing within local communities, thereby increasing support for their violent activities. And governments are struggling to keep up.

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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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While many focus on the fighting between rebel forces and the Assad regime as well as rightfully the continuing humanitarian tragedy that is wrecking havoc on the daily lives of many Syrians, there have been key organizational changes behind the scenes within the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). The SIF is a Salafi-jihadi conglomeration of brigades that banded together to create an umbrella organization in late December 2012. After its formation, the combined force of the SIF has become one of the key rebel factions in the battle against the Assad regime. The consolidation of the SIF’s power through mergers and acquisitions will help solidify its growing role in the opposition as a force that has reach throughout the country and is united unlike many other rebel factions that have fractured over time.

The SIF is an organization that calls for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia based on its Salafi creed after the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, to playing an increasingly important role on the battlefield, the SIF has also been involved in some social welfare through its relief committee where they distribute aid from the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO. Their charter has also gotten the stamp of approval from the Syrian jihadi ideologue Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who is allegedly affiliated with the SIF. Tartusi also recently spoke with al-Hiwar Channel explaining he was helping advise the creation of sharia courts in “liberated” areas of Syria.

When the SIF was first announced it was made up of eleven brigades, including Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kata’ib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa’ al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaysh al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. It has since shrunk through two larger-scale mergers among some of the eleven brigades and one acquisition from outside its fold. This has helped strengthen the organization through the consolidation of ties and centralization of authority.

First, on January 31, three of the groups (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah, Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah, and Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah) merged into Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). The four now go under the name Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (HASI). This move can be seen as a victory for KAS’ hardliners, over elements in the group that wanted to join the Supreme Military Council (SMC), an armed affiliate of the U.S.-supported National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) because groups that merged like Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah are seen as more radical. Further indication that rumors of KAS joining the SMC has likely been quashed, the SIF released a statement on February 6 rejecting the SOC president Mu’az al-Khatib’s recent call for talks with the Assad regime.

Second, on February 2, Damascus-based groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib joined together to become Kata’ib al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. Prior to this formation, they had little to no battle record posted online, suggesting were not key players on the ground. It is possible that they joined forces better position themselves on the ground. Since then, the SIF has posted some attacks from this new formation, potentially signifying that the merger was a precursor to a more active plan going forward. The SIF might have also encouraged this due to a new offensive planned by rebel forces in Damascus and its countryside dubbed “Support for Daraya.”

Lastly, on February 5, the Hama-based fighting group Liwa’ al-Iman, which has an online footprint going back to late September 2012, left the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), an Ikhwani and Salafi umbrella group, and joined HASI within the SIF. This solidifies the SIF’s foothold in Hama since none of the original eleven were based there. It also highlights the strength the SIF is projecting to other rebel forces in contrast to the non-unified SLF, which is viewed as unorganized with a lack of coordination because of the number of large players like Suqur al-Sham and Kata’ib al-Faruq.

As a result of the consolidation, the SIF now stands at six fighting forces. These maneuvers over the past week have helped solidify its organization. It would not be surprising if other mergers and acquisitions occur in the near term because of their prowess on the battlefield as well as their ability to be organizationally disciplined and unified. More than anything, the actions of the SIF illustrate that they are planning for the long-term and will continue to play a key role in the fight against the Assad regime and attempting to shape the post-Assad state of play.

The second half of 2012 saw increased radicalization of the Syrian armed opposition, particularly in the north and east. What began as a mainly secular force with the creation of the umbrella Free Syrian Army has slowly fragmented into Islamist splinter factions, including Suqur al-Sham, Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS), and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Designated a terrorist organization by Washington in early December, JN has received the most attention, but little has been said about KAS, another popular Salafi-jihadist group whose strength and support continue to grow in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere. On December 21, KAS announced the creation of a new umbrella fighting force called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). Given this group’s increasing prowess on the battlefield and ideological similarity to JN, Washington must develop a better understanding of its capabilities and reach.

WHO THEY ARE

In the statement and video proclaiming the SIF’s creation, spokesman Abu Abdul Rahman al-Souri declared that the group followed extremist Salafi doctrines and planned to topple the Assad regime and its allies, after which it would institute its interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). According to him, this would mean establishing institutions focusing on political matters, dawa (Islamic advocacy), cultural education, and humanitarian relief.

The SIF is made up of eleven brigades, including KAS (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kataib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaish al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jamaat al-Taliah al-Islamiyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Musab bin Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Katibat Suqur al-Islam, Kataib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin Abdul Mutalib. The latter five brigades have little to no battle record posted online, which suggests they are not real players on the ground.

At the end of its December statement, the SIF emphasizes that it is open to other Islamist organizations joining its cause, and the accompanying video shows the front’s fighters in action in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo, and Deir al-Zour, among other places. Since then, the SIF and JN have been at the forefront of several key battles, including the recent liberation of Taftanaz airport, a jailbreak in Idlib, and efforts to take Jisr al-Shughour.

The video also shows the SIF’s humanitarian relief efforts, such as paving new roads and clearing old ones, baking bread for the increasing number of needy Syrians, and supplying foodstuffs. Other soft-power efforts include Quranic recitation contests for children. In addition, the video highlights two of the main actors financing these efforts: the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO.

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The second half of 2012 saw the radicalization of the Syrian rebel opposition. What started as a mainly secular force with the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) slowly fragmented into Islamist cleavages with groups like Suqur al-Sham, Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, among others fighting independently outside the banner of the FSA. While much due attention has been given to Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in early December, little has been discussed on another popular Salafi-jihadi group: Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). On December 21, it announced the creation of a new fighting force that brought together small jihadi factions under the banner of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).

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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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