A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Al-Nusrah Front Narrative


Al-Nusrah Front

Last Update

January 2015

Aliases

Jabhat Al-Nusra; Jabhat Al-Nusrah Li Al-Sham (Support Front for the People of Syria); Tanziem Qa’edat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Sham (The Qae’dat Al-Jihad Organization in Syria)[1]

History

Al-Nusrah Front is a religious, separatist group founded in 2012 by Abu Muhammed al-Julani during the Syrian Civil War.[2]  In 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (at the time commonly referred to as Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), ordered Al-Julani to form an affiliate in Syria.[3]  Al-Julani is allegedly a Syrian who fought against the United States and its allies in Iraq and, at one time, was a follower of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.[4] The Al-Nusrah Front command consists of members who gained operational experience in Iraq while the jihadist foot soldiers are comprised mostly of Syrians. In addition, several thousand fighters from the Arab-Muslim world and nearly one thousand from the West have joined Al-Nusrah.[5]

Al-Nusrah has carried out a number of recorded suicide attacks against targets supportive of Al-Asad’s government.[6] Initially, the group was largely funded by AQI; however, once relations with AQI deteriorated, Al-Nusrah began to rely on Salafist-jihadi charities and private citizens.[7]  In 2013, al-Baghdadi attempted to merge the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Al-Nusrah Front into the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).  Al-Julani immediately rejected this proposal and instead pledged allegiance directly to al-Qa’ida core.[8] At this time, there is evidence to suggest that a divide began to emerge within the ranks of Al-Nusrah.[9] In April 2014, ISIS reported they had killed Abu Muhammad al Ansari, Idlib province’s commander, and his family.[10]

Home Base

Syria

Founding Year

2012

Ideology

Religious-Islamist-Salafist-Jihadist[11]

Specific Goals

  • The group seeks to depose Bashar Al-Asad and his Ba’athist regime and form a politically autonomous, Islamist state in Syria.[12]
  • Al-Nusrah Front advocates for the creation of an Islamic state in all Arab countries and eventually across the world.[13]

Political Activity

None

Financing

  • Charities/Donations: The group predominantly relies on Salafist-jihadi charities, Salafist clergy, and affluent al-Qa’ida supporters throughout Arab-Muslim countries.[14]
  • Funded by other violent groups: Initially, the group received financing from ISI.[15]

Leadership and Structure over Time

  • Al-Nusrah Front began as a group of cells while Al-Asad’s government was still powerful.[16]
  • In summer 2012, as Al-Asad’s government weakened while Syria became further immersed in violence, Al-Nusrah Front evolved into a hierarchical and paramilitary organization.[17]
  • The group conducts both security and military operations,[18] religious affairs, and public and foreign relations.[19]

Strength

  • 2012: around 7,000.[20]
  • 2013: 8,000-10,000.[21]

Allies and Suspected Allies

  • Al-Qa’ida (allies):
    • In 2013, Al-Julani pledged support to Al-Qa’ida Core and was accepted as an official affiliate of the group.[44]
  • Free Syrian Army (allies):
    • The FSA is technically allied with Al-Nusrah front, and the two groups have carried out multiple joint operations against pro-Asad forces; however it is a rocky relationship. Some elements of the FSA distrust and disagree with Nusrah Front tactics and leadership. However, there have been minimal reports of open confrontation or violence between the two groups.[22]
  • Ghuraba al-Sham (suspected allies)
    • This group has been allied with Al-Nusrah Front since at least 2012 when the two groups launched a joint attack against Kurdish forces at Ras al-Ain.[23]
  • Factions of Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) (allies)
    • Al-Qa’ida in Iraq led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi helped to create Al-Nusrah Front, and in April 2013 Baghdadi attempted to unify the two organizations (AQI and Al-Nusrah) to create ISIS. However, Al-Julani continued to pledge its primary allegiance to Zawahiri and refused to be subjugated by Baghdadi, thus ending their amiable relationship and making rivals out of Al-Nusrah Front and ISIS.[24]
  • Jaish Mujahideen (suspected allies)
    • Allies with this group since at least 2014, Al-Nusrah Front coordinated a campaign to take the city of Aleppo with this group.[25]
  • Jaish al Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMA) (suspected allies)
    • Allies with this group since at least 2014, Al-Nusrah Front coordinated a campaign to take the city of Aleppo with this group.[26]
  • Fatah al-Islam (suspected allies):
    • The leadership of Fatah al-Islam has strong ties to Nusrah Front.[27]
  • Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (alles):
    • This is another large Sunni Salafist organization that formed in Syria around the same time as Al-Nusrah Front. The two groups cooperate with one another in their fight against the Asad regime and have been allies since 2012. [28]

Rivals and Enemies

  • Factions of Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) (rival):
    • Al-Qa’ida in Iraq led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi helped to create Al-Nusrah Front, and in April 2013 Baghdadi attempted to unify the two organizations (AQI and Al-Nusrah) to create ISIS. However, the leader of Al-Nusrah Front continued to pledge its primary allegiance to Zawahiri and refused to be subjugated by Baghdadi, thus ending their amiable relationship and making rivals out of Al-Nusrah Front and ISIS.[29]
  • People’s Protection Units (YPG) (enemies):
    • This Kurdish group has sporadically fought against Al-Nusrah Front to defend its territory since the Syrian civil war began.[30]
  • Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) (enemies):
    • Al-Nusrah Front considers the PKK to be infidels, and the two groups are enemies.[31]
  • Free Syrian Army (rival):
    • Relations between Al-Nusrah Front and the FSA are mixed as some elements of the FSA distrust and disagree with Nusrah Front tactics and leadership. However, there have been minimal reports of open confrontation or violence between the two groups.[32]
  • Syrian Armed Forces (enemy):
    • Al-Nusrah has fought against the Syrian government and its military since its founding in 2011.[33]
  • Abu Fadl al-Abbas (enemy):
    • Fought against this group in 2012 and 2013 by attacking the Shi’ite holy shrine of the tomb of Zainab which was being protected by the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.[34]
  • Hezbollah (enemy):
    • Fought against this group in 2012 and 2013 by attacking the Shi’ite holy shrine of the tomb of Zainab which was being protected by Hezbollah.[35]
  • Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) (enemy):
    • The PFLP fights for the Asad regime against Al-Nusrah Front and other Sunni groups, although the two organizations negotiated a brief ceasefire in February 2014 to allow Nusrah Front to retreat from the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus.[36]

Counterterrorism Efforts

  • Domestic Military: The Syrian government has used military forces to counter violent efforts by Al-Nusrah.[37]

United States Government Designations

  • Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), May 14, 2014[38]
    • From December 11, 2012 until May 14, 2014, the U.S. Department of State considered Al-Nusrah Front to be an alias of Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which has been on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list since 2004.[39] 

Other Governments’ Designations

  • Australia (June 2013): Listed Terrorist Organization.[40]
  • Saudi Arabia (March 2014): Listed Terrorist Organization.[41]
  • United Kingdom (July 2013): Listed Terrorist Organization.[42]
  • Turkey (June 2014): Listed Terrorist Organization.[43]
 

[1] R. Green, “Al-Qaeda Upgrades Its Presence in Syria,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, 25 November 2013. http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/207/0/7589.htm

[2] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[3] United Nations. Security Council Committee. Resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011) concerning Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities. July 24, 2013. http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQI31713E.shtml

[4] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[5] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[6] Bill Roggio, “Suicide bombers kill 14 in Damascus,” Threat Matrix: A Blog of The Long War Journal, June 11, 2013. http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2013/06/suicide_bombers_kill_14_in_dam.php

[7] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[8] “Profile: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS),” BBC News, January 6, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24179084

[9] Richard Spencer, “Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra split after leader’s pledge of support for al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, May 19, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10067318/Syria-Jabhat-al-Nusra-split-after-leaders-pledge-of-support-for-al-Qaeda.html

[10] Bill Roggio, “ISIS reportedly killed Al Nusrah Front’s commander for Idlib province,” Threat Matrix: A Blog of The Long War Journal, April 16, 2014. http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2014/04/isis_reportedly_killed_al_nusr.php

[11] Ruth Sherlock, “Inside Jabhat al Nusra – the most extreme wing of Syria’s struggle,” The Telegraph, December 2, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9716545/Inside-Jabhat-al-Nusra-the-most-extreme-wing-of-Syrias-struggle.html

[12] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[13] Ruth Sherlock, “Inside Jabhat al Nusra – the most extreme wing of Syria’s struggle,” The Telegraph, December 2, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9716545/Inside-Jabhat-al-Nusra-the-most-extreme-wing-of-Syrias-struggle.html

[14] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[15] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[16] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[17] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[18] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[19] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[20] “Syria’s Jihadists: Jabhat al-Nusrah,” The Economist¸ December 17, 2012, http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2012/12/jabhat-al-nusra

[21] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[22] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[23] “Jihadist rebels in standoff with Syria Kurds: NGO,” Al Arabiya News, November 22, 2012. http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/11/22/251219.html

[24] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[25] Jack Mulcaire, “Aleppo: Syria’s Stalingrad?” The National Interest, April 22, 2014. http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/aleppo-syrias-stalingrad-10320

[26] Jack Mulcaire, “Aleppo: Syria’s Stalingrad?” The National Interest, April 22, 2014. http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/aleppo-syrias-stalingrad-10320

[27] Aron Lund, “Osama al-Shehabi: An al-Qaeda Leader in Lebanon,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 19, 2013. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53980&reloadFlag=1

[28] Jessica Chasmar, “Al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda branch, and the Free Syrian Army jointly seize border crossing,” The Washington Times, September 30, 2013; “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf; Bill Roggio, “Chief of Syrian Revolutionaries Front says al Qaeda is ‘not our problem,’” Threat Matrix: A Blog of The Long War Journal, April 3, 2014. http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2014/04/chief_of_syrian_revolutionary.php; Jeffrey White, Andrew J. Tabler and Aaron Y. Zelin, “Syria’s Military Opposition: How Effective, United, or Extremist?” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2013. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus128WhiteTablerZelin.pdf;  

[29] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[30] “11 killed as Syria rebels, Kurds clash,” Global Post, May 26, 2013. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130526/11-killed-syria-rebels-kurds-clash

[31] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[32] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, January 8, 2014. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[33] Bill Roggio, “Suicide bombers kill 14 in Damascus.” Threat Matrix: A Blog of The Long War Journal, June 11, 2013. http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2013/06/suicide_bombers_kill_14_in_dam.php

[34] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf; Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, “Syrian war widens Sunni-Shia schism as foreign jihadists join fight for shrines,” The Guardian, June 4, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/04/syria-islamic-sunni-shia-shrines-volunteers

[35] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf; Alexander Marquardt, “Hezbollah and Al Qaeda Fighters Edging Closer to Full Scale Confrontation,” ABC News, May 10, 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/International/hezbollah-al-qaeda-fighters-edging-closer-confrontation/story?id=19144119

[36] Alex Finkelstein, “Al-Qaeda Affiliate Leaves Yarmouk Refugee Camp.” The Jewish Policy Center, February 12, 2014. http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/blog/2014/02/al-qaeda-affiliate-leaves-yarmouk-refugee-camp

[37] “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra),” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, September 23, 2013. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

[38] U.S. Department of State, Terrorist Designators of Groups Operating in Syria, May 14, 2014. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/05/226067.htm

[39] Victoria Nuland,  “Terrorist Designations of the al-Nusrah Front as an Alias for al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” U.S. Department of State, December 11, 2012. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/12/201759.htm; U.S. Department of State, Foreign Terrorist Organizations List. http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm

[40] “Australian Government lists anti-Assad Syrian group as terrorist organization,” ABC News (Australia), June 29, 2013. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-29/australia-lists-syrian-group-as-terrorist-organisation/4789476

[41] Phil Sands, “Saudi terror label shows world is waking to extremist threat in Syria,” The National (United Arab Emirates), March 7, 2014. http://www.thenational.ae/world/saudi-arabia/saudi-terror-label-shows-world-is-waking-to-extremist-threat-in-syria

[43] “Turkey lists al-Nusra Front as terrorist organization,” Daily News, June 3, 2014. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-lists-al-nusra-front-as-terrorist-organization.aspx?pageID=238&nid=67322&NewsCatID=359

[44] Seth Jones, "A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa'ida and Other Salafi Jihadists," RAND Corporation, 2014, 8.