Abstract: Since its public emergence in Syria in January 2012, the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has consistently sought to balance its transnational jihadist ideology and objectives with pragmatic efforts to integrate and embed itself within revolutionary dynamics. Maintaining this delicate balance has not been easy, but having succeeded to date, Jabhat al-Nusra is currently one of the most powerful and influential armed actors in Syria. Ultimately, however, the group is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It aims to establish durable roots in an unstable environment from which al-Qa`ida’s transnational ambitions may one day be launched.

Al-Qa`ida’s role in Syria has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings as a wing of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in mid-to-late 2011. Formally established by seven prominent Islamists in October 2011 after four months of secret meetings,[1] Jabhat al-Nusra did not publicly emerge until January 23, 2012.[2] In its first six months of publicly acknowledged operations, Jabhat al-Nusra was deeply unpopular within Syria’s rapidly expanding insurgency. Although it had not admitted its links to the ISI or al-Qa`ida, its rhetoric, imagery, and tactics made its international jihadist links clear. A revolutionary opposition, still clinging to nationalist ideals, feared what appeared to be ISI-like terrorist cells emerging within its midst.

By fall 2012, however, Jabhat al-Nusra had evolved from a terrorist organization into an expanding insurgent movement. Its forces had begun integrating into the broader armed opposition, especially in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. By December 11, 2012, when the U.S. government designated it an alias of al-Qa`ida in Iraq, and a terrorist organization,[3] Jabhat al-Nusra was operating as a fully fledged, de facto opposition actor, albeit on an extreme end of the ideological spectrum.

Two-and-a-half years later, aided in particular by the protracted Syrian conflict and the brutal rise of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most powerful armed groups in Syria. Its consistent balancing of ideologically driven jihadist objectives with local sensitivities and revolutionary ideals has placed Jabhat al-Nusra in an advantageous position. Rarely will any Syrian opposition group commit genuinely to both denouncing the role of Jabhat al-Nusra in the conflict and permanently ceasing battlefield cooperation with it.[4]

Jabhat al-Nusra remains an al-Qa`ida affiliate, however, and it has occasionally displayed the fundamentalist behavior one would ordinarily expect. From sectarian killings[5] to harsh legal restrictions and executions,[6] the true and extremist nature of Jabhat al-Nusra has periodically been revealed.

Throughout its existence, Jabhat al-Nusra and its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, have generally maintained the group’s jihadist credibility while making its stance within the complex conflict as accommodating as possible. In so doing, al-Qa`ida has played a strategic long game in Syria, which has allowed it to establish a new stronghold on Israel’s border and in sight of Europe.

Social Roots and Integration
The key to al-Qa`ida’s longevity in Syria has been its integration into the broader armed opposition and its establishment of durable roots in liberated communities.

Militarily, Jabhat al-Nusra has sought to maintain pragmatic alliances with many armed groups, most of which have no interest in international jihad. While public acknowledgment of relations with the most moderate Syrian rebel factions has steadily declined, their forces nonetheless coordinate either within theater-specific operations rooms or indirectly through more Syria-focused Islamist groups. This sustains the group’s revolutionary legitimacy, but Jabhat al-Nusra has also sought to underline its jihadist credibility by nurturing bonds with factions that incorporate a more extremist transnational outlook. Since fighting with the Islamic State started in early 2014, these alliances have centered on movements with some level of implicit fealty to al-Qa`ida.[a]

These two poles of operational collaboration have been held together by Jabhat al-Nusra’s investment in relationships with conservative Syrian Islamist factions such as Ahrar al-Sham. This particular alliance has formed the existential glue for al-Qa`ida and its place within the broader Syrian conflict.[7]

Jabhat al-Nusra’s role within the Jaish al-Fateh coalition in Idlib is an effective example of this dynamic. Formed in late March 2015 after three months of negotiations, Jaish al-Fateh contains six other groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, which all strictly limit their objectives to Syria, explicitly reject links to international jihad, and represent the broader Syrian Islamist portion of the insurgency.[b] For Jabhat al-Nusra, membership has ensured it coordinates officially with local Syrian Islamists; unofficially with moderate nationalist and often Western-backed factions outside the coalition; and also directly with smaller, transnationally minded jihadist units.[c]

After four years in Syria, the role of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Jaish al-Fateh coalition represents the apogee of al-Qa`ida’s willingness to accommodate Syria’s revolutionary dynamics. Sizeable components devoted to civil, political, and judicial matters, plus a less-talked-about humanitarian relief wing, make Jaish al-Fateh more than a military operations room or yet another temporary alliance.

Previously, Jabhat al-Nusra had pointedly refused to join such broader opposition bodies, so why the apparent change in policy? The Jaish al-Fateh concept remains limited to specific provincial theaters and is focused on defeating the regime and introducing an alternative model of civil governance. Geographical limitations allow Jabhat al-Nusra to selectively choose to join bodies where its interests are best served by doing so, Idlib being a case in point, as it is the group’s principal stronghold.

Syria as a “Safe Base”
In September 2013, al-Qa`ida’s al-Sahab Media published Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “General Guidelines for Jihad.”[8] In line with his long-held belief that acquiring allies through pragmatic moderation was the most viable path toward sparking mass revolution,[9] al-Zawahiri’s document focused on affiliate self-discipline and restraint. Al-Qa`ida factions were advised to “focus on spreading awareness among the general public” and more broadly to invest in “maslaha (securing interests) and mafsadah (averting harm).” Fighters were ordered to refrain from fighting those “who have not raised arms against us” and to cease attacking targets where Muslim civilians may be harmed. Perhaps most surprisingly and clearly differentiating it from the Islamic State, al-Qa`ida units were to “avoid fighting the deviant sects” (Shia, Alawites, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and Sufis) and to “avoid meddling with Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities…[as] we are keen to live with them in a peaceful manner.”

These bold declarations reflected changing conditions and al-Qa`ida needed to demonstrate some adaptation. The Islamic State was seeking to escalate its brutality in Iraq and (from April 2013) Syria in order to exacerbate existing revolutions and to encourage new ones, but al-Qa`ida sought to grow durable roots within already unstable environments. Al-Zawahiri’s guidelines made it clear that al-Qa`ida’s “struggle is a long one, and jihad is in need of safe bases.”[10]

The publication of al-Qa`ida’s guidelines came as the central leadership was increasingly isolated from its international affiliates. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra was flourishing and was already implementing much of al-Zawahiri’s directives. However, despite Jabhat al-Nusra’s apparent pragmatism, it remained a self-identified al-Qa`ida affiliate and its transnational vision still existed, at least within its leadership, its foreign fighter contingent, and some of its Syrian rank and file. Moreover, amid the restraint, the guidelines were explicit that “all Mujahid brothers must consider targeting the interests of the Western Zionist Crusader alliance in any part of the world as their foremost duty.”[11]

Consequently, Jabhat al-Nusra was effectively implementing al-Qa`ida’s long-game strategy with the objective of gradually developing a safe base in Syria. This required the delicate balancing of pragmatic short-term interests with a sustained focus on long-term jihadist objectives. And with the jihadi goal fundamentally contradicting the ideals of the Syrian revolution, achieving it slowly and tactfully was critically important. Ultimately, it has taken Jabhat al-Nusra four years to build its power and develop as a preeminent actor in Syria’s conflict.

The true extent of al-Qa`ida’s ambitions in Syria, however, was made publicly clear with the leak of an audio recording on July 11, 2014. In it al-Julani is heard declaring that “the time has come…for us to establish an Islamic Emirate in al-Sham…without compromise, complacency, equivocation, or circumvention.”[12] [13] The speech caused concern across the Syrian opposition, many members of which had consistently maintained that they had no issue with Jabhat al-Nusra so long as it did not impose foreign objectives. An Islamic emirate represented just that.

Twenty-four hours later, Jabhat al-Nusra released a statement admitting:

We in Jabhat al-Nusra strive to establish an Islamic emirate…[but] we have not yet announced the establishment of an emirate. When the time comes, and the sincere mujahideen and the pious scholars agree with our stance, we will announce this emirate, by the will of Allah.” [14]

Coming amid the fallout from the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, the July 11 audio recording looked to have been purposefully released.[d] To preserve its jihadist credibility, al-Qa`ida had been forced to show its hand in Syria and hope that years of relationship building could redeem it. Fortunately for Jabhat al-Nusra, the urgency of the fight against the Assad regime and the Islamic State, and its delicate half step back ensured it remained an accepted player for the time being.

Nonetheless, Jabhat al-Nusra’s long-term intentions had been revealed, and when U.S. aircraft in September 2014 targeted al-Qa`ida fighters purportedly plotting external attacks from Syria,[15] al-Qa`ida’s long game was also exposed.

Syria as Launching Pad
Beginning in early 2013, experienced al-Qa`ida figures began traveling to Syria in what appeared to be a centrally directed move by the core leadership. There were rumors al-Zawahiri had ordered an evacuation.[16] Early arrivals included two Saudi nationals: Abdulrahman Mohammed al-Jahani, a former member of al-Qa`ida’s Shura Council who came from Pakistan,[17] and Abdelmohsen Abdullah al-Sharikh, who had been al-Qa`ida’s operational chief in Iran.[18] Later arrivals included former Algerian army officer and al-Qa`ida veteran Said Arif who escaped from France in October 2013,[19] and Kuwaiti former Iran chief Mohsen al-Fadhli. Other prominent members included Abu Yusuf al-Turki,[20] Abu Layth al-Yemeni,[21] and the French citizen David Drugeon.[22]

The first major benefit of these arrivals was the consolidation of operational relations with Lebanon-based, al-Qa`ida-linked Kataib Abdullah Azzam. Al-Sharikh (better known as Sanafi al-Nasr—See Kévin Jackson, “From Khorasan to the Levant: A Profile of Sanafi al-Nasr” in this issue, p. 24) was close to Kataib Abdullah Azzam’s former leader Saleh al-Qaraawi and then-leader Majid bin Mohammed al-Majid and was instrumental in forming the bonds that led to Jabhat al-Nusra’s bombings—some coordinated with Kataib Abdullah Azzam—in Lebanon in early 2014.[23] However, in addition to moving Jabhat al-Nusra closer in character to al-Qa`ida, the real strategic significance was the low-level initiation of planning for external attacks, some allegedly in concert with expert bomb-makers based in Yemen. The first public recognition of this came in early July 2014, when security at airports with direct service to the United States was tightened due to “credible threats.”[24] It was not until September 13, 2014, however, that U.S. officials publicly started using the term “Khorasan Group.”[25] Although some well-connected Syrian Islamists had spoken about a secretive “Wolves” unit,[26] little was known about the cell led by al-Fadhli. Seven days later, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper publicly declared that “Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State,”[27] and on September 23, U.S. missiles were launched.

At least 50 Jabhat al-Nusra militants were reported killed when the first U.S. missiles struck targets in northern Syria. Days later, Abu Firas al-Suri and al-Julani issued veiled threats of potential retaliation if strikes continued, with al-Julani stating:

This is what will take the battle to the heart of your land…Muslims will not watch while their sons are bombed. Your leaders will not be the only ones who would pay the price of the war. You will pay the heaviest price.”[28]

Jabhat al-Nusra had so successfully embedded itself into the Syrian opposition and shown itself so dedicated to defeating the Assad regime that the U.S. strikes were immediately perceived by many Syrians as counter-revolutionary. Moreover, vetted Free Syrian Army groups soon questioned the value of being seen as U.S.-aligned.[29] Integration had served its purpose as a protective blanket from the consequences of Jabhat al-Nusra’s long-term transnational ambitions.

A secret letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Julani in early 2015 purportedly contained an instruction to cease foreign plotting.[30] Although al-Julani himself appeared to confirm this during his two-part interview with Al Jazeera Arabic (on May 27 and June 3), U.S. airstrikes have continued to target the Khorasan Group in parts of northern Idlib and Aleppo. Most prominently, al-Fadhli was killed in one such strike on July 8.

Internal Change
While maintaining its prominent role in a seemingly intractable and brutal civil war, Jabhat al-Nusra has undergone a process of internal reorientation. Since mid-2014, the group has struggled to define its identity amid changing circumstances. The Islamic State’s rise posed an existential challenge to al-Qa`ida, which prompted a shift in Jabhat al-Nusra’s top leadership, with the more pragmatic Maysar Ali Musa Abdullah al-Juburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani) being replaced by Jordanian hardliner Dr. Sami al-Oraydi. Other prominent al-Qa`ida veterans, such as Abu Hammam al-Suri and Abu Firas al-Suri, were given a public spotlight, while more secretive figures previously active in Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan began emerging from the shadows. Jabhat al-Nusra’s attention shifted to centers such as Idlib and to some extent Aleppo, where it began countering and defeating rebel groups supported by the United States.[e]

While this shift toward a more aggressive posture may have benefited Jabhat al-Nusra’s immediate interests, it began to erode the broader trust its previous pragmatism had earned. Internal dissent emerged, including among mid-level Syrian commanders and two founding members, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani and Saleh al-Hamawi. The arrival of al-Zawahiri’s secret letter in early 2015 appeared to lay the issue to rest, at least temporarily. It ordered the group to cease plotting attacks against the West; to better integrate with the revolution and its people; to coordinate more broadly with opposition factions; and to work toward a Sharia-based judicial structure.[31] Shortly thereafter, Jaish al-Fateh was formed and Jabhat al-Nusra’s belligerence declined significantly.

Only recently has this balance again shifted back toward jihadist fundamentalism. Jabhat al-Nusra’s re-moderation in early 2015 appears to have engendered significant divisions within the group’s senior leadership. Perhaps Jabhat al-Nusra’s sustained success in Syria has also contributed toward a proliferation in opinions and a divergence in strategic outlooks. Similarly, the addition of an external threat—in the form of continued U.S. strikes—will have emboldened those with stronger transnational ambitions.

While some of those labeled as Khorasan operatives abided by al-Zawahiri’s instructions in early 2015 and re-integrated into Jabhat al-Nusra’s Syria-focused insurgent structure, others have isolated themselves and allegedly continue plotting semi-independently. It is feasible that some established links to members of other northern Syria-based jihadist factions, such as Jund al-Aqsa. At some point after his arrival, Said Arif left Jabhat al-Nusra to become Jund al-Aqsa’s military chief, but was reportedly killed in an alleged U.S. airstrike on May 20.[32] [f]

Internal dissent within Jabhat al-Nusra—some of it public—has also increased. After months of opposition to Jabhat al-Nusra’s posture toward other rebels, Saleh al-Hamawi was finally expelled in mid-July.[33] With Abu Mariya al-Qahtani isolated, several other moderate dissenters are reportedly clinging on at the ideological periphery, while reports of expulsions and defections continue to emerge.[g]

Clearly, Jabhat al-Nusra has begun to identify more overtly with al-Qa`ida. While Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have been seen carrying flags emblazoned with Tanzim Qa`idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (al-Qa`ida organization in the Levant) for nearly two years, the overt adoption of such identification is now the norm. In late June 2015, the group also released “The Heirs of Glory,” a high-quality, 43-minute documentary featuring footage of the 9/11 attacks and threats made by Bin Ladin.[34]

Al-Julani’s Al Jazeera interviews also underlined that despite the internal discussion about the group’s continued affiliation with al-Qa`ida, the true decision-makers within the senior leadership remained entirely committed to al-Zawahiri and his transnational movement. Although one aspect of this commitment was to abide by al-Zawahiri’s early 2015 instruction to “not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West,” al-Julani made clear that al-Qa`ida was likely plotting such operations from elsewhere.[35]

Nevertheless, in an interview with U.S. convert and freelance journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem in August 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra chief spokesman Abu Firas al-Suri—a confidante of Bin Ladin since 1983—left nothing to the imagination regarding his group’s strategic outlook: “Our goals are not limited to Syria, but our current battle is.”[36]

Shifting Dynamics
As with most asymmetric conflicts, the dynamics of the Syrian insurgency are continually changing and since late 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra’s principal enabler, Ahrar al-Sham, has been moderating its ideological and political outlook. Initially launched by its founding leader Hassan Abboud, this moderation has seen the group publish a Revolutionary Covenant on May 17, 2014, which pointedly excluded any desire for an “Islamic State.” More recently, Ahrar al-Sham called for dialogue with the United States in July 2015 editorials in the Washington Post[37] and the Daily Telegraph[38] and has begun a limited engagement with several European states.[39]

While such developments may have minimally affected Ahrar al-Sham’s relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra, recent developments have revealed potentially substantial differences between the two. After working together successfully to capture Idlib in late March, the civil administration project that Jaish al-Fateh had hoped to establish, and which Jabhat al-Nusra had been persuaded to support, had failed to develop.

Jabhat al-Nusra has therefore periodically begun imposing its will locally, including by pressing Druze communities to convert to Islam, to send their sons to Jabhat al-Nusra training camps, and for their men to give up personal weapons as fealty to the group.[40] The killing of 23 Druze in the Idlib village of Qalb Loza in mid-June and several other incidents throughout June and early July sparked a series of anti-Jabhat al-Nusra demonstrations in Idlib in early July. Small units of Jabhat al-Nusra foreign fighters even attacked facilities belonging to the Ahrar al-Sham-dominated “Sharia Authority” in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun, Kafr Sajna, and Kafr Nubl on July 8 in an apparent show of force.[41]

With tensions bubbling away in Idlib and with Ahrar al-Sham reaching out to the West, the arrival of U.S.-trained New Syrian Force fighters in northern Aleppo saw Jabhat al-Nusra demonstrate its more hard-line tendencies. Although it went unreported, Jabhat al-Nusra aggressively confronted the initial batch of 54 soldiers almost as soon as they arrived in Syria on July 14,[42] underlining its hostility to anyone suspected of supporting U.S. interests. Two weeks later, Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped their leader and attacked the base of their broader unit, Division 30, drawing U.S. airstrikes.

By this point, Turkey had already opened Incirlik Airbase for U.S. operations against the Islamic State and had begun its own limited airstrikes as part of efforts to establish a safe zone in northern Aleppo. Following a series of meetings convened by the Turkish intelligence agency on July 27 and July 28 that brought together the leaders of more than a dozen Syrian opposition groups active in Aleppo, rumors swirled that a Turkish-backed zone free of Islamic State, and possibly, Syrian regime airstrikes was in the works.[43]

Having been excluded from such plans and meetings, Jabhat al-Nusra entered into talks on August 4, 2015 with Ahrar al-Sham and several representatives of the Aleppo-based coalition Al-Jabhat al-Shamiya. According to three sources linked to the meeting, Jabhat al-Nusra’s representatives made it clear that they opposed a Turkey-backed project in northern Aleppo and threatened to resume plotting attacks against Western targets should Turkey’s project include anti-al-Qa`ida objectives. Notwithstanding such threats—“this is normal Nusra behavior,” said one source and “they wouldn’t do such a stupid thing,” said another[44]—all other groups in the room wholeheartedly supported Ankara.[45] After a day of talks, the Istanbul-headquartered Syrian Islamic Council—close to many mainstream Syrian Islamic factions—announced the legality of cooperating with Turkey’s safe zone. The following day, Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew from its positions in northern Aleppo and an August 9 statement made clear that it could not be part of a project it saw as serving “Turkey’s national security.”[46]

To underline the significance of Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategic isolation on this issue, its most valuable Syrian ally, Ahrar al-Sham, declared on August 11 its support for Ankara’s plans and its utmost admiration for Turkey’s “ethical and humanitarian position” in Syria and further stated that Turkey was “the most important ally of the Syrian revolution.”[47]

By mid-August, these shifting dynamics had shaken the foundations of the once relatively stable factional relationships across northern Syria. Faced with such change, Jabhat al-Nusra was revealing its fundamentalist core.

Ahrar al-Sham’s broader internal political evolution and outreach to the West, however, had upset some of its leaders. Although its editorials reflected four months of internal deliberation, Ahrar al-Sham’s religious leadership—headed by a Kurd, Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq—opposed some aspects of the group’s overt alignment with nationalist projects. A debate ensued between leaders during a series of meetings in northern Syria and southern Turkey in mid-August. According to several sources involved in the discussions, the leaders discussed the possibility of replacing the group’s “first row” of leaders with “more highly qualified and experienced” (in other words more moderate) figures, in line with the end of Hashem al-Sheikh’s 12-month term as leader on September 10, 2015.[48]

With its most powerful and indispensable ally seemingly aligning itself with increasingly divergent ideological and strategic positions—at least at a leadership level—Jabhat al-Nusra’s position in Syria looks potentially unstable. However, for a majority of the Syrian opposition, Jabhat al-Nusra remains an indispensable military partner in the battle against the al-Assad regime. By continuing to demonstrate its value on the battlefield, such political differences may be papered over, for the time being.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
While the Islamic State’s shock-and-awe strategy has helped its expansion around the world, al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership has come under significant pressure and the operational independence of its affiliates has increased. Consequently, Jabhat al-Nusra and, more recently, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula [See Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat” in this issue, p. 19] have sought to implement a diametrically opposed strategy to that of the Islamic State, in which ideological extremism is temporarily downplayed in favor of implanting more sustainably within exploitable communities.

The sheer complexity of the conflict in Syria has made this strategy particularly challenging for Jabhat al-Nusra. At times, its real nature has emerged, sparking a Syrian-led backlash and a conscious and top-down moderation of Jabhat al-Nusra’s behavior. Each of these phases has represented a test of the group’s structural unity, and until late 2014 those tests had underlined al-Julani’s successful ability to maintain internal loyalty.

However, Turkey’s overt military intervention and the arrival of U.S.-trained fighters in July have fundamentally shaken up the favorable dynamics that Jabhat al-Nusra had contributed toward. With internal political and ideological debates threatening to split its central leadership and with its key Syrian allies now potentially adopting more overt nationally focused strategic visions, al-Qa`ida hardliners appear to be emerging as the new face of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Al-Julani’s long-time balancing of differing ideological outlooks within his top command may be less viable.

The intensity of Jabhat al-Nusra’s focus on ensuring al-Qa`ida’s long-term durability in Syria since 2012 should still be a serious concern. The group’s majority Syrian makeup—60–70 percent[49]—contributes to a crucial level of social grounding and is the reason why several prominent Syrian Salafists have launched secret initiatives encouraging local members to leave al-Qa`ida for more overtly Syrian groups. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra’s strict and highly selective foreign fighter recruitment policies have ensured an ongoing supply of high-caliber muhajireen truly committed to al-Qa`ida’s cause.

Jabhat al-Nusra has faced challenges to its position within the Syrian revolution before and has escaped unscathed or has emerged in an even better position. Although the current challenge may well prove the most significant so far, the group’s Syrian core and the continued intensity of the fight against regime forces remain its best insurance policies.
Ultimately though, Jabhat al-Nusra is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Although Syrians, including even some Islamists, appear to be waking up to that reality, there is simply no appetite to turn against it militarily. Jabhat al-Nusra has refused to play a role in any Turkish-backed operations against the Islamic State, but it will almost certainly maneuver in such a way as to benefit its own prospects. The longer Jabhat al-Nusra is able to keep playing its subtle game, the more durable al-Qa`ida’s stronghold in Syria will be.

Charles Lister is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and author of the forthcoming book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Hurst Publishers & Oxford University Press), expected November 2015. Follow him on Twitter @Charles_Lister.

Substantive Notes

[a] Groups such as Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, Jund al-Aqsa, Harakat Sham al-Islam, and Junud al-Sham.

[b] The six other groups are Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ajnad al-Sham, and Faylaq al-Sham.

[c] These include the largely Uzbek Al-Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, the primarily Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), and the Chechen-led Junud al-Sham.

[d] A month later, still seeking to repair its reputation and regain the trust it had worked to build, Jabhat al-Nusra released a video in which Abu Firas al-Suri explained further:“Jabhat al-Nusra did not announce an emirate in the meaning of an independent emirate, or the meaning of a state, or any meaning close to that. We mean the emirate should be established by consulting those who have an Islamist affiliation, whether from the jihadi factions, or the leaders of the country, or the people of influence, and of course, the scholars inside and outside the country.” Video, “Sheikh Abu Firas al-Suri: In Reality,” Al-Manara al-Bayda, August 8, 2014.

[e] Principally, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm in October–November 2014 and March 2015, respectively.

[f] Jund al-Aqsa has a complicated history, having originally been formed out of Jabhat al-Nusra in early 2013. Its founder, Mohammed Yusuf al-Athamna (better known as Abu Abdelaziz al-Qatari) had planned with al-Julani to use the group to provide strategic depth and reserves for foreign fighters when it had become clear that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi intended to expand his authority in Syria. Bolstered by veteran al-Qa`ida figures Jund al-Aqsa remained loyal to al-Julani and al-Qa`ida Central, but the Islamic State’s bold and assertive ideology penetrated portions of its ranks and the group has since been viewed with some level of suspicion in northern Syria.

[g] For example, a Jabhat al-Nusra administrative order issued in Hama governorate on July 15, 2015 expelled 25 members for several reasons, including refusing to fight the Islamic State.


[1] Author interviews with Syrian Islamists, November 2014–July 2015.

[2] “Declaration of Jabhat al-Nusra: For the People of Syria from the Mujahideen of Syria in the Fields of Jihad,” Al-Manara al-Bayda, January 23, 2012.

[3] “Terrorist Designations of the al-Nusrah Front as an Alias for al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” U.S. Department of State, December 11, 2012.

[4] Author’s interviews with more than 100 armed Syrian opposition groups, May 2014–present.

[5] Tom Perry and Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Calls for aid to Syria’s Druze after al Qaeda kills 20,” Reuters, June 11, 2015.

[6] “Video: Jabhat al-Nusra Executed a Woman for Adultery,” Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, January 13, 2015.

[7] Maxwell Martin, “A Strong Ahrar al-Sham Is A Strong Nusra Front,” Jihadology, April 7, 2015.

[8] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” al-Sahab Media, September 14, 2013.

[9] Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qaeda’s new course: Examining Ayman al-Zawahiri’s strategic direction,” IHS Defense, Risk and Security Consulting, May 2012.

[10] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” al-Sahab Media, September 14, 2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Suhaib Anjarini, “Al-Nusra Front not yet dead as its emir devises ‘Islamic Emirate of the Levant,’” Al-Akhbar, July 12, 2014.

[13] Thomas Joscelyn, “Leaked audio features Al Nusrah Front emir discussing creation of an Islamic emirate,” The Long War Journal, July 12, 2014.

[14] “Clarification About the Rumors on the Announcement of an Islamic Emirate by Jabhat al-Nusra,” Al-Manara al-Bayda, July 12, 2014.

[15] “US Syria raids also aimed at thwarting attack plot: Pentagon,” Agence France Presse, September 23, 2014.

[16] Abu Jarir ash-Shamli, “Al-Qa’ida of Waziristan: A Testimony from Within,” Dabiq, Issue 6, pp. 40–55.

[17] “Treasury Designates Al-Qa’ida Leaders in Syria,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, May 14, 2014.

[18] “Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014.

[19] “Terrorist Designation of Said Arif,” U.S. Department of State, August 18, 2014.

[20] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Wolf or Khorasan: Who Was Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Yusuf al-Turki?” Chechens in Syria Blog, October 2, 2014.

[21] Twitter: @Charles_Lister: “JN sources reporting death of Abu Laith al-Yemeni– member of specialist ‘Jaish al-Nusra’ force & linked to Khorasan’s Abu Yusuf al-Turki,” August 29, 2015.

[22] Barbara Starr, “Officials: Khorasan Group bomb maker thought dead survived,” CNN, December 11, 2014.

[23] Author interviews with Syrian Islamists, November 2014–July 2015.

[24] “Tighter security for flights to US,” BBC News, July 3, 2014.

[25] Ken Dilanian and Eileen Sullivan, “Al-Qaida’s Syrian cell alarms US,” Associated Press, September 13, 2014.

[26] See for example, Twitter: @Charles_Lister: “While the “Khorasan Group” is a US-created label, the ‘Wolves’ of Jabhat al-Nusra have been quietly spoken about for well over a year,” October 1, 2014; Paraszczuk, “Wolf or Khorasan,” October 2, 2014.

[27] Mark Mazzetti, Michael S. Schmidt, and Bed Hubbard, “U.S. Suspects More Direct Threats Beyond ISIS,” New York Times, September 20, 2014.

[28] Mariam Karouny, “Nusra Front says U.S.-led air strikes in Syria will fail,” Reuters, September 28, 2015; Paul Cruickshank, “Killing Khorasan bomb-maker a big win — but at what cost?,” CNN, November 6, 2014.

[29] Tom Perry, “U.S.-led air strikes pose problem for Assad’s moderate foes,” Reuters, September 30, 2014.

[30] Charles Lister, “An internal struggle: Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is grappling with its identity,” Huffington Post, May 31, 2015.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Committee of Follow Up and High Supervision,” Al-Manara al-Bayda, July 15, 2015.

[34] “The Heirs of Glory,” Al-Manara al-Bayda, June 26, 2015.

[35] Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Al Nusra Front ‘committed’ to Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders,” Long War Journal, May 29, 2015.

[36] “Bilal Abdul Kareem Interviews Jabha Nusra Shura Member Abu Firas,” On The Ground News, August 12, 2015.

[37] Labib Al Nahhas, “The deadly consequences of mislabeling Syria’s revolutionaries,” Washington Post, July 10, 2015.

[38] Labib Al Nahhas, “I’m a Syrian and I fight ISIL every day. It will take more than bombs from the West to defeat this menace,” Daily Telegraph, July 21, 2015.

[39] Charles Lister, “Syrian Islamists reach out to the U.S., but serious issues remain,” Markaz Blog, Brookings Institution, July 14, 2015.

[40] Nour Samaha, “Trapped Between Assad, Israel, and al Qaeda,” Foreign Policy, June 22, 2015.

[41] Pascale al-Khoury, “Jabhat al-Nusra competes with Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib,” Al-Safir, July 10, 2015.

[42] Author interviews with diplomatic and opposition sources, July and August 2015.

[43] Author interviews with Syrian Aleppo-based Islamists, July and August 2015.

[44] Author interviews with Syrian Aleppo-based Islamists, September 2015. The Saudi analyst Aimen Dean was also told of Jabhat al-Nusra’s threat to resume planning of attacks on Western targets by a source.

[45] Author interviews with opposition sources, August 2015.

[46] Elias Groll, “Jabhat al-Nusra Abandons Fight North of Aleppo as Turkey and U.S. Plot ‘Safe Zone,’” Foreign Policy, August 10, 2015.

[47] Ahrar al-Sham Political Office, “Statement Regarding the Safe Zone in northern Syria,” August 11, 2015.

[48] Author interviews with three Ahrar al-Sham leaders, August 2015.

[49] Author interviews with Syrian Islamists.

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