As the United Nations prepares to expand its observer mission in Syria and the world community debates what that mission should aim to achieve, there is a parallel conversation taking place in the global jihadist community. Reflecting their position in other Arab Spring revolutions, the jihadists are vociferous in their demands that Bashar al-Assad’s regime be overthrown. In contrast to the situation in other Arab Spring revolutions, in Syria jihadists linked to al-Qa`ida seem to have a militarily relevant capability on the ground. Proof of jihadist capability is elusive, but the combined weight of five indicators suggests that there is an active jihadist element operating on the ground in Syria. Its existence should be acknowledged for policy planning purposes.

First, a jihadist organization called Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has been publicly declared in Syria and adopted al-Qa`ida-like tactics and modes of distributing propaganda.

Second, al-Qa`ida’s amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has called for violence in Syria and jihadist intellectual leaders have echoed his message.

Third, important non-jihadist, Arab voices advocate privatized action to overthrow the al-Assad regime and have framed the struggle as opposition to “occupation,” discourse that jihadists believe substantiates their calls for violent jihad, not just localized resistance to a corrupt government.

Fourth, there are already credible reports of foreign fighters attempting to infiltrate Syria, including a number reportedly affiliated with jihadist movements.

Fifth, al-Qa`ida has an active affiliate in neighboring Iraq that has longstanding logistical capabilities in Syria.

This confluence of factors suggesting that jihadists, and perhaps al-Qa`ida specifically, has the intent and capability to operate in the Syrian rebellion is unique among revolutionary Arab Spring states, but they do not mean that jihadists are likely to dominate the rebellion there. As in most conflicts where they operate, true jihadists almost certainly represent a small percentage of combatants in Syria and are unlikely to seize political control.

There is internal disagreement among jihadists about how to approach the conflict in Syria. Despite general consensus that supporting the uprising in Syria is a religious obligation, jihadists disagree over whether that assistance must go only to the small jihadist JN or if it can be provided to the ideologically compromised (from the jihadist point of view), but more powerful collection of militants known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They also disagree over whether jihadists have an obligation to travel to Syria to fight or should simply offer material support. These disagreements speak to the weakness of jihadists in the Syrian conflict versus the FSA, but also suggest that the violent jihadist cadre in Syria will turn on the FSA and other Syrian nationalists should the al-Assad regime fall.

The presence of jihadists worsens the situation in Syria: it is likely to both bolster the Syrian regime politically and keep the opposition divided. The presence of a jihadist element in the rebellion, however, should not be the conclusive factor determining whether the United States offers stronger political or materiel support to the rebellion. Al-Qa`ida and its allies are leeches on a more fundamental conflict in Syria—as they are in most regions where al-Qa`ida affiliates operate—and U.S. policy should be structured primarily to address those dynamics and the broader regional and geopolitical factors at play, especially the influence of Iran.

Evidence of Jihadists in Syria: Five Factors
1. Jabhat al-Nusra: Al-Qa`ida’s Ally in Syria?
On January 24, 2012, approximately nine months after the Syrian rebellion began, a jihadist group called Jabhat al-Nusra announced its presence in Syria.[1] Utilizing typical jihadist iconography and propaganda distribution mechanisms, JN declared war on Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic regime, but also excoriated Western, Turkish, and Arab League intervention in Syria, thereby contradicting calls from leading Syrian activists, including those associated with the FSA, for international assistance.[2] The group has been particularly harsh on the UN’s efforts to produce a cease-fire in Syria, arguing that the plan simply offered the al-Assad regime a fig leaf for continuing to attack the Syrian rebels.[3] Indeed, rather than a war of liberation from an autocratic government, JN framed the fight against al-Assad in explicitly sectarian terms, urging Sunni jihadists to wage war on the Syrian regime because the ruling class are predominately from a Shi`a sect known as Alawites: “…any sane people can feel the Iranian efforts in the previous years, side by side with this [al-Assad] regime, to spread the Safavid ideology in this blessed land in order to restore the Persian Empire. The Levant is the lungs of this Iranian project.”[4]

JN has claimed credit for two suicide attacks in Aleppo on February 10, 2012; suicide strikes against a police building and the Syrian Air Force’s intelligence headquarters on March 17, 2012; a suicide attack on a Syrian military unit supposedly responsible for a massacre in the town of al-Latamina on April 20, 2012; a bombing at the Iranian Cultural Center in Damascus on April 24, 2012; a suicide attack near an Alawite mosque in the Maydan neighborhood of Damascus on April 27, 2012; and a series of attempted assassinations against Syrian officials primarily utilizing so-called “sticky” bombs affixed to vehicles.[5] They notably did not declare responsibility for reported suicide attacks in Damascus on December 22, 2011, a month before the group was formally announced.[6]

JN has not claimed credit for the May 10, 2012, suicide attack that appeared to target the Palestine Branch Military Intelligence office in Damascus.[7]  Indeed, the group’s media wing has disavowed a crude video falsely claiming responsibility for the attack.[8]  Importantly, however, that statement disavowed the false statement of responsibility, not the attack itself, an indication that the media wing of the group is simply unaware of operations.

JN’s propaganda is laced with typical jihadist rhetoric, but also makes broader appeals to potential recruits. JN’s high-quality, 45-minute video claiming responsibility for the Aleppo strikes explained that the attack’s purpose was to avenge the “free women of Syria,” who it reported were under attack from the Syrian security services. In the video, a sobbing, niqab-wearing woman testified that five men from the Syrian Army broke into her house, killed her young son, burned her with cigarettes and then raped her. The video then cut to a man identified as Abu al-Bara al-Shami, who argued explicitly that young men cannot stand idly by while Muslim women in Syria are abused: “I swear by God that our sisters in Homs called us for help. I have seen with my own eyes a sister, whose house was attacked by five of al-Assad’s thugs…They raped her one after another and killed her boy. She has called out all Muslim young men for help. All young men, who follow the same path of mine, can not stand idly on the suffering of that sister.”[9]

Jihadist appeals to masculinity are not new; indeed, JN’s approach is reminiscent of early al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) recruitment videos accusing U.S. troops of raping Iraqi women.[10] Such emotional appeals do not rely on jihadist ideology and should be understood as an all-hands-on-deck call for support. Thus, JN is walking a typically tricky jihadist intellectual tightrope: attempting to combine a broadly appealing recruitment pitch with hardline jihadist ideology that has far less appeal.

Jihadist supporters online now celebrate JN, but it is unclear how much support the group has inside Syria. The group’s second major propaganda release was a blurry video of an unnamed man in a well-attended mosque calling for sectarian violence while waving a rifle.[11] These images seem designed to illustrate that JN has popular support in Syria, but it is not clear that the video was necessarily shot there or that the speaker represents a broad movement.

2. Rhetorical Support for Jihad in Syria and Debate Over the Free Syrian Army
Whatever JN’s actual support in Syria, the declaration of a jihadist front has catalyzed external devotees eager to support, or fight under, a “pure” banner of jihad, which is a concept deeply embedded in jihadist doctrine. In 1979, Abdallah Azzam urged most Muslims to support the Afghan mujahidin rather than Palestinian groups, because, as he saw it, “the Islamic flag being raised in Afghanistan is clear,” meaning undistorted by nationalism.[12] Not surprisingly, jihadist rhetoric advocating support for violence in Syria has grown more strident and prominent since JN raised a “pure” banner.[13]

The most important jihadist statement supporting jihad in Syria was released in February 2012 by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa`ida’s new amir. In it, he demanded that “every Muslim and every free and honest person in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to rise and help their brothers in Syria with everything they have and can do.”[14] The statement, coming on the heels of JN’s public announcement, was much more aggressive than a July 2011 statement that endorsed the overthrow of al-Assad, but refrained from calling for jihadists to join the fight.[15]

Al-Zawahiri’s statement regarding Syria was not totally unprecedented: he also urged jihadists near Libya to assist in the overthrow of Mu`ammar Qadhafi.[16] But the al-Qa`ida leader’s message regarding Syria carries more weight for a number of reasons: the existence of a declared jihadist faction; the fact that AQI or the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) is nearby, a condition not matched in other Arab Spring revolutions (Algeria-based al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb is less militarily capable); and because al-Zawahiri’s statement coincides with a groundswell of jihadist rhetorical support for the revolutionary movement in Syria.

A wide range of important jihadist intellectual leaders have urged Muslims to support the rebellion in Syria. Among the most important are the Jordanian Professor Akram Hijazi, Kuwaiti Shaykh Hamid al-Ali, the Palestinian Abu Qatada (now in London), Mauritanian Shaykh Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti (a member of Minbar at-Tawhed w’al Jihad Shura, a leading ideological guide for jihadists), and a leading Jordanian Salafist, Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi.[17]

Al-Shinqiti and al-Tahawi have been the most hawkish. Both have endorsed JN rather than the FSA because the former “are fighting under a clear Shari`a banner.” Al-Tahawi has aggressively denounced more dovish jihadist thinkers, especially the London-based Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who is notable because of his discordant opposition to jihadists traveling to Syria and even implied the revolution should not be weaponized.[18] Perhaps because of his vehemence, al-Tahawi’s call for jihad has been credited in the Arab press with motivating the first trickle of jihadists toward Syria.[19]

The condemnation may have influenced al-Tartusi himself, who has now apparently joined the fight in Syria. A video posted on YouTube on May 11, 2012, purportedly shows al-Tartusi in Syria among a group of young men, some of whom are carrying weapons.[20] It is not clear if al-Tartusi is working with JN, which he has criticized, or a faction of the FSA.

Indeed, the most important debate among jihadists is how they should interact with the FSA.[21] No major voices advocate immediate war against the FSA, but there is widespread concern about the FSA’s nationalist approach and willingness to collaborate with international actors that jihadists disdain. Jihadists seem willing to let the FSA work for now, perhaps because of AQI’s hard lessons at the hands of Sunni tribes and the success of the multifaceted Arab Spring movements overthrowing governments.[22] As Hamid al-Ali put it, “Jihad affirms that all disagreements and divergence in concepts, policies, and priorities that may weaken jihad shall be postponed until after the toppling of the regime.”[23] In other words, jihadists should not oppose the FSA while al-Assad stands. Afterwards is a different story.[24]

3. Revolution as the Struggle Against Occupation
The fight in Syria has narrowed the rhetorical gap between jihadists and Arab regimes that want to see al-Assad deposed, especially in Saudi Arabia. Jihadists reject the legitimacy of Arab governments and Western authorities, but they nonetheless often repeat statements by “corrupt” leaders if they substantiate jihadist views. On February 25, 2012, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called the al-Assad regime an “occupying force.” The argument was widely reported in Arab media, welcomed heartily by the FSA, and subsequently referenced in jihadist geopolitical analysis.[25] Two weeks later, the Saudi Mufti `Abd al-`Aziz al-Shaykh said that “it is the duty of every Muslim to assist the Syrian people, according to his abilities…Anyone who can do so must wage jihad against [the Alawis] with his soul [or] with money, and those who cannot, must at least support [the Syrians] with words…”[26]

The question of whether Syria is “occupied” is an important one for jihadists. A key reason that Abu Basir al-Tartusi opposed jihadist intervention in Syria is that he claimed it is not under foreign occupation, a condition that would trigger ideological support for jihad. Jihadist advocates of violence in Syria, echoing language used by Saudi officials, reject that view, largely because al-Assad’s regime is Shi`a/Alawite and backed by Iran.[27] The shared sectarianism of jihadist and Arab discourse on Syria is problematic because it reinforces the trend from Iraq and is now echoed by jihadist groups in Lebanon as well. Jihadists in Iraq have been trying to unleash sectarianism across the northern Middle East since 2003, and now Sunni-dominated governments reinforce their rhetoric.

Among Arab states, Saudi Arabia has taken the most hawkish line toward the al-Assad regime, driven by geopolitical concerns regarding Iran. The confluence of Saudi and jihadist interests in Syria is partial—the Saudis support the FSA unabashedly—but it raises the worrisome possibility that the Saudis may instrumentalize jihadists for strategic purposes. This would bolster jihadists going forward and reflects the incomplete commitment of countries such as Saudi Arabia to minimize the sociopolitical movement that sustains al-Qa`ida.

4. Foreign Fighters in Syria
U.S. intelligence officials say that few foreign fighters have been identified in Syria, but several accounts from journalists suggest that fighters from Syria’s neighbors and further afield are joining the fight. Most of these fighters are unlikely to join an al-Qa`ida-style campaign to overturn the international system: traveling to assist in a rebellion against al-Assad does not necessarily indicate commitment to al-Qa`ida’s worldview. Yet jihadists linked to al-Qa`ida have capitalized extensively on foreign fighter networks in recent years, and the growing reports of foreign fighters attempting to enter Syria raise the risk of jihadist blowback from this conflict in the future.[28]

Jordan is potentially an important staging area for foreigners recruited into Syria, not only because of its proximity, but also the presence of leading figures, such as Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, advocating emigration to the Syrian battlefield. Senior jihadist figures in Jordan say that at least 10 Jordanian jihadists have been imprisoned for trying to travel to Syria.[29]

In Iraq, a range of tribal groups and militant networks have offered support to the Syrian revolutionaries, although much of that aid has likely matriculated to elements of the FSA rather than jihadists.[30] Indeed, at least one Iraqi in Syria has frankly described participating in the Anbar Awakening fight against al-Qa`ida’s ISI.[31] One explicit call for violence in Syria—“taking up weapons against this [Syrian] regime, and seeking to bring it down are obligatory by virtue of the Islamic Shari`a”—comes from the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance, an Iraqi Sunni nationalist group, not a jihadist group.[32]

Libyan veterans of the fight against Mu`ammar Qadhafi are also reputed to be operating in Syria. Libyan opposition fighters have claimed that several of their compatriots have been killed in Syria, and there are reports of Libyan veterans prepping among the Syrian opposition in southern Turkey.[33] Nonetheless, the number of Libyans operating in Syria is likely small, and the supposed integration of Libyans with Syrian fighters in southern Turkey is a positive sign that these recruits are working with the FSA, not JN or other jihadist factions. The presence of Libyans in Syria is concerning to many because of the prevalence of Libyan jihadists among foreigners joining al-Qa`ida’s ISI in 2007.[34] But the documented surge of Libyans to Iraq occurred over a narrow time period, which suggests some explanation for their mobilization more complex than general support for jihadist activism.[35] Moreover, the prevalence of jihadists within the Libyan uprising has often been exaggerated in American commentary, although it is certainly not baseless.[36]

The logistics networks that Libyan jihadists used to travel to Syria to enter Iraq are unlikely to be useful now. Most Libyan jihadists recorded in the Sinjar Records, a collection of foreign fighter personnel documents collected by the ISI for incoming fighters from August 2006 through August 2007, traveled first to Cairo and then by air directly to Damascus, a route easily constrained by Syrian security infrastructure if they so desire (an indication that in 2007, they did not).[37] A smaller number traveled from Egypt into Jordan for travel by land into Syria, a route theoretically useful today considering the hints of Jordanian networks intent on fighting the Syrian regime. Yet the Jordanian security infrastructure is quite strong and has already arrested would-be foreign fighters headed to Syria. Thus, most Libyan jihadists intent on fighting in Syria (or Iraq) today are likely to embed themselves among semi officially-sanctioned FSA-supporters traveling to southern Turkey or Lebanon.[38]

5. Al-Qa`ida’s Existing Networks
A key reason that the al-Qa`ida threat in Syria is more worrisome than in other Arab Spring rebellions is the plausible presence of active al-Qa`ida-linked networks supported by a resilient, albeit weakened, al-Qa`ida organization in Iraq.

Al-Qa`ida’s supporters in the ISI have utilized extensive logistical networks in Syria to transport foreign fighters into Iraq for nearly a decade, sometimes with the apparent assistance of elements of the Syrian state.[39] The Sinjar Records suggest a complex web of smugglers moving jihadists in, through, and out of Syria.[40] U.S. forces even raided Syrian territory in 2008 to kill Abu Ghadiyah, the leader of one of the most important smuggling networks.[41] Diplomats report “dozens” of “jihadists” crossing into Syria from Iraq, a number that prudence dictates likely includes at least some from al-Qa`ida’s ISI.

The ISI is much diminished from its strongest level in early 2007, but the group has remained a capable terrorist organization in Iraq and continued to import manpower through Syria until late 2010 at least, despite increasing its reliance on local fighters.[42] The ISI’s smuggling routes are not unidirectional. The Sinjar Records indicate that the ISI moved fighters out of Iraq through Syria and it is likely capable of utilizing remaining networks to funnel fighters into Syria today, as suggested by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in Congressional testimony.[43] Still, many of the smuggling networks used by the ISI are essentially criminal gangs, not dedicated jihadists—so while the ISI likely does have functional networks in Syria today, they are almost certainly limited to a sub-group of the ISI’s overall Syrian facilitation apparatus revealed in the Sinjar Records.

ISI support for violence in Syria is not likely to take the form of large numbers of fighters, most of whom would be unfamiliar with the terrain or political contours of the conflict. The most worrisome operational support the ISI could supply are trainers and bombmakers, which creates an intelligence problem for governments, journalists, and academics trying to measure the jihadist presence in the conflict. These fighters are less likely to be identified on the front lines or wind up dead or wounded in hospitals—both places where intelligence officers and journalists will look for their presence. Outside investigators are not likely to have access to places where jihadist force multipliers are most prone to operate: in jihadist-specific safe houses, training locals to do the actual fighting. The lack of direct evidence of ISI fighters in Syria is certainly not an indication that they are operating there, but neither is it exculpatory evidence that they are not. Terrorism is about small groups creating outsized impact.

The ISI is reasonably situated operationally to expand activities to Syria, but it is extremely well prepared to support jihadists in Syria intellectually and with propaganda. Like most jihadists, the ISI rejects the legitimacy of the border dividing Syria from Iraq because it is the product of the 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty between Britain and France. The ISI also has a long record of opposition to Shi`a political influence in Iraq, which it has framed as the product of unjust Iranian influence. A similar narrative now dominates jihadist discourse about Syria, where the presence of Alawites, a Syrian minority Shi`a sect, in authority positions may make the argument more compelling for jihadists. (Importantly, this narrative also dominates discourse from the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanese jihadist group of undetermined strength with close ties to al-Qa`ida’s formal propaganda network.[44])

ISI propaganda, always highly sectarian, returned to that theme in the weeks after JN was announced and Ayman al-Zawahiri voiced his support for violence in Syria. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the ISI’s spokesman, drew directly on the intellectual lineage of Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi to outline his vision of a sectarian war with the same combatants from Iraq to Lebanon:

“…we warn the Sunnis on earth in general, particularly in Iraq and the Levant, that the rejectionists [Shi`a] are preparing to wage a comprehensive war against them, and that the war has become imminent…The war is in fact being waged, as you find the Nusayris [Alawites] in the Levant torturing the Sunnis. Hizb Allah was not satisfied with their war in Lebanon, so they sent their snipers and criminals to Syria to shed the blood of its defenseless people…[the Mahdi] Army came as well, but it did not quench their thirst for the blood of Sunnis in Iraq, and their militias are now crossing, by the dozens, to support the regime of Bashar, the dog of the Nusayris.”[45]

Conclusions: A Real and Persistent Challenge
There is no smoking gun illustrating al-Qa`ida’s presence in the Syrian insurgency, but a prudent assessment of available facts suggests that jihadists are operating as a small component of a deeply varied rebel confederation.[46] Moreover, some of those jihadists likely have links with the ISI in neighboring Iraq. Whatever the facts on the ground, jihadist supporters interpret the public declarations by JN as evidence that al-Qa`ida’s allies are present in the Syrian insurgency. Even if jihadist operations in Syria are limited in scope, the jihadist online community believes the jihadist presence there is part of al-Qa`ida’s global effort against the West and part of a transnational sectarian war.

The presence of small numbers of jihadists does not discredit the purpose of the Syrian uprising, which at its core is a struggle against autocracy. Yet the presence of jihadists in Syria likely works to the advantage of Bashar al-Assad despite their determined opposition to him. The reason is that jihadists’ political impact is likely to outweigh their operational capability. JN’s military influence is unlikely to shift the balance between the Syrian regime and the rebel alliance, but the specter of jihadists in Syria is likely to bolster al-Assad’s efforts to maintain loyalty among the security services.

Al-Assad will utilize the threat of jihadist sectarian attacks to fortify solidarity for the regime among Alawites and Christians, who may be fearful that if the regime crumbles they will become targets of jihadists regardless of whether they defect from the regime now and support the rebellion more broadly.[47]

Al-Assad’s ability to manipulate the presence of jihadists in Syria to his benefit has raised the possibility that the entire jihadist enterprise there is a fabrication. Certainly, al-Assad is not above deception, and the forged JN statement claiming responsibility for the May 10, 2012, suicide bombing in Damascus is proof that observers must be careful not to accept information at face value. Nonetheless, the evidence that jihadists are active in Syria is persuasive. The sectarian dynamic in Syria is attractive to jihadists. Recent tactics, including suicide attacks, are reminiscent of the ISI’s in Iraq. The validated JN propaganda has been authenticated on jihadist forums. Jihadist intellectual leaders accept the group’s validity and so do “lay-jihadists” communicating online. If the jihadist presence in Syria is fabricated, it has fooled the jihadists themselves.

Jihadists will also complicate matters for the FSA and other nationalist and Islamist revolutionaries. Syria’s legitimate resistance groups cannot control the jihadists. Jihadists are unlikely to support any negotiated solution in Syria—and may actively strategize to undermine cease-fire efforts, whether or not the main elements of the Syrian resistance supports them. The presence of jihadists in Syria is also likely to confound international efforts to aid legitimate elements of the rebel coalition.

Although regional and geostrategic factors are likely to play a more determinative role, the presence of jihadists will also impact the deployment of United Nations observers in Syria. Whether or not the international community sees the peacekeepers as positive for the regime or the Syrian resistance, they are likely to be targets of jihadist violence in Syria; jihadists will endeavor to extend and expand the conflict rather than work toward a negotiated solution. The threat from jihadists is also likely to compel cooperation between the United Nations and the Syrian regime, which is the only institution capable of providing security for observers. Over time, this will create a significant moral hazard for a United Nations mission in Syria.

Jihadists are not the most important actors in the Syrian rebellion, but their presence illustrates the challenges of policymaking when such groups are present. This is particularly true because jihadists can capitalize on circumstances and outcomes that would otherwise be beneficial for U.S. interests. In Syria, undermining the al-Assad regime would be useful for limiting Iranian influence, but it is likely to lead to a weakly governed Syria that jihadists can exploit over the long-run. Jihadist interest in Syria also raises the costs of direct international intervention. Not only may jihadists benefit from material assistance to rebel groups, but Western intervention in Syria will contribute, rightly or wrongly, to jihadist propaganda that frames politics in the Levant as a function of foreign powers.

Many U.S. allies in the Arab world are unlikely to weigh these factors like the United States, and this leads to a disconcerting willingness, especially in Saudi Arabia, to instrumentalize private Muslim fighters—among them jihadists—as a means of projecting power in Syria and countering Iran. That technique backfired badly after the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan 25 years ago. Syria reinforces a central lesson from more than a decade of fighting al-Qa`ida: U.S. allies that instrumentalize religiously motivated fighters for national security purposes are unlikely to change that practice unless the basic strategic calculation that led them to do so in the first place changes. U.S. pressure and occasional terrorist attacks against regimes are insufficient. Although Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have both suffered greatly at the hand of jihadists, and challenged al-Qa`ida aggressively at various moments since 9/11, both allies are problematic. Over the long-run, both will foster the conditions that enable al-Qa`ida as often as they crack down on specific militants.

Syria is thus a good example of the kind of challenge jihadists will pose for U.S. policy in the coming era: rather than an overwhelming security challenge, jihadists are a nagging itch, attacking oppressors and innocents alike, complicating U.S. policymaking while at times pursuing complimentary intermediate goals, and tempting some Arab countries to instrumentalize their violence with the promise of direct action against geopolitical enemies. Jihadist activism in Syria looks something like jihadist activism in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Arab states promoted war against the Soviet Union, or Algeria, Bosnia, and Chechnya in the 1990s, when veterans of Afghanistan flocked to fight and jihadist propagandists in the Arab world and the West called for jihad. Indeed, jihadist activism in Syria is very traditional in some ways—a flashback to an era that ended on September 11, 2001.

Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He teaches a course on modern terrorism at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and edited (with Assaf Moghadam) Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Operational, Strategic and Ideological Fissures.

[1] “Announcement of the Al Nusrah Front,” al-Manarah al-Bayda Foundation for Media Production, January 24, 2012. For more on Jabhat al-Nusra’s name, see Aaron Zelin, “Jabhat al-Nusrah and Jihad in Syria,” al-Wasat, January 30, 2012.

[2] “Aid Pledged to Syrian Opposition Groups,” al-Jazira, April 2, 2012. This article primarily identifies the Free Syrian Army as the “Syrian opposition” because the FSA is most discussed by jihadists. Yet jihadists have similarly negative views of all other Syrian opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council and the Local Coordination Committees.

[3] “Al-Nusrah Front: Has the Story of Kofi Annan and his Truce Reached You? A Truce, What A Truce?” Hanein Forums, May 6, 2012.

[4] “Al-Manarah al-Bayda for Media Production Presents: Announcement of the Al Nusrah Front,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, January 24, 2012. For more on the jihadist distinction between muqawama (rebellion) and jihad, see Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis Path to Self Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 165-182.

[5] “Operation Against the Directorate of Air Security and the Department of Criminal Security in Damascus,” al-Manarah al-Bayda Foundation for Media Production, March 20, 2012; “Al-Nusrah Front – Statement No. 2: Operations To Fulfill the Promise,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, April 29, 2012; “Al-Nusrah Front – Statement No. 3: A Dual Quality Operation,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, April 30, 2012; “Al-Nusrah Front- Statement No. 4: Operations of the True Promise,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, May 5, 2012; “Al-Nusrah Front – Statement No. 5: Operations to Fulfill the Promise,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, May 8, 2012; “Al-Nusrah Front – Statement No. 6: Operations to Fulfill the Promise,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, May 8, 2012. These releases are all available at

[6] “Twin Suicide Bombers Kill 27 in Syrian Capital,” Associated Press, March 17, 2012; Kareem Fahim, “Syria Blames Al Qaeda After Bombs Kill Dozens in Damascus,” New York Times, December 23, 2011.

[7] Oliver Holmes and Mariam Karouny, “Syria Suicide Bombers Kill 55, Ceasefire in Tatters,” Reuters, May 10, 2012.

[8] “Al-Nusrah Front – Statement No. 8: Notification Regarding the Fabricated Palestine Branch Attributed to Jabhat al-Nusrah,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, May 14, 2012.

[9] “Raid to Avenge the Free Women of Syria,” al-Manarah al-Bayda Foundation for Media Production, February 26, 2012.

[10] Al-Qa`ida in Iraq arguably focused more on the “threat” of U.S. troops to Muslim women than it did on the photographs of abusive behavior at Abu Ghurayb prison. One incident in particular, the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl named Abeer al-Janabi by U.S. soldiers, was highlighted extensively. That incident had a lasting impact. Tarek Mehanna, a U.S. citizen convicted of conspiring to provide material support to al-Qa`ida, referenced al-Janabi twice in his sentencing statement. See Glenn Greenwald, “The Real Criminals in the Tarek Mehanna Case,” Salon, April 13, 2012.

[11] “Call to Jihad,” al-Manarah al-Bayda Foundation for Media Production, April 13, 2012.

[12] See, for example, Abdallah Azzam, Defense of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation After Iman, 1979, available on jihadist web forums.

[13] For another reference to this, see Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, “Achieving Victory by Supporting the al-Nusrah Front,” al-Ma’sadah Media Establishment, March 13, 2012. It reads: “…after the banner is raised and the groups start to differ among themselves, they [jihadists] can never stand under the banners of paganism or any other banners considered to be the by-products of the Sykes-Picot borders. They have risen to seek what God has in store for them to make the religion of God prevail. They would never do that just to answer the call to paganism.”

[14] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “O Lions of the Levant, March Forward,” al-Sahab, February 12, 2012. Al-Zawahiri’s direct reference to supporters in countries neighboring Syria should be understood as pragmatic, but also consistent with jihadist doctrine that calls for Muslims in countries surrounding Muslim land under occupation to respond first. See, for example, Azzam.

[15] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Glory of the East Begins in Damascus,” al-Sahab, July 27, 2011.

[16] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Sixth Episode: Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt; The Battle of the Koran,” al-Sahab, May 21, 2011.

[17] Hamid al-Ali, “Covenant of Jihad in the Land of the Levant,”, February 19, 2012; Hamid al-Ali, “To Keep in Mind Before Waging Jihad in the Holy Land,”, February 11, 2012; Akram Hijazi, “The Syrian Revolution and Paths to Internationalization: The Virgin of Jihad, Part 3,” al-Moraqeb, February 28, 2012; Akram Hijazi, “The Syrian Revolution and Paths to Internationalization: Arming the Revolution, Part 4,” al-Moraqeb, March 15, 2012; Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti, “Response to Question: With Which Group Should We Fight in Syria? Should We Set Out for Jihad Without Parental or Creditors’ Permission?”, March 17, 2012; Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, “Achieving Victory by Supporting the al-Nusrah Front,” al-Ma’sadah Media Establishment, March 13, 2012.

[18] Al-Shinqiti; Abu Basir al-Tartusi, “Are You in Favor of the Arab Mujahidin’s Entry to Syria? The Answer Is Given by Shaykh Abu-Basir Al-Tartusi,” Hanein Forums, February 14, 2012; Abu Basir al-Tartusi, “Before My Concerns Come True, I Refer to a Number of Issue,”, February 28, 2012. For more on Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti, see Joas Wagemakers, “Protecting Jihad: The Sharia Council of Minbar al-Tawhid w’al Jihad,” Middle East Policy (Summer 2010).

[19] Tamer al-Samadi, “Jordan’s Jihadists Divided Over Jihad in Syria,” al-Hayat, February 17, 2012.

[20] “Heading to Jihad in Syria,” available at

[21] A related question is how the FSA will treat jihadists. To date, the FSA seems wary of jihadist participation in the Syrian rebellion, cognizant that a jihadist presence may complicate relations with the international community. Nonetheless, some FSA commanders suggest provocatively that if the international community does not assist the Syrian rebellion, some FSA commanders may tolerate jihadists. See Liz Sly, “Fears of Extremism Taking Hold in Syria,” Washington Post, April 22, 2012.

[22] See, for example, Abu al-Fadl Madi, “The Lessons of Iraq in Syria,” Hanein Forums, January 10, 2012.

[23] Al-Ali, “Covenant of Jihad in the Land of the Levant.”

[24] Jihadist web chatter also generally opposes the FSA but calls for short-term accommodation. For example, see: “To the Al-Nusrah Front,” Ansar al-Mujahidin Forum, February 10, 2012; Nasir al-Qa`ida, “Contemplations on the Stance of Supporters Toward the al-Nusrah Front and the Free Syrian Army,” Hanein Forums, May 6, 2012. The latter explicitly references former Islamic State of Iraq Minister of War Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who reportedly noted that many of the ISI’s commanders were former Iraqi Army officers. For its part, the FSA has tried to distance itself from al-Qa`ida, most likely in an effort to maintain international legitimacy, which is a concept that jihadists implicitly reject. See Faris al-Layl, “Free Syrian Army – Al-Faruq Brigade Disavows Al-Qa’ida, Congratulates Sarkozy, His Government, UK, Spain,” Ana al-Muslm Network, March 1, 2012.

[25] Bassel Oudat, “Resilience on the Front Line,” al-Ahram Weekly, March 1-7, 2012; Nadia al-Turki, “Syrian Opposition Praises Saudi FM Position,” Asharq al-Awsat, February 25, 2012; Akram Hijazi, “The Syrian Revolution and Paths to Internationalization: Arming the Revolution, Part 4,” al-Moraqeb, March 15, 2012.

[26] “Arab Clerics Call to Kill Assad, Fight His ‘Illegitimate’ Regime,” Middle East Media Research Institute, March 23, 2012.

[27] Hamid al-Ali, “Bear it in Mind Before Conducting Jihad in the Holy Land,”, February 11, 2012.

[28] For more on the history of jihadist-linked foreign fighters, see Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35:3 (2010/2011).

[29] Tamer al-Samadi, “Jordan’s Jihadists Divided Over Jihad in Syria,” al-Hayat, February 17, 2012.

[30] Tim Arango and Duraid Adnan, “For Iraqis, Aid To Syrians Repays a Debt,” New York Times, February 12, 2012; Khalid al-Taie, “Iraqi Fighters, Arms Trickle into Syria as Violence Grows,” Reuters, February 14, 2012.

[31] Ken Segupta, “Syria’s Sectarian War Goes International as Foreign Fighters Pour Into Country,” Independent, February 20, 2012.

[32] “Statement by the Political Bureau of JAMI: Performing Jihad in Syria is Obligatory,” al-Boraq Islamic Network, March 14, 2012.

[33] Borzou Daraghi, “Libya ‘Cannot Stop’ Fighters from Joining Syrian Rebels,” Financial Times, February 9, 2012.

[34] Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qa`ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, “The Enemies of our Enemy,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2011.

[37] Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, “Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar Records,” in Brian Fishman ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout: al-Qa’ida’s Road In and Out of Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008).

[38] There is anecdotal evidence that North African foreign fighter flows shifted between the time that the Sinjar Records were captured and the Arab Spring. Whereas Tunisian fighters listed in the Sinjar Records tended to cross Libya before flying to Damascus from Cairo, at least one group of Tunisian fighters in 2008 crossed north into Europe and traveled to Syria via Turkey. For more, see Brian Fishman, “Redefining the Islamic State: The Fall and Rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” The New America Foundation, August 18, 2011.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Felter and Fishman, “Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar Records.”

[41] Greg Miller and Josh Meyer, “U.S. Officials Say Raid Killed al-Qa’ida Figure,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2008.

[42] Lara Jakes and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “More Foreign Fighters Seen Slipping Into Iraq,” Associated Press, December 5, 2010.

[43] Greg Miller “Al-Qa’ida Infiltrating Syrian Opposition, U.S. Officials Say,” Washington Post, February 16, 2012; Sahar Issa, “Iraq Officials: Violence Drops as al-Qaida Group Moves to Syria,” McClatchy Newspapers, February 20, 2012.

[44] Abdallah Azzam Brigades, “Statement: Refuting the Fabrications of the Mukhabarat Administration, Part One,” al-Shumukh Forum, March 16, 2012. Abdallah Azzam Brigades statements are released by the al-Fajr Media Network, the distribution mechanism for propaganda from al-Qa`ida central and closely linked organizations. Participation with al-Fajr is a key indicator suggesting that the Abdallah Azzam Brigades has communications links with other jihadist groups, including, potentially, al-Qa`ida’s core leadership.

[45] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “Iraq, Iraq—O Sunni People,” al-Furqan Media Establishment, February 24, 2012.

[46] For more, see Nir Rosen, “Islamism and the Syrian Uprising,” Foreign Policy, March 8, 2012.

[47] Ben Hubbard and Zeina Karam, “Assad Says He’ll Keep on Fighting ‘Terrorism,’” Associated Press, March 7, 2012. For reference, see Barry Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” in Michael Brown ed., Ethnic Conflict and International Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 103-124.

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