2.10 Extremist groups in the Greater Middle East: the Nusra Front

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Overview.
A Salafi-jihadist militia, Jabhat al Nusra li Ahl al Sham (the “Support Front for the People of Syria,” known as Jabhat al Nusra or the Nusra Front) emerged in Syria in late 2011 and claimed responsibility for a series of high profile suicide bombing attacks against government security forces as well as summary executions of captured Asad regime soldiers.
Leadership.
Nusra Front’s leader is known by his nom de guerre, Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, a name suggesting family origin in the Golan Heights. Jawlani is thought to have fought against Coalition forces in Iraq before returning to Syria after the start of the uprising in 2011 to establish an Al Qaeda franchise in the country. Initially backed by current Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the two leaders split when Baghdadi sought to absorb the Nusra Front under his command in April 2013.
Objectives.
The group’s ideology, messaging, and tactics mirror those of Al Qaeda affiliates in other regional conflict zones. Nusra Front members engage in organized relief work and service provision efforts to gain favor with civilians, and the group has cooperated with other secular and Islamist groups and engaged in conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now known as the Islamic State). The prospect for clashes between the Nusra Front and its past partners remains, as the Front’s own uncompromising views on the long-term implementation of Islamic religious law may create rifts with Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and religious minorities in Syria.
Areas of Operations.
Independent analysts and social media suggest that Nusra Front operatives are active across Syria. In northern and eastern Syria, the group’s clashes with the Islamic State have weakened Nusra’s hold on some former areas, while Nusra’s cooperative operations with other Syrian opposition elements appear to continue. In southern Syria, the Nusra Front remains engaged in campaigns to oust Asad forces from Dara’a province as well as areas of the Golan Heights adjacent to Israel.
Attacks against U.S. interests.
The Nusra Front has not directly attacked the United States. However, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in early 2014 stated that the group “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.” In September 2014, U.S. military forces launched strikes against the Syria-based “Khorasan Group,” described by former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell as the “external operations arm” of the Nusra Front. According to Rear Admiral John Kirby, the strikes “were undertaken to disrupt imminent attack plotting against the United States and western targets.”
Size, Financing, and Capabilities.
Unofficial estimates suggest that the Nusra Front may have as many as 6,000 fighters operating across Syria.
Relationship with Al Qaeda and AQ Affiliates.
Nusra Front leaders have sided with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in the rift between Zawahiri and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. In September 2014, the Associated Press reported that unnamed U.S. officials had described attempts by “Khorasan Group” members to collaborate with Al Qaeda-affiliated bomb makers in Yemen and Syria-based Western foreign fighters to place explosives aboard commercial aircraft. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that enhanced aviation security measures imposed earlier this year were a response to “Khorasan Group” activities.
Source US Congressional Research Service 2014
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