Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing blog posts and articles with come collaborators. These Syria related posts tried to characterize the different jihadists groups in Syria and how we should look for new methods to combat them. My take: “All jihadists groups in Syria are not created equal”.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq has gotten lots of press for their recent battles against other jihadists and for taking ground in Anbar, Iraq, I’m far more concerned about Jabhat al-Nusra whom I believe to be the smarter and more loyal al Qaeda affiliate to al Qaeda Central. More importantly, I believe Nusra will be the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, more than any other, to pursue external operations outside of Syria against the West and particularly the U.S. As I wrote three weeks back:
“As ISIS wanes, focus on al Nusra – ISIS warnings have filled the headlines recently. However, as seen by this past weekend’s battles, I’ve always thought that ISIS would bring about its own demise through its sectarianism and extreme violence. In my opinion, the West should be focusing on Jabhat al-Nusra. Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra represents the smarter and stronger connected al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – open to a coalition and governance in the near-term, but likely set on dominating the country and instituting Sharia governance in the long-term. If Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central have any influence in Syria, its with al-Nusra. Nusra and ISIS fought each other on occasion in Syria and the ISIS push into Syria from Iraq sapped Nusra’s foreign fighter supplies. With ISIS in retreat, Nusra has pushed forward seizing ISIS strongpoints and reclaiming foreign fighters. The Daily Star reports:
“Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIS fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front. Nusra’s commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign and it coordinates with the Islamic Front, but both ISIS and Nusra have their roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
The West should focus now on non-military levers to undermine Nusra such as working vigorously to cutoff Persian Gulf donations to these groups and using information campaigns to communicate that Nusra and ISIS are both al Qaeda groups sharing the same vision for the future. “
Further evidence of Nusra’s dangerous intentions have come from the U.S. government itself this week and news reports from Lebanon. As for the former, see this report of U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
“The Syrian militant group tied to Al Qaida, the Al Nusra Front, wants to attack the United States and is training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the US, the top US intelligence official told Congress on Wednesday…He said “Al Nusra Front, to name one … does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”
For the latter, the latest reports from Lebanon suggest Nusra, much like its competitor ISIS, may be pushing its influence out of Syria.
“The group, named after the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, posted a warning to its Twitter account last week in which it said areas where Hizbullah operates are “legitimate targets”, AFP reported.
The message came three days after four people were killed by a car bombin Haret Hreik – Hizbullah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburb. JAN in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it came in retaliation for what it described as Hizbullah’s crimes in Syria.”
I hope Western counterterrorism efforts are focusing on Nusra more than other al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. They are al Qaeda Central and Zawahiri’s thread in the Levant. If there is to be a reconstituted and strong global al Qaeda, Nusra is the vehicle for achieving this ascent.