The al-Nusra Front (ANF) had modest origins as a small group of Syrian fighters sent by the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to form its wing in Syria. But over the course of the Syrian conflict, ANF has transformed itself into al-Qaeda’s (AQ) most active and important affiliate in the Middle East. Today, ANF and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are enemies, and ANF is one of the most powerful, respected, and feared armed groups in Syria. Its growth, however, has not been smooth. Following a jihadi civil war with ISIS in 2013, ANF was on the verge of complete collapse.1 But since then ANF has proven resurgent, scoring sweeping gains against the Assad regime and ISIS, while seizing territory in both northern and southern Syria. Through it all, the organization has skilfully manipulated its environment and positioned itself to become the powerful, popular group it is today.
Most important, ANF has expanded its territorial holdings without alienating the majority of the population in opposition-held areas. It did so by using a variety of tactics, such as avoiding civilian matters, largely derived from its Salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence. ANF’s Salafi-jihadi rival, ISIS, takes an uncompromising, brutal approach toward anyone who does not accept its strict Islamic interpretations. ANF, in contrast, accepts Salafist principles, but uses them to justify a pragmatic, gradual approach to cooperation and collaboration with other armed opposition groups in Syria.
Roots and Expansion
ANF entered Syria from Iraq in August 2011 with eight senior Syrian operatives. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), ISIS’s precursor, had dispatched the team, whose leader was Abu Mohamed al-Jawlani, ANF’s current leader, who at the time was a senior ISI operative. ISI was the primary source of funds and arms. The mission was to establish ISI’s presence in the nascent Syrian conflict.23 Soon after its arrival, the small group gained a high profile among the largely untrained and unequipped Syrian rebels.4 ANF conducted a series of military operations against the regime, including regime security targets deep inside government-held areas in Damascus.5 Compared to the largely ineffective, poorly organized, and ill-equipped armed opposition, ANF’s military prowess shone brightly. Still, many Syrians remained suspicious of ANF’s long-term objectives and the future it envisioned for the country, in large part because of its hard-line Salafist ideology.6 Doubtless aware of this wariness, ANF initially refrained from interfering in civilian matters when establishing a military presence among communities. This gradual approach, combined with striking military gains, served to mitigate those suspicions and helped to shape ANF’s image as a welcomed and relatively popular group to counter the Syrian regime.7
In its early days, ANF worked closely with rebel groups to fight the regime, to establish joint sharia courts and other conflict resolution committees,8 and to provide protection and assistance to the local population and aid organizations alike.9 ANF was more than willing to join into military alliances with moderate Islamist and secular groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Although ANF worked with non-Salafi armed groups in areas such as Idlib, Homs, Hama, Dar’a, and al-Qalamun (northwest of Damascus), its coordination was always stronger with like-minded Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (AAS), Ajnad al-Sham, and Jund al-Aqsa.
ANF’s rising profile and popularity soon created tensions with ISI. On 9 April 2013,10 Baghdadi, the future ISIS Caliph, announced the merger of ANF and ISI to form the ISIS. On 10 April, Jawlani disobeyed Baghdadi’s order and instead gave allegiance, or bay’a, to AQ’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Jawlani opted for ANF to become AQ’s wing in Syria and effectively asserted the primacy of the group’s South Asia-based leadership over its near neighbors in Iraq.11
Relations between the two groups soured further in the months that followed. Despite Zawahiri’s personal intervention, and pleas from senior Salafi-jihadi ideologues,12 including Abu Mohamad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qutada al-Filistini,13 to end the dispute, ANF-ISIS relations rapidly deteriorated.14 In early 2014, military confrontations between the two groups broke out in Idlib, al-Hasaka, Raqqa, and Dayr al-Zawr provinces.15 ISIS was able to dislodge ANF, along with other rebel groups, from al-Hasaka, Raqqa, and later Dayr al-Zawr, in return largely abandoning its presence in Idlib and Aleppo to ANF and other rebel groups.
This split was not a complete surprise, however. Even before the Syrian conflict’s inception, ISI and AQ showed signs of unease and mutual distrust. AQ had complained about ISI’s increasing autonomy from AQ. South Asia-based AQ’s central officials often privately criticized ISI’s infamous vehicle-born improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) campaign against Shi’a civilians and its unbending ideological imposition on Sunni civilians in Iraq.16 In a letter to then-ISI leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, Zawahiri recommended gaining Sunnis’ trust and support by preparing them with instructions and sharia courses before enforcing a Salafi agenda. Zawahiri told his ostensible employee Zarqawi not “to throw them (Sunnis) in the sea before teaching them how to swim.”17 ISI further antagonized Zawahiri and his associates when ISI neglected to consult AQ before appointing Baghdadi to succeed the slain ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Masri.18 Nonetheless, ISI continued to pay lip service to AQ by seeking Zawahiri’s consultation in its decision-making—even if this was often after-the-fact—to ensure the continuation of its support.19 However, when ISI’s (and later ISIS’s) interests collided20 with AQ in the Spring of 2013, it did not hesitate to disobey direct orders and defect from AQ.
In the months following the ANF-ISIS split, many of ANF’s foreign fighters defected to ISIS, leaving the powerful group noticeably weakened.21 Even Dayr al-Zawr, an ANF stronghold and reportedly the birthplace of Jawlani, had fallen to ISIS by July 2014.22 Furthermore, other jihadi groups and erstwhile ANF allies defected to ISIS en masse, leaving ANF more vulnerable than ever to fragmentation and collapse.23 By mid-2014, ANF’s star had fallen, and the organization was on the verge of dissolution.
Following this string of defeats and defections, ANF shifted its focus to Idlib province, which was one of the few areas left in Syria where it could be shielded from ISIS encroachment.24 At least on the surface, ANF was an organization in decline that was racked by defections and internal divisions.25 But Jawlani’s leadership and AQ’s unwavering support ensured that ANF was able to regroup and re-emerge as one of the most powerful opposition armed groups in Syria. Through pragmatic alliances with other Islamists, such as AAS, Jawlani staved off total collapse and scored major military gains that would form the bedrock of ANF’s newfound legitimacy-through-action. Further, AQ’s support enhanced the group’s standing among jihadists, whether through publicly endorsing ANF as its affiliate or through deploying senior AQ veterans to provide strategic guidance and training. Such support still benefits ANF, as its influence, military might, and presence continue to crest.
ANF’s Objectives in the Levant
On several occasions, ANF has openly declared that it seeks to establish a political state system based on a strident Salafi-jihadi interpretation of sharia.26 This goal is clear from the first public statements the group released, which avowed ANF’s central objective as aid for the people of the Levant (nusrat ahl al-sham) and, tellingly, to “implement God’s law on earth (tatbiq shar’ Allah fil-ard).27 ANF seeks to establish a system based on sharia by aborting alternatives, especially those promoting a secular democratic system.28 However, ANF has not proceeded towards this goal in the same strict, dogmatic fashion that we have seen from ISIS. Rather, ANF is able to flex and adapt to variegated local environments, often deliberately obscuring its long-term goals in pursuit of short-term strategic objectives, and selectively attacking and purging pro-democracy armed groups in Syria.29 As a result, ANF seems to have short-and long-term visions that, at least on the surface, appear incompatible. For example, although the group had claimed that it did not enter Syria to rule over the population, ANF’s consolidation of power and religious imposition indicate that its ultimate objective is in fact to establish an Islamic state (imara) in Syria.
In service of both its long-term goal and its short term objectives, ANF makes use of selected religious teachings and concepts to both guide and justify its actions. The most important of those religious concepts are nikaya (fighting to inflict pain on “God’s enemies”) and tamkin (fighting to empower or enable “Muslim rule”). These two concepts are often used by ANF to allude to its long-term and short-term objectives respectively. ANF’s top leadership has often expressed its intent to pursue tamkin, though not nikaya. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one the most renowned Salafi-jihadi ideologues, and one with a particular influence on both AQ and ANF, encouraged the movement to pursue tamkin over nikaya in the first instance. “Muslims must focus their efforts on… tamkin, or as it is called in the modern day, ‘liberation’,” wrote al-Maqdisi in his book “waqfat m’a thmarat al-jihad” (Stances on the Fruits of Jihad).30 Echoing al-Maqdisi’s call, Abu Malek al-Shami, ANF’s leader in al-Qalamun, stressed the organization’s efforts to fight for tamkin. “Certainly, our jihad as Jabhat al-Nusra in the Levant does not differ from that of our brothers in al-Qaeda around the world, and is jihad for tamkin (i.e., enabling) the religion of God and tamkin for Muslims on Earth,” al-Shami wrote in an open letter.31 Tamkin, according to ANF, should be planned and executed by a group of elites with thorough religious expertise and full commitment to the jihadi cause. “Tamkin needs a complete and an all-encompassing plan in which visionary and experienced godly scholars, proselytizers, and…honest Mujahedeen…devote themselves to the order of jihad and tend to its plant with their pure hands, noble objectives, and loyal intentions until it bears its fruit to be harvested by the same hands…and not by others,” al-Maqdisi wrote.32
ANF sees only itself and its members as the aforementioned “godly leaders” and thus the only ones who may harvest the “fruits of jihad.” Despite its assurances to allies, it has thus far exhibited behaviour that is indicative of a single-minded intent to rule over Syria using such a method. For example, in its strongholds in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, ANF refuses to participate in joint governance ventures.33 Further, after ensuring its ability to survive and thrive without partnering with other groups, ANF has erected its own governance structures. Despite tacit cooperation with AAS in Idlib, for example, ANF has also clashed with the group on issues of governance on several occasions.34 “[ANF] has a different project than [AAS],” said a former local council member from Idlib Province. “Al-Jabha (ANF) does not see AAS as a fit partner to govern,” he added.35 Recently, a high-level ANF leader published an article criticizing AAS, its leadership, and its policies36 while ANF also broke away from several joint governance ventures with AAS and other groups in Aleppo and Idlib. Chief among them are the establishment of ANF sharia courts (Dar al-Qada) and ANF-only services offices in Aleppo Province. In summary, ANF may start out working with other groups to garner support. But when given the means and opportunity, it will work independently of other groups, and if possible, enforce full control over both governance and security.
Unlike ISIS, which depends on violence to compel the local population to adhere to its ideology and rule, ANF’s approach is largely based on gradualism, persuasion, and pragmatism, drawing from a concept roughly translated as “minding interests and avoiding spoilers” (riayat al-maslaha wa mani’ al-mafasid). Using this concept—and avoiding armed confrontation with other Sunni groups as much as possible —ANF is able to tailor its overall strategy to different needs in different localities. This approach makes its strategy appear more complex, and at least on the surface, more fragmented.
ANF’s radical ideology, its long-term political objectives, and its transnational nature all have made the Syrian people suspicious of the group.37 To counter this image, ANF uses a gradual approach to gain local sympathy and buy-in, through which it can further expand its presence and influence. This approach is promoted by Salafi-jihadi religious scholars and ANF’s top leaders, who have often stressed the importance of gradualism and persuasion in their approach to the Syrian people. Despite the fact that ANF has used violence to impose rigid, Salafi practices on the daily lives of some, more often the group relies on nonviolent tactics to influence behaviour. In Idlib Province, for example, ANF employs charity da’wa (proselytization) organizations to indoctrinate and influence the public through face-to-face interactions, online engagement, and public shaming. ANF also carries out campaigns to influence Syrian public opinion: In late December 2015, for example, ANF initiated an anti-smoking campaign in which ANF fighters distributed toothbrushes and swaks (sticks traditionally used in the Arabian Peninsula for oral hygiene) to locals in Idlib Province.
These policies are all calculated steps imposed by senior AQ leadership and ideologues, and ones which have proven successful through trial-and-error both in Syria and in other countries where AQ has experimented with governance. Jawlani, for example, emphasised ANF’s gradualist approach in an interview with Qatar-based pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, stating that the Syrian people will not accept ANF’s conservative ideology after decades under a secular regime and thus should not be punished for their imperfection in adopting the group’s dogma.38 ANF often cites influential religious scholars who also speak frequently of the importance of the gradual approach in introducing Salafi ideology. “Being mindful and gradual is necessary to effect change and elicit a positive response [from the population], because it is not easy to divert a mind from the familiar [or to] redirect its proclivities,” wrote Ali al-Salabi, a Salafist scholar, in his book on the jurisprudence of tamkin in the Qur’an.39 “From the Sunna,40 tamkin is gradualism; being mindful of transforming from the easy to the difficult, from the difficult to the more difficult, from the near-term goal to the long-term objective, and from the partial plan to the total plan,” added ANF’s top leader in al-Qalamun.
Practically speaking, ANF has implemented this ideology by inserting itself gradually and persuasively. Before mid-2014, ANF was largely disengaged from governance. Instead, ANF delegated service provision to humanitarian agencies and secular local councils, despite the fact that these councils and organizations represented incompatible long-term political projects.41 Even as late as March 2015, ANF only barely interfered in governance.42 “[Al-Nusra] Front offered nothing but support and assistance to the [local] council,” a local activist from Idlib said in an interview.43 But over time, ANF began asserting its influence more forcefully in service provision and civilian affairs. On 12 August 2015, the ANF-dominated shura (consultative) Council in Kafr Nubul, Idlib Province finally stepped into a governing role, effectively relieving the city’s local council of its duties.44 After ANF’s sweeping advances in Idlib province as part of the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition in the spring and summer of 2015, the group immediately moved to use its enhanced stature to further meddle in service provision. ANF started running landline phone service, and water and electricity projects, and began intervening in local council-type governance, which in some cases included the collection of fees and taxes.45 In early October 2015, ANF attempted to replace the Saraqeb City local council with its own members. Although ANF was unable to take hold of the council due to AAS’s intervention, it did succeed in securing one vote in the city’s shura council, which oversees (theoretically in an observer capacity) the council’s daily operations.46,47
ANF’s interference in more intimate aspects of civilian life—such as religion and education—is slowly growing. In late 2015, multiple reports from Idlib city and Ma’rat al-Nu’man indicated that ANF and its ally Jund al-Aqsa had begun an unprecedented crackdown on “un-Islamic” clothing.48 Further, ANF replaced mosque imams with its own in nearly all areas under its control.49 ANF has been able to implement these aggressive policies by grace of its growing military power and political standing, both among rebel groups and the population. With this increased standing, ANF seeks to reach tamkin by gradually increasing its activities in different governance and service provision sectors, tightening its grip through popular buy-in.
Paired with this “gradual extremism” is ANF’s noted pragmatism. With its ear to the ground over the past three years, ANF has transformed from a group that would use any means to accomplish its singular objective—ending the enemy’s aggression (dafi’ al-‘adu al-sail)—to a highly selective partner that cooperates only with close allies or by necessity. The extent to which ANF cooperates with other groups is contingent on its relative military strength in the area. Even though Jawlani admitted in an interview with Al-Jazeera that ANF “does not work with corrupt armed groups,” ANF has in fact shown itself willing to work with a wide range of groups, from secular ones—such FSA-affiliated groups—to Islamists with competing goals. In the southern province of al-Qunaytra and the western mountains of al-Qalamun, where ANF has a weak presence and needs others’ cooperation to survive, the group often works with FSA-affiliated groups and sometimes with its arch-rival ISIS.50 On the other hand, in its Idlib stronghold, ANF is more selective in its military partners. For example, ANF refused to allow FSA-affiliated groups or Jaysh al-Islam—like ANF, a Salafist armed group with a national focus—to participate in the powerful Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in mid-2015, and instead partnered only with like-minded Islamist armed groups.51 The approach enables ANF to survive and even thrive in various hostile environments and creates a sense of confusion among the Syrian population—and the international community—about the group’s long-term objectives and the threat it poses to their future.
A National Focus?
ANF has publicized its well-defined “national” or “Syria-only” approach. This focus is not driven by ideology or long-term goals, but by the same pragmatism that has led to its success in Syria. As an affiliate of AQ, ANF believes it can be successful only with the support of the local population (allowing the group to recruit and gain material and security support), and by dampening the West’s willingness to strike against it. It believes that it can achieve both of these goals by localizing its fight against its “near” rivals (here: the Assad regime and to a lesser extent ISIS and “corrupt” domestic secular armed groups), and working alongside nationalist and secular actors, so that it does not appear to present an immediate threat to the West.52 Clearly, having an overtly transnational objective would alienate the Syrian people and fellow rebel groups on whom ANF relies to survive in many parts of the country.
ANF seeks to couch its transnational aims by using a variety of tactics employed at the local level. One such tactic is to create the conditions for a positive relationship between the population and ANF’s foreign members. In a recent statement, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a radical preacher with close ties to ANF, advised foreign fighters to avoid joining the religious police, and instead focus on areas where their interaction with the public was less prone to be confrontational.53 This positive relationship is important for ANF, which is dominated, at least at the top levels, by foreign figures.54 In northern Hama countryside, for example, the majority of mid-level military commanders are local Syrians, while senior commanders are mostly foreign.55 This has thus far allowed ANF to project a Syrian façade to the local population despite its ultimately foreign military and ideological leadership structure.
Another important strategic decision that avoids offending the local population is ANF’s refusal to engage directly in transnational terrorism. Even when AQ sought to exploit the operational space under ANF’s control to plan and stage terror attacks against the West, ANF’s leadership has had little-to-no public connection to the AQ planning cells. The best known example is the so called Khorasan Group, which is believed to be composed of senior AQ operatives planning terror attacks against the West from bases in Syria.56 “Hiding” this group is again likely a calculated, pragmatic decision to prevent alienating the Syrian population and to preserve focus on the immediate near war in Syria.
While ANF has in practice limited itself to the Syrian sphere of battle, international coalition airstrikes on the so-called Khorasan Group,57 and attendant claims about the foreign aspirations of this nebulous group, have raised some doubts among Syrians.58 This matter seems to be of some debate within ANF itself, however, with one of the group’s shar’is, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, saying that al-Qaeda Central (through Abu Yahya al-Libi) informed the group’s Syrian affiliate “not to think of any external action from Syria…out of fear that the West would take [action] as a pretext to intervene in Syria.”59 Qahtani went on to say that al-Libi advised this “even if we thought the West wouldn’t discover it” and warned “against acting in Europe and elsewhere…because this would hurt the Syrian battlefield and the mujahedeen there would be targeted on this account.”60 Notwithstanding Abu Mariya’s statement, ANF Idlib spokesman Abu ‘Azzam al-Ansari said that indeed, al-Qaeda in Syria’s intent was to confront America and that it was the organization’s prerogative to “decide when and where.”61 Nonetheless, ANF has yet to publicly acknowledge the Khorasan Group and little public knowledge exists regarding its structure and intent.
ANF’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda
ANF’s affiliation with AQ remains strong despite calls from within the organization and other opposition armed groups for ANF to disassociate itself from Zawahiri’s transnational network. At this time, ANF policies are heavily influenced, if not totally guided and controlled, by AQ’s top commands, or, as Jawlani has often put it, “directions.”62 ANF’s strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the local population follows al-Zawahri’s guidelines directly.63 AQ-ANF relationship is maintained through senior AQ members within ANF deployed by the former.64 Although ANF was established by ISI, AQ strongly supported ANF following the schism with ISIS, further strengthening the two organizations’ relationship. ANF’s affiliation with AQ is beneficial for the former, not least as it grants ANF access to international funds from AQ sympathizers and access to AQ’s experts, trainers, and other assets. Finally, the presence of veteran AQ operatives with deep AQ ties further strengthens ANF-AQ relations on the individual level, making it even more difficult to imagine ANF ever breaking from AQ.
ANF relations with other opposition armed groups
ANF’s relationships with other armed groups vary from one area to another. The extent to which ANF cooperates with other groups depends on local conditions. ANF tries to maintain minimum criteria for cooperation with armed groups, the most important of which is that partners must enjoy a good reputation while not displaying overt hostility to ANF or publicly renouncing its objectives in Syria. The next section will explore ANF’s relationship with AAS, one of ANF’s most effective partners—and competitors—in Syria, as well as FSA-affiliated groups and other radical jihadi armed groups.
Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya
Although ANF and AAS cooperate closely, their relationship is more complex and tense than might initially be apparent. Militarily, AAS and ANF are close allies. Their alliance in Idlib Province in May 2015 under the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella yielded impressive victories, including the takeover of Idlib city and several important regime military installations. These were arguably the most important military gains by a rebel group since the fall of Raqqa in 2013. ANF and AAS have also cooperated closely in Dar’a and Homs governorates in the past. Nonetheless, ANF and AAS have many political differences and have been competing for dominance in areas of shared control. That has strained their relationship. Further, deep religious differences often surface between the two groups, including on questions of governance, relations with foreign actors, and ANF’s affiliation with AQ (see below).
In Idlib Province, ANF and AAS frequently clash with one another on issues of governance and influence, clashes that have at times resulted in direct military confrontation. One consequence of this “(un)friendly competition” is that AAS is now singularly saddled with the responsibility of checking ANF advances in the province. In January 2015, ANF killed a midlevel AAS shari’ (religious authority) near Binnish city after an argument over the location of a particular ANF checkpoint.65 The top AAS leader at the time, Abu Jabr al-Shaikh, later issued an aggressive statement threatening to confront ANF if the killers were not turned over to AAS.66 While the two did not eventually come to blows, the incident underscores the tensions underlying their alliance.
Similarly, ANF and AAS compete for influence in the governance arena in other areas where they share control. After a joint venture by ANF and AAS yielded the founding of the Islamic Commission to Administer Liberated Areas in Idlib, both groups embarked on expanding their influence through their respective sharia courts around the province, in some cases clashing with one other.67 In April 2015 in Salqin City, for example, AAS played a major role in forcing ANF to end its interference in the local council’s daily operations.68 More recently, AAS prevented ANF from taking over the Saraqeb City local council by force. “Ahrar have always checked Nusra,” a local council member in Idlib Province said in an interview in April 2015. “Without Ahrar, ANF would have taken over everything [in the province],” he added.69
More fundamentally, ANF and AAS differ in their policies. AAS is willing to compromise with external actors. It will consider cooperation with the West to fight ISIS. It coordinates with secular groups. And it has some willingness to compromise on the outlook for Syria’s future government. All of this conflicts with ANF’s core objectives in Syria.70 ANF, in return, sees AAS’s actions as soft and unacceptably flexible, and, importantly, a betrayal of the Salafi-jihadi creed.71 Despite these differences, both groups have been able to forestall full-fledged confrontation, largely due to the presence of a common enemy: the Syrian regime.
ANF’s affiliation with AQ has long been a cause of tension with fellow Salafi-jihadi groups, namely AAS, and with FSA-affiliated groups. AAS has repeatedly called on ANF to disassociate itself from AQ, largely for practical reasons, suggesting that ANF’s association with AQ is taking the Syrian revolution “down the wrong path.”72 The association with AQ is destructive, AAS argues, because of AQ’s counter-productive hostility toward the West and the group’s poor reputation with the Syrian people.73 Taking orders from a Pakistan-based leadership also appears to place AQ’s interests over the driving principles of the revolution. However, ANF needs the material support and institutional knowledge it reaps from its AQ connection and is unlikely to bow to pressure to disassociate.
Although this conflict between ANF and AAS runs deep, internal conflict within AAS has thus far prevented the latter from truly checking ANF’s expansion in Northern Syria. Hard-liners within AAS—mainly members of the shura council—seek to further strengthen relations and cooperation with ANF. On the other hand, more “moderate” members in AAS—often those in its political offices, such as Labib al-Nahhas and Abu ‘Azzam al-Ansari—call for stronger relations with Free Syrian Army factions. This division, at least at this time, plays an important role in limiting AAS’s ability to check ANF’s expansion in northern Syria.
FSA-affiliated armed groups
ANF’s relations with secular FSA-affiliated groups differ markedly from one group to another. In some areas, such as in Homs Province’s northern countryside, ANF cooperates with FSA-affiliated groups—especially those with paltry military capabilities that thus pose no long-term threat to ANF.74 In the north, ANF often allows FSA-affiliated groups to fight on the same fronts, although it does not publicize coordination or cooperation with these groups. Nonetheless, ANF perceives any secular project as a threat to its objectives in Syria. Thus, it maintains only a basic level of cooperation with FSA groups, and eliminates them wherever those groups do not have powerful backers. The evidence for this trend is overwhelming, with several cases of the ANF taking over both powerful and weak FSA-affiliated armed groups when possible, including Division 30, Hazim, Haq Front, Suqoor al-Ghab, Syria Revolutionary Front, Division 13, and several other FSA-affiliated groups.
Other Salafi-Jihadi Groups
On the other hand, ANF maintains close ties with radical armed groups, especially those staffed by AQ veterans. Groups such as Ansar al-Din, Jund al-Aqsa, and Ajnad al-Sham are often included in ANF’s military coalitions, though some are more closely allied than others. The closest ANF ally is Jund al-Aqsa, which was formed by Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Qatari, an AQ veteran who briefly left ANF’s side after the latter group’s split with ISIS.75 Jund al-Aqsa remained neutral in the conflict between ISIS and ANF, and called for reconciliation between the two groups.76 A significant number of foreign fighters who opposed the conflict with ISIS later joined Jund al-Aqsa.77 As a result, Jund al-Aqsa has one of the largest foreign fighter populations of any group, by some estimates surpassing 40 percent.78
Interestingly, Jund al-Aqsa has also exhibited some pro-ISIS tendencies: in 2015, Jund organized a funeral ceremony for a deceased ISIS commander in Idlib Province.79 “They almost joined ISIS last year,” an activist with close ties to ANF said in an interview. “It took a lot of convincing by Nusra to keep Jund [al-Aqsa] from joining ISIS,” he added. Other sources claimed that the relationship between Jund and ISIS is closer. More recently, 40 Jund al-Aqsa fighters reportedly defected to ISIS.80 Thus far, Jund al-Aqasa has not been forced – neither by circumstances nor ANF – to take sides in the ANF-ISIL conflict. This is probably because it lacks direct frontlines with ISIS. If Jund eventually decides to join ISIS, it will be a major blow to ANF – and a major achievement for ISIS—in the heart of its stronghold. Nonetheless, the probability of Jund joining ISIS in the foreseeable future remains unlikely at this time.
ANF also maintains good working relationships with other jihadi groups such as Ajnad al-Sham, Jaysh al-Muhajireen, and Ansar al-Din. Despite their similar ideologies, long- and short-term objectives, and relationships with AQ, these groups have resisted merging into ANF. “Being separate groups gives Nusra and its allies more political power and sway when dealing with other groups,” an activist said in a recent interview.81 The activist explained that remaining nominally separate entities is politically advantageous as in many cases each distinct group is given its own representative in decision-making bodies. This is the case in the Saraqeb city shura council, for example, where ANF and Jund al-Aqsa are both allowed one vote, making them a more powerful voting bloc.82
Factions and Leadership
According to interviewees, and open and closed source reporting, there are roughly three “types” of ANF members: hardliners, centrists, and moderates, the latter also known as “doves” (hamaim). At this time, the hardliners are on the ascendancy, calling for more aggressive policies with respect to other armed groups, namely FSA-affiliated groups and AAS.83 Hardliners also routinely condemn AAS’s willingness to compromise and their acceptance of “modern concepts,” such as human rights and the international state system. Although the hardliners seem to be winning ideological battles within ANF, such as maintaining its relationship with AQ, they have failed to completely dominate ANF’s discourse or policymaking. While they are often accused of being close to ISIS, there is little hard evidence to prove that the group’s hardliners are any more sympathetic to the rival group. The centrists, who are also referred to as the pragmatists, are closer to the hardliners and AQ than the more lenient faction (the “doves”). Chief among them is ANF’s top leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, and Abu ‘Abdullah al-Shami, the ANF’s chief spokesman. Instead of confronting AAS on its political views and objectives, ANF’s centrists attempt to mitigate the conflict or at least delay the confrontation with allies until conditions demand it.
On the organization’s left, the moderates, or “doves,” advocate more cooperation with groups such as AAS and full integration into the Syrian revolutionary forces. Among the most vocal champions of this faction are Abu Maria al-Qahtani and Saleh al-Hamawi, both of whom have been effectively side-lined from ANF for their leniency.84 The doves remain the weakest faction among the three and are unlikely to have significant impact on the ANF’s strategy or outlook going forward, though their presence within the group persists.
Although ANF does not have as complex a media production capability as ISIS, it has thus far succeeded in shaping the local perception of its goals in Syria.85 ANF messaging focuses mainly on presenting itself as a force that serves the Syrian people by fighting the regime, while touting its “true” Islamic credentials. It attempts to differentiate those credentials from ISIS’s more radical methods. This message has remained consistent in its media productions, which mainly report on military gains against the regime and some service provision. “ANF is trying to present itself as an alternative to both ISIS and the regime,” said one activist from Idlib in an interview.86 Most ANF messaging appears to follow from AQ’s strategy to win the hearts and minds of local populations using a less intrusive approach.
The group’s narrative holds that as ANF first emerged from among the smattering of rebel groups, it understood the fight in terms of the duty to “aid oppressed Muslims.” This is both established jihadist rhetoric and a reflection of popular sentiment across the Arab and Muslim world. Echoing this, ANF’s founding statement—released as an audio recording—announced that: “The time of subduing Muslims has ended and gone…The strength of the Islamic umma (nation) has regained its will and determination to defend itself against tyrants and oppressors and to defend its wealth, honour, and the chastity and lives of the faithful.”
From ANF’s rhetoric, however, it is clear that the group conceptualizes nusra differently from ISIS, thereby employing it and justifying it in different ways. In ANF’s understanding of the term, nusra is meant to gradually convince the population of the merits of al-Qaeda’s approach, leading to a more “natural” and non-coercive Islamization of society and of the conflict. The goal, according to top ANF religious official Sami al-‘Uraydi, is to reach the state of Jihad al-Umma, or “Jihad of the Nation” in which all Muslims sincerely participate of their own accord. This goal and modus operandi stands in contrast to Jihad al-Nukhba, “The Elite’s Jihad” in ANF and al-Qaeda terminology, in which a smaller group of ultra-committed jihadis wage war and treat the population according to uncompromising Salafi-jihadi standards. According to ANF and its supporters, this approach risks alienating populations whose support is needed for the Salafi-jihadi project to succeed and should therefore be avoided.
As such, nusra, in ANF’s discourse, must directly contribute to this gradual process of Islamization. To do so, the group must speak to the population in terms that it is more willing to accept, while introducing Salafi-jihadi concepts that the population is expected to eventually internalize. In ANF’s rhetoric, therefore, references to the “Syrian revolution” are common, while they are absent from ISIS releases.87 In its statements, ANF is adamant that its only purpose is to “lift oppression from Muslims” while adding that it seeks to enable “the implementation the law of the Lord.” This understanding of the function of nusra underpins the group’s adaptability to local sensitivities. Finally, this narrative technique is also found in ANF’s messaging about the moderate armed groups it has attacked and destroyed. It refrained from using the term “apostates,” a controversial and religiously-loaded term. Instead ANF frequently described the groups as corruptors and criminals, echoing language used consistently by all factions throughout the revolution to describe enemies such as the regime and its allied militias.
There are no ambiguities in ANF’s long-term objectives in Syria: It seeks to establish what it regards as an Islamic political system that adheres to a strict Salafi interpretation of Islam and is ultimately under the control of ANF itself. The group understands that it cannot achieve these objectives without the population’s support, or without cooperating with other opposition armed groups, at least temporally. Its Syria-only approach, its pragmatic policies toward local actors, and its work with strong opposition armed groups have—for the time-being—allowed the AQ affiliate to achieve its medium-term objective: the establishment of a strong political and military presence, the consolidation of its relations with like-minded armed groups, and the acquisition of popular support. ANF’s long-term objective—an Islamic emirate dominated, if not ruled, by ANF in Syria—is certain to be a more difficult and bloody endeavour.
Yasir Abbas is a senior analyst with The Stabilization Network.