Al-Qaeda(s) in Syria: From foundation to fracture

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A rebel fighter loads a rocket onto a home-made launcher in the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor on February 16, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Ahmad Aboud)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Al-Qaeda entered the fray in Syria sometime between July and August 2011, with the aim of founding and engaging in jihadist action there. Abu Mohammad al-Joulani arrived in Syria with eight delegates from what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq, dispatched by the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The seeds Joulani planted soon sprouted throughout the land, before the bloody split between the two main al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. What follows is the full account of what happened as told by well-placed Islamist sources.

At first, the global jihadist movement was perplexed by the developing crisis in Syria. The image emerging about the events that broke out on March 15, 2011 was still blurry. In the early stages of the Syrian crisis, the jihadists did not intervene. They watched from afar, biding their time before deciding on their next move.

This did not please all jihadists, however, and without an official green light from the “emir,” fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq snuck into Syria. At the time, the leadership of the Iraqi radical Islamic group viewed this as a threat that could lead to cracks and defections within its ranks, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi prohibited his followers from going into Syria initially, deeming anyone who violates this order a defector.

To Baghdadi, the situation was not yet clear and the jihadists had to wait and see. However, these measures only served to heighten the restlessness among the jihadists, and did not stop those among them who were not affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq from continuing to cross into Syria.

Al-Qaeda had no real infrastructure in Syria yet, with the exception of some sleeper cells that predated the conflict. Their function was limited to providing logistical support for jihadists passing from Syria to Iraq – including providing safe houses and facilitating transport – rather than engaging in combat with Syrian security forces.

Still, the jihadists were itching to join the fight in Syria, prompting Baghdadi’s aide, Colonel Haji Bakr, to put forward the idea of ​​forming a group of non-Iraqis that could go and fight in Syria, which would be led by a Syrian national. The aim was to prevent Iraqis from joining the Syrian front without prior authorization, and prevent defection by Iraqis from the Islamic State of Iraq, while at the same time allowing the new group in Syria to recruit non-Iraqis.

Between July and August 2011, the military council of the Islamic State of Iraq sent Abu Mohammad al-Joulani to Syria with eight other individuals, including, most notably, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of the most prominent Sharia jurists in al-Nusra Front today. Their mission was to lay the foundations for a jihadist organization that would be an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was their exclusive source of financial support and armaments at the time.

The nine delegates did not settle in one particular place, although the first nucleus of their efforts would take shape in the Idlib governorate, before moving to Aleppo and Deir al-Zour. Al-Nusra Front gradually spread out from these three governorates into the rest of Syria, until the group became the spearhead of the armed opposition. Most of the operations carried out by al-Nusra Front fighters were based on a combination of guerilla warfare and suicide attacks.

The main hurdle al-Nusra Front faced in the beginning had to do with recruiting fighters. Once that was resolved, al-Nusra was unstoppable. According to one al-Nusra leader, al-Qaeda was not initially welcome among the Syrians. However, he said, successive suicide attacks eventually won them over.

On January 24, 2012, Joulani went public, announcing to the Islamic nation the “good news:” the formation of the Front for the Nusra [support] of the Syrian people by means of jihad, in an exclusive video that Al-Akhbar published at the time before it was shown on jihadist forums. Less than a month later, on February 12, 2012, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri appealed in a video message to “mujahidin” from around the world to “mobilize” to Syria. Afterwards, the jihadi influx to Syria began in earnest, as Zawahiri’s appeal brought hundreds of fighters into Syria to fight with al-Nusra Front.

However, this soon proved to be a double-edged sword: Al-Nusra Front accepted too readily anyone who applied to join, allowing dozens of spies to infiltrate its ranks.

Any Ansari [partisan] – a term given to Syrian recruits – was allowed to enroll, after being vouched for by a member of the group. Subsequently, the enrollee would be given military training and Sharia lessons. Meanwhile, “immigrant mujahidin,” i.e. foreigners, needed to be vouched for by trustworthy individuals in their home countries.

According to sources, the greatest number of spies who were executed had worked for Jordanian intelligence. This prompted the leadership of al-Nusra to limit new enrollments, and stop admitting any foreigners into the organization. In parallel, to prevent Saudi-funded groups from poaching foreign jihadists, Zawahiri personally charged Abu Khaled al-Souri with overseeing the Ahrar al-Sham Movement.

Al-Nusra Front quickly rose to fame, in a matter of months after its formation. Despite being lumped together with al-Qaeda initially, many were impressed by its modus operandi, which departed from that of the global organization of al-Qaeda. For instance, al-Nusra Front would conceal the features of its casualties in its video announcements, while al-Qaeda usually showed them off. Some symbols in the Syrian opposition accused al-Nusra Front of collaborating with the Syrian regime at the beginning because of this, before realising the purpose of disguising the faces of its fallen fighters was to protect their families from regime retribution.

During that time, al-Nusra Front still reported to Baghdadi as the general commander, until Baghdadi instructed the emir of al-Nusra Front to attack a Turkish hotel during a meeting of the Syrian opposition there. Joulani advised against this, saying the attack would force Turkey to seal off its crossings to al-Nusra Front, and block the flow of money and weapons to the group.

Joulani disobeyed Baghdadi’s orders repeatedly after that. Baghdadi took this to be a mutiny, but he did not disclose this at first. To test Joulani’s loyalty, Baghdadi declared in April 2013 that the Islamic State of Iraq was going to merge with al-Nusra Front in a new group to be called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, Joulani refused the merger and did not join the new entity.

The quarrel split the jihadists in Syria. Seeking “legal” cover for his move, Joulani took the matter to the emir of global jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ordered al-Nusra Front to remain in Syria and the Islamic State to remain in Iraq. But Baghdadi did not consent to the deal; in his view, he was within his rights while Joulani was a traitor.

The dispute between the two men evolved into a spat between various jihadist emirs around the world. Soon enough, the crisis deteriorated into armed clashes among the adherents of the same ideology, claiming hundreds of lives, and portending a “jihadist world war” involving mainly two “legitimate descendants” of al-Qaeda: Al-Nusra Front, which derives its legitimacy from its loyalty to the historical leadership represented by Zawahiri; and ISIS, which derives its legitimacy from its affiliation to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, led by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but also from its control over territory. This, in jihadist ideology, allows it to establish an Islamic statelet, meaning that other groups would have to submit to its orders.

In short, there is a war in Syria today between al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda.

Al-Nusra Front in Homs

Homs was the last governorate that al-Qaeda would enter. Six envoys sent by Joulani came to Homs, led by a man known as Abu al-Ainaa. The group used the town of Qusayr as its base, and began appealing to opposition fighters to pledge allegiance to al-Nusra.

At the beginning, al-Nusra Front was not popular. The majority of militants were fighting in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) back then. This continued until al-Nusra Front carried out the biggest suicide attack in Syria’s history: on January 23, 2013, the Syrian man known as Abu Islam al-Shami drove a truck rigged with 20 tons of explosives into the military base of Al-Mashtal in Qusayr.

Following the successful attack, 300 fighters joined al-Nusra. Later on, they spread out in the villages of the Qalamoun mountain range. Abu Malek al-Talla would later be appointed as their emir, and would eventually lead the Battle of Qalamoun against the Syrian army and Hezbollah.

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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