How Jordanians Came to Dominate al-Nusra Front

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A picture taken on October 25, 2013 shows members of jihadist group al-Nusra Front taking part in a parade in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood of Aleppo. AFP/Karam al-Masri

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Friday, January 16, 2015

Jordanians have played a central role in al-Nusra Front since its inception. After the “jihadist divorce” between al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jordanian emigrants have enjoyed the lion’s share of power in the group’s chain of command.

The Syrian war has been a fertile breeding ground for new jihadists, as well as a popular stomping ground for old ones. Jordanians have had a prominent presence among these fighters from early on in the Syrian war. This is both a result of “Jordan’s long jihadist history” (veteran jihadists), and the long border between Syria and Jordan (375 kilometers, over 233 miles), which has allowed many new jihadists to get into Syria, as well as the “religious guidance” of influential jihadist figures who reside in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Jordan and al-Nusra Front

Al-Nusra Front was one of the first jihadist organizations to emerge publicly on the Syrian scene as a kind of “al-Qaeda emissary.” The discord between ISIS and al-Qaeda had yet to surface, at this point. Both parties nurtured the newborn, and it was natural for Jordanians to play a central role, given their prominence within al-Qaeda.

From the early stages of “underground activity” — when Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra Front’s emir, began operating in Syria — Jordanian Salafi jihadism played a key role in mobilizing “emigrants” and recruiting them for al-Nusra. This was around the same time that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched key Jordanian jihadist figures to their native country to “organize volunteers and work on recruiting Jordanian emigrants.” They included Mustafa Saleh Abdel Latif (Abu Anas al-Sahaba) and Iyad al-Toubasi (Abu Julaibib). A jihadist source told Al-Akhbar that “the first organized mobilization within the ranks of al-Nusra consisted of the Jordanian emigrant brothers.” The source said that “the first wave of Jordanian emigrants began to arrive around July 2011. Some brothers had already arrived on an individual basis, but the organized mobilization began around that time.”

According to several jihadist sources, the city of Zarqa (from which Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly hailed) was like a major artery pumping new blood into al-Nusra. One source told Al-Akhbar, that “the emigrants did not differentiate between al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. They headed to Syria knowing they were going to fight within the ranks of al-Qaeda in support of the Syrian people.”

In addition to the leaders sent by Baghdadi, a number of Salafi clerics living in Zarqa played a central role in “mobilizing the mujahideen and training them in Islamic law. One of those clerics is Sheikh Munif Samara.” Another figure who played an eminent role in this context is a senior Jordanian leader of the Islamic Action Front, Abu Seif al-Urduni (Ahmed Harbi al-Obeidi), who died recently under torture at a detention center that belongs to al-Nusra Front itself. Obeidi’s death prompted jihadist sources to reveal the role he played in “mobilizing hundreds of Jordanian fighters more than three years ago and bringing them into Daraa.”

Emirs in military and Islamic law

The most influential Jordanian among al-Nusra’s founding generation was “general military emir” Abu Samir al-Urduni (some jihadists claim he is Abu Anas al-Sahaba, while other jihadist sources maintain that the two are separate individuals). A view common among ranks opposed to al-Nusra Front asserts that “the actual al-Nusra leadership has been in the hands of Jordanian emirs since the group’s inception, and Julani serves as a front to avoid angering the Syrian mujahideen.” Another crucial figure is al-Nusra’s spiritual leader, Dr. Sami al-Aridi, who has been an important player in the group since its inception. More information has come about him since he appeared in one of al-Nusra’s publications as its top theologian.

Strong presence in Daraa and Ghouta

Jordanians constitute the backbone of al-Nusra Front in Daraa and the surrounding areas, where Abu al-Miqdad al-Urduni emerged as one of the prominent military leaders. Among the new emirs who have emerged since is Abu Umair al-Urduni, who was recently declared “emir of al-Nusra Front in Daraa.”

Jordanians also enjoy a strong presence in the Ghouta area, where rising star al-Walid is al-Nusra’s emir, who is accused by jihadist sources opposed to al-Nusra of being “a former Jordanian intelligence officer.” Other leading figures are Abu Khadija al-Urduni, the general judge in Ghouta; Abu al-Baraa, the emir of Western Ghouta; and Abu Abdallah al-Urduni, the religious leader of Western Ghouta.

In Aleppo, Mutaz al-Sukhna has emerged as the field commander; opponents accuse him of being “the son of a general in the Jordanian army.” Then there is Abu al-Miqdad, the military leader of Idlib, who was the emir of Idlib and Abu Akrama. A few days ago, Abu Qudama al-Urduni — emir of Harim and Salqin — was declared dead during the recent attack on the villages of Nubl and al-Zahraa in the Aleppo countryside.

High-ranking religious authorities

Al-Nusra Front’s most prominent religious authorities also come from Jordan or reside in the kingdom. Such figures include Abu Mohammed al-Atawi, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada and Abu Sayyaf (Mohammed al-Shalabi), who has told jihadist and media sources that he “actively participated in establishing al-Nusra Front.”

The influence of al-Nusra’s Jordanian ground contingent grew with the increased media activity of religious authorities in Jordan, at the height of the “jihadist civil war” between al-Nusra and ISIS. This led to the Jordanian emirs’ domination of al-Nusra. (Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi issued messages and edicts from inside Jordanian prisons. Some believe that the Jordanian authorities made a deal with Maqdisi and other clerics, granting them certain privileges in the hope of guiding al-Nusra in a way that agrees with Jordanian interests.)

Martyrdom is more honorable than imprisonment

A jihadist source told Al-Akhbar that “most Jordanian emigrants with previous experience received primary training before their mobilization.” According to another source, “the Jordanian emir, Abu Harith al-Hiyari, who was one of the first military emirs in Jordan, refused to accept people who had not received training.”

There is no doubt that volunteers attended jihadist training camps inside Jordan. Some sources argue that “the official role was limited to turning a blind eye to them,” while other sources confirm that they were established in the first place “under indirect official supervision through members and officers.”

Jordanian authorities have arrested fighters returning from Syria and charged them with crimes, whose sentences range from three to seven years. Paradoxically, the most common charge against fighters returning from Syria lately has been “disturbing relations with a friendly nation,” usually punishable by a five-year prison sentence. This prompts many Jordanians to stay in Syria, even if they die in battle, because “martyrdom is more honorable than imprisonment by unbelievers,” as a jihadist source told Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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