January 27, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda’s Growing Strength in Syria
The attention being rightfully paid to the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria has allowed the actions of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria to slip under the public’s radar. This is unfortunate since not only is Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) directly tied to al-Qaeda Central—led by Ayman al-Zawahiri—but also because the group has so deeply inserted itself into the Syrian civil war that removing it will likely be more difficult than removing the Islamic State.
JN has achieved success in Syria not by being moderate compared to the Islamic State but by coopting and cooperating with other rebel groups fighting to topple the Assad regime. It forms tenuous alliances with rebel groups based on the common goal of fighting Assad’s forces but then turns on the rebel group when the timing fits. JN also has a troubling ability to plant its people inside other organizations. The November 2014 collapse of the Western-backed rebel group led by Jamal Maarouf was partly the result of mass infiltration by JN fighters—a tactic that the group has used again and again. This should be a continuing concern as regional and international efforts to train and arm ‘moderate’ rebels increase over the coming year. This is not a hypothetical notion: released hostage Peter Theo Curtis wrote about the tragic intermingling of Free Syrian Army (FSA) and JN fighters in Western-supported training camps. JN will certainly push hard to insert its people into the training pipeline.
Another reason JN has slipped below the radar is the oft-repeated belief that the Islamic State is too violent for AQ and JN, and that JN therefore must be comparatively moderate. This notion that JN isn't as violent as the Islamic State is wrong; both groups follow the extremism of bin Ladinism, though the former uses a bullet while the latter prefers a blade—or worse. Indeed, in mid-January the Islamic State produced a video of its members stoning a woman to death for the alleged crime of adultery; the same week JN released a video of its members shooting two women to death for the same alleged offense—stylistic differences applied to the same violent ideology and goals.
JN presents several serious challenges to all parties seeking peace in Syria, as well as serious challenges to counterterrorism agencies. The U.S military airstrikes have repeatedly gone after members of the “Khorasan Group,” a term to denote fighters and trainers who traveled from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Syria under the direction of AQ Central. These fighters would pose a lethal threat if they are able to find relative sanctuary in which to plot and plan.
Yet it is the local members of JN that will likely pose a longer-term threat to Syria and the region. JN is an indigenous entity in ways that the Islamic State could never be, nor would it ever care to emulate. Where the Islamic State seeks a fight against all, JN and AQ Central are playing the long game in Syria, establishing ties through familial and tribal lines that will last even as the group occasionally turns on rival rebel groups. By successfully fighting the Assad regime and coopting rival groups while letting the Islamic State claim the mantle of barbarity, JN/AQ is preparing for a lengthy stay. Any approach to ending the Syrian civil war by defeating the Assad regime will confront the uncomfortable reality that JN is the best-positioned group fighting Assad now and won’t be easily replaced. This means that a military solution to Syria—which is neither certain nor imminent—would involve al-Qaeda, regardless of the name.
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