Jabhat al-Nusra reveals its true nature

Jabhat al-Nusra appears to be following in the footsteps of its main rival the Islamic State, amid claims it is taking border towns and establishing an emirate.

al-monitor Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra members look out for warplanes on Al-Khazan frontline of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, May 17, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Hamid Khatib.

Topics covered

syria, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, al-qaeda

Jul 23, 2014

The true face of Jabhat al-Nusra has been revealed after it failed to conceal its true motives. This was due to pressure on the ground, which has put its existence at stake following a major loss in Syria’s eastern region.

The movement has made considerable efforts to compensate for the loss, even if the price was to drop its mask and show its real face — a face that is similar, to a large extent, to its archenemy the Islamic State (IS).

Reports suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra’s new policy of fighting other factions under the pretext that they are mufsideen [evildoers] is similar to the general approach of al-Qaeda International. This has been applied in many countries depending on the developments on the field.

In the framework of a policy of confrontation, Jabhat al-Nusra continues its fight against other factions in the countryside of Idlib. In this context, yesterday [July 22] the group seized control of the city of Haram on the border with Turkey. The city serves as an important strategic location and as a border crossing to smuggle oil, among other products, following short and mild clashes with factions affiliated with the Syria Revolutionaries Front, which led to their withdrawal.

Jabhat al-Nusra also controls the towns of Salqin and Azmarin and had previously seized the areas of Hafsarjah and al-Zanbaqa, among other regions, in the western countryside.

Two weeks ago, the group started what it called a "campaign to cleanse the north of bandits and thieves"’ referring to the Free Army factions and those close to the National Coalition, which the movement sees as a collaborator with the United States.

However, the actual goal behind the campaign in the north is to fulfill Jabhat al-Nusra's search for funding to compensate for the loss of the oil fields in Deir ez-Zor.

Controlling the border crossings is seen as a relatively acceptable alternative because this would allow the group to control the entry of arms shipments and other products. This is not to mention the group’s desire to entrench its presence and control a separate area where it can apply Sharia, according to its vision, as claimed by its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani.

Yet, the Ahrar al-Sham movement, surprisingly, did not show any objection to the statement of Golani regarding the establishment of an Islamic emirate. On the contrary, the group has been participating in Jabhat al-Nusra's military operations in the countryside of Idlib, with the support of other factions such as the Sham Legion and al-Safwa Brigade. This could suggest that Ahrar al-Sham has made up its mind to follow in the footsteps of Jabhat al-Nusra. However, the Army of Islam, which is the most prominent partner of Ahrar al-Sham in the Islamic Front, did not hide its doubts regarding the [proclamation of the emirate] by Jabhat al-Nusra and required them to provide further clarification to this effect.

It is expected that this new policy is likely to cause major confrontation between Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and their allies, on the one hand, and between other large factions on the other — mainly the Syria Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm Movement. These confrontations are likely to take place along the lines of the clashes in the eastern region, as the same scenario could play out once again.

The explosion of the vehicle transporting leaders from the Hazzm Movement, on July 21 in the western countryside of Aleppo, killing three of them, has been seen as a prelude to these confrontations.

It seems that Jabhat al-Nusra's policy to fight "mufsideen" is more than an analogy to the tactics of IS, as there are reports suggesting that this policy has been applied upon the directives of al-Qaeda International leaders.

In this context, it seems remarkable that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has announced a similar move in a statement, which read, “Warning the mufsideen in the state of Hadhramaut,” in Yemen. This raises questions as to the position of al-Qaeda on the proclamation of the caliphate by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the moves he is planning on taking in this regard.

It seems that al-Qaeda is likely to take similar steps by establishing emirates in the regions under its control, which would reduce the margin of difference between al-Qaeda and IS, while for the past three years al-Qaeda has been trying to appear more moderate and less extremist than IS.

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