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Syria is now home to the largest and most capable concentration of Sunni jihadist militants anywhere in the world, and it will be for a long time to come. Whatever progress the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) makes in the coming months, the sheer chaos and destruction resulting from five years of conflict ensure that instability will reign supreme in Syria for years to come. And here, jihadists have the most to gain.
In March 2011, Syrian men, women, and children took to the streets, holding hands and chanting about the need for political reform and freedom from repression. Their calls were greeted with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live automatic gunfire. The increasingly violent and indiscriminate suppression of peaceful demonstrations—and events like the horrific torturing to death of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb in Daraa—turned a protest movement into a revolution.
The regime’s subsequent escalation gave birth to the Free Syrian Army, both as a force to protect civilian demonstrations and to retaliate against the regime for its crimes. Violence bred more violence; five years later, roughly half a million Syrians are dead and over half the population has been displaced, both within the country (6.6 million) and outside (4.6 million).
Although the eruption of popular protest, regime violence, and civil war created conditions under which jihadist militancy could thrive, Syria had already been fertile ground for Sunni extremism. For many years prior to 2011, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had maintained a consistently flirtatious relationship with Sunni jihadists. Damascus aimed at manipulating them into acting as proxies for Syria’s foreign policy agenda.
The scale and nature of the relationship were best exemplified during the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2010. As U.S. troops plodded their first steps on Iraqi soil, Syria’s regime-appointed grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, issued a nationwide fatwa making it fardh ayn (religiously obligatory) for all Syrian Muslims, male and female, to resist the “occupying forces” through any means, including suicide bombings.
In turn, during the first weeks of the Iraqi invasion, Syrian military intelligence facilitated the transportation of busloads of young men through the eastern governorates of Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor and waved them across Iraq’s abandoned border posts. Some reports suggested that as many as 5,000 such jihadist recruits crossed into Iraq in the invasion’s first 11 days. A further 1,000 Palestinians from the Yarmouk camp outside Damascus joined the Iraqi jihad two days later. Shortly thereafter, British Special Air Service commandos detained four busloads of Syrian passport holders as they crossed into Iraq from Syria.
A key figure in mobilizing Syrians to do their jihadist duty was Mahmoud Oul al-Ghassi (Abu al-Qaqaa), who happened to be in the pocket of Syria’s intelligence apparatus. According to a senior Aleppo police official quoted in the Syrian Jihad, Qaqaa had been brought to a local administrative building by intelligence officers shortly after arriving in the city in the late 1990s.
The man was dressed like a Pakistani and barely spoke a word. . . . The officer spoke on his behalf. We were instructed to produce a local ID card, a driving license, and other documents for him, but without any registered address or other personal information. This was illegal in Syria, so we knew straightaway, despite his youth and foreign appearance, that we were dealing with someone important. It was only years later that we realised who we had helped.
By 2003, Qaqaa had developed a powerful following that was becoming difficult for the Syrian state to covertly control. Friday prayers and associated gatherings would frequently assume hostility to Western modernity, secularism, and, on occasion, Shiites and Alawites—all of which in some way contrasted with Assad’s rule in Syria. The Iraq invasion thus came at a perfect time. Qaqaa’s jihadist followers could be exported to do the regime’s bidding in fighting the so-called Great Satan’s occupying forces across Syria’s eastern borders. As the occupation set in next door, Syria became the number one transit route for jihadists from around the world heading to do battle. Through al Qaeda facilitators such as Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih (Abu Ghadiyah) and with the full knowledge of Syrian intelligence, hundreds upon hundreds of jihadists were funneled into Iraq to attack U.S. soldiers. Without help from Damascus, al Qaeda in Iraq, which became the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and then ISIS, would have been shadows of the forces they later became. More important, dozens if not hundreds of U.S. soldiers would still be alive today.
The Assad regime’s strategy of nurturing Sunni jihadist militants before eventually exporting them saw itself replicated in Lebanon, when the beginnings of the U.S. surge in Iraq pushed jihadists back into Syria. Using its extensive connections with Lebanese jihadist groups—Asbat al-Ansar (in the southern city of Sidon) and Fatah al-Islam (in Tripoli, in the north)—Syria’s intelligence apparatus used its jihadist connections to encourage the exporting of hundreds of formerly Iraq-based militants into Lebanon. Attacks against figures with anti-Syrian agendas subsequently intensified in the country. Matters then came to a head in Tripoli, when the Lebanese army declared war on Fatah al-Islam, eventually defeating the group in a three-month fight that left 400 people dead.
Many of those Jaish al-Fatah militants who survived the group’s defeat in Tripoli’s Nahr al-Bared refugee camp then fled back to Syria. Ironically, their frustration at having been abandoned by their Syrian manipulators resulted in a series of attacks against regime targets in 2007, most of which went unreported by Syria’s tightly controlled media. Unsurprisingly, the heightened threat sparked yet another export of jihadists back to Iraq through 2007–08, during which more than 100 militants were entering the country from Syria every month. Injured ISI commanders even received medical treatment in Damascus hospitals.
As protests against Assad’s rule grew in early 2011, the regime in Damascus issued two amnesties, in which as many as 1,000 detainees linked to Islamist and jihadist activities were released from high-security prisons. This was not a conciliatory measure but a cynical attempt to Islamize the opposition and justify Assad’s claim to be fighting an extremist uprising. Many of those released went on to form Islamist opposition groups such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, but others went on to play a much more sinister role.
As the very first signs of a popular Syrian armed resistance began to emerge, an Iraqi jihadist known as Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr) had an epiphany: Syria looked ripe for exploitation. As the trusted deputy of ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Haji Bakr proposed sending the group’s leader in Mosul into Syria to secretly establish a Syrian wing for the terrorist group. And so, several weeks later, late at night in August 2011, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani crossed into Syria’s Hasakah governorate with six other senior leaders. One of them, Maysar Ali Musa Abdullah al-Juburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), was already familiar with Syria, having undergone surgery there a year earlier.
These seven jihadist commandos exploited Syria’s already well-developed network of safe houses to bring together the many extremists recently released from prison by the regime. By October, Jabhat al-Nusra had been secretly established. Although this ISI front group was initially immensely unpopular within Syria’s opposition—it was accused of being another regime ploy to discredit the revolution—its gradual growth saw it become, by early 2013, one of the most powerful and influential armed groups fighting against the Assad regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra and other more exclusively Syrian Islamist groups also benefited from the return of the so-called Hama Generation—that is, those who had fled Syria during former President Hafez al-Assad’s war on the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many such families had ended up in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Europe, and some of their children had joined jihadist struggles in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. A great many of these jihadist sons traveled home to Syria for the first time in decades in 2011–12 and are now leading figures in Jabhat al-Nusra and a host of other Syrian groups.
Once civil war had set in by mid-2012, Syria also began to attract hordes of jihadists from around the world who sought to fight—and die—in Bilad al-Sham, the much prophesied gathering place for the final battle against the infidels before the end of the world. From the Umayyad Mosque’s white minaret to Damascus’ Ghouta suburbs and the northern village of Dabiq, Syria exerted an especially powerful pull on jihadists’ heartstrings.
That the Assad regime had done so much in the previous years to build a jihadist infrastructure meant that in all respects, the chickens had come home to roost.
In Syria’s fertile soil, Jabhat al-Nusra grew increasingly independent of the leadership in Iraq, which had been supplying it with 50 percent of its monthly financial needs. By late 2012, Haji Bakr—nicknamed “Knight of the Silencers” for his command of a mass campaign of assassinations of ISI commanders suspected of potential disloyalty—had become frustrated, or perhaps envious, of Jabhat al-Nusra’s success. Upon his suggestion, Baghdadi, head of ISI, sent a secret letter to Jolani, head of Jabhat al-Nusra, ordering Jolani to publicly announce his links and allegiance to ISI. Not wanting to lose influence or face, Jabhat al-Nusra refused the order.
Infuriated, Haji Bakr traveled into Syria alongside chief ISI spokesman Taha Sobhi Falaha (Abu Mohammed al-Adnani) and set up a secret base in northern Aleppo. Once there, they set about learning the lay of the land and acquiring allies from within Jabhat al-Nusra and other foreign fighter–heavy jihadist movements. Some of these allies were sent to spy on Jolani himself. Having secured a safe route from Iraq, Baghdadi then crossed into Syria in February 2013 and joined his two colleagues. In a series of secret meetings, Baghdadi secured the allegiance of a significant majority of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leading foreign commanders and those under their respective commands.
Baghdadi then announced to the world in April 2013 that not only had Jabhat al-Nusra been born out of ISI but that it would now be subsumed into an expanded group, incorporating Syria. Thus, ISIS was born and the world of Sunni jihad fractured. Al Qaeda’s central leadership initially ordered both groups to stay in their respective countries, before eventually siding with Jabhat al-Nusra. By early 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS were avowed enemies on the battlefield and al Qaeda had disavowed any and all links to ISIS and Baghdadi.
The Syrian jihad has therefore given way to two competing transnational jihadist movements: ISIS and al Qaeda. Since expanding into Syria in April 2013 and declaring its caliphate in June 2014, ISIS has become a formidable jihadist organization with an official presence in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, and Yemen and militant supporters in several more countries. Presenting itself as the practitioner of twenty-first-century jihad, ISIS espouses a truly absolutist ideology that seeks to achieve every objective as fast as possible, no matter what it takes.
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has undergone a significant strategic evolution in recent years. Faced by the challenge posed by the Arab Spring, al Qaeda has focused on embedding affiliates into existing conflict zones and then nurturing vulnerable communities into being viable hosts for a future Islamic state. Early attempts in Yemen (2010–11) and Mali (2011) failed, but Jabhat al-Nusra has led the way since 2012 in demonstrating the value of this long-game approach. In fact, by temporarily renouncing the harshest of sharia laws; by sustaining a multilateralist approach to populist action; and by demonstrating its superior value on the battlefield, Jabhat al-Nusra has gradually socialized civilians and other more moderate insurgents into acting as a protective gate around the group in Syria.
Al Qaeda would appear, therefore, to have grown roots in Syria that are considerably more durable than ISIS’. Although that will benefit Jabhat al-Nusra in the long term, the deteriorating conditions inside Syria and the increasing intractability and complexity of the conflict provide opportunities for both jihadist actors to exploit. Should the internationally backed political process advance in the coming months, Jabhat al-Nusra will find itself more excluded than it has been since early 2012, but its deep roots in Syria’s northwestern Idlib governorate will provide it with a long-term safe haven. ISIS, meanwhile, looks likely to face a more concerted threat to its territories in Syria in the coming year, but the group has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to survive against the odds and to fight another day.
The West has underestimated ISIS once before, and it should not do so again. That lesson, however, has sparked an unhealthy obsession with ISIS at the expense of an appreciation of the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra. As an avowed al Qaeda affiliate led by dozens of veteran terrorist commanders, this one-time ISIS front group will likely be an adversary of Syrians, of the region, and the West for many years to come.