Syria’s most prominent jihadist organization, the Nusra Front, is creating a base for al-Qaida in the heart of the Middle East from which waves of terrorism and radical subversion will likely ripple out and threaten regional and global security.
This is according to a report issued this week by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center near Tel Aviv.
A team of researchers from the center spent a year composing the 150-page document, which charts in remarkable detail the rise of the Nusra Front as well as its structure, leadership, size, scope of operations, ideological goals and growing geographic spheres of influence.
The report provides assessments of the threat the group poses in the near-, medium and long-term future.
Dr. Reuven Erlich, the head of the center, told The Jerusalem Post there was no doubt that the Nusra Front posed a significant strategic threat. He emphasized the quick pace of its growth in Syria and compared this to the time it took al-Qaida to become entrenched in Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s.
“What took 10 years to happen in Afghanistan occurred in Syria within a year or two,” said Erlich, a reserve colonel who served in a range of capacities in IDF Military Intelligence. “Syria is in heart of Middle East and in the backyard of Europe, and borders Israel. Geo-politically, it’s more central than Afghanistan and Pakistan. This makes the threat potential very high.”
He cautioned that Syria would soon begin exporting terrorism.
“If we compare this to a plague, at the moment we’re looking at the incubation phase in the body,” added Erlich, who also lectures at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “But after incubation it will spread – to the region and then to the whole world.”
The Salafi jihadist network known as the Nusra Front is the official al-Qaida branch in Syria. It is seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in a greater Syria defined as Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the report noted.
The good news is that the group’s chances of creating a caliphate are low, according to the researchers. The bad news, they said, is that its growing presence will threaten the region and beyond for years to come.
Syria’s multi-ethnic, religiously diverse population and tradition of secular Arab nationalism mean al-Nusra probably will not be able to realize its dream of an Islamic empire, but it is set to become a dominant player among rebel groups, which “will be an important factor in shaping the Syrian religious-sectarian character, destabilize Syria, and make it difficult for any Syrian regime to govern,” the report stated.
The Nusra Front is already one of the most prominent rebel organizations in Syria due to its operational capabilities and influence among the population, it stresses.
Currently, the group’s top priority is toppling President Bashar Assad, not imposing Islamic religious law.
“To that end, the organization often tries to behave pragmatically, joining with other rebel organizations,” the study found.
The Nusra Front plans to target Israel from the Syrian Golan, the researchers said, adding that the organization “can be expected to establish an operative terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights, a continuation of military infrastructure it is currently constructing in Deraa,” the southwestern city where the anti-Assad uprising began in 2011.
“In our assessment, Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist organizations may integrate themselves into terrorist attacks from the Golan Heights despite the fundamental ideological differences between them.”
The Nusra Front does not yet have a significant military foothold on the Golan but has carried out a suicide bomb attack on the military intelligence headquarters of Assad’s military in the Kuneitra Governorate, which includes the Syria-held portion of the Golan.
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The group will also try to join fellow jihadist networks in other areas bordering Israel, such as Ansar Bayt-al-Maqdis in Sinai, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, and the Mujahideen Shura Council in Gaza Strip, according to the report.
It will set out to subvert pro- Western Arab and Muslim states, including those that support Syrian rebels, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.
The report noted the formation of a second Salafi jihadist organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, which is subordinate to al-Qaida in Iraq.
“The two branches together have an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 operatives in our assessment, and the number is growing,” the authors of the report wrote.
The head of al-Qaida’s central leadership, Ayman al-Zawahiri, claimed the Nusra Front as his official representative in Syria in June.
Today, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria are antagonistic to one another.
The Nusra Front is led Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who possibly hails from the Syrian Golan and rules over network of fighters and local subordinates in Syria’s cities and districts. He is a veteran of jihadist battles against US forces in Iraq, and a former follower of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who set up al-Qaida in Iraq a decade ago.
Julani arrived in Syria following the start of the rebellion against Assad, entering from Iraq to establish the Nusra Front. He was joined by senior Iraq-based al-Qaida operatives.
Rank and file members of the group are a mix of Syrians and foreign volunteers from the Arab/Muslim world. They number in the thousands.
There are between 500 and 600 European Muslim volunteers, mainly from France and the UK, the report said.
“Those who survive are expected to return to their home countries when the fighting is over and spread jihad to their native countries,” the authors said.
The front’s top body is called the Consulting Council of Jihad Fighters.
Its leadership is made up of staff dealing with military operations, fundraising, weapons acquisitions and smuggling, religious affairs and public relations. Fighting units are usually called battalions or companies.
The report mapped out the Nusra Front’s presence in Syria, noting that it was strongest in the north and east, where the Assad regime has collapsed. The group has “set up local administrations, and provides basic public services, to gain peoples’ trust,” the document said.
Areas under al-Nusra influence are known as “liberated zones,” it added. In these areas, al-Nusra personnel, seeking to avoid alienating the population as al-Qaida did in Iraq, distribute food, clothing and blankets. They operate legal, policing, educational and health systems.
In some places residents have complained about a strict code of Shari’a-based conduct.
The group is weakest on the Mediterranean coast, where the ruling Alawite population is located; in the Tartus and Latakia regions; and in the Druse region of Suwayda in southern Syria.
Al-Nusra focuses most of its attacks on greater Damascus and on northern and eastern Syria in places such as Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deir al-Zor. Its actions are guerrilla- terrorist campaigns against bases, facilities and figures affiliated with the Syrian army and regime, the report said. Fighters seek to “sever connections between various regime-owned regions, and disrupt their ability to govern.”
Tactics include suicide car bombings, roadside bombs, suicide bombers on foot, and firing on bases and airfields with light arms and mortars. Security checkpoints are a frequent target.
“Suicide bombings are a signature brand” of al-Nusra and are operationally effective, but have resulted in negative public relations among other Syrian rebels, the West and Arab-Muslim countries seeking to support the rebels, the report said.
Syrian noncombatants have been killed in al-Nusra bombings.
In northern Syria, the front and its allies control vital national facilities such as oil and gas fields, as well as pipelines, dams, power plants and grain silos, the researchers found. The jihadists operate the facilities, “sometimes in tacit agreement with the Syrian regime,” and go on to sell oil and gas to the Assad regime.
The profits “provide monthly income to pay operatives a monthly salary, buy weapons and assist the population,” the report said.
The center identified an ongoing effort to take over the Assad regime’s weapons depots, adding that there was an “increasing danger that weapons of the Syrian army, including advanced systems, may fall into jihadist hands. They may also be able to acquire weapons supplied to the FSA [Free Syrian Army].”
Chemical and biological weapons “may fall into the hands of the Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations. They may use them for terrorist attacks in the absence of the considerable restraint that influence other terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist organizations.”
The Nusra Front has enjoyed an “ad hoc collaboration” with the secular nationalist Free Syrian Army, the main rebel group that has an estimated 50,000 fighters.
“The morning after Assad falls, and perhaps before, a violent struggle is liable to break out to determine the nature and image of the future Syrian regime, in which the Nusra Front is expected to play an important role,” the report said.
The report is the latest in a series of in-depth studies by the center, a part of the Israeli Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center, which looks at radical entities in the region. Past reports have focused on Hezbollah and the Quds Force, Iran’s overseas covert war and terrorism unit.