Jabhat al-Nusrah

Organisation

Jabhat al-Nusrah

Jabhat al-Nusrah is the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria and one of the country's most powerful jihadi groups.

The group was formed in 2011 as a Syrian vanguard of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq), when the group's emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now leader of ISIS, sent Abu Muhammad al-Jolani to manage and bring together disparate jihadi groups in the region. Though affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Jabhat al-Nusra leadership did not emphasise global jihad or targeting the West, but instead attacking the "near enemy" of the Assad government, with its fighters largely made up of native Syrians.

Jabhat al-Nusra notably avoided some of the tactics that had made al-Qaeda in Iraq notorious, including sectarian attacks and brutally publicised executions. As such, the group was able to align itself with a broad spectrum of rebels including the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, who the group have fought alongside in battles against regime forces in Aleppo. 

The Islamic State of Iraq provided funding and weapons to JN throughout this period, but when Baghdadi proclaimed the unification of the two groups in 2013, Jolani rejected the merger and renewed his pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda. The relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS is not stable or uniform, and is instead highly influenced by circumstances. Individual emirs or commanders are required to make tactical judgements about alliance or hostility towards other groups fighting Syrian government forces, including ISIS.

Although the group aims to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic State, in contrast to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra claims that it will not declare the formation of this emirate without the backing of other jihadi groups in the region as well as consensus from "the sincere Mujahideen and the pious scholars".

Despite its primary anti-state focus, the group occasionally widens its narrative to suit its tactical objectives, including placing a sectarian emphasis on the perceived disproportionate power wielded by Syria's Shia minority.

Milo Comerford, Centre on Religion and Geopolitics