January 8th, 2013
12:15 AM ET

Analysis: Study shows rise of al Qaeda affiliate in Syria

By Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank

A jihadist group with links to al Qaeda has become the most effective of the different factions fighting the regime, according to a new analysis, and now has some 5,000 fighters.

The group is Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designated an al Qaeda affiliate by the United States government last month. It is led by veterans of the Iraqi insurgency "and has shown itself to be the principal force against Assad and the Shabiha," according to the study.

CNN obtained an advance copy of the analysis, set to be released Tuesday by the Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism policy institute based in London.

"The civil war in Syria is a gift from the sky for al-Nusra; they are coasting off its energy," the lead author of the report, Noman Benotman, told CNN.

Benotman, a former prominent Libyan Jihadist who was personally acquainted with al Qaeda's top leaders including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, consulted Western and regional intelligence officials as well as jihadists in Syria, including "al-Nusra sources."

And at a time of optimism that the global threat from al Qaeda terrorism has crested, the study will fuel anxiety in Western capitals that a powerful al Qaeda affiliate may become entrenched in the heart of the Arab world, creating deep challenges in any post- al-Assad Syria, and a new threat to international security.

What's next for Syria in 2013?

Founding meetings

Al-Nusra, according to the report, is a Syrian offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, aka AQI, the terror outfit founded by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

AQI was rebranded the "Islamic State of Iraq" after al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. missile strike in 2006. Since the pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq, ISI has regained strength, feeding off the continued political and sectarian turbulence in Iraq.

When designating al-Nusra a terrorist group in December, the U.S State Department cast the group as "an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes."

"AQI emir Abu Du'a is in control of both AQI and al-Nusra. Du'a also issues strategic guidance to al-Nusra's emir, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and tasked him to begin operations in Syria," the State Department said.

Benotman says that while Abu Du'a still has significant influence over al-Nusra, the key player in the group is al-Jawlani, a veteran Syrian jihadist who he says appears to have almost certainly been a former close associate of al-Zarqawi.

Al-Jawlani's "leadership is uncontested because of his experience in Iraq," the Quilliam Foundation report found. According to Benotman, al-Jawlani has taken painstaking measures not to reveal his real identity - including wearing a mask to meetings with some of al-Nusra's senior operatives. He was also masked when al-Nusra released a video in January 2012 to announce its formation.

AQI had built up an infrastructure in Syria, establishing safe-houses in Syria from which thousands of volunteers - including many Syrians - traveled to fight in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi's Syrian commanders were also the key channel for financial contributions from the Saudi and Gulf region.

Nada Bakos, a former CIA agent who for several years was the chief targeting officer tracking al-Zarqawi, told CNN that from the early days Syrians were amongst the inner circle of his network. "Some of these commanders are probably now part of al-Nusra," she said.

One Syrian among the inner circle of AQI was Sulayman Khalid Darwish. He's been reported killed in Iraq, but intelligence sources tell CNN his fate remains uncertain, raising the possibility he may now be playing a leadership role in al-Nusra.

According to Benotman, the ultimate aim of al-Nusra is the creation of an Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. To begin with, it set about recruiting fighters and training them, collecting weapons and creating safe havens.

The group suffered a severe setback in April 2012 after the arrest of an operative led to a significant number of members being detained in Damascus, but the group subsequently rebuilt its operations, placing greater emphasis on operational security, Benotman told CNN.

One precaution al-Nusra has taken is communicating through messengers rather than electronically, according to Benotman. "Their operational security is some of the best I've ever seen," he told CNN.

In addition, al-Nusra is "very selective about initiating new members, requiring "tezkiyya," or personal assurance, from two commanders on the front line stating that the recruit has the necessary skills, religious commitment and attitude to join the group," the Quilliam study says.

Morsy backs Syrian calls for al-Assad to face war crimes trial

From clandestine cells to insurgency

According to the U.S State Department, al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks - "ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations - in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr."

Benotman says the group has also carried out executions of media professionals and assassinations of military officers and members of the pro-al-Assad Shabiha militia.

Al-Nusra also focuses on taking control of towns near major highways to control movement; it controls the highway between Aleppo and Hasakah, an important route to Iraq, according to the Quilliam report.

So far the group has only claimed one attack on Syrian government planes and helicopters which "would seem to demonstrate a lack of man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADs), consistent with the international effort to keep these weapons out of jihadist hands," according to the report.

Last month al-Nusra launched two of its most ambitious operations to date. On December 10, the group occupied parts of a military base near Aleppo and two days later claimed responsibility for a coordinated suicide and car bomb attack on the heavily guarded Interior Ministry in the capital.

Al-Nusra's signature tactic, like that of AQI, is using large car and truck bombs driven by suicide bombers. The group has launched several such attacks against security installations in Damascus and Aleppo, sometimes as part of a coordinated assault involving gunmen.

Benotman says that last Summer al-Nusra launched a recruitment drive for suicide bombers and began stockpiling trucks and explosives. He says that weapons shortages among rebel groups means that al-Nusra's campaign of suicide bombings has allowed it to punch above its weight.

Last week al-Nusra demonstrated the lethality of a new tactic - driverless car bombs operated by remote control, Benotman told CNN. He says the technology was used to destroy a gate at an airbase in Idlib and will raise fears that it could one day be used in an attack in the West.

If al-Nusra's fighting strength is some 5,000 members, as the Quilliam report estimates, that would be comparable to U.S. government estimates of AQI at the peak of the Iraq insurgency. But rebel commanders say that the group makes up less than 10% of the brigades fighting the regime.

While al-Nusra is mainly made up of Syrians, it includes a significant number of fighters from other Arab countries. In recent months a growing number have arrived from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but Iraqis and Jordanians constitute the majority of foreign fighters.

Al-Assad says enemies of Syria 'will go to hell'

Cooperation with other rebels

In recent months, videos featuring rebels fighting in Syria have increasingly featured joint-operations between al-Nusra and other rebel groups.

According to the Quilliam Foundation report, al-Nusra often cooperates with other jihadist and Islamist groups such as Sukour al-Sham, which has several thousand fighters, and even with the Free Syrian Army, in a number of strategic battles, though joint operations between these two groups have not been widespread.

According to Benotman, a significant number of Jihadists fighting with other rebel outfits are wary of al Qaeda's hard-line ideology, but al-Nusra has sought to allay concerns by keeping its brand separate from al Qaeda, avoiding targeting civilians, and refraining from spelling out its true agenda.

"Preserving good relations with the other groups and treating them well and turning a blind eye to their mistakes is the foundation in dealing with the other groups, as long as they don't change," al-Nusra leader Mohammed al-Jawlani said in a December audio tape, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al-Nusra and nine other local Jihadist brigades announced last month they were forming a regional unified command structure called the Mujahideen Shura Council in Deir el-Zour.

Yet according to Benotman's report, al-Nusra has not yet formed any such coalitions with larger Islamist rebel outfits such as Ansar al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Deir Ezzor Revolutionary Council, three groups which previously joined together to form the "Liberation Front."

A counterproductive designation?

According to the Quilliam study, "the designation (by the U.S.) of al-Nusra as a terrorist organization has only served to reinforce jihadist support for the group.

Nada Bakos, the former CIA agent agreed, telling CNN the designation may elevate al-Nusra's status amongst Jihadists worldwide, increasing funding and recruitment for the group.

Benotman's study describes relations between al-Nusra and the FSA as mixed, with both realizing they need each other in the short term to topple al-Assad.

"Some FSA brigades threaten to work with al-Nusra if the West does not provide enough weapons while others see al-Nusra as trying to exploit the revolution for their own ends, instead of working for the good of the country. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army are wary of one another, as they are already vying for popularity amongst the population," Quilliam says.

Syrian children witness war

Strategy

Bakos, the former CIA official says AQI and al-Nusra are likely replicating the flexible, decentralized, and resilient external operations networks established by al-Zarqawi in the region, and that makes them a force to be reckoned with. Benotman says the al-Zarqawi networks never really went away.

Analysts believe al-Nusra's hostility to the West could create an "over-the-horizon" threat to the United States and its allies if the group is able to secure a foothold in Syria and across the Levant.

In such a scenario al Qaeda aligned groups would be operating within touching distance of borders of Israel, improving their potential to launch a direct attack against the country, long a key proclaimed objective of the terrorist network's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Quilliam Foundation report is sobering reading at a time when increasing sectarian tension and regime brutality in Syria are playing into al-Nusra's hands.

Benotman believes al-Nusra doesn't want a quick end to the al-Assad regime.

"The longer the conflict goes on, the stronger they will get," he told CNN.

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Filed under: Al Qaeda • Syria
soundoff (443 Responses)
  1. charon2cents

    Obviously the lesson here is we , the west , need to get heavy weapons to the FSA and support hem so that in the end game – our guys, anti-Assad and anti-AL Nusra will come out on top.
    It's unfortunate that FSA has to dance with the devil but that is America and the West's fault for not supporting the Syrian people in the first place.

    January 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  2. me*Jill

    This message was sent before jesusd born into flesh raised to his father who was and always will. Daniel, malaki john. Similar. The three angels message stand before our judgement in sackloth the four creatutes holding destruction are letting go little till the day comes terror its coming. more foretold isreal isteal gods only he will destroy this isteal all his. Glass trains going into death woman Android men will ill. We will see things that have to happen. Sickness evil isteal plagues pouring down harvest isl ripe

    January 11, 2013 at 12:49 am | Reply
  3. me*Jill

    Reverent reference, middle east so angry to war , plans to take isreal won't happen the God of all things will release the four creatures holding back mass destruction, who will stand in the day of the lord. We all will be judged. Disease, deptavement, humanity will cease we will be glad for the end to come. jesus and all of heaven are coming with judgments. But first apocalypse

    January 11, 2013 at 12:00 am | Reply
  4. Tarek Siouane

    who said that, or just because you start beleiving that ASSAD regime is on the way to be dead anfd forever thanks to god, you started your old gmaes of AL QAEDA and all the world even our kids know that this groups are AMERICAN ARMY creation like TALIBAN in pakistan and afghanistan. please let syrian people get freed of that devil ASSAD and then we will talk about this.

    January 10, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply
  5. Altee11

    Al Nusra has criminal supporters who will have more support than normal because of the great criminal leading Syria right now. Al Assad and Iran's religious leaders are the enemies of al Nusra and similar groups.
    The Europeans, USA, Russians and Chinese all stand to lose by not supporting those not allied with al Nusra. Why can't the US, Russia, China and the rest of Europe work together; it makes sense to work together.

    January 10, 2013 at 1:46 am | Reply
  6. Dr. Salah Sultan

    The CIA and Mossad help fund groups that kill Arabs. The media hides the truth,

    January 9, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  7. angela

    well yeah none of this is shocking any more...middle east kills their own people...africa kills their own people...america kills its own people..china kills their own people ....russia does it....so it doesnt really matter where you live we all act the same............yes all in the name of jesus and god...and we are all gods children.......IMAGINE THAT!!!!!!

    January 9, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  8. GJ

    A global proxy war waged upon Syrian soil has now dragged on from the beginning of 2011 to the present. Planned many years ago, with US, Saudi, and Lebanese officials admitting to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh as early as 2007 their plans to overthrow the nation of Syria (see the NYT article "The Redirection") with a regional army of sectarian extremists, the conflict has cost many thousands their lives and has jeopardized the stability of not only Syria and its future, but nations beyond its borders as well. The West's assault on Syria is in fact one of many steps along the path of war with Iran. And yes, the US foreign policy along with the UN have been facilitators of this illegal foreign invasion. The blood is on our hands.

    January 9, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  9. flossmore

    So many of you on this blog, really don't know what the hell you're talking about!

    January 9, 2013 at 11:50 am | Reply
  10. fiftyfive55

    Sounds just like Chicago cleaning up a neighborhood,the criminals just move to the next neighborhood and continue.When will folks realize that these war tactics being used against us (guerilla warfare) is exactly what we used to defeat the British to gain our independence.Bob and weave,jab,jab,thenback off.This is exactly why it is so difficult to catch terrorists .Giant armies wont do the job,small small squads of men would get far better results than the old faithful "CHARGE".

    January 9, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
  11. joe d

    a report from who? Our reliable intlel from the feces stain called israel..good luck with that...ps where are the wmd's in iraq??..jooz news..and msm...what a joke. Americans you have been punked..time to kick the neocon/neo jooz to the curb..they have done more damage to the U.S. then all muslim terrorists combined...AIPAC=traitors, AIPAC congress=traitors, israel first dirtbag low lifes..look up Office Of Special Plans and you will see how low like neocon jooz have funnled bogus intel from Israel to the Pentagon...PS why does the turdstain called israel have any say in who is elected as CIA director or any other position in our government? wake up "TRUE AMERICANS"

    January 9, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  12. joe d

    more lies form israel

    January 9, 2013 at 10:32 am | Reply
  13. sam kohen

    So who are the good guys in this war?

    January 9, 2013 at 7:23 am | Reply
    • Nick Meron

      Who said there are any good guys? There are just varying degrees of bad guys:

      The regime is the worst, killing and bullying in a random fashion. If they had only harmed the opposition (originally mostly relatives of political prisoners, a thin slice of the populace), most of the public would still support them. But arouind May 2011, they started attacking almost randomly, even regime supporters.

      Al-Nusra are almost as bad; they can never take over, but will start attacking their "friends" as soon as the regime looks like collapsing.

      FSA is better than both of those, but still a mixed bag of mostly regime defectors. All have blood on their hands; they just changed sides earlier. Some may be patriots, but their agendas are all over the map.

      There are no democrats on either side.

      Most of the civilian populace is just trying to stay out of the way and hoping life will be normal again, sooner rather than later.

      What a mess. Syria was such a beautiful country.

      January 9, 2013 at 8:49 am | Reply
    • Stephen Daedalus

      The ones who fled the country... if you really feel the need to find "good guys" in a civil war.

      January 9, 2013 at 8:51 am | Reply
      • treasure123

        The ones who fled the country are the families of free syrian army soldiers. They fled because they know that the regime will target civilians with no hesitation.

        January 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Crystal

      There's really know one to root for. There may be factions in the Rebels who do not want a theocracy established, but it will happen anyway. Assad can't stay in power. He's reached the point of no return.

      January 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  14. Ekram

    Why every terrorist in the world is assumed to be an affiliate or is linked to the Al-Queda? Is it because of easy and convenient group that every western person is most familiar with and hence make it easier to explain their bad karmas? To me there could be many terrorist groups that may have nothing to do with Al-Queda but we link them somehow with Al-Queda....why don't we just call them terrorist without affiliating them with Al-Queda? Terrorist is terrorist but I think this linkage is used for political purposes.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:05 am | Reply
    • treasure123

      Assad is trying what ghadafi did before. Ghadafi said that the people who are fighting him are not lybians and that they are al qida to gain sympathy from the west. Apparently Ghadafi failed. Dictators in the east and the middle east have the pattern of blaming anybody else for the problems they have in their countries and somehow they know for sure that they are not the problem.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
      • Gordon

        Actually Ghadafi was fighting some extremists.. If you know anything about benghazi or that area you know this as well. The second largest foreign fighter group the US engaged in Iraq were libyans. The USA and Libya had an arrangement to detain captured militants who were libyans. Some libyans were sent back to Libya and what happened was I beleive ghadafi had pardoned some or let them out or they had escaped from prison and set up camp again there. Ghadafi was defeated by a US led nato air campaign that was suppose to be just a no-fly zone. The ground combatants never had a chance against Ghadafi thats why the west intervened partly and partly because of European oil interests here. That being Said im not defending Ghadafi im simply stating what happened. He had been fighting against these guys in eastern libya for awhile and yes quite a few are linked to terrorist groups. Syria is no different. But This goes back as well when Syria released criminals etc to go fight in iraq against US.. The reason the west isnt involved in Syria now is because we realize that we probably messed up intervening in libya as well. Look at bengahzi and what happened to our people there. And look at north africa in regards to AQIM specifically mali for example. You cant say these people dont exist when they are running around killing thousands. Thats a delusional fantasy. Whatever the original reason for the insurrection in Syria its clear now Western interests are not benefitted by Nusra or the other major islamist factions getting power. And Iraq is in great danger as is Jordan, lebanon, and other countries in the region.. Our enemies on 911 are the same today except whoever is leading this country now and our foreign policy decisions lately have been an utter joke. And Im not blaming Any specific person because theres plenty of blame to go around. And The islamist factions fighting in syria are just as brutal if not more brutal than Assad. How can you fault the government for bombing in the cities when the Insurgents use the cities to fight from. If thats the case then America is just as guilty in iraq, afghanistan, etc and so is everybody else. These jihdadists are the problem and the sooner the west wakes up and realizes it the better.

        January 14, 2013 at 6:40 am |
  15. BE CAREFUL

    WE ( U.S.A) HAVE TO BE CAREFUL.WE ARE FEEDING ,SUPPLYING AND FINANCING OUR KILLERS.PLEASE LET'S STOP IF WE WANT TO BE RESPECTED AND STAY ON TOP BECAUSE WE CAN STAY ON TOP IF WE DO THE RIGHT THING.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:03 am | Reply
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