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?
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.
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.
Saved as a favorite, I love your site!
You've made some decent points there. I checked on the internet to learn more about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this web site.
Hi, I do believe this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to come back yet again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help others.
motion sickness http://xlnpharmacy.com/ cheapest prescription pharmacy
Good article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our website. Keep up the great writing.
Can I simply just say what a comfort to uncover a person that really knows what they are discussing on the internet. You certainly understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people ought to check this out and understand this side of the story. I can't believe you are not more popular since you most certainly have the gift.
I really love your blog.. Very nice colors & theme. Did you create this amazing site yourself? Please reply back as I’m attempting to create my own personal site and would love to learn where you got this from or just what the theme is called. Thank you!
free cialis canada http://rcialisgl.com/ buying cialis in australia
Can I just say what a relief to discover someone who actually understands what they are talking about on the internet. You certainly realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people should look at this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you're not more popular because you definitely possess the gift.
An outstanding share! I've just forwarded this onto a colleague who has been doing a little homework on this. And he actually bought me breakfast simply because I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this issue here on your web page.
cialis for sale payment paypal https://ucialisdas.com/ cialis 60 mg
The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it won't fail me just as much as this particular one. I mean, Yes, it was my choice to read, nonetheless I truly believed you would probably have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of crying about something you could possibly fix if you weren't too busy searching for attention.
This website really has all the information I wanted concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.
canadian rx https://xlnpharmacy.com/ canadian mail order pharmacies
Right here is the right site for anybody who wishes to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I personally will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh spin on a subject that's been discussed for ages. Great stuff, just great!
Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after looking at a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m certainly happy I stumbled upon it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!
lowest price generic cialis https://rcialisgl.com/ canadian pharmacy for cialis for sale
Hi, I do think this is an excellent website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to come back once again since i have book-marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.
I quite like reading through a post that can make men and women think. Also, many thanks for allowing for me to comment!
herb viagra for sale http://jokviagra.com/ off brand viagra
I’m impressed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. I'm very happy that I stumbled across this during my hunt for something concerning this.
I want to to thank you for this fantastic read!! I absolutely loved every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked to look at new things you post…
Can I just say what a relief to discover somebody that actually understands what they're talking about on the web. You actually realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people must check this out and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you are not more popular given that you definitely possess the gift.
natural food like viagra https://llviagra.com/ viagra in normal person
Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It will always be interesting to read through articles from other writers and use a little something from other web sites.
legitimate canadian pharmacies http://pharmacylo.com/ Prevacid
canadian drugs pharmacy http://pharmacylo.com/ canadianpharmacy com
Everything is very open with a very clear description of the challenges. It was really informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!
Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Finding the time and actual effort to produce a very good article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and don't seem to get anything done.
Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this post and also the rest of the website is also really good.
generic cialis soft tabs 20mg https://ucialisdas.com/ cialis on line
Can I simply say what a relief to find someone that genuinely knows what they're discussing online. You actually understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people ought to look at this and understand this side of the story. It's surprising you're not more popular given that you definitely have the gift.
There's certainly a lot to know about this subject. I like all the points you have made.
That is a great tip especially to those new to the blogosphere. Short but very precise information… Thanks for sharing this one. A must read article!
Great article! We are linking to this particularly great post on our site. Keep up the great writing.
I blog often and I truly appreciate your content. This great article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new details about once a week. I subscribed to your RSS feed as well.
Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after going through a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely happy I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back regularly!
I have to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this website. I really hope to see the same high-grade blog posts from you in the future as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own, personal site now 😉
Good blog you have here.. It’s difficult to find high quality writing like yours these days. I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!
A person necessarily lend a hand to make significantly posts I'd state. That is the first time I frequented your website page and so far? I surprised with the analysis you made to create this particular publish incredible. Excellent process!
Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am having troubles with your RSS. I don’t understand why I am unable to join it. Is there anyone else getting the same RSS problems? Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!
I was able to find good information from your blog articles.
Hey Destin,I know what you mean â€“ they always seem to have that progress bar that never really moves when it gets to the 80 mark LOL.
over the counter female viagra https://loxviagra.com/ – viagra natural chicago viagra triangle
I love looking through a post that will make men and women think. Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!
brimonidine generic combigan side effects
Casodex https://xlnpharmacy.com/ american online pharmacy
Wonderful article! We will be linking to this particularly great article on our site. Keep up the great writing.
Greetings, I do think your website could possibly be having internet browser compatibility issues. Whenever I take a look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in I.E., it's got some overlapping issues. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other than that, wonderful blog!
Voveran SR buying from canadian pharmacies drugs from canada online
cialis online canada paypal https://cialisee.com/ buy cialis online reviews
cialis daily cheap http://rcialisgl.com/ where to buy cialis
bio viagra kaufen https://llviagra.com/ puedo tomar viagra y cialis
This is a topic that is near to my heart... Thank you! Exactly where are your contact details though?
us pharmacy cialis http://ucialisdas.com/ cialis blog
Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this informative article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!
Having read this I thought it was extremely informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this content together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!
Your style is very unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this page.
super strength cialis http://rcialisgl.com/ – cialis at canadian pharmacy cialis20mg online
Your style is really unique compared to other people I have read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I'll just bookmark this site.
Can I simply say what a comfort to uncover someone that really knows what they're talking about on the net. You certainly realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people must look at this and understand this side of your story. I can't believe you're not more popular since you most certainly possess the gift.
cialis [canada – https://cialisee.com/ viagra click here info buy cialis