ATME, Syria:Little is known about Al Nusra Front, a jihadist group with roots in Iraq that is fighting in Syria, and which was blacklisted by the United States this week as a “terrorist” organisation.
Officially, Al Nusra was born in January 2012, according to a video statement distributed online that declared its creation.
The shadowy group’s full name, Jabhat Al Nusra li Ahl Al Sham, translates into the Support Front for the Syrian people.
Al Nusra believes the fight against President Bashar Al Al Assad is a religious struggle to bring down an Alawite-led regime, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“While the poor-quality footage, English subtitles and aggressive, implicitly sectarian rhetoric led mainstream opposition groups to dismiss it as a regime-sponsored manoeuvre to discredit their fighters, Jabhat Al Nusra won immediate online praise from Al Qaida supporters,” said the ICG.
Al Nusra has since claimed responsibility for most suicide attacks in Syria’s civil war this year. Most struck the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, as well as Damascus and Aleppo in the north.
Meanwhile, Al Nusra’s role has become ever more prominent on the battlefield, where it acts as the anti-Al Assad insurgency’s spearhead, while the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army still struggles to get organised.
On the front lines, the FSA occasionally works with Al Nusra, whose fighters are experienced and well-armed.
In its latest feat, Al Nusra seized an important military base west of Aleppo, “liberating” from army control a new swathe of territory in the northern province, near the border with Turkey.
But for Al Nusra, “overthrowing Al Assad represented only half the battle; success would come only once the entire regime was replaced with an Islamic state following Salafi principles,” said the ICG.
The black flag used by jihadists, which carries the Muslim shahada (profession of faith), can now be seen on virtually all fronts, but even more so at Atme, Al Nusra’s main rear base near Turkey.
Al Nusra’s fighters can also be recognised by their long beards, their black clothing and their hostility to Western reporters.
Many foreigners have joined its ranks, including Iraqis, Palestinians and other Arabs. Fighters from Central Asia, east Africa and eastern Europe have also joined.
“All the foreign volunteers who arrive here in Atme ask the same question: where is Al Nusra Front’s headquarters?” said an official in the rebel-held northwestern town.
The group’s members fight courageously, and their aspirations for “martyrdom” as well as their discipline and respect for locals have drawn praise from many.
Many residents of neighbourhoods where the FSA operates have turned against the mainstream rebels, whom they write off as “corrupt”.
But others remain suspicious of the Front’s aims, noting the real reason why many feel drawn to Al Nusra is because the international community has done too little to support the revolt.
Al Nusra leaders, whom members refer to as “emir” or prince, operate out of the limelight. US authorities have singled out two, Anas Hassan Khattab and Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah Al Juburi. The second is likely Iraqi.
The group is not only secretive, but also highly centralised, a rebel commander operating under Al Nusra’s orders in the northwestern province of Idlib told AFP.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, “The emergence of indigenous Salafi-jihadist groups such as (Al Nusra Front) is far more dangerous to the long-term stability of the Syrian state than foreign jihadist groups.”
The group is believed to regroup jihadists who in the past were supported by the Al Assad regime, ISW added.
Al Nusra’s sophisticated weaponry and tactics also suggest significant support from abroad, according to poverty-stricken mainstream rebels in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
While Al Qaida has not officially espoused Al Nusra, the Syrian group uses jihadists fora online to post its statements and videos.
Al Nusra “is viewed by Al Qaida as the favoured Salafi-jihadi group; and employs an online media dissemination strategy akin to that of Al Qaida affiliates and offshoots,” said the ICG.
Al Nusra has also learned from the mistakes of Al Qaida in Iraq, by working to gain sympathy from the Syrian population.