Monday, September 23, 2013
The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is an Al-Qaeda Salafist-jihadi network, prominent in the rebel organizations in Syria. It seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic Caliphate in Greater Syria, a center for regional and international terrorism and subversion. This study, conducted by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, focuses on the Al-Nusra Front, the most significant organization among the jihadist organizations operating in Syria. The study is structured in seven sections[*], which if read in conjunction with each other, draws a complete picture of the Al-Nusra Front.
Similarly to other jihadist organizations, the Al-Nusra Front ascribes a great deal of importance to the battle for hearts and minds. Its media network is used as a means of disseminating information on its operations, views, and messages to broad target audiences in Syria and the Arab-Muslim world. The battle for hearts and minds is also intended to aggrandize the organization’s abilities in the fight to topple the Assad regime, strengthen its position among the rebel groups, encourage fighters from Syria and the Arab-Muslim world to join its ranks, raise funds, inculcate operatives with the ideological messages of radical Islam, and extend the legitimacy the organization enjoys with the Syrian population.
The Al-Nusra Front’s media
“The White Minaret” (Al-Manara al-Baydhaa’)
The Al-Nusra Front has its own media channel called Al-Manara al-Baydhaa’ lil-Intaj al-I’lami (The White Minaret for PR Productions, hereinafter: White Minaret). The name of the media channel refers to the “White Minaret” in Damascus. Muslim tradition says that, in the end of time, Jesus, believed to be one of the Muslim prophets (rather than the founder of Christianity), will descend from heaven on the White Minaret and announce the implementation of the Islamic religious law (Shari’ah), in a way paralleling the appearance of the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah (m-mahdi-info).
The White Minaret media channel has defined itself as the only platform authorized to release information on the Al-Nusra Front. It disseminates the organization’s propaganda videos, usually filmed as documentaries and sometimes containing interviews with suicide bombers. The videos are usually posted on a major jihadist forum named Shumukh al-Islam (Glory of Islam), and then reposted on video sharing websites (particularly YouTube), social networks (Facebook and Twitter) and blogs. The Al-Nusra Front’s claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks are also posted on the jihadist forum Ansar al-Mujahedeen.
The Al-Nusra Front has its own online message board website. The website went online in early January 2013 and can be accessed at www.jalnosra.com. It is titled Forums of Assistance to the Al-Nusra Front (Muntadayat al-Nusra li-Jabhat al-Nusra) and contains videos and announcements released by the organization. The materials posted on the website are up-to-date and include real-time news flashes. The White Minaret’s releases appear on the website as well.
In the past the Al-Nusra Front had its own Facebook page (facebook.com/jalnosra). It contained releases, photographs, and videos from the fighting in Syria, eulogies for the organization’s shaheeds, news on the fighting on the ground, and so forth. The Facebook page is inactive as of this writing (September 23, 2013).
The Al-Nusra Front has a Twitter account where it posts updates from the various theaters of operations as well as propaganda releases. It could be accessed at twitter.com/JbhatALnusra and had at the time 75,434 followers. The account was inactive since early April 2013, and its activity was renewed in late August 2013. The new account included ongoing updates on the Nusra Front activity and had about 31,000 followers (78,349 followers as of October 9, 2013).
The Al-Nusra Front also runs a blog (djebhet-enossra.blogspot.com) where it posts updates on the fighting, links to videos, as well as articles and notes about the activity of the organization and its operatives (including emphasis on the public support the organization claims to enjoy).
Conduct of the Al-Nusra Front media
The way that the Al-Nusra Front disseminates information online is usually reminiscent of other jihadist websites’ patterns of media use. However, there is one area where the Al-Nusra Front differs from other opposition organizations in Syria. While other organizations provide real-time reports on their operations, the Al-Nusra Front is slower in that regard, similarly to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Instead of releasing announcements daily, the organization reports on its operations with some delay, by releasing announcements that cover some of its attacks in a particular area. It is only in the case of exceptional showcase attacks that the Al-Nusra Front’s announcements focus on a single incident. In those cases, it usually claims responsibility within 24 hours, sometimes even later. It is our assessment that such conduct has been chosen due to security considerations, but it may compromise the media impact of the announcements.
Another characteristic of the Al-Nusra Front’s announcements is that they do not emphasize those ideological messages that may undermine the support of the Syrian public. The organization also tries not to become bogged down in unnecessary ideological debates with other groups, believing that actions speak louder than words and usually preferring to limit the announcements to its operational activity. The Al-Nusra Front does not claim responsibility for all of its operations, and at times prefers silence over words. “We don’t care about the press. It’s not a priority to us,” an Al-Nusra Front operative codenamed Abu Adnan told a reporter for Time. “Our priority is to fight the regime. If we film an operation, we film it; it’s not important, but for many other groups, the filming is a priority, it helps them get funding” (world.time.com, December 25, 2012).
Some of the Al-Nusra Front’s announcements contained replies to allegations made against it. One of the issues for which it has been criticized is the indiscriminate suicide bombings, the Al-Nusra Front’s signature brand, in which not only Syrian regime loyalists but also innocent civilians have been killed. To deal with the criticism, the Al-Nusra Front public relations system tries to give the impression that the suicide bombings are carried out against Syrian regime targets, and argues that all such targets are carefully selected. The organization has even released videos arguing that it has called off operations to avoid harming innocent civilians present at the scene of the would-be attack at the time. In another instance, the Al-Nusra Front issued a press release saying that it is opposed to harming civilians, and denying that it was responsible for a suicide bombing attack that took place in the Damascus neighborhood of Al-Zahir during the Feast of Sacrifice, in which women and children were killed (October 27, 2012).
Preaching in the mosques
The Al-Nusra Front uses mosques as a platform for preaching (da’wah) intended to inculcate residents with its jihadist ideology. In addition, mosques are used as distribution points of the organization’s CDs and propaganda materials (moslim.org).
The following are several examples of preaching in mosques:
- A sermon in an Aleppo mosque delivered by a preacher codenamed Abu Hafs al-Suri, who was carrying a sword and wearing battle gear. In the sermon he condemned any attempt at negotiations with the Syrian regime, called for jihad to continue (while waving his sword), and ended with a prayer for “Allah to protect the jihad warriors”.
- A sermon delivered at the Othman Bin Afan mosque in Deir ez-Zor on April 19, 2013 by an Al-Nusra Front preacher, who lashed out against democracy for separating religion and state and said they are inseparable. “Is it conceivable that we should allow the Crusaders [i.e., the West] and their tails [i.e., their allies] to rule [Syria] at the expense of your blood and money?” the preacher asked the audience (youtube.com).
Distribution of CDs
Another tactic used by the organization to disseminate its ideology is distribution of CDs in Syria, particularly to Al-Nusra Front operatives. The CDs contain religious propaganda, sermons by the organization’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani and other jihadist spiritual leaders (shuyukh al-jihad). The goal is to unite the ranks ideologically and illuminate the organization’s objectives. The CDs ensure that the Al-Nusra Front’s message remains consistent, and make it possible even for operatives situated in remote locations to obtain the religious and ideological instruction necessary to increase morale and prevent deviations from the organization’s messages.
[*] Read the other sections here:
 For an analysis of the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations’ use of Twitter, see: Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher: “Tweeting for the Caliphate: Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda”, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 25, 2013 (ctc.usma.edu).