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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.

Section Two

Overview

The insignia of the Al-Nusra Front: the upper line is the shahada (the testimony that “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”), the basic tenet of Islamic faith. The bottom line reads: “Al-Nusra Front” (www.longwarjournal.org).

 

As far as we know, there is no public, detailed, authorized, and up-to-date document released on behalf of the Al-Nusra Front to present the organization’s objectives and ideology. In our assessment, this is due mainly to its interest to conceal its ideology with the purpose of obtaining support from the local population. This is also why the organization is calling itself “Front of Assistance” rather than “Al-Qaeda in Syria”, and why it refrained from unambiguously associating itself with Al-Qaeda until mid-2013. At this point the organization focuses on the intensive fighting against the Syrian regime and on building up its strength and status among the rebel organizations and the population, which requires it to exhibit some measure of pragmatism in its day-today conduct.

Seeing as there is no definitive, authoritative study on the organization’s ideology, we had to rely on partial information. It is based on statements made by Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani, statements by other operatives, the organization’s formal announcements, media articles about the Al-Nusra Front, and basic information on Al-Qaeda and global jihad organizations. Also of assistance was a study conducted on the Al-Nusra Front by the U.K.-based Quilliam Foundation.

The Al-Nusra Front’s ideological identification with Al-Qaeda

It is clear that the Al-Nusra Front is inspired by Al-Qaeda’s ideology. This can be seen in statements made by its leaders and operatives and in the Salafist-jihadi terminology that appears in the announcements as well as in the videos and propaganda materials that it distributes. The Al-Nusra Front’s ideological identification with Al-Qaeda goes back to the close relationship it had with the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq in its early days and also stems from the fact that it is formally and practically Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, directly subordinate to Ayman al-Zawahiri.

However, it appears that, due to considerations having to do with tactics and reputation, Al-Nusra Front leaders usually refrain from elaborating on their ideological principles and clearly pointing out their organizational link to Al-Qaeda. In some cases, replying to accusations made by rivals, they have even tried to argue that the organization is “Syrian” in character.[12] Even when they did admit to their links to Al-Qaeda, they did so in an ambiguous, obscure manner. For instance, in an interview given to Al-Jazeera on January 14, 2013, an Al-Nusra Front commander codenamed Abu Hassan said the following: “If Al-Qaeda seeks to establish law and justice among the people and spreads the religion of Islam in the country [i.e., Syria], then we are with Al-Qaeda” (aljazera.com).

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria’s ideological affiliation with Al-Qaeda

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Nusra Front’s competitor, also shares Al-Qaeda’s ideology. The following are jihadist themes that appear in two videos posted online by the Baqiya Institution, the organization’s media network (youtube.com, July 15 and 18, 2013):

The meaning of the term “Al-Nusra Front”

The organization’s full name is Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, which can be translated as the Front of Support for the People of Greater Syria. The term nusra is taken from the Quran and means ‘to rush to somebody’s aid’, ‘to provide assistance’, ‘to support’, ‘to defend’, ‘to give cover or protection’. It is used to imply that one should come to the aid of Sunni believers wherever they are to repel their attackers, who are considered infidels.

When Prophet Muhammad came to Medina, he was accompanied by the “immigrants” (al-muhajiroun), who had been met with open arms by the “supporters” (al-ansar) in Mecca about one year prior to that (621 AD). Prophet Muhammad met with 70 of his future supporters, who promised him that, when he came to Medina, they would give him nusra, i.e., assistance and protection from his infidel opponents in Mecca, and make sure he was well-integrated into their social group. About one year later Muhammad made his journey to Medina, knowing ahead of time that he had allies waiting for him there to give him support, or nusra. Those supporters hence came to be known as al-ansar. Muslim tradition tells of speeches made by al-ansar about their willingness to go as far as to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of Prophet Muhammad. The word nusra, then, originally referred to a highly significant situation where Prophet Muhammad’s staunchest supporters provided him with the most considerable support.

The term jabha (front) as it is used in the name “Jabhat al-Nusra” carries more significance than other words in Arabic for a group, party, or company of fighters. It refers to a specific military campaign in a particular place. In the Islamic view, opening a “front” requires the mobilization of all the necessary resources, be they military or civilian (similarly to jihad, whose scope and form of fighting are more universal). The objective is to help Sunni Muslims in need and repel their attackers, who are viewed as infidels.

The name of the Al-Nusra Front does not contain the terms jihad or mujahedeen, commonly used in the terminology of global jihad organizations. This is intended to prevent the organization from being antagonized by the residents of Syria or the Arab and Western world. By not mentioning the term jihad in its official name, and by making sure to provide aid to the civilian population, the Al-Nusra Front hopes to entrench itself, gain popularity, raise funds, and receive recognition and support from various Islamic elements that have misgivings about aligning themselves with a name that clearly carries aggressive or violent connotations (al-qaeda, jihad, mujahedeen, salafiyya, or jihadiyya).

To summarize, the term Jabhat al-Nusra has a sentimental meaning for Sunni jihadists, who feel strongly committed to come to the aid of their fellow believers to found a manifestly Islamic entity in Greater Syria. Such assistance can be seen in the military sphere (obtaining weapons for Sunni warriors engaged in fighting against their enemies) and in the civilian sphere (raising funds, rehabilitating the wounded, or providing logistical assistance), as will be specified later in the present study.

Greater Syria as an arena for Islam’s historical struggle

The Al-Nusra Front seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Bilad al-Sham (the organization’s full name is the Front of Assistance to the People of Bilad al-Sham). In Arab-Muslim historic geography, today’s Syria is part of a region known as Bilad al-Sham — that is, Land of the North, referring to its location relative to the Arabian Peninsula. The region was a separate territorial and political unit under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD). Since then and until the beginning of the 20th century, it was part of several empires that had their seats of power elsewhere. Politically, the region (hereinafter referred to as Greater Syria) includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories (Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip).

In the early 20th century, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, Arab nationalists sought to establish a united Arab state in Greater Syria. However, political arrangements in the Middle East, as they came into being in 1918-1923, dissected the Ottoman Empire into nation state units and paved the way for the separate development of a Syrian nationality and other national movements established in the territory of Greater Syria. Pan-Arab nationalism, whose staunch standard-bearer was Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as the Syrian Baath party and the Baathist regime, refused to acknowledge the “artificial” borders of the new states and nurtured a vision of creating a united Arab political entity.

The Al-Nusra Front and other Salafist-jihadi organizations operating in Syria do not recognize the artificial “imperialist” borders drawn after World War I. However, unlike the secular pan-Arab nationalist movement, what they seek to establish in the territory of Greater Syria is an Islamic caliphate governed by Islamic religious law as it is interpreted by radical Sunni Islam. One clear manifestation of that view could be heard in an audiotape posted by Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani on YouTube on July 22, 2013.

According to Al-Julani, since the dawn of history Greater Syria has been an arena for the struggle of foreign empires. In his statement he mentioned the Zoroastrian Empire (i.e., Persia before the emergence of Islam) and the Byzantine Empire. However, Islam conquered Greater Syria and “Allah brought down the Byzantine and Zoroastrian empires”. Modern Western imperialism, Al-Julani said, implanted the Jews in the area through the Balfour Declaration and established infidel and corrupt Arab regimes that served the “conspiracies” of the West. In addition, a Shi’ite revolution took place in Iran, which formed an alliance with the Assad regime—an alliance also directed against (Sunni) Islam. Al-Julani’s conclusion is that those who look at the history (of Greater Syria) “can see an ongoing struggle against Islam [that continues] into our own time”. According to Al-Julani, “the blessed movement of jihad” has come to restore Islam to its rightful place at the center stage.

The Al-Nusra Front’s overall goal

A study carried out by the Quilliam Foundation specifies the Al-Nusra Front’s overall goal as set out at its first meetings, held between October 2011 and January 2012. The overall goal was defined as the establishment of a Sunni Muslim caliphate in Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria). The Al-Nusra Front’s idea is for the caliphate to be governed by Islamic religious law (Shari’ah) and the value of jihad, thus making it a regional and global hub of violent jihad against the U.S. and the West, Israel, and pro-Western Arab countries. The fundamental overall goal has not changed: in summer 2013, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the Al-Nusra Front, called on all rebels in Syria to join forces for the “sublime goal”: to establish a Sunni Muslim regime that will impose Islamic religious law on Greater Syria by means of jihad and prevent it from coming under “foreign imperialist control” (YouTube, July 22, 2013).

Al-Nusra Front’s field operatives have often made reference to that overall goal in their statements. For instance:

  1. Tayseer al-Khateeb, the head of the Al-Nusra Front Political Bureau in Aleppo, was asked whether the Islamic caliphate that the front seeks to establish would be able to make use of the world’s modern technology. In his reply Al-Khateeb stressed that there is no contradiction between modern technology and the Islamic caliphate that the Al-Nusra Front seeks to establish. Such a caliphate, according to him, will encourage a climate conducive to advanced intellectual creation (YouTube, January 12, 2013, reply to question no. 8 of 22).
  2. Muhammad Isma’il Saleh Jarallah, codenamed Abu al-Qa’qa’, is a Palestinian from Jordan, an operative of the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, who was sent to Syria and carried out a failed suicide bombing attack for the Al-Nusra Front. He was injured, caught by the Syrian authorities, and gave an interview from his hospital bed to Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese TV channel that supports Hezbollah (May 31, 2013). When asked about the Al-Nusra Front’s goal, he replied: “The goal of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria is to enforce the laws of Allah through fighting, glorifying the shahada (“there is no God but Allah”), and establishing an Islamic caliphate” (breakingnews.com.sy).
  3. A reporter for the English-language edition of Al-Jazeera TV who accompanied Al-Nusra Front operatives in the Idlib region said that the organization’s members expressed their desire to establish an Islamic state in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and “Palestine”—that is, within the borders of Bilad al-Sham (youtube.com).

The establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Greater Syria is also the goal of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Nusra Front’s competitor Al-Qaeda branch. One of Al-Qaeda’s websites (Furqan Media) posted a video shot by a French volunteer (codenamed Abd al-Rahman al-Faransi) who was killed in Syria while in service of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria. In the video he called for jihad in Bilad al-Sham for restoring the Islamic caliphate, urging the president of France to convert to Islam and stop fighting Muslims (Syria Comment, July 13, 2013).

Nevertheless, the Al-Nusra Front currently attempts to show some pragmatism in its approach to realizing that overall goal while trying to differentiate itself from the competing organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria. The organization’s goal, said Abu Idris, the amir of Hama, is to topple the Syrian regime by means of jihad. Only after the regime is toppled will there be talks between the Al-Nusra Front and jihad warriors (mujahedeen) from other Islamic factions to decide on an acceptable direction for the new state to take, and the opinion of anyone who has spilled their blood to topple the regime will be taken into account (interview given by Abu Idris to All4Syria, July 18, 2013, as cited by eaworldview.com).

The Al-Nusra Front’s anti-West orientation

A poster that could be seen in Syria in December 2012. The text reads: “America, stay out of our revolution, stay out of our front (i.e., the Al-Nusra Front), today we are all Al-Nusra Front” (djebhetennosra. blogspot.com)

One of the main themes in the ideology of the Al-Nusra Front and other Salafist-jihadi organizations is the strong hostility towards the U.S. and Western countries, as well as the culture and values of the West: democracy, pluralism, individual freedom, freedom of worship, gender equality, and so forth. In an audio clip uploaded to YouTube on July 22, 2013, Abu Muhammad al-Julani stressed the fundamental difference between Western culture and the culture of radical Islam. The U.S. and the West, he said, put the Al-Nusra Front on the list of terrorist organizations due to the claim that the organization wants to enforce Islamic religious law (Shari’ah). Al-Julani emphasized that the Al-Nusra Front does want to enforce the Shari’ah, and added:

“We as Muslims do not believe in a [political] process, political parties, or parliament elections, but rather in an Islamic government with a shura [advisory committee] whose work will be based on justice, and our path towards the implementation of the Shari’ah is through jihad for the sake of Allah and prayer to Allah”.

Other manifestations of denying the U.S. and the West and intending to confront them eventually can be found in statements made by Al-Nusra Front’s field operatives:

  1. In an interview given on January 19, 2013, an Al-Nusra Front military commander codenamed Abu Luqman was asked about his stance towards the U.S. in the wake of the Al-Nusra Front’s inclusion in the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. He replied as follows: “The West fears our beards… the West is plotting against the Muslims and gives them a reputation of wild beasts.” He added that the designation of the Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization only strengthened its status in Syria, because “the Syrians hate the government of the U.S.”[13]
  2. In an interview given by an Al-Nusra Front operative codenamed Abu al-Qa’qa’, he noted that when the Syrian regime is toppled and an Islamic caliphate is established, the organization’s goals in Syria will be realized and it will turn against the U.S. (breakingnews.sy, May 31, 2013).

An example of denying Western values can be found in a document released by the Al-Nusra Front on March 14, 2013, after it took over the city of Al-Raqqa, which listed the reasons why Islamic religious law (Shari’ah) is not compatible with democracy. It was argued that in democracy the ruler is judged by the people, not by Allah and Prophet Muhammad; democracy means glorifying people who hold the power instead of adoring Allah; democracy means secularism, a total separation between Allah and the state; democracy means equal rights and equal responsibilities, which gives rise to a (paradoxical) situation where the opinion of a religious, Godfearing man carries equal weight to that of the greatest imbecile when it comes to deciding who should govern whom (osint.co.il). Another example of denying democracy can be found in an interview with Abu Luqman, an Al-Nusra Front operative in the city of Aleppo (January 2013), in which he said, “Syria is an Islamic state that should be governed by the Shari’ah. This is not a campaign for democracy” (syriatelegraph.com, arabic.rt).

Part of the document released by the Al-Nusra Front, explaining why Islamic religious law is not compatible with democracy (facebook.com)

As a consequence of its anti-West nature, the Al-Nusra Front is opposed to any kind of direct or indirect Western involvement in the Syrian civil war (for instance, through pro-West Arab countries). Such resistance also stems from concerns about the West taking over the revolution against the regime and eventually facilitating the emergence of a process that will challenge the Al-Nusra Front and other Salafist-jihadi organizations in Syria. However, Al-Nusra Front operatives are aware that, for now, their efforts should be directed into toppling the Syrian regime while avoiding expressions of hostility towards the U.S., as an Al-Nusra Front field commander in the Al-Hasakah Governorate (eastern Syria) told a British reporter: “I thought we shouldn’t declare our animosity to America now. I said, we can be jihadis but raise the flag of the FSA [Free Syrian Army]” (The Guardian, July 10, 2013).

The abduction of Matthew Schrier, an American photographer, is an example of hostility of the Al-Nusra Front to the West. Schrier was abducted in late 2012, and was held in Aleppo by jihadist operatives, most of them from the Al-Nusra Front. He managed to escape after seven months. While in captivity, he was tortured by his captors, who accused him of being an “American spy” working for the CIA. His abduction is only one of more than 15 cases of Western citizens, most of them journalists, who were captured or disappeared in Syria during the year 2013 (New York Times, “American Tells of Odyssey as Prisoner of Syrian Rebels”, August 22, 2013).

Hostility to Israel

On the fundamental ideological level, the Al-Nusra Front’s stance towards Israel is no different than Al-Qaeda’s. In the worldview espoused by the Al-Nusra Front, Israel has no right to exist as an independent Jewish state. Its territory is to become part of the Islamic caliphate that will be established in Greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham) through jihad. However, it is our assessment that, as long as the Syrian regime exists, toppling it will remain a top priority of the Al-Nusra Front, even though the organization may carry out isolated terrorist attacks against Israel that do not fall within its overall priority list. We believe that the Golan Heights is perceived as a future front of terrorist attacks against Israel, which the Al-Nusra Front may attempt in cooperation with other Salafist-jihadi organizations that operate in Arab countries that border Israel.

The title sequence of the first video released by the Al-Nusra Front shows the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, with the organization’s flag planted on top. Black global jihad flags inscribed with the shahada, the Islamic creed, can be seen as well (youtube.com, January 25, 2012). The image symbolizes the ultimate victory of radical jihadi Islam over Israel.

That stance was clearly demonstrated in a video uploaded to YouTube on February 12, 2012, in which Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on the Syrians to fight until the regime was toppled and an independent Islamic government was established. He said, “If we want to liberate Jerusalem, we must remove this regime.” He called for jihad for the sake of Allah “to establish a state that protects Muslim land, seeks to liberate the Golan [Heights], and continues the jihad until the flags of victory are raised above the mountains of occupied Jerusalem”.

Despite that fundamental stance, the routine reports released by the Al-Nusra Front deal mostly with the fighting against the Syrian regime and make little mention of Israel. When they do, it is in an indirect, implicit fashion. In our assessment, it is an indication of how low Israel is on the organization’s priority list at this stage of the fighting against the Syrian regime. The following are several statements made by Al-Nusra Front operatives or those affiliated with them about Israel:

  1. An operative close to the Al-Nusra Front said, “After toppling the [Syrian] regime we will turn to Al-Aqsa” (youtube.com, January 10, 2013).
  2. Mark Abu Osama, an Al-Nusra Front operative from Stockholm, Sweden, said that after the Assad regime is toppled and a Shari’ah state is established in Syria, the jihad warriors will turn their attention to Palestine (i.e., the State of Israel). The Swedish operative converted to Islam following the September 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (youtube.com, December 30, 2012).

Mark Abu Osama, an Al-Nusra Front operative from Sweden. In the video he says that once the Assad regime is toppled, the jihad warriors will turn their attention to Palestine (youtube.com).

  1. Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, a prominent radical Islamic figure in Jordan with ties to the Al-Nusra Front, said in a press interview that, for now, the option of jihad against Israel is “not applicable”. The reason, according to Al-Tahawi, is that the Arab countries bordering Israel prevent it from happening and serve as a “defensive wall” for the Jewish state. This funnels jihad warriors into other arenas, he said, so that eventually they can reach Palestine (thirdpower.org, February 2, 2012).

The concept of jihad

The Al-Nusra Front emphasizes jihad as its chosen course of action to topple the Syrian regime and establish an Islamic caliphate in Greater Syria. The organization’s operatives are viewed as jihad warriors (mujahedeen) on Syrian soil. In a YouTube video posted by the organization on June 1, 2012, Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani urged his operatives to continue fighting with all their might as part of the jihad waged by the front against the Syrian regime. Sermons about the importance of jihad and shahada (martyrdom) are routinely delivered by the organization’s clerics in mosques, military bases, and briefings that operatives receive before leaving on their missions. In one of the organization’s videos, a local Al-Nusra Front leader (amir) in the city of Aleppo is seen briefing his fighters while citing Abdullah Azzam (Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor, who established the concept of jihad as the personal duty of each and every Muslim).

Similarly to Al-Qaeda, the Al-Nusra Front ascribes a great deal of significance to suicide bombings, which have become a hallmark of its activity in the Syrian civil war. To recruit a large number of operatives willing to carry out suicide bombing attacks against Syrian regime targets, the Al-Nusra Front clerics inculcate the organization’s operatives with the values of jihad and stress that after dying they will become shaheeds in paradise.[14] Examination of statements made by Al-Nusra Front operatives and last wills left by terrorists who carried out suicide bombing attacks shows that this method of operation is an important component in the organization’s concept of jihad. Some examples follow:

The last will of a Muhammad Ahmad Quneita, an operative from Gaza who assisted Islamic jihadist organizations in Syria, including the Al-Nusra Front. In the will he recites a verse from the Quran according to which Allah has bought the believers’ soul and property and given them paradise. He called on jihad warriors to continue their jihad, “since jihad is the shortest way to reach paradise” (youtube.com).

The Al-Nusra Front’s worldview of takfir and its implementation

Overview

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah often refers to the Al-Nusra Front and its jihadist allies as “takfiri groups” (jama’at takfiriyya), i.e., groups that label Muslims or Muslim groups as infidels for not embracing Islam in its radical interpretation. This makes the blood of the “infidels” free for the spilling, which is why accusing individuals or population groups of being infidels is a serious allegation that leaves them exposed to violence. During the civil war in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front and other Salafist-jihadi organizations have used that view to repress minority ethnic groups.[15]

The takfiri worldview is a consequence of the Al-Qaeda ideology adopted by the Al-Nusra Front, which is strongly hostile to anyone who deviates from orthodox Sunni Islam. However, the extreme intolerance towards minority groups can also be seen as the legacy of the Iraqi operatives that founded the Al-Nusra Front. Those operatives were influenced by the worldview of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who called for a total war against the Shi’ah in Iraq and actually implemented that policy on the ground. This was (and still is) manifested in indiscriminate mass-murder terrorist attacks carried out by the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq against Shi’ites and other sects or religions, while hitting sites considered holy by different religions.[16]

Hostility to Shi’ites and Alawites

The Al-Nusra Front portrays itself as an organization that protects the Sunni Muslim population from the “Alawite enemy” and “its Shi’ite proxies”. It frequently refers to the Shi’ites as rafidah (pl. rawafed), a derogatory term that means ‘rejecter’, i.e., one who rejects the first three caliphs in Islam and their right to power. Alawites are pejoratively referred to by the Al-Nusra Front as Nusayris.[17] The hostility towards Alawites is rooted in Islamic law, in a well-known ruling (fatwa) issued by Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328 AD) according to which “the Nusayris [i.e., Alawites] are worse than the Jews and the Christians” (Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the most influential jurisprudents in the history of orthodox Sunni Islam, is an important source of inspiration for Salafis). Thus, Ibn Taymiyyah actually removed the Nusayris from Islamic faith and considered them complete infidels. Many Salafist jihadis, including Al-Nusra Front operatives, rely on that fatwa and have quoted it since the beginning of the uprising against Assad’s regime.

One example of the negative attitude towards Shi’ites and Alawites can be found in an article released on behalf of the Al-Nusra Front by the Ibn Taymiyyah Media Center and posted on a website affiliated with Al-Qaeda (July 2, 2013). The article calls on Sunni Muslims in Lebanon and elsewhere in the world to help their brothers in Syria and work against Hezbollah (alplatformmedia.com). Various derogatory terms are used in the article to refer to the Shi’ites: rafawed (those who reject the first three ruling caliphs of Islam and their claim to power), mushrikoun (polytheists, those who “share” other gods except for Allah in their faith), al-firaq al-dalla (deviant groups, those who do not follow the path of righteousness), and ahl al-bida’ wal-ahwaa (those with forward thought, which is forbidden in Islam, and who have questionable urges). The Shi’ite Hezbollah is referred to as rafidi (one who rejects the first three caliphs in Islam), while the Alawite Syrian regime is referred to as “forces of the Nusayri regime” (Nusayri being a derogatory term for Alawites) or “infidel Nusayris”.

Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani also discussed the Shi’ah and Hezbollah in an audio clip posted on YouTube on July 22, 2013. He said that the Iranians use the Shi’ah as a means of taking over Islam and exterminating the Sunnis. He referred to Hezbollah as “Hezb Iran” (Party of Iran), warned the organization that its actions in Syria and Lebanon will not go unpunished, and called on the people of Lebanon to free themselves from Hezbollah’s grip.

In the practical sense, the hostility towards the Shi’ites manifested itself during the fighting in massacres of Shi’ite population and attacks on holy Shi’ite sites (in a way, the Al-Nusra Front imported the methods of operation used by Al-Qaeda in Iraq). Several examples follow:

  1. Massacre of Shi’ite residents in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate (June 2013): it was reported that on June 12, 2013 many dozens of Shi’ite residents were massacred by the Al-Nusra Front in the city of Hatla, eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate. According to one report, the number of people killed was over sixty. According to another, thirty Shi’ites were killed. The houses of the Shi’ite residents and their places of prayer were set on fire. According to yet another report, most of the people killed were armed and working for the Syrian regime. The Al-Nusra Front claimed that it was revenge for the Syrian regime’s murders in Al-Qusayr (Reuters, June 16, 2013). In one video clip, one of the armed individuals who attacked the site can be heard shouting, this is a Sunni region, it does not belong to other groups (Reuters, June 21, 2013).
  2. Blowing up a holy Shi’ite tomb (May 2013): in early May 2013 Al-Nusra Front members blew up the tomb of Hujr Ibn Adi al-Kindi, a close ally of Imam Ali, situated in the city of Adra in the suburbs of Damascus. The tomb was a site of pilgrimage for Shi’ites. Al-Nusra Front operatives disposed of the bones buried there in an unknown location (youtube.com).

The tomb being blown up (YouTube, May 30, 2013)

  1. Attacks on Zainab’s Tomb (2012-2013): Zainab was the daughter of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, the founder of the Shi’ah, and the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad. Her tomb is the holiest Shi’ite site in Syria, attracting pilgrims from all across the Shi’ite world. Starting in the second half of 2012, the rebels, particularly Al-Nusra Front operatives, began attacking the tomb by firing mortar shells and blowing up car bombs. Salafi elements even explicitly said that the tomb must be destroyed. In the first six months of 2013 the area was attacked several times by Al-Nusra Front fighters, who haven’t been able to take control of it so far. The area is protected by a Hezbollah force and a network of militias with volunteer operatives from across the Shi’ite world (mainly Iraq) known as the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.[18]
  2. Blowing up the tomb of a Shi’ite saint (February 2013): on February 16, 2013 the tomb of Hussein bin Ali’s daughter Sukaina, situated in the suburbs of Damascus, was blown up by the Al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army. Sukaina was killed in the Battle of Karbala at the age of 17 or 18 and is revered by the Shi’ites.

The tomb before and after the explosion (youtube.com)

Al-Nusra Front operatives fighting near Zainab’s Tomb (facebook.com)

Attacks on Christians and other sects and religions, destruction of statues and attacks on religious facilities and symbols

As a consequence of the Al-Nusra Front’s takfiri worldview, as well as its radicalism and intolerance, during the civil war the organization’s operatives have attacked statues and religious symbols of other minority sects. For instance:

  1. In December 2012 the Lebanese Syriac Union Party condemned the Al-Nusra Front’s attacks on civilian residences and places of prayer in Ras al-Ein, Al-Hasakah Governorate. In its announcement the party stated that religious symbols were violated and that an Assyrian school was attacked and vandalized (centralasiaonline.com).
  2. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in February 2013 that Syrians from the town of Maarat al-Numan, Idlib Governorate, accused the Al-Nusra Front of cutting off the head of a statue of famous medieval poet Abu al-Ala al-Maari, who was born nearby. The town’s residents posted a photograph of the headless statue riddled with bullet holes and lying on the ground next to its base (centralasiaonline.com).[19]

During the Syrian uprising, there was evidence of harassment of Christian citizens by the Al-Nusra Front operatives. In early September 2013, the rebels, including Al-Nusra Front operatives, regained control of the Christian town of Ma’loula, north of Damascus. Inhabitants who fled the town said that the Al-Nusra Front operatives called the Christian citizens “crusaders”, shot at crosses, and forced a Christian citizen to convert to Islam at gun point by reciting the shahada (AFP, September 11, 2013). The event had traumatic influence on Christians in Syria (see AKI, September 12, 2013).

Reports that appeared on YouTube as well as Arab and Western media indicate that Al-Nusra Front operatives harass Christians, particularly in the Al-Hasakah Governorate:

  1. Al-Nusra Front operatives stopped a bus en route from Damascus in the city of Hasakah and abused the passengers: they tore off a cross worn by a Christian man, ordered the women to cover their faces, and forced several passengers to recite the shahada at gunpoint (syriantelegraph.com).
  2. According to a report based on sources in the Vatican and information obtained from top Christian clerics in Syria, armed groups, particularly the Al-Nusra Front, persecute Christian residents (mainly young people) in Hasakah by placing road blocks, imposing curfews, theft, abductions, and assaults (elnashra.com).
  3. According to a pro-regime source, Syrian army forces prevented a massive terrorist attack in which a car bomb (or an explosive belt) was supposed to go off in a Damascus neighborhood where Christians live during the 2012 Christmas vacation. The Syrian army detained three would-be suicide bombers. They said during their interrogation that they had been told that carrying out the terrorist attack would guarantee their place in paradise and that “it is necessary to destroy the infidels who do not belong to our community of believers” (exposingfreearmy.wordpress.com).

It should be noted that Al-Nusra Front operatives interviewed on Arab media denied these reports, arguing that the Al-Nusra Front did not harm Christians and that Christians had no reason to fear the organization (interview with Tayseer al-Khateeb, the head of the Al-Nusra Front Political Bureau in Aleppo, January 12, 2013; and with Abu Luqman, one of the organization’s military commanders, January 19, 2013).

Armed operative stands on the rooftop of a church or a monastery. The photograph appeared in a brief report where Tayseer al-Khateeb, the head of the Al-Nusra Front Political Bureau in Aleppo, said the following: “The front does not harm Christians. We are fighting those who are fighting us and our people are killing them” (aksalser.com, January 12, 2013). It is unclear whether the photograph features an Al-Nusra Front operative or is just an illustration.

[*] Read the other sections here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Section One
  3. Section Three
  4. Section Four
  5. Section Five
  6. Section Six
  7. Section Seven

post divider

Notes:

[12] For instance, Abu Luqman, a military commander in the Al-Nusra Front, was asked in an interview whether the Al-Nusra Front had anything to do with Al-Qaeda. He replied: “Every one of us uses the same language and the same terms, because we all speak Arabic. However, the Al-Nusra Front has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. We are Syrians” (almustaqbal.com, January 19, 2013). His statement came before Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, thus unsubstantiating the false claim about the organization being “Syrian”.

[13] Almustaqbal.com, January 19, 2013. The interview was first posted on the BBC website on January 19, 2013, reposted in the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal newspaper on January 27, 2013, and reposted again on the Nawafek website on July 7, 2013, that being the source used for this study.

[14] According to classic Muslim tradition, a shaheed is guaranteed to receive multiple benefits: he is spared the horror of Judgment Day, absolved of all the sins he committed in his life, and granted the right to recommend up to 70 of his relatives to go to paradise (an important and exceptional privilege in Muslim society), where he will marry 72 black-eyed virgins (hurriyat). In addition, he will live in the highest heaven with Allah, who will take care of all his needs, and with Prophet Muhammad and the righteous men of Islam.

[15] One example of a takfiri terrorist group is Egypt’s Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, an organization responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks in Egypt in the 1970s and early 1980s. For Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, calling the Al-Nusra Front a takfiri rather than a jihadist organization is convenient, since Hezbollah considers itself a jihadist organization and praises the path of jihad in its publications.

[16] In this context, see article by Muhammad al-Qaysi, who cites Iraqi researchers as well as administration and security officials (centralasiaonline.com, March 5, 2013). Among other things, the article cites Fouad Ali, an expert on Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Saadoun al-Dulaimi, Iraq’s acting minister of defense.

[17] Alawites are also referred to as Nusayris, after Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, who founded the Alawite sect in the 9th century AD. Ibn Nusayr, a cleric of Persian descent, lived and worked in Samara, Iraq, and was probably close to Hassan al-Askari, the 11th Shi’ite imam. The Sunni majority viewed the Nusayris as a non-Muslim group, with some going as far as to consider them infidels and idol-worshippers. Salafist-jihadis’ use of the term ‘Nusayris’ instead of ‘Alawites’ is intended to blur the association with Ali bin Abi Talib, who according to Sunni faith is one of the four righteous caliphs who led the Islamic nation after the death of Prophet Muhammad.

[18] For more information, see our June 4, 2013 study: “Hezbollah Involvement in the Syrian Civil War” and two other follow-up bulletins.

[19] The reason for the removal of the statue’s head is not clear. Perhaps the poet is seen as an infidel, since his work is critical of Islam, and is considered an atheist (Al-Maari once said, “There are two kinds of human beings living on Earth: those who have brains but lack religion, and those who have religion but lack brains”). It is also possible that the attack was due to the Al-Nusra Front’s in-principle opposition to the existence of statues, a legacy of Al-Qaeda (that organization demolished a giant Buddha statue in Afghanistan, while global jihad operatives destroyed statues in Mali and other countries).


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