ISTANBUL: As Islamists gain ground in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the radical Nusra Front has emerged at the forefront, yet little is known about the group aside from its power and its affiliation with Al-Qaeda.
Despite the mystery – leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani is never seen in public – those acquainted with the Nusra Front paint a picture of a highly organized group known for the discipline of its fighters and well-liked by the people in the territory it controls.
The military leader of the Salafist Al-Islam Brigade, a sharp-witted man in his 40s who goes by the nom de guerre Hazem, explains that the Nusra Front operates differently than the other Islamist brigades active in Syria.
“It is an underground organization and its members are always in disguise; Its cells are dispersed everywhere,” he says, noting that neither Julani nor other Nusra Front members speak to the media.
Julani uses the honorific “Al-Wali,” a term used by governors of the last Islamic caliphate. This is a nod to the leanings of the Nusra Front, who Hazem and others say hope to build an Islamic caliphate in Syria.
In fact, there are now small-scale beginnings of this structure on the ground, according to Hazem. Julani rose to power after gaining the support of 48 “emirs,” brigade leaders who were given the term after conquering an area and having it designated an emirate.
Hazem recounts a conversation in which Julani told him “now it is time for jihad and ousting Assad’s army. When we announce the governance of Islam then we will make everything about us public, but we will never abandon our dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate on Syrian land.”
Hazem himself doesn’t agree with the Nusra Front’s aspirations toward a caliphate, but it is happy to have them as an ally against Assad’s regime.
But these aspirations have brought up divisions among Islamist fighting brigades, says Sheikh Hassab al-Jalil, a dissident Syrian cleric who is now based in Turkey.
As Jalil explains, the Nusra Front wants to establish a caliphate immediately after Assad is ousted. Other Islamist movements, including the Syrian Liberation Front and the Islamic Syrian Front, believe a civil state must come first, and that there can be no caliphate without a state that can control Syria’s territory and restore the rights of its people.
And then there are the Al-Qaeda links. They don’t bother Hazem, but a go-between the Nusra Front designated to speak to The Daily Star says ties have led some groups to accuse the group of being a creation of the Syrian regime, allowing it to accuse the rebels of terrorism. It has also been labeled a terrorist group by the United States.
Ahmad Fawzi al-Khalif, a Salafist figure in the Syrian opposition, believes the Al-Qaeda influence “is very normal among Salafists and jihadists, and Al-Qaeda’s principles are deeply rooted with a large number of armed men who believe that jihad against nonbelievers is a religious duty and a sacred mission.”
Khalif, also known as “Abu Akram,” adds that the Nusra Front shies away from the press not because of its terrorist designation, but because it discovered spies disguised as journalists in the territory it controls.
One thing that’s sure is the group’s fighting power. Hazem says it is known for its ability to create improvised explosive devices and the readiness of its men to take part in suicide attacks. “More than 18,000 foreign fighters inside Syria await the orders of the Nusra Front to blow themselves up.”
Jalil believes the Nusra Front has some 10,000 fighters in its ranks.
The group’s gunmen are also known for their discipline. As Hazem notes, “they are forbidden from looting, from theft, and from attacking civilians. When they attack a military target they withdraw and let civilians take whatever they want.”
Jalil says the Nusra Front largely rose to prominence due to the mistakes of the Free Syrian Army.
“They have invested in organizing the flow of arms, financing, and built a popular base among the Syrian people in the regions they control,” he says.
“Now the Nusra Front is progressing, not only because of its military power but because of its widespread popularity. When it takes over gas and oil tanks from the regime it gives this to the people without asking for anything in return.”
According to Hazem, events on the ground are leading toward majority Islamist control of the land not under Assad’s control. He rattles off the areas now under Islamist control, listing them by brigade: the Islam Brigade from Palmyra until rural Aleppo; the Tawhid Battalion in rural Idlib and Damascus; and the Farouq Brigade in Homs and Hama.
Mocking the FSA, Hazem says: “All that is left of the so-called Free Syrian Army are about 85 officers without soldiers, drinking tea [in one village].”