Rebranding Terror

 (Photo: Representational Image/AFP)

(Photo: Representational Image/AFP)

Foreign Affairs, By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Jocelyn, Aug. 29, 2016:

July 28, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, heretofore the emir of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, delivered what seemed to be a major announcement. Although Julani lavished praise on both al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden, he noted two apparent organizational changes. The first was that Jabhat al-Nusra was no more: Julani’s organization would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, or, in English, Conquest of the Levant Front). Second, Julani said that the renamed organization would have “no affiliation to any external entity.”

Arab and Western media buzzed with news that Julani had announced his organization’s “split” or “break” from al Qaeda. Yet Julani never actually said that such a break was occurring, and a careful reading of his statement reveals numerous problems with this interpretation (though some JFS figures have more definitively affirmed a split in interviews). More significantly, this reading ignores what we know of al Qaeda’s long-standing strategy. In fact, al Qaeda produced its own analysis of Julani’s message to the world—in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Arabic-language newsletter Al-Masra.

Taken together, the evidence is clear: Nusra’s rebranding as JFS does not represent a genuine split from al Qaeda. Instead, it signals a return to al Qaeda’s original game plan for Syria.

RETURNING TO SQUARE ONE

To understand Nusra’s recent moves, it is important to recognize that al Qaeda never wanted to tell the world about its role in Syria’s civil war. The group’s leadership judged that accomplishing their long-term goal—replacing Bashar al-Assad’s regime with an Islamist emirate—would require strategic patience. During the first two years of the war, therefore, al Qaeda sought to minimize international scrutiny by embedding senior operatives in the ranks of Nusra and other jihadist organizations. Zawahiri and his lieutenants wanted to clandestinely guide these groups and foster their alliances with other rebels, without officially announcing al Qaeda’s involvement. Growing such alliances, Zawahiri and his cohorts believed, would be more difficult if al Qaeda had an official presence in Syria.

It was only the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State (ISIS) that led Nusra’s leader, Julani, to announce his fealty to Zawahiri. Previously—and despite Nusra’s 2012 designation by the State Department as an “alias” for Baghdadi’s organization—Julani’s group had succeeded in making itself appear to Syrians to be an organic part of their struggle. Following the State Department’s designation, for instance, TheNew York Times reported that demonstrators in various Syrian cities hefted banners with slogans such as “No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.” Put simply, Nusra had gained the respect of Syrians due to its ability to take the fight to Assad.

But on April 8, 2013, Baghdadi released an audio message demanding that the name Jabhat al-Nusra be abolished, because Nusra was “but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq” (as his group was then known). Baghdadi said that Julani was merely “one of our soldiers,” and that Nusra owed its very existence to Baghdadi’s men and financial support. From that day forward, Baghdadi decreed, the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra would be a single entity known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Two days later, on April 10, Julani refused Baghdadi’s order. In an audio message of his own, Julani said that Nusra would continue to fight under its own banner. More important, Julani explained that he and his men owed their fealty directly to Zawahiri, thereby bypassing Baghdadi in the chain of command. “This is a pledge of allegiance from the sons of Jabhat al-Nusra and their supervisor general that we renew to the Sheikh of Jihad, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him,” Julani said, indicating by his use of the word “renew” that he had already privately pledged his bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. This was Nusra’s first public acknowledgement that it was a part of al Qaeda. In the months that followed, it became clear that al Qaeda had sent some of its most seasoned operatives, including veteran jihadists such as Abu Firas al-Suri, to Syria to lead Nusra.

A few weeks later, Zawahiri ruled on the dispute between Baghdadi and Julani in a letter dated May 23, 2013, and subsequently posted online by Al Jazeera. Zawahiri held that ISIS should be “dissolved” and that Baghdadi’s men should return to Iraq, where they would again operate as the Islamic State of Iraq. Jabhat al-Nusra was to be “an independent entity,” meaning its own regional branch of al Qaeda in Syria, and would answer to al Qaeda’s general command. Though Zawahiri’s decision was mainly a rebuke of Baghdadi, he also chastised Julani for “showing his links to al Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.” That is, Julani was not supposed to reveal his relationship to al Qaeda.

Baghdadi, of course, disobeyed Zawahiri’s order, and ISIS seized control of Raqqa from Nusra and other rebel groups in the summer of 2013. This led to the greatest jihadi rivalry in history, as ISIS went on to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria and win adherents elsewhere around the globe. For al Qaeda, ISIS’ success caused problems everywhere from West Africa to South Asia, as the self-proclaimed caliphate wooed fighters, and occasionally whole affiliates, away from its erstwhile parent organization. But the worst damage to al Qaeda’s strategic interests was arguably in Syria. Instead of covert influence, al Qaeda now had an official branch—Nusra—as well as a rogue jihadist rival in ISIS that was committed to al Qaeda’s destruction. This was the opposite of what Zawahiri and his fellow strategists had wanted.

Nusra fighters release prisoners in Lebanon, December 2015.  Stringer/Reuters

Nusra fighters release prisoners in Lebanon, December 2015. Stringer/Reuters

PART OF THE PLAN

Al Qaeda’s strategy, then, has long been to maintain public distance from Nusra when possible. That this strategy is behind Nusra’s rebrand is further suggested by a recent article in Al-Masra, a weekly newsletter published by AQAP that is a key source for understanding the group’s thinking. The August 9 edition of Al-Masra includes a lengthy article entitled “A Letter Regarding Jabhat al-Nusra Disassociating From al Qaeda.” The piece’s author is identified as Osama bin Saleh (likely a pseudonym), who uses statements made by al Qaeda’s senior leaders, as well as al Qaeda documents, to explain the group’s designs on Syria.

In a section of his letter aptly titled “Not Standing Out,” Saleh reiterates that al Qaeda never wanted a formal entity in Syria. He includes a passage from a May 2014 video in which Zawahiri said that the “general leadership’s direction is that we should not declare any open presence” in Syria, and that this “matter was agreed upon even with the brothers in Iraq,” meaning Baghdadi’s group. “We were surprised,” Zawahiri continued, “by the declaration that gave the Syrian regime and the United States an opportunity they were hoping for.” The declaration he is referring to is Baghdadi’s formation of ISIS, which Zawahiri claimed made Syrians wonder: “Why is al Qaeda bringing disasters upon us? Isn’t Bashar enough? They also want to bring in America against us?”

Bin Saleh also points to an August 2010 letter (previously released by the U.S. government) from bin Laden to Ahmed Godane, the emir of the Somali jihadist group al Shabab. Bin Laden told Godane that Shabab’s “unity” with al Qaeda “should be carried out … through unannounced secret messaging.” Godane and his men could spread the news of Shabab’s unification with al Qaeda “among the people of Somalia,” but they should not make “any official declaration” of their allegiance. If asked about their “relationship with al Qaeda,” Shabab’s leaders were to say it was “simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more, which would neither deny nor prove” the connection.

As the letter to Godane made clear, Shabab was already part of al Qaeda at the time. But bin Laden believed ambiguity was a strategic advantage. Saleh quotes at length from bin Laden’s letter to Godane to illustrate why. “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you,” bin Laden wrote. Although bin Laden conceded that “enemies will find out inevitably” because “this matter cannot be hidden,” he argued that “an official declaration remains to be the master of all proof,” and it would be easier for “Muslims in the region” to support Shabab without it.

Shabab and al Qaeda did not announce their formal union until 18 months later, in February 2012—after bin Laden had been killed. But al Qaeda’s secretive handling of its arm in East Africa set a clear precedent for how it would groom its newer branch in the Levant. Bin Saleh underlines the point: “Notice that the leadership of the organization [al Qaeda] was not passionate about declaring their relationship with other factions, in order to avoid confrontation with the enemies and … denying them excuses.”

Nusra’s relaunch as JFS should be viewed in this light. Al Qaeda does not expect the U.S. government to remove JFS from its terrorism list or to stop bombing its members. Rather, the rebranding is intended to eliminate America’s “excuse” for bombing the group by removing its formal link to al Qaeda. This message is aimed primarily at Syrians, and secondarily at the broader Middle East. According to bin Saleh, Nusra’s “disassociation” will further unification and cooperation between militants in Syria, as other groups will no longer have the excuse that they do not want be seen as supportive of all of al Qaeda’s actions.

Bin Saleh’s letter provides other insights into al Qaeda’s thinking as well. He suggests Julani’s move was stage-managed by al Qaeda’s senior leaders, writing that the group’s “leadership paved the way before Nusra declared disassociation.” He also points to the message Nusra released from Zawahiri’s deputy, a veteran jihadist known as Abu Khayr al-Masri, just hours before announcing the relaunch. Masri gave his blessing to Nusra “to proceed with that which safeguards the interests of Islam and Muslims, and protects the jihad of the people of the Levant.” JFS’ goals are no different from Jabhat al-Nusra’s, which were no different from al Qaeda’s.

Perhaps most important, Saleh stresses that JFS’ goals are no different from Jabhat al-Nusra’s, which were no different from al Qaeda’s. As Julani himself said at a press conference last year, “we, whether we are with al Qaeda or not, will not abandon our principles and stances. We will continue to say that we want to establish the sharia and … continue in jihad.”

EYES WIDE SHUT

It is vital for Western governments, especially the United States, to expose al Qaeda’s strategy. This, however, is unlikely to happen—the United States has, for years, been exceedingly slow to recognize al Qaeda’s intentions, let alone respond to them. In the past, the U.S. government overlooked al Qaeda’s maneuvering because it believed the organization was on the verge of “strategic defeat”; today, the perception that al Qaeda does not threaten the West has led to a more generalized disinterest.

Yet the danger is growing. In addition to the additional leverage al Qaeda could gain over other militant groups in Syria, JFS may be positioned to receive even more outside support. Before renaming itself, Nusra had received support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, despite its open affiliation with al Qaeda. (Among other concerns, these Sunni countries are all eager to unseat Bashar al-Assad, a staunch ally of their Shiite rival Iran.) Now that JFS has shed the al Qaeda label, these states may begin to scale up support for the group with little objection from Western governments.

Most important, Nusra’s rebranding should be understood in light of al Qaeda’s history of trying to obscure its role in Syria. The group’s senior leaders are now attempting to return to their original Syria strategy. If the West and its allies do not actively oppose them, they may get away with it.

Also see:

Syria’s Nusra Front Breaks from Al-Qaeda

AFP

AFP

Breitbart, by John Hayward, July 29, 2016:

The Nusra Front, formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, has been al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria since late 2011. The Syrian group’s leader has announced it will now cut its ties with al-Qaeda and become independent, with al-Qaeda’s blessing.

The announcement came from Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in his first video statement. As the BBC reports, Julani announced that his group would be renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which translates to “Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant,” and will have “no affiliation to any external entity.”

The reason for the split, and the reason al-Qaeda endorsed it, was to “remove the pretext used by powers, including the U.S. and Russia, to bomb Syrians.” In other words, Julani thinks his group has been unfairly targeted because it was linked to al-Qaeda, and now that it has been formally rebranded as an independent entity, foreign powers will no longer have an excuse to bomb them.

Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr said Nusra’s leadership had been instructed to “go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad.”

“The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organisational links that change and go away,” declared al-Qaeda’s number one, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Russians do not need much of a pretext to bomb enemies of the Assad regime, and the U.S. clearly is not buying this “rebranding” strategy.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, not even troubling himself to use the Nusra Front’s new name, said:

The United States continues to assess that Nusra Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West and there continues to be increasing concern about Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe.

In fact, a report earlier this year from the Institute for the Study of War, and American Enterprise Institute, portrayed the Nusra Front as “much more dangerous to the U.S. than the ISIS model in the long run.”

“We judge any organization, including this one, much more by its actions, its ideology, its goals,” added State Department spokesman John Kirby. “Thus far, there’s no change to our views about this particular group. We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”

Perhaps it would have been more crafty for the al-Qaeda bosses to avoid admitting they ordered the “breakaway” as a propaganda ploy to “protect jihad.” Also, they are making the charade much less convincing by actively seeking closer ties with other Islamist groups in Syria.

CNN notes that just two weeks ago, the United States announced closer cooperation with Russia against the Nusra Front to “restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce the violence and help create the space for a genuine and credible political transition” in Syria. Nusra is one of the groups excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement, along with ISIS.

Of course, it is unlikely that anyone in the Nusra Front or al-Qaeda expected the Western world to accept this “rebranding” effort and let them go on their merry way. The goal is to create propaganda opportunities with other Islamist groups, who can be nudged into the al-Qaeda umbrella by Nusra leaders who are supposedly no longer al-Qaeda operatives, but share their “core ideology.” There will be much caterwauling about how the Americans and Russians are still unfairly bombing “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.”

CNN quoted analysts who also made an interesting case that the Nusra “rebranding” and the involvement of al-Qaeda second-in-command Masri are an indication Masri – supposedly “under arrest” in Iran, with the details rather murky, until recently – is actually in Syria, and may be preparing to take charge of al-Qaeda from Zawahiri.

This would enable Masri to continue Zawahiri’s strategy of spreading jihadi ideology without explicit connections to al-Qaeda at present, with an eye toward reasserting al-Qaeda as the Wal-Mart of jihad once ISIS has been defeated.

The report by the Institute for the Study of War/AEI, mentioned above, made the case that Nusra was “quietly entwining itself with the Syrian population and Syrian opposition,” and was “waiting in the wings to pick up the mantle of global jihad once ISIS falls,” as ISW president Kim Kagan put it.

This would make Nusra much more difficult to target than ISIS, which is not exactly easy to target, once it sinks roots into urban conquests, lines up human shields, and positions them to keep Syria in a state of war for years to come, no matter what political deals might be struck with other insurgent factions. From that constant turmoil, they could supply al-Qaeda with weapons and trained fighters to strike targets across the world.

Speaking in January, Kagan observed that the Nusra Front chose not to overtly attack the West “because the al-Qaeda leadership’s priority is preserving success in Syria and avoiding being targeted by the U.S.” This “rebranding” maneuver fits neatly into the strategy she described.

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Dutch Intelligence: Competition Could Fuel Jihadi Plots

by Abigail R. Esman
Special to IPT News
April 27, 2016

tweetA “large scale, spectacular attack in Europe or the US”: this is the prediction of the Netherlands’ Intelligence Service (AIVD).  And, they say, it could happen very soon.

The AIVD’s report on 2015, released last week, analyzes the threat of terrorism, cyber-terrorism, and other national security issues based on the past year’s events and global intelligence-gathering.  The agency found that ongoing competition between jihadist groups is proving even more dangerous than the threat of continued “lone wolf” attacks and localized bombings by jihadists who have either returned from the Islamic State or were inspired by them.  That competition, particularly between al-Qaida and ISIS, is likely to lead to major attacks on the West in order to “demonstrate to one another that each is the real leader of jihadism,” the AIVD report says. This is particularly crucial for al-Qaida, which may stage an attack soon in order to re-assert its prestige and power at a time when ISIS seems to be getting the most attention.

These predictions align with similar warnings from former CIA operative Brian Fairchild,  who last fall also warned of  “another 9/11,” driven by rivalry among the terrorist groups.

That rivalry is intensifying as various factions continue to battle for power in the Levant.  Al-Qaida, for instance, recently published a statement accusing ISIS of “lies and deceit,” and describing them as “one of the biggest dangers today in the jihadi fields.”  And in a video, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri called ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,  “illegitimate.” ISIS, according to al-Qaida, “invoked the curse of Allah” on its opponents, specifically on Jabhat al Nusra.  Al Nusra, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, is considered another powerful rival of ISIS.

Like the AIVD’s 2005 report, “From Dawa To Jihad,” now something of a classic in the literature about the radicalization of Western Muslims, many insights presented in this year’s overview are likely to be taken seriously by intelligence agencies and counter-terrorism strategists globally.  Alongside concerns about a major attack in the near-term, for instance, the AIVD report offers an analysis of the complexities of Islamic terrorism at this moment – and the vastness of its reach.

Those complexities again put the lie to notions that Islamic extremism breeds in impoverished neighborhoods, among the unemployed and disenfranchised. They defy, too, ideas that immigration is to blame, or that simply “closing the borders” will solve the threat. As the report notes:

“The attacks in Europe present a disturbing illustration of the threat Europe currently faces: people from our own homelands, who grew up here and mostly were radicalized here, stand ready and willing to take up weapons against the West [….]  So, too are jihadists who return from the battlefields of jihad prepared to perpetrate similar atrocities [at home] – and jihadists who had planned to join the foreign battle, but never succeeded [in making the trip]. Young, inexperienced jihadists can perpetrate attacks, but those jihad-veterans known to intelligence officials and who have long been quiet may also suddenly come roaring back.”

Similarly, “attacks could be planned and attackers sent from outside Europe, or they can be planned and activated from within; they could be major attacks, arranged by professionals far in advance, or relatively simple and small-scale,” the AIVD report says. “The threat can come from organized groups and networks sent in to commit attacks but also by individuals or small groups who sympathize with a certain jihadist group.”

Moreover, the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), which often is misleadingly characterized as “moderate,” poses an additional threat. “JaN is a jihadist organization connected with al-Qaida and whose purpose, in part, is to commit attacks against the West,” the report says.

And while the death of many al-Qaida leaders may have caused some disruption, this does not mean that the organization is weakened, or that the threat of another al-Qaida attack against the West has vanished. Rather, battling for the mantle of dominant jihadi group could strengthen its determination to wage spectacular attacks.

And it isn’t just violent attacks. While the AIVD has found a rising interest among Dutch Muslims in obtaining weapons, the agency notes that in at least one case, the purpose was to perform a series of armed robberies in order to finance terrorist groups in Syria.

What is certain is that Salafism, the radical Islamic ideology that supports violent jihad, is very much on the rise in the Netherlands. Added to this development is the ISIS propaganda machine, which the report’s authors say, sends the message that terrorism is a form of heroism. Combined, the two forces stand to raise radicalization and the probable involvement in terrorism in the homeland.

For the Dutch, as for other Europeans,  the danger does not just come from jihadists at home and those in Syria. Belgium, with its many extremist and terrorist groups, is just across the Dutch border. Paris is a short, high-speed train ride away.  And as officials increasingly crack down in those two countries, the chances are great that terrorists there will travel elsewhere, looking for the nearest place to hide – and kill.  The result is a multi-pronged threat that hovers over the country, and increasingly, over Europe.

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Daily Beast, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, Jan. 19, 2016:

After fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.
Almost every aspect of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been scrutinized, lambasted or praised in recent months, but one of the most significant facets, the CIA’s covert aid program to Syrian rebels, has largely slipped below the radar.

It is time that we start paying attention, since this initiative is benefiting the very jihadist groups the U.S. has been fighting for the past 15 years.

America’s abrupt about-face is a mistake, but even those who would defend this new course as the least bad option should favor a more robust public debate.

The CIA’s program, launched in 2013, initially was conceived as a way of strengthening moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime without significantly increasing the U.S. footprint in the conflict.

The program got off to a slow start, with rebel commanders grumbling that the CIA was stingy due to its concern that weapons would fall into extremists’ hands. As a result, moderate rebels were forced at times to ration ammunition. At least one rebel group severed its ties with the CIA and joined an Islamist-led coalition, while other CIA-backed rebels stopped fighting.

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

Anonymous U.S. officials now tell the media that CIA-backed rebels have begun to experience unprecedented successes, particularly in northwestern Syria. Yet these gains reveal a darker side to the CIA-backed groups’ victories, and even American officials’ framing of these advances provides reason for concern. As the Associated Press reported in October, officials have explained that the CIA-backed groups were capturing new territory by “fighting alongside more extremist factions.”

Who are these extremist co-belligerents? Analysis of the geography of “moderate” rebels’ gains during this period and reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.

Hassan Hassan, co-author (with The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss) of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, suggested that rebel gains in Idlib in April 2015 showcased the symmetries between CIA-backed forces and Nusra when he attributed the rebels’ successes to suicide bombers (frequently deployed by Nusra and other jihadists) and “American anti-tank TOW missiles.” In southern Syria, the CIA-backed Southern Front fought alongside Nusra in the campaign to take the city of Deraa in June 2015.

CIA-backed groups in northwestern Syria publicly acknowledge their relationship with the al Qaeda affiliate. A commander of Fursan ul-Haq, a rebel group that received TOW missiles through CIA channels, explained that “there is something misunderstood by world powers: We have to work with Nusra Front and other groups to fight” both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.

Similarly, a spokesman for CIA-backed Suqour al-Ghab justified his group’s collaboration with Nusra by noting that “we work with all factions when there are attacks on the regime, either through direct cooperation or just coordinating the movements of troops so we don’t fire at each other.”

The fact that CIA-backed groups collaborate with Nusra does not necessarily prove that they harbor jihadist sympathies, nor that they hoodwinked the American officials who vetted them. In many or perhaps most cases, these groups’ decision to cooperate with Nusra is born out of pragmatism.

When fighting a regime as brutal as Assad’s, it is natural to look for allies wherever they may be found. Further, as one of the dominant players in northern Syria, Nusra can dictate terms to smaller rebel factions. The experiences of Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, two CIA-backed groups that Nusra literally obliterated in late 2014, are a stark warning.

Jamaal Maarouf, the commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, explainedafter his group was ousted from Syria that no militia in the rebel umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army can operate in northern Syria “without Nusra’s approval.”

Because of Nusra’s strength, CIA-backed factions have entered what has beencalled a “marriage of necessity” with the jihadist group, which is exploiting its position to gain access to American weapons.

After rebels seized a Syrian military base in Idlib province in December 2014, CIA-backed groups admitted that they had been forced to use U.S.-provided TOW missiles to support the Nusra-led offensive. One rebel explained that Nusra had allowed CIA-backed groups to retain physical control of the missiles so as to maintain the veneer of autonomy, thus allowing them to sustain their relationship with the CIA. In short, Nusra has at times gamed the system.

But such subterfuge notwithstanding, at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited. And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.

Rebels who previously complained about the CIA’s tight-fistedness suddenly found the floodgates open, particularly with respect to TOW missiles. One rebel explained: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them. Just fill in the numbers.” Reports suggest that the Obama administration and Sunni states backing the opposition have also discussed, though not committed to, providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons to vetted groups.

With the CIA doubling down on its support for Syrian rebels, it is now more important than ever to have a candid and vigorous public debate about the agency’s program. Put simply, such an about-face in U.S. policy—backing groups that help al Qaeda to make advances, after spending a decade and a half fighting the jihadist group—should not occur without a public debate that helps Americans understand why such drastic changes in U.S. policy have occurred.

Several prominent figures have defended this program. For instance, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, argued that by maintaining the supply of lethal support to moderate rebels, the CIA may ultimately be able to build up these factions as a viable alternative to Nusra, the Islamic State and Assad.

But the program’s costs outweigh its possible benefits. Though aiding al Qaeda’s advances is not the program’s intention, it is the effect. Thus, after fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.

At the moment, al Qaeda is trying to rebrand itself by contrasting its approach to that of the far more brutal Islamic State—and, unfortunately, it has experienced some success due to its jihadist competitor’s excesses and the escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda has portrayed itself to Sunni states and the Muslim public as a bulwark against both the Islamic State’s growth and Iranian encroachment. If U.S.-backed rebels are cooperating with al Qaeda, the United States will be hard-pressed to stop al Qaeda from gaining more room to operate in the region.

It is unlikely that the United States, with no meaningful presence in Syria, understands the situation on the ground better than al Qaeda, and can strategically outmaneuver the jihadist group. The danger is too great that continuation of this policy will empower Nusra further, eventually forcing policymakers to confront a greatly emboldened al Qaeda force in Syria.

This is why, at the very least, we should have a robust public discussion about whether to continue this course in Syria—a debate that the U.S. Congress is well positioned to kickstart through public hearings on the CIA’s program. Allowing this program to continue without carefully thinking through the benefits, costs, and possible unintended consequences is incredibly risky, and could erode public trust and support.

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US-Trained Syrian Rebels Allegedly Hand Weapons to Al Qaeda Affiliate

Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda, took the technicals, guns and ammunition from the US-trained Division 30 in northern Aleppo Photo: Reuters

Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda, took the technicals, guns and ammunition from the US-trained Division 30 in northern Aleppo Photo: Reuters

Washington Free Beacon, by Morgan Chalfant, Sep/ 22, 2015:

U.S.-trained rebels that reentered Syria over the weekend after completing the Pentagon program allegedly gave their weapons to the al Qaeda affiliate in the region, al Nusra.

The Telegraph reported that rebels fighting with Division 30, the rebel group with whom the U.S.-trained Syrian fighters are partnering to combat the Islamic State, surrendered and handed over weapons and ammunition to members of al Nusra, according to members of the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, who identifies himself as a member of al Nusra, wrote on Twitter, “A strong slap [in the face] for America … the new group from Division 30 that entered yesterday hands over all of its weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra after being granted safe passage.”

“They also handed over a very large amount of ammunition and medium weaponry and a number of pick-ups,” al-Tunisi added.

Another alleged al Nusra member, Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi, claimed on Twitter that the commander of Division 30 Anas Ibrahim Obaid said he tricked the U.S.-led coalition in order to obtain weapons.

“He promised to issue a statement … repudiating Division 30, the coalition, and those who trained him,” al-Maqdisi wrote.

U.S. Central Command said Monday that approximately 70 U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had reentered Syria after undergoing training in Turkey.

If confirmed, the U.S.-trained rebels relinquishing their weapons would represent another setback for the $500 million Pentagon program. In July, al Nusra kidnapped a number of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels when they entered Syria after becoming the first class to complete the training program. The al Qaeda affiliate was allegedly tipped off by Turkey. Currently, only four or five rebels from the first class of the training program are still fighting the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) in the Middle East

The Pentagon plans to overhaul its effort to train rebels to fight the Islamic State.

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Proposed buffer zone leads al Qaeda to withdraw fighters from northern Aleppo province

An Al Nusrah Front fighter on the lookout in Aleppo.

An Al Nusrah Front fighter on the lookout in Aleppo.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, Aug. 10, 2015:

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has released a statement saying its fighters have been ordered to withdraw from their frontline positions north of Aleppo. Al Nusrah’s jihadists had been fighting against the Islamic State in the area. The move comes in response to Turkey’s attempt to establish a buffer zone for forces fighting Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization.

The statement, which was released via Twitter on August 9, does not indicate that Al Nusrah is siding with the Islamic State in the multi-sided conflict. The group makes it clear that it will continue to fight Baghdadi’s men elsewhere. Instead, Turkey’s cooperation with the US-led coalition, which has targeted veteran al Qaeda leaders in northern Syria, has forced Al Nusrah to change tactics.

The al Qaeda arm says it is relinquishing control of its territory in the northern part of the Aleppo province. Other rebel groups will step into the void.

Al Nusrah criticizes the proposed buffer zone in its statement, saying it is intended to serve Turkey’s national security interests and is not part of a real effort to aid the mujahdeen’s cause. The Turkish government fears a Kurdish state on its southern border, according to Al Nusrah, and that is the real impetus behind its decision. The Kurds are one of the Islamic State’s main opponents and have gained territory at the expense of Baghdadi’s jihadists in recent months.

The al Qaeda branch also says it cannot find religious justifications for cooperating with the joint US-Turkey initiative.

There is an even simpler explanation for Al Nusrah’s rejection of Turkey’s buffer zone: the US has been striking select al Qaeda operatives in Al Nusrah’s ranks.

The Pentagon announced earlier this month that it had begun flying drones out of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Some of the air missions are reportedly backing up US-trained rebel forces on the ground. Those very same fighters have battled Al Nusrah, which has killed or captured a number of the “moderate” rebels.

In late July, for instance, Al Nusrah claimed that it had captured members of a group called Division 30, which has reportedly received American assistance. Other members of Division 30 were killed during clashes with Al Nusrah after the al Qaeda arm raided the group’s headquarters north of Aleppo. Subsequently, a statement attributed to Division 30 disavowed any role in the US-led coalition’s campaign. The statement also said that Division 30 would “not be dragged [into] any side battle with any faction, as it did not, and will not, fight against Al Nusrah Front or any other faction.”

Regardless, the Defense Department is providing air support to US-backed rebels, who have been dubbed the New Syrian Force. And Al Nusrah has made it clear that any American effort to influence the anti-Assad and anti-Islamic State insurgency will be treated as a hostile act.

Separately, the US has also repeatedly targeted senior al Qaeda leaders in Al Nusrah’s ranks. Labeled the “Khorasan Group,” this cadre of al Qaeda veterans has been plotting attacks in the West.

Al Qaeda’s view of cooperation with Turkey, independent from US-led coalition

From al Qaeda’s perspective, tactical cooperation with Turkey, or elements of the Turkish government, is one matter. Working with the US-backed coalition, which Turkey supports in some ways, is another issue altogether.

Consider what Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official who alsoserved as al Qaeda’s deputy general manager until his death in April, said about Turkey earlier this year. In a question and answer session that was released online, al Ansi was asked how the jihadists should deal “with countries like Qatar and Turkey, whose policies tend to benefit the mujahideen.” Al Ansi replied that there “is no harm in benefiting from intersecting interests, as long as we do not have to sacrifice anything in our faith or doctrine.” However, al Ansi warned, this “does not alleviate their burden for collaborating with the Americans in their war against the mujahideen.” The jihadists “need to be attentive to this detail,” al Ansi explained.

In other words, al Qaeda’s members and like-minded jihadists can benefit from working with Turkey and Qatar, as long as those nations do not cross the line by advancing America’s “war against the mujahideen.” Given the circumstances described above, this is exactly how Al Nusrah now views Turkey’s proposed buffer zone.

However, as Al Ansi made clear, this does not preclude the possibility of tacit cooperation between al Qaeda’s Syrian branch and parts of the Turkish government on other matters. Indeed, because of their “intersecting interests” in Syria — namely, both want to see Bashar al Assad’s regime toppled — Turkey has been slow to recognize Al Nusrah as a threat in its own right.

In September 2014, Francis Ricciardone, the former US ambassador to Turkey, accused the Turks of working with Al Nusrah. “We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” Ricciardone said of his discussion with Turkish officials. “The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including Al Nusrah, whom we finally designated as we’re not willing to work with.”

Since early on the rebellion against the Assad regime, Turkey has permitted large numbers of foreign jihadists to travel into Syria. At various points, this benefitted not only Al Nusrah, but also al Qaeda’s rivals in the Islamic State, which Turkey now opposes.

For instance, in October 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported on meetings between US officials, Turkish authorities and others. “Turkish officials said the threat posed by [Al Nusrah], the anti-Assad group, could be dealt with later,” according to US officials and Syrian opposition leaders who spoke with the newspaper. Officials also told the publication that the US government’s decision to designate Al Nusrah as a terrorist group in December 2012 was intended “in part to send a message to Ankara about the need to more tightly control the arms flow.”

Eventually, in 2014, Turkey also designated Al Nusrah as a terrorist organization. Turkish authorities have also reportedly launched sporadic raids on al Qaeda-affiliated sites inside their country.

Still, al Qaeda has found Turkey to be a hospitable environment in the past. According to the US Treasury Department, al Qaeda has funneled cash and fighters through Turkish soil to Al Nusrah.

In October 2012, Treasury said that a network headed by al Qaeda operative Muhsin al Fadhli was moving “fighters and money through Turkey to support al Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria.” In addition, al Fadhli leveraged “his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey.” (The Defense Department believes that al Fadhli was killed in an airstrike on July 8.)

It remains to be seen how Al Nusrah will react to Turkey’s latest moves, beyond rejecting the proposed buffer zone. In the meantime, groups allied with Al Nusrah will likely take over its turf.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

Also see:

U.S.-Funded Free Syrian Army Unit Shows Off Its Kidnapping Skills in New Training Video

PJ Media, by Patrick Poole, July 23, 2015:

A training video released today by Liwa Fursan al-Haqq (Knights of Justice Brigade) of the “vetted moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) opens with the group’s special forces practicing their abduction and kidnapping skills. And yet FSA units, funded, supported and armed by the U.S., have been repeatedly implicated in the abduction and kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Syria.

Here you can see them putting their U.S.-funded training to practice:

vlcsnap-2015-07-23-18h11m41s955

Also shown are critical military skills, such as standing on the back of a motorcycle while shooting two U.S.-funded AK-47s one-handed:

vlcsnap-2015-07-23-18h27m21s069-1024x576

Of course no jihadist training video would be complete without the requisite traversing of the monkey bars:

vlcsnap-2015-07-23-18h23m52s046-1024x576

Or the “Fiery Ring of Death”:

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Delta Force and the Navy SEALs have nothing on Liwa Fursan al-Haqq. Yet all three elite units are funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars!

You can watch the whole 10 minute video in all of its glory:

What makes the video of U.S.-funded FSA units being trained in kidnapping and abduction so important to note is that FSA units have repeatedly been implicated in the abduction of American citizens who were later traded to Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, as well as the Islamic State.

That would include American journalist James Foley, beheaded by the Islamic State last year in its first such grisly video, who reportedly came into ISIS custody when the FSA-aligned Dawud Brigade that kidnapped and held Foley pledged allegiance to ISIS and delivered him to ISIS as a token of their submission.

That, however, is not the only such documented incident of FSA units abducting Americans.

In late October, American journalist Theo Padnos — who was captured by the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and then given over to Jabhat al-Nusra — told the story of his two-year captivity in the New York Times Magazine.

At one point, Padnos says he escaped from his Al-Qaeda captors and found himself back in the hands of the FSA, who then, again, promptly turned him back over to the terror group.

Padnos also relates this exchange with some U.S.-trained FSA fighters that exposes the glaring weaknesses of the CIA’s vetting system:

I returned to the FSA troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.

“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”

“Certainly, very,” he replied.

The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.

After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?”

“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

An NBC News crew taken captive in Syria in December 2012, and who later repeatedly claimed they had been held by an Assad regime militia, later admitted – following a New York Times investigation – that they were in fact held by an FSA criminal network.

Also, there is evidence that NBC News executives knew from the time of the crew’s capture that they were held by U.S. allies, but allowed the blame to fall on Assad since that didn’t conflict with the Obama administration’s position at the time.

The chief Washington D.C. cheerleader for the Syrian rebels, Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, happily announced the Liwa Fursan Al-Qaqq video release earlier today:

Lister tweet

As I noted back in April here at PJ Media, Lister finally admitted what he and most of the other Western supporters of the Syrian rebels have well known for a long time — that vast majority of Syrian rebel groups have been associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact mostly concealed by the D.C. “smart set”:

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

In fact, it was just a year ago yesterday that Liwa Fursan Al-Haqq announced they were separating from Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra had been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in December 2012.

As a result of that separation, that gave the U.S. the go-ahead to begin supplying them with heavy weaponry, such as TOW anti-tank missiles, which you can see them using in the video below:

So the next time that an American citizen finds himself kidnapped by a FSA unit, possibly ending up starring in the Islamic State’s latest beheading video, he can take comfort that his captors have received the best training and received the most advanced weaponry courtesy of his own country’s support.

Your U.S. taxpayer dollars hard at work!

Islamic State’s Dabiq 10 Emphasizes Global Jihad over Islamist Nationalism

dh110Center for Security Policy, by Jennifer Keltz, July 15, 2015:

The Islamic State recently released the tenth issue of its online magazine, Dabiq, titled “The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men.” Dabiq 10, the magazine’s Ramadan edition, focuses primarily on the Islamic State’s Muslim opponents, whom the group accuses of disregarding the word of Allah.

Dabiq 10 addresses two audiences. The first is the general global Muslim population and the second consists of other Islamist and nationalist organizations who have fought against the Islamic State. The Islamic State is trying to convince both to join its campaign of jihad against non-Muslims.

To the global Muslim population, Dabiq 10 stresses the authority of the Caliphate. In its opening remarks, the magazine states that

The call to defend the Islamic State – the only state ruling by Allah’s Sharī’ah today – continues to be answered by sincere Muslims and mujāhihīn around the world prepared to sacrifice their lives and everything dear to them to raise high the word of Allah and trample democracy and nationalism.

Repeatedly, Dabiq 10 denounces nationalism and calls upon Muslims to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State, which serves Allah above men and nations. The magazine emphasizes the importance of Shariah and points to a hierarchy within Islamic law; it sees itself as having a monopoly over the understanding of this hierarchy. For example, it talks of the Islamic duty to honor one’s parents. However, the magazine notes that children must disobey parents that order their children to defy Shariah,  specifically addressing situations when children are forbidden by their parents to participate in jihad, saying,

Ibn Qudāmah said, “If jihād becomes obligatory upon him then the permission of his parents is not taken into consideration because the jihād has become fard ‘ayn and abandonment of it is a sin. There is no obedience to anyone in disobedience of Allah.”

The Islamic State believes that it represents the only legitimate source of Shariah jurisprudence as a result of having established the Caliphate under AbuBakr Al-Baghdadi. As a result, its declarations “to the sincere Muslims around the world to march forth and wage war against the crusaders and apostates who seek to wipe out the Sharī’ah” carry with them the force of religious obligation and law.

Continuing on this theme of its religious superiority, Dabiq 10 specifically talks about Muslim women whose husbands are either not Muslim or who are Muslim but fight against the Islamic State. These women are instructed to abandon their husbands and family. According to the magazine,

It is not permissible for you in any case to remain under the same roof with someone who has removed the noose of Islam from his neck, and the marriage contract between you and him was nullified the moment when he apostatized from the religion of Islam. …As such, any relationship you have with him is a relationship that is impermissible according to the Sharī’ah. Rather, it amounts to zinā (fornication), so beware.

Fornication carries with it severe punishments, including possibly stoning, so this represents  a thinly veiled threat to both the Islamic State’s enemies, and their spouses.

When addressing other Islamist and nationalist organizations, Dabiq 10 is fiercely critical of the numerous Kurdish nationalist groups and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. It acknowledges that Kurdish fighters have had some success against its own armies, but it says that Kurdish gains have come at the cost of complete submission to the American “crusaders.” It puts forth the additional point that these Kurdish victories will be short-lived because they have a nationalist, rather than Islamist, agenda. The magazine says,

It should be noted here that all nationalist agendas in the Muslim’s usurped lands are ultimately doomed to fail, even those that seek to unite the members of one nation, or even one ethnicity as in the case of the Kurdish murtaddīn. This includes the agenda of the “Islamist” nationalists, who would readily sacrifice their religion for the sake of temporary political gain, in contrast with the mujāhidīn of the Khilāfah who would readily cut off the heads of the murtaddīn from their own people in defense of Allah’s Sharī’ah.

Dabiq 10 uses a similar argument to criticize Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, its affiliate in Yemen. These groups are faulted for working with nationalist militias and for failing to enforce Shariah law in areas they control. It accuses these groups of following the laws of men and paying no heed to the laws of Allah, because

Some of those mentioned had fallen into apostasy… like those who permit partaking in the shirkī democratic elections, or those who seek intercession from the absent and dead, or those who take the Arab and non-Arab tawāghīt as well as the Crusaders as close allies, or those who deny some of the obvious, definite laws of the Sharī’ah.

Muslims fighting in nationalist groups against the Islamic State are called upon to “repent to Allah and wake up, for by Allah you are fighting the Sharī’ah whether you realize it or not. So gather your brothers, rise in unison, and kill those who order you to fight against those who rule with the Sharī’ah.”

The magazine focuses more closely on Jahbat al-Nusra, whom it calls the “Jawlānī front” in reference to the group’s leader Abu Muhammed Al-Joulani.  It calls Nusra out for Joulani’s recent interview with Al Jazeera, where he specifically stated that the group is not attacking the Druze in Syria. Dabiq 10 features its own interview with Abū Samīr al-Urdunī, a former member of the organization who defected to the Islamic State. According to Urdunī, Nusra fighters were tricked into fighting the Islamic State because they were deceived into believing that Islamic State fighters were members of the pro-Assad Syrian army. Urdunī provided an anecdote to this effect, saying,

One of the soldiers saw a signboard that had drawn on it the flag of the Islamic State. So he shouted, “The Islamic State will remain!” So Abū ‘Abbās stopped the convoy and said to the soldier, “What are you saying?” He said, “The Islamic State will remain. These are our brothers.” He said to him “Do you not know where you are going?” He said “I don’t know.” He said “How do you not know? You are going to fight the Islamic State…” The soldiers said, “We do not want to fight the Islamic State and we don’t agree with fighting it. They told us that we were going for ribāt at the 17th.”

Ribat typically refers to border or guard duty. The 17th is likely a reference to the 17th Syrian division, an Assad regime army unit which had been stationed at a base near the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.

The remaining Islamist organization that Dabiq 10 addresses is the Taliban. It publishes a question from a member of the Taliban who is unsure if he should remain loyal to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, or if he should defect to the Islamic State. The article makes clear the Islamic State’s stance on the ongoing feud between the two groups over control of Islamist activity in Afghanistan. The magazine describes the Taliban as a nationalist movement, pointing out that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been at best circumspect about his global ambitions, and never publicly declared his position as Caliph. In contrast, the Islamic State is a global movement which purports to have established the Caliphate, therefore rendering the Islamic State the supreme and ultimate authority. Also notable is the claim by the Islamic State that the Caliphate position must go to a Quraysh, which is the tribe of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. Mullah Omar has openly declared his ancestry, which is not Quraysh, and Al-Baghdadi claims (almost certainly falsely) that he is Quraysh and that he does meet this important requirement.

Throughout the entirety of Dabiq 10, the power of the Islamic State and its supreme authority over all of Islam is repeatedly emphasized. It is upon this mantle of religious authority as the reestablished Caliphate that the Islamic State claims the right to target and killed other Muslims who do not recognize their authority and so views even other dedicated jihadist organizations as apostates.

Brookings Goes to Bat for Al Qaeda-linked Group…Again

1720491514 (1)Center for Security Policy, by Kyle Shideler, July 15, 2015:

Fresh off their annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum that proved to be a who’s who meeting of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, The Qatari-funded Brookings Institute is once again going to bat for an Al Qaeda-linked group of militants known as Ahrar Al Sham. Author Charles Lister takes the occasion of the publication of an Op-Ed in the Washington Post by Ahrar Al-Sham’s “head of foreign political relations” Labib  al-Nahhas to laud recent Ahrar Al Sham statements of “moderation”:

While clearly being sharply critical of current U.S. policy, Nahhas’ most powerful message was a genuine call for political engagement—“we remain committed to dialogue,” he said. Coming from an armed Islamist group that came close to being designated and whose facilities have been targeted by U.S. aircraft at least once, this call does show an extent of political pragmatism. Ahrar al-Sham has not called for American support one key Ahrar al-Sham decision-maker told me, but instead desires “the chance for a new start, in which we acknowledge the mistakes of the past and make it clear that a political track is possible, but with the right players and the right principles.”

Such engagement in any form does not have to be a prerequisite for the provision of support, but can be merely of value in and of itself. In the case of Ahrar al-Sham specifically, such engagement would not come without its inherent risks, but it may also prove practical in ensuring at the very least that al-Qaida does not come out on top in Syria.

For this reason and others, Ahrar al-Sham’s senior leadership has been managing a gradual process of external political moderation—or some might say maturity—for at least the last 18 months.

That Ahrar Al-Sham is some how moderating, maturing, or distancing itself from Al Qaeda is a bag of goods that Brookings authors have been attempting to sell for some time. In January of last year, Brookings authors Michael Doran and William McCants, together with co-author Clint Watts, published an article calling Ahrar al Sham the “Al Qaeda-linked Group Worth Befriending”.

Lister denigrates evidence that Ahrar Al-Sham was led by an Al Qaeda leader and confidante of Ayman Al-Zawahiri as “a popular claim”, and attempts to pass along the claim by Ahrar Al Sham and other Islamist groups that they only fight alongside the Al Qaeda linked group in order to provide a “subtle counterbalance”.

Lister also quotes one local Syrian rebel describing Ahrar Al Sham  as “too “intellectually close” to the Muslim Brotherhood”, a description which ironically seems to fit Brookings Institute just as well.

Yet even while reminding us that “actions speak louder than words,” Lister doesn’t find fit to mention that Ahrar Al Sham has recently joined yet another coalition together with Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra and other AQ-linked outfits in Syria in order to form Ansar Al Sharia, coincidentally (or not) the same cover name used by Al Qaeda in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Perhaps the last word on whether or not to take Ahrar Al Sham’s statements of moderation seriously comes from the Al-Qaeda linked group themselves. The group’s military commander Abu Saleh Tahhan recently tweeted in reference to their association with Al Nusra,

“Anyone who thinks we would sell out those close to us in exchange for the approval of strangers is an idiot, anyone who imagines that we would privilege a neighbor over someone from our own home is a fool…”

The Extreme View that IS and Al Qaeda Can Become Moderate

1569667742CSP, by Jennifer Keltz, June 15, 2015:

Last week, articles suggesting the US should ally itself with Al Qaeda and should consider the Islamic State (IS) as a legitimate power were published by the prominent news sources The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy. These articles are part of a growing trend, demonstrated by an earlier 2014 Foreign Affairs article, calling for greater US complacency in regards to violent jihadist groups.

The recent pieces present different, equally dangerous ideas, and should be addressed individually.

Yaroslav Trofimov, of the Wall Street Journal, reports influential policy thinkers and U.S. Allies are discussing the possibility of a US alliance with the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra). They say that many secular, Western-backed militants fighting in Syria already work closely with Nusra on the battlefield. They also point to Middle Eastern governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, that work closely with Nusra to help topple IS and the Assad regime, which has a horrible human-rights record. This perspective fails to recognize that these are Sunni states and their backing of Nusra has more to do with their desire to weaken Shia Iran and Syria than to help Syrian civilians.

The report presents Nusra as the lesser of two evils: in comparison to IS, its religious views are “certainly radical” but “aren’t nearly as extreme.”

The policy-makers in question lack a greater perspective of the Syrian conflict and of Nusra and Al Qaeda. Its Al Qaeda affiliation demonstrates that, while it may have local goals now, it ultimately wants to install Islamic regimes all over the world, and indeed has the same end goal as IS.

The only reason why Nusra is not attacking the West is because Al Qaeda Central ordered it to refrain from doing so. That does not mean that it is not planning to attack in the future. Any group that must be ordered to not attack the US is not a group with which the US should be aligned.

In an unrelated op-ed in Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor, asks his audience to consider what the US should do if IS “wins.” He believes IS is likely to establish itself and retain power, similarly to how the USSR and People’s Republic of China started as revolutionary movements before establishing themselves as states.

Walt believes the US should treat IS and its worldview in the way that it treated the USSR and communism throughout the twentieth century – with containment. He ignores history: the Soviets never abandoned efforts to violently spread their ideology, from the 1919 invasion of Poland to the 1989 retreat from Afghanistan.

Walt states that IS is not powerful on a global scale, and its foreign recruitment of 25,000 from a world population of 7 billion is not that large. In fact, he says he would rather see all of the people that desire to join IS actually join it because this would put them all in one place, where they can be isolated from the rest of society. Unfortunately, he only considers IS’s foreign recruitment. Size estimates of the organization range from the tens- to hundreds-of-thousands.

Walt ignores IS’s calls for its international followers to attack Western people and civilizations, and that its followers are listening. A quick Google search shows that it inspired attacks in Texas, New York (where one woman “couldn’t understand why U.S. citizens like herself were traveling overseas to wage jihad when they could simply ‘make history’ at home by unleashing terrorist attacks”), Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.

Though its ranks may be small in comparison to the world population, with its strategic use of the internet and media it has permeated through Western society. The US is not as far away from IS’s violence as Walt wants to think. The widespread use of the Internet means that containment can never truly happen and its ideas will still spread, leading more people to want to join. Additionally, recognizing IS as a state would legitimize it, leading to increased recruitment.

He states IS has few resources, and can now no longer surprise its enemies. However, it brings in millions of dollars daily from oil alone, and it has other sources of income. It is also much larger and better-resourced than Al Qaeda was at the time of the 9/11 attacks, which had a core membership between 500-1000 people. IS is therefore expected to have capabilities far beyond those of Al Qaeda in the early 2000s.

Walt’s argument that IS would self-moderate if it became an actual country is important to his argument for containment. He explains it would need to self-moderate in order to gain legitimacy amongst other nations and to be welcomed into international politics and the world economy. This argument lacks an understanding of the IS worldview.

Cole Bunzel, in “From State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” describes it as “the view that the region’s Shi’a are conspiring with the United States and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East.” In IS’s declaration of return of the caliphate, “This is the Promise of Allah,” they laid out its founding principles and described it in verse:

“We took it forcibly at the point of a blade/…We established it in defiance of many./ And the people’s necks were violently struck,/ With bombings, explosions, and destruction,/ And soldiers that do not see hardship as being difficult…”

Fundamental to IS’s beliefs is that they cannot be compromised because they are mandated by Allah.  Founded upon religious beliefs, which do not appeal to logic but instead to faith, IS cannot and will not become more moderate. Its members view the western concept of “moderation” as the antithesis of what their divinely-conceived worldview requires. It already operates as a pseudo-state anyway; international recognition is irrelevant to its purpose for existence.

The points of view expressed in the two op-ed pieces mentioned are dangerous if left unaddressed. They display a shallow and dangerous understanding of the nature of the Jihadist organizations, their methods, and their goals.

Islamic State’s Expansion into the Caucasus Region

May 31, 2015 / /

The other day we were discussing the Islamic State’s (IS) expansion into the Caucasus region with our good friends at American Jihad Watch, who pointed out that the al-Hayat Media Center (HMC) had established a Russian language magazine titled “ISTOK” or “the Source.” The first big shout out IS gave to the Caucasus was in Dabiq #7, but ISTOK is important because its specifically catering to the people in that region. None of this is surprising since the best fighters in the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra ranks are Chechens. Chechen fighters are so prized for their fighting prowess that the IS Military OPs Emir is a Chechen (Omar al-Shishani aka “the Ginger Jihadist”). We assess that this is the first phase of IS’ engagement strategy to establish a permanent presence in the Caucasus and fill the void being left by Imarat Kavkaz (IK), a jihadist organization that represents Russia’s primary terror threat – but has been in decline since 2013. In this piece we’ll take a look at why the intelligence community may want to take a closer look into what these guys are about, and why IS’ interest in the region is significant.

ISIS-Dabiq-Issue-no.-7

Cover of ISTOK Magazine Source: American Jihad Watch

Cover of ISTOK Magazine
Source: American Jihad Watch

Screen shot taken from Dabiq #7 Source: Dabiq #7

Screen shot taken from Dabiq #7
Source: Dabiq #7

Another screen shot of ISTOK Magazine Source: American Jihad Watch

Another screen shot of ISTOK Magazine
Source: American Jihad Watch

So what exactly is IK, anyway? IK is a jihadist organization that was established in 2007 by Doku Umarov, who the Russians had dubbed the “Osama bin Laden of the Caucasus.” The group’s goal is to expel the Russians from the North Caucasus and establish an “Islamic Emirate.” For years IK had been causing trouble in Russia executing attacks throughout Chechnya, Ingushtia, Dagestan – even Moscow itself.

Profile: Caucasus Emirates
http://www.adl.org/combating-hate/international-extremism-terrorism/c/profile-caucasus-emirates.html

Six North Caucasus Insurgency Commanders Transfer Allegiance To Islamic State
http://www.rferl.mobi/a/islamic-state-north-caucasus-insurgency-commanders-allegiance/26773615.html

Pro-Rebel Website Posts Transcript of Interview with Doku Umarov
http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37956#.VWrD92A-DVo

Doku Umarov Source: The Fine Report

Doku Umarov
Source: The Fine Report

Here’s the highlights from the more recent attacks:

– DEC 2014 Grozny fighting.

– DEC 2013 Volgograd Bombings.

– OCT 2013 Volgograd Bus Bombing.

– The Boston Bombers were inspired by IK. Other reporting suggests that they had received training at a camp run by IK’s Dagestan Viliyat. Its worth noting that this same IK faction has since pledged allegiance to IS.

– 2012 Makhachkala Attack – 13 people killed.

-Domodedovo International Airport Bombing that killed 36 people.

– 2010 Moscow Metro Bombings that resulted in 39 people dead and over 100 wounded.

– 2009 Nevsky Express Bombing. A second bomb was detonated the following day near the site of the first attack.

North Caucasus group in Russia train bomb web claim
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8390258.stm

Top detective hurt in second blast at train crash site
http://www.breakingnews.ie/world/eymhgbojgbau/rss2/

Chechen rebel claims Moscow attacks
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2010/03/2010331171748201274.html

Moscow bombing: Carnage at Russia’s Domodedovo airport
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-12268662

Twin bomb attacks kill 12 in Russia’s Dagestan
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/04/us-russia-dagestan-blast-idUSBRE8430E620120504

Female suicide bomber attacks Russian bus, kills six
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/21/us-russia-blast-idUSBRE99K08G20131021

Dead Boston bomb suspect posted video of jihadist, analysis shows
http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/20/us/brother-religious-language/

Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the US Homeland
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/04/terrorism_in_the_cau.php

Assessing Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the Homeland

Female suicide bomber attack in Volgograd, Russia, as Sochi Winter Olympics approach
http://www.smh.com.au/world/female-suicide-bomber-attack-in-volgograd-russia-as-sochi-winter-olympics-approach-20131229-hv749.html

Gun battles erupt in Chechnya’s capital after militants launch attack
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/police-killed-as-gun-battle-erupts-in-chechnyas-capital

Indeed the group was a serious threat to Russian security for several years. However, the tide began to turn in favor of Putin when a major crackdown on IK was launched in 2011. Since the start of the campaign (which remains ongoing) attacks inside Russia have declined by 30%. When Umarov made it clear that he intended to crash the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin unleashed the Spetznaz for what would become a massive surge in counter-terror operations with Chechen terrorists either being killed or “disappeared.” One of the casualties was Umarov himself. Aliaskhab Kebekov aka “Ali Abu Muhammad” would replace him as leader of IK. Kebekov would continue the group’s allegiance to al-Qaida (AQ) that was first established with Umarov.

Caucasus Emirate Leader Calls On Insurgents To Thwart Sochi Winter Olympics
http://www.rferl.org/content/sochi-olympics-terrorism-umarov/25035408.html

Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov ‘dead’
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26634403

Doku Umarov Source: The Fine Report

Doku Umarov
Source: The Fine Report

However, major fracturing within the organization began in DEC 14 when elements began defecting to IS. Problems first emerged as far back as 2012, which Umarov had addressed in NOV 12 rebuking those who had “weakened the jihad in the North Caucasus” by leaving to fight in Syria. Despite his public denouncement, he would later change his tune when it became clear that Syria was “the new Afghanistan.” In 2013, a Chechen commander known as Emir Salahuddin was appointed to the position of “official representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.” This individual would later replace Omar al-Shishani as leader of Jaysh al-Mujahirin when he left the group to join IS. Under Shishani’s command, Jaysh al-Mujahirin developed a reputation for their combat efficiency and viciousness adjacent the “Kufar” or “non-believer.” Shishani and the group was instrumental in al-Nusra’s attack on the Syrian military’s Sheik Suleiman Base located in Western Aleppo and also served as the lead element in the offensive that overran Menagh Airbase. Following Kebekov’s appointment as new leader of the Jaysh al-Mujahirin, he ensured that the group remained an independent entity (much like Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah), although he was still voicing support for AQ. The interesting thing about this Jaysh al-Mujahirin is that Salahuddin has been using the group to “maintain the peace” between IS and al-Nusra – or attempted to anyways. Unfortunately, the influx of Chechen fighters arriving in Syria and Iraq, regardless what faction they served under, also meant that the organization lost a lot of their most competent personnel.

(Check out “Islamic State Military Operations Emir Possibly KIA” and “IS Organizational Breakdown” for additional info on Shishani)

Chechen Militants Fighting in Middle East Remain Split in Their Loyalties
http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=43733&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=935a84fff0cfbde19ce8c07a48523473#.VWrfvGA-DVo

Jaysh al-Mujahirin wal Ansar Leader accuses Islamic State of Creating “Fitna” Between Jihadist Groups
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/05/jaish-al-muhajireen-wal-ansar-leader-accuses-islamic-state-of-creating-fitna-between-jihadist-groups.php

Islamic State Military Operations Emir Possibly KIA
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=839

IS Organizational Breakdown
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=40

Salahuddin (Left) Source: The Long War Journal

Salahuddin (Left)
Source: The Long War Journal

omar al-shishani 3

Omar al-Shishani
Source: The ISIS Study Group

Kebekov himself was regarded as a weak leader who contributed to IK’s decline. Syria-based jihadists feuded with him because they thought he wasn’t “hardcore enough.” The result was 50% of the group defecting to IS by APR 15 to include at least 10 Jamaat (or local/mid-level) commanders. One of the bigger names that pledged allegiance to Baghdadi was IK Dagestan Emir Rustam Asilderov, who made the announcement in late-DEC 14. Asilderov is currently serving as IS’ point-man for the North Caucasus region with two more representatives operating in the Republic of Georgia – which is a traditional IK facilitation hub. When Kebekov was killed last month with no real replacement capable of preventing any further fracturing, it opened the door for IS – through Asilderov – to begin laying the groundwork for establishing a permanent presence in the region.

Whither Caucasus Emirate?
https://counterjihadreport.com/category/chechnya/

Dagestani Jihadist Swears Allegiance to Islamic State, Invoking Backlash
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/12/jihadists_in_dagesta.php

New leader of “Imarat Kavkaz” not to be loyal to IS
http://eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/31512/

Russian special forces kill North Caucasus rebel leader
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/russian-special-forces-kill-north-caucasus-rebel-leader-150420175353317.html

kebekov

Kebekov
Source: The Counter Jihad Report

Putin’s regime is concerned about Chechen fighters returning from Syria and Iraq giving the guys on the home front a “shot in the arm.” Not surprisingly, Putin blames the Obama administration for the rise of IS. The sad thing is he’s 100% correct. The thing that we should be concerned about on our end is that all Putin’s crackdown has done is purge the most influential AQ-aligned elements from the ranks, which gives IS a “blank slate” to influence with the guys who’ve been networking with the structural leadership in the Middle East. Aside from the fact that IS would want to have a larger presence in the region that the best fighters in their ranks are from, a permanent presence there would enable IS to directly target Russia in retaliation for Putin’s support to the both the Assad and Iranian regimes.

Another factor that makes such an endeavor so attractive to them is the fact that a lot of the Chechen fighters have been traveling to Syria and Iraq through Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – many with Russian and European passports. This also presents IS with an alternative method of inserting jihadists into Europe for the purpose of conducting attacks. We assess that IS has been forced into trying to balance resources between establishing a solid presence in the region and competing requirements elsewhere – like Yemen, for instance. Meanwhile, the pro-AQ factions of IK have been reaching out to the structural AQ leadership in Pakistan in the hopes of being granted official affiliate status. From what we understand Dr. Zawahiri approves of the idea. So the race is on to see who can establish a permanent presence there first. Keep in mind that both IS and AQ’s efforts will be slowed considerably as a result of Russia’s ongoing counter-terror campaign. Still, this is something that the intelligence community would do well to keep close watch of since those Chechens fighting in the Middle East will eventually start returning home at some point…

San Diego Man Arrested for Working for Al-Qaeda Sharia Court in Syria, Fighting with Terror Group

PJ Media, by Patridk Poole, April 23, 2015:

Yesterday the FBI in San Diego arrested Mohamad Saeed Kodaimati, a naturalized U.S. citizen since September 2008, for making false statements to U.S. Embassy officials, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI related to his time in Syria and Turkey over the past two years. Kodaimati left the U.S. in late December 2012 and returned on March 23.

According to the FBI affidavit in support of the criminal complaint filed today in the case against Kodaimati, the 24-year-old man was caught in a series of lies related to his work on behalf of a sharia court operated by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and a U.S. designated terrorist organization, and also his role mediating between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Ultimately, Kodaimati was tripped up by his posts to Facebook.

According to the FBI, he stated in a September 2013 private message on Facebook that he worked for the sharia court in Hanano near Aleppo. He would post media statements from the Nusra-operated sharia court to social media.

The FBI complaint also alleges that Kodaimati was a close associate with a senior ISIS operative in the area, with whom he mediated on behalf of others in the area to resolve conflicts between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. He also posted pictures to his Facebook account (now removed) of him with another known ISIS operative.

In his Facebook communications, he also recounted how he, his father and his brother fought with Jabhat al-Nusra against the Assad regime for four months.

He was initially questioned at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, on March 10 and 11. He was later questioned about his activities in Syria by Customs and Border Patrol upon his reentry to the U.S. at the airport in Charlotte, NC, on March 23, and later by the FBI in Charlotte on March 25. After being questioned at his home in San Diego yesterday, he was taken into custody.

Here’s the FBI complaint:

Kodaimati Criminal Complaint by Stewart Bell

Ohio Arrest Shows Threat to U.S. from Al-Qaeda in Syria

ohiolg_0

What now for the U.S.’ relationship with Al-Nusra after an American goes to Syria for jihadist training and returns to commit terrorism?

Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, April 19, 2015:

Al-Nusrah American citizen Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud was indicted after a cleric associated with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) ordered him to carry out an attack here, the Justice Department announced. His plot to attack a military base in Texas was thwarted. The involvement of Al-Nusra will make it difficult for the U.S. to keep looking the other way as it gains territory in Syria.

Originally from Somalia, Mohamud grew up in the U.S. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and Islamist radicalism seems to be a family affair in this case. His brother died fighting for Al-Qaeda in Syria and was apparently a major influence in Mohamud’s radicalization.

Their younger brother, Abdiqani Aden, was arrested earlier this month during a visit to Mohamud because he made a gun symbol with his hands and pointed towards the sheriff’s deputies. He was speaking in a foreign language at the time. This is especially threatening because Mohamud’s second-choice target was a prison.

The government’s monitoring of communication between the two older brothers shows their motivations were not frustration with U.S. foreign policy or personal trials. They were inspired by a glorification of those who die in violent jihad and a belief that such “martyrs” are guaranteed entry into heaven.

His brother left the U.S. in May 2013 and went to Syria to link up with Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing. Mohamud’s travel arrangements involved Al-Nusra members and that is presumably the group he joined, but his online postings showed his loyalty was with ISIS. Al-Nusra facilitators appear to have been surprisingly unconcerned by this.

This may indicate the rift between the leadership of ISIS and Al-Qaeda isn’t necessarily trickling down to most of the membership. The attacks in Paris are another example where Al-Qaeda and ISIS supporters worked together despite the quarrels of their leaders.

His brother was killed in June 2014 and he returned home afterwards. Mohamud told a close associate that he completed his training with an unidentified terrorist group in Syria and a cleric told him to return to the U.S. to carry out an attack. The indictment charges Mohamud with providing material support to Al-Nusra, so it appears that he never joined ISIS.

Mohamud began plotting but two unidentified individuals close to him reported their dialogues to the FBI and likely recorded them. One was a friend of his for three years and all indications point to one or both of these informants being Muslim. This is another example of why the demonization of informants by groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is so dangerous.

Mohamud decided his preference was to attack a military site with a prison as a backup option. He chose a base in Texas and hoped to execute three or four U.S. soldiers before achieving “martyrdom.” The FBI arrested him before he could start putting the details together.

The cleric’s involvement is an important detail because it threatens to unravel the Obama Administration’s façade that Al-Nusra isn’t a direct threat to America. It also indicates the group is putting an increased emphasis on hitting us at home.

The U.S. realized in September the air campaign against ISIS needed to include a unit within Al-Nusra named the Khorasan Group that was orchestrating terror plots against the West. The problem is that Al-Nusra is much more popular than ISIS and works closely with other Syrian rebels, including ones the U.S. supported and anticipated relying upon to fight ISIS on the ground.

The desire to avoid alienating Al-Qaeda-allied Syrian rebels and their supporters led the Obama Administration to begin promoting a myththat the Khorasan Group is an independent entity that is somehow illogically linked to Al-Qaeda but not Al-Nusra. The New York Timesrepeated it in its coverage of this case.

The myth is harmful to U.S. interests and anti-Islamist Syrians because it distances Al-Nusra from Al-Qaeda, thereby giving it a higher ceiling of public support. A Zogby poll in November found the population of Turkey favors Al-Nusra above all other participants in the Syrian civil war. A whopping 40% of Turks support Al-Nusra the most.

The indications are that Mohamud’s Syrian cleric is from Al-Nusra but it’s still significant he’s in ISIS because that would mean it is now dispatching operatives from the region to America. That would be a shift from relying on so-called “lone wolves” inside the U.S. who plan terrorism because they’ve determined that traveling to the Caliphateis unlikely to succeed.

It is true that Mohamud’s case is important because it’s the first publicly-acknowledged case of an American going to Syria for jihadist training and returning home to commit terrorism, but there’s a bigger point to be made. The U.S. is at war with Jabhat al-Nusra because it is at war with Al-Qaeda. If a Syrian rebel partner doesn’t approve of the U.S. recognizing that unavoidable fact, then that’s not a partner worth having.

Sunni Jihadists Gain Ground in Syria

Syrians in the city of Idlib on Wednesday lined up to receive bread. The city was seized last weekend by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which said it would not try to monopolize power there. Credit Mohamad Bayoush/Reuters

Syrians in the city of Idlib on Wednesday lined up to receive bread. The city was seized last weekend by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which said it would not try to monopolize power there. Credit Mohamad Bayoush/Reuters

CSP, by Aaron Kliegman, April 1, 2015:

The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front seized the provincial capital of Idlib in northwestern Syria this past weekend. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew after five days of intense fighting with a primarily al-Nusra-dominated coalition of rebels, all of whom are part of the multi-faceted Syrian opposition.

According to the “Army of Conquest”, the name of the coalition, 70 rebels were killed in the decisive battle. Beyond al-Nusra, other Islamist militias helped in the effort including Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Liwa al-Haqq, and Failaq al-Sham, and some smaller groups played a lesser role.

Al-Nusra said today that it will rule Idlib with sharia law, with the group’s leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani stating, “We salute the people of Idlib and their stand with their sons … God willing they will enjoy the justice of sharia, which will preserve their religion and their blood.” While the jihadists were battling the regime and now are trying to setup Islamic governance, hundreds of thousands of residents have reportedly fled the city.

Idlib has strategic significance for multiple reasons, including that it is 20 miles from the Turkish border, and one Syrian military source accused Turkey of helping the rebels take Idlib. Furthermore, Idlib is only the second provincial capital that Assad has lost, the first one being Raqqa. The Sunni jihadists are gaining ground and can consolidate their power in Idlib to move onto other strategic targets. Idlib is important for exerting control northeast toward Aleppo city, and the rebels are better suited to move towards Hama city and its military airfield or into the regime’s heartland.

As al-Nusra is imposing sharia law on Idlib, its main rival jihadist group, Islamic State (ISIS), seized most of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital. Al-Nusra members who defected to ISIS helped in the fight against Assad regime forces. According to the U.N., before the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Yarmouk was home to about 200,000 people; now, that number is down to 18,000.

ISIS has been attempting to push into western Syria, far way from its main strongholds, for months. The group is trying to establish sleeper cells in the areas around Damascus and maintain a firm presence there. While the regime has strong checkpoints to repel attackers from Damascus, ISIS’s presence so near to the capital indicates that they are getting closer.

While these two developments are occurring, Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, were fighting Wednesday with regime forces along the Jordanian border. The rebels attacked the main border crossing between the two countries on the Syrian side, known as the Nasib post, causing Jordan to close the area. According to Conflict News, al-Nusra militants captured the border crossing on the same day. If true, Jordan will rightfully be concerned about the fighting’s proximity to its border, especially while it has been dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees throughout the civil war.

All of these stories show the increasingly chaotic situation in Syria. While ISIS is adding territory to its self-declared caliphate, the al-Nusra front is also quietly gaining territory. Both groups’ success will only increase their propaganda and bring in more recruits. With Sunni jihadists groups on the move and the Assad regime trying to hold onto as much of the country as possible, there seems to be no good foreseeable outcome. The conflict will only get more complicated as the fighting gets closer to Turkish and Jordanian territory and Islamist rebels get closer to Damascus.

Also see:

US-Backed Syrian Rebels Ally with Al-Qaeda in South, Surrender CIA-Supplied Weapons in the North

Syrian rebels pause for prayers in Dara province, in the country's south, in the spring, in an opposition-provided photo. Rebels in the province are fighting to hold onto a strategic crossroads. (Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Assad) http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-south-violence-20141130-story.html

Syrian rebels pause for prayers in Dara province, in the country’s south, in the spring, in an opposition-provided photo. Rebels in the province are fighting to hold onto a strategic crossroads. (Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Assad)
http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-south-violence-20141130-story.html

PJ Media, by Patrick Poole, December 2, 2014:

For months I’ve been reporting here at PJ Media about the ongoing cooperation between US-backed “vetted moderate” Syrian rebel units and designated terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. This includes U.S.-backed rebel units who have defected wholesale to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Despite multiple reports of this cooperation, in September the congressional GOP leadership jumped on board with Obama’s proposal to spend an additional $500 million to arm and train the “vetted moderates” just weeks before the Obama administration abandoned the Free Syrian Army that had been the primary beneficiary of U.S. support for the past three years.

Now reports this weekend indicate growing cooperation between U.S.-backed rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra operating in southern Syria.

According to the LA Times:

Opposition activists reported intensified government bombardment in and around Sheik Maskin and the arrival of battle-tested loyalist reinforcements.

Fighting along with U.S.-backed rebels were elements of Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

In a Facebook posting, Al Nusra supporters reported “vicious battles” in the Sheik Maskin area. Earlier posts also eulogized a prominent Al Nusra commander, Abu Humam Jazrawi, who was killed in the fighting.

Al Nusra’s participation illustrates how Western-supported rebel groups often cooperate with the Al Qaeda franchise, though both sides try to play down the extent of coordination. Recent clashes between Al Nusra Front and U.S.-backed rebels in northwestern Syria do not appear to have broken the de facto alliance between the Al Qaeda affiliate and West-backed fighters in the south. (emphasis added)

Meanwhile, in northern Syria as “vetted moderate” groups were forming an umbrella with hardcore jihadist groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, other U.S.-backed units were surrendering to Jabhat al-Nusra (a trend I noted last month) and turning over their CIA-provided arms to Ahrar al-Sham, McClatchy reports:

On Friday, as the groups were meeting here, the Nusra Front stormed the bases of two moderate rebel groups in Syria’s north: the Ansar Brigades in Idlib and the Haqq Front in Hama. The two groups, both of which were receiving U.S. support through a covert CIA program, surrendered to Nusra, delivered their weapons to Ahrar al Sham and returned to their homes. (emphasis added)

And today Syria analyst Aron Lund noted that the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army signed an agreement last week with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham for the Qalamoun area near the Lebanese border guaranteeing the imposition of sharia and creating a mutual defense pact.

The “vetted moderate” follies continue.