Al Qaeda’s strategy five years into the Syrian revolution

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On Mar. 17, Al Nusrah Front leader Abu Muhammad al Julani released a statement commemorating the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Bashar al Assad’s regime. “We congratulate the people of al Sham [Syria] and the Islamic Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] on the pass of five years of their blessed revolution and their blessed jihad,” Julani wrote, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group.

Julani concluded by arguing that the jihadists are one with the Syrian people. “For we are from the people of al Sham and al Sham is from us, nothing can separate us…from its people except death, Allah willing,” Julani claimed.

The success or failure of al Qaeda’s project in Syria hinges, to a large degree, on whether Julani is right. Al Nusrah, which easily has thousands of fighters, is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.

The available evidence suggests Al Nusrah is widely respected on the ground five years into the rebellion. There are pockets of resistance, but the West has no real strategy for harnessing this discontent and diminishing al Qaeda’s influence in the rebellion. Perhaps that is not even currently possible.

Still, the events of the past two weeks highlight a liability al Qaeda has long sought to minimize in Syria. Protesters took to the streets in some areas to denounce Al Nusrah. It does not appear that the protests were widespread, but they were noteworthy.

Earlier this month, Al Nusrah clashed with the 13th Division, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction based in Maarrat al Nu’man, a town in the northwestern Idlib province. During the days that followed, protesters rallied against Al Nusrah and Jund al Aqsa, another al Qaeda-affiliated group. The two jihadist organizations had raided the 13th Division’s headquarters and bases in Maarrat al Nu’man in mid-March, capturing FSA fighters and their weapons in the process.

A Twitter feed (@JAN_Violations) that documents Al Nusrah’s transgressions posted photos and videos of a protest in Maarrat al Nu’man on Mar. 18, the day after Julani’s statement was published online.

Some of the images purportedly show Al Nusra and Jund al Aqsa fighters looking on from nearby rooftops as civilians denounced them. It is difficult, using social media alone, to gauge how significant the protests in Maarrat al Nu’man really are. But the photos and videos indicate that there is at least some discontent with al Qaeda’s guerrilla army in areas where other fighting factions have a reasonably strong presence.

Not to be outdone, Al Nusrah organized its own protests on the anniversary of the revolution. Al Nusrah’s official Twitter feed posted images of rallies in Idlib, Aleppo and elsewhere during which al Qaeda’s black banner was flown, often alongside the nationalist Syrian flag. The photos were intended to reinforce the perception that Al Nusrah remains an integral part of the rebellion. Indeed, this was al Qaeda’s intention all along.

Al Qaeda’s popular revolutionary model

As The Long War Journal has reported on multiple occasions, al Qaeda seeks to inculcate its Salafi-jihadist ideology within the Syrian population. It is using the conflict to build a broader and deeper base of popular support for its cause. Like the Islamic State, Al Nusrah seeks to enforce a harsh version of sharia law and build an Islamic emirate. However, al Qaeda and the Islamic State follow two different strategies for achieving these goals.

The Islamic State is a top-down authoritarian organization. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men argue that they have resurrected the caliphate, which was formally dissolved in 1924. The Islamic State explicitly markets its graphic executions and amputations under sharia law, saying the punishments are divinely justified. From the Islamic State’s perspective, Muslims who do not accept its legitimacy as a caliphate are to be terrorized into submission. Muslims who oppose the Islamic State, including even other jihadists, are deemed apostates or infidels.

In contrast, al Qaeda adheres to a bottom-up strategy, seeking to become popular with the people. From al Qaeda’s perspective, Bashar al Assad’s regime must fall before it can build a stable Islamic State. Al Qaeda’s representatives have begun to lay the groundwork for governance in the areas controlled by Al Nusrah and its closest allies. But al Qaeda will not publicly declare that an Islamic emirate exists in Syria until it is reasonably certain such a state can survive.

Unlike the Islamic State, Al Nusrah has embedded itself deep within the insurgency against Assad and his allies. This makes it difficult to untangle al Qaeda from the less extreme factions. Al Nusrah often cooperates with other groups that share only part of its agenda.

Al Nusrah also does not produce propaganda highlighting its enforcement of sharia’s harshest penalties. It eschews Islamic State-style propaganda because it does not want to offend Muslims who may be appalled by such draconian methods. Abu Firas al Suri, a veteran al Qaeda operative who is a member of Al Nusrah’s management team, has explained that Al Nusrah even enters into agreements with other factions concerning the laws that will be implemented in areas “liberated” from the Assad regime. In al Qaeda’s view, many Muslims have lived in countries where the supposedly true version of Islam has not existed for many decades. Therefore, al Qaeda seeks to educate the public concerning its version of sharia before forcing people to adhere to it.

The Islamic State achieved significant success after breaking from al Qaeda in 2013 and 2014 and following its own top-down model for waging jihad and governing territory. But al Qaeda’s presence in Syria has been underestimated. In addition to its own battlefield prowess, al Qaeda has successfully harnessed the resources of other groups to achieve victories, particularly in northwestern Syria. And rebel groups that have dared to oppose Al Nusrah have been quickly annihilated. Meanwhile, the jihadist ideology has spread throughout Syria, which is exactly what al Qaeda wants.

It is unlikely that any rebel factions can roll back Al Nusrah. Even the 13th Division, which fought with Al Nusrah earlier this month, cooperated with al Qaeda’s Syrian arm before the two sides finally came to blows. And the 13th Division, which has received support from the US and its allies, proved to be no match for al Qaeda’s men once a firefight ensued.

Five years into the Syrian war, the West does not have a strategy for defeating Al Nusrah. In fact, Western-backed groups often fight alongside al Qaeda’s paramilitary fighters.

As a result, there is much truth in Julani’s statement. The jihadists are “from the people” in many areas of Syria. This is not true everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be. Nearly 15 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, al Qaeda has raised a guerrilla army in Syria. Thousands of jihadists now claim to represent the people.

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

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  • Tony says:

    Syria long ago turned into a multi-factional regional proxy war. It is an absolute mess, a disaster with multiple sides battling it out who are supported by powerful regional and global forces.

    The media honestly does not even seem to be aware of how intertwined Nusra and rebel forces are. They were always joined at the hip. If you take a look at maps of who controls what in Syria, Nusra is represented by the color gray. But those are only areas it controls specifically by itself. Nusra is basically everywhere that the rebels are; the rebels are represented on the maps in green.

    This war is going to continue for a while, and we’ve all gotten used to it. In my view, the only good guys I see in all this are the Kurds and their SDF allies. Everyone else is tainted by corruption, war crimes and evil intentions.

    • Confused says:


      SDF are terrorists themselves, involved in sex trafficking of women, drug running, ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial executions, kidnapping children to be used as child fighters, and supplying the arms the US gives them to PKK/YPS/TAK units in Turkey to attack and blow up Turkish Citizens.

      They are the Syrian Branch of the PKK and a Terrorist Organization that should be getting equally bombed as IS and equally scoured from the Earth with its leaders captured or killed so it stops its reign of terror.

      And last I checked, Turkey is a NATO Member who if it had been listened to and supported in 2013 when Assad gassed his capital, this war would have been three years over.

  • craig hovey says:

    It has been my opinion from the beginning that Assad is preferable to Isis and Nusrah. Just as in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc…., without a dictator in places like this, they are nests of uncontrollable maniacs.

    • Steve Singer says:

      Were Bashar’s regime not Shiite it might still have some slight prospect of reasserting a degree of political control over Sunni Arabs in north and east Syria. But it is. That makes it anathema to Wahhabis and militant revolutionary groups like the al Qaeda Organization.

      Not only is it Shiite, Alawis constitute less than 15% of Syria’s prewar population. Even if the means existed the Alawi manpower base doesn’t. Hezbollah contributes manpower to hold the lines in west Syria; Iran, manpower, money and weapons. But it isn’t enough.

      There’s also a strategic problem. Weak, minority Shiite governments fumble and languish on the wings (east Iraq and west Syria) separated by 1200 miles. Armed Wahhabi Sunni revolutionary groups (al Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL) occupies the geographic center.

      A caliphate exists. It ultimately might extend from Damascus in the west to Baghdad in the east; unless the West is prepared to fight a massive war between civilizations in that region. Bush and his rancid Neocons’ bungling created this gift to future generations.

  • Guy says:

    this is what happens when the west invented countries like Syria, lybia and Iraq, as well as Lebanon and Jordan. borders which were invented by England and Franch, nor relatred to the people, tribes and geography. Iraq for example is a mix of Kurds, Shia and Sunnie tribes, nothing but a big stick of Saddam to hold it together.
    add the fact that most of them are babariens, uneducated, savages that enjoy killing, raping and beheading.
    not only it will not stop, it will spread to Lebanon and other countries. you can call it ISIS, AQ, or anything else.

  • tuffsnotenuff says:

    What the Al Qaeda theorists believe about Islamic law is not accurate. Their obsession with copying every imagined detail of Mohammad’s life and the teachings of seven Caliphs worth of early followers blinds them to the whole of how Islam has developed. Their copy-cat strategy is more a unique product of Bedouin culture — a sect that rejected everything Ottoman for thought, word and deed.

    For example: “In al Qaeda’s view, many Muslims have lived in countries where the supposedly true version of Islam has not existed for many decades. ” That’s many, many, many decades. The main stream of Muslim culture came out of the Ottomans. Beginning at the middle of the 15th Century and dominating from the middle of the 16th Century, this is Kanun Law for civil and criminal laws and a modernized Sharia Law for religious law. Suleiman the Magnificent (or Lawgiver) went to work in what his society needed and completed that initial effort. Kanun Law is nothing if not practical.

    Copying Mohammad can run to nonsense. The original Arabic of the 7th Century is further out of use than ancient Latin. And there were no dictionaries. The Quran has supportable roots going to Mohammad, but the Hadiths that lay out ancient Sharia are written in different languages altogether. What Al Qaeda pushes were tribal customs, pulled out of the desert in an area where a 15,000 occupant town was the big deal. The Prophet said that He was a man, not a god and surely not one who would speaking through the pens of those living decades and centuries after his passing.

  • ulises says:



Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram