Al Nusrah Front imposes sharia in eastern Syrian town

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The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda in Iraq’s affiliate in Syria, has imposed sharia, or Islamic Law, in a town in eastern Syria that is close to the Iraqi border. The area has served as a jihadist haven in the past.

“Islamist militants” from the Al Nusrah Front “have taken unclothed mannequins they see as sexually enticing out of the shops,” in the town of Mayadin, Reuters reported. The al Qaeda affiliate has “also prevented women from wearing trousers, preferring that they adopt the shapeless head-to-toe black veil.” Alcohol has also been banned in the town.

Al Nusrah Front fighters are providing “daily religious teaching” to children, and are recruiting teenaged boys to fight President Bashir al Assad’s regime. Additionally, the group is making a profit by selling oil, even to members of the Assad regime.

The imposition of sharia in Mayadin by the Al Nusrah Front is eerily similar to al Qaeda in Iraq’s activities in Anbar province and other areas in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. Taking advantage of the security vacuum that arose after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, al Qaeda in Iraq seized control of several towns and cities in western Iraq and declared Islamic emirates in towns like Haditha and Al Qaim, which is right on the Syrian border. The terror group immediately began to enforce its radical interpretation of Islamic law on Sunni tribesmen, who were too weak and disorganized to fight back.

Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters made women wear the veil, cut off the fingers of Iraqis who were caught smoking, and even forced produce sellers to separate cucumbers and tomatoes, as placing the two vegetables next to each other was deemed to represent the mixing of the sexes.

Additionally, al Qaeda in Iraq profited from smuggling and selling Iraq’s oil. The group even named emirs to manage the sale of oil, which was in turn used to fund operations.

Eastern Syria a jihadist haven

Al Qaeda in Iraq, which created the Al Nusrah Front and directs its operations, has long had a presence in eastern Syria. With the help of the Syrian government, al Qaeda in Iraq used the region as a rear area to support attacks against US and Iraqi forces in Anbar province. After being driven out of its strongholds in northern, western, and central Iraq by the beginning of 2008, al Qaeda in Iraq refocused its efforts to build an infrastructure in eastern Syria [see LWJ report, Eastern Syria becoming a new al Qaeda haven, from November 2009].

Since the uprising in Syria began nearly two years ago, al Qaeda has re-tasked the network in eastern Syria to target the regime which once supported terrorist operations in Iraq, a US military intelligence official who follows al Qaeda in the region told The Long War Journal.

“AQI basically flipped the network; the tail [the support network in Syria] grew teeth, and is now biting the hand that fed it for years,” the official said.

“This didn’t happen by accident,” the official continued. “Al Qaeda has been preparing to take advantage of the Arab Spring.”

The town of Mayadin is close to Albu Kamal, which is on the border with Iraq’s Anbar province. Albu Kamal and its vicinity has long served as a rear area for al Qaeda in Iraq. During a raid in October 2008, US special operations forces struck at al Qaeda’s facilitation network in the town of Sukkariya near Albu Kamal in eastern Syria, just five miles from the Iraqi border. US troops killed Abu Ghadiya, al Qaeda’s senior facilitator, and his senior staff in the raid.

In the city of Deir al Zour, which is about 20 miles north of Mayadin, the Al Nusrah Front has banded together with nine other Islamist groups to create the “Mujahideen Shura Council.”

The Mujahideen Shura Council in Deir al Zour was formed to “unite the ranks of the jihadi brigades in the Cause of Allah, organize the efforts and the attacks against the soldiers of disbelief and apostasy, and distinguish the ranks of truth from falsehood,” according to a statement released by the group in December 2012. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

“We call upon our sincere mujahideen brothers all over the strong Levant to unite their ranks in groups, pure of the filth of suspicious groups and the infiltration of people who have no qualities or faith, in order to clarify their banner and purify their path,” the statement continued.

The Al Nusrah Front in Deir al Zour appears to be following al Qaeda in Iraq’s strategy to unite disparate jihadist groups. In the summer of 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq also formed a Mujahideen Shura Council to coordinate operations with various jihadist groups operating in Iraq. Later that year, al Qaeda in Iraq formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to serve as the political front, and the Mujahideen Shura Council was folded in under the ISI’s military wing.

The Al Nusrah Front remains active in Deir al Zour. Just yesterday, the Al Nusrah Front, the Furqan Brigade, and “battalions from the revolutionary council of Deir al Zour” overran the “political intelligence branch” headquarters in the city after laying siege to the building for six months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “[T]he building is considered one of the main bases for regime forces in the city,” the human rights group stated on its Facebook page.

An al Qaeda affiliate

On Dec. 11, 2012, the US designated the Al Nusrah Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The designation stated that the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Du’a (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi), “is in control of both AQI and Al Nusrah.”

At the same time, the US added two senior Al Nusrah leaders, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab, both members of al Qaeda in Iraq, to the list of global terrorists; the US did not add the emir of Al Nusrah, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Julani, to the list, however. [See LWJ report, US adds Al Nusrah Front, 2 leaders to terrorism list, for information on the designation of the Al Nusrah Front and the two leaders.]

Despite Al Nusrah’s known affiliation with al Qaeda and its radical ideology, Syrian opposition groups, including the supposedly secular Syrian National Coalition, have rallied to support Al Nusrah. Immediately after the US designated Al Nusrah as a terrorist group, 29 Syrian opposition groups signed a petition that not only condemned the US’s designation, but said “we are all Al Nusrah,” and urged their supporters to raise Al Nusrah’s flag (which is the flag of al Qaeda) [see LWJ report, Syrian National Coalition urges US to drop Al Nusrah terrorism designation].

The Al Nusrah Front has used al Qaeda’s signature tactic — the suicide bomber and suicide assault team — to target Syrian security forces. The Al Nusrah Front has now claimed credit for 48 of the 58 suicide attacks that have taken place in Syria since December 2011, according to a tally by The Long War Journal (note that multiple suicide bombers deployed in a single operation are counted as part of a single attack). Just two days ago, Al Nusrah claimed credit for two suicide attacks in Homs and Hama. Six suicide attacks have now been reported in Syria so far this year; Al Nusrah has claimed credit for five of them.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • mike merlo says:

    Separating vegetables? Wow these guys are really a stickler for detail.

  • Larry says:

    It’s starting!

  • KaneKaizer says:

    They can claim “We are all al-Nusrah” all they want for right now. I give them another six months before they turn on them just like the Anbar tribes did.

  • HJM says:

    Not sure showing up in someone else’s country and then telling the people their how they will live their lives is going to work for very long. Two words: Anbar Awakening.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I am going to be brief, and merely state that the Awakening in Iraq very, very likely would have succeeded against AQI without the support of the US military and the Iraqi Security Forces.

  • David says:

    Please expand on your comment. This is as good as predicting the outcome of the Syrian civil war, so I think we need to understand this better. Why do you think the Anbar tribes could have driven out AQI without any help?

  • jleao says:

    They can claim “We are all al-Nusrah” all they want for right now. I give them another six months before they turn on them just like the Anbar tribes did.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I loath to do this because this really is a 100,000 ft view, and unfortunately I am pressed for time to go into more detail, but here goes anyway.
    Back in the day, I closely followed the Anbar Awakening, and even saw them in operation first hand like in places like Haqlaniyah and Al Qaim in Anbar, and southern Baghdad province. Bill Ardolino also saw the Awakening in action in Fallujah (he has written an excellent book on this, which will be published this spring).
    Several early iterations of the “Awakening” failed, miserably, until the US was able to support the group, and then it was backed by the ISF as well. The Awakening lacked the ability to stand up to AQI on its own and drive it out of areas it controlled, and needed outside support to do so. The reality is US and Iraqi forces launched a massive offensive against AQI during the “surge” in 2007, which the Awakening participated in. The Awakening was able to hold the areas cleared in conjunction with US and ISF help. The surge didn’t succeed just because the Awakening, or just because of US and Iraqi surge forces (the massive growth and expansion of capabilities of the ISF is never discussed BTW). It was successful because the three elements enhanced each other.
    Presuming that some “Syrian Awakening” forms (and I see no indication of this), what force will help them clear Al Nusrah and allied jihadists from the areas they hold?

  • Sebastian says:

    “…and even forced produce sellers to separate cucumbers and tomatoes, as placing the two vegetables next to each other was deemed to represent the mixing of the sexes.”
    What on earth is wrong with these people?
    Why do we tolerate these cavemen in civilised western societies when their so-called religion imposes ridiculous rules like this in Syria? How long before these ‘rules’ start appearing in London, Paris, Brussels or some American states? Its only a matter of time before our governments give in to more of their demands,
    Their ideology coupled with sharia law is nothing more than a cancer on this planet and needs to be cut out before its too late!

  • sundoesntrise says:

    It has been happening for quite a while now, literally. As we speak there are vigilantes in London forcing people to live their lives according to Sharia. Communities in the U.S. have been forced to deal with hearing about Muslim honor killings in the local newspapers. The rape wave in Sweden was atrocious. It has been a top agenda of Islamist groups to establish Sharia in the West, but the first thing you need to do is have the population become so docile that they can’t resist it out of fear of being “racist”. Does that ring a bell?
    Not only are the streets of many cities in the West becoming Sharia compliant, but so is the Internet. I cannot recall how many times I and others have been called a bigot for voicing our concerns that our society, our institutions, our LIVES are becoming more and more pro-Islam as time passes by. It is truly pathetic that in 2013, in the so called Free World, we cannot openly oppose Islam without being called bigots or racists. And to top it all off, I don’t even believe a God exists, so you could imagine I especially don’t like it when a religion comes from another land – and is imposed by people with a political agenda full of hatred – and then, forcefully shoved down mine and others throats.
    I understand your concern Sebastien, but it will fall on deaf ears. And unless people learn that criticizing Islam is not racist, I’m afraid that things will only get much worse in the near future. All the best to you and your family.

  • NAH says:

    Good piece. I remember being on the ground in Deir ez Zor, Mayadin, and Abu Kamal back in the summer of 2009. There was a lot of tension between the Syrian security forces and the tribes, particularly the Ougaidat. Security checkpoints were everywhere and the tribal host I was traveling with was really uneasy about some of the inquiries his fellow tribesmen were asking about a foreigner traveling with him. There were some young guys in particular that I met, they had ink on their forearms (aren’t supposed to perform wuthoo for prayer in this case except if you are on jihad) with the shahada. These were quiet types, hospitable in the tribal way, but when I asked my host why they had the ink he stated simply, “They are very religious.” Could feel the tension in the room when he said that out loud. On a related topic, churches in Deir ez Zor have been targeted by al-Nusra; Deir ez Zor has about a quarter population of Christians, Arab and Armenian. They are all shabiha now it seems.

  • Paul T says:

    Al-Nusrah also control the oil wells their as well as grain storage.
    How could this development not be mentioned during the Hagel Defense Secretary hearings?
    Since Al-Nusrah has recently been declared a terrorist orginization by State, I would guess something may be brewing to counter this


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