The jihadists that began to emerge in Syria several months after peaceful protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime began in March 2011 can be broadly categorized into two groups: al-Qaeda-style groups and local jihadist groups. The latter type is represented by locally-formed jihadist groups, the largest of which is Ahrar al-Sham. The local type adopts the basic components of jihadist rhetoric but insists that their major goal is the toppling of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The al-Qaeda-style trend is represented by several jihadist groups, such as the Lebanon-based Fatah al-Islam group that clashed with Lebanese authorities in 2007, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which have claimed responsibility for several attacks against Israel from south Lebanon. However, the largest group in this category is Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (Front for the Support of the Syrian People, commonly known as “al-Nusra”).
Al-Nusra announced its formation in late January, 2012 and their statements have found their way into major jihadist web forums ever since. The leader of the group, using the nom de guerre of Abu Muhammad al-Golani, stated in the audio message in which he proclaimed the formation of the group, that he and his colleagues came to Syria “a few months after the revolution, from one of the jihadi battlefields to help the people of Levant against the [Assad] regime.” Citing the refusal of Western countries to help topple Assad’s rule, al-Golani declared a jihad against the Syrian regime (muslm.net, January 24).
On June 20, Ansar al-Mujahdeen web forum released a booklet explaining their ideology entitled Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham: Who are they? What are their Aims? The booklet introduces the group as:
A blessed front that has the best mujahideen from various parts of the earth in a sole group on the land of Levant, [aiming] to clean the abomination of Bashar and his gang and to establish the rule of Allah in the Levant and not just implementing a phony change of people and names, as happened in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya! But the front aims by its jihad to change the whole governance system and bring justice, freedom and equality in the country, as it is ordered by Allah, not as promoted by the West! (As-Ansar.com, June 20).
Clearly the Nusra front adopts the jihadist ideology and since it emerged in Syria it has taken an active part in attacks against Syrian government troops. Its attacks, according to the group’s frequent statements on jihadist web forums, have increased dramatically since March 2011. According to a Syrian activist working in an area where furious fighting is ongoing, this is due to an increasing acceptance among locals of the Nusra Front, “which shows high military capabilities and strong organizational skills.”  In the same context, the Ansar al-Mujahideen booklet states that locals gave help and assistance to al-Nusra members “after they saw the sincerity of al-Nusra’s commanders and soldiers in defending their lives and their towns, and in revenge for the blood of their children and the dignity of their women. That is at a time when they were abandoned by the hypocritical governments of the West, and the cowards and traitorous Arab rulers!” (As-Ansar.com, June 20). Al-Nusra seems very keen to avoid clashes with locals and to avoid disagreements with other groups in Syria while expanding their zone of operations to Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Darra and Dier al-Zour.
Al-Nusra coordinates with other factions of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), however, the tactics used by jihadists in Syria are similar to those used by jihadists in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. The group carries out ambushes, kidnappings, assassinations, IED attacks and suicide bombings. Implementing such tactics made al-Nusra attractive to young people who want to join the fight against regime troops. According to the Syrian activist cited earlier, “al-Nusra front is more capable in using non-conventional tactics than the FSA,” most of whose members are deserters from the regular army and lack training in such tactics. 
Al-Nusra Front publishes its statements through its media company, al-Manara al-Baida (White Beacon). The group focuses in its media releases on its attacks and avoids debates with other groups. However, it is gradually gaining legitimacy among jihadist scholars.
Al-Nusra has been criticized by Salafi-Jihadist ideologue Abd al-Mun’im Mustafa Halima (a.k.a. Abu Basir al-Tartusi) as well as by Salafi cleric Adnan al-Arour, a strong supporter of the FSA and the revolution against the Syrian regime. Though Tartusi was more explicit in his remarks, al-Arour criticized the role played by foreign fighters in the movement, rejected suicide bombings as a tactic and denounced the takfiri orientation of the group. 
This criticism has not stopped al-Nusra from receiving the endorsement of a number of leading jihadist clerics. Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi has urged Muslim youth to join al-Nusra front to fight against “the Sharon of the Levant” [i.e. Bashar al-Assad] (As-Ansar.com, November 8; for al-Tahawi, see Militant Leadership Monitor, May 31, 2011). Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti, a prominent Mauritanian jihadist scholar, wrote an article endorsing the group and later issued a fatwa urging anyone who wants to go to the jihadi battlefield in Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, March 9; June 3). Jihadist internet ideologue Abu Sa’ad al-Amili has also expressed his opinion that the righteous banner of jihad in Syria belongs to al-Nusra (Aljahad.com, March 6).
There are three factors playing major roles in increasing the influence of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria:
- The effect on the Syrian people of the regime’s atrocities
- The movement’s military capabilities and avoidance of clashes with locals
- Endorsements by jihadist clerics that raise the credentials of the group in the Salafi-Jihadist community.
These factors will play a major role in attracting foreign fighters who are aiming to join jihad in Syria. All these factors indicate that the role of Jabhat al-Nusra will increase in Syria, but at the same time future relations with other armed groups and local communities inside Syria could be different if the Assad regime was toppled. In this situation, al-Nusra’s continued presence in Syria could be open to question if there is no longer any place in Syria’s political evolution for a jihadist ideology.
Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East.
2. Ibid, November 17, 2012.
3. For Tartusi’s remarks, see muslm.net, January 27, 2012. For al-Arour’s comments, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbIX0IlYwsU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvLmoT9lETU.