Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Jabat al-Nusra, just absorbed Syrian militant group Army of Muhammed, increasing its power in northern Syria as the Islamic State continues to lose territory.
The Army of Muhammed is largely comprised of Libyan and French foreign fighters, and it is the latest in a series of foreign fighters who are swearing allegiance to Jabat al-Nusra, according to the Long War Journal. Jabat al-Nusra continues to lead the rebel effort against the Syrian Assad regime in northwestern Syria without retaliation from the U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition.
“Al-Qaida is becoming more deeply entrenched in Syria,” London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Gerges told The Washington Post. “The global focus on ISIS has distracted from the expansion of this other radical, transnational group.”
Gerges speculated that al-Qaida was trying to focus on territorial expansion and is avoiding international terrorism to stay under the radar of Western countries. Al-Qaida reportedly regards this as the way to stay relevant after ISIS is defeated.
Jabat al-Nusra is largely composed of Syrian fighters and maintains significant legitimacy and sympathy from the local population for portraying itself as the only force helping protect the Sunni Syrian population from the Syrian regime.
ISIS, which is largely comprised of foreign fighters, has drawn the ire of the local populace it controls for not respecting local traditions and imposing the harshest versions of its interpretation of Sharia law. By contrast, Jabat al-Nusra often defers to local governance and gives security guarantees.
After securing security guarantees, experts say Jabat al-Nusra will then hold public events preaching their radical interpretation of Islam, slowly building public sympathy. The group’s gradual approach reflects lessons learned from al-Qaida’s earlier efforts in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.
Al-Qaida in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIS, would often institute its interpretation of Islam instantly on territory it controlled in the mid 2000s. This strategy isolated the civilian population and eventually made them so despised the civilian population rose up against them with American help.
The Institute for the Study of War noted in a February report, “Jabat Al Nusra is primed to benefit from ISIS’s defeat by moving into territories from which ISIS has been cleared.” The report further warned, “focus on ISIS first and plan to address Jabhat al Nusra second (if at all) have a high probability of facilitating Jabhat al Nusra’s expansion.”
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