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Birth of New Terrorist Group? Al-Qaida-linked Syrian Groups Could Create their Own Islamic State

Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaida's Affiliate in Syria renames itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS (Front for the Conquest of the Levant)

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Rebel fighters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) have their meal in the rebel-held al-Sheikh Said neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Sept.1, 2016. Image source: VOA

Sept 06, 2016: With the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq shrinking thanks to land losses to the group’s many foes, its jihadist rival — al-Qaida’s rebranded affiliate in Syria — is marketing its own nation-building and doing so by imitating propaganda techniques employed by its competitor.

And its increased propaganda output is taking aim once again at its struggling rival, apparently in a bid to exploit IS’s mounting problems — including the loss of 40 out of 43 founding senior leaders mainly to U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and battlefield fighting. On Sunday, Turkish officials claimed their military campaign inside Syria to push back IS from border regions had met with success.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a televised speech Sunday: “Thank God, today, from Azaz to Jarablus, our 91 kilometers of borderline with Syria has been entirely secured. All the terrorist organizations were pushed back — they are gone.”

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FILE - Turkish tanks head toward the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 31, 2016. Image source: VOA
FILE – Turkish tanks head toward the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 31, 2016. Image source: VOA

The beneficiary

One of the beneficiaries of the blows being dealt IS is Jabhat al-Nusra, which announced in July that it was breaking formal ties with al-Qaida after renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS (Front for the Conquest of the Levant).

There has long been a debate in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra about whether it should announce officially an emirate in territory it controls in northern Syria, mainly in the province of Idlib to the west of the besieged city of Aleppo.

The group’s leader, Mohammad al-Julani, suggested in a posted audio recording in July 2014 that it was about to do so.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk at a military complex after they recently recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on Sept. 5, 2016. Image source: VOA
Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walk at a military complex after they recently recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on Sept. 5, 2016. Image source: VOA

Syrian Jihadists make up JFS

For tactical reasons, apparently mainly focused on avoiding disrupting relations and cooperation with other rebel militias in Syria, the group — made up mainly of Syrian jihadists — has held off. But emirate-building aspirations appear once again to dominate much of its recent propaganda and, as IS is pushed back more and more, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has been boosting its criticism of rival jihadists while also engaging more directly with Western media.

The propaganda operations are being overseen by an Australian jihadist preacher, the self-styled Sheik Mostafa Mahamed, who last month appeared on British television to show videos of formally fractured rebel groups fighting together under the banner of the JFS.

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Media wise

Among the techniques JFS is copying is using teasers to boost the audiences for posted videos. Former U.S. ambassador Alberto Fernandez, an expert on jihadist use of the internet, noted as one “interesting example” a graphic released last week to advertise a forthcoming video that accuses IS of having Muslim blood on its hands and being heretical.

“Notice nothing is said about infidel blood,” Fernandez added.

The graphic and video features al-Qaida-linked Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric and a highly influential jihadist ideologue in Syria, who in April launched a recruiting campaign for then-Jabhat al-Nusra urging young Muslims to “take up arms, do not sit still.”

JFS helped defend Aleppo

Al Muhaysini has been at the forefront of the calls for all rebel fighters to unite around Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — a call that has even greater pull with rebel militias since JFS’s key role in defending eastern Aleppo from a massive Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime offensive and managing a breakout last month.

Most Western analysts dismiss JFS’s break with al-Qaida as a feint, seeing it as a long game the jihadist group has been playing for some time across the Middle East and Africa.

JFS long-term strategy

In a paper published earlier this year by the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, analyst Charles Lister contrasted the Islamic State’s modus operandi of imposing unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaiming independence, with al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate moving “much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule.”

He argued: “This is a long-game strategy that the terrorist group began adopting in the late 2000s, first in Yemen, in 2011, and then in Mali, in 2012.”

A key group in assisting JFS in its long-term aim to dominate the rebel opposition in Syria is Ahar al-Sham, another jihadist militia that al-Qaida leaders helped to found, according to Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande of the Washington-based Institute of the Study of War, a think tank, and Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.

Group may have its own Islamic State

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, the three analysts say Ahar al-Sham, which has never been formally part of al-Qaida, “Serves as the mortar that binds opposition groups together in northern Syria and is well-positioned to merge these forces with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and solidify sharia-based governance — all without the world realizing that the result would be a major win for al-Qaida’s aims in Syria.”

JFS influence over a swathe of the anti-Assad rebel movement has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to the group’s vanguard role in the defense of civilians in eastern Aleppo. Its popularity is growing despite the harsh penalties the group’s Sharia courts mete out for infringements of a moral and social code not dissimilar to the Islamic State’s.

The analysts in their Foreign Policy article worry that Washington’s inaction in the defense of the eastern half of Aleppo “may inadvertently be paving the way for Syria’s next Islamic State.” (VOA)

  • Arya Sharan

    If financial aid and political help is not provided to any such group or institution, then only their rising can be stopped.

  • Samson Lear

    Another indian rag! LOL

    • mZahza

      You an al-qaida stooge sammy?

  • Jagpreet Kaur Sandhu

    Is there any less already! World threat actually.

  • Manthra koliyer

    the rising number of terrorist groups on the planet has made living dangerous for mankind!

SHARE
  • Arya Sharan

    If financial aid and political help is not provided to any such group or institution, then only their rising can be stopped.

  • Samson Lear

    Another indian rag! LOL

    • mZahza

      You an al-qaida stooge sammy?

  • Jagpreet Kaur Sandhu

    Is there any less already! World threat actually.

  • Manthra koliyer

    the rising number of terrorist groups on the planet has made living dangerous for mankind!

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)