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Anti-government extremist organizations in Syria

A brief overview of the main groups and their leaders

Anti-government extremist organizations in Syria

A brief overview of the main groups and their leaders
The ongoing political crisis which started in 2011 has seriously undermined Syria's statehood. As extremist groups continue to crop up and as radical elements become more active, it is necessary to understand their origins, ideology, and specifics of their structure. A large number of actors participates both directly and indirectly in this highly politicized conflict which has always been also high publicized in the media. This conflict has long since stopped being local. Many countries, primarily Russia, have time and again emphasized the need to form a single list of terrorist groups. Since different actors have different views of the current situation, they have failed to arrive at a consensus. Yet the global community has recognized as terrorists two largest anti-government groups in Syria: Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). This long read describes the main anti-government groups – parties to the Syrian conflict (both currently existing and those which have already merged with other groups). The long read's authors attempted to trace their connections and the dynamics of their development. This is clearly a very ambitious task which goes beyond the current study. Yet the review covers the basic range of the main extremist groups participating in the Syrian crisis, thus enabling the reader to get as complete a picture of the current events as possible.
The ongoing political crisis which started in 2011 has seriously undermined Syria's statehood. As extremist groups continue to crop up and as radical elements become more active, it is necessary to understand their origins, ideology, and specifics of their structure. A large number of actors participates both directly and indirectly in this highly politicized conflict which has always been also high publicized in the media. This conflict has long since stopped being local. Many countries, primarily Russia, have time and again emphasized the need to form a single list of terrorist groups. Since different actors have different views of the current situation, they have failed to arrive at a consensus. Yet the global community has recognized as terrorists two largest anti-government groups in Syria: Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). This long read describes the main anti-government groups – parties to the Syrian conflict (both currently existing and those which have already merged with other groups). The long read's authors attempted to trace their connections and the dynamics of their development. This is clearly a very ambitious task which goes beyond the current study. Yet the review covers the basic range of the main extremist groups participating in the Syrian crisis, thus enabling the reader to get as complete a picture of the current events as possible.
The activity of coalitions and groups in Syria
The map is compiled on the basis of expert assessments of the groups' presence in various regions of Syria
The Islamic Front
Jaish al-Fatah
Islamic State
The Islamic Front
Jaish al-Fatah
Islamic State
The Islamic Front
The Islamic Front is a coalition formed to oppose Bashar al-Assad's government; it is composed of several Islamist anti-government groups (the largest are Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham). The Islamic Front is a coordinating structure not intended to achieve complete integration into a single organization. Its goal is combining the groups' efforts and taking control of Syria with the ultimate purpose of creating an Islamic state.
Jaish al-Fatah
Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest, is a military alliance, a coalition of the Islamist anti-governmental forces in the north of Syria, mostly in Idlib province. Jaish al-Fatah is a coordinating structure not intended to achieve complete integration into a single organization. Its goal is combining the groups' efforts and taking control of Syria to be followed by the establishment of an Islamic state.
If the Islamic Front has mostly national purposes, Jaish al-Fatah includes Jabhat al-Nusra, the representative of al-Qaeda in Syria, which ties Jaish al-Fatah tightly with non-Syrian forces and global goals, whatever its rhetoric.
Fatah Halab
Fatah Halab, or the Conquest/Liberation of Aleppo, is a united command unit established on April 25, 2015 in order to fully liberate Aleppo from IS, Syria's government forces, and their allies. It is active mostly in Aleppo province. The major difference from Jaish al-Fatah, another coalition–type group, is that Jabhat al-Nusra (currently Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) is not a part of Fatah Halab. Fatah Halab is constantly changing (representatives of the Islamic Front as well as Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Firqat al-Sultan Murad, et al. were at different times its command members).
In alphabetical order

Ahrah al-Sham

The Islamic movement of the free people of al-Sham / the Levant
Ahrar al-Sham is the largest and the most combat-effective of all the Islamist groups currently active in Syria. It acts as a link between the transnational jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra and the secular rebels; it cooperates with both of them against Bashar al-Assad's army and against Islamic State. Ahrar al-Sham constantly absorbs smaller Islamist groups while maintaining rigid organization and discipline. It enjoys various forms of support, including financial contributions, from the Arab monarchies and Turkey. Ahrar al-Sham can be called one of today's leading rebel organizations fighting in Syria.

Officially, the establishment of Kataeb al-Sham ("The Brigades of the Free People of Sham") was announced in early 2012. It was founded by Islamists who were former inmates of Sednaya Prison (most of the inmates were political prisoners) released in early 2011.

Initially, the group united 27 smaller Islamist units, of which 17 were based in Idlib province, and others in Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus provinces. The number of Ahrar al-Sham's units grew rapidly: they numbered 50 by July 2012, and over 80 by the spring of 2013. By 2013, Ahrar al-Sham's cells operated throughout Syria.

Ahrar al-Sham actively consolidated those rebel forces which aimed at founding an Islamic state. By December 2012, it had been announced that the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) had been established; it was an umbrella structure that united 11 Islamist groups. Ahrar al-Sham immediately took leadership in the SIF as the largest and most influential of them.

In 2013, four groups within the SIF (Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham, Jamaat al-Taliaa al-Islamiya, Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya, and Kataeb al-Iman al-Muqatila) announced they were "merging completely" into a single group named Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya ("The Islamic Movement of the Free People of al-Sham"). Judging by the name, Ahrar al-Sham essentially absorbed the three smaller groups. The group retains its name until today.

In November 2013, an even larger coalition of Syria's Islamists was formed: the Islamic Front. It brought together 7 Islamist alliances, including Ahrar al-Sham, which continued to play the leading role in the new umbrella organization as well and continued to absorb less influential groups. In December 2014, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed two more out of 7 groups in the Islamic Front, Liwa al-Haqq and the Kurdish Islamic Front. In March 2015, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed another group from the Islamic Front, Suqour al-Sham. As the American scholar Sam Heller noted, "the most successful, lasting approach to rebel unification so far has basically been 'Ahrar al-Sham absorbs you.'"

Social base and numbers

Since Ahrar al-Sham was founded mostly by natives of Idlib and Hama, its key "audience" and social base were Sunni Muslims from those provinces, especially from the border, the Ghab Plain. As its popularity grew and as it achieved military successes, Ahrar al-Sham's social base expanded as well: Muslims from all over the country joined it. Unlike the translational jihadists from IS or Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham has few foreign fighters, and its leaders are only Syrians.

The estimates of the numbers of Ahrar al-Sham's fighters differ, ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, but there are higher estimates (25,000).

Activity region

Today, Ahrar al-Sham's unit operate throughout Syria, but the group is particularly active in the north, in Idlib and Hama provinces, mostly in the countryside. The Ahrar al-Sham fighters fought in the battle for Aleppo. Together with the Islamic Front groups and other alliances, Ahrar al-Sham joined the united command of Fatah Halab (the Conquest of Aleppo).
Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi

Ahrar al-Sham's first leader since its inception was Hassan Abboud (using the alias Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi), a native of Hama. There is information that until 2011, he was an inmate in Sednaya prison on charges of ties to Salafi jihadists. On September 9, 2014, Hassan Abboud was killed along with a dozen other Ahrar al-Sham warlords when a car full of explosives blew up in a village in Idlib province. It is yet unknown who is responsible for the act of terror that wiped out most of the group's leaders.

Even though its founder and his closest allies were killed, Ahrar al-Sham avoided collapse and disorganization. Upon Abboud's death, the Shoura Council, Ahrar al-Sham's deliberative body, elected Hashem al-Sheikh, known as Abu Jaber, also former Sednaya's inmate, as their new leader. Unlike the backbone of the group, he was a native of Maskanah in Aleppo province where he headed a small group named Kataeb Moussaab bin Omeir. In September 2015, Abu Jaber resigned.
Abu Yahia al-Hamawi
The Council of Shoura elected Mohannad al-Masri (Abu Yahia al-Hamawi) as Ahrar al-Sham's third leader, and he leads it today. Al-Masri was born in the town of Qalaat al-Maliq in Hama province, he is a civil engineer by training and he studied at Tishreen University in Latakia City. Like many other Ahrar al-Sham's warlords, he was an inmate in Sednaya on charges of ties with Islamists and he was released shortly before the revolution. Fighting together with the rebels, al-Masri demonstrated the qualities of a good military leader and he went up the ranks from the leader of a small unit to Abu Jaber's deputy on security issues.

Insider information gives reseachers grounds to claim that Ahrar al-Sham's leaders are a secondary figures. A leader's functions are limited to managing the bureaucracy he relies on. That contributes to the group's resilience allowing it to function successfully even when its leader or the entire leadership is taken out (as did happen in September 2014).

Ahrar al-Sham positions itself as an Islamist, reformist, and progressive movement aiming to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and found a Sharia-based state. The late Hassan Abboud claimed that Ahrar al-Sham was fighting to liberate the people of Syria. It intends to replace "the Assads' tyranny" with a state that lives by the Islamic law and respects the rights of minorities (Christians, Shiites, Kurds) and women.

Ahrar al-Sham limits its jihad to Syria: the movement does not aim to establish a global caliphate. Its participants are ready to oppose a foreign invasion of Syria. Ahrar al-Sham sharply condemns any foreign interventions, including Western ones.

Its determination to limit its fight to Syria sets Ahrar al-Sham apart from such structures as Islamic State and al-Qaeda, even though some of the movement's leaders had ties to al-Qaeda and to Ayman al-Zawahiri personally. Ahrar al-Sham does not deny its past ties to Salafi groups, but it does not consider itself to be a Salafi group, as it stresses its moderate and modern nature. At the same time, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden's teacher, considered to be one of the leading ideologists of today's Salafism, is listed among Ahrar al-Sham's ideological progenitors.

The rhetoric of Ahrar al-Sham's leaders balances between Salafi jihadism and the ideals of secular rebels. Thus, when Shiite Hezbollah became active in Syria, Hassan Abboud reacted with rather strong anti-Shiite speeches what would rather appear typical of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda's jihadists. However, when there emerged a new powerful Islamist enemy, Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham's leaders immediately shifted to a more moderate rhetoric. In their desire to bolster ties with the West and to obtain financing, they called for tolerance and condemned the radicals.

Revisions of their stance are a frequent occurrence with Ahrar al-Sham. For instance, in December 2015 at the Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh, Ahrar al-Sham's leader Abu Yahia al-Hamawi criticized the very idea of holding talks with the Syrian government and said that Ahrar al-Sham's delegation was leaving. However, Labib al-Nahhas (Abu Izzaddin al-Ansari), Ahrar al-Sham's chief of foreign political relations, unexpectedly signed the agreement on establishing a joint body for preparing for such talks on the part of the opposition.


Like many Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham receives money from the Arab peninsula monarchies and from Turkey. Ahrar al-Sham shaped up as a large Islamist alliance with the support from Salafi funds of the Gulf countries (the names of such prominent Salafis as Kuwait's Hajjaj al-Ajami and Hakim al-Mutairi and Saudi Arabia's Adnan al-Aroor are mentioned). Some sources claim that initially, Ahrar al-Sham was financed by Syria's Muslims Brotherhood despite their ideological differences. Expropriating governmental property constitutes another source of resources. Thus, when Ahrar al-Sham seized cities in the north of Syria, it managed to gain 4–6 billion Syrian pounds.

Currently, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia continue to finance the group enabling it to maintain high combat-effectiveness and internal discipline.
Enemies and allies

Ahrar al-Sham has two major enemies: the army loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State fighters. Islamists believe that Assad is a tyrant who oppresses Syria's people, and Ahrar al-Sham has been fighting against him since the start of the Syrian uprising.

As regards Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham has been fighting against it since its fighters invaded Syria. Ahrar al-Sham criticizes IS' practices and ideology as excessively cruel and having no relation to Islam. In June 2014 in an interview to the BBC, Hassan Abboud said that IS does not represent Islam which is a religion of peace, not of war, instead, IS represents "the worst of all the possible images of Islam." Besides, he accused IS of having recourse to al-Assad's support in their fight against more moderate rebels, including Ahrar al-Sham.

Ahrar al-Sham's relations with al-Qaeda and with Jabhat al-Nusra, its Syrian wing, are more complicated. Official representatives of Ahrar al-Sham deny their ties to al-Qaeda, but they admit to fighting against Bashar al-Assad and IS alongside Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. In their armed fight against the Syrian government, Ahrar al-Sham willingly cooperates with anyone who so wishes, including al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the secular forces united under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) "brand."

As it welcomed the coordination and unification of all the anti-Assad forces, Ahrar al-Sham contributed to the emergence of broad coalitions of Syrian Islamists: in 2012 – the Syrian Islamic Front, in 2013 – the Islamic Front. Even today, Ahrar al-Sham is part of the latter along with other large Islamic groups such as Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Islam, and Ansar al-Sham, all of which could be considered Ahrar al-Sham's allies. Besides, Ahrar al-Sham is part of the joint command staff of Fatah Halab and Ansar al-Sharia which unite the Islamist and rebel groups fighting for Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham's Islamist ideology and its tactical alliances with al-Qaeda prompt concerns in the West and particularly in the US. Washington is wary about the prospects of cooperating with Islamists, even moderate and well-disciplined ones.

From the very outset, Moscow took an even harder stance on Ahrar al-Sham. Representatives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke against this group taking part in the Syrian negotiations, considering them to be criminals and terrorists. Subsequently, however, Russia did not insist on excluding Ahrar al-Sham from the ceasefire.

Syria and the United Arab Emirates put Ahrar al-Sham on their lists of banned terrorist organizations. Russia, Iran, and Egypt also called Ahrar al-Sham a terrorist organization.

Stance on the Syrian ceasefire

At the 2015 Riyadh conference, Saudi Arabia backed the establishment of an umbrella organization named the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). Ahrar al-Sham was No 71 on the list of HNC member organizations which agreed to the ceasefire. At the same time, experts have expressed doubts that Ahrar al-Sham really supports the ceasefire, since such a distancing from the allied Jabhat al-Nusra not covered by the ceasfire is fraught with a split and even a war within the group itself.

A few days after the start of the ceasefire, one of Ahrar al-Sham's leaders, Hossam Salama said the ceasefire agreement was stillborn and stated that the government forces breached it. In their turn, Syria's Kurds accused Ahrar al-Sham's fighters of breaching the ceasefire and of using chemical weapons. At the same time, it should be admitted that since the ceasefire was announced, the number of military operations carried out by the group has dropped significantly. Today, Ahrar al-Sham continues to maneuver and does not intend to either fully ignore the ceasefire or demonstrate compliance with it.

Islamic State

Islamic State was formed in Iraq in 2014 when several groups merged together in the part of the country populated mostly by Sunni Arabs. As the Syrian crisis progressed, IS spread its direct influence into Syria. Today, it is the largest terrorist organization based in Syria and Iraq where it holds territories. Many extremist groups throughout the world declare its allegiance to Islamic State. Some experts believe IS to be a state-building project, since on the territories it controls, there is functioning administrative governance, legislation, law enforcement, education, transportation, and social sphere.


IS history goes back to its progenitor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a native of Jordan (born Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh). The US 2003 invasion of Iraq and the actions of the Coalition Temporary Authority (an occupational body the US established to govern Iraq) led to the insurgent movement and radicalization of the Iraq society. It was then that al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Union and Jihad, 2003) emerged. Subsequently, it transformed into Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (the Jihad Base in Mesopotamia, 2004), aka al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Since al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, the group has been receiving aid from al-Qaeda Central, but it is still fairly autonomous.

By 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had begun to "turn native." In the same year, al-Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike. Mergers of different groups and several other events ultimately led to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) which had no real control of any territories. By 2010, the ISI had seriously weakened since its main leaders were eliminated by American and Iraqi security services. However, when the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, when the Arab Spring started, and the Syrian crisis broke out, the ISI started to gain political weight and influence. An ISI unit, Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham, was sent to Syria, and the ISI itself transformed in the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), aka as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Since 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra took over thousands of square kilometers of land in Syria. Some of its fighters who gained their military experience in Syria went back to Iraq. In 2014, ISIS conducted a blitzkrieg from the north to the south of the country. Some sources claim that it was joined by professional and well-armed fighters of the Naqshbandiyah, a Sufi order (the Army of Men from Naqshbandiyah Tariqa) led by former officers of Saddam Hussein's army and by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his former deputy and current leader of the Ba'ath party. In a month of fighting, the organization captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, Tal Afar, and Tikrit, the home town of the former President Saddam Hussein, Baiji close to Baghdad, and also a major oil refinery. The Iraqi army which was believed to be well-trained and well-equipped, turned out to be highly ineffective and demoralized under ISIS attacks which was several times smaller in numbers. Only with a large number of allies, including Americans and Iran's Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (AGIR), Iraq's army succeeded in stopping ISIS near Baghdad. It was then that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that Jabhat al-Nusra was disbanded and the Caliphate (Dawlat Al Khilafah) or the Islamic State (Dawlat Al Islamiyya) was established. Jabhat al-Nusra's leader al-Golani disagreed with that development and appealed to al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda Central, asking to adjudicate the dispute [2]. When the Caliphate was proclaimed and al-Baghdadi was declared the caliph, he was no longer subordinated to al-Zawahiri, while Jabhat al-Nusra's leader, on the contrary, pledged allegiance to the latter directly.

Thus, Islamic State transformed into a competing organization independent of al-Qaeda, while Jabhat al-Nusra asked for the latter's protection and was proclaimed al-Qaeda's official representative in Sham (the Levant). Given the situation, IS began an advance against Jabhat al-Nusra and took control over the greater part of its territories in Syria. In particular, it took control over the border cities and the oil-rich district Deir ez Zor, although not entirely (the Syria Arab Army air force base is still functioning while being completely surrounded). IS fighters also took control of Raqqa, a large Syrian provincial center, and turned it into the "Caliphate's" capital. Later, they captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmira in Syria, but by the end of 2015 – early 2016, Baghdad and Damascus regained control over the greater part of their territories, including Ramadi and Palmira.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, ISIS' Maradona, assumed the name and title of caliph and lord of all the faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi (a reference to the Arab tribe of the Quraysh to which the prophet Mohammed belonged). He was born in 1971 in Samarra north of Baghdad to a Sunni family. He studied the basics of religion and the Quran in a local mosque, then he studied in Saddam's Islamic University where he received his doctorate in Islamic studies.

In February 2004, Americans arrested al-Badri in Falluja and transported him to Camp Bucca, considered the breeding ground for the teachers of Iraq's Islamists. There he conducted prayers, developed connections, and became a soccer star. Upon his release, al-Badri joined the activities of AQI and the ISI, and in 2010, when the organization's leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took his place.


The organization's financial security, especially at its early stages, rested on the monetary reserves of banks in Mosul and in other cities IS seized, and also on profits from selling oil. The Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) reported that in 2014 alone, IS "earned" 2 billion dollars looting banks, selling oil, collecting "taxes" from the population and getting ransoms for the people they had kidnapped. Besides, IS receives donations and foreign aid from persons who share its views, including the rich from the Gulf monarchies. Today, international regulators know a lot about IS financing, which allows to cut off money flows into the "caliphate" more efficiently.

American bombings of oil deposits, massive air strikes of the Russian air force, cutting Islamic State off from the Turkish border by the Kurdish forces, and low oil prices dealt a serious blow to the oil revenues of Islamic State. Thus, Russia's Ministry of Defense stated that in December 2015, IS profits from selling oil dropped from 3 million to 1.5 million dollars a day. The grave financial situation the Syrian opposition found itself in also must have taken its toll, since the opposition was buying IS oil. The oil was sold through intermediaries (very often they were members of local tribes), and anyone could use it.

Social base

There are many Iraqi Sunnis, professional managers, and Saddam Hussein's military officers among IS leaders. These people's transition to the jihadist camp was largely determined by many years of the US persecution. "De-ba'athization" also played a significant role. When the American troops were pulled from Iraq in 2011, the new Baghdad authorities continued to persecute former Saddam's officials. In particular, these persecutions were carried out by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and by the political activist Ahmed Chalabi (died in 2015).

Another important factor was the deal struck between IS and the Sunni tribes, since during al-Maliki'a second term in power, they still saw no changes in the issue of suggesting their candidates for positions in the authorities and in the army units. On the contrary, they faced greater discrimination, repeated searches, arrests, and marginalization of their few representatives in the government. It is the union of Saddam's elite and the tribes that forms IS' principal base today.

Foreign fighters used to constitute a large part of IS, but recently, the situation has changed. The FBI director James Comey stated that in mid-2015, the number of foreign terrorist fighters leaving the US for IS has dropped. Britain's The Independent, citing American intelligence data for February 2016, reported that the overall number of IS fighters dropped by 20% due to the smaller influx of foreigners.
Ideology and relations with other groups

The Islamic State ideology is far out on the fringe even compared to al-Qaeda's. The differences concern approaches to setting up authority, exercising it, and attitudes to other Islamist organizations. Thus, IS believes all groups that are not subordinate to the "caliph of the faithful" to be infidels and to have strayed from the truth, since dawlat al-Islam qamat (the Islamic state has been established) and bakiyyah wa tatamadddoud, it will "remain and expand." And it applies not to the Syrian opposition only, it also applies to Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra, not to mention Shiites (and Alawites) whom IS considers to be idol worshippers, and not Muslims. Those Arab states who maintain close ties with western states are viewed by IS as supporting "crusaders" and oppressing Muslims.

IS' hard line against "aliens" is due to the fact that it is an identity issue for Islamic State, and its identity is exclusively Sunni, while researchers define it as Salafi jihadist. IS can exist in Syria and Iraq (with which its entire history is essentially linked) only as long as it is opposed to something "alien." Back during the times of "al-Qaeda in Iraq," al-Zarqawi used this factor when he started using the anti-Shiite rhetoric. He chose the Baghdad government he described as Shiite as his group's "immediate enemy."

Islamic State lists among its enemies both small groups and regional actors and developed western states – members of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition. The Syrian Arab Army continues to do serious damage to IS in Syria; it is supported by Lebanon's Hezbollah, Iran's AGIR, and Russia's air force. IS is also engaged in heavy fighting against Peshmerga, the armed forces of Iraq's Kurdistan, and the People's Protection Units comprised of Syrian Kurds. Despite such a large number of enemies, IS still exists largely because fighting this organization was not a priority for any of the parties.

Data used are from Rumman M.A., Hanieh H.A. The Islamic State Organization: The Sunni Crisis and the Struggle of Global Jihadism. Amman: Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 2015.

Jabhat al-Nusra
(Jabhat Fateh al-Sham)

The Front for Aiding the People of Sham / the Levant
(the Front of the Conquest of Sham / the Levant)
Jabhat al-Nusra was initially tied to al-Qaeda Central and emerged from its Iraqi "branch," al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, 2004), which was later transformed into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI, 2006).


By 2011, Syria had become a major jihadist hub and a friendly environment for recruiting jihadists after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Over the years of transporting both people and material resources, the supply routes were established, extensive networks created, including networks for transporting fighters into Iraq. Syrian secret services must have known about that activity, but they apparently must have believed they kept it under control.

The smoothly working infrastructure and the 2011 amnesty when some Islamists were released played a very important role when the Syrian crisis broke out and IS sent there its well-trained fighters led by Abu Mohammad al-Golani. The group comprised mostly of Syrians was named Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahli al-Sham (the Front for Aiding the People of Sham). It was headed by al-Golani, and he upset the plans of the ISI leader (since 2010) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to disband Jabhat al-Nusra and to unite it, together with the ISI, into the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. He pledged allegiance directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda. After unsuccessful attempts to resolve the contradictions between al-Golani and al-Baghdadi, al-Zawahiri declared Jabhat al-Nusra the official representative of al-Qaeda in the lands of Sham. Although many Jabhat al-Nusra fighters moved on to Islamic State which pushed al-Nusra out of the territories it had held, the new al-Qaeda "branch" in Syria was supported by many veterans and leading thinkers of the global jihadism. With the ISI no longer existing and no longer subordinated to al-Qaeda Central, its former members still loyal to al-Zawahiri also switched to the group now called Jabhat al-Nusra — Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (the Front for Aiding the Jihad in Sham / the Levant).
Strategy and social base

Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy involves integration into local communities and winning the locals' favor. It is in compliance with al-Zawahiri's directive of July 2014, where he mandates improving the group's relations with the Syrian population and rebel units. When the Jaish al-Fatah coalition captured Idlib, al-Golani stated that the group "did not want to govern the city or monopolize its governance." Relying on the "ansar al-Sharia" concept which entails rejecting the monopolization of power and transitioning from the policy of self-insulation to cooperation with other groups and structures, to providing public goods, Jabhat al-Nusra managed to ensure the public's favorable attitude to the introduction of the Sharia law.

Pitted against IS' harsh administrating, such an approach won the Syrians over to Jabhat al-Nusra. Locals began to join Jabhat al-Nusra which gradually became almost entirely Syrian. Nonetheless, foreign fighters also join it.

Activity region

In 2011, Jabhat al-Nusra was widely represented in the east of Syria. It controlled the Deir ez Zor oil deposits, but lost these territories after its conflict with IS. The group was still going strong in the east of Syria and continued to be operate together with other opposition groups in the cities in the north (Aleppo) and in the south. In central Syria, it cooperated with Jaysh al-Islam in Eastern Ghouta. In 2015, Jaish al-Fatah, the coalition of anti-government groups in the north of Syria which included both Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest rebel groups, managed to take over Idlib province and was moving into Latakia. They could not take their success further due to the presence of the Russian air force since the second half of 2015. Today, Idlib serves as the group's headquarters, even though the province is governed jointly by anti-government groups.


Jabhat al-Nusra is considered to be one of the most well-equipped groups. Having taken control over the deposits in the east of Syria in the very outset of the conflict, it benefited from selling oil (later on, oil was taken over by IS). It is also believed that before its conflict with IS, Jabhat al-Nusra's coffers were filled by its "mother" group. The group is actively engaged in kidnapping, extortion, collecting "taxes" on the territories it controls. It gets most of its financing from its donors in the Gulf states and from the global jihadist movement. Thus, it had access to al-Qaeda's additional material and human resources and that was why it did not break from it, despite requests from a large number of actors.
Abu Mohammad al-Golani

Al-Golani openly stated that his group was opposed to various forces. In his speeches, he rejected turning to Arab states, Turkey, or western enemies for support in "crushing the Ba'ath enemy" (the Ba'ath party is Syria's ruling party).

At its inception, Jabhat al-Nusra attempted to combine Sunni identity and sectarian intolerance (typically for IS) and the new political approach of al-Qaeda Central; this response emerged after the Arab Spring (this ambiguity repeatedly manifested Jabhat al-Nusra's ideological crisis). Nonetheless, at the next stage, al-Golani became close with al-Zawahiri, and it was then that the group's basic strategic concepts were formed.

Al-Zawahiri, the former chief ideologist and leader of the organization, believes that Arab rebellions fit into the struggle against tyrannical regimes and occupations, which al-Qaeda had started in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the Arab world, free legitimate government means the freedom to choose the Sharia law and establish the Islamic rule in opposition to Israel and its plans. In his speeches, al-Zawahiri calls upon Muslims throughout the world and the region to install the Sharia law and not a democratic governance (the emphasis is on the differences between western democracy and the Islamic Shoura, or Council).

Jabhat al-Nusra viewed the Arab Spring as a new window of opportunity. The democratic methods employed in the "post-Spring" Arab world allow different Islamic political forces with greatest popular appeal to gain popularity. Al-Qaeda believes that these forces must be pressured in order to install the Sharia law as the main regulator of the public life. Ideally, in the al-Qaeda ideology, the public itself (or, rather, a part of it, ansar al sharia, the Sharia followers) act as the booster for those changes. Thus, Salafi jihadism uses ansar al sharia as its ideological concept. Although serious theoreticians of the Salafi jihadism considered this issue (Abu Yahya al-Libi, Anwar al-Awlaki, et al.), ansar al sharia was introduced into the mass "culture" by the Mauritanian preacher Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti. He strove to transfer underground activity into mass-oriented open work and to replace spontaneous action with organized action aimed at installing the Sharia law.

There are reports that prominent jihadists call upon al-Golani to cut off his affiliation with al-Qaeda for the future of Syrians and Islam, since the name of al-Qaeda is discredited both in the west and in the Muslim world. However, al-Golani did not disown al-Zawahiri, as the West expected and as Qatar requested, and moreover, he said in his interview that "people love Jabhat al-Nusra, people love al-Qaeda." Previously, these statements were not unfounded: during the conflict, several organizations expressed their reverence for Osama bin Laden and declared their loyalty to al-Qaeda's ideas. One could particularly single out Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam).

Thus, Salafi jihadism adjusts its strategy to the new conditions and believes armed uprisings to be its method, as a peaceful transition to the Sharia law can be "snatched away" by the West and/or its regional proxies (as it happened in Egypt and Tunisia). Only a justified jihadist revolution (understood as a jihad by jihadist theoreticians) will make it possible to install the Islam rule, the Sharia law, and to gain true independence.

Jabhat al-Nusra's actions in Syria comply with the revised al-Qaeda ideology and with the evolution of the Salafi-jihadist thought against the background of the Arab Spring. Supporting local protest movements in their desire to install the Sharia law, indulging the inclusive political process within the anti-Assad front, pitting "moderation" and pragmatism against the atrocities committed by Islamic State, a professedly "moderate" (as compared to IS) attitude to minorities – all of these things taken together formed Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy.

Attitude to minorities

Jabhat al-Nusra's "moderate" attitude to minorities is often emphasized. Abu Musab al-Suri, the Salafi jihadist theoretician, believes that "the people of the Qibla" or those who are in some way tied to the Islamic world, must be educated and not exterminated even when they depart from the true faith. Tellingly, the group offered its apology to the Druze for "unjustified killings" and promised to "punish the guilty." However, it applied only to the southern Druze who have close ties with Israel and are of interest to it (let's note that Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Lebanese Druze, called upon the Syrian Druze to not support Bashar al-Assad). The Druze who found themselves under Jabhat al-Nusra's rule in the north of Syria in Idlib province in the Jabal as-Summaq region, had to surrender to the Islamists and convert. Al-Golani said about it, "They did not fight against us … our stance on Druze is to call upon them, and we send to them delegations of preachers who explain to them the error of their religious ways … and many abandon their perverse beliefs."

In May 2015, al-Golani gave an exclusive interview to al-Jazeera where he stated that they did not target Alawites. He claimed that in Syria, al-Qaeda fights only against "those who attacked us and murdered our people." Al-Qaeda is not going to use Syria as a springboard for its strike against the West. Jabhat al-Nusra's principal goal is fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime and his "agents in the field," including Hezbollah et al.

Al-Jazeera depicted Jabhat al-Nusra as moderate, but it is not true. The difference is obvious already when considering the English and Arabic versions of the interview where al-Golani speaks about Alawites. The English article renders his words as follows, "We will not hurt them or target them, the Druzes or anyone else." The original Arabic is somewhat different: if all the Alawite villages disown Bashar al-Assad, lay down their arms and "reject some elements of their faith which are contrary to Islam" (Sunni Islam for al-Golani), then Jabhat al-Nusra undertakes to protect them.
The problems with recognizing Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group

Although Jabhat al-Nusra is tied to al-Qaeda through its leader al-Golani's personal pledge of loyalty to al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, this group is Syrian through and through. Many of its members, being average Syrians, were forced to have recourse to Jabhat al-Nusra which offered social and humanitarian aid when the state could not. Nonetheless, the group is recognized as a terrorist group internationally, in the US and in Russia, which takes away from it any political future in Syria. Besides, Jabhat al-Nusra has close enough ties with other groups (for instance, with Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib province and, to a much lesser degree, with Jaysh al-Islam in Eastern Ghouta), and they will possibly have to start fighting al-Nusra, if the talks in Geneva succeed in developing a common platform. Reports of clashes between al-Nusra fighters and armed opposition members are still coming in. The media widely disseminated the report about a slaughter between Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA's 13th division; al-Nusra took over the latter's command post and took away their arms. Being sensitive to the locals' sentiments, Ahrar al-Sham is distancing itself from Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jaysh al-Islam

The Army of Islam
Jaysh al-Islam is one of the most powerful anti-governmental groups in Syria; it was formed by merging several groups and it consists almost exclusively of Syrians. Its backbone was Liwa al-Islam (the Islamic Brigade) led by Zahran Alloush and active around Damascus. Its positions are still strong, especially in the city of Douma (Jaysh al-Islam's bulwark) and in Eastern Ghouta. It was there that the protests erupted in 2011 leading to pushing out the government forces and to a hard blockade with virtually no food or medications. In 2013, Eastern Ghouta suffered from chemical weapons strikes, and it was never officially determined who had used sarin (accusations were levelled against both the Syrian government and the rebels).

It is considered one of the largest groups capable of negotiating, it supports the ceasefire, despite periodical breaches and statements that it resumes its fight against Bashar al-Assad's forces.


Liwa al-Islam claimed the responsibility for the bombing of the National Security Headquarters in Damascus on July 18, 2012, where heads of the security agencies were holding a meeting. The act of terror took the lives of Syria's Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, his deputy Assef Shawkat, Vice President's assistant and former defense minister Hasan Turkmani, and the National Security Director of the regional branch of the Ba'ath party Hisham Ikhtiyar. Thus, decision-making in the army was paralyzed, and Liwa al-Islam gained notoriety.

On September 24, 2013, 11 most combat-effective Islamist groups (including individual FSA brigades), operating around Damascus and Aleppo, made a joint statement. They stated they rejected the idea of the "national coalition" supported by the West and by some regional states acting as the international representative of Syrians, and they also rejected its military wing, the Supreme Military Council led by General Salim Idris. They also declared the Sharia law to be their legal system.

On September 29–30, 2013, at least 50 groups which made their presence known around Damascus, united into Jaysh al-Islam, and on November 22, as we have already noted, Jaysh al-Islam and Harakat al-Sham al-Islamiyya led by Zahran Alloush and Hassan Abboud formed a coalition named the Islamic Front. As the crisis deepened, individual units broke off from the FSA; they mostly adopted a more viable Salafi (and more radical jihadist) rhetoric and proclaimed establishing an Islamic state (an emirate) in Syria under the Sharia law as their supreme goal.

Mohammad Zahran Alloush
Social base

Jaysh al-Islam succeeded in attracting huge numbers of followers within the country by offering basic social services and recruiting mostly on the territories it controlled. A serious organizational structure, financing, stricter discipline (compared to the FSA which was falling apart as the conflict dragged out and the society radicalized), the use of Islamist rhetoric since the start of the crisis – all of that contributed to making the group look more attractive.

It was the establishment and functioning of organizations which used religious rhetoric (Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, etc.) and aimed to implement the Islamic state project in Syria and to subsequently form the Islamic front that primarily allowed to prevent Syrian fighters from migrating to more radical international groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (despite its officially proclaimed national Syrian orientation) and Islamic State.


Zahran Alloush remained the permanent charismatic leader of Jaysh al-Islam until December 25, 2015, when he was killed in an air force strike. His followers called him a Sheikh, and his biography explains that appellation.

Mohammad Zahran Alloush was born in Douma, ten kilometers north of Damascus. His father, Sheikh Abdullah Alloush, is one of the most famous Syrian preachers and followers of Sunni Islam in its Salafi version. Upon graduating from the Sharia Law School of Damascus University, Zahran went to Saudi Arabia where he earned an MA in hadith studies and Islam studies from the Islam University of Medina. He is believed to have studied with the best scholars of our time. In 2009, he was arrested by the Palestine Branch of the Military Intelligence Division working primarily on Islamic groups, on charges of weapons possession. In 2011, he was released from the infamous Sednaya prison together with 1,500 inmates from the Salafi and jihadist circles after Bashar al-Assad had declared a general amnesty. Upon his release, Zahran Alloush began to form a military group to fight the government's forces. Saraya al-Islam (the Brigade of Islam) was gradually growing, absorbing other groups, and was eventually transformed into Liwa al-Islam, and then into Jaysh al-Islam.

On June 19, 2013, a few month prior to the joint declaration of the anti-government Islamist forces, Zahran Alloush said in an interview to Qatar's al-Jazeera TV that political figures outside Syria do not represent the interests of Jaysh al-Islam. In the same interview, he emphasized that it was impossible to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad's administration: "As regards the regime … it is a criminal one, and engaging in a dialog with it means complicity in a crime."

After Zahran Alloush's death, the warlord Essam Abu Hammam al-Bouwaidani known as Abu Hammam became the group's leader; he was elected by Jaysh al-Islam's leadership Council by way of a compromise. Before the war, Essam al-Bouwaidani (born in Douma in 1975) worked in commerce. He is not widely mentioned by the media (unlike Alloush) and the Orient News opposition news site explains that he likes to work in silence.

Some researchers (such as Aron Lund, the author of Struggling to Adapt: The Muslim Brotherhood in a New Syria and the editor of Syria in Crisis) believe that when it comes to financing and weapons supply, the group has tight ties to the Gulf monarchies and dominates the relations with some Saudi circles (it is worth noting that the father of the group's leader lives in Saudi Arabia). The establishment of Jaysh al-Islam can be considered against the background of the Saudi answer to the increasing radicalization of the Syrian society and of preventing said society from becoming controlled by more radical jihadist groups like Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Relations with other political groups

Liwa al-Islam was initially part of the FSA and one of its most combat-effective units. Having split from the FSA and absorbed the groups in the Damascus region, Alloush's group began to operate more independently and played a significant role in the escalation of the Syrian crisis. In 2012, it was a part of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) which also included the Farouq Brigades (Homs and the Turkish border), Liwa at-Tawhid (Aleppo), Souqur al-Sham (Idlib). Consolidation around Liwa al-Islam allowed to found Jaysh al-Islam in late September 2013, thereby severing the ties with the SILF.

Similar processes transpired in the Syrian Islamic Front for which Ahrar al-Sham became the driving force. Unlike the SILF which coordinated its actions with the Supreme Military Council of the FSA, the SIF was not restricted by any such obligations. They were an ideological mismatch, and the SIF had its own financing channels – money was coming from certain circles in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, and also from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Creating Jaysh al-Islam with the Saudi support was a testimony to the FSA's structural problems and it dealt a serious blow to its further existence. Nonetheless, that event did not signify the victory of the government's forces in Syria, since a broader coalition, the Islamic Front, was emerging.

Jabhat al-Nusra is another major political ally of Jaysh al-Islam. Its leader al-Golani stressed several times that when it came to their presence in Syria, he would steer the course of al-Qaeda Central led by al-Zawahiri. The group's strategy involves cooperating with those local Islamist organizations which pose as their principal goal the establishment of an Islamic state and the Sharia law in Sham. Such an approach prevents the Syrian Islamist groups, including Jaysh al-Islam, from opposing the extremists from al-Qaeda's Syrian "branch," since overthrowing Bashar al-Assad is still their priority, and in order to achieve that goal, they might need to mobilize all those parties to the Syrian conflict which are not hostile to them, especially given Jabhat al-Nusra's effectiveness and joint military victories over the government's forces.

One could also note that the two groups are ideologically close. As the former Jaysh al-Islam's leader said, his group and Jabhat al-Nusra have brotherly ties, and whatever small ideological differences there are, they can be settled through discussions and applications of the Sharia norms. In his interview, Zahran Alloush said that he had met with Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of Jabhat al-Nusra's leaders, and found no differences between Jabhat al-Nusra's Sharia (here Sharia means lawmaking) and Jaysh al-Islam's Sharia. Nonetheless, in the summer of 2015, the media reported that Eastern Ghouta's residents, supposedly whipped up by Jabhat al-Nusra, were holding rallies. They were protesting against Jaysh al-Islam and the United Military Command which governed the territory and were demanding that their quality of life be improved.

Jaysh al-Islam assumed an implacable stance toward Islamic State. IS became active on the territories held by Jaysh al-Islam since early 2015. However, they clashed in the Qalamoun Mountains, where Jaysh al-Islam unexpectedly intervened in the military action and attacked IS which was fighting Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian government's army, the Lebanese Army, and Hezbollah. Alloush claimed that such actions intended to prevent the expansion of IS toward Ghouta. Moreover, he credited Jaysh al-Islam with being the reason for Islamic State not being present on the territories Jaysh al-Islam controls. Zahran Alloush said IS fighters were takfiri who spread discord among Muslims, and Khawarij (those who had split off). In June 2015, Jaysh al-Sham uploaded a professionally edited video to the Web; it showed captured IS fighters being executed by firing shotgun shots to the head. The video used IS technique, but the executioners wore orange prison robes, and the victims, the IS fighters, wore black (IS videos usually have it the other way round).

Nonetheless, the government's forces are Jaysh al-Islam's main enemy in Syria; the government army blockaded Eastern Ghouta and Douma and has fought against the group during the entire Syrian crisis. When the government air force bombed its deployment sites, Jaysh al-Islam launched missile and shells against Damascus. In 2013, together with Jabhat al-Nusra, the group perpetrated a bloody slaughter in Adra, massacring mostly the Alawite minority. To defend themselves against air force bombings in Douma, the group put cages with people, supposedly captive Alawites from Adra, on rooftops, using them as human shields. Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, also saw some heavy fighting. Besides, the group was accused of being behind the disappearance of several activists and human rights activists, the most famous of them being Razan Zaitouneh.

By April 2016, information had started to come in that for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, Syria's air force supported some of Jaysh al-Islam's units against the IS fighters advancing in the vicinity of Eastern Ghouta. As some warlords have since claimed that it would be possible to cooperate with the government's army to defeat IS, it gives hope for a cessation of the fierce confrontation between Jaysh al-Islam and Bashar al-Assad's government.

Ideology is not the group's forte. In one of his videos, Zahran Alloush recalls the era of Banu Umayya, the ruling clan of the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750). During the reign of Caliph Abd al-Malik (685–705), Damascus became the Caliphate's capital, and all the political strife that had been eating at the Caliphate from inside, was settled by the army of general al-Hajjaj known for his cruelty. In the same video, Alloush points out the Alawites' "non-Islamic" and "non-Arabic" origins, calling them Nusayris and lumping them with Iranians who are not Muslims, but Majus, that is, mages, "fire-worshippers" (as Zoroastrians are called). The video reflects Alloush's search for a Sunni Umayyad identity while simultaneously opposing himself to Shiites. Just like IS, he calls the latter the Rafida, those who "abandon" and "reject". Thus, for Alloush, IS are his Khawarij enemy, and Iran and the Alawite elite are his enemy consisting of the Rafida and mages.

However, Islamic ideology has never played and does not play any leading role in determining Jaysh al-Islam's strategy. Shortly before his death, Alloush was moving away from a clearly defined Islamic discourse. Zahran's brother, Mohammed Alloush, who represents the High Negotiating Committee (HNC) and its member Jaysh al-Islam at the Syrian settlement talks, went as far as declaring his commitment to the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 18, 2015 where the UN Security Council recalled its "demand that all parties take all appropriate steps to protect civilians, including members of ethnic, religious and confessional communities," The UN Security Council also stressed that "the primary responsibility to protect its population lies with the Syrian authorities," Nonetheless, in February 2016, Mohammed Alloush claimed that the transitional period could take place only upon Bashar al-Assad's resignation or death.

Attitude to the negotiations

Anyone could use any rhetoric, but facts are a stubborn thing. Anonymous diplomatic sources claim that even at the times of active fighting, Jaysh al-Islam's former leader often traveled outside the besieged Ghouta to attend opposition congresses abroad, and his representatives have negotiated and still are negotiating both with the government and with international actors. Initially, the group had insisted on installing the Sharia law and an Islamic state in Syria; subsequently, however, the population's discontent grew in the territories the group controlled; taking into account the actions of the international community (and Russia's role in the conflict), the group began to change its tune. It is evident, in particular, from one of Zahran Alloush's last statements where he claimed that he wanted only "what the Syrian people want." According to reports coming in at the time, some members of Jaysh al-Islam admitted they needed the ceasefire.

Riyadh supports Jaysh al-Islam, while Moscow insists it's a terrorist group, although it is negotiating. Jaysh al-Islam's representatives take part in the negotiations and one way or another, maintain the ceasefire which allowed to decrease the level of violence by 90%, despite breaches by various parties.

Jund al-Aqsa

The Soldiers of al-Aqsa
Initially, it was known as Sarayat al-Quds (the Brigades of Jerusalem). At first, Sarayat al-Quds was one of the brigades within al-Qaeda-related Jabhat al-Nusra, but subsequently, it changed its appellation and began operating indepedently.

There was a time when Jund al-Aqsa, unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, remained distant from the bloody internecine struggle of the Syrian rebels and preferred to fight only against Bashar al-Assad's troops. But in the fall of 2014 it changed its tactics and attacked the Syria Revolutionaries Front, a secular rebel group led by Jamal Maarouf; Jund al-Aqsa carried the attack together with Jabhat al-Nusra's fighters in Idlib province.

In February 2016, some of Jund al-Aqsa's leaders left the group to join Jabhat al-Nusra. They explained their decision by their desire to "unite … to strengthen the ranks of the mujahideen." Although none of them had the title of amir, that is, was the supreme leader, it can be claimed that currently, Jund al-Aqsa is effectively subordinated to Jabhat al-Nusra.
Social base and numbers

Various sources claim that Jund al-Aqsa consists of Muslim fighters from all over the world, including Southeast Asia, the Caucasus, and Europe. At the same time, the group has many Syrians. Unlike the strictly Syrian and nationally oriented Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, Jund al-Aqsa is an "international" group oriented toward global jihadism.

Today, it is different to estimate the number of fighters in the group, since it is losing people, and not only in the military action: some of the al-Aqsa fighters join Jabhat al-Nusra following their leaders, some join IS.

Activity region

The group is mostly active is the north-west of Syria, mostly in Idlib. In the spring of 2015, al-Aqsa's fighters together with other Islamist groups took part in the capture of Idlib, the capital of the province. The group also operates in the neighboring provinces of Hama and Aleppo. In November 2015, Jund al-Aqsa took control of the city of Murak in Hama province having pushed out the government forces. Currently, according to the media, Jund al-Aqsa is fighting the government forces in the Ghab Plain in Hama province.
Abu Abdelaziz al-Qatari

Abu Abdelaziz al-Qatari, a native of Iraq and an experience jihadist who had fought in Afghanistan, is believed to be the group's founder and first leader. He knew Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 2014, al-Qatari was killed by the fighters of Shuhada al-Sham (The Martyr of Islam Brigade), and it forced Jund al-Aqsa to exact its revenge.

The secrecy surrounding Jund al-Aqsa does not allow to say who of the currently living jihadists now leads the group. The media usually receive information on the dead leaders. Thus, in May 2015, news spread of the death of Adel Radi Saker al-Wahabi al-Harbi, the leader of al-Aqsa's military operations and one of the key al-Qaeda figures in Syria. The same fate befell Said Arif, another al-Qaeda Afghanistan veteran, also doing double duty as an al-Aqsa leader.


Jund al-Aqsa is closely tied to al-Qaeda. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, the group is not an official "branch" of al-Zawahiri's organization in Syria, yet almost all of its key leaders have al-Qaeda background. In their public speeches and speeches commemorating dead jihadists, Jund al-Aqsa's members regularly mention al-Zawahiri as the jihad's true leader and the indisputable moral authority.

The Soldiers of al-Aqsa share the ideology of al-Zawahiri and his followers. They support taking arms against the infidels, overthrowing Bashar al-Assad's "impious" regime and installing the Sharia rule in the country. At the same, just like Jabhat al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa believes that military victory over the regime comes first, and then they will build the Caliphate in Syria (and this sets the group apart from IS).

The group pays a lot of attention to the Islamist propaganda, positioning itself as the defender of the true faith. In case of need, they also use suicide bombers. Jund al-Aqsa subscribes to the "Islamic internationalism" ideology and calls upon jihadists from around the world to join the war in Syria.

Enemies and allies

Jabhat al-Nusra is Jund al-Aqsa's unquestionable ideological and military ally. Both groups are essentially Syrian branches of al-Qaeda and they constantly interact. Just like Jabhat al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa fights against the government forces. At the same time, some of its fighters feel an affinity to Islamic State. Observers report that in 2016, some al-Aqsa's members broke their steadfast alliance with al-Qaeda and joined IS. Essentially, Jund al-Aqsa found itself between the rock and the hard place, as some of its fighters tend to join Jabhat al-Nusra, while others prefer an alliance with IS.

Prior to the fall of 2015, Jund al-Aqsa was part of an umbrella alliance of rebel groups called Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of the Conquest), formed in March to carry out joint actions against the government forces primarily in Idlib province. Due to coordination and foreign financing, Jaish al-Fatah was successful: in the spring of 2015, its fighters took control of Idlib and several other cities, pushing al-Assad's army out. Jund al-Aqsa's fighters contributed to this outcome significantly. In the battle for Idlib, al-Aqsa's suicide bombers cleared the way for their allies. However, in September of the same year, the Soldiers of al-Aqsa unexpectedly quit the coalition. Experts explain it by ideological differences with some groups, particularly with Ahrar al-Sham.

Jund al-Aqsa was believed to be part of yet another alliance, the Muhajirin wa-Ansar Alliance (the Alliance of Emigrants and Helpers) which included small groups of Salafi jihadists from various countries.

Jund al-Aqsa is not on either Russia's federal list of terrorist organizations or the similar US list. This is most likely due to its small numbers and local activity.

Stance on the Syrian ceasefire

The Soldiers of al-Aqsa is not on the list of Syrian opposition groups which agreed to the ceasefire. This is not surprising, given how close Jund al-Aqsa is to al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra which has been excluded from the ceasefire. According to the Institute of the Middle East's reports, Jund al-Aqsa together with Jabhat al-Nusra continue to fight, both against the Syrian government troops and against the moderate Syrian opposition.

Jund al-Aqsa's prospects are unclear. Given the Syrian ceasefire and a more active war against jihadists, the group has little space for maneuver. Given its small numbers and internal contradictions, one could suppose that in the future, the larger part of Jund al-Aqsa will join Jabhat al-Nusra, and the "dissenters" will join IS.

Jund al-Sham

Warriors of Great Syria
The group was formed in December 2012. Since early 2013 and until now, it has been led by Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili). Currently, it consists almost entirely of fighters from the Caucasus and is mostly active in Latakia province.

Social base and numbers

Various estimates give its number at 300–500 fighters. Almost all of them are natives of the North Caucasus, mostly they are Chechens.

Activity region

Jund al-Sham is mostly fighting in Latakia province. The media also published reports claiming that its fighters took part in the battles for Aleppo.

Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili)

Since its inception, the group was led by Murad Margoshvili (Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani), born in 1972, a Kist (a Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia). He served in the Soviet military, participated in the Chechen wars. He was wounded several times in the battles for Grozny. He was captured by the Russian military in 2003, convicted, and spent about two years in jail. There are reports indicating he knew the most notorious Chechen warlords, including Shamil Basaev and Aslan Maskhadov. He enjoys great authority among the Chechens fighting in Syria.

Ties to other groups

At the start of the Syrian war, several Chechen groups emerged, but only Jund al-Sham retained its independent standing. It maintains close contacts with Jabhat al-Nusra. Its leader Margoshvili made several speeches critical of Islamic State (banned in Russia). Recently, a large number of foreign fighters have left Jund al-Sham, its numbers dropped, and it became almost exclusively Chechen. Due to its small numbers, Jund al-Sham prefers to fight together with other groups.

The Kurdish Islamic Front

Муслим Абу Валид аш-Шишани (Мурад Маргошвили)
The Kurdish Islamic Front is one of the smaller extremist groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad's troops. It is unique since it consists exclusively of Kurds and is opposed to the dominant Kurdish separatism.

History and numbers

The Kurdish Islamic Front was formed in 2013. The group is led by Salahuddin al-Kurdi. In November 2013, the KIF joined the Islamic Front, and in 2014, it joined Ahrar al-Sham.

The group has about 1,000 members.


Al-Kurdi, the group's leader, has stated several times that his followers' views are radically different from those of the Kurdish parties operating within Syria. According to him, those parties limit their requirements to cultural and political rights for Syrian Kurds, while the KIF wants more.

Al-Kurdi envisions the post-Assad Syria as an Islamic state which guarantees the rights of all the communities it comprises, including the Kurds. "Islam guarantees rights our people are not familiar with," al-Kurdi claims, "they think that Islam is the reason behind their sufferings. However, oppression was mainly practised by the secular parties such as the Arab Baath Party, the Turkish secular rightists, and the Persian Shiites who hold hostility towards the descendants of Saladin."

Liwa al-Haqq

Battalion of Truth
Liwa al-Haqq is an extremist alliance formerly active in Homs province. Subsequently, it joined first the SIF, and then Ahrar al-Sham.


The unification of Islamist forces in Homs was first undertaken in spring 2012. In May, Ittihad Suwar Homs (Homs Revolutionary Union) was formed, and some local Islamist groups joined it. Liwa al-Haqq itself was formed in August 11, 2012, and at that time, it included four unions each of which consisted of smaller groups.

In December 2012, Liwa al-Haqq and 10 other Islamist groups joined the SIF.

As of February 2013, Liwa al-Haqq included 11 groups: Katibat al-Siddiq, Katibat al-Furati, Katibat al-Huda, Katibat al-Naser li-Din Allah, Katibat Sebaa al-Birr, Katibat Shuhada Baba Amr, Kataeb Atbaa al-Rasoul, Katibat al-Ansar, Kataeb al-Bara, Katibat al-Bara bin Malek, and Katibat Seif Allah.

In November 2013, Liwa al-Haqq together with other SIF members, joined the Islamic Front, and in December 2014, together with the KIF, it joined Ahrar al-Sham.

Social base and numbers

Liwa al-Haqq's unique feature is that it unites Salafis, Sufis, and followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its exact numbers are not known, but its leaders claim it is several thousand strong.
Abu Rateb

Abu Rateb, who had been an entrepreneur in Syria before the war, was believed to be the head of the group. He was a relatively public person for an Islamist group leader: he often gave interviews and preached in Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque in Homs. On January 6, 2016, reports appeared that he'd been killed.

Military command was carried out by Abderrahman Suweis, "a former paratrooper officer in the Syrian armed forces a major or colonel (depending on the source)." While serving in Lebanon, he was arrested in 1999 on charges of being a member in the outlawed Hezb al-Tahrir (the Liberation Party) and was amnestied in 2011 when the uprising was starting.


Principal financing comes from some individuals (Hajjaj al-Ajami et al.) and Islamist foundations.

Liwa al-Tawhid

Battalion of Monotheism
Hajji Marea
Liwa al-Tawhid is one of the largest extremist groups active in the north of Syria, mostly in Aleppo. As a unit of the FSA, it played a key role in the battle for Aleppo. Later, it joined the Islamic Front. Western experts believe Liwa al-Tawhid to be a relatively moderate Islamist group.


Liwa al-Tawhid was formed in July 2012 in Aleppo through merging several small local groups. This was the group that fomented the uprising in the north-eastern suburbs of Aleppo.

The group supported the establishment of the Supreme Military Council within the FSA in December 2012. However, there is no information that the Council directly controls Liwa al-Tawhid.

In January 2013, Liwa al-Tawhid joined of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, an umbrella organization linked to the FSA Supreme Military Council. In December of the same year, the SILF was joined by the Syrian Islamic Front which included, among others, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sham, and Liwa al-Haqq. The alliance was named the Islamic Front.

Besides its active participation in the Aleppo fighting, Liwa al-Tawhid is known for its attack on the Damascus suburbs carried out in April, 2013 together with Jabhat al-Nusra and other opposition groups. A month later, Liwa al-Tawhid's fighters together with Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the Syrian army base in Idlib.

At the later stages of the Syrian war, the group began to lose its power and supporters mostly due to pressure from the rising Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham. Liwa al-Tawhid's leader agreed to their terms for joining the battle for Aleppo, thus prompting greater "Salafization" of the Syrian war and the growth of Ahrar al-Sham's popularity and numbers as compared to other groups.

Composition and numbers

Liwa al-Tawhid is comprised of three smaller brigades: Fursan al-Jabal, Daret al-Izza, and Ahrar al-Shamal. Altogether, it includes 195 battalions numbering about 8–10 thousand people.
Abdul-Aziz Salameh

Liwa al-Tawhid's first leader was the former businessman Abdel Qader Saleh, aka Haji Marea. His charisma did not quite make up for the group's military flaws. His decision to transform the Liwa al-Tawhid made up of tribal or territorial units into a full-fledged regular army was a mistake. Instead of instilling discipline, this decision only further weakened it.

On November 15, 2013, Abdel Saleh was killed in an air strike by the government army. His successor, Adnan Bakur, was killed on February 1, 2014 by Islamic State.

Currently, Liwa al-Tawhid is led by Abdul-Aziz Salameh.

The group's other activity

In Russia, the group is largely known because of the disappearance of the Russian traveler Konstantin Zhuravlev from Tomsk. Zhuravlev was traveling to the Sahara via the Middle East. His route took him through Syria which at that time was swallowed up in a full-blown war. On October 12, 2013, Konstantin's parents were informed that he had been captured by Liwa al-Tawhid's fighters. He was liberated from captivity in October 2016.

Liwa al-Tawhid is also known for providing jobs for Syrians on the territories it controls and for financing medical and media foundations.

Syria and the United Arab Emirates declared it a terrorist organization.

Nour al-Din al-Zenki

One of the most combat-effective groups active in Aleppo province in the north of Syria, Nour al-Din al-Zenki positions itself as an independent group, yet it has ties to the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. For a long time, it has been considered, and still is considered in the West to be a "moderate" Islamist organization.


The group is named after the Seljuk ruler Nur ad-Din Mahmoud Zengi, atabeg of Aleppo and amir of Damascus, who ruled in the 12th century and succeeded in uniting Muslim forces to fight crusaders. At certain points, he controlled Syria and Egypt.

This initially small group was formed in the countryside northwest from Aleppo in November 2011, when the war between Bashar al-Assad's supporters and the rebels was already underway. As time passed, the group gained more and more influence and military experience, taking part in various anti-government coalitions. Since July 2012, Nour al-Din al-Zenki has been part of Liwa al-Tawhid which united various Aleppo groups to fight Bashar al-Assad's forces. On January 3, 2014, Syrian groups from Aleppo province form an umbrella organization Jaish al-Mujahideen, or the Mujahideen Army, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki becomes one of its most powerful subdivisions. It includes several major groups:

  1. Nour al-Din al-Zenki
  2. Kataib al-Ansar
  3. Fastaqim Kama Umirta
  4. Kataib al-Qurr al-Islamiy
  5. Kataib Amjad al-Islam
  6. Kataib Ansar al-Khilafa
  7. Jund al-Haramain
  8. Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiy

Jaish al-Mujahideen was formed to fight not only the government forces, their perennial enemy, but primarily the rising ISIS/ISIL. After a few months of rather fierce fighting, Jaish al-Mujahideen (assisted by other coalitions and groups) succeeded in pushing IS out of Syria's north-western regions. Besides, Nour al-Din al-Zenki was part of a parallel coalition Jabhat al-Asala wa-al-Tanmiya supported by both Saudi Arabia and the US, a fact that western analysts sometimes omit. Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, a Jaish al-Mujahideen commander and the leader of Nour al-Din al-Zenki claimed that his group was independent and was not affiliated with either the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF).

In May 2014, Nour al-Din al-Zenki left the Jaish al-Mujahideen coalition and received greater Saudi financing, which had been theretofore impossible since Jaish al-Mujahideen had ties with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Saudi Arabia and recognized as a terrorist group in Russia). In December 2014, Nour al-Din al-Zenki joins al-Jabha al-Shamiyah, the Levant Front, a large coalition, in an attempt to form a powerful force for fighting both the government forces and IS. However, they did not achieve their goal, and today, al-Jabha al-Shamiayh has transformed into just one group "among many." Fatah Halab, the united command coalition, remains the key coordination center for Islamists and opposition groups of all stripes. Fatah Halab was formed on April 26, 2015, and it is unique in the sense that it does not include Jabhat al-Nusra, which still frequently interacts with those same groups within other alliances, such as Jaish al-Fatah and Ansar al-Sharia (also in Aleppo).

July 19, 2016 witnessed a high-profile event covered by all regional media. Nour al-Din al-Zenki's fighters filmed the beheading of an 11-year-old Palestinian boy Abdullah Issa, claiming that he had participated in the fighting on the side of the pro-government Liwa al-Quds. Liwa al-Quds denied everything and stated that the boy had been kidnapped by Nour al-Din al-Zenki's fighters from a Palestinian refugee camp in the vicinity of Aleppo. Nour al-Din al-Zenki made an official statement proclaiming its commitment to human rights and international treaties and declared the incident a "human error" which did not reflect the group's overall stance. This statement provoked the indignation of observers and human rights activists. Mark Toner, the spokesperson of the US Department of State, later announced that the US demanded that the incident be subjected to a transparent investigation. Should the concerns be justified, Washington will reconsider its stance on financing and supporting opposition groups and specifically Nour al-Din al-Zenki which was considered moderate as of July 2016.

Tawfiq Shahabuddin
The Group's Leader

Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin has been Nour al-Din al-Zenki's leader since its inception. In his modest assessment, "the resolution of the Syrian revolution does not entirely depend on Syrians themselves." In his opinion, meetings in Geneva are nothing but a game, since if the US really wanted progress, it would have provided Syrian rebels with antiaircraft weapons.

Territorial spread

Today, Nour al-Din al-Zenki's units operate mostly in the north of Syria, in Aleppo province, mostly in the countryside. Nour al-Din al-Zenki's fighters take active part in the battle for Aleppo; together with the Islamic Front and other alliances, they form part of the Fatah Halab united command.

Al-Mayadeen TV claimed that Nour al-Din al-Zenki mostly operates in the west of Aleppo. The group is known for indiscriminate shelling and kidnappings. The Lebanese channel also accuses Nour al-Din al-Zenki of moving hundreds of factories from the north of Syria into Turkey.

Social base and approximate numbers of fighters

The group's leader Tawfiq Shahabuddin claims that "the shabiha and the regime's oppression of peaceful demonstrators and indiscriminate killings made our presence possible and ensured support for us." In an interview to Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV, Nour al-Din al-Zenki's leader himself claimed that his group had been the first to enter Aleppo in 2012. According to him, "we were the first Liwa al-Tawhid's brigades."

Current estimates of the numbers of Nour al-Din al-Zenki's fighters differ: the largest figure is 10,000, but mostly estimates very between 3 and 10 thousand.


When asked about the Nour al-Din al-Zenki brigades' ideology, Tawfiq Shahabuddin told al-Jazeera, "We are moderate Muslims (vasatyyeen), who do not lose their moderate stance between good and evil, because it is the spirit of Islam and its eye." The group's take on Syria's political future is as follows: "We are not the only ones who will determine Syria's political future … When the regime falls, all the people will determine the fate of Syria's political future." The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in its report of February 2016 defines the group as Islamist.


Al-Mayadeen TV links Nour al-Din al-Zenki with the diplomatic and material support from Ankara and Washington. When they were not allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, they also received financing from Saudi Arabia. From the US, the group received the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles which heavily influenced the fighting.

When asked about financing in his interview, Tawfiq Shahabuddin said that, "From the very outset, we were looking for equipment here and there. There are internal sources for financing. We have an economic department … We receive some things from abroad."

The group's enemies and allies

The group is extremely intolerant of IS and fights against Bashar al-Assad's government forces. The group is known for coordinating its actions with Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Lebanese channel al-Mayadeen defines the relations between two groups as "good." In his Al-Jazeera interview, Nour al-Din al-Zenki's leader confirmed good collaborative relations with Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and with the Islamic Front as a whole. He added that they had never had any issues with their allies and they were fighting together on different fronts.

Suqour al-Sham

The Falcons of Sham / the Levant
Suqour al-Sham emerged in the mountainous regions of Idlib, continued to operate in the province, and also in the north of Hama province. The group succeeded in pushing the government forces from the Jabal al-Zawiya region and cut off the supply transportation along the Jabal al-Zawiya – Idlib route, thereby allowing the rebels to suppress the Army's resistance and seize Idlib for the first time in 2012. Subsequently, the Falcons operated mostly in Idlib and Hama and in the north-west of Syria.


Unlike many other Islamist warlords, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Issa al-Sheikh) was not a fighter before the war. Nonetheless, together with Zahran Alloush and Hassan Abboud, the founders of Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, he spent several years in Sednaya Prison for his Islamist convictions. Abu Issa is known for his bitterly negative attitude to the Assads' regime; his relatives had been executed during both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez's rule.

In the group, Abu Issa headed the "civilian wing" which had general control of Suqour al-Sham's actions. He remained the Falcons' leader during the group's entire existence, acted as the chair of the Shoura Council of the Islamic Front. In spring 2015, on the fourth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, Abu Issa addressed the rebels calling upon them to fight until they were victorious.

After Suqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham merged together, the united group's leadership passed to Ahrar al-Sham's leader Abu Jaber, and Abu Issa became his deputy. Ahrar al-Sham's official statement uses only one appellation for him: "brother Abu Issa al-Sheikh, former leader of Suqour al-Sham."
Abu Issa al-Sheikh

Like many other leaders of "moderate" Islamists, Abu Issa oscillated between Islamism and moderate convictions. In a sermon addressed to his followers he spoke about the good of jihad and of Muslims losing their honor as they replaced (in their souls) striving for martyrdom with fear of death. However, at the same time he said that killing civilians was inadmissible and also said that "there is no rule in Islam saying that the ends justify the means."

When the group was being formed, they claimed it would "defend freedom and dignity." Together with other Islamist groups operating in Syria, Suqour al-Sham fought to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's "impious" regime and to build a just state based on the Sharia law. At the time, the Falcons' leaders claimed that the Islamic state would not be imposed on the society, it would become its voluntary choice.

As time passed, the leaders' views, primarily the views of Abu Issa, evolved toward greater radicalism. On Twitter, Abu Issa publicly disowned his earlier "errors" and asked Allah for forgiveness. As a result, when the Falcons merged with Ahrar al-Sham, they were believed to be a consistently Salafi group.


In summer 2012, Abu Issa said in an interview that the weapons his group had were trophies captured in fights with the Syrian government army. Besides, he claims that sometimes, the corrupt Syrian military sell weapons to the rebels, "not because they love the revolution but because they love money."

Like other groups which are parts of the Islamic Front, Suqour al-Sham enjoyed financial support coming from abroad, supposedly via Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Enemies and allies

At its initial stages, the group positioned itself as part of the FSA and acknowledged the leading role of the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the body that represented all the rebels. At the same time, it did not recognize the SNC as a body with the right to command. As the group evolved toward Salafi Islamism, its leaders stopped associating themselves with the FSA and the SNC.

Like other Islamic Front groups, Suqour al-Sham fought against Bashar al-Assad's army, cooperating simultaneously with the secular factions which associated themselves with the FSA, and with al-Qaeda-related Jabhat al-Nusra. At the same time, like other "strictly Syrian" Islamists, the Falcons fought against IS and sharply condemned the approach of al-Baghdadi's followers to building a Sharia country. For instance, in 2014, in an interview to al-Quds al-Arabi, Abu Issa accused Islamic State of the treacherous murder of the warlord Mohammed al-Diq (Abu Hussein) and claimed that the Falcons would fight IS.

Stance on Syrian ceasefire

Since the group no longer exists as an independent organization, see Ahrar al-Sham's position.
Oleg Egorov
David Narmania
Ruslan Mamedov
Project produced by: Daria Khaspekova, Alexander Teslya, Maria Gurova, Irina Sorokina, Maria Smekalova, Dmitry Puminov

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