Originally published at Gatestone Institute.
Al Qaeda is quickly constructing its main regional Middle East base in Syria, from where it plans to export terrorism and Islamic radicalism to neighboring states, then to the West, a new report released by an Israeli security research institute warned.
The jihadis later aspire, according to the report, to turn “Greater Syria” — an old geographic term encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories — into an Islamic caliphate.
The exhaustive study took a year to compile, according to researchers at the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which released it.
The Center itself is a part of the Israeli Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center, founded in the 1980s by leading members of the Israeli intelligence community.
The report identified the Al Nusra Front as Al Qaeda’s official arm in Syria; they added that the organization is quickly entrenching itself in the north and east of Syria, where the Assad regime’s rule has collapsed.
According to Dr. Reuven Erlich, the head of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the Al Nusra Front is entrenching itself in Syria at a rate several times faster than the time it took Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to become a serious international terrorist presence.
Erlich, who served in several posts in IDF Military Intelligence, also cautioned that Syria’s location in the heart of the Middle East, its proximity to Europe, and its border with Israel mean that geopolitically, the jihadi threat from Syria is more central than the one from Afghanistan or Pakistan.
He compared Al Nusra’s activities in Syria today to the incubation period of a virus, before it begins spreading and infecting other hosts. Later, Erlich warned, the plague of jihad will spread outwards from Syria to the region, then go on to threaten global security.
The researchers who composed the report assessed the chances of Al Nusra realizing its goal of building a caliphate as low, due to Syria’s diverse sectarian, ethnic, and religious population, and strong tradition of secular Arab nationalism.
Nevertheless, they said, the group is on course to become one of the most prominent rebel entities, and will play a key role in shaping a post-Assad Syria, while using its growing presence as a springboard to launch international terrorist attacks.
At the moment, Al Nusra’s most urgent goal is toppling President Assad; its members are therefore not yet focusing on enforcing Shari’a law in Syria. They show a pragmatic willingness to work with other rebel organizations, including the main Free Syrian Army. But once the Assad regime falls, a violent campaign by jihadis might begin to cement their control over any new government formed by rebels in Damascus.
A second jihadi organization operates in Syria, the researchers said, called the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, formed by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, though Al Nusra is the only one to have received official recognition by Al Qaeda’s central leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in June this year.
“The two branches together have an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 operatives in our assessment, and the number is growing,” the report stated.
Erlich said the influence of the group is out of proportion to its numbers, due its operational capabilities and influence on the population.
The Al Nusra Front is led Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who possibly hails from the Syrian Golan, and rules over a network of fighters and local subordinates in Syria’s districts.
He is a veteran of jihadist battles against US forces in Iraq, and a former follower of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who set up Al Qaeda in Iraq in the previous decade.
Rank and file members of the group are a mix of Syrians and foreign volunteers from the Arab and Muslim world, the report said, adding that foreign volunteers number in the thousands. Additionally, between 500 and 600 European Muslim volunteers are in the organization, mainly hailing from the UK and France. They are expected, after returning from the battlefields, to spread jihad in their home countries, the report said.
The Al Nusra Front’s most senior body is called the Consulting Council of Jihad Fighters. Its leadership is made up of staff dealing with military operations, fundraising, weapons acquisitions and smuggling, religious affairs and public relations. Fighting units are usually called battalions or companies.
The report mapped out the Al Nusra Front’s presence in Syria, noting that it was strongest in the north and east, where the Assad regime has collapsed. In these areas, called “liberated zones” by the jihadis, Al Nusra and affiliated groups provide public services, maintain health, legal, and policing systems, and distribute food, clothing and blankets.
In some places, residents have complained about a strict code of Shari’a-based conduct being enforced.
According to the report, the group is weakest on the Mediterranean coast, where the minority Alawite population — of which the ruling Assad regime is mostly composed — is located.
Most of Al Nusra’s attacks are focused on greater Damascus and on northern and eastern Syria, in places such as Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deir al-Zor. Its actions are guerrilla-terrorist campaigns against the regime’s bases, facilities and individuals.
Tactics include suicide car bombings, roadside bombs, suicide bombers on foot, and firing on bases and airfields with light arms and mortars. Security checkpoints are a frequent target.
“Suicide bombings are a signature brand” of Al Nusra and are operationally effective, but have resulted in negative public relations among other Syrian rebels, said the report.
The Al Nusra Front plans to attack Israel from the Syrian Golan, according to an assessment that appeared in the report. It “can be expected to establish an operative terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights, a continuation of military infrastructure it is currently constructing in Deraa,” the southwestern city where the anti-Assad uprising began in 2011.
“In our assessment, Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist organizations may integrate themselves into terrorist attacks from the Golan Heights despite the fundamental ideological differences between them,” it added.
Al Nusra can also be expected to link up with fellow jihadis who follow Al Qaeda’s ideology in neighboring Lebanon, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip.
Pro-Western Arab states are on the target list too, the report said, adding that Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, all of which support the rebels, might be targeted by Al Nusra in the form of subversive, radical Islamists entering them and setting up terrorist cells.
In northern Syria, Al Nusra and its allies have seized key national resources such as oil and gas fields, oil pipelines, dams, power plants and grain silos.
These sites are now operated by jihadis, who sometimes sell oil and gas to the Assad regime for profit, enabling the organization to pay its operatives a monthly salary, purchase more weapons, and run assistance programs in “liberated areas.”
As Al Nusra fighters raid Syrian weapons depots, the fear remains, the report stated, that “in the absence of the considerations of restraint that influence other terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist organizations,” they could obtain chemical and biological weapons, and use them in terrorist attacks.