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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jabhat al-Nusra: the evolution of Al-Qaeda and the need for conventional warfare.

Link: Tension between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria.

We have always expressed the opinion that Al-Qaeda and its representative groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), were really not that far removed from motivations and intentions of the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS).  In fact, we have always been surprised and a bit frustrated at the mainstream media's obsession with separating each and every Sunni-based Jihadi group.  No doubt Al-Qaeda and ISIS have done everything they can to perpetuate this idea that these groups work exclusively of each other.  This impression encourages the idea that Sunni-based jihadism is much more entrenched in the Sunni community than it really is.  We have argued that because of their mutual goals, orientation and teachings, that it was virtually impossible for ISIS and JN to be working against each other.  In the last six months, both ISIS and JN have enjoyed tremendous success on the battlefields of Syria, as the regime forces have to defend from almost daily attacks, sometimes from different directions.  Although we have gone to some lengths to illustrate the common ideology and genesis of ISIS and Al-Qaeda/JN, we have never discounted the probability that the groups would have disagreements that might lead to actual violence.  But we continue to strongly believe that any such conflicts would be temporary (and have actually proven to be so).

An interesting trend that we have noted previously is becoming more visible on the battlefields of Syria.  We have discussed in some depth the efforts of ISIS to create an effective conventional military, complete with departments, promotions and letters from home.  We opined that the numerous former Ba'ath Party members who had found a home in ISIS, were useful to the group because of the organizational and planning experience and skills that they possessed.  For a short time it was popular to consider the idea that the Iraqi Ba'ath Party had some level of influence within ISIS, when actually the opposite is true.  These former bureaucrats and armchair Generals of the Saddam regime are survivors, and ISIS just happened to be in the hiring business.  Believe me, it has nothing to do with ideology.

But the need for ISIS to recruit individuals with certain skills outside of bomb-making and decapitation is obvious.  ISIS has created the first conventional terrorist army, and to keep that army supplied and effective, a support mechanism must exist.  Their effort is evolving, and they have met with some difficulties, but their success can't be denied.  We have previously explained the justification for the Islamic extremist cause to pursue a conventional army.  In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United State Armed Forces proved time and again, that small groups if ill-prepared and inconsistently equipped tribesmen can't defeat a well-trained and well-equipped army and air force (Vietnam was a diplomatic failure but a military success; the American people lost the stomach for daily casualties highlighted by politically-driven new coverage).  In 2009, with the apparent successes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the decision was made to support the creation of a conventional fighting force loyal to Al-Qaeda, and Syria provided the ideal nursery.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq had relocated from Iraq to Syria (or should I say they had been "booted out"), so the platform was in place.  Fighters were recruited, many from Africa and the West, and equipment was either purchased or purloined from the Syrians.  The group changed its name, probably as a purposeful effort to separate itself from Al-Qaeda and strengthen the suggestion that the region was full of Sunni-based extremist military groups.  The head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, did move the group away from Al-Qaeda to a certain extent, a move which no doubt infuriated Ayman al-Zawahiri, hold up back in Pakistan somewhere (probably at the Pakistani Intel Service main headquarters), and the link indicates that the two groups are not necessarily coordinating their operations or sharing their battle plans.  This mild declaration of independence by ISIS, forgive the phrase, is the reason JN has become so successful on the battlefield.

Al-Qaeda was the original genesis of the idea to create a conventional military capability to pursue the goals of international Sunni Jihad.  When ISIS began showing  bit of free will, JN, which was in direct contact with the Al-Qaeda leadership and much more representative of the group's most recent persona, began to follow the same plan which proved so successful to ISIS.  JN, although on a much smaller scale, started to morph into a conventional military force.  In the past, Al-Qaeda has relied on its small size to stay mobile, hidden, and able to strike targets and disappear.  JN created a supply mechanism, mostly utilizing its popularity with the local population, that kept its fighters fed and well-equipped.  Personnel were selected for various jobs according to background and training, and formalized planning became an integral part of every operation.  Communications were strengthened, liaison to the local community were chosen by ethnic background and language skills, and as more fighter arrived on the scene, the variety of military hardware increased.  Is it no surprise that JN has been just as successful on the Syrian battlefield lately, if not more, than ISIS.  The one life-line that both ISIS and JN rely on seems to be flowing stronger than ever: the financial support from the gulf states.  This support is not necessarily directly from the coffers of the various Emirates and Sheikdoms (some is), but it is coming from millionaire and billionaire families with loyalties to the extremist cause.  The financial support has increased as of late as Iran and the despised Shi'a stretch their legs in Yemen and Iraq.  No doubt some of these fanatics are expecting to re-fight the Battle of Karbala.

As things stand now, ISIS is a much more entrenched and evolved military machine.  In size and in capabilities, JN can't hold a candle to the Islamic State forces.  But everyday JN grows stronger, and JN has proven to be much more popular with the local communities than ISIS (probably has something to do with the burning of that young Jordanian pilot; families from the Hashemites in Jordan and the rural communities of Syria have a history of good relations).  With JN and ISIS both trying to outdo each other in capturing former regime towns, and the Sunni and Shi'a threatening to start an Islamic Civil War in Yemen and Iraq, the West has a bit of breathing room.  But once JN and ISIS merge, and they will, and the Iranians pull back behind the walls of secrecy they value so much, we will be faced with a tremendous foe.    

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