Who's who in the Nusra Front?

Who's who in the Nusra Front?
Despite losing swathes of territory to the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate is still a force to be reckoned with.
7 min read
15 December, 2014
The Nusra Front have been targeted by US-led airstrikes [AFP]

The Nusra Front appeared with the militarisation of the Syrian revolution, as al-Qaeda took advantage of the appearance of jihadism in Syria to establish a branch in the country.

Jihadi militants thronged to Syria in coordination with al-Qaeda, under the direct supervision of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda. Nusra did not reveal its connections to the group formerly run by Osama bin Laden or to its Iraqi branch, to avoid tarnishing itself with the Iraqi branch's reputation and to avoid the attention of intelligence agencies - and also to facilitate cooperation with other armed groups in Syria.

Nusra's ideology has therefore been ambiguous since its inception, as the group followed two separate authorities with distinct programmes. The first was al-Qaeda, which adjusted its ideology after the Arab Spring to gain sympathisers and engage with local supporters; the second is that of the semi-autonomous Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, with its focus on sectarian identity.

Nusra's ideology has been ambiguous since its inception, as the group followed two authorities with distinct programmes.

The group's identity crisis was apparent in the video recording that announced its formation on 24 January 2012, even though it had been operational since July 2011.

"The Nusra Front for the People of Sham from the Mujahidin of Sham in the fields of jihad," the group declared itself.

It continued to use this lengthy name in its later statements in an attempt to attract jihadists from the countries of "Sham" (an colloquial term for the area of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine), and succeeded in doing so during the early stages of the group's formation.

However, Syrian jihadists with battlefield experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya outnumbered others in the group until it recruited more widely among Arab and foreign jihadists as its operational needs grew.

Nusra vs IS

Disagreements between Nusra and the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) increased as a result of the two groups' different approaches. Nusra became increasingly pragmatic, adapting to the local situation in Syria, while the IS became increasingly inflexible ideologically especially with regard to its Sunni identity.

When mediations failed to contain the disagreement, the head of the IS group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced Nusra and the then-Islamic State in Iraq would merge to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham on 9 April 2013.

Baghdadi's announcement revealed the extent of the rift between al-Qaeda and its Iraqi branch, which had been contained under Bin Laden's leadership.

On 10 April 2013, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of al-Nusra, rejected the merger and pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Nusra also changed its name to The Nusra Front: al-Qaeda in Sham. When reconciliation efforts between Baghdadi and Jawlani failed, the disagreements between their groups turned into armed conflict in February 2014, which resulted in the IS group taking control of Nusra's Deir ez-Zor stronghold in eastern Syria.

But by July, the IS group had taken control of eastern Syria, after Nusra's religious and military leader Abu Mariya al-Qahtani and his forces retreated towards Daraa in the south.

Daraa provided a more hospitable environment for Nusra and became the group's main base after its defeat in eastern Syria. This was due to the ideological and religious alignment between Nusra's influential Palestinian and Jordanian members and the local population in Daraa.

Some Nusra leaders are from Daraa, including as Iyad al-Toubasi aka Abu Jalbib, the group's emir in Daraa. Dr Sami al-Oraidi, Nusra's religious authority, who replaced Qahtani after his defeat in eastern Syria, and Mustafa Abd al-Latif aka Abu Anas al-Sahaba, a high ranking Nusra commander are also all from Daraa.

The same is true of Nusra in Qalamoun, where it is headed by local leader Abu Malik al-Shami.

Most of Nusra's leadership belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced branch of Salafism, which was established by the likes of Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Marwan Hadid and Abu Musab al-Suri. The IS group, on the other hand, follows Wahhabi Salafism.

Nusra is led by several veterans of the jihadi scene.

Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani
Jawlani's true identity is still unconfirmed. Iraqi intelligence sources believe his name is Adnan al-Hajj Ali, but Syrian intelligence sources say he is Osama al-Hadawi, from the town of Shahail, near Deir ez-Zor.

Jawlani is believed to be in his early forties, and was the original founder of Nusra. He joined al-Qaeda in Iraq during the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but was arrested by US forces and held at the US prison at Camp Bucca.

He resumed his jihadist activities after his release in 2008 under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and rose through the ranks of the IS group to become the head of operations in Mosul province. In August 2011, Jawlani moved to Syria with Baghdadi's support, and formed the Nusra Front.

Abu Humam al-Shami (aka al-Suri, the Syrian)

Nusra became increasingly pragmatic, adapting to the local situation in Syria, while the IS became increasingly inflexible.

Also known as Farouq al-Suri, Abu Humam was appointed as al-Nusra's general military commander.

He travelled to Afghanistan between 1998 and 1999 and was believed to be in the Ghuraba training camp, run by Abu Musab al-Suri, for a year. He later joined al-Qaeda's al-Farouq training camp before moving on to the airport camp for specialist training.

He pledged his allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and was placed in charge of Syrian jihadists in Afghanistan. He took part in al-Qaeda's battles at the time. Abu Humam was arrested and imprisoned in Lebanon for five years. After his release, he joined al-Qaeda in the Levant and become Nusra's military commander.

Abu Firas al-Suri

Real name Radwan Nammous, Abu Firas is al-Nusra's media spokesperson. He was born in 1950 in the Syrian town of Madaya, near Damascus. He joined the military academy and graduated with the rank of lieutenant but was discharged due to his Islamist leanings in 1979.

He was reportedly a military trainer in the Muslim Brotherhood's Fighting Vanguard group between 1977 and 1980, when he moved to Jordan, then to Afghanistan in 1981, where he trained Afghan and Arab volunteers.

In Afghanistan, he met Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden in 1983, and helped form the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. He later moved to Yemen in 2003, where he remained until he returned to Syria in 2013.

Sami Mahmoud al-Oraidi
Also known as Abu Mahmoud al-Shami, the Jordanian is al-Nusra's religious mufti and was considered the group's religious authority even before his official appointment to the position, in addition to being the group's ideologue.

Oraidi was born in Amman in 1973, and received his Bachelor degree in religious studies from the university of Jordan. In 1997 he received a Masters degree from the same university in hadith studies (hadiths are sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) and, in 2001, completed his PhD in the same subject.

He has written a number of books about the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and was appointed as the general religious authority for Nusra after the removal of Abu Mariya al-Qahtani on 30 July 2014.

Abu Mariya al-Qahtani

His real name is Maysara Ali bin Musa bin Abdullah al-Jabbouri, and he previously held the position of general religious authority and emir of the Eastern area. Qahtani studied at the university of Mosul and received a diploma in management. He also worked as a police officer for a short period.

However, he soon left his position and joined the jihadist movement in Iraq. In 2004, Qahtani was arrested and jailed for several years. After his release, he was appointed to the religious authority in Mosul by the IS group. He moved to the religious police of the IS, managing the group's relations with local Iraqi tribes. He was arrested again by the Iraqi authorities then released.

It is believed he received his religious training at the hands of "scholars" in prison including his mentor "al-Mayyahi". Qahtani moved from Mosul in Iraq to Syria at the end of 2011, and was one of Nusra's leaders sanctioned by the US treasury in December 2012.

He was Nusra's religious authority and military commander in eastern Syria, but was removed after losing the region to the IS group.