Reuters reports: The identity of al-Nusra’s leadership is not clear. A shadowy figure known as Abu Muhammad al-Golani – whose nationality is not known – has been named by some as the head.
But an Islamist opposition campaigner who toured northern and central Syria a few days ago and met Nusra commanders said the group operates more like an umbrella organisation with little coordination between units in different regions.
“They are not a monolithic group. The nature of Nusra in Damascus is more tolerant than Idlib. They have a real popular base in Idlib, where most Nusra members are Syrians, as opposed to Aleppo and Damascus.”
He said it did not appear to be seeking to impose Taliban-style control. “Many rebels I have met say they joined al-Nusra because the group has weapons, mostly seized from raids, and that they will go back home after the revolt,” he added.
But many centrist opposition campaigners fear that al-Nusra will turn its guns on any non-Islamist order that could come if Assad was deposed. “The big question is how to contain Nusra in a post-Assad Syria,” said an opposition figure linked to jihadist groups, who did not want to be identified.
“Al-Nusra is the type of group that could declare the most pious cleric a heretic and kill him in the middle of a mosque just because he does not share its view,” he said.
Nusra members are estimated to number in the thousands and are particularly strong in the northern region of Aleppo and Idlib, where they have joined or carried out joint operations with Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid unit.
In and around Damascus they are fewer in number but remain potent, and are only 20 kilometers (12 miles) at some points from the Golan Heights front with Israel.
Abu Munther, an engineer turned rebel who operates on the southern edge of Damascus and goes to Jordan to meet other rebels, said in Amman that al-Nusra numbered hundreds of people in Damascus, as opposed to thousands in the north.
But those numbers could grow. Al-Mujahideen brigade in the southern Tadamun neighborhood of Damascus declared its allegiance to al-Nusra after dissatisfaction with Arab-backed military groups headed by defector officers.
Another opposition figure, who did not want to be named, said international intelligence agencies were trying to curb Nusra’s influence in Damascus and the southern Hauran Plain, where they are near Israel and close to the Jordanian border.
“Western intelligence agencies are realising that the Nusra is the biggest threat in a post-Assad Syria and are devoting more resources to deal with the threat,” he said.
“For the first time al Qaeda is within striking distance of Israel,” he said. “Many are realising that the best that could be done for now is to contain them in north Syria – even if the area risks becoming an Islamist emirate of sorts – while trying to build a civic form of government in and around Damascus.”