Al Qaeda in Yemen using chaos of war to carve out terrorism haven

The Los Angeles Times reports: A brazen territorial grab by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen — together with a $1-million bank heist, a prison break and capture of a military base — has given the terrorist group fundraising and recruitment tools that suggest it is following the brutal path blazed by Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was long forced into the shadows by U.S. drone strikes and commando raids, has taken advantage of the growing chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war to carve out a potential haven that counter-terrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks.

After seizing a regional airport and a coastal oil terminal this week, Al Qaeda militants consolidated their gains Friday in Mukalla, an Arabian Sea port. Fighters stormed a weapons depot and seized armored vehicles and rockets after apparently forging a truce with local tribes and forcing government troops to flee. [Continue reading…]


Al-Qaeda seizes airport in eastern Yemen

The Washington Post: Al-Qaeda has seized an airport in eastern Yemen, an intelligence official confirmed Thursday, signaling that the extremist group is exploiting the chaos caused by the Saudi-led attacks in the country.

Fighters from the Yemeni branch of the militant group, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on Tuesday seized the Riyan Airport in the city of Mukalla, said the Yemeni intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The group was already in control of areas around the airfield, including the nearby city of Mukalla, which is the capital of Yemen’s Hadhramaut Province. According to the intelligence official, the militants faced no resistance when taking the airport, suggesting that AQAP receives significant support in the area.


In Yemen chaos, al Qaeda may be the biggest winners

Harriet Salem and Sama’a al Hamdani report: Standing beneath an ornate chandelier, Khaled Batarfi, a high-ranking member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), poses for a snapshot in the governor’s palatial residence in the port city of al Mukalla. Trampling on the Yemeni national flag, the bespectacled jihadi raises his index finger in salute as he grins at the cameraman.

Batarfi has plenty to smile about. As Yemen descends into a full-scale war between Shia Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabia-backed forces of its president-in-exile, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, dormant AQAP factions — backed by a handful of Sunni tribes — have surged out of their heartlands into towns and cities across the country’s central and southern provinces.

Last week, in a lightning offensive, fighters from the group stormed al Mukalla, capital of the oil-rich Hadhramaut province. Entering in the dead of night by morning they had taken over government buildings, emptied the city’s bank vaults of the equivalent of $80 million, and freed 300 prisoners, including Batarfi and several other high-ranking members of AQAP, from the local jail.

But for the power hungry group, the snatch of al Mukalla is just the tip of the iceberg. The lawlessness that followed the revolution of 2011, coupled with the recent outbreak of war, has enabled AQAP to secure a stronghold in at least seven governorates: ‘Ibb, Al-Jawf, Ma’rib, Hadhramout, Lahj, Abyan, and Shabwah. [Continue reading…]


Come out and live, Shabab told Kenya students — and then killed them

The New York Times reports: Elosy Karimi curled up in a crawl space, immobilized by fear.

Her classmates were flooding out of the dorms, in boxer shorts and thin nightgowns. Gunfire was ringing all around her. People were screaming. It was predawn and pitch black.

“If you want to survive, come out!” the militants yelled. “If you want to die, stay inside!”

In the terrifying confusion, Ms. Karimi, 23, decided to risk it inside, she said, and stayed hidden in the ceiling above her bunk bed for the next 28 and a half hours.

“I knew those guys were lying,” she said at the hospital, having just arrived to be checked after the ordeal.

New details emerged on Friday about how a handful of fighters from the Shabab militant group, with just a few light weapons, managed to kill nearly 150 students in Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi.

Survivors said many students had fallen for the militants’ trick, voluntarily leaving their dorm rooms and obeying commands to lie down in neat rows, only to be shot in the back of the head. [Continue reading…]


Kenya attack: al-Shabaab’s violent radicalism can’t be tackled by force alone

By Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham

The terrorist group al-Shabaab has claimed an attack on Garissa University College in eastern Kenya, in which an unclear number have been killed and many others taken hostage.

The attack is another step in the ongoing escalation of the terrorist group’s activities, and a clear indicator that the security situation in East Africa is deteriorating fast.

Somalia-based al-Shabaab has been behind a string of recent attacks in Kenya, the most well-known of them being the massacre at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi in 2013.

Cross-border raids into Kenya by the group, however, date back to 2011. Al-Shabaab incursions triggered a military response by the government in Nairobi, which sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union mission in support of Somalia’s internationally recognised government that had been under pressure from al-Shabaab and other militants for several years.

Al-Shabaab is predominantly driven by the same radical interpretation of the Koran as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, but also employs more opportunistic approaches to shoring up local support. Its origins lie in Al-Ittihad al-Islami (Unity of Islam), one of several militant factions that emerged in the wake of the fall of Siad Barre in 1991. These disparate groups fought each other and a UN peacekeeping mission in the Somali civil war that led to the complete collapse of the country, from which it has yet to recover almost quarter of a century later.

An evolving threat

Al-Shabaab (literally “the Youth”) split from Unity of Islam in 2003 and merged with another radical Islamist group, the so-called Islamic Courts Union. As their alliance obtained control of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in 2006, Ethiopia, the only majority Christian country in the region, took military action against the group. The offensive weakened al-Shabaab and pushed it back into the rural areas of central and southern Somalia, but it failed to defeat it.

To the contrary, Ethiopia’s invasion and occupation of parts of Somalia – although invited by the Somali government and backed by the African Union – enabled al-Shabaab to partially re-invent itself as both an Islamist and nationalist force opposing a foreign “Christian” invasion.

Initially, the group primarily attacked Ethiopian forces, but soon began to “expand” its activities against the Somali government as well. The first attack outside Somalia was in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 2010. Soon after this, cross-border raids in Kenya began, predominantly targeting Christians.

Aftermath of an al-Shabaab suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia in December 2014
EPA/Said Yusuf Warsame

Increasing its links with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab declared its full allegiance in 2012 – and it is not clear whether it will switch allegiances to Islamic State. Much will depend on how the relationships between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a long-time ally of al-Shabaab based in Yemen, and Islamic State develop.

[Read more…]


To beat the terrorists Kenya must break free of Western thinking

Mwenda Kailemia writes: On Wednesday night, life was normal for the close to 800 students of a university college in the remote part of Kenya’s north east, which borders Somalia. And then, at dawn on Thursday, all hell broke lose: Masked gunmen stormed the fortified campus dormitories shooting indiscriminately at the fleeing students before taking several hundred hostages. The dawn-to-dusk siege ended when the four gunmen detonated their suicide vests, with a fifth arrested. The attack left at least 147 people dead, mostly students, with survivors afterward recounting how the militants singled out and executed Christians.

It is the deadliest attack yet by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated Somali militant group, which declared war on Kenya after the country sent its troops into Somalia in 2011. In a similar attack in 2013, armed gunmen stormed the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, selectively killing Christians and taking many people hostage. By the time the guns fell silent three days later close to 70 people had been killed.

The attacks have raised fundamental questions about Kenya’s security strategy. Recent commentary has emphasised the toxic mix of corruption and the structural alienation of Kenya’s Muslim population. Immigration and police officials, it is argued, can be bought by the highest bidder. Recently there have been widely publicised accounts of how foreigners have managed to acquire Kenyan passports within a few weeks of sneaking into the country. This corruption has played into the hands of both al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a secessionist outfit in the country’s coastal regions, with both capitalising on popular disenchantment of the Kenyan Muslim minority for their recruitment.

Following yesterday’s attacks, it took security services several hours to arrive at the site of the siege because of bad roads in the area. Neglect by successive administrations has ensured that Garissa, like most of Kenya’s north east, is part of Kenya by name only: before this week’s attack, the local leadership had given the government an ultimatum: either ensure security or allow locals to take up arms to defend themselves from threats that range from al-Shabaab attacks to cattle rustling and inter-clan warfare. Thus, while the story of Kenya’s struggle with terrorism has been dominated by images of urban sieges, the untold story – until yesterday anyway– was the insecurity and neglect that the people of north eastern Kenya have had to endure for decades. The country may have won international acclaim for major investments in infrastructure, but it is not lost on locals that the whole region bordering Somalia has less than 100 miles of tarmacked roads. [Continue reading…]


Al-Qaeda said to be in full control of Yemen’s fifth largest city


Al-Qaeda’s freedom grows in Yemen following Saudi attacks

From the vantage point of Washington, a view consistent for many years has been that the danger posed by failed states is that they become havens for extremism.

U.S. governments apparently have little interest in the welfare of the populations in such states (unless images of starving children inconveniently appear in the media). The overriding concern for the U.S. is the potential for al Qaeda or its likes to take advantage of these kinds of environment.

A few days ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made a surprising claim about the implications of Yemen falling apart. Supposedly, this will have little impact on U.S. counter-terrorism efforts:

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists.”

Hundreds of al Qaeda prisoners have just been freed from a prison in al-Mukalla. Is the White House now going to argue that this represents a setback for al Qaeda with its operatives having lost the relative safety of their prison cells?

Gregory D. Johnsen reports: Around 1 a.m. on Thursday, masked gunmen armed with RPGs, hand grenades, and assault rifles stormed a central security prison in eastern Yemen, freeing more than 300 prisoners, including a top al-Qaeda commander.

Pictures posted to social media, apparently pulled from CCTV footage near the prison, show a pick-up truck full of heavily armed men near the prison. Other photos capture a large explosion punching through the dark sky and, in another, an open gate with a few figures walking away.

The prison break in al-Mukalla – one of the largest cities in Yemen and 300 miles east of fighting in Aden – freed Khalid Ba Tarfi, an AQAP regional commander who was captured in 2011, along with hundreds of others. In recent years, Yemen’s prisons have become de facto jihadi academies as more hardened veterans have been dumped into communal cells with younger more impressionable prisoners.

The incident underscores the degree to which the country’s security forces have collapsed amid months of political chaos and the recent barrage of a Saudi-led bombing campaign.

“Things have completely spiraled out of control in the south,” one Yemeni government official told BuzzFeed News. “There’s been a total collapse.”

One of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of more than a week of Saudi airstrikes is the growing freedom al-Qaeda has to operate in the country. [Continue reading…]


Iraq and Syria are ‘finishing schools’ for foreign extremists, says UN report

The Associated Press reports: Iraq and Syria have become “international finishing schools” for extremists according to a UN report which says the number of foreign fighters joining terrorist groups has spiked to more than 25,000 from more than 100 countries.

The panel of experts monitoring UN sanctions against al-Qaida estimates the number of overseas terrorist fighters worldwide increased by 71% between mid-2014 and March 2015.

It said the scale of the problem had increased over the past three years and the flow of foreign fighters was “higher than it has ever been historically”.

The overall number of foreign terrorist fighters has “risen sharply from a few thousand … a decade ago to more than 25,000 today,” the panel said in its report to the UN security council, which was obtained by Associated Press.

The report said just two countries had drawn more than 20,000 foreign fighters: Syria and Iraq. They went to fight primarily for the Islamic State group but also the al-Nusra Front.

Looking ahead, the panel said the thousands of foreign fighters who travelled to Syria and Iraq were living and working in “a veritable ‘international finishing school’ for extremists”, as was the case in Afghanistan in the 1990s. [Continue reading…]


Al Qaeda in Syria signals sharia law for Idlib

Reuters: The al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front indicated on Wednesday that a Syrian city captured from the government in recent days would be ruled according to Islamic sharia law but the group would not seek to monopolize power there.

Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, also said residents of the northwestern city of Idlib would be treated well by his fighters and other Islamist factions that captured it on Saturday.

“We salute the people of Idlib and their stand with their sons, the Mujahideen, … and God willing they will enjoy the justice of sharia, which will preserve their religion and their blood,” Golani said in an audio recording posted on Nusra Front-affiliated online media.


Syrian rebels capture Idlib

Aron Lund writes: the apparent collapse of government defenses in Idlib has punched a gaping hole in the government’s narrative of approaching victory and boosted the opposition politically as well as militarily, spelling trouble for Bashar al-Assad.

Out of thirteen provincial capitals, Idlib is only the second to be lost to the government, after the northeastern town of Raqqa was captured in early 2013. And like Raqqa, Idlib is a regional center rather than a major city – it would not fit on a top-five list over Syria’s most important cities. But the blow is heavy nonetheless.

The government remains much stronger than any rebel group on the national level, controlling perhaps two thirds of the population. Assad’s semi-cohesive central leadership and his control of a fully functional air force makes him Syria’s by far most powerful political actor, but his regime suffers from serious shortcomings nonetheless. It lacks enough reliable troops to conduct multiple offensives while also controlling its current territory and has been forced to farm out sensitive security tasks to local militias and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist foreign fighters.

Meanwhile, the state-run economy is withering, with a currency crisis and increasingly debilitating lapses in the fuel supply system and electricity production. The falling oil price is likely to cap Russian and Iranian support at levels too low to sustain the current ambitions of their Syrian ally. In short, it seems that Assad is still trying to bite off more of Syria than he can swallow, and the recent defeat in Idlib underlines how dangerously overstretched his regime has become. [Continue reading…]


The Nusra Front’s game-changing rise in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebels captured the key northern city of Idlib from government forces on Saturday in what amounts to the most significant defeat for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in two years.

The rebel force, led by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, surged into the city center overnight Saturday and by day’s end had ousted government forces almost entirely.

The loss for the government came amid a number of recent indications that the Assad regime is struggling to maintain the momentum it won on the battlefield last year, including the failure of two recent offensives that fizzled in the north and the south of the country. [Continue reading…]

Lina Khatib writes: The Nusra Front’s ability to deliver results is largely driven by its pragmatism. The group has been collaborating with a wide variety of local forces that are not pushed to fight under its umbrella. Instead, they fight with Nusra as allies — a radical departure from the Islamic State’s model, which does not tolerate collaboration unless absolutely necessary.

This approach has enabled the Nusra Front to widen its network of support quickly, including the addition of some Free Syrian Army brigades in Aleppo, Hama, and Daraa. Crucially, Nusra engages in friendly competition with Ahrar al-Sham, which has recently become the largest group under the Islamic Front umbrella following its merger with another Islamic Front faction, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades. This development has made Ahrar al-Sham almost as large as the Nusra Front, and the alliance between the two could become an important factor in the Syrian conflict.

Nusra also learned from the mistakes of both the regime and the Free Syrian Army. In northern Syria, people saw the corruption of the regime replaced with that of brigades fighting under the banner of the FSA, such as the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, which imposed inconsistent taxes on the population, established checkpoints at which its members regularly seized people’s property, and controlled food supplies.

Nusra used the anticorruption framework to win hearts and minds. People quickly began to see FSA checkpoints replaced with Nusra checkpoints that “did not demand anything in return for protecting us,” as one Nusra supporter said in an interview. The Nusra Front also used the fight against corruption to justify its attacks on uncooperative FSA brigades. Nusra’s assault on the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front in late 2014 won wide popular support, despite the fact that the main aim of the attack was actually to eliminate one of Nusra’s key military rivals.

The Nusra Front also noticed that FSA leaders in the north who had become warlords abandoned the front lines, and Nusra ensured that its leaders remained in the field. This presence underscored the idea that the Nusra Front was providing protection — military as well as social — and vastly increased its acceptance among ordinary Syrians.

While not everyone likes Nusra’s ideology, there is a growing sense in the north of Syria that it is the best alternative on the ground — and that ideology is a small price to pay for higher returns. “The one who defends me has the right to impose whatever law they see fit,” one sympathizer told me.

The international coalition’s airstrikes that began in September 2014 took Nusra by surprise, but they further increased the group’s popularity. Many Syrians felt disappointed that the West did not act against the Assad regime, but instead attacked an entity that was fighting the regime. Many rallied around Nusra, providing local support and contributing to its intelligence-gathering capabilities. This allowed Nusra to increase the areas under its control not through territorial gains or the provision of services — methods the Islamic State uses to extend its reach — but through expanded local networks and influence. [Continue reading…]

Rebels in Idlib destroying a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad


Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]


White House still claims Yemen is a counter-terrorism success story

McClatchy: Yemen’s president is reportedly on the run amid rebel advances, but the White House insisted Wednesday that the country continues to be a model for its counter terrorism initiatives and that the U.S. continues to have extremists there “in the cross hairs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he could not confirm the whereabouts of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – “I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader,” – but said the country remains a template for thwarting terrorism.

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists. Because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.”


Nusra Front quietly rises in Syria as ISIS is targeted

The Associated Press reports: The Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, is consolidating power in territory stretching from the Turkish border to central and southern Syria, crushing moderate opponents and forcibly converting minorities using tactics akin to its ultraconservative rival, the Islamic State group.

But while the Islamic State group gets most of the attention largely because its penchant for gruesome propaganda, the Nusra Front quietly has become one of the key players in the four-year civil war, compromising other rebel groups the West may try to work with while increasingly enforcing its own brutal version of Islamic law.

Its scope of influence now abuts the Golan Heights bordering Israel, and its membership largely composed of Syrian nationals refuse any negotiations with the government of embattled President Bashar Assad, further complicating the brutal conflict.

“The Nusra Front will most likely outlast ISIS in Syria, and will represent a severe and existential threat to the aspirations of the Syrian people in terms of a pluralistic, democratic society,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, using an alternate acronym for the extremist group. [Continue reading…]


Yemen, long on the brink of catastrophe, may have tipped over the edge

The Wall Street Journal reports: The militant group that controls Yemen’s capital moved to extend its power southward with an attack on a major city, deepening chaos that has given terror groups greater room to proliferate and forced the U.S. to suspend military operations inside the country.

American officials now see Yemen teetering on the brink of a civil war involving the besieged president, a former president and a patchwork of militant groups. The leader of the Houthi militant group behind the southern offensive and a United Nations envoy both warned that Yemen is in imminent danger of becoming another Iraq, Syria or Libya — a conflict fueled by sectarian violence and warring terrorist networks.

The U.S. withdrew its remaining 100 military personnel from a base in southern Yemen over the weekend, American officials said on Sunday. Special Operations Forces had to halt, at least temporarily, the training of Yemeni troops and cooperation in operations against one of the world’s most dangerous al Qaeda offshoots. The U.S. had already closed its embassy in the capital San’a last month. [Continue reading…]

Brian Whitaker writes: Yemen has often been portrayed as a country on the brink of catastrophe. Equally often, it has defied expectations and muddled through – if only just. But the suicide attacks on two mosques that left at least 142 people dead in Sana’a last Friday are one sign, among many, that it has finally tipped over the edge.

The UN is warning helplessly about a rapid downward spiral and calling for a resumption of efforts towards a political settlement, but the prospects of that happening are virtually nil and the scene is set for a protracted civil war with multiple protagonists.

Inside Yemen, the lineup of forces is complicated. One key player is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from the presidency in 2012 after 34 years in power and has been causing trouble ever since.

Saleh appears to be colluding with the Houthis, whom he previously fought in a series of wars in the far north of the country. His alliance with the Houthis is seen by many as a tactical move aimed at eventually installing his son, Ahmad, as president. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports from Aden: This port city, perched on an extinct volcano protruding into the Arabian Sea on Yemen’s far southern edge, has become perhaps the last refuge of the country’s embattled president, and it feels like now all his enemies are bearing down on it.

Driven out of the capital, Sanaa, by Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the north, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the remains of his government have made Aden their provisional capital. If they lose here, Hadi – the man the U.S. had hoped would stabilize the chaotic nation and fight al-Qaida’s powerful branch – likely will fall, plunging Yemen into a civil war.

In his first speech since fleeing Sanaa, Hadi on Saturday denounced the rebel takeover as “a coup against constitutional legitimacy” and declared Aden the country’s “temporary capital.” [Continue reading…]


Yemeni implosion pushes southern Sunnis into arms of al Qaida and ISIS

The intrepid, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reports: In a hollow in the sands of eastern Yemen, a line of pickup trucks carrying tribal fighters idled. A squat man with a shock of black hair, dressed in an overflowing dusty dishdasha, walked around slowly, inspecting the men and the vehicles, loaded with heavy machine guns and light artillery.

“The Houthis are behind that hill,” he shouted, pointing at a rocky outcrop sheltering the imaginary foe – northern Yemenis who overthrew the government last autumn, and seized the country’s third largest city on Sunday, according to security and military officials. “We will start by shelling their positions, and then you will storm the hill by cars and finally climb the hill on foot.”

His men call him the Biss – the Cat. After a rather desultory attempt to overrun the supposed adversary, they discovered that he had claws. “If the Houthis were actually there, they could have ended you all with one shell,” the Cat spat.

It’s a forlorn landscape, but one that contains compelling clues as to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, and the new faultlines.

In Yemen there is little history of sectarian strife. The two main sects, Shia Zaidi and Sunni Shafi, have traditionally been seen as moderate with minimal differences.

But this changed when the Houthis, followers of an obscure Shia tradition who are accused of serving Iranian interests in Yemen, stormed the capital, Sana’a, in September, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the southern port city of Aden.

Their advance had a galvanising effect in the country’s Sunni-dominated south, where al-Qaida is particularly strong and the jihadis of Islamic State are just starting to secure a toehold. [Continue reading…]


Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance al Qaeda? Will it last?

Charles Lister writes: On March 22, the Syrian insurgency witnessed the latest in a series of mergers, when the Islamist Suqor al-Sham faction effectively subsumed itself into one of the country’s most powerful organizations, Ahrar al-Sham. Both groups had been amongst the very first armed groups to form in Syria in mid-2011 and although Suqor al-Sham has reduced in size over the past 12-months, both have consistently been amongst the most consequential actors in the fight against the Assad regime. Following the union, Ahrar al-Sham now finds itself in command of approximately 15,000 fighters across Syria, with active operations in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates.

This merger was only the latest sign that Ahrar al-Sham has begun re-asserting its preeminent position within the broader Syrian insurgency. Although its membership had not necessarily declined throughout 2014, the year had been a challenging one due in part to a serious cut back in funding and support from Qatar and Turkey and also to the group’s key role in fighting against the Islamic State (IS), alongside its military ally Jabhat al-Nusra — Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

Now finding themselves involved in the fifth year of a brutal civil conflict that has left at least 220,000 people dead, displaced 10 million others inside and outside the country, and trapped over 640,000 under military siege, the strategic thinking within the Syrian insurgency is subtly shifting. Since October and November 2014, the leaderships of countless Syrian insurgent groups — encompassing ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainstream Islamists and hardline Syrian Salafists — have been expressing private concern in person to this author regarding the worrying evolution of their long-time ally Jabhat al-Nusra. Back in November 2014, an Ahrar al-Sham leader described the group as leading the revolution “down the wrong path,” while a moderate Islamist from Aleppo exclaimed that “Nusra no longer wants what we want — Al-Qaeda is taking over.”

Despite inaccurate reports that the latest merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham represented a hardening of the group’s ideological stance, the unity initiative has instead been described to this author by several Syrian Islamist officials as a conscious attempt to balance Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing power, particularly in the northwest governorate of Idlib. [Continue reading…]