The Middle East Channel

New fears for Syria’s jihadists

Amid the considerable media frenzy regarding apparently imminent U.S.-led punitive strikes on Syrian military forces and facilities, one interesting party to this country’s conflict has been largely ignored: the jihadists. In recent days, a notable number of members of the online jihadist community — some involved directly and others indirectly in the conflict in Syria ...

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the considerable media frenzy regarding apparently imminent U.S.-led punitive strikes on Syrian military forces and facilities, one interesting party to this country’s conflict has been largely ignored: the jihadists. In recent days, a notable number of members of the online jihadist community — some involved directly and others indirectly in the conflict in Syria — have been somewhat fixated on a widespread fear that their leaders, personnel, and bases will also be the target of Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

While no Western officials have suggested any such eventuality is being considered, the extent of the discussion is telling. In the last one-and-a-half years, jihadists have established a concrete foothold in the heart of the Middle East. Jabhat al-Nusra maintains an operational presence in 11 of Syria’s 13 governorates and the roughly four-month old Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — an extension of al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) front group, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) — is catching up fast. This is not to mention at least 10 other decidedly jihadist groups operating on a more localized level across the country. Clearly, this remarkable expansion in jihadist territorial spread and influence is of long-term concern to the West, and it is for this reason that jihadists are so concerned. 

In a note entitled "Important Instructions… Before the US initiates its Mission," distributed via social media on August 27, senior Fatah al-Islam leader Abdullah Shaker (Abu Bakr) claimed: "For each and every missile that strikes a [Syrian] missile site, there will be another that targets the mujahideen’s positions," suggesting such strikes would aim to kill as many jihadist leaders as possible. Shaker went on to advise all jihadists to "change your positions, take shelter, and do not move in public," and underlined how previous experiences in Mali, Iraq, and Afghanistan had seen "the mujahideen destroyed in a very short time," as the necessary precautions were not undertaken. Shaker also advised against any attempts to deploy anti-aircraft weapons against U.S. "raids" as this would "practically be suicidal."

Similar notes of warning and advice have been distributed by known Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS members and sympathizers, including an anonymous "brother familiar with the American media." He suggested on August 25 that in addition to U.S.-led strikes targeting Syrian "radar systems, air defence systems, the chemical weapons industry, and stocks of Scud missiles," a second set of strikes would target "the training camps of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, the group’s top tier leaders, and the sharia courts." He also suggested "all leaders change their locations… avoid meetings and avoid being present in any area in large numbers… [and] provoke a torrent of misinformation about our plans and locations to confuse the enemy." 

While the location of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS leadership is kept highly secret — with the actual identity of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Mohammed al-Golani still unknown in open sources — the location of their facilities are well known. In fact, jihadist media material regularly announces and celebrates the opening of a new town headquarters, or a new sharia court, and so on and so forth. Videos and photographs are everywhere.

However, this is because jihadist groups have integrated themselves into the social mold, particularly in the northern governorates of Aleppo, northern Idlib, and Raqqa, and also in eastern Deir al-Zour. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS govern villages, towns, and even a governorate capital, Raqqa, and as such, operate very much in the open. While such militant infrastructure could theoretically be targeted, collateral damage would be inevitable, and in many cases, high. Moreover, the incredibly fluid nature of a countrywide conflict would provide militants with ample opportunity to slip away.

Despite the high levels of concern, there appears to have been no notable shift in jihadist operations in Syria. If anything, ISIS has become more operationally active in the last few days as a result of it having launched its Revenge Volcano operation in reaction to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on August 21. The first day of this operation (August 26) saw ISIS launch a series of mortars and Grad rockets into central Damascus, including several apparently aimed at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the U.N. chemical inspectors are staying. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra, who has also launched its own retaliatory operations — applying the Islamic term Qisas, or simply, an Eye for an Eye — continues to be extensively involved in ongoing operations across the country, including the assassination of the governor of Hama governorate on August 25 and the seizure of the strategic town of Khanasser in Aleppo province the following day.

As such, if precautionary moves are being made, they are only affecting the most senior levels of leadership. However, this fits closely with a line taken by a number of prominent jihadists online, which has emphasized that in the event of strikes targeting their leaders or assets, it is critically important that a group sustains its normal level of operations: "any decline in our work will be seen as defeat," said one such comment.

Placing this situation in a less Syria-constrained context was a August 27 report in the Jordan Times in which the notorious Jordanian Salafist Mohammed Shalabi (Abu Sayyaf) claimed the only reason the West planned to carry out strikes in Syria was "to prevent the Syrian people from establishing an Islamic state." In the same report, an unnamed alleged ISIS official threatened that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS had already made the decision to carry out attacks "within Syria and abroad against the West should they target our fighters." While the latter threat is most likely bluster, it is notably one of only a small number of Syria-based jihadist threats to attack targets outside of Syria.

As is well known, jihadists worldwide view the West with immense hostility and assess its political motives, policy, and statements with complete skepticism. Throughout the Syrian conflict, a common jihadist assessment of the West’s relative lack of a role in backing the armed opposition is that it, in fact, wants to prolong the conflict in order to eventually force a peace agreement whereby President Bashar al-Assad remains in power — essentially an extension of Shalabi’s argument, based on the foundational belief that the West is explicitly hostile to Islam. 

Despite all of this highly speculative furor, one thing certainly does appear clear, that some level of U.S.-led, likely NATO ordered military strikes on Syrian military infrastructure is forthcoming. If, as many Syrians hope, such strikes serve to weaken the government’s capacity to maintain its air advantage and to continue to prevent existentially threatening militant advances, the long-term issue of the extensive and consolidated presence of jihadist militancy in Syria will remain a key concern for policy makers in the West.

While the focus today remains on the current conflict in Syria and on how it will one day end, if Assad does eventually fall, a second battle will inevitably commence: one that will decide who, if anyone, takes the reins of power in Syria. Within such a situation, jihadists will very much be involved.

Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) is a terrorism and insurgency analyst based in London. The views expressed here are written in a personal capacity and do not represent those of his employer.

Charles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Dialogue Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at: @Charles_Lister.

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