Terrorism is running rampant throughout the world at an unprecedented rate with dozens of jihadist groups conducting attacks in multiple areas of the world. Some of these terrorist groups include Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, among others. However, none of the terrorist organizations in the world are more recognizable than ISIS, the brutal Islamic group that seeks to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Syria. ISIS, during a stunning and persistent military campaign starting in 2014, took control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria, leading to them being the focus of the worldwide War on Terror. They are the most feared jihadi group in the world and for good reason: ISIS has documented themselves beheading and drowning people. Furthermore, mass graves have been found in ISIS-occupied regions; the most recent being Palmyra, where a mass grave was found with at least 40 bodies in it; most of the people being women and children. While ISIS receives all of the media attention, an under the radar jihadi group is emerging in Syria.
The Al-Nusra front, also known as the Front for the Defense of the Syrian People, is a group within Syria that has pledged allegiance to the global terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. The group announced its existence in 2012 through a propaganda video, stating that it was the culprit behind multiple suicide bombings since the Syrian uprising began in 2011. As the civil war in Syria dragged out, the Al-Nusra front gained a key role in the rebel-held norther Aleppo region, where they have developed a reputation for discipline and honesty along with an emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties. Much like ISIS, their goal is to implement an Islamic Caliphate under Sharia Law within Syria and overthrow the Assad regime, which has been accused of multiple atrocities including using chemical weapons on its own people.
Despite the immense media coverage of ISIS, thus making all US citizens believe they are the biggest threat to the homeland, there is an increasing belief that the Al-Nusra front is a greater long-term threat to the US. The Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute published a report that criticized the sole focus on ISIS in Syria, asserting Al-Nusra is flying under the radar and gaining more influence within the Middle Eastern country. The report suggests the rising group is “much more dangerous to the US than the ISIS model in the long run” because they are more difficult to target.
Kim Kagan, an author of the report, claims: “Al-Nusra is quietly intertwining itself with the Syrian population and Syrian opposition. … They are waiting in the wings to pick up the mantle of global jihad once ISIS falls”.
Therefore, as they strive to gain popular support and wait for Syrians to accept Islamic rule, Al-Nusra is looking to stay out of the spotlight. All the focus is on ISIS and that is exactly how they want it to be. As the power of ISIS deteriorates, the opportunity for Al-Nusra’s influence to expand is great because they operate under a different code than ISIS seems to. Their emphasis on the avoidance of civilian casualties may lead to more Syrians accepting the group, as most citizens of Syria are wholeheartedly opposed to the Assad regime. The Syrian civil war has taken the lives of over 250,000 people and displaced more than half the population, so citizens of Syria could accept the group as a last resort, since they appear to be less brutal than ISIS.
Al-Nusra’s recruiting basis is not limited to the borders of Syria; the militant group attracts the second most foreign fighters behind ISIS, meaning if ISIS happens to fall then they could gain substantially more foreign fighters.
It is true, Al-Nusra is not going away anytime soon, especially if Assad continues to stay in power. They are intent on toppling the Assad regime, so the longer that Assad stays around, the longer Al-Nusra will be a threat to US and international security. Many believe terrorism can only be properly dealt with if Assad is removed from office, but that is a complex process and there is not a widespread consensus on removing him as president. The main actors in the Syrian peace talks, the US and Russia, do not see eye to eye on this issue. President Obama has regularly stated Assad needs to go, while Russia has remained ambivalent on the issue. Also, regime forces have made a lot of gains on the ground against ISIS, which gives Assad more legitimacy in his eyes. The ancient city of Palmyra was liberated by regime forces from ISIS control recently, giving Assad even more credibility. When Palmyra fell to ISIS during their initial campaign, it was considered an embarrassing loss for Assad; therefore, taking the city back is thought to be the biggest victory for the regime.
This does not bode well for limiting the influence of Al-Nusra. A Syrian expert at the Middle East institute, Charles Lister states: “By proclaiming itself specifically as a revolutionary movement fundamentally opposed to the Assad regime, Al Qaeda has sealed its future in part to that of Bashar al-Assad. Should one remain, the other will invariably survive also”.
The complicated process of finding a solution for the civil war in Syria is one of the toughest resolutions of our time, but two things are clear: Al-Nusra is not going anywhere unless Assad leaves office and the US needs to start taking the Al-Qaeda affiliate more seriously. ISIS may be the most serious threat in the media, but Al-Nusra needs to be given more attention before they become the next ISIS. Time and time again terrorist groups have proven they are capable of staying under the radar until the time is right; case in point: ISIS. The US government needs to understand history can repeat itself, making the process to contain Al-Nusra even more vital before they become the most influential militant group in the world.
–Contributed by R.A.