Syria suffered its worst terror attack in decades this month when two car bombs exploded near a military intelligence branch in Damascus, killing 55 people and wounding hundreds more. Syria's state-run news agency was quick to publish gruesome pictures of the victims of the attack, which President Bashar al-Assad's regime pinned on "foreign-backed terrorist groups."
At first, the Syrian regime seemed to have evidence to back up its case. On May 12, a video was distributed on YouTube, purportedly from a Palestinian branch of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah ("The Victory Front" or JN), claiming credit for the attack. But the release turned out to be a fake: On May 14, JN released a statement denying that it was behind the video. At the same time, it did not deny conducting the attack. Rather, JN's media outlet said it had yet to hear from JN's military commanders if they perpetrated the bombings.
Whether or not JN was involved in the Damascus attack, the organization has become a real force in recent weeks -- and one that threatens to undermine the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of defectors and local militia fighting the government. Its main goals are to awaken Muslims to the atrocities of the Assad regime, and eventually take control of the state and implement its narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law. To that end, in the past month alone, JN has perpetrated a series of suicide bombings and IED strikes -- and the pace of attacks seems to be growing.
JN originally announced its existence on Jan. 23 in a video released to global jihadi forums, featuring the group's spokesperson, al-Fatih ("The Conqueror") Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. In addition to repeating the usual jihadi platitudes, Jawlani accused the United States, the Arab League, Turkey, Iran, and the West in general for collaborating with the Assad regime against (Sunni) Muslims. The video shows tens of individuals training with AK-47s in unknown desert and wooded locations and posing with large flags similar to the banners used by Sunni fundamentalists across the Middle East, featuring the shahadah (the Muslim testament of faith).
While JN's attacks might pack punch, they represent a minuscule portion of the Syrian rebellion and have no known association to the FSA. But members of al Qaeda's premier online forums have been elated over the creation of a new jihadist organization in Syria. In addition to its online grassroots supporters, JN has gained the stamp of approval from key jihadi ideologues, including Shaykh Abu Sa'd al-‘Amili (a prominent online essayist), Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti (one of the most influential ideologues worldwide), Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi (a prominent Jordanian Salafi), and Shaykh Abu al-Zahra' al-Zubaydi (a popular Lebanese jihadi). All have called on Muslims to support JN's cause by aiding them financially or joining them on the battlefield.
This level of excitement, which has not been seen in jihadi circles since the height of the Iraq war, can partly be attributed to the sectarian nature of the struggle: Jihadis do not see the Assads as true Muslims because they are Alawites -- members of a heterodox version of Shiism. As such, jihadis view their role in repressing a Sunni Muslim majority as particularly reprehensible. "Oh Allah made it possible for our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusrah, and bless them and make the hearts of the people join them," one online jihadi enthused.
Unable to quell Syria's domestic uprising, Assad still maintains that Syria is fighting foreign terrorists. And, although Syria's homegrown protest movement clearly makes up the overwhelming majority of the opposition, there are a multitude of reports -- see here, here, here, here, and here -- of non-Syrian Muslims going off to fight Assad. Fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq have also reportedly crossed the border to assist their Sunni compatriots -- presumably by way of the same networks they have long used to smuggle people and goods from Syria into Iraq.