Saturday, July 9, 2016

History of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra (JN, JaN) is the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. The group's Emir (leader) in Syria is Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, while Jabhat al-Nusra's overall leader is Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri. It is present in almost every location the Syrian opposition controls, with the possible exception of Darayya. As of July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra claims to be the largest Syrian rebel group. Jabhat al-Nusra claimed in 2015 that 30% of their fighters were foreign, and that figure has likely increased.

JaN "Liwa Mujahirin wal Ansar" foreign fighters in Southern Aleppo.

Most of the Foreigners come from Central Asian states like Uzbekistan, such as the group "Tavhid Va Jihod."

This article is meant to highlight Jabhat al-Nusra's role in almost every battle on almost every front during the Syrian civil war. Their armed strength and the extent of the areas they control in Syria may seem quite surprising if you have only paid attention to Western media outlets. When the media talks about the "Syrian opposition" rarely do they mention extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra, even though the extremists far outnumber the moderates.

Jabhat al-Nusra often operates with the Jaish al-Fateh coalition, of which it is the leading faction in the coalition. When JaN works within this coalition they put the Jaish al-Fetah logo on their media releases along with the regular blue Jabhat al-Nusra media logo.

Jabhat al-Nusra has been present in the Syrian conflict since the start of the war in 2011. Below, JaN planning bombings in Damascus at the beginning of the conflict. At the time some analysts concluded the Syrian government was behind these bombings to discredit the opposition, this obviously proved to be false.

Jabhat al-Nusra's Presence in the Damascus suburbs is often denied by pro-opposition analysts. However, Jabhat al-Nusra maintains a large force in the Suburbs of Damascus and the surrounding countryside. Both their Al-Manara network and their fighters have released images from some of their areas of control in the East Ghouta suburbs.

Jobar Suburb. Jobar was made famous by the ANNA News tank videos using GoPro cameras. Many people mocked the videos for stating Jabhat al-Nusra fought there.

Loading and Firing an M79 Osa anti-tank rocket.

Eastern Ghouta (exact locations not specified.)

Maliha Suburb.

VBIED used to counter the Syrian Army offensive on Maliha.

Another VBIED.

Qabun Suburb, East Ghouta 2016.

Nusra took part in the defense of Marj al-Sultan and its airbase before the Syrian Army recaptured it in early 2016.

S-60 57mm



Nawla, Eastern Ghouta.

Civil services in the Eastern Ghouta pocket.

Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus.

Qalamoun mountains, North Damascus. JaN with a captured Lebanese Army M-113.

Yabroud, Damascus Province.

A training camp near Damascus, 2016.

Another area where Jabhat al-Nusra maintains a large fighting force is the province of Daraa. Much like Damascus, pro-opposition analysts have attempted to downplay the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in Daraa. In 2014 and 2015 JaN and other rebel factions made large advances in the province. Even the FSA Southern Front, arguably the most moderate FSA group, fought alongside JaN during these offensives.

JaN with a captured T-55 in 2013.

JaN in 2013.

Fighting near the Israeli boarder.

Child soldiers.

The strategic town of Nawa captured during the 2014-2015 rebel offensive.

The first battle of Sheik Meskin. Sheik Meskin was captured by both JaN and the FSA during the large scale 2014-2015 rebel offensive.

Captured UN MRAP used as a VBIED.


Shelling Shiek Meskin with mortars.

Syrian Army Brigade 82 base captured in Daraa during the 2014-2015 offensive.

BMP AMB-S used as a VBIED against Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk in southern Daraa.

JaN sending reinforcements during the second battle of Shiek Meskin. JaN would be forced out of Sheik Meskin during this battle, with the Syrian Army retaking the town. These pictures show the scale of their presence in Daraa, with many armored vehicles and technicals.

T-55MV, BMP-1 and many vehicles.

Fighting around Sheik Miskin. T-55 and a ZPU fire on the Syrian Army.

Another massive Jabhat al-Nusra column sent to counter the Syrian Army offensive in Daraa in early 2015.


ZSU-23-4 Shilka.


ZPU 14.5mm and ZU-23-2 techincals.

Other areas of JaN presence in Daraa.

Fighter with MANPADs.

Quneitra province in Southern Syria also has a large Jabhat al-Nusra presence. During 2014-2015 much of the province was captured by the opposition, including JaN. The offensive stopped at Al-Hader, a Druze town in Northern Quneitra who refused to let the jihadists advance.

Captured UN MRAP near the Israeli boarder.

Fighters trying to advance.

Captured Syrian/Russian base in Al-Harra during the 2015 offensive.

Clashes in early 2016 with the Syrian Army.

Building defensive berms, 2016.

The besieged rebel pocket of Northern Homs is another stronghold of  Jabhat al-Nusra. It shares control of the pocket with Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army.

KPV machine gun technicals.

A captured T-62.

Training camp, 2016.

In May 2016 rebels launched an offensive to capture the town of Zara, just North of the rebel held Homs pocket. JaN, Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA managed to capture the town of zara after a brief fight. They proceeded to execute many non-Sunni civilians living there and took many more civilians hostage.

Firing a KPV machine gun at Zara.

JaN troops storming Zara.

JaN captured a BMP-1 and a T-62 during the Zara offensive.

More JaN activity in the Homs pocket, 2016.

Idlib province is the stronghold of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Much of the province fell early on in the war, leaving just the Wadi Deif army base, Abu Duhur airport, and a salient leading to Idlib city under Syrian Government control. These locations were all eventually captured, leaveing the province under the complete control of JaN and its allies. Idlib city is the capitol of Jabhat al-Nusra's Islamic State.

JaN activity in Idlib province prior to the major Idlib offensive of March 2015.
 Pictured below is a massive convoy on JaN armored vehicles and technicals. T-72 Urals, T-72AVs, T-62, BMP-1s and Gvozdikas.

 The Wadi Deif army base was under siege for 8 months before JaN and its allies were able to capture it. Some Syrian troops managed to break out and reach friendly lines just before the base fell. The Syrian Army troops took with them at least 4 T-62 tanks and 6 BMP-1s.

JaN using a TOW anti-tank missile at the Wadi Deif base. TOWs were originally supplied to "moderate" rebels.

T-55MV during the assault on the base.


T-72AV. (Later seen in Idlib city.)


The Battle of Idlib

The Second Battle of Idlib started on March 24th, 2015 and continued until March 28 with the city being captured by JaN and its allies. The above map shows the territory controlled by each side just after the battle.

It began with Jabhat al-Nusra/Jund al-Aqsa striking the city with VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) using BMP-1s.

JaN used US supplied TOW missiles intended for moderate forces to strike Syrian Army tanks and positions in the city.

Also using a Metis-M ATGM.

Shelling Idlib with a T-55.

Firing on Idlib with a ZPU.

JaN then stormed Idlib city, where intense urban combat took place.

ZPU inside Idlib city.

Syrian soldiers killed by JaN in combat.

By March 28, 2015 Idlib city was fully in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies. Photos of the aftermath.

Destroyed T-62.

Government buildings captured.

JaN T-72AV parades through the captured city.

After Idlib city fell, the Syrian Army launched a counteroffensive that briefly retook towns around Idlib. The gains could not be held, however, and the Syrian Army again went on the defensive. Town after town would fall in the following months, eventually forcing the Syrian Army to the boarder of Hama.

Mastouma, just South of Idlib city was the next town to fall.

A T-72AV (the same one pictured above in Idlib and Wadi Deif) rolls through Mastouma.

ZU-23-2 firing on Mastouma.

A destroyed Syrian Army T-72M1.

The Brick Factory and Qarmeed Camp, located between Mastouma and Musbin (also spelled Muhsaybeen) was also captured by JaN and its allies. The Brick Factory was a makeshift checkpoint used by the Syria army. Its captured paved the way for the attack on Mastouma.

JaN Targeting the Brick Factory.

A captured T-72.

Captured M-46 field guns.

The Brick Factory had been used as an artillery position. Dozen of spent shells.

The Syrian Army "Qarmeed camp" was next to fall.

The assault on Qarmeed camp began with a VBIED.

JaN troops preparing to storm Qarmeed camp.

Qarmeed Camp under fire.

Then, Muhsaybeen (also spelled Musbin) town fell to JaN.

Mortar targeting Muhsaybeen.

JaN troops near Muhsaybeen.

The strategic city of Ariha fell in May 2015. It was the second largest town captured in Idlib province at that time.

JaN planning the assault.

JaN troops inside Ariha.

A destroyed Syrian Army ZSU-23-4 Shilka.

The Battle of Jisr Shughour

Jisr al-Shughour was the second largest city to be captured by Jabhat al-Nusra during the 2015 Idlib offensive. The final assault began in May, with the Syrian Army rapidly collapsing inside the city, leaving 200 soldiers trapped in the Jisr Shughour hospital. Only some of these trapped soldiers were able to break out and reach friendly lines. Many observers were surprised by how quickly the city was captured when the final assault was launched.

JaN began shelling the city in April. Seen below with a T-55.



S-60 57mm shelling the city.

ZU-23-2 firing on the city.

JaN troops on the outskirts.

The final JaN assault on Jisr al-Shughour on May 5th, resulting in its capture the following day.

T-72 Ural Tanks.


Jisr al-Shughour under fire.

VBIED that targeted the besieged hospital.

The Syrian Army Idlib salient was eventually forced down to the Idlib boarder, where clashes spilled into Northern Hama, where they continue today. By this time there were two remaining Government held pockets in Idlib, Fuah and Kefraya towns, and the Abu Duhur airbase.

Fuah and Kefraya were cut off when Idlib city was captured. They are Shia towns, meaning that Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies would kill everyone living there if the towns were captured. With that kind of threat, the residents of the towns have fought back fiercely. To this day the towns still resist, having destroyed several attacking JaN tanks and vehicles in the surroundings. The towns are periodically resupplied by airdrops.

JaN shelling Fuah with a T-62.

ZU-23-2 firing on the towns

The Syrian Army/National Defense Force of Fuah and Kefraya captured a T-72 Ural from Jabhat al-Nusra. One of several JaN tanks captured/destroyed while attacking the towns.

The Final Assault on Abu Duhur Airbase.

After months of being besieged, the Abu Duhur airbase finally fell to Jabhat al-Nusra. A literal perfect storm had conspired to allow the base to be captured, with a sandstorm on the day JaN's final assault preventing the base from being defended with air support. A small number of Syrian soldiers broke out as the base fell, taking with them one tank and at least one technical when they departed for friendly lines.

JaN troops in the dust storm.

Firing on the base with ZU-23-2s and a ZPU.

BMP-1 charging into the base.

After the base fell, captured Syrian soldiers were executed in an ISIS-style propaganda video.

Hama has had a Jabhat al-Nusra presence since early on in the Syrian conflict, with JaN occupying large areas of Northern Hama. Next to Idlib, Hama is probably the most important area of the JaN/Al-Qaeda Caliphate. Fighting picked up in Hama in 2015 toward the conclusion of the Idlib offensive. Towns in Northern Hama as well as the Al-Ghab Plain came under heavy JaN attack.

JaN in Northern Hama prior to the major 2015 battles.

Captured ZSU-23-4 Shilka.

Captured T-72AV.

JaN training camp.

Major fighting in Northern Hama, at the town of Mahrada in late 2015.

M-46 field gun.


The Ghab Plain of Northern Hama, on the Boarder of Idlib and Latakia, has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. JaN and its allies seized large parts of the Ghab Plain in 2015, but has since not been able to advance much further on this front. As of 2016 the North Hama front remains fairly static. Photos of JaN fighting in the Ghab Plain can be seen below.

T-72 Ural.

T-72 and BMP-1 on the move.


ZPU technical.

A destroyed tank and BMP-1.

A captured BMP-1. It appears to be disabled, as it is being towed by a tank.

Another interesting photo from Northern Hama. US/UK funded Syrian Civil Defense men, AKA "White helmets" seen in a JaN/Al-Qaeda press release.

Various photos from 2016 battles, and of JaN running its caliphate in the towns it controls in Hama.

M-46 field gun.


Using a T-72M1 TURMS-T.

T-72AV with DIY Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor side skirts and mine rails.

An M114 Humvee, captured from Iraqi militias in Aleppo.

A Shariah course, a vital part of caliphate building.

A training camp.

JaN and FSA flags together.

Aleppo province is one of Jabhat al-Nusra's most important areas of operation and control. JaN controls the Western half of Aleppo province and has a presence in the rebel held Eastern half of Aleppo city.

Aleppo is Syria's largest city. Its importance to the Syrian Government and the opposition has led to intense fighting. Many pro-opposition analysts deny or downplay Jabhat al-Nusra's presence in Aleppo city. Pictures released by Jabhat al-Nusra's Al-Manara Network and its fighters prove they occupy the Easrtern half of Aleppo city along with the FSA and Ahrar al-Sham.

JaN presence in Aleppo city early on in the war.

"Hell Canons" used to shell Aleppo.

JaN T-72 near the Aleppo Central Prison, Northern Aleppo.

S-60 57mm firing on a Government held building in Aleppo city.

During the summer of 2015 Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies attempted to take Aleppo city from the Government. This resulted in the capture of a few military facilities on Aleppo's outskirts, and heavy fighting inside the city. The assault eventually fizzled out, with JaN unable to advance very far. Most of the fighting took place in the Al-Zahraa District.

A VBIED on Al-Zahraa, Aleppo city.

Heavy fighting in Al-Zahraa district.

JaN T-62 inside Al-Zahraa district.

JaN fighter.

Sheik Maqsood District is in the center of Aleppo city. It is a Kurdish district held by the Kurdish YPG. The YPG is neutral toward the Syrian Government, while JaN and its allies are enemies.

JaN fighters inside Sheik Maqsood.

Firing on Sheik Maqsood from rebel controlled areas.

More fighting inside Aleppo city.

Photos released by Jabhat al-Nusra showing the shelling of Nayrab Airbase using mortars. In order to hit Nayrab airbase, Jabhat al-Nusra would have to be firing the mortars from inside the Eastern half of Aleppo city.

Approximate location of the mortars, located in the rebel held Eastern half of Aleppo city.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighting in the Layramoun district of Aleppo city as the Syrian Army tries to advance, 2016.

VBIED targeting areas of Layramoun district that were recently recaptured by the Syrian Army.

Fighters preparing.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighting in Layramoun.

The Castillo road is one of the most sought after targets in Aleppo. The Castillo road is the only road that leads into rebel held East Aleppo city. If the road were to be cut off, JaN and its allies would be besieged inside the Eastern Districts of Aleppo city. Both the YPG and the Syrian Army have attempted, and continue to attempt to capture the road.

JaN defending the Castillo road with a ZU-23-2.

JaN fighter on the road.

This JaN fighter was killed fighting near the Castillo road.

Handarat and Handarat Refugee Camp boarder the Castillo road. Heavy fighting regularly takes place around Handarat for this reason.

JaN sniper in Handarat.


A VBIED used on Handarat.

Fighting around the Aleppo countryside is just as bitter as the fighting in Aleppo city. Much of the Southern Aleppo countryside was recaptured by the Syrian Army and its allies in late 2015 and early 2016. In April of 2016 Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies launched an offensive to retake some of this territory. They managed to recapture a significant amount of ground that had been lost. Towns recaptured include El-Eis, Khan Tuman, Khalasah, Zitan and Birnah.

T-72AV during the Southern Aleppo offensive.

T-72AV in the recaptured town of Khalasah.

T-72 Ural in the recaptured town of Zitan.


JaN BMP-1 and M-114 Humvee filmed by "Revolution Syria" an FSA media outlet.


Gvozdika self-propelled gun.

BMP-1 and T-72 Ural column.

M-46 field gun.


Latakia province has a small rebel presence. Rebels did occupy much of the Northern part of Latakia, but they were pushed from most of that territory in late 2015 and early 2016. The rebels, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, managed to recapture some territory in the province in June of 2016. Jabhat al-Nusra did manage to reach the coast once with the capture of the town of Kessab. Their control of the town of Kessab was brief, with the Syrian Army quickly recapturing it. While JaN was in Kessab they committed massacres against the non-Sunni civilians living there.

JaN T-55 in Kessab.

In Late 2015 the Syrian Army launched an offensive to push the rebels out of Latakia province. This offensive managed to recapture most rebel held territory in the province, but the rebels fought back bitterly. JaN defended town after town as they fell to the Syrian Army.

The most significant town to be recaptured by the Syrian Army was Salma. It was defended by JaN, seen here firing mortars at the advancing Syrian Army.

Other locations JaN defended during the Syrian Army offensive.

Jabhat al-Nusra briefly recaptured the town of Hawr near Salma, seizing two T-55 tanks in the process.

More JaN activity in Latakia in early 2016.

In June of 2016, JaN and its allies launched a major offensive in the latakia province. It managed to recapture several areas, the most important of which was the town of Kinsabba.

JaN foreign fighter from Kyrgyzstan during the latakia offensive.

Firing on Kinsabba.





JaN troops heading into Kinsabba.

Unfortunately, Jabhat al-Nusra's dominance in Syria will likely continue. Pro-opposition analysts and activists (Lister et al.) suggest that the west should counter Jabhat al-Nusra by further arming the "moderates" like the Free Syrian Army. This idea would fail miserably, as the Free Syrian Army has had plenty of weapons all along and it has not changed anything. The FSA openly works alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, so supplying more weapons would only serve the extremists.

Even the FSA 13th Division, widely reported by pro-opposition analysts to be challenging Jabhat al-Nusra, continues to fight alongside them. The town of Maraat al-Numan, where the 13th Division is based, has peacefully protested against Jabhat al-Nusra. Yet, the 13th Division took part in the Southern Aleppo offensive alongside them.

Had it not been for the US and GCC nations supplying weapons such as TOW anti-tank missiles to the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra would likely not control as much territory as it does today. TOW missiles were a game changing weapon, especially during the Idlib offensive. Dozens of tanks were hit and destroyed by Free Syrian Army TOW missiles, allowing Jabhat al-Nusra to advance through the Idlib province. The Free Syrian Army also used TOW missiles heavily in Southern Aleppo, Northern Hama and Latakia, again allowing Jabhat al-Nusra to advance. If we truly want to stop extremists, we need to stop arming rebels and accept that Assad's government will remain.


  1. Unsupported speculation re importance of TOWs for JN. Lots of other ATGMs around & in Nusra hands; you just didn't show them.

    1. Of course there were other ATGMs, But TOW missiles played a huge role in smashing SAA defenses.