The other Islamic state: al-Qaeda is still fighting for an emirate of its own

The fighting had raged for three days. It wasn’t unusual for the city to come under attack, but it rarely lasted this long. This time, they were under siege.

Rebel fighters on the city’s edge cut off water and surrounded most of the area. Still, Rana and her family never thought for a second the insurgents would break through. When the sound of gunfire outside finally quieted, the family expected things to go back to normal. It came as a shock when the crackling speakers of the mosque echoed in the streets outside.

“We heard them declaring victory. It came out of nowhere,” Rana says. “At that point, we knew that the army had gone and that Nusra was here.”

A little more than a year since Jabhat al-Nusra captured the Syrian city of Idlib, the group still retains control of the city and much of the surrounding area. An offshoot of al-Qaeda, its ideology is largely indistinguishable from that of the so-called Islamic State. And yet while ISIS has been significantly weakened by its enemies in Iraq and Syria — thanks to more than 10,000 airstrikes from the US-led coalition — Nusra has proved itself a nimbler opponent.

Throughout much of the Syrian civil war, Nusra has been able to grow in strength because it has entangled itself with the mess of rebel groups and alliances fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US airstrikes have targeted Nusra —  with a particular focus on its leadership — but the group's dominant position among other rebel forces makes it difficult for Washington to hurt Nusra substantially without damaging US allies on the ground.

Working under the protection these circumstances have provided, Nusra has engaged in a little state-building of its own. It is holding onto and administering territory in Syria — a relatively new development for a group that in the past had operated largely underground.

As a result of these maneuvers, some analysts believe the group represents a bigger threat to the West in the long run — a more durable force than ISIS. But what is it like to live under Nusra’s rule? Can this group’s foothold in Syria turn into something more permanent? And does it represent a threat beyond Syria’s borders?

Covered mannequins

Idlib is the capital of a province of the same name in northwestern Syria — an area rich in farmlands and olive groves that’s been a rebel stronghold throughout the war. The city lies at a strategic crossroads: close to Turkey; not far from the main road to Aleppo; and adjacent to Assad’s stronghold of Latakia.

Fighters operating under the Free Syrian Army banner took control of Idlib in the early days of the uprising that began about five years ago, only for Assad’s forces to recapture the city in April 2012. Then Nusra, together with allied rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and  Faylaq al-Sham, took over the city in March 2015.

Rana, 24, was born and raised in Idlib. Her name has been changed to protect her and her family’s identities. Her relatives are business owners who chose not to get involved in the fighting. When Nusra and its allies came to town, she knew things would change.

“I was so frightened. I collapsed and I couldn’t walk,” she says of the moment the city fell last year. “While the city was besieged we saw videos of Nusra fighters threatening to kill everyone inside.”

In the few days following their victory, Nusra and its allies consolidated control: Alleged government sympathizers and employees were either arrested or executed; Idlib was secured. Then, in a fashion not dissimilar to ISIS, they set out to govern. They took over official buildings. The classes in schools changed: history and science were stopped, and in their place were lessons with a focus on Islamic education.

“People were not happy with the changes in the schools. One of the principals they hired had barely passed third grade,” Rana says.

Soon women began working on behalf of Nusra as a kind of religious police, or da’iyat. They would patrol the streets and ensure other women were fully covered in a traditional loose black dress known as an abaya. Fighters would also police the clothes people wore.

“Once I was wearing a jacket because it was cold. I was stopped by men who said what I was wearing was not Sharia. Even young girls were forced to wear the abaya. If they didn’t wear it they were not allowed in school,” Rana says. “No bright colors were allowed.”

Rana said the people who came to yield the most influence in the city were foreigners — the area’s emir was a Saudi. She stopped going out as much —  she didn’t feel comfortable — but every time she did, she would notice another change. Some more serious than others.

On one occasion she was walking past a clothing store with mannequins in the window.

“They had put plastic bags over their faces. To stop temptation!” she says. “I laughed. This was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Playing the long game

That Nusra finds itself running a major provincial capital like Idlib is a testament to the group’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing face of the battlefield in Syria.

The group was formally established by al-Qaeda’s central command and the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq in January 2012, after the latter sent fighters to join the battle to overthrow Assad and set up an emirate — a territory run by an Islamic ruler and governed by Islamic law.

Nusra set itself apart in the early days of the Syrian civil war as one of the strongest and most disciplined groups among the dozens of rebel factions, at a time when other groups were being accused of extortion and corruption. Its strength on the battlefield won it supporters among the Syrian people, despite espousing an ideology that was more extreme than most Syrians were used to.

In 2013, it split in two.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,  the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, announced that Nusra would merge with his own group under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which he would command. Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, rejected the merger and announced his loyalty to al-Qaeda.

What emerged from the split were two distinct groups: Jabhat al-Nusra, still under the command of al-Qaeda’s leadership, and another group, which is now known as the Islamic State. But while the two share a similar ideology, they have pursued very different strategies.

ISIS sought to gain and hold territory as quickly as possible in order to create a caliphate to which Muslims from around the world could travel and defend. It used theatrical brutality to gain attention and radicalize its followers.

Nusra, on the other hand, has played a long game. It worked with more moderate Syrian opposition groups, often taking a back seat in decision-making in the hope of eventually coming to dominate the forces lined up against Assad. It sought to avoid direct confrontation with the West, in order to focus on its plans for Syria.

Speaking in a rare interview in May 2015, Julani, the the group’s leader, said Nusra had received orders from the al-Qaeda leadership to not target the US or Europe.

"Al-Nusra Front doesn't have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that, but not here in Syria," he told Al Jazeera.

This tactic has had little success so far. The US declared Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group in 2012 and has targeted the group’s leaders.

Nusra also sought to avoid antagonizing the Syrian people, recognizing that at a time when rebel groups were rising and falling, that support would be crucial to survive.

As a result of these considerations, alliance-building and the quest for hearts and minds took precedence over state-building, at least in the short term.

This outreach does not extend beyond the Sunni Muslim community. Although overshadowed by the brutality of ISIS, Nusra has been accused of a number of sectarian atrocities — most notably in the Latakia countryside in August 2013, where dozens of Alawite civilians were killed, and in Idlib in June 2015, where 20 Druze villagers were reportedly killed by the group.

Capturing Idlib marked a turning point for Nusra. Although it currently runs the city alongside its ally Ahrar al-Sham, it’s slowly seeking greater control. What is happening in the city offers an insight into how al-Qaeda hopes to rule.

“In the last few months, Nusra has attempted to assume more of a lead role in managing the provision of core local services, especially in Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha,” says Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of “The Syrian Jihad.”

“This is a slow process — Nusra will gradually gain influence over its detractors and before we know it, it’ll be presenting itself as the sole governor of these areas.”

The group’s eventual aim, much like ISIS, is to establish an Islamic emirate. Lister says it has made “significant progress” with that in Idlib. Central to Nusra’s strategy, however, is that this should only be done when it has the agreement of key powerbrokers in Syria.

“Nusra’s position all along has been that it would not establish an emirate until it felt it had sufficiently consulted with ‘those of knowledge’ across Syria, to ensure doing so was an accepted move. Some of this mediation and dialogue lately has also attempted to bring in other groups in northern Syria — that’s where the discussions have been especially difficult,” Lister says.

“There are clearly substantial issues still at hand. However, Nusra’s recent additional emphasis on governance is one of many indicators of this shift in strategic posture.”

The burden of power

This shift has not been without its problems. Although the group retains some support in Idlib, there are signs that the popularity Nusra gained for its battlefield prowess does not extend to its method of governing.

One of the reasons behind this is that Nusra has gone out of its way to stifle and eliminate more moderate opposition, especially rebel groups backed by the US. In doing so, they have alienated a sizeable part of the population who — although they may not share the group’s Salafist ideology — supported it for its ability to fight the Assad regime, which has bombed civilian areas of Idlib and across the north relentlessly throughout the war.

During a ceasefire between government forces and rebels brokered by the US and Russia in February, Idlib residents took advantage of the lull in government airstrikes to hold demonstrations against Assad’s rule and for democracy. Nusra broke up the protests because more moderate Free Syrian Army flags appeared in the crowd, residents claimed. The same happened in the town of Maarat al-Numaan, also in Idlib province. The message was clear: Nusra was willing to clamp down on anyone showing support to groups that threaten its own future vision for Syria.

A week or so after the Idlib demonstration, Nusra fighters attacked the headquarters of the US-backed 13th  Division, a further attempt to eradicate all the moderate elements in Syria’s opposition. It had done the same to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in 2014, and a group called Haraket Hazm last year. Since then, sporadic protests specifically against Nusra have occurred in Idlib and Maarat al-Numaan.

Rana was always too afraid to attend the protests against Nusra in Idlib. “No way would I go,” she says.

When they did happen, the group’s fighters would try to break them up. But she sensed growing anger in the city.

“Even the most anti-government people are tired of them,” she says.

It wasn’t just the group’s ideology that was fueling opposition, but also its incompetence. Crime has risen in the city, Rana says — robberies and murder are more common. On one occasion, the city was without water for 20 days. The price of food and fuel has increased — major shortages have been prevented by aid organizations, which are still able to operate in the city.

The protests against Nusra’s rule have yet to damage it significantly, although that may change. Still, the group has shown an ability to adapt in the past. “Nusra seems at least partially sensitive to popular discontent,” says Lister. He adds that long term, the group poses a significant threat to the West.

“Ultimately, I think we should be more worried about Nusra than ISIS, largely because the organization has spent much of the past five years devoted to establishing deep, durable roots in Syria. Those roots are something ISIS simply doesn't have. Al-Qaeda is in Syria for the long haul and given another 12 months, I think we will have seen its first emirate established, on Europe’s doorstep. That’ll be a very big deal.”

Still, Jabhat al-Nusra faces significant obstacles. That the group should have no place in a future Syria is one of the few points the US and Russia can agree upon — the destruction of ISIS being another. US strategy on dealing with it has so far relied on opportunistic attacks, but the long-term plan is to isolate it from more moderate groups entirely. Speaking on Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said discussions with his Russian counterparts on how to do this are ongoing.

“This is what we’re discussing, among other things. There are a number of different ways to approach it,” Kerry said in Geneva.

In the meantime, both Russia and the Syrian government have been accused of using Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in Aleppo to bombard rebel-held areas of the city, noting that the group is not included in the cessation of hostilities agreed upon in February this year. The intensive airstrikes in Aleppo have killed more than 250 civilians in the past 10 days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. Rebel artillery has also targeted the regime-controlled part of the city. The violence threatens to derail the shaky truce.

As for Rana, she left Idlib a month ago. Her location has not been disclosed to protect her identity, but she describes feeling “like a human being again” when she left the city.

“I’m seeing Syrians living normally for the first time. It’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says.

Having experienced al-Qaeda’s rule first-hand, she isn’t so sure about the group’s long-term prospects.

“They are not as powerful as they were before. We are Syrians, we were not brought up this way. This whole mentality that Nusra has is alien to us, and it can never sink in.”