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The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda in Iraq’s affiliate in Syria, has imposed sharia, or Islamic Law, in a town in eastern Syria that is close to the Iraqi border. The area has served as a jihadist haven in the past.

“Islamist militants” from the Al Nusrah Front “have taken unclothed mannequins they see as sexually enticing out of the shops,” in the town of Mayadin, Reuters reported. The al Qaeda affiliate has “also prevented women from wearing trousers, preferring that they adopt the shapeless head-to-toe black veil.” Alcohol has also been banned in the town.

Al Nusrah Front fighters are providing “daily religious teaching” to children, and are recruiting teenaged boys to fight President Bashir al Assad’s regime. Additionally, the group is making a profit by selling oil, even to members of the Assad regime.

The imposition of sharia in Mayadin by the Al Nusrah Front is eerily similar to al Qaeda in Iraq’s activities in Anbar province and other areas in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. Taking advantage of the security vacuum that arose after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, al Qaeda in Iraq seized control of several towns and cities in western Iraq and declared Islamic emirates in towns like Haditha and Al Qaim, which is right on the Syrian border. The terror group immediately began to enforce its radical interpretation of Islamic law on Sunni tribesmen, who were too weak and disorganized to fight back.

Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters made women wear the veil, cut off the fingers of Iraqis who were caught smoking, and even forced produce sellers to separate cucumbers and tomatoes, as placing the two vegetables next to each other was deemed to represent the mixing of the sexes.

Additionally, al Qaeda in Iraq profited from smuggling and selling Iraq’s oil. The group even named emirs to manage the sale of oil, which was in turn used to fund operations.

Eastern Syria a jihadist haven

Al Qaeda in Iraq, which created the Al Nusrah Front and directs its operations, has long had a presence in eastern Syria. With the help of the Syrian government, al Qaeda in Iraq used the region as a rear area to support attacks against US and Iraqi forces in Anbar province. After being driven out of its strongholds in northern, western, and central Iraq by the beginning of 2008, al Qaeda in Iraq refocused its efforts to build an infrastructure in eastern Syria [see LWJ report, Eastern Syria becoming a new al Qaeda haven, from November 2009].

Since the uprising in Syria began nearly two years ago, al Qaeda has re-tasked the network in eastern Syria to target the regime which once supported terrorist operations in Iraq, a US military intelligence official who follows al Qaeda in the region told The Long War Journal.

“AQI basically flipped the network; the tail [the support network in Syria] grew teeth, and is now biting the hand that fed it for years,” the official said.

“This didn’t happen by accident,” the official continued. “Al Qaeda has been preparing to take advantage of the Arab Spring.”

The town of Mayadin is close to Abu Kamal, which is on the border with Iraq’s Anbar province. Abu Kamal and its vicinity has long served as a rear area for al Qaeda in Iraq. During a raid in October 2008, US special operations forces struck at al Qaeda’s facilitation network in the town of Sukkariya near Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, just five miles from the Iraqi border. US troops killed Abu Ghadiya, al Qaeda’s senior facilitator, and his senior staff in the raid.

In the city of Deir al Zour, which is about 20 miles north of Mayadin, the Al Nusrah Front has banded together with nine other Islamist groups to create the “Mujahideen Shura Council.”

The Mujahideen Shura Council in Deir al Zour was formed to “unite the ranks of the jihadi brigades in the Cause of Allah, organize the efforts and the attacks against the soldiers of disbelief and apostasy, and distinguish the ranks of truth from falsehood,” according to a statement released by the group in December 2012. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

“We call upon our sincere mujahideen brothers all over the strong Levant to unite their ranks in groups, pure of the filth of suspicious groups and the infiltration of people who have no qualities or faith, in order to clarify their banner and purify their path,” the statement continued.

The Al Nusrah Front in Deir al Zour appears to be following al Qaeda in Iraq’s strategy to unite disparate jihadist groups. In the summer of 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq also formed a Mujahideen Shura Council to coordinate operations with various jihadist groups operating in Iraq. Later that year, al Qaeda in Iraq formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to serve as the political front, and the Mujahideen Shura Council was folded in under the ISI’s military wing.

The Al Nusrah Front remains active in Deir al Zour. Just yesterday, the Al Nusrah Front, the Furqan Brigade, and “battalions from the revolutionary council of Deir al Zour” overran the “political intelligence branch” headquarters in the city after laying siege to the building for six months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “[T]he building is considered one of the main bases for regime forces in the city,” the human rights group stated on its Facebook page.

An al Qaeda affiliate

On Dec. 11, 2012, the US designated the Al Nusrah Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The designation stated that the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Du’a (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi), “is in control of both AQI and Al Nusrah.”

At the same time, the US added two senior Al Nusrah leaders, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab, both members of al Qaeda in Iraq, to the list of global terrorists; the US did not add the emir of Al Nusrah, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Julani, to the list, however. [See LWJ report, US adds Al Nusrah Front, 2 leaders to terrorism list, for information on the designation of the Al Nusrah Front and the two leaders.]

Despite Al Nusrah’s known affiliation with al Qaeda and its radical ideology, Syrian opposition groups, including the supposedly secular Syrian National Coalition, have rallied to support Al Nusrah. Immediately after the US designated Al Nusrah as a terrorist group, 29 Syrian opposition groups signed a petition that not only condemned the US’s designation, but said “we are all Al Nusrah,” and urged their supporters to raise Al Nusrah’s flag (which is the flag of al Qaeda) [see LWJ report, Syrian National Coalition urges US to drop Al Nusrah terrorism designation].

The Al Nusrah Front has used al Qaeda’s signature tactic — the suicide bomber and suicide assault team — to target Syrian security forces. The Al Nusrah Front has now claimed credit for 48 of the 58 suicide attacks that have taken place in Syria since December 2011, according to a tally by The Long War Journal (note that multiple suicide bombers deployed in a single operation are counted as part of a single attack). Just two days ago, Al Nusrah claimed credit for two suicide attacks in Homs and Hama. Six suicide attacks have now been reported in Syria so far this year; Al Nusrah has claimed credit for five of them.