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 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham

(Also known as: Al-Nusra Front; Al-Nusrah Front; Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant; Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham Min Mujahideen al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad; Jabhat al-Nusrah; Jabhet al-Nusra; Jabhat al-Nusra, Support Front for the People of Syria from the Mujahideen of Syria in the Places of Jihad; The Victory Front)

This statement is based on publicly available information about Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. To the Australian Government's knowledge, this information is accurate, reliable and has been corroborated by classified information.

Basis for listing a terrorist organisation

Division 102 of the Criminal Code provides that for an organisation to be listed as a terrorist organisation, the Minister for Home Affairs must be satisfied on reasonable grounds that the organisation:

  1. is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, or assisting in or fostering the doing of a terrorist act; or
  2. advocates the doing of a terrorist act.

For the purposes of listing a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code, the doing of a terrorist act includes the doing of a specific terrorist act, the doing of more than one terrorist act and the doing of a terrorist act, even if a terrorist act does not occur.

Background to this listing

The first listing of this group for proscription purposes was under the name it formerly used, Jabhat al-Nusra, on 29 June 2013. The group was re-listed under this name on 28 June 2016. The listing was amended on 4 November 2016 to include the alias Jabhat Fatah-al-Sham.

This statement has been prepared to support the continued listing of Jabhat al-Nusra under the name it now uses, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. This is the name commonly used to refer to the group.

The use of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in this statement does not represent a change in the leadership, ideology or methods of the group, but reflects a change in the group's identity since 28 July 2016 when it rebranded from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Various sources continue to use the name Jabhat al-Nusra separately, or in conjunction with, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or other aliases; including those referred to above. These aliases apply to the same group first listed on 29 June 2013.

Many sources also use the name Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham interchangeably with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is not included as an alias in this listing as it is currently an umbrella organisation, including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as well as other Syrian opposition groups. Despite overlaps in leadership and membership, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains a distinct element of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham; and other groups which form Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham are not listed under the Criminal Code.

Terrorist activity of the organisation

Objectives

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham adheres to a violent extremist ideology that is anti‑Western, and encourages violence as a key element of pursuing its goals. The group ultimately aims to overthrow the Syrian regime and create a Salafist-oriented Islamist state in Syria under its own rule.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham believes its fight against the Syrian regime is supported by religious texts, and that its fighters hope to fulfil ‘God's wish' for an ‘Islamic caliphate'. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham also uses violence against Syrian opposition and rival groups, and other violent extremist groups to advance its goals. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham employs Islamic terminology in an attempt to appeal to Muslim audiences and in areas it controls, enforces its interpretation of Islamic law—including the use of violent punishments and executions.

In pursuing its ultimate aim of transforming Syria into an Islamic Caliphate, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham seeks to be the preeminent power in Syria. In addition to fighting against rival opposition and violent extremist groups, including Islamic State, it aims to influence and control other groups by offering assistance and alliances.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham also attempts to draw recruits, support and standing within Syria through social outreach and by providing humanitarian supplies, social services and food to Syrian citizens. In doing so, the group seeks to embed itself within the local population before transitioning these services into more overt forms of governance. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has cemented its presence in some areas of Syria, and has established formal governance structures such as Islamic institutes, a court system handling military, criminal and administrative legal matters, as well as agencies that provide services such as electricity, water and infrastructure repair.

Directly or indirectly engaged in preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of terrorist acts

To achieve its objectives, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham undertakes a range of militant activities and terrorist attacks, using improvised explosive devices, suicide attacks, snipers and small-arms attacks, as well as kidnapping and executions. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham continues to target the Syrian regime; and attacks individuals and groups it perceives to be supporting the regime. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham also attacks Syrian opposition groups that oppose the group, including violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State. In targeting these groups, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has conducted attacks in urban areas, resulting in indiscriminate civilian deaths. In many cases, there is limited information on the specific targets and casualties caused by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's attacks.

Before 28 July 2016, while operating under the name Jabhat al-Nusra, the group claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks often releasing footage or images through its media centre al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret). Since rebranding on 28 July 2016 as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group no longer claims attacks under its own name. Selected attacks that align with group's new public identity and messaging are now claimed under the media wing of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham—an umbrella organisation focused on the fight against the Syrian regime that includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as well as other Syrian opposition groups. This aligns with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's objectives to increase its support and standing within the Syrian armed opposition, and to reduce international attention and pressure applied to the group.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham dominates the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham organisation, and is the largest, most powerful, well-resourced, and extreme component of the alliance. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's suicide operations and complex attacks are largely conducted, or led by, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Significant attacks claimed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham include the following:

  • On 12 January 2017, a suicide bombing killed seven people in a heavily policed area of Damascus where the Syrian regime's main security installations are located.
  • On 20 July 2016, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (then called Jabhat al-Nusra) executed 14 soldiers of the Syrian regime forces who were taken hostage two weeks earlier.

Significant attacks assessed to be reliably attributed to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham include the following:

  • On 5 October 2018, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham attacked the headquarters for Syrian armed opposition group Nour al-Din Zinki's in Kafar Halab, Aleppo province, Syria. Four people were killed, and several others injured when Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham targeted civilians protesting the group's presence in the town.
  • On 1 March 2018, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham undertook a large‑scale offensive in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, Syria; announcing that it had taken control of several towns and killed fighters from Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups Nour al-Din Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham). As part of the offensive, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham shelled at least one town with mortars, causing civilian casualties; before capturing and executing five Jabhat Tahrir Suriya fighters in the town square. Separately, as part of the offensive, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is accused of releasing 150 Islamic State fighters it had captured two weeks prior; providing them with weapons to fight against Jabhat Tahrir Suriya.
  • On 11 March 2017, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham claimed responsibility for a twin suicide-bombing targeting Shia holy sites in the Old City of Damascus, Syria which killed 40 people and injured at least 120 others, mostly Iraqi Shia pilgrims.
  • On 25 February 2017, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham claimed responsibility for a complex suicide attack against a Syrian regime military complex in Homs, Syria; killing 40 people and injuring over 50 others. The attack involved five suicide bombers that engaged in a gunfight before infiltrating Syrian regime positions and detonating their explosives. The attack killed a senior military adviser to the Syrian regime and critically wounded the head of the Syrian regime's National Security Branch.

Advocating the doing of terrorist acts

While operating under the name Jabhat al-Nusra, the group publicised its activities, including suicide bombings, and distributed propaganda through its own media outlet called al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret). The group has refrained from using this media outlet since it rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham on 28 July 2016.

Since the formation of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in January 2017, the group has used a new media outlet associated with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham called Ebaa News Agency, and has begun operating accounts on Twitter, Telegram and other social media platforms. The group continues to issue statements, updates and propaganda, but has reduced direct anti-Western rhetoric. This is consistent with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's messaging post its 28 July 2016 rebranding which aimed to reduce international targeting of the group and unite the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's messaging through the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham alliance now focuses on the groups' support to the Syrian people and the Syrian armed opposition's battle against the Syrian regime.

Details of the organisation

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is a Syria-based Sunni Islamist extremist group that adheres to a violent extremist ideology, and retains links to al‑Qa'ida.

In late 2011, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI)—the organisation now known as the Islamic State—sent operatives to Syria for the purpose of establishing a group called Jabhat al‑Nusra to fight the Syrian regime of President Bashar al‑Assad. The group publicly announced its presence in Syria in a January 2012 video statement, and pledged allegiance to al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al‑Zawahiri in April 2013 after severing its ties to the Islamic State. On 9 June 2013, al‑Zawahiri released a letter publicly announcing Jabhat al-Nusra as the official al‑Qa'ida affiliate group in Syria.

On 28 July 2016, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it was no longer affiliated with al-Qa'ida and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to reduce international targeting of the group and unite the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime. Despite the announcement Jabhat Fatah al-Sham retained links to al-Qa'ida.

On 28 January 2017, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham announced that it had merged with a number of Syrian opposition groups to form Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in attempt to unify the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime. While Jabhat Fatah al-Sham currently enjoys support from other Syrian opposition groups as part of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, there are many divisions within the alliance—and within the Syrian opposition more broadly. These divisions largely relate to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's links to al-Qa'ida and the group's methods, including attacks which result in indiscriminate civilian deaths. As such, many Syrian opposition groups have withdrawn from the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham alliance since its formation.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains the largest and most dominant component of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. While currently focused on fighting the Syrian regime, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham retains its violent extremist ideology, and links to al‑Qa'ida.

Leadership

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is led by Abu-Muhammad al-Jawlani (an alias).The group controls large portions of Syria's Idlib province, including the provincial capital. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has a Shura council for decision making; however regional leaders are responsible for controlling their respective cells throughout Syria, particularly in Idlib province.

Membership

Although the exact number of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham members cannot be confirmed, the group probably has a fighting force of between 7,000 and 12,000 fighters, along with further members in support roles.

Recruitment and funding

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham largely recruits from the Syrian population, including from other Syrian opposition, or extremist groups active in the region. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has provided social services and food in order to attract local Syrians to its cause. In addition the group has attempted to unify the fight against the Syrian regime; drawing other individuals and groups as new recruits. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as the largest and most powerful Syrian armed opposition group, leaves smaller Syrian opposition groups with limited options but to join the group. It attracts others with offers of weapons, battlefield expertise, training, support and at times protection from the Syrian regime or other Syrian opposition groups in the region.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has also actively recruited child soldiers, including boys under the age of 18, and some under the age of 15. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham specifically targets poor, uneducated male youth for recruitment, paying them modest salaries used to support their families.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham also recruits foreign fighters, but has strict procedures requiring new recruits to pledge allegiance to the group. Potential recruits are required to fight on the front-line and must be vouched for by a member of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham before they are accepted.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is funded from a range of international donors and local sources. Its Syria-based fundraising activities include kidnap for ransom activities, and collection of taxes, tariffs and fines.

Links to other terrorist organisations

In early April 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra (as it was then known) released a video statement in which leader Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra, pledged allegiance to al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In this same statement, al-Jawlani confirmed that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provided Jabhat al Nusra with funding and operatives to conduct operations in Syria.

Over the course of 2013, tensions reportedly increased between Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, and in 2014 battles between the groups began, resulting in 3,000 casualties by March 2014. In June 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra leader al Jawlani reportedly rejected the idea of an emerging alliance with Islamic State, including stating that there is ‘nothing but fighting between us'.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains al-Qa'ida's official branch in Syria.

Links to Australia

Over 100 Australians have travelled to Syria and Iraq and have fought for or otherwise supported Islamist extremist groups.

Threats to Australian interests

Despite Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's current focus on establishing itself as a major power in Syria and its active reduction of anti-Western rhetoric, the group retains an anti-Western ideology. While no longer publicly calling for anti-Western attacks, the group continues to cite attacks by other groups against Western interests, and promotes news reporting that it perceives will indirectly fuel an anti-Western sentiment amongst its supporters. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham continues to pose a threat to Western, including Australian, interests through its violent extremist and anti-Western ideology.

  • On 3 December 2018, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's Ebaa News released a describing the Taliban purportedly shooting down a United States helicopter in Afghanistan.
  • On 16 October 2018, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's Ebaa News released a statement claiming Australia was purportedly evaluating the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Listed by the United Nations or like-minded countries

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is listed as a proscribed terrorist organisation by the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and New Zealand under the following names:

  • Al-Nusra Front by the United States,
  • Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as an alternate name for Al-Qa'ida by the United Kingdom,
  • Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, by Canada, and
  • Al-Nusrah Front for the people of the Levant by New Zealand.

It is also listed as Al-Nusrah Front for the people of the Levant under the United Nations Security Council resolution 2253 (2015) which expands on the United Nations Security Council resolution 1267 (1999) Sanctions Committee's consolidated list.

Engagement in peace or mediation processes

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is not engaged in any peace or mediation process, and opposes any negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has previously been involved in several local level ceasefires between components of the Syrian opposition; however these agreements are generally short in duration and usually fail soon after they are formed, with one or both sides disregarding the negotiated agreements.

Conclusion

On the basis of the above information, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation assesses Jabhat Fatah al-Sham continues to be directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of terrorist acts or advocates the doing of terrorist acts.

In the course of pursuing its objectives, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's is known to have committed or threatened actions that:

  • cause, or could cause, death, serious harm to persons, serious damage to property, endangered life (other than the life of the person taking the action), or create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public;
  • are intended to have those effects;
  • are done with the intention of advancing Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's political, religious or ideological causes;
  • are done with the intention of intimidating the government of one or more foreign countries; and
  • are done with the intention of intimidating the public or sections of the public.
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