Jabhat al-Nusra: Intelligence, Counter-Intelligence, Values and Ethics


Jabhat al-Nusra: Intelligence, Counter-Intelligence, Values and Ethics

01 April 2016

By: Elijah J. Magnier (@EjmAlrai)


This essay will focus on understanding the situation in which the intelligence activity needs to take place, the decision makers and consumers in the intelligence in relation to Jabhat al-Nusra[1] (JN), a branch that split from the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS)[2], and created a safe haven in Syria, becoming Qaedat-al-Jihad’ (AQC)[3] franchise. To protect itself from disintegrating within the mother organisation, its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, declared loyalty to AQC leader Ayman al-Zawaheri[4]. JN is also known as “Al-Qaeda in Syria”. JN holds the Salafi ideology , or al-Salaf-al-saleh[5], means followers of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. It is a positive attribute describing non-radical Sunni believers. Not all Salafists are terrorist but all Sunni Jihadi movements are Salafists, also defined as Takferi[6].

JN’s allies are not only Syrians, but also foreign fighters, ex-Guantanamo prisoners and U.S “list of terror” individual’s leaders or Emir of groups, fighting in various Syrian provinces under various flags.

To evaluate JN, intelligence agencies need to collect and process information about possible threats the group could represent to the West, and to its allies in the Middle East. The intelligence’ customers requirement to know if and when JN, a well trained and highly ideologically motivated and experienced in warfare, is planning any direct or indirect attacks against western interests or at home. Moreover, it is essential to have a picture of JN’s role as part of global jihadist organisations with connection and networks overseas. It is also important to evaluate if it is going to evolve, once its objective in Syria is achieved, into another global terrorist group and network, since JN is an Al-Qaeda’ franchise.

Intelligence would carry forward to decision makers all necessary information, creating an understanding of JN’s ideology, composition, capability and future plans enabling anticipation, prevention, disruption and limitation of the threat. Furthermore, additional awareness can be created through the use of Intelligence partners domestically and overseas, operating a framework of teamwork, enabling the implementation of new anti terrorist measures and legislations.

As the number of Muslims in western societies increases, essential questions must be addressed: how many Muslims, living among us, are linked to Al-Qaeda or affected by its propaganda? How can intelligence services monitor communication between Jihadists abroad and those more vulnerable, watching and dreaming about the “glory of Islam”, prone to join Jihad overseas? What counter-propaganda policy could governments introduce to explain the nature of war in the Middle East and its political purposes? This is the role of intelligence to act and provide sufficient information to decision makers about what they are or they would most likely face or have to deal with.



Intelligence Requirements:

Intelligence can be best met through the following broad categories: Human called “HUMINT”, offering advance warning and physical access to first hand information only to specific people; “SIGINT”, monitoring communication, encrypted messages or open platforms such as social media; “IMINT” by Satellite and aerial photography or images[7]; Open-sourced intelligence offers exclusive insight to information, but requires corroboration and special attention.

As JN was part of ISIS[8] and is, at the moment, part of al-Qaeda, it must be considered a potential threat. Therefore, the intelligence community needs an insight into its short, medium and long term strategy in order to determine the level of menace; its composition and leadership; the area and cities of its deployment; its communication system; a regular updates on the quantity and quality of weaponry the group is holding; Its security measures and electronic warfare; its frequency on social media; its propaganda machine; its military achievement; its kinetic development within itself and among other friendly or enemy local groups; its modus operandi and military capability and experience; its wealth and the taxes imposed within its controlled area; its financial capability and its international or regional donors; its connection with global Jihad; its ultimate goal and objectives and how JN intends to achieve these; and finally, the religious propaganda it uses to attract civilians and gather recruits.

JN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani claimed “the aim of the group is limited to Syria with no specific agenda to target the West”[9]. Unlike other religious extremists groups, JN has learned from AQ long experience “to earn the mind and the hearts of the people”[10]. It is essential for intelligence to learn which approach JN uses to achieve this goal. JN stroked alliances also with secular groups for convenience and tactical purposes, contradicting strict religious Islamic teaching. This shows a sophisticated tactic, ready to bypass religious obstacles in order to reach its ultimate goal. In fact, JN is adopting “Jihad al Tamkeen”[11]. JN is in a phase of gathering more power and a wider control over territory to blend with the population and reach the long awaited “Islamic State”. As an al-Qaeda franchise, it hosts foreign fighters[12] and adheres to al-Qaeda principles and objectives. This is one of the main intelligence requirements to monitor closely, since foreigners, including Europeans, have travel easily in western societies.

Policing at home is needed to gather adequate intelligence, with the involvement of the army (Special Forces), and the External Intelligence Service abroad for counter-terrorism activities to have access to specific key individuals, sensitive material, lower rank militants and potential relatives and friends orbiting in the same circle of JN. It requires a collaboration with local authorities when possible, a HUMINT among the group itself and within its entourage to be up-to-date with its plans. Moreover, monitoring open source information and social media offers a wide range of timely knowledge, insight and unwittingly shared information. Intelligence specialists are also interested in the evolution of open source, which has “blurred traditional distinctions between intelligence and information and the barrier between secret and non-secret”(Andrew et al 2009)[13].





The real challenge for the Intelligence community is to find acceptance of their product among decision makers. Politicians have been delivering contradictory messages related to Syria, considering Al-Qaeda in Syria as part of the global moderate opposition[14]. The information delivered by the Intelligence community to the decision makers could also be incorrect, wrongly interpreted, incomplete or unsuitable for the decision makers’ political agenda. If politicians agreed to act against a potential threat, the challenge consists in identifying financial resources, the location and habits of leaders, and related cells abroad to cripple and contain when necessary.

According to Simon Hersh, “leaders may allow extremist Jihadists to proliferate”[15]. U.S. ex-General Petraeus campaigned to talk to Jabhat al-Nusra, defined as “al-Qaeda moderate”[16] to use against ISIS whereas no Al-Qaeda moderate ever existed. U.S President Barak Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry urged, “Russia to stop bombing Moderate Syrian rebels”[17], allowing the supply of weapons to flow into their hands[18]. Supplying weapons to al-Qaeda is neither legal nor ethical.

Concerning legal and ethical aspects, Martin Cook argued, “The individuals who initiated the terror attacks are clearly not soldiers in any moral or legal sense (..). This means that, if captured, they are not entitled to the benevolent quarantine of the POW convention or of domestic criminal law”[19]. Nonetheless, Michael Ignatieff[20] argues, “Exaggerated reactions to terror by democratic societies play into the strategy of terrorists in two ways. Defensives measures pose one kind of danger. When democratic society abandons its principles willy-nilly in the face of terrorism, it gives credence to the political argument of the terrorist: that the democratic legal order is only a mask of convenience, behind which lurk naked force and violent self-interest”.

In fact, the U.S occupation of Iraq – that Ignatieff supports by calling it a “pre-emptive war on terror” – has contributed to the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, transformed into ISIS,[21] and of which JN is the splinter. The shameful of Abu Ghraib torture and scandal[22], and the excess force used in Iraq played into the hands of terrorists. To disregard the value promoted in western societies, when fighting terrorism, is to help terrorists win. This is a hugely important issue: the nature and identity of democracy are put at risk when counter terrorism disregards values and ethics.

“What happens when counterterrorism, likewise, ceases to be motivated by principle and comes to be driven by the same complex or emotional drives”? (Ignatieff, p.114). He expresses great concern about a policing state, or a “security state” on permanent alert, causing a serious threat to freedom in society. “The challenge of an ethical life in a liberal democracy is to live up, as individuals, to the engagements expressed in our constitutions and to seek to ensure that these engagements are kept in respect of the least advantaged of our fellow citizens”(p.169).

Another ethical debate is raised by military intelligence’s use of drones. Some argue that it is a necessary technology to kill Al-Qaeda leaders[23], unaware that drones “cause far more civilian casualties than the government admits and that anger over them fuels terrorism”[24]. To kill few hundreds Al-Qaeda militants, drone missiles are responsible for the killing of over 1700 civilians, who’s family members would happily seek revenge and join Jihad.



BENEFITS of using this intelligence in the wider counterterrorism campaign:

Taplin argues, “If an activity does not involve secrecy, it is not intelligence. Thus, the overt collection of information is not a part of intelligence” (1989). Many years later, the UK Security Service 2012 stated “Intelligence is information of all sorts gathered by a government or organisation to guide its decisions. It includes information that may be both public and private, obtained from many different public or secret sources. It could consist entirely of information from either publicly available or secret sources, or be a combination of the two”. Therefore, all kind of information collected, including open source, serves the counter terrorism campaign.

Intelligence supports decision makers to opt if there is a need to increase or decrease the level of concern and add resources to counter terrorism. Governments need to assess the consequences of their decisions to adopt the adequate response and prepare or protect the society from vengeful terrorists reaction, particularly in religious extremist groups[25] like Al-Qaeda and its franchises, including Jabhat al-Nusra.

When a foreign policy is clear and government objectives are shared and unambiguous, the potential participation of a public, eager to contribute, is realised. People want to be positively involved in helping to secure the society they live in. It is a challenge the intelligence community needs to meet. The war in Syria is attracting the World’s attention, but above all, the attention of the Muslim Youth around the globe. Millions of these live in western societies. Jonathan Evans, head of United Kingdom’s Security Service, MI-5, noted in November 2007 “his organisation had identified at least 2,000 individuals whom we believed posed a direct threat to national security and public safety, because of their support for terrorism. We suspect that there are as many again that we don’t yet know of”[26]. This is one of the biggest domestic challenges counter intelligence needs to face at home. The increase by governments of their counter terrorism budget is an important element to meet the domestic and international intelligence gathering[27] and challenges. Even if the number of victims of terrorist attacks in western societies is low[28], the violence and brutality expressed impose on the intelligence services to mobilise enough effort to prevent these attacks. Therefore, Intelligence is vital so that counter terrorism procedures can “prevent, pursue, protect and prepare”[29]. With the increase of extremist violence organisations in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the easy access to destructive material, more effort is needed to keep pace with the evolving terrorist methods. Religious terrorist organisations are those who aim at bigger audiences and killing more people around the globe. Looking at history, religious terrorist groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra, take longer to contain and cripple than any other groups[30]. Understanding the values held by the leaders of JN is also important. Their leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani is charismatic and a key figure: does his elimination increase the likelihood of collapse of the organisation? Jenna Jordan argues that decapitation is “only effective in 17% of all cases”[31]. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the internal dynamic of the group and the key figures in the organisation for a proper counter terrorism campaign when needed.

Providing first hand intelligence information about JN is time sensitive. It needs to be transformed from its raw data aspect into a usable product of value to decision-makers. A correct assessment can be reached through a combination of experience, accumulated knowledge, attention to minute details, and corroboration of the information to process. It is certainly not a single ability, more a task involving multiple functions and collective effort by many individuals and organisations, enabling access to comprehension of previously unknown material, liable to affect decision-makers’ policy and counter terrorism procedures. It requires experience, knowledge and analytical minds to assess, analyse, and interpret sensible material – all vitally brought together through teamwork. The use of intelligence in Counter terrorism efficiency can effectively be achieved through the collaboration of the various intelligence services to avoid intelligence failures, as in the cases of Al-Balwai[32] and the 9/11[33].


Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda in the Levant publishing a very recent  communiqué; Read the text carefully:



“We, in Jabhat al-Nusra, are part of a Jihadi Sunni project, we fight to raise the word of God high AND to lift unjustness over the people of the Levant (or Sham, Syria)”.

Raising the World of God is not limited to a geography, city, country or continent. The selection of every single word or letter in Communiqué written by politico-Islamic scholars is meticulous and important, carrying a wider not limited horizon.



[1] Cafarella, J., Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria, An Islamic Emirate for al-Qaeda, Institute for the Study Of War, December 2014. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/JN%20Final.pdf

[2] Known as IS (The “Islamic State”), ISIS (“Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”), ISIL (L stands for the Levant), Daesh (acronym translated from Arabic); A terrorist group emanated from the womb of Al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq and that expended to Syria and to various Middle Eastern and African countries. More information: Bunzel Cole, From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State, N.19, March 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/ideology-of-islamic-state-bunzel/the-ideology-of-the-islamic-state.pdf

[3] TRAC – Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, AQC. http://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/al-qaeda-central-command-aqc

[4] Khasraw, G., The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Levant) ISIS, Global Security Studies, Vol 5, Issue 2, Spring 2014. http://www.globalsecuritystudies.com/Gulmonhamad%20ISIS%20AG.pdf

[5] Moussalli, A., Wahhabism, Salafism and Islamism: Who is the Enemy? Conflict Forum: Beirut – London – Washington, January 2009, p.5. http://conflictsforum.org/briefings/Wahhabism-Salafism-and-Islamism.pdf

[6] Oxford Islamic Studies Online. http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2319

[7] Intelligence Collection Disciplines (INTs), The FBI. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/intelligence/disciplines

[8] Mapping Militant Organisations, Stanford University, 2016. https://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/493

[9] Al-Jazeera, Nusra Leader: “Our mission is to defeat Syrian regime”, exclusive interview, 28 May 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/nusra-front-golani-assad-syria-hezbollah-isil-150528044857528.html

[10] Venhaus, John, Col., Why Youth Join al-Qaeda, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report, P.7. http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR236Venhaus.pdf

 [11] The Union of the Islamic Ulema, Jihad al-Tamqeen, {Arabic] http://islamsyria.com/portal/article/show/5254 . A temporarily tactical attitude, allowed by Islamic scholars, that is not considered as a deviation from the path of Jihad. It is a temporarily stage, striking alliance for the sake of the bigger cause, until a group or a person becomes stronger and moves to the right implementation of the Shari’a, the Islamic law.

[12] Al-Jazeera, Nusra Leader: “Thirty percent of our fighters are foreigners”, exclusive interview, 28 May 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/nusra-front-golani-assad-syria-hezbollah-isil-150528044857528.html

[13] Andrew C., Aldrich RJ., and Wark WK. (eds)2009 Secret Intelligence: A Reader. Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge 2009

[14] Bromwich, D., Huffiest Politics, Syria, the Times and the Mystery of the “moderate Rebels”, Oct 04, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-bromwich/syria-the-times-and-myste_b_8236164.html

[15] Hersh, M. Simon, Military to Military, Seymour M. Hersh on US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war, London review of books, Vol. 38 No.1, 7 January 2016. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military

[16] Timn, T., David petraeus’ bright idea: Give terrorists weapons to beat terrorists, The Guardian, 2 September 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/02/david-petraeus-bright-idea-give-terrorists-weapons-to-beat-isis

[17] Obama Urges Russia To Stop Bombing “Moderate” Syrian Rebels, HUFFIEST POLITICS, 02/14/2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obama-russia-syrian-rebels_us_56c0b21ee4b08ffac125a978

[18] Peter Oborne – BBC Radio – The Report – Al Qaeda in Syria, 17 Dec 2015, Listen to on the 29/12/2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06s0qy9

 [19] Cook, L. Martin, Ethical Issues in Counterterrorism Warfare, Markkula Centre for applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, Septembre 1, 2001. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/more/resources/ethical-issues-in-counterterrorism-warfare/

[20] Ignatieff, M., The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, 2005

[21] Leopold Jason, The CIA Just Declassified the Document That Supposedly Justified the Iraq Invasion,ViceNews, 19 March 2015, President Obama said: “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion”. https://news.vice.com/article/the-cia-just-declassified-the-document-that-supposedly-justified-the-iraq-invasion

[22] Hersh Simon, Torture at Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker, 10 May 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/10/torture-at-abu-ghraib

[23] Byman L. Daniel, Why Drones Worrk: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice The Brookings, July/August 2013. http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2013/06/17-drones-obama-weapon-choice-us-counterterrorism-byman

[24] Mockaitis, Tom. Drones and the Ethics of War, Huffiest Politics, 12/Jan/2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-mockaitis/drones-and-the-ethics-of_b_8961510.html

[25] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 185–205.

[26] Jonathan Evans, “Address to the Society of Editors’ ‘A Matter of Trust’ Conference” (London: Security Service, November 5, 2007). https://www.mi5.gov.uk/home/about-us/who-we-are/staff-and-management/director-general/speeches-by-the-director-general/intelligence-counter-terrorism-and-trust.html

[27] European Parliament, Briefing, Counter-terrorism funding in the EU budget http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/559490/EPRS_BRI(2015)559490_EN.pdf

[28] Europol, Rise in terrorist attacks in Europe in 2012, The Hague, the Netherlands, 25 April 2013. https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/rise-terrorist-attacks-europe-2012

[29] GOV.UK, CONTEST, UK strategy for countering terrorism: annual report for 2014. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/contest-uk-strategy-for-countering-terrorism-annual-report-for-2014

[30] Jones, G.S. and Libicki, C. M., How terrorist Groups End, Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, The Rand, 2008. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2008/RAND_MG741-1.pdf

[31] Jordan, J,. When Heads Roll: Assessing the effectiveness of leadership decapitation, Rutledge, pp. 719-755, 2009. http://informationcollective.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Jordan.pdf

[32] Warrick Joby, The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, 2011. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol.-55-no.-3/the-triple-agent-the-al-qaeda-mole-who-infiltrated-the-cia.html

[33] Ross Brian, CIA didn’t share info about 9/11 Hijackers, abc News, 24 July 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/International/flight-crew-passengers-onboard-hijacked-egyptian-plane/story?id=37994528


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