NJOHSP assesses al-Qa’ida is attempting to reform its operations in Syria following a split with its affiliate, the Nusrah Front. Since 2012, al-Qa’ida has maintained an active presence in Syria, taking advantage of the multi-faceted conflict; however, in 2016, the Nusrah Front broke with al-Qa’ida and is focusing its efforts on the Syrian conflict.
ISIS will likely continue refining its UAV capabilities and touting successes as proofs of concept for future operations. Since February, ISIS claims it has conducted approximately 80 UAV attacks in Iraq and Syria, killing approximately 40 and injuring 100. The UAVs are primarily quadcopters, which can be easily purchased online and customized to drop small explosive munitions.
On February 26, US military forces killed al-Qa’ida deputy leader Abu Khayr al-Masri in northwestern Syria, further undermining the organization’s command structure in Syria. Masri, the global deputy to al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a member of the Khorasan Group—a network of senior al-Qa’ida extremists in Syria dedicated to planning operations against the United States and Europe and advising the Nusrah Front, al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in the country.
Since May, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has tried to maintain operational and strategic momentum in the face of setbacks by recasting its propaganda, downplaying territorial losses, and emphasizing its potential long-term impact on the global jihad. Since 2015, the group lost approximately 30 percent of its territory and 120 leaders.
The Nusrah Front—al Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria—this summer changed its name to the Levant Conquest Front, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as part of a rebranding strategy to improve its image among local Syrians, participate in future Syrian peace talks, and decrease the number of US-led airstrikes against its positions in Syria. In July, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the head of the Nusrah Front, stated the organization would no longer associate with groups outside Syria, including al-Qa’ida.
The assassination on May 13 of Mustafa Badreddine—a Hizballah commander in Syria and head of the group’s External Security Organization—will not dissuade Hizballah from supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. According to Hizballah, an unspecified Sunni rebel group conducted the assassination; however, no group has claimed responsibility. Badreddine had been a member of Hizballah since its inception in 1982 and took part in a majority of its operations. According to Western media, he commanded 5,000 to 6,000 Hizballah fighters as of 2011.
Senior leadership losses, the limited recruitment of Western operatives, and increased involvement in the Syrian Civil War has diminished the Khorasan Group's ability to attack the United States. Since late 2014, the Khorasan Group—a network of senior al-Qa’ida extremists in Syria dedicated to planning operations against the United States—has not carried out any plots or attacks.
Hizballah fighters since 2011 have gained substantial combat experience in the Syrian civil war, conducting offensive operations and developing urban warfare skills that will likely bolster the group’s military capabilities in future conflicts, including with Israel. According to a US think tank, Hizballah as of this year had an estimated 5,000 fighters spread across the Levant region, and a large portion of them have traveled to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Western government efforts to prevent extremists from traveling to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are having the unintended consequence of increasing the threat to local targets, specifically law enforcement. Since last fall, Western ISIS sympathizers have attacked law enforcement officers in their home countries after they were denied travel to Syria; other would-be travelers have stated to authorities that they would shoot officers at home if they could not reach Syria.