ALEPPO, SYRIA - A shadowy jihadist organization that first surfaced on the Internet to assert responsibility for suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus has stepped out of the shadows and onto the front lines of the war for Syria's cities.
In Aleppo, the Al-Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant, widely known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, is fielding scores of fighters, some of them foreigners, in the battle for control of Syria's commercial capital, a key prize in the bitter war of attrition being waged across the country.
The group, suspected of affiliations to Al-Qaida, says it is also fighting in other locations, including the cities of Homs and Idlib and the suburbs of Damascus, the capital. Its growing role has prompted concerns that Syria's 17-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime is becoming radicalized as the bloodshed soars.
On a recent morning, three jihadist fighters chambered bullets into their AK-47 rifles as their bearded driver sped through Aleppo's streets in a battle-scarred white van. "If shooting starts, put your head down," said one of the jihadists as the van headed toward the flash-point Salahuddin neighborhood, blending in with the vehicles of other fighters.
Reluctance to arm rebels
Jabhat al-Nusra's growing visibility on the streets of Syrian cities highlights one of the reasons the United States and its allies have been reluctant to arm Syrian rebels. Fears are widespread among Western governments that weapons sent to the rebels could wind up in the hands of extremists.
The group's commander, Abu Ibrahim, said in an interview at the mosque that serves as his headquarters in the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, that he has 300 men under his control. About 50 of his fighters were seen milling around the mosque, many wearing the baggy calf-length pants and long beards associated with devout Islamists.
Most of those fighting for Abu Ibrahim, a 32-year-old stone mason from a nearby village, are Syrians from Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. But some are Arab volunteers, among hundreds from the region and beyond who are thought to have trickled into Syria in recent months to join the fight against Assad's regime. Abu Ibrahim said his contingent includes men from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon, as well as one Syrian who had fought in Iraq against the Americans.
Jabhat al-Nusra is the only Syrian rebel group that posts on a Web forum that is used by Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and other known Al-Qaida affiliates. This suggests a link, at least through its media department, to the main Al-Qaida terrorist network, a connection that endows Jabhat al-Nusra with a credibility among jihadists that other organizations lack, said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"This is the premier jihadi organization in Syria right now," he said.
Abu Ibrahim denies any direct affiliation with the terrorist network, however.
Most of the other rebel units battling government tanks and aircraft in Aleppo operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and are primarily secular. But a visit to the city did not reveal any significant schism between the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the more-secular units.
Abu Ibrahim said his fighters are part of Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Unity Brigade, a newly formed battalion of rebel groups fighting in and around Aleppo.
"We are together," he said. "There is good coordination."
'Fight without fear'
And although many in the Free Syrian Army say they reject the ideology of Islamist extremism, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra are regarded "as heroes" in Aleppo, said Abu Feras, a spokesman for the Aleppo Revolutionary Council. "They fight without fear or hesitation," he said.
Most analysts say the group has a relatively minor role in what began last year as a mostly peaceful protest movement demanding greater freedoms. Any popularity that Jabhat al-Nusra enjoys among Syrians is "opportunistic" and rooted in disillusionment with the apparent lack of international support, said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But as Jabhat al-Nusra increasingly claims a range of other attacks, including kidnappings and bombings across the country, it is becoming clear that the group is cementing a presence on the ground and expanding its reach, said Zelin, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.