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Islamic Front brigade launches joint raid with al Qaeda's Syrian branches

The Ahrar al Sham Islamic Movement, one of six units of the newly formed Islamic Front, conducted a joint raid with al Qaeda's two official branches in Syria against Hezbollah and pro-Assad militias. Ahrar al Sham also was involved in the recent takeover of a large cache of weapons and munitions owned by the Free Syrian Army.

The Ahrar al Sham Islamic Movement announced that it, in conjunction with the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, targeted "the headquarters of [Hezbollah] and Abu al Fadhil al 'Abbas," a pro-government Syrian Shia militia, in the Sayyidah Zaynab and Hujayra farms area Damascus. The exact date of the operation was not disclosed. The statement, which is headed "Islamic Front / Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement | Damascus," was released by the group on Dec. 7 and obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

"The mujahideen engaged with the shabiha [thug] militias with light machine guns and silenced pistols, which led to the killing of more than 50 of the shabiha, and taking of spoils of a number of individual weapons," Ahrar al Sham stated. Additionally, the three groups ambushed a supply column and destroyed "four vehicles of the traitor army."

Ahrar al Sham, a force estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000 fighters, has conducted numerous joint operations with the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS in the past. Some of the more notable joint operations include overrunning the Taftanaz airbase in Idlid in January; taking control of the city of Raqqah in March; massed assaults in Idlib in May; assaulting the Christian town of Malula in September; and attacks on the villages of Maksar al-Husan, Job al-Jarrah, and al-Massoudiyya, also in September.

Ahrar al Sham was one of 11 groups, including the Al Nusrah Front, that in September rejected the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and called for the establishment of sharia, or Islamic law, throughout Syria.

In November, Ahrar al Sham formed the Islamic Front along with five other large Islamist brigades that have also cooperated with al Qaeda's branches in the past. The Islamic Front is estimated to consist of about 45,000 fighters. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Formation of Islamic Front in Syria benefits jihadist groups.]

The Islamic Front's charter, released on Nov. 26, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state and the imposition of Islamic law, both of which are goals shared by al Qaeda. The charter also hints that the Islamic Front will continue to work with al Qaeda's branches in Syria. It welcomes the "Muhajireen" [emigrants or foreign fighters] as "our brothers who supported us in jihad." [See LWJ report, Islamic Front endorses jihad, says 'the Muhajireen are our brothers'.]

The Islamic Front has recently seized bases and warehouses in northern Syria near the border with Turkey that were used by the Free Syria Army to store and distribute weapons, ammunition, supplies, and aid sent by the US and Western and Arab countries.

Among the items confiscated from the FSA by the Islamic Front are "2,000 AK-47 rifles, 1,000 assorted arms--including M79 Osa rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades, and 14.5mm heavy machine guns--in addition to more than 200 tons of ammunition" and "at least 100 FSA military vehicles," according to a report today in Asharq al Awsat. An Ahrar al Sham commander known as Abu Al Nur is said to have led the operation. The warehouses were raided by the Islamic Front a few days before Nov. 24. The Islamist fighters also detained several FSA commanders during the raid. [See LWJ report, Islamic Front fighters take over Free Syrian Army bases near Turkish border.]

The theft of Western-supplied weapons and equipment by Islamist groups has been going on for some time. In mid-September, the ISIS raided a weapons depot of the FSA's Supreme Military Council in northern Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported. Council members said the depot had contained light weapons and ammunition. [See Threat Matrix, Report: American-supplied arms fell into al Qaeda's hands.] Around that time, Turkey closed its border gate at Öncüp?nar to block an ISIS advance; clashes between the FSA and ISIS in nearby Azaz were subsequently resolved by a truce. In late October, a report in the Turkish press claimed that the US had suspended arms shipments to Syrian rebels in the north after ISIS had seized a border crossing.

In the wake of the Islamic Front's recent large-scale takeover of Free Syrian Army weapons and equipment, both the United States and the United Kingdom have suspended the shipment of all nonlethal supplies to the FSA in northern Syria.

Downplaying the developments, Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad called for the resumption of supply shipments, and said the fighting between the Islamic Front and the FSA was merely a "misunderstanding" that Supreme Military Council head Salim Idriss was attempting to resolve through dialogue.

[Source: By Bill Roggio and Lisa Lundquist, The Long War Journal, NJ, 11Dec13]

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