The recent push by Nusra Front into Idlib and the defeat of Jamal Marouf's Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) has brought a little known group, Jund al-Aqsa, into prominence in the West. Jund al-Aqsa, or The Soldiers of Aqsa (referring to Islam's third holiest mosque in Jerusalem), is an independent battalion that has grown since the strife between Islamic State and Nusra Front began in January this year. It has also shown restraint in not joining the infighting between 'moderate' FSA fighters and Islamist rebel forces, concentrating instead on combating the Assad regime. This restraint has lead to many, both Syrian and foreign fighters, joining them. However, recently they took the unprecedented step of joining Nusra Front in finishing off Jamal Marouf's SRF.
Jund al-Aqsa, initially known as Sarayat al-Quds, was founded by Abu Abdul 'Aziz al-Qatari, a close friend of Sheikh Abdul 'Azzam, the father of the Afghan Jihad in the 80s and close mentor to Osama bin Laden. It draws its inspiration from scholars like Hamid bin Hammad al-'Ali al-Kuwaiti and is in contact with the likes of Sheikh Maqdisi and Sheikh Suleiman Ulwan, the former being one of the most important scholars within the Salafi-Jihadist discourse. Its current leader is a Syrian. Jund started off as a battalion within Nusra Front, but then separated partly because Nusra Front was growing too quickly. The brigade was over-stretched and running into debt and has been hurt by fighting Islamic State.
Jund has not made the same mistakes as Nusra Front and has avoided the intra-rebel imbroglio. Jund al-Aqsa's vision is to knock out the Assad regime and set up a state running on Islamic law. Where they differ with the Islamic State is not necessarily its goals, rather its methods. Jund al-Aqsa seems to have learnt a lesson from groups who pronounce Takfeer (accusation of apostasy) on each other. Accusing someone of apostasy means that rebels can potentially deprive each other of their life and property. It's also a good excuse to loot and kill. So far, in the Syrian context, this has been used to validate widespread torture and bloodletting. This is not just, as is commonly believed, an Islamic State trait but other battalions do the same. On the 15th October, Jamal Marouf's SRF, declared Nusra Front to be apostates and it is alleged that they killed and kidnapped foreign fighters belonging to Islamist forces as a consequence. According to locals in Idlib province, SRF are notorious for extortion and kidnapping and its stronghold of Jebel Zawiya is known as 'Mafia Mountain'.
Jund has refrained from making Takfeer on other groups, whatever the personal view of their fighters. Its neutrality has meant that it has continued to receive funding from wealthy private donors from the Gulf who do not want to finance groups involved in the rebel infighting. Moreover, its perceived independence has allowed it to play an important role in resolving the disputes between the warring rebel factions. The late Abu Abdul 'Aziz al-Qatari had been instrumental in trying to mediate between Nusra Front and Islamic State and could have succeeded had it not been for his death, allegedly at the hands of Syrian Martyr's Brigade.
Jund al-Aqsa has a mixture of local and foreign fighters of around a thousand men and is growing daily. It works with all groups, from Salafi Jihadi, Palestinian movements to groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and even with the FSA. Whilst visiting the group in October, I received unconfirmed news that sixty Ahrar as-Sham fighters had joined Jund. Speaking to some of the fighters, it appears that defections are common.
A lot of Jund al-Aqsa's military expertise is drawn from veterans of the Iraqi, Afghani and Bosnian Jihads. Approximately seventy percent of the battalion are Syrian, the rest are foreigners. The soldiers' background ranges from the wealthy Saudi fighter to the quiet Brit from the suburbs, to the itinerant Taliban fighter who is determined to raise the flag of Islam everywhere. Some of these foreign fighters can reach a high level of responsibility; for instance, one of the members was the late Abu Hafs al-Britani, who was trained by Albanians and who, in turn, trained other rebels. Abu Hafs was, like many Brits fighting in Syria, middle class, and did not have a social media presence. He devoted himself to religious studies until the Syrian civil war broke out. He joined the rebels and proved himself a capable fighter. The battalion prefers to recruit Muhajirs, emigrant or foreign fighters, because they tend to be more motivated by their faith and from other groups with recognised fighting credentials like Ahrar as-Sham or Nusra Front. They avoid US funded groups like Harakat al-Hazm. There are also a number of 'freelance' unaffiliated fighters who work closely with the group. The most notable being Yilmaz, the Dutch ex-soldier who appears regularly on Western media outlets.
The areas that Jund controls centre mostly in and around Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo and are held jointly with other Islamist forces. They seem to have local support and have not alienated them. I witnessed a close relationship between the fighters and the locals. This, one assumes, is because the locals acknowledge its charity work and its members' good discipline. Another reason for their success is probably because they do not enforce their vision of Islam on the local populace relying instead on winning their hearts and minds through their charitable works, victories and proselytization.
Their military strategy so far has been to attack areas that they know they can hold. Up until the recent conflict in Idlib, significant battles include Ma'an, Khattab, Arzeh, and Khan Sheikhoon. The group is also known for its bomb making expertise, especially for the quality of their hell-fire mortars which they produce in their own workshops. In terms of martyrdom operations or suicide bombings, whilst the group have not taken part in any, they are not averse to them but unlike Islamic State, they will use them only as a last resort.
Jund's attitude towards the West can probably be described as Salafi-Jihadi with an anti-colonial tinge. One of their emirs, Abu Nasser, a former soldier from the Arabian Peninsula for instance, told me that he had come to help the Muslims first and foremost, and it was the world's silence on the chemical massacre which moved him to join the conflict. A lot of the men I interviewed clearly viewed the United States as an aggressor. In their opinion, US led air-strikes against Islamic State and Nusra Front are an attack on all Muslims. In fact, they consider it a point of religious creed that one cannot ally oneself with non-Muslim Western nations to attack fellow Muslims. One fighter, Abu Talha, stated that even to "rejoice at the bombing of Islamic State by a non-Muslim country is to have a faulty creed and could lead to heresy". This probably explains why Jund decided to join Nusra Front in fighting SRF and any battalion aligned to US interests.
Before the defeat of Jamal Marouf's SRF, Jund had been buffeted by the former's declaration of war on the Nusra Front. SRF are seen as favoured by the US. This, combined with the US air strikes on Nusra Front strongholds, has probably pushed Jund to break its neutrality. Jund naturally sided with Nusra Front due to its close working relationship and its ideological closeness. Not only is Jund's position indicative of its indignation towards SRF's questionable practices, but it's also a sign that US intervention is pushing other forces, whose goal was Assad, to take more hard line positions.