Al-Qaeda Steps Back to Let Nusra Move Forward in Syria

Osama bin Laden, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (Illustration by Varsha Sundar for TIMEP)

In a well-publicized announcement on Thursday, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it was changing its name in order to distance itself from the al-Qaeda brand. The maneuver was a well-executed public relations move, having convinced some segment of observers and even jihadists of the veracity of the split between the groups, but it was neither substantial nor unprecedented for the parent organization. The decision and their moves to publicize the transition have historical precedent in Iraq: In 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq successfully garnered support from other militant groups by dropping the al-Qaeda moniker, though the groups retained close ties for seven more years. A letter from al-Qaeda’s central command to its franchise in Iraq at the time shows the cynical logic behind the apparent distancing of the two organizations. Last week’s move of changing Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham similarly is an attempt to develop a grassroots backing for the Syrian organization without a change in leadership, direction, or ideology.

Breakup or a ruse?

Consider the sequence of events that preceded the reconfiguration on Thursday. In May, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, made a statement in which he gave permission to Jabhat al-Nusra to renounce its name and unite with other groups, under certain conditions. He said al-Qaeda had no qualms with name changing if the change implied more unity with local groups. Zawahiri suggested that other rebel groups should unite with the front with the goal of establishing an Islamic government after the collapse of the regime if they wanted Jabhat al-Nusra to distance themselves from al-Qaeda. His message implied that Jabhat al-Nusra would not rebrand itself for naught, but that it would only progress toward the attainment of objectives envisioned by al-Qaeda.

Before the announcement of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as it is now known, the group leaked the news of the impending split through social media. This information suggested officials were still divided over the issue, and insiders discussed the potential drawbacks and advantages of the move. The phrase used to describe the upcoming announcement was fakk al-irtibat, or breaking ties. Even after the group eventually confirmed the news, the narrative is still shaped largely by the discussions that preceded the actual statements, and Arabic-speaking observers continued to refer to fakk al-irtibat, though the group’s releases did not use it. It was a leak done spectacularly well.

On Thursday, al-Qaeda’s supreme deputy, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khair, issued a statement reiterating his boss’s message from May. “Organizations and groups should be a tool for unity and mobilization, not division and confrontation,” he said. “Such efforts should initiate an advanced phase in which Sunni people establish an entity that represents their demands and rights” (emphasis added). Abu al-Khair went on to say, “We direct Jabhat al-Nusra’s central command to move forward in a way that preserves the interests of Islam and Muslims and protect the jihad of the people of Syria, and we urge it to take the necessary steps in that direction. We have taken this step and call on the jihadist factions in Syria to unite around what pleases God.”

Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, then appeared for the first time in another video released Thursday and announced that his group would cease operations under the old name and would be renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which “no longer has any relationship with an external party.” That claim notwithstanding, the three statements by Jolani, Zawahiri, and Abu al-Khair were carefully worded and none explicitly said that the group would break ties with al-Qaeda. The reasoning of the two statements on Thursday was that a name change would deprive the U.S.-led coalition from any pretext to attack the new group and that rebel forces would find it easier to merge under Fatah al-Sham.

Withdrawal of baya

The notion that Jabhat al-Nusra had totally disengaged from al-Qaeda was influenced by the discussions that preceded the announcement. Fakk al-irtibat would be an unequivocal announcement that the group had broken from al-Qaeda. It is a jihadi norm that the two sides would mention the baya, or oath of allegiance, a procedure that has been at the heart of the dispute between Islamic State and al-Qaeda for the past three years. If al-Qaeda were breaking ties with Jabhat al-Nusra, it would have released Fatah al-Sham from its predecessor’s loyalty pledge, and Fatah al-Sham would have similarly withdrawn its pledge.

Such procedures are standard practices by Islamists and jihadists, and were used by Jabhat al-Nusra as an excuse to break away from its founders in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq, arguing that the baya was given to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but only after he said he had sworn baya to Zawahiri. The choice of Abu al-Khayr, instead of Zawahiri, to deliver the message also cast doubt about the move. Abu al-Khayr, who mentions in his statement that the directive to Jabhat al-Nusra is given “in my capacity” as the deputy, is domiciled in Syria. His presence in Syria renders Jolani’s statement about “relationship to an external party” an exercise in sophistry.

The declaration on Thursday demonstrates Fatah al-Sham’s commitment to al-Qaeda on multiple levels. Half of Jolani’s statement was dedicated to expressing gratitude to al-Qaeda’s leaders. He sat next to two jihadist veterans, Ahmed Salama Mabrook—known by his nom de guerre Abu Farag al-Masri, a former member of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and one of the founders of al-Qaeda—and Abdel Rahim Atoun—also known as Abu Abdullah al-Shami, a Syrian jihadist who serves as a top sharia cleric for Jabhat al-Nusra. The choice, according to posts in private jihadi social media groups, was meant to symbolize the brotherhood of muhajireen (foreign fighters) and ansar (local jihadists), and that that Fatah al-Sham is still committed to protecting foreign fighters in Syria. Jolani also appeared in a white turban and military fatigues, echoing familiar wear by Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri.

An historical precedent

Notwithstanding the circumstances surrounding the declaration on Thursday, the move is eerily reminiscent of a similar one made in January 2006, when al-Qaeda in Iraq dissolved itself and merged with five insurgent groups to form Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, or the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). The two statements, by the MSC and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, are similar not only in content but also in terms of wording and structure.

The MSC’s founding statement listed six objectives or reasons for the rebranding, while Fatah al-Sham’s declaration listed five objectives for the establishment of the new group. Four of the six objectives, in both cases mentioned in a numerical list at the end of the statements, are identical: fighting aggressors, uniting the mujahideen, implementing sharia, and calling for others to join the newly merged entity.

A letter sent following the establishment of the MSC from Ayman Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s deputy, to Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Iraqi franchise, could help explain al-Qaeda’s calculations behind Thursday’s move. In the letter, Zawahiri advises Zarqawi to focus on fostering deeper popular support for the new group and avoid alienating Iraqis. He explains that Iraq was emerging as the centerpiece of the global jihadi project thanks to the historical significance of Iraq. He wrote, “My belief has always been that Islam’s victory at this day and age will be reached through the establishment of a Muslim country on the methodology of the Prophet in the heartlands of the Islamic world…. While we expect your state to be formed, as it seems to us, in the heartlands of the Muslim world, your jihad and sacrifices, with God’s help, shall be a broad step in the direct path toward that goal.”

In that letter, Zawahiri described the Muslim heartlands as an eagle, with its wings being Syria and Iraq. He then laid out four phases for the mujahideen in Iraq to follow: the expulsion of American troops from Iraq; the establishment of an Islamic emirate or authority, which he says would be developed to become a caliphate ruling as much of Iraq as possible but specifically the Sunni areas to fill the vacuum left behind by the Americans; the expansion of the jihadi wave into secular countries near Iraq; and confrontation with Israel. In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike. In October of that year, the MSC formed the Mutaybeen Pact, which included various local forces and influential individuals. A few days after that, the group evolved into the Islamic State in Iraq.

An advanced phase

Eight years after the letter from Zawahiri, the Iraqi group had fulfilled the first three phases and seemed ahead of the agenda he envisioned. When the group announced an Islamic caliphate in June 2014, Zawahiri rejected its legitimacy, which triggered a full-blown turf war in Syria that persists today. The key reason for his rejection of the caliphate is that the formation was unilateral and lacked legitimacy.

In the letter to Zarqawi, Zawahiri said that the most effective weapon for the mujahideen during the first “proximate goals,” as he called them, namely the expulsion of American troops and the establishment of a provisional Islamic authority, is popular support. He said popular support was central to any nascent jihadi project and “a decisive factor between victory and defeat” even if jihadists took over through a coup. Zawahiri went on to talk about the need to share power with other groups and form shura councils and “a political track, with the mujahideen as its nucleus” supported by tribes, local elites, and ordinary people.

Remarkably, Abu al-Khayr on Thursday described the move by Jabhat al-Nusra as an advanced phase, which tracks with Zawahiri’s four phases as described in the letter to Zarqawi in 2006. Even after al-Qaeda in Iraq merged with other insurgent groups under the MSC, it continued to be an al-Qaeda franchise, until the Islamic State in Iraq split from the parent organization in 2013.

The formation of Fatah al-Sham is by no means a disengagement from al-Qaeda, much less the beginning of an ideological shift. The ceremonial al-Qaeda process that preceded and followed the declaration avoids any real change, and the content of the messages lacks any reference of a breakup or relinquishment of baya. The move simply took a page out of al-Qaeda’s playbook of ensconcing itself within local communities, even if that means operating in disguise. It is worth remembering that Zawahiri rebuked Jolani in 2013 for publicly revealing links to al-Qaeda before consulting him, and that many in the top echelon of Fatah al-Sham were members of al-Qaeda in Iraq when Zarqawi reinvented the group as the MSC.

Implications for the rebels

The reconfiguration of Jabhat al-Nusra has immense implications for the rebels. Fatah al-Sham showed no indication it would address grievances the rebels long raised about the group, such as the imprisonment of non-Islamist rebel leaders, and clashes with moderate factions, which sometimes end with the dismantling of those groups, including the Syrian Revolutionary Front, Hazm Movement and Division 13. Also, the rebranding came after multiple missed opportunities to move away from al-Qaeda and unite the rebels, especially after the string of gains made by the rebels in northern Syria in the early months of last year.

The rebranding will also make it easier for Fatah al-Sham to bring Islamist groups closer to the al-Qaeda project. The abandonment of the al-Qaeda name weakens the rebels’ ability to insulate themselves from Fatah al-Sham. As one activist said, the rebranding will help Fatah al-Sham to squeeze out the remainder of the Free Syrian Army and will enable it to tell people “We are not al-Qaeda anymore. You have no excuse not to obey our rules.”

In fact, the statement by Jolani on Thursday, unlike previous statements, mentions the eradication of hukm al-tawaghit—the rule of falsehood or false deities—as a goal ahead of the mention of toppling the regime and its allies. The English subtitles provided by the group omitted the first goal and only translated the second one. In Salafi-jihadist lingo, hukm al-tawaghit applies to any non-sharia rules. This and much of al-Qaeda’s recent posturing in Syria indicates that the group is stepping up its plans for domination in liberated areas.

The public renouncement of al-Qaeda’s brand can also change the standards on which foreign countries judge jihadist groups. Previously, it was easier to push back against the idea of lumping groups such as Ahrar al-Sham together with Jabhat al-Nusra because the latter had links to al-Qaeda. Syrian jihadists’ commitment to a national agenda sets them apart from jihadists with international links. The situation is different today. None of the main jihadist organizations in Syria—the Islamic State, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham—is linked to al-Qaeda, but links to al-Qaeda will no longer be the sole criterion for foreign powers attacking them.

The new reality will also complicate the situation for the United States. Preventing regional backers of Syrian jihadists from providing support to Fatah al-Sham will require defining new boundaries. Links to al-Qaeda can be dismissed by government or private donors. If the new boundary is jihadists who adhere to a Salafi-jihadist ideology, then Ahrar al-Sham and other groups might lose their ability to argue that they are not Salafi-jihadists because they are committed to a Syrian national agenda.

The reconfiguration of Jabhat al-Nusra will inexorably lead to deeper infiltration of the rebel forces and communities under their control. It will also consolidate the group’s grip and reinforce its leadership of other groups. This will cause the insurgency to become more radicalized, and will ultimately mean greater and more complex American involvement in Syria.

Hassan Hassan

Hassan Hassan

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at TIMEP focusing on militant Islam, Syria, and Iraq. He was previously an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program in London, a research associate at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, and a deputy opinion editor for the National, the leading English language daily in the Middle East. Working in journalism and research since 2008, Mr. Hassan focuses on Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf States, and he has written extensively on Sunni and Shia movements in the region, including for think-tanks such as the European Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chatham House, and the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Hassan is the author, with Michael Weiss, of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a New York Times bestseller chosen as one of the Times of London’s Best Books of 2015 and the Wall Street Journal’s top ten books on terrorism. He is a weekly columnist for the National and has contributed to the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, the Financial Times, and the New York Times, among others. He has appeared on flagship television programs, such as the O'Reilly Factor, Amanpour and the Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. Mr. Hassan received an M.A. in international relations from the University of Nottingham. You can follow him on Twitter: @hxhassan.
Bassam Barabandi

Bassam Barabandi

Bassam Barabandi is a former Syrian diplomat who has defected to the opposition and now serves as a political adviser to the High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella group for Syrian rebels engaging in political talks with the regime. A former First Secretary of the Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC, Mr. Barabandi also served in Damascus, Beijing, and New York. Since leaving the Syrian government, he has provided expertise and consultation on all Syria-related matters to administration officials and members of Congress. Mr. Barabandi is a co-founder of People Demand Change, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to improving conflict mediation and resolution, civil society structures, and humanitarian relief within Syria, and has engaged with a number of pro-democracy organizations seeking a political transition in Syria.
Bassam Barabandi

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