Is Al Qaeda Gone From Syria Or Just Rebranding?
In this Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 image, rebels from Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base in Idlib province, northern Syria. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Al Qaeda is no longer in Syria. That is, if you believe the announcement on Thursday in which the group’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, shed its name, rebranded itself as “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” — or “Front for the Conquest of Syria” — and sought to distance itself from the terrorist organization that spawned it.
Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the jihadist group’s leader, announced the change in a video statement as he revealed his face for the first time. The group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra has been fighting in Syria since 2012, often alongside rebel groups against the government in an effort to establish legitimacy with locals. Its more militant jihadist rival ISIS has shown itself keen on establishing absolute dominance in areas it controls, regardless of local support. Both groups were once Al Qaeda affiliates, but their differences in tactics and aim led to a bloody split in 2014.
ISIS went on to declare a caliphate in territory it seized in Iraq and Syria, garnering global attention with slickly-produced videos of the brutal beheadings of foreign hostages. Jabhat al-Nusra, which experts expect wants to establish an emirate in Syria, has also been accused of carrying out torture, abductions and summary killings by human rights groups like Amnesty International.
“We declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name ‘Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,'”Jolani said, according to The Long War Journal. “This new organization has no affiliation to any external entity.”
In his statement, Jolani offered praise and thanks to senior members of Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda’s leadership in turn released a message in support of the move, saying it “protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and… jihad” in Syria.
Some experts saw the announcement as a response to reports that the United States and Russia are considering increased military and intelligence cooperation to target Jabhat al-Nusra. In response to the group’s announced name change, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. would judge the group “much more by its actions, its ideology, its goals,” adding that “we certainly see no reason to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different, and they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”
We asked Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, and author of “The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency” what this development means.
What does this announcement actually mean — I’ve seen some call it a split, others call it a re-branding. And does it actually mean a severing or lessening of ties with Al Qaeda central? And does Jabhat al-Nusra gain from distancing itself from the Al Qaeda brand?
In truth, it’s a bit of both. Strictly speaking, this new group — Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — has now defined itself as distinct from Al Qaeda, and instead as now representing something far broader: an appeal to Islamist revivalism en masse. Jabhat al-Nusra is telling us something here: “Our jihad in Syria is no longer an elite-led movement, but is now a populist revolution.” In other words, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani is expressly seeking to pull others into a movement he sees himself as having started: namely the replacement of the driving force behind Syria’s revolution from nationalism to conservative Islamism.
Practically speaking, it is therefore, of course, merely a rebranding. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is no different a jihadi organization than Jabhat al-Nusra. It still stands for the same extremist mores; it still seeks the same long-term objectives; and it still retains all of its several dozen Al Qaeda veteran figures. Abu Mohammed al-Jolani himself was sat next to one of international jihadism’s most significant figures, an Egyptian, Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk, whose laptop was once described by the CIA as “the Rosetta Stone of Al Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda is in the process of substantial change, in which it now represents far more of an idea than it does an organization. Jabhat al-Nusra’s move to “independence” has been undertaken in order to continue to pursue Al Qaeda’s vision while avoiding any deleterious consequences of being linked to the transnational terrorist label. This localization of jihad is something to worry about — it’s merely an extension of the same jihadi model we’ve seen Al Qaeda practice before, but we’re now watching movements develop that are willing to take a much longer time to attain those strategic goals. This model stands far more potential for durable success than anything we’ve seen from ISIS over recent years.
Why would Al Qaeda agree to this kind of distancing?
I think Al Qaeda’s central leadership has acknowledged the inevitable — that as a centrally-directed organization, Al Qaeda no longer exists as it did in the past. All the while, however, its idea for international jihad composed variously of “near” and “far” visions remains as alive as it ever has been. Beginning in 2008-2009, Al Qaeda’s senior leadership began talking about a strategic shift towards a “long game” approach to jihad, focused on embracing populist revolutionary dynamics and the pursuit of gradualism as a mechanism for socializing disenfranchised communities into embracing the jihad, over the long-term. Attempts to introduce this approach to Yemen and Mali failed in the past, but Jabhat al-Nusra has demonstrated — quite remarkably — how successful this can be.
Consequently, Al Qaeda is wholly aware that those leading this Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement in Syria remain Al Qaeda loyalists at heart, whose “careers” in this industry are rooted intrinsically in Al Qaeda’s founding ideals. None of those individuals have fundamentally changed overnight — they remain just the same people. But today, they stand an even better chance of embedding yet more deeply into Syria’s opposition societies and creating an even more intense relationship of interdependence with opposition groups. This is a dangerous development, not a positive one.
What’s the immediate impact of this?
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has now laid down a gauntlet to Syria’s opposition: embrace revolutionary unity in pursuit of a more effective fight against the Assad regime, or risk isolation and subjugation for the sake of “moderate” ideological principles. Syrians within the opposition have called incessantly for Jabhat al-Nusra to break its ties to Al Qaeda, so inevitably, this will be seen by many as a concession to a popular revolutionary demand, which will necessarily need to be reciprocated. That Syria’s opposition also stands at an especially challenging time right now will further the likelihood of further military unity on the ground.
At the same time, this places the international community in a tricky bind. The U.S. and Russia remain determined to launch some kind of military campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra (or now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), but in so doing now, they risk permanently losing the good faith of Syria’s mainstream opposition. That really ought to be avoided at all costs, considering the impact it will have on the viability of any sustainable settlement to the conflict. At the same time, regional states who have previously advocated for the military value of Jabhat al-Nusra on the battlefield will now feel emboldened and potentially justified in providing overt support to the group, given that it has publicly separated itself from Al Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra has already reached a preeminent status on the battlefield, but this latest development may seal its continued rise.
What do you see as the long-term consequences?
Long-term, I think this will be seen as a pivot point, from which Syria’s opposition becomes increasingly Islamist in orientation and message. There still remain to this day a critical mass of moderates, leading the nationalist drive for change in Syria, but the fight on the ground appears more intractable than ever. Whether we like it or not, and until we have policymakers willing to more discernibly change the balance of power on the ground — by challenging Assad and more determinedly backing the moderate opposition — a group like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will continue to define the trajectory of the crisis.
We may also now see other Al Qaeda affiliates embracing a similar model of decentralization, while continuing the same vision over a long-term. By adopting such a gradualist approach, jihadist actors will stand far more potential of acquiring a popular base of support, which is simply something we have not seen for a long time. If the Syrian model continues to succeed, we’ll likely also see Al Qaeda’s central leadership continue to flow into Syrian territory in order to further embolden the movement’s cause and establish a “safe base” on Europe’s doorstep.