Jabhat al-Nusra members pose on a tank on Al-Khazan frontline of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province May 17, 2014. (Reuters)

July 29, 2016

Avoiding al Qaeda's Syria Trap: Jabhat al Nusra's Rebranding

The leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, announced the end of his group’s operations and the creation of a new entity named Jabhat Fatah al Sham today. He claims that this new organization has “no affiliation to any external entity.” The maneuver removes a key obstacle Jabhat al Nusra faced in Syria, namely the al Qaeda brand name, but it does not denote a change in the group’s Salafi-jihadi ideology. Rather, the break will facilitate the unification of armed Syrian opposition groups around a core that still pursues al Qaeda’s long-term objective of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria.

The cancellation of Jabhat al Nusra’s operations and rebranding of Jabhat al Nusra fighters does not remove the group from the global Salafi-jihadi movement, which believes in the use of violence to establish shari’a-based governance. Jabhat al Nusra will continue to fight to advance Syrian Salafi-jihadi interests under its new name. It has not renounced its vision of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria. It has instead improved its chances of success by removing obstacles to unify the opposition under its leadership.

Syrian Salafi-jihadi groups want to unify opposition groups to increase the effectiveness of their war against the Assad regime. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper today noted that the formation of Jabhat Fatah al Sham likely aimed to “create the image of being more moderate in an attempt to unify and galvanize and appeal to other oppositionist (sic) groups in Syria.” Jabhat al Nusra and Syrian Salafi-jihadi group Harakat Ahrar al Sham al Islamiya created a joint coordinating body with other opposition groups in northwestern Syria in March 2015 and seized most of Idlib Province from the regime. The success of the coordinating body, the so-called Army of Conquest, proved the value of deeper coordination within the opposition. The groups have been negotiating over a “grand merger” since.

 The decision to form Jabhat Fatah al Sham removes the primary source of the opposition’s resistance to a merger. Opposition groups have been hesitant to merge with Jabhat al Nusra for fear that affiliation with an al Qaeda branch would justify Russia’s air campaign and cause the U.S.-led coalition to target them. Russia claims to conduct counter-terrorism operations in Syria while using its air campaign to advance other objectives such as preserving the Assad regime. The U.S. is exploring a possible partnership with Moscow against Jabhat al Nusra, moreover. Today’s announcement may be timed to disrupt the formation of this partnership.

It was certainly part of a plan coordinated with al Qaeda’s central leadership. Al Qaeda sanctioned the decision to form a new group in a message released today. This was no break from al Qaeda, but rather the execution of a deliberate global strategy on behalf of the movement. The al Qaeda statement emphasized that “the brotherhood of Islam that is between us is stronger than all the finite, ever-changing organizational links.” 

Al Qaeda has never seen itself as having to direct, let alone brand, the global jihad. It aims, rather, to be the vehicle that unifies the ranks for the fight. Its founding members, including Osama bin Laden, believed that Islamists failed to achieve their objectives because they were disorganized and working at cross-purposes. Factionalism, according to al Qaeda, defeated the jihad. Al Qaeda, therefore, intentionally supports local Salafi-jihadi groups around the world and seeks to unify them over time. Some bear its name, others do not. Bin Laden instructed its affiliate in Somalia, al Shabaab, not to reveal its status, in fact, in order to protect it against Western attack. Al Shabaab’s allegiance to al Qaeda only became public in February 2012, when bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, recognized the group as a formal affiliate.

Jabhat al Nusra’s split from al Qaeda should not affect the contours of the actual relationship. Al Qaeda has supported Jabhat al Nusra through the “Khorasan” cell, which provides strategic advice and guidance to Jabhat al Nusra’s leaders. This linkage may persist. Jabhat al Nusra—under its new name—will also continue to cooperate with elements of the al Qaeda network in Syria, including the Turkistan Islamic Party. Salafi-jihadi groups and financiers would still see the Syrian jihad as the primary fight today, furthermore. They may even face fewer restrictions on providing support now that the group is not affiliated with al Qaeda. The split also does not prevent future realignment or mutual support between a unified opposition and al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda has set a trap for the U.S. in Syria. Basing policy on the formal affiliation of a group to al Qaeda creates a major national security risk as al Qaeda and other organizations play these rules against us. American policymakers should instead make decisions based on the threat Salafi-jihadi actors pose using an understanding of their inherent ideology and objectives. By those measures, the new group remains a core part of the global Salafi-jihadi movement of which al Qaeda is the leader. It benefits from and strengthens that movement enormously. Its rebranding was tactically shrewd. If it befuddles the U.S. into believing that it is not a threat, it will have been brilliant. It is up to America’s leaders to recognize it instead for the meaningless gesture it is.