Syria Update: Jabhat Nusra Aligns with al-Qaeda


On April 7, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video message calling for the unification of the jihad in Syria and the establishment of an Islamic state.[i] Two days after Zawahiri’s statement, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi released his own audio message announcing the extension of its “Islamic State” into the Levant and incorporating the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Nusra into its ranks.[ii]

The U.S. has never recognized Jabhat Nusra as a uniquely Syrian construct separate from the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), and the designation of Jabhat Nusra as a Foreign Terrorist Organization specifically designates the group as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq.[iii] Accordingly, Jabhat Nusra falls under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), and reportedly the CIA has already begun to consider Jabhat Nusra extremists for drone strikes prior to this week’s announcement.[iv] While al-Qaeda’s recognition of the relationship validates the U.S. designation and will likely result in a similar designation from other western countries, it is unlikely to alter U.S. policy on Syria. It will, however, affect the state of the opposition in Syria, state security in Iraq, and likely also the involvement of regional powers.

Some analysts fear that the announcement will generate increased support to Jabhat Nusra from ISI and other sources of foreign recruits. However, Jabhat Nusra already receives significant support from ISI, and it may alienate many Syrian recruits who were attracted primarily by the group’s operational effectiveness rather than its ideology.[v] In fact, it may serve to stem support coming to Jabhat Nusra from other sources. In the past, the Turkish government has cooperated with Jabhat Nusra and provided resources to its units through the Turkish border.[vi] The announcement will likely end any future Turkish support, and the Turks may even begin to help stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria through its border. It is also likely to affect Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s calculations, and although private sponsorship may continue, both countries are reluctant to see their support empowering al-Qaeda so near to their borders.[vii]

The announcement is also likely to have a profound impact in Iraq. The threat of a merger between ISI and Jabhat Nusra could be used by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a powerful tool to justify policy and shape public perception of internal dynamics through the conflict in Syria. Just as the Syrian regime has used the public declaration to validate its previous rhetoric accusing terrorists of being the driving force behind the revolution, Iraqi politicians can also use it to justify their concerns about a growing al-Qaeda presence and emphasize the need for greater security measures to prevent the upheaval and sectarian conflict in Syria from crossing the border. In light of the announcement, Maliki can justify a more heavy-handed approach to domestic security and may employ more aggressive measures against the protestors and domestic political opponents. He may also seize opportunities to shape provincial elections scheduled for April 20, after postponing elections in Anbar and Ninewa for six months.[viii]

Regional implications aside, the announcement will have a significant impact on internal dynamics and future relations between Syria opposition groups and Jabhat Nusra. Prior to the announcement, Jabhat Nusra remained quiet on its ties to the ISI and largely downplayed its direct connection to al-Qaeda affiliates, instead choosing to play up its Syrian roots and participation in the opposition. In order to gain popular support, it was important for Jabhat Nusra to be seen as an indigenous movement committed to the same goal of defeating the Assad regime as the mainstream opposition. As Baghdadi explains in the video message, the relationship was kept secret partly in order for the population to be exposed to Jabhat Nusra without the stigma of al-Qaeda and allow for the population to embrace Jabhat Nusra on its own terms.[ix] As a result, the Syrian opposition recognizes Jabhat Nusra as an important partner in the fight against Assad, and Syrian opposition figures previously defended the group following accusations that it was a terrorist organization.

Jabhat Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani emphasized the importance of being viewed as an indigenous Syrian opposition group in his response to al-Baghdadi’s announcement. Golani denied knowledge of Baghdadi’s intention to announce the merger. Instead, he stressed that Jabhat Nusra is a local group that will continue to operate under the banner of Jabhat Nusra. In the video statement, Golani pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri, publicly recognizing the group’s loyalty to al-Qaeda, but rejected the idea that Jabhat Nusra was born from Iraq or was merely an arm of the Islamic State of Iraq.[x] While Golani’s statement has profound implications on the larger discussion of al-Qaeda’s strategy and the evolution of its affiliates, for purposes here analysis of Golani’s statement will be limited to the Syrian context and its implications for the opposition movement in Syria. The fact that Golani affirms his loyalty to al-Qaeda’s ideology as represented by Zawahiri, but is clear to establish Jabhat Nusra as a uniquely Syrian group, has significance that should not be lost in the context of a growing global jihadist threat. It has ramifications for how they act locally, on their ability to maneuver and conduct operations in Syria, and on their ability to establish authority in rebel-held areas.

Even before the relationship between Jabhat Nusra and al-Qaeda was made public, popular opinion had already started to shift, particularly due to rising tensions over issues of governance. During the first year following the announcement of Jabhat Nusra’s formation, the opposition and much of the Syrian population praised the group for its operational effectiveness and distribution of humanitarian aid. Popular support for Jabhat Nusra was so high that following the U.S. designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization protests broke out across Syria on their behalf, with people shouting the slogan, “We are all Jabhat Nusra.”[xi]

Yet in observations made during recent field research, popular sentiment has begun to shift. In interviews conducted with rebel commanders, many were critical of Jabhat Nusra, saying that the group was increasingly following a “foreign agenda” and under “significant foreign influence.”[xii] Commanders in Aleppo were particularly angry over Jabhat Nusra’s targeting of Kurdish militias and communities. In areas where rebel groups were hoping to cooperate more fully with Kurdish units fighting in the city, Jabhat Nusra’s actions had caused rifts within fighting forces and made it difficult to build relations with key Kurdish units operating in the city.[xiii] In one case, a Tawhid Brigade unit detained Jabhat Nusra members when they attempted to target Kurdish centers in the Sheikh Maqsud district of Aleppo city, leading to significant tensions between the two groups.

Tensions have also flared over the issue of humanitarian aid. Rebel commanders realize the importance of distributing humanitarian aid as a mechanism for influence and power in areas that they control. Given that Jabhat Nusra has a widespread reputation for providing better services to citizens and more properly distributing aid, it is no wonder that the group has established a degree of authority in its operational areas. Yet other rebel groups, who largely make up fighting forces on the ground even when under Jabhat Nusra’s organizational lead, are reluctant to cede authority to Jabhat Nusra and are increasingly demanding greater access to humanitarian aid as a means of countering their influence.

Overall, clashes for power and authority between Jabhat Nusra and other rebel groups are becoming more widespread such as in Tal Abyad in Raqqa province where members of the Farouq Brigade and Jabhat Nusra fought for control of the area.[xiv] So far, infighting between Jabhat Nusra and other armed groups has largely been limited to access to resources and control of governance in rebel-held areas.[xv] While these tensions are largely centered on issues of power, and are not inherently ideological or targeting Jabhat Nusra specifically, they have created cleavages between groups that previously considered Jabhat Nusra an important ally.

Residents in rebel-held areas are also beginning to chafe under Jabhat Nusra’s authority. Many citizens in cities across eastern and northern Syria have criticized Jabhat Nusra for their handling of transitional justice issues through Sharia courts, the creation of a morality police, the banning of alcohol, forcing women to wear the full veil, and –above all – for flying the black flag of al-Qaeda.[xvi] Yet this criticism has also been accompanied by recognition of Jabhat Nusra as a well-disciplined force, free from the problems associated with other rebel groups including looting and extortion, and capable of providing a level of governance beyond other groups.[xvii] Thus, so far, Jabhat Nusra has been able to mitigate any criticism and maintain popular support.

Yet, following recent announcements, protests erupted across Syria with citizens yelling “Jabhat Nusra Irhal,” [Jabhat Nusra leave!] directly contradicting previous protests that sympathized with the organization. Such incidences suggest that Jabhat Nusra’s ability to maintain key popular support will likely be jeopardized due to recent announcements. Recognizing Jabhat Nusra’s loyalty to al-Qaeda is likely to fuel the tensions that have already surfaced because it bolsters the narrative that Jabhat Nusra is operating under a foreign agenda and stokes concern over the group’s foreign influence. Regardless of their current image, coming under the banner of a non-Syrian group in ways that undermine their indigenous roots or suggest they are merely an extension of ISI will significantly impact their reputation inside Syria, which accounts for Golani’s assertion that the group is Syrian and will continue to use the name Jabhat Nusra. By respectfully distancing Jabhat Nusra from ISI, Golani attempted to reinforce the narrative that their operations and approach to politics and society are grounded in their Syrian identity. "We reassure our brothers in Syria that Al Nusra's behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance [to Zawahiri] will not affect our politics in any way," he stated.[xviii]

This assertion may not be enough to prevent backlash against the group for their newly recognized allegiance to al-Qaeda. Few in Syria want to be under the branded authority of al-Qaeda. If Jabhat Nusra is seen more as an al-Qaeda organization than as a indigenous Syrian opposition group – even if a Syrian Salafi-jihadist group – than this will spell trouble for Jabhat Nusra’s continued authority and influence in Syria. Jabhat Nusra must retain popular support and ensure that other armed factions will continue to work with them in order to maintain its preeminent position within the opposition. Despite Golani’s attempts to reaffirm their Syrian identity, the announcement will likely enhance existing fractures between Jabhat Nusra and other opposition groups.

In the immediate aftermath, rebels and activists debated the surprise announcement and Jabhat Nusra’s complicity in the merger. Both the Local Coordinating Committees Spokesman and the head of the National Coalition called for the rejection of al-Qaeda in Syria and warned of the dangers of cooperating with groups that espoused an al-Qaeda-like ideology.[xix] Many rebel groups have also distanced themselves from Jabhat Nusra, saying that they reject their ideology and that cooperation with the group is less than ideal and has been imposed by conditions on the ground.[xx] The Syrian Liberation Front criticized Baghdadi’s statement, accusing the group of seeking to “impose a state on us without consulting us, led by an emir we did not choose or even hear of,” and that recent announcements only serve to “sow conflict and dissension among fighters ranks.” They also added that Syrians “have no need for imported ideologies or a new understanding of Islam.” Even the more hardline rebel alliance, the Syrian Islamist Front, issued a response, clarifying that both Syria and Iraq should be united under the banner of Islam but that politically the two were, and would remain, separate entities. Reports from the ground indicate that the statement has strained relations between Jabhat Nusra and the Syrian Islamic Front, and many units within the alliance are now questioning their relationship to Jabhat Nusra.

These initial reactions do not bode well for Jabhat Nusra’s continued popularity. This leaves a brief window through which other more secular opposition groups may be able to assert a counter-authority if they are able to demonstrate the same level of operational effectiveness as Jabhat Nusra. This effectiveness also extends to civilian governance, as Jabhat Nusra is now also competitive in this space as well. The U.S. alongside the larger international community should look to capitalize on the potential backlash and empower a force that will be able to compete with Jabhat Nusra. The recent announcements underscore the growing confidence of radical and jihadist elements fighting in Syria, and provide a glimpse of what could be the future for Syria if more is not done to cultivate a moderate alternative.

[i] “Zawahirir urges Syria rebels to seek Islamic state,” Naharnet, April 7, 2013.

[ii] “Al-Qaida in Iraq formally unites with powerful Syrian militant group,” AP, April 9, 2013.

[iii] “Terrorist Designations of the al-Nusrah Front as an alias for al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” Press Statement by Victoria Nuland, US Department of State, December 11, 2012.

[iv] Ken Dilanian and Brian Bennett, “CIA begins sizing up Islamic extremists in Syria for drone strikes,” LA Times, March 15, 2013.

[v] In his video statement, Golani acknowledges the major contributions and support they receive from ISI. “Word of Abu Mohammad al-Golani on the Levant arena,” YouTube, April 10, 2013.

[vi] Hoshik Owsi, “Turkey’s Syria strategy could yield unintended consequences,” al-Monitor, February 5, 2013.

[vii] Gerald Butt, “Saudi Arabia’s al-Qaeda challenge,” BBC, September 8, 2012.

[viii] Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali, “2013 Iraq Update 12: Maliki and Sadr Raise Electoral Stakes,” Institute for the Study of War, March 22. 2013.

[ix] Aaron Zelin, “Al-Qaeda Announces an Islamic State in Syria,” Policy Alert, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 9, 2012.

[x] “Word of Abu Mohammad al-Golani on the Levant arena,” YouTube, April 10, 2013.

[xi] Announcement on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook Page, December 14, 2012.

[xii] Interviews conducted with rebel commanders between January 29 – February 4, 2013.

[xiii] Interviews conducted with rebel commanders and Aleppo residents on January 31, 2013.

[xiv] Rania Abouzeid, “In Syria, the rebels have begun to fight among themselves,” TIME, March 26, 2013.

[xv] Tensions over humanitarian aid were discussed by many rebel commanders from across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. They were highlighted in discussions with rebels from the Tawhid Brigade, who claimed to have physically fought with Jabhat Nusra forces for control of humanitarian aid. Interviews conducted with Syrian rebel commanders between January 31 – February 4, 2013; and with rebels from the Tawhid Brigade via Skype in February – March 2013.

[xvi] Rania Abouzeid, “A black flag and a cup of coffee in Raqqa city, Syria,” The New Yorker, April 2, 2012; Interviews conducted via Skype with residents of Raqqa city, March 25 – 28, 2013.

[xvii] Rania Abouzeid “How Islamists rebels are ruling a fallen provincial capital,” Time, March 23, 2013.

[xviii] “Word of Abu Mohammad al-Golani on the Levant arena,” YouTube, April 10, 2013.

[xix] Phil Sands, “Syria rebel chief al-Khatib urges rejection of al-Qaeda,” The National, April 11, 2013; “Local Coordinating Committees in Syria announce their rejection of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s call for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria,” Syria News, April 11, 2013, translated from Arabic.

[xx] “Syria rebels distance themselves from Qaida Iraq ally,” Naharnet, April 10, 2013.