Al Qaeda in Syria: The Split That Wasn't

Photo: AP

Regardless of its name change and highly publicized “split” from al Qaeda this past summer, Jabhat Fateh-al Sham (JFS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, remains firmly on the United States’ terrorist radar.

“We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves,” said U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby about al-Nusra in August. “Thus far, there’s no change to our views about this particular group. We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”

The Pentagon also stated its intentions to continue conducting air strikes against the group in Syria. “It remains a terrorist target as it has been for some time,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook a day after al-Nusra’s announcement. “This is a terrorist group that has in the past and continues to threaten the United States, American citizens, and our interests,” Cook explained. 

Jabhat al-Nusra first emerged in 2011 in the midst of the Syrian civil war as one of the most potent rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces. In January 2012, al-Nusra released its first video outlining its objectives, which include overthrowing Assad and instituting an Islamic government based on Sharia law in Syria.

The U.S. State Department designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012, listing al-Nusra amongst the aliases associated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In April 2013, AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi attempted to incorporate al-Nusra within his rebranded organization known as the Islamic State (ISIS), but al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani rejected Baghdadi’s calls and instead pledged allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Until July 2016, al-Nusra served as al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

On July 28, Julani released a video in which he announced al-Nusra’s “severing” of ties with al Qaeda. “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,’ noting that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity,” Julani said.

According to Julani, the purpose of the split was to remove the international target on the group’s back that comes with its al Qaeda association. The move could potentially free up additional sources of financing from individuals or organizations that were hesitant to send funds to an official al Qaeda affiliate and could also better position the group to form alliances with other rebel forces fighting Assad in Syria.

Despite the announcement, experts have dismissed the notion that a real separation between the two has occurred. A few months prior to Julani’s recording, al-Zawahiri released a statement in which he gave his blessing for al-Nusra, now JFS, to break way from al Qaeda and implement a strategy of uniting with other jihadi factions fighting in Syria. During his video announcement, Julani also reaffirmed his reverence for Osama bin Laden and his intention to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

“It’s a PR move,” said Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper at the Aspen Security Forum in August. “I think they would like to create the image of being more moderate and in an attempt to unify and galvanize and appeal to other oppositionist groups in Syria.”

And now, more than three months after the announcement, JFS’ appeal in Syria appears to be on the upswing. In mid-October, Jund al-Aqsa, a powerful jihadist group based in Syria, swore allegiance to JFS, and its soldiers have essentially diffused into JFS’ ranks. More recently, JFS has coordinated with Ahrar al-Sham, one of the leading coalitions of Islamist rebel groups in Syria, to conduct several attacks against Syrian army targets operating near Aleppo.

With JFS accumulating strength in Syria and its ties to al Qaeda still very much in play, the end result is likely to benefit al Qaeda’s positioning in Syria.

“With approximately 10,000 fighters, JFS is now both the largest al Qaeda franchise and by many accounts, the most lethal,” writes Colin Clarke, Cipher Brief expert and Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. “Veteran al Qaeda leaders like Saif al-Adl are thought to be among the current leadership directing JFS strategy in Syria.”

Furthermore, it appears JFS will play an important role in the Syrian conflict for the foreseeable future.

“With no solution to the conflict on the horizon, it is likely that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will eventually morph into one of the major political, not just military, players in Syria,” says Lina Khatib, Cipher Brief expert and Head of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme at Chatham House.

As the conflict in Syria drags on, the concern by the U.S. and its allies is that al Qaeda will become more attractive to the local population who have turned against Assad, disdain ISIS and its brutality, and are disillusioned with the West for its lack of involvement. 

Bennett Seftel is the Deputy Director of Editorial at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.


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