The Myth of a "Locally Focused" Former Al Qaeda Affiliate in Syria

By Jennifer Cafarella

Jennifer Cafarella is the Evans Hanson Fellow and a Syria Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, where she focuses on the Syrian civil war and opposition groups, as well as the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).  Ms. Cafarella has studied and researched Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, since 2014 and wrote a comprehensive report focusing on their military capabilities, modes of governance, and long-term strategic vision titled: Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria: An Islamic Emirate for al-Qaeda.  She has written frequently on Jabhat al-Nusra and all ISW's JN resources may be found here.

The recent “cancellation” of Jabhat al Nusra’s operations along with the formation of a new entity independent from al Qaeda, named Jabhat Fatah al Sham, appears to signal the decline of al Qaeda as a global movement. Instead, however, it is al Qaeda’s latest ploy to buy time to set conditions in its favor before fighting its desired war against the West.

American policymakers consistently underestimate the threat al Qaeda continues to pose because of a pervasive myth that locally focused groups are not as dangerous to U.S. security. Prior to the “cancellation” of Nusra’s operations, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed Nusra as a “nascent” danger that “doesn’t approach” that of ISIS. He characterized the ongoing policy debate over Nusra as “hype” and said no quick fixes in Syria are possible. And now, with Nusra’s recent “split” from al Qaeda, al Qaeda’s operations in Syria seem increasingly pale compared to those of ISIS.

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