Reports in recent months indicate Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Syrian jihadi terrorist group, Jabhat al-Nusra have made a clean break.  On the surface, Jabhat al-Nusra received approval from the core Al-Qaeda leadership to break away from the AQ-enterprise and form their own separate franchise in Syria.  While some may celebrate this fracture and point to it as an indicator of the beginning of the end for the Al-Qaeda brand, one should proceed with caution and skeptical optimism.  Although the debate about whether Al-Qaeda as an organization is in the decline, Jabhat al-Nusra, or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) as it recently rebranded, may now be postured to become the long-term Sunni Salafist terrorist organization in Syria by shrouding itself as an insurgent group with grassroots support and a local focus.

In order to draw any conclusions, one must first question the validity of the announcement itself.  Whether or not it was a mutual break up from Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham stands to gain much by convincing external actors and governments they are making a strategic shift away from terrorism and global aspirations and moving towards becoming a “less extreme” or “more moderate,” local insurgent organization.  This alteration of their strategy could freeze or deflect the US-led coalition efforts in the current conflict away from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.  In this light, “the hopes may transcend the assessments.” It may cause some US policymakers to ride this news into a national security meeting, seeking to uncover the potential in this announcement by asking: should the US stop targeting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham if they’re trying to change their ways?  Should the US stop considering them a terrorist organization and a more legitimate insurgent organization to just monitor?  Should America now consider them a moderate rebel force which we could hitch US support and resources towards to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and keep the Assad regime engaged?

Policymakers and international leadership should be highly skeptical of this announcement and any potential changes to viewing Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as anything less than an extreme jihadi terror organization, regardless of whether their main focus is currently internal or external.  Rather than considering this a schism or divorce that is finite, it should be viewed more like a courtship with a long history and a relationship that, while in the public sphere may have parted ways for now, still share the same global jihadist ideology.  The biggest evidence that this may be a reverse engineered “divorce of convenience” lies in the guidance that AQ’s supreme deputy, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khair, gave Jabhat al-Nusra.  He publicly declared in the statement blessing off on their split that AQ “direct[s] Jabhat al-Nusra’s central command to move forward in a way that preserves the interests of Islam and Muslims and protect the jihad of the people of Syria.”  This does not sound like two organizations that are done cooperating for the greater, long-term global jihad.

In fact, never once in the statement by Abu al-Khair (Khayr) or the July speech given later by Jolani use the Arabic term fakk al-irtibat, or breaking ties; nor did Jabhat Fatah al-Sham publically rescind their baya, or oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Adding to the complexity of questioning the genuine nature of their breakup is the belief that Abu al-Khair is in Syria, which begs the question: Who is harboring him?  Likewise, even the photo of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (Golani) made public to compliment the announcement shares a similar “nostalgic fashion” as a possible sign of deference to the former emir of Al-Qaeda, Usama bin Laden.

While tipping the hat to their former base, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is simultaneously attempting to rebrand themselves, including a subtle, but meaningful name change.  By breaking ties with AQ and renaming themselves, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham solidifies themselves as a grassroots jihadi insurgent group, evident in their new name, “Army of Conquest in Syria” rather than their previous name of al-Nusra Front, or “Support Front of Syria.”  Their break with AQ has already garnered them many praises by key leaders in the region and within Syria, including their cleric, Saudi Sheikh Abdallah al-Muhaysini, Abu Hamza Hamawi, the head of the Salafist Ajnad al-Sham faction (Soldiers of the Levant), and other Syrian rebel groups such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant).

Their break from the transnational terrorist organization, at least publically, makes more local unions possible.  Jordanian Salafist expert Hassan Abu Haniya believes this is part of a greater tactical shift for the AQ enterprise, where they are powering down more of the responsibilities and decision-making to their affiliates and adherents, and we are merely “witnessing a return to the primacy of local dynamics.” While the ties to AQ in the past garnered them international attention, including being designated a terrorist organization and targeted at times by the US government, dropping the AQ moniker will make other rebel forces with mutual interests of fighting the Assad regime and the creation of an Islamic State ruled by Sharia law within Syria much more comfortable about either forging an alliance or joining their ranks.  It is also more likely they will garner a seat at the table for any type of talks occurring to establish any form of “post-Assad” Syrian government.

As for the AQ-franchise and the conflict zones they are engaged in around the globe, one could surmise “al Nusra is best positioned to enjoy the benefits of independence.”  This is because, the sensitive political conflict and war zone they exist in are providing them an opportunity to become the most relevant and powerful anti-government organization in Syria.  They may also become potentially the organization most primed to occupy the ungoverned spaces of Syria the Assad regime cannot touch and the Islamic State cannot reach.  Jabhat Fatah al-Sham also stands to be a prime option for disenfranchised foot soldiers and foreign fighters seeking alternative employment as ISIL continues to lose ground, specifically in Syria, but also from those in Iraq fighting against the US-supported Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces.  This may include former Baathist party members who formed a portion of ISIL’s core nucleus in both Iraq and Syria.  The Baathists possess the government experience to advise and assist Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in providing complimentary political and social efforts to complement their military efforts, further legitimizing their organization as more of a local insurgency in the eyes of the remaining Syrian population.

If there is one thing the CT community should know by now, it is that jihadi organizations rarely remain stagnant.  They are shape shifters that morph and adapt to their opponents and environment, or they quickly become irrelevant. 

            Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is laying the groundwork for their future infrastructure now, mainly through military gains and partnering with militias that will garner them favor in the eyes of Syrians citizens and local leadership. The most likely course of action is Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains a powerful faction vying for both power and terrain.  Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute believes “Jabhat al-Nusra is now one of the most powerful armed actors in the Syrian crisis.”[12]  In the short term, they will seek to build a coalition of local factions and militias that can provide them with the local leadership, fighters, and internal support necessary to conduct an effective insurgency campaign against the Assad regime.  Their success can be attributed to a “consistent strategy of embedding itself within revolutionary dynamics and rooting its existence and activities into opposition societies, Jabhat al-Nusra can now be said to have established concrete roots in a country that looks likely to suffer from horrendous instability for many years to come.”[13]  However, their military exploits may posture them to do more than just take the fight to the opponents; it could ingrain their presence into the fabric of the territory they currently reside and control.

The most dangerous course of action includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham building upon their military wing’s successes, learning from ISIL’s mistakes with regards to governance, and morph into an effective, grass roots hybrid terrorist organization.  With their solid base of support, they could develop political and social wings to complement their military capability, making it a legitimate organization in the eyes of the remaining Syrian population seeking an effective alternative to both the Assad regime and ISIL.  Specifically, Syria is a ripe environment where a “particularly weak governmental system facilitates the growth of local militias on the basis of a common factor (familial, communal, or local).  These local militias struggle among themselves for the existing public good, for control of cellular areas, and for political power.”[14]  Political opportunities will arise as Assad’s influence and control wanes.  Likewise, “a decrease in the state’s capacity to suppress resistance, or alterations in the structure of political power, all comprise opportunities for new groups to break into the public awareness and actualize the goals defined for themselves.”[15]  As a key faction currently rebranding itself, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham sees the current climate as an opportunity to become more than just another jihadi militant group.  Their internal Syrian focus and localism garners them more support from the population “[b]y providing a service to civilians (protective, military, humanitarian, etc.); by seeking positive relationships with the armed opposition; and by demonstrating effectiveness on the battlefield, Jabhat al-Nusra has made Syrians dependent on its continued constructive role in the revolution.”[16]  The name change and declared split with AQ will make them even more appealing to the Syrian population, as well as external Sunni actors such as the Gulf States, seeking a strong ally that will further the power struggle against the Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah-backed Assad regime.

The future form of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is what should be of most concern to the US government and counterterrorists keeping a close eye on the developments within Syria.  If there is one thing the CT community should know by now, it is that jihadi organizations rarely remain stagnant.  They are shape shifters that morph and adapt to their opponents and environment, or they quickly become irrelevant.  Many in the world remain focused on the losers of the Syrian civil war, as most presciently captured in the photo of the young Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, published this week after his house was demolished by an airstrike conducted by Russia or the Assad regime.

But the counterterrorists watching the Battle of Aleppo unfold and the Syrian civil war rage on must keep their eyes fixed on those who stand to benefit most. Jabhat Fatah al-Nusrah is deeply involved in the fight and possesses the capability, organizational architecture, network, and external support to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, seize the opportunity to control what remains of the population to govern, restore, rebuild, and recruit for the future power struggle.

It is not unthinkable to believe a former adherent of AQ will garner popular support and become a hybrid terrorist organization that can provide governance, essential services, and maintain their ideology through the development of political and social wings to complement their military accomplishments.  We have seen this play out before on other battlegrounds and in other civil wars in the region, just ask the people of southern Lebanon and Gaza where their loyalties lie.  Make no mistake, just like Al-Qaeda and other mujahedeen groups who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, regardless of the amount of support and achievements the United States provides Syrians and their proxies within the Syrian Democratic Forces, it will be local jihadi insurgent and terrorist organizations like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that will be viewed by fellow Syrians as the victors once Assad’s regime finally implodes.  While the future of Syria and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s upward trajectory remain uncertain, because of Jolani and other senior leadership’s long standing ties, global jihadist ideology, and mutual vision of established Islamic caliphate, it will not be the last time the Al-Qaeda enterprise injects itself into the affairs of the Syrian civil war and its aftermath.

[Photo source: Ibtimes.co.uk]

Mike Kelvington serves in the US Army as an infantry officer. After graduating from West Point in 2005, he served in seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with airborne and special operations units and received multiple awards including the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and 2 Purple Hearts. After his graduate studies at Princeton and time as a Downing scholar for the Combating Terrorism Center, he will return to the operational Army. The views here are his own and not those of the U.S. Military Academy or U.S. Army.

 


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