When Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, announced on July 28, 2016 that he was dissolving his group and setting up a new one, Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS, “the Front for the Conquest of Sham”), that would not be subordinate to al-Qaida, he put to rest more than a year of speculation that such a move was in the offing. Jabhat al-Nusra had been, after all, prepared to end its formal relationship with al-Qaida. But in settling one question Jawlani raised two more: Was Jabhat al-Nusra (now JFS) really distancing itself from the terrorist organization? And had al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri really given this separation (real or nominal) his blessing?
The first question is perhaps best left to governments and journalists, but there is at least one reason to see the rebranding as more than superficial. This is that Jawlani’s maneuver alienated a number of prominent Jabhat al-Nusra hardliners who have yet to join JFS. (One rumor puts the number of these “defectors” at well over a hundred.) Presumably these men felt that joining JFS would amount to endorsing an excessively moderate and inclusive political vision.
The second question, whether Zawahiri blessed this rebranding, also remains open. To be sure, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida portrayed the move as having al-Qaida’s support—as an amicable separation. But the Islamic State has begged to differ. The true story, in its view, is that the “traitor” Jawlani struck again: having betrayed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State back in 2013, he turned on Zawahiri and al-Qaida in 2016. Such a view should perhaps be viewed with skepticism, but it also deserves consideration. Understanding both sides of the story requires first revisiting some of the words of Zawahiri that are key to both narratives.
Zawahiri’s mixed message
On May 8, 2016, al-Qaida’s official al-Sahab Media Foundation issued an audio statement from Zawahiri concerning the war in Syria. Coming to the issue of Jabhat al-Nusra’s relationship with al-Qaida, Zawahiri delivered a most mixed message. That it was mixed is shown by the contradictory headlines it generated. “Zawahiri: Syria’s Nusra Free to Break al-Qaeda Links” was the title of an al-Jazeera English article. “Zawahiri Warns Nusra against Separating from al-Qaida” was the title of an article in an Arabic newspaper. Evidently, what the al-Qaida leader had said was unclear.