In an official statement issued yesterday, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) officially claimed Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as its own product and subsidiary. The audio message from ISI’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi, confirmed once and for all JN’s status as an al-Qaeda offshoot established by ISI—a link JN leaders have long played down or denied. It also significantly revised jihadi nomenclature for the region. The names of “the Islamic State of Iraq” and “Jabhat al-Nusra,” decreed al-Baghdadi, are hereby void; the two groups are now combined under the joint name of “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” (al-dawla al-islamiyya fi al-‘iraq wa-l-sham; ISIGS). Thus will the “banner” of jihad achieve further unity.

A commitment to global jihad

JN, according to al-Baghdadi, was from the first an “extension” and “part” of ISI. Providing little in the way of details, he explains rather matter-of-factly how ISI early on sent—“deputized”—Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, one of ISI’s “soldiers,” to Syria along with a number of foreign colleagues to establish JN and recruit local Syrians. Al-Baghdadi justifies not proclaiming the connection between ISI and JN until now out of fear that the media would engage in harmful “distortion.” It is unclear why he finds this particular moment so different.

What the announcement makes very clear is that the group once known as Jabhat al-Nusra ought to be seen as a jihadi-salafi organization distinct from its homespun salafi counterparts, such as the groups comprising the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). While JN and the groups fighting under SIF have long campaigned together on various fronts in the Syrian civil war, and while they praise one another publicly, JN has always stood out for its secretive nature and lack of interest in adhering to the SIF command structure.

In his new report on “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents,” Aron Lund persuasively makes the case that JN is unique among Syria’s salafi warriors. Its leadership is “clearly part of the global salafi-jihadi trend” and sees “Syria as a front in [a] larger war against the West and Arab secularism.” This much is clear from how JN’s announcements and other literature are routinely posted to al-Qaeda-linked jihadi forums by the forums’ administrators. It has also been clear in the organizational distance between JN and the SIF, the latter of which has become a broad coalition of like-minded salafi fighting groups. JN, Lund confirms in communication with SIF leaders, was invited to help found SIF but wanted no part in it. Al-Baghdadi’s announcement yesterday makes clear why: JN’s objective is an Islamic state that includes Syria; the goal of the more nationalist-oriented SIF is an Islamic state within Syria.

An Islamic emirate foretold

The ISI’s announcement that its nominal authority now encompasses, by means of JN, the territory of modern Syria might strike some as surprising. Indeed JN has largely avoided violent excesses that alienated al-Qaeda in Iraq from the local population, as several commentators have pointed out. But JN was never truly meant to be, as its full name indicated, “the salvation front for the people of Syria, by the mujahidin of Syria.” The name was deceptive, as JN’s purpose was all along to enlarge the authority of ISI. While jihadi media did not state this purpose clearly, some jihadi writers, both on the fringes and in the mainstream, have consistently emphasized JN’s distinctiveness and priority among salafi fighters in Syria, sometimes even calling for an Islamic state.

In mid-March one jihadi author, an obscure Abu ‘Abd Allah Anis, explicitly called for founding an “Islamic emirate” in Syria in the jihadi magazine Majallat al-Balagh, a product of the media group Fursan al-Balagh. The author wrote (pg. 44): “We hope to witness [in Syria] in the near future an alliance of jihad powers and their establishment of a broad shura council leading to the announcement of an Islamic emirate.” He went on to talk about unifying all Islamic groups and battalions in this proposed alliance, which he saw as rightfully being led by JN. This vision of an Islamic emirate is certainly different from what al-Baghdadi announced yesterday, but it nonetheless captured the direction JN was headed.

Perhaps even more foretelling of the turn JN’s leadership would take was a fatwa issued back in February by the influential Mauritanian shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti. Writing in his capacity as a member the Shari‘a Council of Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, the website of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Shinqiti strongly discouraged anyone interested in fighting jihad in Syria from forming or joining any group apart from JN. While he did not denounce or disparage other salafi groups fighting in Syria, he made it clear that he viewed their existence with skepticism. The mujahidin ought to “heed the command of God (who is exalted above all) to be one community, not separate communities; to fight under one banner, not different banners; to obey one commander, not multiple commanders; and to call themselves by one name, not by separate names.” It was therefore not appropriate to form or join a jihad group that did not pledge allegiance to JN’s leader.

The Islamic opposition at odds

It is as yet unclear what effect al-Baghdadi’s announcement of “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” will have on the armed Islamic opposition. Whether other salafi groups choose to distance themselves from ISIGS and its global scheme or not, it seems certain that ISIGS will henceforward more clearly emphasize its mission to achieve an Islamic state that exceeds the bounds of the Syrian nation.

Importantly, this mission includes an emphatic rejection of democracy in any form. In his statement al-Baghdadi warned the people of Syria not to “exchange these years of oppression for the religion of democracy, which the people of Iraq have preceded you [in accepting],” along with others in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. From the emphasis he lays on it, it seems that al-Baghdadi views democracy as al-Qaeda’s greatest threat in the near future, in Syria as elsewhere. Evidently he worries that salafi groups of more nationalist bent currently fighting the regime, like the SIF, could one day disarm and form political parties along the lines of Egypt’s salafi Nur Party. The difference that al-Baghdadi implicitly posits is one between salafis who adhere to the jihadi-salafi global mission of al-Qaeda (a minority) and those disposed to accept national affiliation—and possibly even to participate in a particular nation’s democracy.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the SIF leadership seems to hold a different outlook on democracy from that of JN (now ISIGS). As Lund points out, while SIF leaders have criticized the potential institutionalization of Western-style democracy in Syria, some of their statements exhibit tolerance for democratic practices such as voting and forming councils of elected officials. One informal Syrian adviser to the SIF, the prominent jihadi ideologue Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has intimated he would support the holding of elections in a post-Asad Syria. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, along with al-Qaeda leaning ideologues like al-Shinqiti, condemns the very practices of democracy, including voting, as shirk, or polytheism. Whether or not al-Baghdadi’s announcement heralds a newfound rift in the Islamic opposition’s daily business of waging jihad, it certainly confirms the presence of an ideological rift between Syria’s salafis.

Update (10 April 2013): In the above I suggested that JN’s leadership played a role in the decision to announce the new Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Apparently this was not the case. In an audio message released today JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani claimed not to have had prior knowledge of the decision to scrap the JN and ISI labels in favor of the ISIGS; in fact he only learned of the decision from the media. While clearly unhappy at the way that this news reached him, al-Jawlani nevertheless agreed to “comply with al-Baghdadi’s request.” He then affirmed (and reaffirmed) his allegiance, and that of JN’s “children and their general leadership,” to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Yet it appears that al-Jawlani was not willing to comply fully with al-Baghdadi’s request, objecting to the instruction to dispense with the name Jabhat al-Nusra. He stated: “the banner of the Jabha (Front) will remain as it is with no changes.”

Apparently JN’s leader is concerned that too open an association with al-Qaeda could have a negative impact on JN’s reputation and perhaps alienate opposition allies. Al-Jawlani’s chosen solution seems to be to maintain the JN franchise name that has earned so much respect on the ground (encapsulated by the popular phrase “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra”) while professing allegiance to al-Qaeda and acceding (at least nominally) to the ISIGS. The message makes it unclear exactly what JN’s and the ISIGS’s next moves will be or what the operational linkages between the two (overlapping) groups really are.

  1. Very solid article, and I agree with pretty much every single point. I just would like to add that in my view ISIGS also raises the threat of terrorist action in other neighboring countries such as Jordan or probably even Egypt and Lebanon (plus, in the midterm, Israel and Turkey). This is, in a way, al-Sarqawi’s dream come true.

  2. RepStones says:

    Fascinating post, thanks. Just wondering what these means for the rivalry for personnel between Jabhat and AQIM? Wasn’t it only recently AQIM through Abu Hazifa al-Gharib, said attempts to filter fighters up to Syria was a French conspiracy to drain AQIM of willing recruits?

  3. [...] the al-Nusra Front, which Washington already considers a terrorist organization, was apparently always intended to be an adjunct of the Iraqi terror group. And while the U.S. has structured its non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition as a bulwark against [...]

  4. [...] the al-Nusra Front, which Washington already considers a terrorist organization, was apparently always intended to be an adjunct of the Iraqi terror group. And while the U.S. has structured its non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition as a bulwark against [...]

  5. [...] Introducing the “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” (Cole Bunzel, Jihadica) [...]

  6. [...] the al-Nusra Front, which Washington already considers a terrorist organization, was apparently always intended to be an adjunct of the Iraqi terror group. And while the U.S. has structured its non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition as a bulwark against [...]

  7. [...] Introducing the “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” by @colebunzel [...]

  8. [...] Syria’s al-Nusra Front (“Jabhat al-Nusra”, or JaN). As explained at length in a post to the Jihadica blog, this differentiates JaN from the Syrian Islamic Front coalition, whose focus is on establishing an [...]

  9. [...] and former fellow with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Damascus, Syria, notes in a detailed analysis of the merger that al-Nusra’s objective is “an Islamic state that includes Syria.” The term [...]

  10. CanPolat says:

    Egypt: Al Nur Party….Actually, the example the author could have used even more appropriately would be Al Gama’a al Islamiya, which actually WAS a terrorist group and has years of jail time to prove it. They came out of prison and declared beforehand their peaceful goals. After the revolution, they founded a political party, al Bina wa-Tanmiya.

    Competitive politics, in their organized “democratic” form are indeed for an idealist/even ideologue who does not seek to be a mere obedient follower for the rest of his life a great lure away from the jihadi dead-end. The problem for their fellow countrymen is that they don’t see themselves having to CEDE control to others if they lose a round.

  11. [...] otro lado, los análisis desde el terreno apuntan a una influencia cada vez mayor del salafismo en su versión más extrema entre algunos grupos opositores, por lo que proporcionar ayuda letal sin tener claro a quién [...]

  12. Exequiel says:

    No todo esta dicho.. desde el ultimo audio difundido por al-juliani no ha habido mas datos visuales ni escritos de ninguno de los dos grupos, hay una disputa no hay dudas hay que esperar para ver que pasara, yo creo que al-juliani sera retirado de la comandancia de jhabat al nusra y al fin se usara el nombre “Estado Islamico de Iraq y Sham”

  13. [...] these remarks one can assume that al-Maqdisi would have opposed the attempt by the Islamic State of Iraq’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to assert authority over Jabhat al-Nusra last [...]

  14. JACK says:

    This is what I send to them or say to them,

    IN ISLAM NO GUARANTEE LOOK AND READ SURAH 19:71 AND 72,ALSO HADITH 266 VOLUME 5. AND SURAH 46:9.

    READ SURAH 23:103 AND SURAH 21:47 AND SURAH 18:105.HOW CAN ANYONE SURE HIS GOOD DEED OUTWEIGH HIS BAD DEED IN HIS ENTIRE LIFE,THINK ABOUT IT.BE CAREFUL,BE WISE,BE VIGILANT

    God bless you brother,in Christ,Jacky

    Why is Jesus the only way to heaven/God?

    by Matt Slick
    Jesus will Judge us
    The Bible says,

    ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. Revelation 3:20
    Do not complain, brethren, against one another, that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. James 5:9
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
    For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 (NAS)

    Here and in numerous other passages in the Holy Bible, we are told that Jesus, the Word, is our Judge. It also tells us that every knee will bow to Jesus Christ and admit that He is the Lord.
    The Qur’an confirms that Jesus will Judge us. Sura Al-e-Imran 3:49 (Pickthal) above.
    Who, but God, can Judge us? Certainly no human being has this power. Only Jesus Christ has this authority and power as confirmed to us by the Holy Scripture and Muhammad, the Muslim’s Prophet of Islam.
    Last edited 03-31-2001
    14. Isa will be the Judge who will come to this world to judge the living and the dead.
    The Arab prophet (El-Bukhari) confirmed this fact, saying:

    The Last Hour will not come until the Son of Mary come down as the just Judge.

    Why is Jesus the only way? Because Jesus said He was the only way. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me,” (John 14:6). Of course, just because someone says he is the only way, doesn’t mean he is. But, this is why we need to look at Jesus’ miracles as a proof that He was right about who He said He was. Jesus walked on water, calmed a storm with a command, raised people from the dead, and rose from the dead Himself. It is the fact of His incredible deeds.
    Now, if Joe Schmo
    This is what I send to them or say to them,

    IN ISLAM NO GUARANTEE LOOK AND READ SURAH 19:71 AND 72,ALSO HADITH 266 VOLUME 5. AND SURAH 46:9.

    READ SURAH 23:103 AND SURAH 21:47 AND SURAH 18:105.HOW CAN ANYONE SURE HIS GOOD DEED OUTWEIGH HIS BAD DEED IN HIS ENTIRE LIFE,THINK ABOUT IT.BE CAREFUL,BE WISE,BE VIGILANT

    God bless you brother,in Christ,Jacky

    Why is Jesus the only way to heaven/God?

    by Matt Slick
    Why is Jesus the only way? Because Jesus said He was the only way. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me,” (John 14:6). Of course, just because someone says he is the only way, doesn’t mean he is. But, this is why we need to look at Jesus’ miracles as a proof that He was right about who He said He was. Jesus walked on water, calmed a storm with a command, raised people from the dead, and rose from the dead Himself. It is the fact of His incredible deeds.
    Now, if Joe Schmoe on the street said that he was the only way to God, we’d look at him and say, “Yeah, right.” But, if Joe calmed a storm with a command, raised someone from the dead, walked on water, etc., that would add a lot of credibility to his claim. After all, he is demonstrating extraordinary abilities consistent with his claim.
    This is the case with Jesus. He made extraordinary claims and performed extraordinary deeds. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that what Jesus said was true — especially since He claimed to be God (John 8:24,58; 10:30-33; 5:18).
    Also, consider that no one else has done what Jesus has done. No one else has risen from the dead, calmed storms, raised others from the dead, and fulfilled numerous prophecies, etc. Though some may have claimed to be able to do one or two of these things, none have done all the things Christ has done as well as claim divinity. Since Christ has done all of these things and since He claims to be God in flesh, then it is logical to believe what He has said… that He is the only way.

    e on the street said that he was the only way to God, we’d look at him and say, “Yeah, right.” But, if Joe calmed a storm with a command, raised someone from the dead, walked on water, etc., that would add a lot of credibility to his claim. After all, he is demonstrating extraordinary abilities consistent with his claim.
    This is the case with Jesus. He made extraordinary claims and performed extraordinary deeds. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that what Jesus said was true — especially since He claimed to be God (John 8:24,58; 10:30-33; 5:18).
    Also, consider that no one else has done what Jesus has done. No one else has risen from the dead, calmed storms, raised others from the dead, and fulfilled numerous prophecies, etc. Though some may have claimed to be able to do one or two of these things, none have done all the things Christ has done as well as claim divinity. Since Christ has done all of these things and since He claims to be God in flesh, then it is logical to believe what He has said… that He is the only way.

    In the day when God shall iudge the secrets of men by Iesus Christ, according to my Gospel.
    - King James Version (1611) – View 1611 Bible Scan

  15. [...] are not the first jihadis to try to mediate the ISIS-JN dispute. To remind readers, this dispute broke out in April last year when al-Baghdadi, emir of the then-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), declared JN to [...]

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  17. Santo says:

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    I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m
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  18. Chris Allen says:

    My Commitment To Global Jihad. Thank You Very Much And Have A Nice Day.

  19. Chris Allen says:

    You took away my comment. I am going to charge you.

  20. zia ul haq says:

    well done ….
    Jesus is not the son of GOD but is beloved to GOD …
    MUHAMMAD IS THE LAST MESSENGER AND ISLAM IS THE PERFECT WAY AND GUIDE FOR LIFE…
    BELIEVE IN ISLAM

  21. pman says:

    Jesus is not the son of GOD but is beloved to GOD …
    MUHAMMAD IS THE LAST MESSENGER AND ISLAM IS THE PERFECT WAY AND GUIDE FOR LIFE…
    BELIEVE IN ISLAM is a big misconception. Christ is the son of God and Muhammad is not the last of prophets.

    Quran is full of clear cut references about his coming.

    The days of Islam are over. All that has remained is arrogance from ignorant people who’s aim is to deny truth and follow their own vain imagination.

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