[Jihadica is pleased to welcome a guest post from Charles Lister (Charles_Lister), a London-based terrorism and insurgency analyst. The views expressed below are entirely his own and do not represent those of his employer.]
An article recently released by EA Worldview claims to refute the widespread belief that Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is an al-Qaeda affiliate; rather, it is a “local faction” in the Syrian insurgency that respects al-Qaeda but maintains its autonomy. According to EA Worldview, when JN’s leader, al-Golani, recently renewed his oath of allegiance (bay`a) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on April 10th, it was merely a formal nod of respect without significance for command and control.
EA Worldview’s interpretation of Golani’s oath of allegiance is wrong & here’s why:
Late on 8 April, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader al-Baghdadi issued a statement in which he essentially claimed to subsume JN within his group’s existing Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, the AQI front group) structure, thereby forming the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil-Iraq wal-Sham). In so doing, Baghdadi confirmed suspicions first formally raised by the US State Department in December 2012 when it claimed JN was actually AQI, and therefore an international terrorist organisation. In his statement, Baghdadi set forth a JN history that explicitly depicted JN as his creation. Baghdadi claimed that he personally “deputised” Golani – then a Syrian AQI commander active in Iraq – and “pushed” him along with several other AQI fighters to Syria. Baghdadi also claimed that “we laid plans for them and drew up for them the policy of work” and also provided them with financial and other strategic assistance. If Baghdadi’s history is right, his assertion that JN is part of an expanded ISI structure is a natural next step in the group’s evolution.
JN’s leader Golani didn’t perceive things in quite the same way. His statement, released a little over 24 hours later, not only expressed surprise at Baghdadi’s claim to have subsumed JN under his overall command, but clearly described a series of events where he – not Baghdadi – was the brains and engine behind JN’s formation: “[Baghdadi had agreed] to a project that we proposed to him.” Although Golani openly acknowledged his previous role in AQI and adopted the reverential title of “Sheikh” when referring to Baghdadi, he explicitly asserted that “the banner of the [Nusra] Front will stay as it is.” Golani then renewed his pledge of bay’a – an Islamic oath of allegiance – to Zawahiri and swore to listen to and obey all his orders no matter the circumstances. Golani closed his statement by assuring the Syrian people that “what you saw from JN in its defence of your religion, blood, and honour, and its good manners to you – the fighting faction will not change.”
There are several things to take away from this to-and-fro between Baghdadi and Golani:
- JN leader Golani renewed his pledge of bay’a to AQ leader Zawahiri.
- The renewal indicates that he had previously pledged bay’a to Zawahiri as a member of AQI. In other words, JN was already AQ before the April statements from Baghdadi and Golani.
- The swearing of bay’a to Zawahiri itself is as clear an indication of a group’s loyalty to AQ as you’re ever going to get.
- Golani wants JN to be recognized as an independent AQ affiliate and not a subsidiary of AQI or its front group, the Islamic State of Iraq. It also indicates an element of competition between Golani and Baghdadi to assume responsibility for JN’s comparative success in Syria.
- This does not mean JN is an autonomous actor in Syria detached from AQ leadership in Af-Pak.
- It is extremely unlikely that JN’s original creation in Syria by senior members of AQI could have occurred without Zawahiri’s knowledge and permission. In fact, the first statement in which Zawahiri explicitly covered developments in the Syrian revolution came on 27th July 2011 – the month when JN was actually created (although it formally announced its emergence in January 2012, several 2013 interviews with JN commanders indicate the group was created in July).
- This suggests the continued leading role of the AQ’s Af-Pak-based senior leadership in directing core AQ policies and strategies in Syria and across the world.
- By stressing his intention to continue operations in Syria under the JN name and with the same “policies”, Golani is attempting to prevent the deleterious impact an affiliation with AQI might have on his group’s reputation amongst Syria’s civilian population (resulting from AQI’s history of brutality and subjugation of Iraq’s civilian population).
- This does not mean he is separating himself from central AQ’s leadership command & orders.
In short: JN was AQ all along; it grew specifically out of AQI; has adopted a notably different strategy in terms of operating amongst the people; and seeks a place as a Syria-based separate AQ affiliate group.
Although Golani is adamant that JN is a locally-focused insurgent group, his oath of allegiance to Zawahiri means the group shares al-Qaeda’s vision of the global jihad, which extends far beyond the Syrian theatre. Golani’s emphasis on the local jihad should therefore be interpreted as an attempt to win over the Syrian public and not as evidence that the group has no aspirations beyond Syria’s borders. Similar strategies have been adopted by other local AQ affiliates around the world, most notably by Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen. So long as JN portrays itself as a group derived from local recruits fighting for local issues and devoted to a national cause, it may be able to sustain its largely positive reputation within the wider Syrian opposition movement. Much will depend on the nature of instruction the group receives from Zawahiri.
In many respects, Golani’s subtly terse reply to Baghdadi has at least temporarily saved his group’s operational reputation within the “Syrian” insurgency. JN has so far escaped any direct condemnation from the other insurgent groups, which is a testament to Golani’s ability to portray the group as a servant of the Syrian revolution and not the tool of AQ’s transnational agenda.
Since 10 April, the senior leaderships of both AQI and JN have failed to issue a single statement through any official media outlet. While it’s impossible to definitively attribute this anomaly to anything in particular, the most likely explanation is that Zawahiri has been faced with the tough diplomatic challenge of reasserting authority over both AQI and JN and fixing any damaged relations between Baghdadi and Golani. AQ has traditionally prided itself on political unanimity within its command and control structures. A critical reason for swearing bay’a is that it should – in theory – ensure that affiliate groups follow orders from the top. Clearly, Baghdadi spoke too soon, and the resulting very public disagreement has raised questions over Zawahiri’s ability to manage the AQ “organisation.”
Both groups are clearly still active though. AQI attacks continue in Baghdad and elsewhere. In Syria, several local and independent jihadi units have pledged allegiance to JN and reports of JN operations have continued to filter through unofficial channels and other groups’ Syrian sources. Yesterday morning morning, the Salafi militia Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya claimed responsibility for a joint ambush with JN of a military convoy in Khan al-Sheikh outside Damascus. Whatever Zawahiri eventually decides, al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria will persist in one form or another.