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.
In his statement, Zawahiri broached the matter as follows: “There remains an issue that has been raised repeatedly in an effort to divert the attention of the jihad-fighting Muslim community in Sham from its real enemies. This is the issue of the relationship of Jabhat al-Nusra, the strong, the generous, the steadfast—in our relationship with it we take pride, and we ask God to increase its perseverance and success—with the Qaidat al-Jihad Group [i.e., al-Qaida]. I will thus say some brief, clarifying words.” What followed, however, was less than clarifying.
First, Zawahiri outlined a scenario in which Jabhat al-Nusra and its al-Qaida links might run their course: “We have said repeatedly that if the people of Sham, and in particular their courageous and blessed mujahidin, establish their Islamic government and choose for themselves an imam, then what they choose will be our choice. For we are, thanks to God, not seeking power; rather we are seeking the implementation of the Shari‘a. We do not wish to rule over the Muslims; we wish to be ruled as Muslims by Islam. And we have called for, and continue to call for, the unity of the mujahidin in Sham, and their coming together around the establishment of a jihad-fighting, right-guided Islamic government, which spreads justice, extends consultation, restores rights, helps the downtrodden, and revives jihad; then liberates countries and strives for the liberation of al-Aqsa and the restoration of the caliphate on the prophetic method.” Here Zawahiri envisions letting go of Jabhat al-Nusra in favor a potential Syrian Islamic government.
But directly after this he suggested that Jabhat al-Nusra ought not to leave al-Qaida just yet: “Organizational affiliation will never be, God willing, an obstacle before these lofty hopes…Will the worst criminals be satisfied with Jabhat al-Nusra if it leaves al-Qaida? Or will they force it to sit at the table with murderous criminals, then force it to comply with agreements of disgrace and humiliation, submit to governments of corruption and subordination, and join the wicked game of democracy, and then later throw them in prison as they did with the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?” Here Zawahiri appears to issue a warning. Abandoning al-Qaida, he seems to say, will only lead to one capitulation after another, ultimately leading down the path of the Muslim Brotherhood. The point is stressed again at the end of his statement, where he quotes Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar (d. 2013) on refusing to hand over Osama bin Ladin to the Americans. Mullah ‘Umar reportedly said to some of his companions: “Were I to give up Osama, then tomorrow you would give me up.” The implication would seem to be that if Jabhat al-Nusra renounces al-Qaida, then that would be the beginning of a whole host of concessions.
Zawahiri’s message thus possessed two somewhat contradictory parts. The first left open the possibility of Jabhat al-Jusra’s leaving al-Qaida. The second warned it against doing so prematurely. With the rebranding and the establishment of JFS, al-Qaida would seize on the first part—as well as on similar words from Zawahiri—while the Islamic State would seize on the second.
“Coordination and cooperation”
On the day of the JFS announcement, Jabhat al-Nusra’s media arm released its final product: an audio statement from Zawahiri’s deputy, the Egyptian Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr. The statement was meant to convey al-Qaida’s blessing of what was soon to come. Emphasizing that jihad had passed from the stage of “an elite” to that of “a community,” and stressing the importance of unity over division, Abu al-Khayr gave Jawlani the green light: “We instruct the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra to go forward according to what will preserve the welfare of Islam and the Muslims and protect the jihad of the people of Sham. We urge them to take the appropriate steps in this regard.” Next, echoing the first part of Zawahiri’s statement above, Abu al-Khayr urged “all the mujahid parties in the country of Sham…[to] come together around a right-guided Islamic government that restores rights and spreads justice.” He then quoted another statement from Zawahiri—this one from January 2014—pointing up the temporary nature of organizational division: “Our brotherhood in Islam is greater than all fleeting and transient organizational ties, and your unity and harmony are more important and more dear to us than any organizational tie. Your unity and your union, as well as the unity of your ranks, supersede organizational affiliation and party loyalty. Those organizational and party ties will be sacrificed without delay if they come into conflict with your unity and your harmony…” Abu al-Khayr was thus not only transmitting Zawahiri’s blessing; he was backdating it.
Hours later, in his al-Jazeera-broadcast video announcing JFS, Jawlani started off by paying homage to Zawahiri, Abu al-Khayr, and the rest of the al-Qaida leadership. He thanked them for their blessing, praised them for always putting the interests of the Muslim community above those of the organization, and proceeded, “in accordance with the general guidance and instructions of these blessed leaders,” with the rebranding. The new group, JFS, would have “no relationship with any foreign entity,” which was to say no relationship with al-Qaida. The stated motives for this move were the wish to eliminate the pretext on which the West was bombing Jabhat al-Nusra and the desire to unite the various Islamist opposition groups.
The narrative promoted by Abu al-Khayr and Jawlani was reiterated a week and a half later by the Yemeni al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP), in an article in its official weekly. “The ending of the relationship was not from one side,” the article reassured, “but rather was anticipated by the al-Qaida leadership and took place with the coordination and cooperation of both sides. The al-Qaida leadership readied the way before [Jabhat] al-Nusra announced its separation.” The article further argued, as has been noted, that JFS still shared Jabhat al-Nusra’s goals, notwithstanding its unaffiliated status.
For the Islamic State and its supporters, however, what happened on July 28 was not an exercise in “coordination and cooperation” but rather a complete and utter sham. By no means, they argued, were al-Qaida’s leaders interested in letting go of their most successful franchise. What sense would that make? What happened, in their view, was that Jabhat al-Nusra made the decision to leave on its own, and al-Qaida had no choice but to play along. Both groups thus choreographed the rebranding ceremony to make it appear as if al-Qaida was in on it from the beginning. But in reality it was not. Zawahiri had been duped by the faithless Jawlani.
Such, at least, is the gist of five short commentaries issued by pro-Islamic State media channels between July and August. The first of these was a video from the famous media activist Tarjuman al-Asawirti, known for his hundreds of suspensions from Twitter and now more than 50 from Telegram. Tarjuman’s video, which appeared the day after Jawlani’s announcement, is a collage of statements from different jihadi leaders arranged to to expose Jawlani’s and Zawahiri’s cooperation as bogus. Titled “Partners Disagreeing,” a reference to Qur’an 39:29, it begins with Zawahiri’s words above seeming to warn Jabhat al-Nusra against leaving al-Qaida (“Will the worst of the criminals be satisfied with Jabhat al-Nusra if it leaves al-Qaida?…). It then reproduces another statement from Zawahiri—this one from his 2015 “Islamic Spring” series—chiding Baghdadi for have breached two bay‘as (contracts of allegiance)—the first with Zawahiri, the second with Mullah ‘Umar. Indeed, that al-Qaida and its soldiers are bound and have been bound to the leader of the Taliban by a caliphal kind of bay‘a (bay‘a ‘uzma, or “greater bay‘a”) is a theme that Zawahiri has stressed repeatedly since 2014. When Mullah ‘Umar was announced dead in mid-2015, Zawahiri quickly tendered a new bay‘a to his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansur. And when Mullah Mansur was proclaimed dead less than a year later, Zawahiri swiftly tendered yet another new bay‘a to the current Taliban emir, Mawlawi Haybat Allah Akhundzada. On both occasions he played up the “greater bay‘a” theme. Tarjuman’s video responded to the accusation with a line from Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani’s May 2014 statement accusing Jawlani of reneging on his bay‘a to Baghdadi. The point was to show that Jawlani, not Baghdadi, was the “breacher” (nakith) of bay‘as. He had breached his ba‘ya with Baghdadi back in 2013, and now he was violating two more—with Zawahiri and with the Taliban leader.
These points and more would be made more directly in four essays that followed, all by pseudonymous authors writing for the Islamic State’s semi-official media outlets. The first, released by the al-Battar Media Foundation, was by Gharib al-Sururiyya, a popular writer on this circuit who emphasized the depth of the ideological divide that has set in between the Islamic State and the “apostates” of al-Qaida. He ridiculed the “hopeless loser” Zawahiri for giving bay‘a to the “Sufi caliph” of the “nationalist” Taliban, wondering how, if all the soldiers of al-Qaida are pledged in bay‘a to Akhundzada, Jawlani was able so easily to get out from under his authority. The truth, he asserted, was that the relationship with al-Qaida had ceased to serve Jawlani’s purposes, and so this “treacherous breacher” went ahead and dumped his patron, just as he had dumped Baghdadi before.
The next essay was by a certain ‘Ahd, a well-known female writer with an outlet called the Granddaughters of ‘Ai’sha Foundation. Featuring an image of Jawlani sporting an American-flag patterned turban, her essay accused him of bending to the will of the United States and thus following the path of “the moderates” such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. “Tomorrow,” she gibed, “you will find Jawlani traveling to Qatar to broadcast his interviews from the studio in Doha with Ahmad Mansur.” She also cast doubt on Zawahiri’s supposed endorsement of Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding, referring to Zawahiri’s statement that he would release Jabhat al-Nusra only in the event an Islamic government is formed. “Where,” she asked, “is this Islamic government such that Jawlani can leave al-Qaida?” And what of Ahkundzada’s permission? Is he not “the caliph” of all the soldiers of al-Qaida? Was he consulted?
The third essay in this series, written by the relatively unknown Abu al-Muntasir al-Maghribi and published by al-Battar, mostly rehashed the arguments of Gharib al-Sururiyya and ‘Ahd. But it did make one unique point. Maghribi suggested that the other al-Qaida affiliates ought to change their names and drop their affiliations too. If the point was to avoid bombardment by Western forces, he said, then why does not Qasim al-Raymi change AQAP’s name to Jabhat Fath al-Yaman (“the Front for the Conquest of Yemen”)? Why, at that, does not al-Qaida change its own name?
The last and most authoritative of these essays came from the official poetess of the Islamic State, Ahlam al-Nasr. Issued in mid-August by the al-Sumud Media Foundation, it is the closest thing to an official Islamic State statement on the matter. Titled “Zawahiri: The Old Ball,” the essay argues that Zawahiri has become like a worn soccer ball “being kicked around left and right.” The players pretend to appreciate it, but really they will not hesitate to kick it away and replace it with another if that helps them to score. ‘Adnani, she said, had understood this already in May 2014, when he told Zawahiri the following: “You have made yourself and your al-Qaida a joke and a toy in the hands of a treacherous, bay‘a-breaching, inexperienced boy [i.e., Jawlani] whom you have not seen. You have let him play with you as a child plays with a ball.” But Jawlani, she continued, will soon find that he is also being played. He too will be sacrificed at the first opportunity—by the larger Syrian opposition.
It is telling that the Islamic State has issued no more official response to Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding than Ahlam al-Nasr’s essay. The general silence speaks to the fact that the Islamic State no longer sees itself as part of the same movement as al-Qaida. It does not feel compelled to comment in an official capacity on an organization that it wrote off two years ago as “apostate.” ‘Adnani had the last word back in 2014 when he declared that the difference between the two groups was not superficial but one of “path” (manhaj). Zawahiri had “deviated” from the correct path, that of Osama bin Ladin, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, and others. Thereafter, in the parlance of the Islamic State, Zawahiri’s al-Qaida has been “the Jews of jihad,” while Jabhat al-Nusra (now JFS) has been “Jawlani’s Apostate Front.”
What the Islamic State and its supporters have said about the rebranding is also telling—not because it is accurate (though it very well may be), but because it highlights a certain confusion in al-Qaida’s messaging. As all these detractors are keen to point out, Zawahiri persists in presenting the leader of the Taliban in caliphal terms, suggesting that all Muslims ought to rally around the standard of Mawlawi Haybat Allah Akhunzada. Most recently, for example, in May 2016, Zawahiri urged “the Muslim community to support the Islamic Emirate [i.e., the Taliban] and give it bay‘a”; and in August he said: “I call on my Muslim and mujahidin brothers in general, and those in Afghanistan in particular, to come together around this jihad-fighting emirate [i.e., the Taliban].” At the same time, Zawahiri has said he is not interested in who has power, and that he would be happy to see the mujahidin in Syria form their own government. How does this square with his calling on all Muslims (including those in Syria) to give bay‘a to the leader of the Taliban?
Something is not quite right here. It may not be that Zawahiri is a useless “old ball,” but it is hard to believe that, with his confused message, he is the guiding force that he is often made out to be.