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.