In July, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, officially spun off from the terrorist organization and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of Syria”). The actual reasons for the spinoff are still not entirely clear, nor what it indicates as to the state of affairs within Al Qaeda. Prima facie one might think a spinning off means there must be some sort of contention among the leadership if one branch is leaving the organization. Perhaps this is a sign of weakness, or of internal leadership in disarray. Indeed, one theory is that this is a result of Al Qaeda’s poor showing in Syria in the competition with Islamic State and other factions in its attempts to conquer territory. Maybe Al Qaeda does not want to be affiliated with a terrorist group badly trailing others.
On the other, perhaps there is some legitimate strategic reason for Jabhat al-Nusra to spin off. Maybe there is no internal disarray: leadership of both organizations have released statements insisting they are still on good terms and continue to harbor the same ideology and objectives. JFS may now be able to garner appeal with the rebranding as a “local” group, or be able to attract more local support. Indeed, there might be truth to that: a Twitter account entitled Al-Maqalaat, which seems to be affiliated with JFS, has been retweeting material of Al Muhajirun, a group of terrorists that insists it is merely an organic conglomeration of individuals who came to engage in jihad, as reported previously by Thought Front.
But really, why did JFS break off?
When announcing the split, the Nusra leader Abū Muḥammad al-Jawlānī gave a rather contrived explanation: that the US and Russia are only bombing Syria because of the presense of an Al Qaeda affiliate, a pretense that would be removed if there were no longer an affiliation. That was the reason stated in the group’s own translation of the announcement, where they misspell their own name:
In the necessity of the continuity of the Jihad of Al-Sham [Syria]…to expose the deceptions of the International community, the leaders being the U.S [sic] and Russia, in their relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Al-Sham under the pretence of targeting Jabhar [sic] Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate…we declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat Al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name “Jabhat Fath Al-Sham”, noting that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity.
Such an explanation does not seem to carry water, given the immediate response of the US: “We certainly see no reasons to believe that [al-Nusra’s] actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told the Washington Post in July.
And that still appears to be the case, outside of one accusation by a Russian foreign minister that the US is sparing JFS.
Although an even bigger hole in JFS/Al Qaeda logic is the fact that Islamic State broke off from Al Qaeda, yet has received considerable attention from the US, to put it mildly. So why would the JFS spinoff mean otherwise?
For the past month, JFS-affiliated media has been putting out messaging continuing to insist that the spinoff and rebranding is for a totally good reason. Al Muwahideen Media, an Al Nusra outlet that is presumably now under the JFS banner, conducted a multi–part interview with Al Qaeda representative Ahmed Al-Hamdan, who continued to give more unsatisfactory explanations. The interview was published on WordPress, the same website hosting Thought Front.
For one, he argues that the Syrian propaganda would feel more authentic coming from a local group, instead of Al Qaeda’s central command:
I ask, which would have a greater impact- when the group Al-Qaeda officially adopts this article and publishes it through a media wing, or when its author publishes it by himself on his own capacity? By this, you will cause people to ask as to what is the evidence that Abu Kareemah is actually a Mujahid from Khurasan [Al Qaeda leadership in Syria]?! And what is the evidence that he is the actual author of this article? There is no doubt that the people will take the official publication as being more credible.
Al-Hamdan again paid lip service to the claim that the US would not involve itself if the Al Qaeda banner were gone:
Generally, al Qaeda feel that its presence in some of the fields is a hindrance and that it is used as a justification by the enemies to give a pretext for international forces to intervene. And we believe that the West does not just have a problem with what it calls terrorism, rather it has a problem with any Islamic project. When it is announced that Al Qaeda is present in any geographical area you cannot be certain of this claim. However when the West have no other excuse to intervene and suppress the Islamic projects then it will enter and strike the Islamic groups when this claim (of an al Qaeda presence) can be reasonably verified.
In fact, says Al-Hamdan, JFS not having the Al Qaeda banner can be a good thing for Al Qaeda itself, because then the US will ignore the area and the group will have more freedom to operate:
And al Qaeda do not like to announce their presence in some areas for a number of reasons: …To find more room to manoeuvre, and to create places to move financial support and aid – meaning you will not find some traders in some of the states because there is a difficulty finding support in needy States in which battles and war are taking place…Stopping the Western countries from being able to cause provocation between the factions as some of the factions will accuse a specific group because of its alleged affiliation to al Qaeda.
Although this sounds like a highly contrived explanation, considering that there has been heavy warfare and worldwide scrutiny of Syria both before and after the spinoff.
Al-Hamdan also claims that not having the Al Qaeda brand in Syria will somehow expose that the US is really at war with Islam itself, because the US will be bereft of any other excuse for military action in Syria:
And we believe that the West does not just have a problem with what it calls terrorism, rather it has a problem with any Islamic project. When it is announced that Al Qaeda is present in any geographical area you cannot be certain of this claim. However when the West have no other excuse to intervene and suppress the Islamic projects then it will enter and strike the Islamic groups when this claim (of an al Qaeda presence) can be reasonably verified.To expose the Western enemies hostility to every Islamic project and show that their problem is with Islam and the establishment of the Shariah and not with a specific group, and to remove the usual argument used by the Western countries for intervention.
But would Al Qaeda not officially being in Syria really mean there is no pretense for the US to engage in military operations in the country other than Islamophobia? Do Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State not constitute reasons?
So really, why the breaking off? There seems to be no conclusive or compelling explanation. Perhaps with time there might be greater elucidation as to the “real reason.”
The Al-Maqalaat account, meanwhile, recently tried its own spin doctoring to downplay the breakoff:
Allah has changed and replaced religions, laws and Quranic verses – So changing or replacing a mere organization is not that big of a deal.
You see? If Allah can change religions and Islamic tenets, then changing a group is “not that big of a deal.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Al Muwahideen Media interview with Ahmed Al-Hamdan was in two parts. In fact a third part has since been published, and the full extent of the series is unknown.