Abu Muhammad al Julani, as shown during an interview in December 2015.
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has discussed a possible merger with some of its closest allies, according to well-connected jihadists online.
The news was first reported on Twitter by a user known as Muzamjir al Sham. His tweets drew responses from others, including Abu Ammar al Shami. Jihadists have identified Abu Ammar as a veteran al Qaeda member in Syria.
Abu Ammar offered his summary of the talks in a series of tweets on Jan. 27. Earlier this month, Al Nusrah called together the various factions that make up Jaysh al Fath, a coalition that swept through the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib last year. The al Qaeda branch proposed a “full merger,” meaning that the groups would fold their operations into a single entity with a unified leadership, according to Abu Ammar.
Two unnamed “scholars” attended the proceedings as “witnesses” and to oversee the talks, Abu Ammar explained. After they spoke, the head of each Jaysh al Fath faction addressed their allies.
The final person to speak was Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir (or leader).
Julani proposed that a new entity be established and offered to have someone else lead it, according to Abu Ammar.
But Julani’s proposal included certain preconditions. For example, the organization would have to ensure the “supreme rule of sharia” law and protect foreign fighters. If the various constituents agreed to these demands, Abu Ammar claimed, then Al Nusrah would “abide by the decisions of the new group’s shura [advisory] council.”
Julani issued this proposal for the sake of unity, and despite Al Nusrah’s concerns about the actions of some of the other parties involved, Abu Ammar wrote. All of the factions in attendance supposedly agreed to the plan except for Ahrar al Sham’s representatives, who suspended the talks.
According to Abu Ammar’s account, Ahrar al Sham raised the issue of Al Nusrah’s “disassociation” from al Qaeda. Julani explained “the nature of this association and its implications from Al Nusrah’s” perspective.
Unsatisfied, Ahrar al Sham leader Abu Yahya al Masri “insisted on the disassociation,” despite all other factions agreeing with Julani’s proposal. Another “brother” in attendance, Abu Bara Ma’rshmarin (Ahrar al Sham’s former military commander), supposedly agreed with Julani’s plan as well.
Abu Ammar argued that Ahrar al Sham needs to take only the final “step” and “approve” the merger for it to become final.
It should be noted that this is Abu Ammar’s version of events, and other attendees may have different views. For instance, Abu Ammar took issue with Muzamjir al Sham’s characterization of the talks, which is why he decided to publicly discuss the meetings in the first place.
Past disagreements over Al Nusrah’s relationship with al Qaeda
This is not the first time that Abu Ammar has disagreed with Muzamjir’s version of events. Last year, Abu Ammar took issue with Muzamjir’s claims regarding Al Nusrah’s relationship with al Qaeda.
On Mar. 4 2015, Muzamjir was cited by Reuters as saying that Al Nusrah was going to “disengage from al Qaeda” to form a new entity that could receive more assistance from nations opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime, including Qatar.
“A new entity will see the light soon, which will include Nusra[h] and [Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar] and other small brigades,” Muzamjir was quoted as saying. “The name of Nusra[h] will be abandoned. It will disengage from al Qaeda. But not all the Nusra[h] emirs agree and that is why the announcement has been delayed.”
Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar and some smaller jihadist groups did, in fact, join Al Nusrah months later, in September 2015. But Al Nusrah did not break with al Qaeda, nor did it change its name.
Shortly after Muzamjir’s comments were published, Abu Ammar mocked Reuters for citing him as someone who was in the know. “As if Muzamjir can succeed in guiding the people,” Abu Ammar wrote on a Twitter feed that has since been suspended. (His latest comments were posted on a new feed.)
Abu Ammar blasted the Reuters article as “nothing but lies and slander against” Al Nusrah, adding that it was a “continuation of the media campaign against it!” He described Qatar as “America’s arm in the region,” meaning Al Nusrah wouldn’t work with the nation. Al Nusrah Front’s “connection to al Qaeda is a Sunni connection of jihad, raising up the word of Allah, and liberating Muslim countries,” Abu Ammar tweeted. “It is not a political connection that is changed according to changing interests,” he insisted.
Al Qaeda and the insurgency against Assad
Al Nusrah Front shares the same goals as Ahrar al Sham and some of the other jihadist groups in Syria. They want to defeat Assad and establish an Islamic state based on sharia law. (The al Qaeda branch views Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State as illegitimate for various reasons.) But the jihadists have long debated how to achieve these goals.
At first, al Qaeda sought to hide its hand in Syria. For example, al Qaeda did not openly recognize Al Nusrah Front as a branch of the organization until after the relationship became widely known.
Although it was suspected beforehand, Al Nusrah’s place within al Qaeda’s network became undeniable after Abu Muhammad al Julani began to openly war with his former boss, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in 2013. When Baghdadi tried to reclaim command of Al Nusrah, Julani went over Baghdadi’s head, reaffirming his allegiance directly to Ayman al Zawahiri.
Zawahiri sided with Julani in the ensuing battle, but still chastised him for “showing his links to al Qaeda without having our permission or advice.” That is, Zawahiri didn’t want Julani to expose al Qaeda’s operations.
Al Qaeda embedded senior operatives in other rebel groups as well, including Jund al Aqsa and Ahrar al Sham. In fact, Zawahiri’s most trusted advisor in Syria, Abu Khalid al Suri, was a leader in Ahrar al Sham until his death in February 2014. Other al Qaeda veterans have been embedded within Ahrar al Sham’s ranks as well.
Unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda and its regional branches often create new brands and organizations to mask their influence. Outside of Syria, this can be seen in the various Ansar al Sharia groups that arose in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen in 2011. Ansar al Dine in Mali was set up by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to serve as a local front for the jihadists’ cause. And Osama bin Laden instructed the leadership of Shabaab in Somalia to keep their ties to al Qaeda secret. Bin Laden believed that as long as Shabaab did not announce itself as an official al Qaeda group (which it officially did in February 2012) it could garner more support from throughout the Arab world.
Ayman al Zawahiri and his commanders know that the al Qaeda brand name generates extra attention from Western counterterrorism officials and also limits the amount of assistance some regional actors are willing to provide.
This is at least part of the reason there was a dispute over Al Nusrah’s overt ties to al Qaeda earlier this month.
When Muzamjir said Al Nusrah was going to break with al Qaeda last year, he explained that it was so the rebels could receive more assistance from Qatar.
Despite Abu Ammar’s protest on Twitter that Al Nusrah wouldn’t work with Qatar, the nation has brokered favorable hostage exchanges for Al Nusrah, thereby generating much needed cash. According to the US Treasury Department, the aforementioned Abu Khalid al Suri received funds from al Qaeda financiers in Qatar. Other senior al Qaeda leaders have said it is permissible to work with countries such as Qatar and Turkey under certain circumstances. And Qatar has provided a permissive environment for jihadist fundraising, including for the groups fighting Assad.
However, some jihadists in Ahrar al Sham and other organizations consider Al Nusrah’s clear ties to al Qaeda to be a detriment to the jihad in Syria. If Al Nusrah would publicly distance itself from al Qaeda, they argue, then the jihadists could receive more support from countries throughout the Gulf and elsewhere. Such assistance is seen as even more necessary in light of Assad’s alliance with Iran and Russia. Both nations have provided crucial support to the Assad regime.
Julani has steadfastly refused to renounce al Qaeda. He has argued that their arrangement is not impeding the jihadists’ cause in Syria. However, Julani has opened the door for other arrangements. Should a truly Islamic government be established in Syria, then he and other al Qaeda members will be among its first soldiers, Julani explained during an interview in December.
In the talks earlier this month, according to jihadists online, Julani said the new group could issue a blanket statement denying any links with parties outside of Syria. But the statement would not specifically mention al Qaeda. This offer apparently didn’t go far enough for some in Ahrar in Sham.
But as the debate showed, the jihadists think there is additional assistance to be garnered if they can just assuage widespread concerns over al Qaeda’s presence in the anti-Assad insurgency. For this reason, it is a good thing that Julani’s proposal fell through, at least initially. Some want to look the other way when it comes to the rebels’ ties to al Qaeda. And a new entity could provide the cover for its operations that al Qaeda has long sought.