On Mar. 17, Al Nusrah Front leader Abu Muhammad al Julani released a statement commemorating the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Bashar al Assad’s regime. “We congratulate the people of al Sham [Syria] and the Islamic Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] on the pass of five years of their blessed revolution and their blessed jihad,” Julani wrote, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group.
Julani concluded by arguing that the jihadists are one with the Syrian people. “For we are from the people of al Sham and al Sham is from us, nothing can separate us…from its people except death, Allah willing,” Julani claimed.
The success or failure of al Qaeda’s project in Syria hinges, to a large degree, on whether Julani is right. Al Nusrah, which easily has thousands of fighters, is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
The available evidence suggests Al Nusrah is widely respected on the ground five years into the rebellion. There are pockets of resistance, but the West has no real strategy for harnessing this discontent and diminishing al Qaeda’s influence in the rebellion. Perhaps that is not even currently possible.
Still, the events of the past two weeks highlight a liability al Qaeda has long sought to minimize in Syria. Protesters took to the streets in some areas to denounce Al Nusrah. It does not appear that the protests were widespread, but they were noteworthy.
Earlier this month, Al Nusrah clashed with the 13th Division, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction based in Maarrat al Nu’man, a town in the northwestern Idlib province. During the days that followed, protesters rallied against Al Nusrah and Jund al Aqsa, another al Qaeda-affiliated group. The two jihadist organizations had raided the 13th Division’s headquarters and bases in Maarrat al Nu’man in mid-March, capturing FSA fighters and their weapons in the process.
A Twitter feed (@JAN_Violations) that documents Al Nusrah’s transgressions posted photos and videos of a protest in Maarrat al Nu’man on Mar. 18, the day after Julani’s statement was published online.
Some of the images purportedly show Al Nusra and Jund al Aqsa fighters looking on from nearby rooftops as civilians denounced them. It is difficult, using social media alone, to gauge how significant the protests in Maarrat al Nu’man really are. But the photos and videos indicate that there is at least some discontent with al Qaeda’s guerrilla army in areas where other fighting factions have a reasonably strong presence.
Not to be outdone, Al Nusrah organized its own protests on the anniversary of the revolution. Al Nusrah’s official Twitter feed posted images of rallies in Idlib, Aleppo and elsewhere during which al Qaeda’s black banner was flown, often alongside the nationalist Syrian flag. The photos were intended to reinforce the perception that Al Nusrah remains an integral part of the rebellion. Indeed, this was al Qaeda’s intention all along.
Al Qaeda’s popular revolutionary model
As The Long War Journal has reported on multiple occasions, al Qaeda seeks to inculcate its Salafi-jihadist ideology within the Syrian population. It is using the conflict to build a broader and deeper base of popular support for its cause. Like the Islamic State, Al Nusrah seeks to enforce a harsh version of sharia law and build an Islamic emirate. However, al Qaeda and the Islamic State follow two different strategies for achieving these goals.
The Islamic State is a top-down authoritarian organization. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men argue that they have resurrected the caliphate, which was formally dissolved in 1924. The Islamic State explicitly markets its graphic executions and amputations under sharia law, saying the punishments are divinely justified. From the Islamic State’s perspective, Muslims who do not accept its legitimacy as a caliphate are to be terrorized into submission. Muslims who oppose the Islamic State, including even other jihadists, are deemed apostates or infidels.
In contrast, al Qaeda adheres to a bottom-up strategy, seeking to become popular with the people. From al Qaeda’s perspective, Bashar al Assad’s regime must fall before it can build a stable Islamic State. Al Qaeda’s representatives have begun to lay the groundwork for governance in the areas controlled by Al Nusrah and its closest allies. But al Qaeda will not publicly declare that an Islamic emirate exists in Syria until it is reasonably certain such a state can survive.
Unlike the Islamic State, Al Nusrah has embedded itself deep within the insurgency against Assad and his allies. This makes it difficult to untangle al Qaeda from the less extreme factions. Al Nusrah often cooperates with other groups that share only part of its agenda.
Al Nusrah also does not produce propaganda highlighting its enforcement of sharia’s harshest penalties. It eschews Islamic State-style propaganda because it does not want to offend Muslims who may be appalled by such draconian methods. Abu Firas al Suri, a veteran al Qaeda operative who is a member of Al Nusrah’s management team, has explained that Al Nusrah even enters into agreements with other factions concerning the laws that will be implemented in areas “liberated” from the Assad regime. In al Qaeda’s view, many Muslims have lived in countries where the supposedly true version of Islam has not existed for many decades. Therefore, al Qaeda seeks to educate the public concerning its version of sharia before forcing people to adhere to it.
The Islamic State achieved significant success after breaking from al Qaeda in 2013 and 2014 and following its own top-down model for waging jihad and governing territory. But al Qaeda’s presence in Syria has been underestimated. In addition to its own battlefield prowess, al Qaeda has successfully harnessed the resources of other groups to achieve victories, particularly in northwestern Syria. And rebel groups that have dared to oppose Al Nusrah have been quickly annihilated. Meanwhile, the jihadist ideology has spread throughout Syria, which is exactly what al Qaeda wants.
It is unlikely that any rebel factions can roll back Al Nusrah. Even the 13th Division, which fought with Al Nusrah earlier this month, cooperated with al Qaeda’s Syrian arm before the two sides finally came to blows. And the 13th Division, which has received support from the US and its allies, proved to be no match for al Qaeda’s men once a firefight ensued.
Five years into the Syrian war, the West does not have a strategy for defeating Al Nusrah. In fact, Western-backed groups often fight alongside al Qaeda’s paramilitary fighters.
As a result, there is much truth in Julani’s statement. The jihadists are “from the people” in many areas of Syria. This is not true everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be. Nearly 15 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, al Qaeda has raised a guerrilla army in Syria. Thousands of jihadists now claim to represent the people.