Analysis: Deterring Gulf States from backing the new Al Nusrah Front

Al Nusrah Front – Al Qaeda’s largest branch in its history – announced yesterday that it was changing its name to the Levant Conquest Front, a group it claimed would have “no relationship with any foreign party.” As a result, Qatar and some other Gulf states may soon send material support to the organization, a carrot they allegedly offered its leader last year, according to sources cited by Reuters. As these states’ main security guarantor, Washington may be the only actor capable of urgently deterring them from legitimizing a group that – despite its rebranding – is still a dangerous, extremist force.

Shortly before announcing its new name, Al Nusrah released an audio recording attributed to Abu al Khayr al Masri, whom it identified as al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s deputy. In it, Al Masri authorized Al Nusrah Front “to proceed with that which safeguards the interests of Islam and Muslims, and protects the jihad of the people of the Levant.”

In a video released soon afterwards via television stations based in Doha and Dubai, Al Nusrah’s leader Abu Muhammad al Julani declared his group’s rebranding. He did not, however, revoke its leaders’ pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri or promise that his group would no longer work through Al Qaeda. Members of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership – including likely Al Masri himself – have relocated to Syria, so the new Al Nusrah could still report to Al Qaeda’s leadership without acknowledging foreign ties.

Indeed, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called Al Nusrah’s latest announcement primarily “a PR move,” explaining that time would tell whether it was actually divorcing Al Qaeda. As the Long War Journal has previously documented, Al Qaeda has sought to downplay its relationship with Al Nusrah from the start.

However, American and international media are widely interpreting Julani’s announcement as a separation from Al Qaeda. Given how this development is being received, there may be reason to fear that Qatar or other Gulf states could imminently take steps to fund the newly-rebranded jihadist organization.

In March of 2015, Reuters reported the existence of a Qatari-led attempt to rebrand Al Nusrah in order to provide it with greater support. Citing sources within and close to the group, the article stated that intelligence officials from Qatar and other Gulf states had met Julani more than once in recent months to that end.

Although Qatari officials declined to comment for the story, it cited a source close to Doha’s foreign ministry who purportedly confirmed that the country was promising Al Nusrah additional support – including money and supplies – once it cut ties with Al Qaeda.

Another Reuters report, from Dec. 2015, noted that Qatar views Al Nusrah as “one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria” and has sought to moderate it in “the hope it could eventually split from al Qaeda and be supplied with arms.”

A member of Al Nusrah cited by the Wall Street Journal yesterday said that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have pressed for a Nusrah-Qaeda divorce via their allied jihadist militia Ahrar al Sham. The same day, Reuters concluded that Al Masri’s message could pave the way for greater support to Al Nusrah from Qatar and other Gulf states.

Such support could contravene US policy, a multilateral American agreement in the Gulf, and a number of UN Security Council resolutions.

Soon after yesterday’s news was announced, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby emphasized that “they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization” because “we judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.” Further, Al Nusrah is subject to a binding asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo, which the UN Security Council imposed in 2013 invoking several of its past resolutions on combating terrorism and Chapter VII of the UN charter.

Qatar and the other Gulf monarchies are also obligated to the 2014 US-led diplomatic initiative known as the Jeddah Communiqué. In it, they pledged joint action against “all terrorism,” including “countering financing of ISIL and other violent extremists.” There can be little doubt that the rebranded Al Nusrah fits that label, even under its different name.

Qatar’s own record toward Al Nusrah is problematic at best.

According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism issued last month, “entities and individuals within Qatar continue to serve as a source of financial support for terrorist and violent extremist groups, particularly regional al-Qa’ida affiliates such as the Nusrah Front.” There is still no evidence that Doha, which was labeled a “permissive jurisdiction” for terror finance in 2014, has convicted a single such individual. In addition, Qatar reportedly allowed commanders of the group to visit Doha for fundraising and military consultations starting in 2012.

America’s role as Qatar’s superpower patron means there may be little the international community can do to preclude the risk of Gulf support to a rebranded Al Nusrah unless Washington takes action first. Further, the US likely only has a short window to lay out the sort of clear penalties that would deter Doha or other Gulf states from directly or indirectly funding the organization.

For one, the Obama administration could easily outline how doing so would violate Qatar’s international commitments. More persuasively, the US could make clear that directly or indirectly sending the group arms or money would be grounds for addition to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a rarely-used designation that brings with it mandatory statutory penalties.

Washington could also announce that it will be devoting intelligence resources to monitor such violations. It could work to confirm that the rebranded group is still subject to UN sanctions and legislate specific penalties at the Security Council for any state that violates such provisions.

The US could also explicitly warn allies like Qatar not to take “backdoor” routes to aiding the organization, such as willfully letting advanced weapons reach it via other rebel militias or negotiating multimillion dollar hostage deals with the group. In addition, the executive branch could signal support for the timely passage of bipartisan legislation under consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to penalize states that fail to stop terrorist groups from fundraising in their territory.

As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed this week, the administration believes Al Nusrah poses a growing threat to Europe and the American homeland. The window for cordoning off that threat may be swiftly slamming shut.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He specializes on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

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