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Does the Islamic Front 'battle al Qaeda'?



In a report on the recent decision by the US to suspend nonlethal aid to Free Syrian Army rebels in northern Syria, The New York Times claims that the newly formed Islamic Front is actively fighting al Qaeda:

The administration acted after several warehouses of American-supplied equipment were seized Friday by the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters who have broken with the moderate, American-backed opposition, but who also battle Al Qaeda.

In our view, there is no real basis for the latter assertion. We here at The Long War Journal have been been documenting the joint operations between Ahrar al Sham and other supposedly moderate Islamist groups for well over a year, in numerous reports at LWJ and Threat Matrix, and in general the Islamist groups in Syria have cooperated with al Qaeda a great deal more than they have quarreled.

While it is true that there are occasionally tensions between Islamic Front units and al Qaeda's two affiliates in the region, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham and the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, reporting from Syria indicates that these clashes are localized and often due to disputes over resources or leadership.

Keep in mind that similar claims have been made earlier about the Free Syrian Army, even though FSA units in fact often fought alongside al Qaeda and even defended the terrorist group after the US added the Al Nusrah Front to the list of designated terrorist organizations. A top FSA commander even called the members of the Al Nusrah Front his "brothers."

There is nothing in the Islamic Front's charter that says it opposes al Qaeda. In fact, its charter indicates that it seeks to work with al Qaeda; it welcomes the "Muhajireen" [emigrants or foreign fighters] as "our brothers who supported us in jihad." And the Islamic Front shares the same goals as al Qaeda: the toppling of the Assad regime, the establishment of an Islamic State, and the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law. [See LWJ report, Islamic Front endorses jihad, says 'the Muhajireen are our brothers' and Analysis: Formation of Islamic Front in Syria benefits jihadist groups].

Additionally, a statement released on Dec. 7 by Ahrar al Sham, one of the largest Islamist brigades in the Islamic Front, reveals that the group seeks to project a cozy relationship with al Qaeda. The statement touted a joint operation in the Damascus area by Ahrar al Sham, the ISIS, and the Al Nusrah Front. Over the past year, Ahrar al Sham has fought alongside al Qaeda's two branches multiple times in some very large and high profile operations. [See LWJ report, Islamic Front brigade launches joint raid with al Qaeda's Syrian branches]. Ironically, The New York Times even noted one such joint operation between the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham. [See LWJ report, Videos show joint Al Nusrah, Free Syrian Army attacks in ancient village.]

In light of all this, it is misleading to say that the Islamic Front is "a coalition of Islamist fighters who have broken with the moderate, American-backed opposition, but who also battle Al Qaeda."



READER COMMENTS: "Does the Islamic Front 'battle al Qaeda'?"

Posted by Jack Barclay at December 12, 2013 12:30 PM ET:

A fair point - the odd localised contact is not evidence that any groups in the new Islamic Front 'battle AQ'. A pretty emphatic statement that available evidence perhaps doesn't quite support. Or not yet anyway...

I have a hunch that the AQ affiliated factions won't make easy bedfellows with the Islamic Front over the long term, just because they're currently cooperating on the battlefield or that they share what is currently a pretty nebulous shared objective of an 'Islamic state' under Sharia governance. Big deal. Half the Muslim world's Islamist revivalist movements purportedly want the same thing, but have radically different ideas of how to achieve it and what it will look like if it ever happens.

It might be battlefield cooperation for the time being - you highlight many pertinent examples of this - but it won't last. Wait out - there are greater ideological, political, and strategic fissures between the AQ affiliates and the other Islamist and Salafist factions in the Islamic Front than may be apparent just yet. They'll be at each other's throats in the end.