Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah Front, delivered a short statement today concerning his organization’s future. He read his message in a video that was rebroadcasted by television stations throughout the Middle East, publicly showing his face for first time. In previous appearances on Al Jazeera and other stations, Julani’s image was obscured.
Julani’s group will no longer be known as Jabhat al Nusrah (or Al Nusrah Front), but instead as Jabhat Fath Al Sham (“Conquest of the Levant Front”). The move is being spun in press reports around the globe as Al Nusrah’s official “break” or “split” from al Qaeda.
But a careful examination of Julani’s speech reveals that his wording was nuanced and he never explicitly renounced or truly broke from al Qaeda.
Moreover, even if Julani did say that his group had really split from al Qaeda (which he didn’t), there is no good reason to believe him. Julani himself noted that Al Nusrah’s rebranding was necessary to obscure the vision of its enemies, especially the US and Russia. In addition, al Qaeda’s leaders have long sought to mask the extent of their influence in order to minimize Western scrutiny.
Julani began the talk in which he supposedly broke from al Qaeda by praising al Qaeda’s most senior leaders for faithfully following in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden.
“We would like to thank our brothers, the commanders of Al Qaeda in general, Dr. Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri and his vice [deputy], Sheikh Ahmad Hasan Abu al Khayr especially, may Allah protect them,” Julani began his remarks. “We thank them for their stance, whereby they gave priority to the interests of the people of Al Sham [Syria], their Jihad, their revolution, as well as their proper assessment of the general benefits [of] the Jihad. This noble stance will be recorded in the annals of history.”
Ahmad Hasan Abu al Khayr is an Egyptian al Qaeda veteran who is also known as Abu Khayr al Masri. Earlier in the day, Al Nusrah released a message in which Al Masri granted Julani and his men the permission to take whatever steps are necessary to “preserve” the jihad in the Levant. It is the first time that Al Masri has been identified as Ayman al Zawahiri’s deputy.
Al Masri was held under house arrest inside Iran for years, but was reportedly freed along with several other al Qaeda leaders last year. Jihadists on social media say he is in Syria, which may explain why his message was released directly by Al Nusrah, as opposed to As Sahab, the propaganda arm that handles messages issued by Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders based in South Asia. The timing of Al Masri’s statement also indicates that al Qaeda’s senior leadership coordinated today’s messages. The organization’s senior leadership clearly approved of the plan set forth by Julani.
Julani continues by praising Zawahiri’s and Al Masri’s “blessed leadership,” as they have been “an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group.” Zawahiri and Masri “have practically implemented the words of Sheikh Osama bin Laden (may Allah have mercy on him),” Julani claims.
Julani goes on to quote bin Laden: “The interests of the Ummah take precedence over the interest of any state; the interests of the state take precedence over the interest of any Jama’ah (group); the interests of the Jama’ah (group) take precedence over any individual.”
Jabhat Fath Al Sham will supposedly have “no affiliation to any external entity”
After effusively praising al Qaeda’s senior leadership, Julani announces the creation of his new organization, but only after a lengthy preamble explaining the reasons why.
He mentions Al Nusrah’s “obligations in serving the people of Al Sham and their jihad” and Al Nusrah’s desire to lighten “the weight upon the shoulders of the people,” but “without compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs.” Julani also says he and his comrades strive “to bridge the gaps between the groups of Mujahideen and ourselves,” hoping “to form a unified body” based on Al Shura [consultation] that also unites “the masses of the people of Al Sham.”
Earlier this month, The Washington Post published a version of a proposal that would pave the way for the US and Russia to cooperate against Al Nusrah Front. This and other reports have clearly influenced Al Nusrah’s thinking, as several prominent members of the organization took to Twitter to denounce the proposed initiative.
Julani argues that Al Nusrah’s relaunch is “fulfilling the requests of the people of Al Sham to expose the deceptions of the international community, the leaders being the US and Russia, in their relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Al Sham under the pretense of targeting Jabhat al Nusrah, an al Qaeda affiliate.”
In other words, Al Nusrah’s overt relationship with al Qaeda made it easy for Russia and the US to justify bombing Syria. For this reason, others in the Syrian insurgency objected to Al Nusrah’s status as an al Qaeda branch. (To date, American airstrikes have mainly targeted individual al Qaeda leaders embedded in Al Nusrah’s ranks, not the organization’s overall paramilitary force. However, the proposal for cooperation with Russia may have led to a change in that focus.)
Julani and Al Nusrah’s other leaders are sensitive to the complaint and so they wanted to eliminate this supposed pretext.
“For the aforementioned reasons, we declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat Al Nusrah, 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,” Julani says.
Press outlets and many analysts seized on this phrasing to argue that Julani had announced Al Nusrah’s “split,” or “break” from al Qaeda. Some even reported that Julani had thanked “commanders of al Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties.”
But that is not what Julani actually said. His remarks were far more nuanced and require careful analysis.
Julani did not explicitly say that Al Nusrah had broken or split from al Qaeda, which is the language used by the press. He made no such claims.
Instead, Julani said Jabhat Fath Al Sham would have “no affiliation to any external [or foreign] entity.” If Julani wanted to argue that he and his men no longer had any ties to al Qaeda, he could have said so. He didn’t. And his precise wording allows for a considerable amount of wiggle room.
Al Qaeda has a senior leadership cadre and a roster of members inside Syria, meaning al Qaeda itself is not an “external entity.” In fact, it is possible that Zawahiri’s top two deputies – Abu Khayr al Masri and Saif al Adel – are currently in Syria today, or are regularly in the country. (Some senior al Qaeda leaders have been able to move back and forth between Turkey, where they are safe from American drone strikes, and Syria.)* Furthermore, many al Qaeda jihadists will serve in Jabhat Fath Al Sham’s ranks, ensuring that they are not “external” to the newly-branded group either.
For instance, Ahmad Salama Mabruk, a jihadist who has served Ayman al Zawahiri since at least the 1980s, sat to Julani’s right as he spoke. Mabruk’s decades-long relationship with Zawahiri did not come to an end simply because Al Nusrah has now been rebranded. Mabruk, an Egyptian, is not considered part of an “external entity” because of his migration to Syria for jihad.
Mabruk can be seen to the reader’s left, Julani’s right, in the screen shot below:
Then there is the issue of Julani’s bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. Julani didn’t mention it. It is well-established that Zawahiri could allow Julani to end his formal fealty. But Julani did not say that Zawahiri had nullified Julani’s bay’ah, nor did Julani say that he was breaking it.
Although Zawahiri is presumably not located in Syria, one could easily envision a scenario in which this wrinkle is explained away. Julani could have easily stated that he was no longer bound to Zawahiri by a blood oath. But he didn’t. This is curious for many reasons, especially because al Qaeda and the Islamic State have argued about oaths of allegiance for the past three years.
Julani’s wording on this point — “no affiliation to any external entity” — is similar to the phrasing he reportedly used in a proposal for rebel unity in January. As The Long War Journal reported at the time, Julani said a new group could issue a blanket statement denying any links with parties outside of Syria. But, Julani allegedly said, the statement would not specifically refer to Al Nusrah’s al Qaeda ties. This offer apparently didn’t go far enough for some in Ahrar in Sham, as some leaders rejected it. Yet, this same formulation is now being trumpeted as an end to al Qaeda’s relationship with Julani and his men.
Al Nusrah’s leadership has long sought to unite various rebel factions under a single chain of command. This is why Al Nusrah formed various coalitions throughout Syria, including Jaysh al Fath, which swept through the province of Idlib last year. It is no secret that Al Nusrah and some of its closest battlefield allies in Jaysh al Fath, such as Ahrar al Sham, have received assistance from various actors interested in toppling Bashar al Assad’s regime. Nations such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have bolstered the prospects of Jaysh al Fath and its constituents.
Julani now seeks to formally unite some of these same organizations under Jabhat Fath Al Sham’s banner, but this raises an additional point of tension. Will the new organization eschew the support regional actors — “external” or foreign entities, if you will — are willing to offer in the war against Assad? That is highly doubtful, adding yet another reason to doubt that Julani has drawn a firm line.
It is worth noting that while many have read “external entity” as a reference to al Qaeda, it is actually a blanket term that could be interpreted any number of ways.
No change in ideology
On multiple occasions in the past, Julani has been asked if he was going to break with al Qaeda. He knows this is what many are waiting to hear and yet his wording was still, at the very least, ambiguous.
During an interview in Dec. 2015, Julani steadfastly refused to dissociate with al Qaeda. But he added a noteworthy observation. If “we remain with al Qaeda or not, we will never give up our principles,” Julani said. “We will continue to say that we want to empower sharia and will strive to do so. We will [continue with] our jihad and will not make truces or stop a battle with [our] aggressor” enemies. In other words, Al Nusrah’s ideology would remain unchanged no matter what.
Jabhat Fath Al Sham’s principles are the same as Al Nusrah’s. The first goal for the renamed organization is to “work toward establishing the religion of Allah, having His sharia (law) as legislation” and to “establish justice amongst all people,” Julani says. It will “strive toward unity with all groups” and “to unify the ranks of the Mujahideen and liberate the land of Al Sham from the rule of the tyrant [Bashar al Assad] and his allies.”
These have been al Qaeda’s goals since the war in Syria began.
*Note: This sentence explaining that senior al Qaeda leaders have been able to move back and forth between Turkey and Syria was added on July 29.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.