Al Qaida is coming back, stronger than before

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By Jonathan Alexander, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The “Great Intra-Muslim War” — which began with the split within the jihadist movement after the death of Osama bin Laden — seems set to resume its intensity. It had become lost in the major wars in Syria and Iraq, and in the civil war in Turkey.

This war between jihadist factions is already beginning to occur in several places in the region, and it will almost certainly have a profound effect on the next phase of developments in Syria.

Rebel fighters in eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 16. / Reuters
Rebel fighters in eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 16. / Reuters

The newly-rebranded Al Qaida affiliate/surrogate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly, Jabhat al-Nusra), is positioning itself to dominate the jihadist space in Syria when — as now seems possible — asad-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-‘Irāq wash-Shām (DI’ISH, aka ISIS/ISIL) is reduced by the concentration of forces, including the Syrian Government, the Russian forces, and the coalition of external forces targeting it.

Not surprisingly, the traditional Al Qaida movement was quick to move into Syria and exploit the political and security vacuums produced by the civil war in order to establish a new base of operations. As the civil war was beginning to escalate, the leader of Al Qaida’s Iraq branch at the time (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) saw the opportunity which Syria offered the salafist-jihadist movement and sent his deputy Abu-Muhammad al-Julani to create an Al Qaida presence and establish a foothold in the new conflict.

Al-Julani quickly began recruiting and taking advantage of the new Islamization of the opposition and established the group Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahli ash-Sham (“The Victory Front for the People of the Levant”), which was commonly referred to as Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front. The Syrian conflict presented Al Qaida with the perfect example of the “superiority” of their message over more moderate Islamists: peaceful political change does not work and armed resistance in the form of jihad is required.

As al-Nusra grew in strength and popularity, al-Baghdadi sought to unite the two branches under his command and under one label: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (DI’ISH). The leader of Al Qaida central, Ayman al-Zawahiri, along with Abu-Muhammad al-Julani, quickly denounced the merger and stated that the al-Nusra front was a separate organization from Al Qaida’s Iraq branch and was not loyal to al-Baghdadi. This power struggle resulted in an internal split with al-Qaida’s Iraq branch severing ties from the Al Qaida brand and the subsequent formation of DI’ISH (and the 2014 declaration of a renewed Islamic Caliphate with al-Baghdadi as Caliph) and the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra as al-Qaida’s official Syrian surrogate.

These two terrorist organizations are currently engaged in an ongoing war for recruits, legitimacy, and supremacy over the transnational salafist-jihadist movement. Al Qaida rejects DI’ISH’s claims that it has reconstituted the Caliphate stating that it lacks both the popular support of the people and the legitimacy/ability to create and maintain this artificial entity.

Since the beginning of its presence in Syria, Al Qaida has been cultivating local relationships and embedding itself within the broader domestic opposition as part of its long-term strategy of presenting themselves as the true protectors of the Syrian people. Its priority is to establish deep ties with local communities, which means focusing on fighting the Assad Government, maintaining a pragmatic interpretation and implementation of the sharia (avoiding presenting themselves as extremists), and acting as a social movement rather than solely a military force (being of service to society).

Al Qaida has prioritized these actions within Syria over attacking the West (as opposed to DI’ISH) in order to quietly build its influence and to avoid direct Western targeting. As opposed to DI’ISH, Al Qaida has taken a much more pragmatic approach to the issue of the Shi’a. While both organizations view this branch of Islam and its adherents as apostates, Al Qaida has emphasized steering clear of actions which could alienate the Muslim masses/detract from overall organizational goals, while DI’ISH has been actively attempting to exterminate this apostate sect and thrives off of the sectarian dimensions of the current Syrian conflict.

[One of the original theological points of difference between DI’ISH and al-Qaida’s leadership was that Al Qaida had compromised itself unacceptably by collaborating with Shi’a Iran.]

Al-Nusra quickly distinguished itself as one of the most efficient fighting forces on the ground (therefore crucial to the success of the opposition) and was able to take advantage of superior Al Qaida funding and foreign fighter networks. These advantages have been combined with al-Nusra’s lucrative “hearts and minds” campaign through the distribution of services such as water, food, electricity, and security to gain the loyalty of, and legitimacy from, civilian populations.

Al Qaida has also been known for targeting U.S.-backed rebel groups in order to ensure that they did not gain a foothold or following, rendering these moderate groups incapable of challenging their hardline ideology. These actions represent Al Qaida’s new strategy by which they embed themselves within domestic popular movements and exploit that particular nation’s grievances in order to gain both acceptance and legitimacy. While they share the same goal as DI’ISH (the establishment of a renewed Islamic Caliphate), they believe in a more gradualist approach which builds legitimacy from the bottom up through the popular support of the people themselves as opposed to using more coercive tactics currently employed by DI’ISH in Iraq and Syria.

Al Qaida is still thinking globally, but acting locally in order to first effectively position itself as a decisive actor within Syria.

As the Syrian civil war has continued, Al Qaida spiritual leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sought to consolidate al-Qaida’s unique position among the opposition and extend its influence throughout the country by allowing his Syrian affiliate to “sever ties” with Al Qaida, and change its name from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).

JFS is now able to successfully portray itself as an indigenous Syrian organization (with no supposed links to any outside organization). Although JFS may state that it has no ties to any external actors, this is purely an attempt by Al Qaida to present JFS as the true protector of the Syrian people and does not denote a change in the group’s hardline salafist-jihadist ideology (it still seeks the establishment of an Islamic Emirate within Syria from which to attack the West) or its actual affiliation with Al Qaida.

There are several reasons why this “rebranding” took place and are all the result of Al Qaida attempting to further embed itself within the Syrian conflict and gain greater influence and acceptance among the native Syrian population.

By rebranding itself and claiming to have no ties to any external entity, JFS has attempted to remove the primary obstacle to the unification of opposition forces within Syria: the Al Qaida name. Jabhat al-Nusra had previously sought to unify the opposition under one banner in order to fully embed itself within the revolution and consolidate its authority/supremacy as the most effective force on the ground against the Assad Government.

The main superficial objection to this merger was al-Nusra’s ties to Al Qaida and overriding loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri. By rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and claiming to have cut ties with Al Qaida (a claim which was confirmed by Ayman al-Zawahiri himself), JFS has now removed the opposition’s primary objection to an eventual grand merger. The cutting of ties from Al Qaida was also intended to delegitimize the Russian and U.S. air campaign against the organization, which was predicated on the notion that they were attacking a terrorist organization (which still continued despite the rebranding).

After declaring itself independent from Al Qaida and cooperating more directly with the mainstream opposition, any U.S. airstrike would immediately be seen as a strike on the opposition as a whole and direct interference in the civil war (on behalf of the Assad Government, no less). By merging with more mainstream opposition forces, JFS would be able to bring these groups into the greater jihadist fold, all under a unitary chain of command.

This “split” from Al Qaida also enhances the prospects of more widespread external funding for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, particularly from state sponsors. The Sunni countries which have a major stake in the Syrian civil war and want to see President Assad fall (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) may begin to provide JFS with overt monetary or military assistance due to the ineffectiveness of more moderately-oriented opposition groups. In March of 2015, Reuters reported the existence of a Qatari-led attempt to provide greater support and assistance to then Jabhat al-Nusra, upon its rebranding and the public severing of ties from Al Qaida. This direct funding would cause great tensions between these countries and the United States, who continues to view JFS as Al Qaida’s primary surrogate in Syria and therefore a terrorist organization.

Al Qaida in Syria has been actively exploiting the Western fixation on DI’ISH to expand its own base of operations and legitimacy among the native Syrian population. Western politicians and media have been so consumed by the DI’ISH phenomenon that they have failed to recognize the growing strength, popularity, and versatility of Al Qaida in Syria and the profound threat it now poses.

By not attacking the West directly (despite having the clear ability to do so), JFS has been able to remain under the Western radar and gradually expand over the past five years, cultivate local relationships, portray itself as a more pragmatic and less extreme alternative to DI’ISH, and guarantee itself a hand in Syria’s future. But while Al Qaida has largely remained under the radar, DI’ISH’s ambitious leap from terrorist organization/insurgent group to actual “statehood” has made it increasingly vulnerable to conventional military power, suggesting that this system may no longer be sustainable in the long-term.

The territorial defeat of DI’ISH should be expected to exacerbate the ongoing intra-jihadist civil war between Al Qaida and DI’ISH as both continue to vie for dominance over the realm of transnational salafist-jihadism. DI’ISH’s setbacks would likely be used by Al Qaida to prove the supremacy of their strategy and to attempt to present itself as the sole legitimate leader of the global salafist-jihadist movement.

JFS seems most poised to benefit from current DI’ISH setbacks by exploiting DI’ISH’s territorial losses and attempting to recruit various disaffected fighters (many of whom already have previous Al Qaida ties). To facilitate this, Al Qaida has already demonstrated that it is open to the return of former defectors and DI’ISH personnel, as evidenced by the recent defections of two prominent senior members (Abu Zur al-Tunisi and Bilal al-Shawwash) and more than a dozen of their closest followers to JFS.

While the DI’ISH core should be expected to continue to remain devout to the organization, this trend of defections can be expected to continue as DI’ISH suffers more territorial losses on the ground and its rank-and-file fighters become more disillusioned. Already estimated at approximately 10,000 strong, JFS would benefit greatly from the influx of hardened DI’ISH defectors which would allow it to further its effectiveness on the battlefield and therefore solidify its position of dominance among oppositionist groups.

Another outcome could occur if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of DI’ISH) was to be killed, as this would further benefit Al Qaida by nullifying the oath of allegiance (bayat) which has been pledged by every individual fighter to the leader of the terrorist organization, which would only be terminated through the death of one of the two parties. This would allow DI’ISH rank-and-file fighters to freely join Al Qaida and pledge their allegiance to the leader of JFS,  Abu-Muhammad al-Julani (a move which would further embolden JFS and increase its effectiveness, and thereby influence, on the ground).

However, this would not be a linear process, and the decline of DI’ISH should be expected to be both bloody and protracted with various reversals. DI’ISH would continue to attempt to present itself as the leader of the salafist-jihadist movement which means increased competition with Al Qaida for resources and legitimacy. A recent reversal in the fight against DI’ISH was the recapture by DI’ISH of the Syrian city of Palmyra in December 2016. DI’ISH took advantage of the Assad Government’s focus on the intense battle for Aleppo and launched its first successful territorial acquisition of a major city since first capturing Palmyra in May 2015.

DI’ISH should be expected to continue to attempt to recapture previously-controlled territory within Syria by exploiting both the government’s and the opposition’s focus on the ongoing civil war, but that would assume that the Syrian government and its Russian allied forces lacked sufficient resources to address DI’ISH and the other opposition groups simultaneously.

Due to the Turkish incursion into Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield), DI’ISH no longer possesses territory bordering the Turkish state through which it recruited the majority of its foreign fighters and smuggled oil into the black market. For several years Turkey overlooked — in fact actually supported — DI’ISH fighters flocking over its border into Syria, believing that these fighters would ultimately help to bring down the Assad Government. However, after a series of internal terrorist attacks launched by DI’ISH, Turkey has now taken a more proactive approach in eradicating the group as opposed to indirectly “supporting” it by neglecting the flow of foreign fighters and illegal petroleum over its porous borders.

The intense campaign within Aleppo helped push the opposition into the hands of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and more hardline Islamists. The consistent Russian bombing campaign coupled with the Syrian Government’s and the Iranian militia’s effective tactics on the ground created a situation in which Al Qaida appeared as the only legitimate hope for the opposition and the Syrian people. Failed ceasefires within Syria helped Al Qaida by allowing it to portray the United States as ineffective and willing to cooperate with the Russians (and therefore Pres. Assad, indirectly) despite knowing that they constantly violated these agreements with indiscriminate bombings that regularly killed civilians.

This detrimental trend of reliance upon more hardline Islamists has already begun, evidenced by JFS’ heavy recruiting from within increasingly disenfranchised opposition communities in Northern Syria (Aleppo and Idlib provinces) by exploiting widespread and seething perceptions of abandonment by the international community (it is estimated that at least 3,000 fighters within northern Syria joined the ranks of JFS between February and June in 2016).

Now that the resistance enclave within eastern Aleppo has collapsed and has been retaken by the Assad government, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is currently poised to increase its influence and embed itself even deeper among the now desperate opposition. Although opposition groups have just been dealt a devastating blow, the overall conflict is far from over and Al Qaida is best positioned to benefit from its continuance. The victory of the Shi’ite Axis in Aleppo (Assad, Iran, and Hizbullah) would continue to fuel intense sectarianism throughout the country and the greater Islamic World, upon which terrorist organizations such as Al Qaida and DI’ISH thrive. The last major oppositionist stronghold that currently remains is Idlib province, which is dominated by JFS and its longtime partner, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyah (“Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant), commonly referred to as Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham is composed of 15,000+ fighters (the largest rebel oppositionist group) and is a salafi-jihadist organization with a national focus, with a structure and ambition similar to that of the Taliban (which actively seeks the establishment of an Islamic State within their nation (Syria) alone).

The rebel failure within Aleppo has pushed the opposition as a whole in a more desperate direction which greatly increases the possibility of large scale mergers among the opposition, namely between JFS and Ahrar al-Sham. Once Aleppo fell to the Assad Government, civilians within Idlib province began protesting and demanding a merger between these two powerbrokers, stating that their unification is now imperative and necessary for the success of the revolution as a whole (a move which threatens to bring JFS into the mainstream). The prospects of a grand merger have begun to split Ahrar al-Sham between the hardliners more inclined to join forces with JFS, and the more pragmatic Islamists who are wary of direct unification with a US-designated terrorist organization.

This internal strife culminated in the recent creation of the sub-faction Jaish al-Ahrar by the more hardline faction of Ahrar al-sham in order to demonstrate the critical need to join forces with JFS. While Jaish al-Ahrar remains part of Ahrar al-Sham and did not declare its independence from the organization, it demonstrates the severity of the current rift within the group and the greater revolutionary movement as a whole over what future direction to take. If this faction decides to split from Ahrar al-Sham, it will undoubtedly join JFS directly, representing a huge victory for the Al Qaida surrogate, thereby making it the largest power broker amongst the rebels within the country. If it decides to remain and cooperate with the more pragmatic faction, however, it will still benefit Jabhat Fateh al-Sham by granting these hardliners greater influence within the Ahrar al-Sham organization as a whole.

The collapse of the rebel control within eastern Aleppo also enhances the prospects of widespread and possibly open state funding/backing for JFS.

As previously stated, the removal of the Al Qaida name was one of the largest obstacles to state-sponsored funding for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (then Jabhat al-Nusra). Now that the revolutionary movement is in jeopardy and this obstacle is no longer present, states which have a vested interest in the conflict may begin to shift their funds towards more affective actors, namely JFS.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey would be the most likely state sponsors, the latter of which is able to transfer JFS fighters through Turkish territory from Idlib province into areas newly freed by Operation Euphrates Shield. These states are currently dealing with their own variations of the DI’ISH phenomenon and could benefit from working with Al Qaida (which is viewed as the lesser of the two evils) against a common threat.

All of these various possibilities present Al Qaida with the ability to solidify its gains and expand its influence even further into the mainstream revolution.

The ideological battle between DI’ISH and Al Qaida will continue, with the latter being most poised to emerge victorious. The fixation on the DI’ISH phenomenon seems likely to continue to detract from the brewing threat within Syria which is represented by Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, and the escalation of that threat due to a possible merger with Ahrar al-Sham.

Regardless what the final outcome of the civil war is, Al Qaida will emerge stronger, more experienced, and more capable than ever before.