July 29, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Rebranding of al-Qaeda in Syria
On July 28, in his first televised appearance without a mask, Abu Mohammed al-Julani announced that the group known as Jabhat al-Nusra would cease all operations. Al-Julani stated that a new group would be formed—a group with no association to al-Qaeda. The announcement was preceded by an audio message from al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, again giving al-Nusra permission to leave its parent organization. The move was long anticipated, and represents both a transparent rebranding of the terror group as well as a significant development for the Syrian battlefield—though the precise impact it will have on the civil war is not yet clear. It is also unclear how the move by al-Nusra—now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the Levantine Conquest Front)—will affect the U.S. air campaign against the group.
Prior to al-Julani’s announcement, the group released the first ‘official’ picture of him, appearing very bin Ladin-like with a camouflage jacket. The picture was undoubtedly a visual reassurance to the rank and file fighters that the ideology of bin-Ladinism will persist, regardless of what the group calls itself. It is important to note that though the group itself has ostensibly severed ties with al-Qaeda, each of its fighters has an individual pledge of allegiance—or bayat—to al-Qaeda. During his appearance, al-Julani did not revoke his personal bayat to al-Qaeda. He simply announced the new group would have no links ‘with foreign parties’—suggesting that members of the group will go from having overt membership to al-Qaeda through Jabhat al-Nusra to covert membership to al-Qaeda through Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Al-Nusra’s public affiliation with al-Qaeda has always been problematic for the group. As the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the group was rightfully viewed in the West as a terror group, rather than a rebel group fighting the Assad regime. Other rebel groups valued al-Nusra’s superior combat capabilities and fought alongside it, but the targeting of the group by U.S. and Russian airstrikes has made continued collaboration increasingly untenable. Thus, the rebranding is in large part an effort to legitimize the group to the outside world, allowing it to move into the fold of the broader rebel coalition.
Al-Nusra has seen its fortunes wane over the last year, along with many other rebel groups. Several thousand of its fighters are entrenched in what is likely to be a losing battle to keep Aleppo from being encircled by regime forces. It has been clear for many months now that al-Nusra’s leadership was evaluating the costs versus benefits of remaining an al-Qaeda affiliate. The July 28 announcement shows that, at least on a public organizational level, the costs on the ground in Syria outweighed the more intangible benefits of being part of a global jihadist movement.
Through its rebranding, al-Julani is attempting to portray the group as an umbrella organization that can be unifying power for other rebel groups—a model that al-Qaeda affiliates have attempted before. In 2011 through 2012, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) tried to rebrand itself as Ansar al-Sharia in an effort to be a more palatable partner for other groups and tribes in Yemen. In Iraq, the group commonly referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006. In both cases, despite the clear intention of dissociating from the broader al-Qaeda brand, the extremist narrative of bin Ladinism persisted regardless of the groups’ name.
It remains to be seen how al-Nusra’s rebranding attempt will play out in terms of U.S. and Russian reactions, as well as the implications for rebel group realignments and foreign support. The unfolding siege of Aleppo is not just a humanitarian disaster in the making—it is likely where the Syrian war will be won or lost. Both al-Qaeda leadership and al-Nusra stated the ostensible split was intended to protect the Syrian jihad, which was more important than any organization. By shedding its al-Qaeda branding, al-Nusra wants to be seen by others as it has always viewed itself: the vanguard of an emerging localized Islamic state in Syria.
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