The leader of Syrian militant group Jabhat Al-Nusra appeared on video for the first time on July 28th, to announce the creation of a new group.
Flanked by two silent religious officials, he briefly set out the reasons for the change. We advise that this has significant ideological and practical implications for militant jihadism in Syria and beyond, but is unlikely to result in a significant increase in the terrorism threat to the West in the medium term.
The question of whether JaN would split from Al-Qaeda has been on the table for years, but speculation by fighters and observers on such a decision intensified in recent weeks. It appears that JaN deliberately encouraged such speculation to test how its members and supporters might respond. So far, we have not seen any reports of JaN members defecting and Al-Qaeda appears to be supporting the move. IS members and supporters have ridiculed it. So we think that a major split within the group’s ranks is unlikely, and that it might even increase its standing within the Syrian insurgency.
Screenshots advertising the video appeared online yesterday, in what seemed to be an attempt to create excitement about the unveiling of Jolani, and the new group. The statement was first broadcast on satellite news channels, including the Syrian Orient TV station and Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, which has previously interviewed Jolani and had exclusive access to JaN. As we have suggested previously, this is part of the group’s attempt to improve its image in Syria and the wider region by trying to demonstrate that it is a legitimate and authentically Syrian anti-Assad group.
Jolani attempted to draw a link between his new group JFS and Al-Qaeda ideologues, including Osama Bin Laden. He did not explicitly break his pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, but rather set up a new unaffiliated group. In doing so he cited bin Laden, who asserted that an organisation or individual should not come before jihad. This was also a swipe at IS leader and Jolani’s former mentor Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Jolani’s combat fatigues and a white turban were also clear visual associations of continuity between him and Bin Laden [see image above].
But in his statement Jolani is clear that his main aim is to facilitate the conduct of fighting in Syria. JFS will probably remain one of the strongest and most effective anti-Assad groups; until now other Syrian groups and individual fighters have been put off by JaN’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda. This may now change, although it is unlikely to make it easier for foreign countries to support the group, should they want to. As a designated terrorist group, JaN has also been the target of US airstrikes, which have affected those fighting alongside it. Again, this is something that Jolani acknowledged in his statement.
We doubt that US policy towards Jolani’s group will change as a result of this new relationship with Al-Qaeda, or that its members will no longer seek to target the West. Jolani plainly iterated his enmity for the US. Western officials have repeatedly warned that members of JaN or Al-Qaeda in Syria are still trying to attack the West, including by targeting international civil aviation. It is unclear to what extent they are following the orders of Jolani, JaN’s leadership more generally or even Zawahiri. But they seem to have been able to operate in JaN-held territory. And many Al-Qaeda members have reportedly moved to northern Syria in recent years.
The most significant implications of Jolani’s move are probably in the long term. First, JFS is clearly positioning itself to benefit from the probable aftermath of the military campaign against IS and the power vacuum that will follow in IS-held territory. There are strong indications that the US and its allies are likely to try and take back both Mosul and Raqqa from that group before the end of this year. JFS controls territory in Idlib, and therefore would be able to provide refuge and would probably welcome former IS fighters.
Moreover, by presenting JFS as a comparatively moderate group Jolani is appealing to people in Syria and beyond who support militant jihadism, but who baulk at the extreme violence and absolutism of IS. Despite its efforts to integrate into Syrian society, the group’s aims and many of its members are still foreign.
Second, at a global level, it deepens a longstanding trend in which other Al-Qaeda affiliates have refocused their efforts on domestic or localised conflicts. Such groups do not seem to have benefited in material or practical terms from their affiliation to Al-Qaeda. Indeed, Al-Qaeda groups have had their greatest success in terms of attracting new fighters and funding in recent years at a local level. AQAP is probably the best example of this. By retreating away from targeting the West – at least in public but probably not in reality – such groups will be able to rebuild their strength.
Image: Screenshot from an Al-Jazeera broadcast