Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) declared a merger with Mohammad al-Julani’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) or the al-Nusra Front, a Syrian Salafi rebel group. Both groups, with the urging of al-Qaeda central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, seek to make an Islamic state across the region.
The string of back and forth messaging from the different al-Qaeda affiliates points to an interesting dynamic brewing among them. The first message came from AQI’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who proclaimed the merger of AQI and JN under the name and banner of “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” JN’s leader, al-Julani, responded via the group’s official Twitter account two days later, confirming that AQI was instrumental in setting up JN, but he pledged his group’s allegiance directly to the more senior al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. As The Long War Journal suggests, the AQI announcement surprised al-Julani who believed it was premature. Al-Julani further suggested that the “Front’s banner will remain as-is, without changing anything.”
A video issued by the Al-Nusra Front that claims to show fighters undergoing training in Syria. (Photo: The Times of London)
While at first blush, al-Julani and al-Baghdadi might share the same extreme Salafi jihadist ideology, al-Julani appears not to want to repeat the mistakes of AQI–namely, isolating his indigenous supporters by appearing to be a foreign sponsored element fighting not for Syria’s future but for a greater transnational caliphate without borders. Additionally, the stigma attached to AQI from the most horrific of terrorist attacks against civilians in Iraq is something al-Julani would like to avoid for his group, Jabhat al-Nusra, at least for the time being.
JN first appeared in a video in January 2012 and has continued to be one of the most prominent groups leading the fight against President Bashar al-Asad. Their status is the result of AQI’s help and the sponsorship of wealthy sheikhs from Gulf states who have been providing money and weapons. Washington designated the group as a terrorist organization last December for carrying out nearly 600 attacks, primarily against regime targets that also resulted in the deaths of many civilians. JN members are often suspected of, or claim responsibility for, large car bombings and suicide attacks, especially in cities.
More moderate forces, such as many in the Free Syrian Army, distanced themselves from JN. “We don’t support the ideology of Al-Nusra,” said an FSA spokesman. The U.S. and EU continue to worry about arming any rebel groups in Syria, in part because they fear that weapons could fall into the hands of more Islamist elements and turned against Western allies in the region.
But what is becoming clear is that unless Washington can find the right rebels to support and has a proverbial dog in this fight, Syria’s future will be determined either by al-Qaeda franchises or Bashar al-Asad, his sponsors in Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Those outcomes, which are becoming increasingly likely, should motivate Washington to vet and equip rebels who wish to see the end of Asad’s rule but not the establishment of another al-Qaeda safe haven.