Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra: “Nice and Respectable” Jihadism

“So it looks like gold. It looks beautiful from the outside, but on the inside, it is nothing.”

– “Gold Plated Attraction”  (Al-Qaeda’s view of ISIS)


J.M Berger’s recent article in the Atlantic, ISIS Is Not Winning the War of Ideas, correctly asserts that Islamic State ideology does not have mass appeal. If it did, there would be millions of ISIS supporters committing acts of violence well beyond the control of any security, military and intelligence apparatus. Instead, millions of muslims are fleeing ISIS controlled territories while mere thousands have traveled from around the world to join it. Put another way, if ISIS ideology were so appealing, why does Europe have a refugee crisis?

Berger traces the genealogy of this discourse on “war of ideas” through American history and states that ISIS’ symbolic capital is based on its ability to win on the material, actual battlefield. If his thesis is correct, Western nations would be better served by shelving anti-ISIS propaganda campaigns while intensifying the military effort to deny ISIS its territorial holdings.

The upside of this approach is that the war against ISIS would become a material struggle, which is ultimately winnable–as opposed to a cosmic war, which largely isn’t. The downside, of course, is that air power will likely prove insufficient for achieving a military victory–necessitating, at the least, a large number of U.S. intelligence agents and special operatives “on the ground” in order to help train, coordinate and assist Iraqi, Syrian and other allied forces.

The other War of Ideas

The actual war of ideas is not between the Islamic State and the West but, instead, between al-Qaeda and ISIS. It is important to understand the unique way in which al-Qaeda is waging this war and is repackaging itself in relation to Islamic State’s bare violence. Unlike ISIS, which has criticized refugees fleeing to Europe, attacked other Sunni jihadist groups and demanded complete submission, al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra is painting itself a kinder, gentler and a more legitimate Islamist “resistance” movement in a bid to gain influence among the majority of Islamists and jihadists who view the Islamic State as a renegade group or another oppressive entity.

Both organizations are fighting with bullets and ideas for the minds of their potential recruits and the “ungoverned” spaces throughout West Asia and North Africa. It is a conflict that goes back to the origins of ISIS and the relationship between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden. The divergence in tactical and strategic opinion, which culminated in the split of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) from the Islamic State of Iraq in early 2013, has led to a struggle of legitimacy and ideology. A deadly jockeying is underway for the prize of ‘leader’ of international jihadism.

The Islamic State has attempted to paint al-Qaeda as an ally and “front” for NATO, Turkey and the Western powers. It’s playing on and focusing on al-Qaeda’s genesis within the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union during the 1980’s, which was backed by Western  governments. Al-Qaeda’s response and tactical approach has been to ground itself on several important principles:

  1. Jihadist unity and ideological pragmatism.
  2. Reiterating the need to strike the Western and American heartlands.
  3. Refocusing the jihadist narrative on the Palestinian issue and liberation of Jerusalem.
  4. A perceived empathetic approach towards the implementation of Islamic Law.

In a statement released in early November, al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri called for jihadists to unite in solidarity with the “martyrs” of al-Quds (Jerusalem) in their struggle against the Israelis. He reiterated his own long soliloquy on the illegitimacy of the Islamic State and asked the ISIS fighters to abandon Baghdadi’s organization. Zawahiri emphasized the success that al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, has had in its war on the Assad Regime with its broad jihadist coalition called the Army of Conquest. Jabhat al-Nusra’s al-Risalah magazine has also refrained from criticizing refugees, unlike ISIS, by shifting focus on Muslims in ISIS who refuse to fight against Assad and instead attack fellow jihadist groups. Several articles focus on ISIS brutality against al-Nusra. Sheikh Abu Qatada was prompted to write an article on the group, stating that though they agree with the way ISIS has attacked Americans and other Westerners, they can not see Baghdadi’s organization as legally Islamic because it kills other Muslims and has improperly called for an Islamic State (Qatada’s own statements about the legitimacy of killing muslims and their families were conspicuously absent in his piece).

The ISIS response has been swift: In late 2015, the group began releasing videos and propaganda in support of the recent uptick in violent resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli population and security forces. It also began taking credit and inspiring lone wolf attacks, as well as coordinating the deadly Paris attack in November. More recently, it also inspired a Paris-style attack in Jakarta Indonesia, which was unsuccessful due to the quick response by police and the lack of training the operatives had attained.

Built to Last

In light of ISIS’ excesses, al-Nusra has been able to gain some measure of tolerance, or even legitimacy, among the international community because their aspirations have mostly been about Syria and overthrowing the Assad regime. Their recruitment follows stricter al-Qaeda guidelines and although they have called on Muslims to migrate to their territories, they specify that migration is dangerous and those deciding to do it should consult with a religious adviser first. To some extent, the group also tries to follow al-Qaeda’s laws of war which were originally formulated by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, during the Afghan Jihad.

However, it would be a mistake to view al-Qaeda as a lesser threat:

Al-Nusra’s distinct Syrian character, along with its strategic aspirations and alliance within the Army of Conquest, will make it far more difficult to dislodge al-Qaeda from Syria than ISIS. And the foothold in Syria is just the beginning:

In October, the U.S. Military conducted raids on two al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan–one of which, allegedly covered an area of 30 square miles. Coupled with the growing operational aptitude of its affiliates like al-Nusra, A.Q. in the Maghreb, AQAP and al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda is poised to become a far more lethal threat to global and regional security in the future. The talk about al-Qaeda’s imminent demise at the hands of ISIS seems premature, at best–instead, al-Qaeda may well outlive its bastard progeny, though both groups are spreading within the current environment of failing or collapsed governance. Islamic State’s inroads into places like Bangladesh and South East Asia and a renewed propaganda campaign by al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent, demonstrate that as long as  the right conditions exist, these groups (or something like them) will continue to subsist.

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