In Syria, a resurgent al-Qaeda gathers strength
BEIRUT - As the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate crumbles, al- Qaeda, the pioneering jihadist organisation that ISIS eclipsed by seizing large chunks of Syria and Iraq, is resurgent, deftly manoeuvring itself into the jihadist vanguard in Syria wearing a nationalist mask as its strength grows through alliances with lesser rebel forces.
A key element in this burgeoning power play was the renunciation in July by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, charismatic leader of al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, of links with al-Qaeda’s central leadership hiding out in Pakistan and its identification with Syrian nationalism in the war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
This was widely seen as a cynical tactical move to make itself more acceptable to non-jihadist rebel forces and to evade US and Russian air strikes targeting “terrorist” — read “jihadist” — organisations. Jolani decreed that the group was now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) — Conquest of Syria Front.
Despite the July rebranding, JFS “remains ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda, and the West has taken little notice of the move”, observed analyst James Pothecary in an October 28th assessment for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think-tank that monitors global terrorism.
JSF’s leadership remains the cadre that headed al-Nusra. Al- Qaeda’s overall leader, the veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, deals with JSF as he did with al-Nusra.
“This split and rebranding has made JFS more palatable to potential rebel partners in Syria and that, in turn, has the potential to make the situation in Syria far more difficult for the West,” Pothecary wrote.
It also gives “diplomatic cover to sympathetic (outside) actors, such as elements within the Qatari state, to continue to provide some support for JFS without the baggage of association with an al-Qaeda affiliate,” Pothecary wrote. “The links between Qatar and JFS, although murky, are extensive…
“Foreign capitals, however, were not Jolani’s primary audience. Instead, the announcement was aimed at the commanders of the other Syrian rebel groups.”
JSF’s growing strength in Syria, within striking distance of southern Europe across the Mediterranean, is increasingly seen as a threat to the United States, a perception underlined by US President Barack Obama’s order November 10th to US forces to hunt down and kill the leaders of the group, who include veteran operatives infiltrated by al- Qaeda’s central command.
This shift in US operational strategy, which had been overwhelmingly focused on ISIS, reflects JSF’s new position in the Syrian war.
It has the central role in the rebel counteroffensive aimed at breaking the siege of eastern Aleppo by Assad’s Iranian-led allies, primarily Hezbollah and Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, supported by Russian air power.
“Although the advance faltered and the Syrian Army responded with a vicious counteroffensive, the message was clear — JFS had positioned itself firmly in the mainstream rebel opposition to Assad,” Pothecary wrote.
The rebels scored early successes but Assad’s allies have recaptured lost territory and are enforcing the siege with a new ferocity.
JFS and the Islamist Ahrar al- Sham are spearheading the rebel effort, frequently using groups of suicide bombers, their specialty, to break through strongpoints.
According to Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, wealthy businessmen across the Arab world are providing heavy funding for the offensive. Muhaysini is a pro-Qaeda cleric and the leading cleric in Jaysh al-Fatah, a coalition formed by al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist groups in early 2015.
He said in a new video displayed on his Twitter feeds that the funding came from benefactors in Syria, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, indicating that JFS has access to significant funding that will expand its influence at a time when it is making a major effort to promote its political and military power.
That was underlined in October, when Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadist group suspected of working with ISIS, pledged allegiance to JSF. It “calculated that the new-found ‘respectability’ of JFS, along with its combat capability, would protect it from further attack by other Islamic groups”, Pothecary noted. Others have followed.
“Whether this strategy will prove effective is less important than the fact its high command perceived the move as a legitimate course of action,” Pothecary stressed.
“By representing itself as an organisation entirely focused on Syria, rather than as an affiliate of a global network, JFS can market itself more effectively to other rebel forces, cementing its position in the centre of the anti-Assad movement.”
The highly publicised “break” with al-Qaeda, however nominal and opportunistic, also reflects al-Qaeda’s adaptability, Pothecary wrote.
“Al-Qaeda’s actions will be perceived positively within Syria as an act of generous pragmatism. Rebel forces will be more sympathetic to al-Qaeda, should, as seems likely, it formally return to Syria. There will likely be little to stop it reassimilating JFS when the operational and strategic situation in Syria is more favourable…
“By giving itself nominal space from al-Qaeda, JFS is entrenching its domestic position and Washington must respond more carefully to the group as a result… Any attempt to scale back anti-JFS operations would likely be met by a backlash in Congress, and lay the White House open to accusations it was being hoodwinked by jihadist propaganda.
“But if more palatable groups intensify military and logistical cooperation with JFS, it will become increasingly difficult to strike at the organisation without alienating partners on the ground.”
With its primary jihadist rival ISIS in retreat, JFS and other Islamic groups are likely to absorb ISIS fighters and accumulate volunteers who once would have joined ISIS.
Thomas Joscelyn of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which monitors global terrorism, observed that, Zawahiri, who took over al-Qaeda after US Navy SEALs assassinated Osama bin Laden in May 2011, has been quietly rebuilding the group, particularly in Syria, and honing it into what US officials view as an increasingly dangerous organisation.
Even though ISIS eclipsed al- Qaeda in 2014, and attracted recruits who would otherwise have joined al-Qaeda, Joscelyn argues that under Zawahiri’s tutelage, al- Qaeda has “expanded its footprint globally” despite the doctrinal and strategic differences with ISIS.
JFS’s strength is estimated at some 10,000 fighters, arguably the single largest rebel force in Syria. “Al-Qaeda has more resources at its disposal today than ever and more geographic reach” with branches across the Levant, the Indian subcontinent and in West and North Africa, Joscelyn noted.
Indeed, on August 25th, Zawahiri called on jihadists to get ready for guerrilla war in Iraq. He pointed out ISIS’s failures as its caliphate falls apart and urged “the heroes of Islam, the mujahideen of the Levant” to assist “their brethren in Iraq in reorganising themselves”.
In doing so, he makes it clear that JFS remains within the embrace of al-Qaeda and that Jolani’s purported break with al-Qaeda Central was a tactical move to enhance its drive to become the key jihadist force in Syria, the critical battleground in the region’s ideological war.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who has spent years meeting Islamic and other leaders engaged in the Syrian war face-to-face, said Zawahiri plans to proclaim an Islamic emirate in north-western Syria soon.
The drive by al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan, which since ISIS’s evolution had largely been written off, could have a dramatic and wide-ranging impact on the Middle East, the savage war raging in Syria and on the direction of the Islamic cause.
“Al-Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria,” Lister observed in the May issue of Foreign Policy, two months before the rebranding of al-Nusra.
“For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group have arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalisation of al-Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep.
“Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate (al-Nusra) — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al-Qaeda’s first sovereign state,” pitting it directly against the West, Lister observed.
“Eventually the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al-Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan,” he wrote.