Nusra Rebranding Old Wine in New Bottle

Manish Rai

Jabhat-Al-Nusra Front, once al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has cut ties with the parent organisation with the approval of al-Qaeda central leadership. Nusra Front is one of the largest and most effective rebel groups in Syria. It controls territory in the north, west and south of the country and commands approximately 6,000 to 7,000 battle hardened fighters. Originally founded by Salafist militants back in January 2012, Nusra Front emerged as one of the strongest forces in the Syrian civil war. Now Nusra will be known by a new name, Jabhat-Fateh-Al-Sham (Sham Liberation Front). This significant development did not just took place suddenly. There has been pressure from within the al-Nusra Front ranks to break away from al Qaeda for almost a year, because some of the Nusra operatives believed that the al-Qaeda “label” is hampering their cause in Syria. This recently led to a comprehensive debate among the group’s leaders, both locally and abroad, who came to the conclusion that it is the right time to break affiliation with the al-Qaeda. Without the al-Qaeda tag and with a new name, Jabhat hopes to change its previous reputation for brutality and start afresh. So that it can be embed more deeply in the Syrian insurgency.

Despite after announcing divorce with al-Qaeda, Abu Mohammad Al Julani, commander of Nusra Front who showed his face for the first time in public did not break his loyalty pledge to it. There were clear signals he was not abandoning global jihad ideology of Qaeda. Mr Julani dressed as the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once did, in army fatigues and a white turban, vowing to “protect jihad in Syria”. We should not be confused by this maneuver of Nusra it remains as potentially dangerous, and as radical, as ever. In severing its ties to the parent outfit the organization is more clearly than ever demonstrating its long term approach towards Syria, in which it seeks to embed within revolutionary dynamics and encourage Islamist unity to overshadow its enemies. In this sense, the Nusra Front (and now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) tries to differiate itself from its staunch enemy the Islamic State, which always acts alone and in outright competition with other rebel factions. Instead of unification the Islamic State always promotes division. This move of Nusra front to project itself as pure Syrian group is clear reflection of a new and far more potentially effective method of carrying al-Qaeda’s jihadist agenda. Which focused on collective, gradualist, and flexible action.

To explain this strategy in simple words. We can say that al-Qaeda is coordinating its Syrian affiliate’s break up of ties with its central leadership for the sake of preserving the long-term relevance of the Nusra Front and its jihadi strategic objectives. The ideological ties between al-Qaeda and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will always remain strong. This move was very cleverly planned now a significant portion of Syria’s mainstream opposition will see this as a positive step and will move to embrace Nusra chief Julani’s call for unity. As a result of this Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will now seek to intensify its long-standing call for large-scale mergers, united front and military coalitions in the key areas of the current battlefield. The most significant potential consequence of this could be a merger of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with the other prominent jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham. Even last year Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and several other factions in northern Syria formed a new alliance called Jaish al-Fatah or The Army of Conquest. But later on Nusra broke away from Jaish al-Fatah amid reports of tensions with Ahrar al-Sham over its al-Qaeda connections. This modus-operadi of severing ties with parent organisation and still carrying on with it’s a global jihadist agenda was previously adopted by other Qaeda affiliates like- al Shabaab in Somalia and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and Nusra is just an another example of this.

By carefully examining the video speech of Mr Julani we can easily make out that new organization Jabhat Fateh-Al-Sham’s principles are the same as its predecessor Nusra Front. The first goal for the renamed organization is to “work toward establishing the religion of Allah, having His sharia (law) as legislation” and to “establish justice amongst all people,” Julani says. It will “strive toward unity with all groups” and “to unify the ranks of the Mujahideen and liberate the land of Al Sham from the rule of the tyrant that is Bashar al Assad and his allies” Julani further mentioned in his speech. These were the same goals which al Qaeda’s is pursuing since the Syrian civil war broke out. Jabhat in the short term may argue to establish a unified front in Syrian conflict against President Assad just to get more funding, arms, and breathing space from the US and Russian airstrikes. But in the longer term Jabhat surely has the vision of establishing a Sunni Islamic Caliphate.

Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Views Around can be reached at


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Lahore Times.

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