The five-day ultimatum by the leader of Jabaht al-Nusra (al-Nusra front) – Abu Mohammed al-Golani – to the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and other Islamist factions, to end fighting or be “expelled” from the region is the latest in the troubled affair between the two al-Qaida affiliates in Syria.
The feud between the two al-Qaeda affiliates, which turned into firece fighting in the past few weeks, reflected a serious ideological rift among al-Qaeda rank and file organisations. Analysts generally agree that of the eight major armed factions in the Syrian opposition, al-Nusra and the ISIS are by far the most prominent. This is hardly due to their relative strength since there are many groups in the Syrian opposition that are much better armed with many more fighters. al-Nusra has no more than 6,000 active members, while ISIS boasts about 7,000 members, out of which only 4,000 engage in actual fighting.
Rather, the notorious image that both al-Nusra and ISIS have acquired over the last year, in both Arab and Western media, is due to their public affiliation with al-Qaeda, and to their strong links with other foreign Jihadist organisations which supply them with fierce fighters and huge funds.
The “criminal atrocities” committed by ISIS, in particular, including abducting, terrorising and forcing civilians and local Islamic groups to swear allegiance (Baya’a) to the organisation have amplified its notoriety.
Wither “Universal Jihad”?
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, on the other hand, are said to enjoy a reputation for firece fighting, and for storming heavily armed Syrian regime military posts and Intelligence facilities. The group has also become known for its widespread aid programmes supplying food and vital services to the impoverished, war-weary Syrian population.
Although both groups have publicly declared their loyalty to al-Qaeda, the differences between them on the ground, sharp enough to have erupted in a bloody armed conflict in Syria recently, underscore a wider ideological rift.
The very concept of al-Qaeda – of the universal Jihad – is crumbling. More precisely, what’s coming to an end is the co-existence – within this concept – between the classic model set by Osama bin Laden on the one hand, and on the other, the decentralised model defended by Ayman al-Zawahiri and, more significantly in the Syrian case, Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri.
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In fact, the theories of Zawahiri and Abu Mus’ab in this field, which sanction every country to have its own version of al-Qaeda, and which encourage the local culture to generate its own convenient al-Qaeda structures and fighting tactics and strategies, is hitting hard at the ideological heart of al-Qaeda itself. This might even hamper al-Qaeda’s ability to function on the ground.
Al-Qaeda’s successive generations
“The World Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders” was formed in 1988. In the same year, the first generation of fighters inaugurated al-Qaeda’s massive operations by staging the Nairobi and Dar al-Salam bombings. These early years were characterised by al-Qaeda’s emphasis on the global dimension of Jihad (targeting the distant enemy). Most Bin Laden speeches – in this era – focused on fomenting Muslim enmity towards the United States. In fact, analysts noted that 70 percent of his speeches targeted the West. Equally importantly, the era was characterised by the stable central command structures al-Qaeda had in Afghanistan where it supervised several Jihadist training centres.
The second al-Qaeda generation came to the scene in 2003, following the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. That phase was marked by effective US action to tighten the noose on al-Qaeda leadership and central command structures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which resulted in the mushrooming of al-Qaeda-linked Jihadist networks with independent regional command centres in Iraq, Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri was one of the most vociferous supporters of a decentralised al-Qaeda command structure, as his book The Call for Islamic Resistance (2004) clearly shows.
The al-Qaeda central command did not disapprove of the emergence of new sub-branches and regional commands. Much more so than Bin Laden, Zawahiri was inclined to focus on the regional struggle in the Arab world (the nearby enemy) rather than the West (the distant enemy). He was also keen that “each country has its own version of al-Qaeda”.
This second al-Qaeda generation was more ferocious and militant. It developed new operational techniques in which attacks were carried out by small groups or – in some cases – even individuals. It established regional “emirates” through which it directed Jihadists fighting closer to their native conflict zones. It also legitimised the killing of civilians, in Iraq but also in the bombing waves that targeted Riyadh residential compounds, Amman hotels, and Morocco cafes. Hence, the increased hostility towards al-Qaeda shown by Arab and Islamic nations, and al-Qaeda’s failure to gain grassroot support in many regions. No wonder Bin Laden wrote his famous “Message on the Iraqi Issue” (2007), in which he apologised for al-Qaeda extremism in Iraq and condemned “the ease with which it killed people”.
Al-Qaeda’s third generation
Al-Qaeda went through its worst period ever in the years 2009-2011. The beginning of the Arab Spring shook the organisation’s fundamental ideological belief in violence as the means to topple dictatorial regimes. The subsequent momentum generated by the Arab Spring, driving people en masse to the ballot boxes and thus effecting political change by moderately peaceful means, was a further setback to al-Qaeda’s bloody revolutionary ideology. In the same period, the sudden death of Osama bin Laden was a severe blow both to the organisation’s regional networks and central command.
The course charted by the Arab Spring, however, yielded some tragic results in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Al-Qaeda was quick to profit from the ensuing power vacuum. The new conflict zones gave al-Qaeda enough room to regroup, reform and reclaim centre stage.
In the Syrian case, the Jihadist movements were not interested in the uprising when it first broke out, since it opted for what al-Qaeda dismissively called “the same peaceful course of the Arab revolutions… and the same democratic ends.”
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The gradual militarisation of the Syrian Uprising in early 2012 encouraged Jihadist movements to engage in the fighting on religious grounds. The subsequent brutality of the Syrian regime, and the absence of any international measures or intervention to deter it or reign in its violence, prompted the Syrian people to turn a blind eye to the “Jihadist project”, which has only one thing in common with the objectives of the uprising: Opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In due course, the Jihadist movement turned from an “unwanted party” in the initial stages to an “active” and even “welcomed” partner in the fight against the regime. It is worth noting here that the Jihadist movements were not alien to the Syrian environment. Its proximity to US-occupied Iraq made Syria “a terrorist attraction spot”. The Syrian regime itself, intent on keeping US forces busy fighting al-Qaeda so as not to consider invading Syria, had in fact provided a safe passageway for Jihadists into Iraq.
The rise of al-Nusra Front
In June 2011, in the course of the Syrian uprising, Jihadists showed up openly for the first time in Aleppo. In January 2012, the formation of al-Nusra Front was publicly announced by its top official, Abu Mohammed Al-Golani. al-Nusra was not similar to other Jihadist movements in its structure, sources of funding or fighting techniques. It can be seen as the practical application of what might be called the “renewal” of Jihadist thinking propagated by Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri in his book “The Call for Islamic Resistance”.
Golani did not announce the formation of an Islamic Emirate or “state” as did other Jihadist movements in Iraq and North Mali. Rather, he set up a broad front for Jihadists to fight the Syrian regime. Other major differences from traditional Jihadist movements include the emphasis al-Nusra laid on “deterring the oppressor and resisting the aggressor”, whereas other Jihadist movements sought to overthrow incumbent governments then establish the Islamic Caliphate.
For instance, ISIS used to demand that residents and groups in the areas under its control swear allegiance (Baya’a) to its Emir, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi. Conversely, Golani never called himself Emir and went by the title “General Official of the (al-Nusra) Front”.
Jabhat al-Nusra also provided widespread relief aid and services to civilians, maintained good relations with the local community, and avoided any provocations. It further cooperated with the majority of Syrian fighting groups, without demanding their allegiance or asking them to join the group. This enabled al-Nusra front to make inroads and spread its influence to the local community. It avoided military confrontations with other groups in the opposition (with very few exceptions, as in the limited confrontation with Al-Farouq Brigade).
Thus, in a short period of time, al-Nusra Front was able to spread its influence across Syria so much so that it became the most prominent fighting force against the regime. Such public acceptance explains the opposition many factions in the Syrian uprising have shown to the December 2012 decision by the US to put Al-Nusra on the list of terrorist organisations.
However, this should not be taken to mean that al-Nusra did not commit crimes and human rights violations. In fact, it committed various violations, like executing prisoners from the official army (May, June, and September, 2012). Also, al-Nusra detained activists in some incidents for the simple reason of raising the flag of the Syrian revolution instead of al-Nusra’s.
This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will be published on Friday, February 28.
Abdulaziz Alheis is a researcher based in Doha and editor of the forthcoming book “The Afghan Dilemma”.
Hamza Mustafa is a researcher with the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies and author The Syrian Revolution’s Virtual Realm: Specificities, Directions and the Mechanisms for the Creation of Public Opinion, 2012