On July 28, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, announced that it would rename itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of Syria”) and that it would have “no affiliation with any external entity.” The mainstream media has called this move a break with al-Qaeda, but this characterisation is not entirely accurate. Rather, the announcement represents more of a strategic rebranding than a breakup – al-Qaeda approved the decision and will almost certainly maintain close ties with the group.
The announcement by JAN’s leader, Abu Mohammed Julani, was suspiciously ambiguous, saying only that the organisation would no longer have affiliations with “any external entity.” If Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) wanted to specify a break with al-Qaeda, it could have done so, but ambiguity and deception are hallmarks of al-Qaeda’s global strategy. In fact, when Julani first revealed Jabhat al-Nusra’s ties to al-Qaeda by pledging fealty in April 2013, he was chastised by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, for “showing his links to al-Qaeda without [its] permission or advice.”
Just like a corporation that renames one of its component businesses, this rebranding is intended to further the aims of both the parent (al-Qaeda) and its subsidiary (JAN), allowing both more freedom to pursue their goals. For its part, al-Qaeda has been hesitant to become overtly involved in the long, protracted conflict in Syria. Historically, al-Qaeda has preferred to focus on quietly supporting a bevy of local militant Islamist groups around the world rather than visibly concentrate on any single conflict. By providing support to local affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda is able to influence developments on the ground while ostensibly keeping its distance from complicated battlefields.
Allowing its affiliate in Syria to rebrand itself appears to be a continuation of al-Qaeda’s hands-off policy, which will allow al-Qaeda to reduce its public involvement in the conflict – something it has wanted from the start. However, al-Qaeda will undoubtedly continue to be involved with JFS. Indeed, seated beside Julani during the announcement was an Egyptian jihadist who has nearly 25 years of history with Ayman al-Zawahiri.
REBRAND WILL HELP FOSTER LOCAL ALLIANCES
In contrast to al-Qaeda’s global outlook, Jabhat al-Nusra had taken an ardently regional approach, focusing exclusively on fighting and winning the war against the Syrian government. By announcing its independence, JFS is signalling its intention to retain this local focus. This is particularly relevant as the formal association between al-Qaeda and JAN had been impeding the development of alliances and partnerships with other Syrian groups.
For example, in January 2016 Jabhat al-Nusra proposed a full merger of the various militant groups making up the Jaish al-Fath coalition. However, the leadership of the largest faction in the coalition, Ahrar al-Sham, reportedly “insisted on the dissociation” of JAN from al-Qaeda before they would consider a merger. Ahrar al-Sham, like many other militant groups in the region, has not been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States, and their reluctance to merge with an al-Qaeda-affiliated entity was likely due to the desire to maintain that status.
…AND WITH ISIS?
This rebranding may also open the door for JFS to establish a ceasefire with ISIS. When Jabhat al-Nusra pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2013, it sparked a feud with ISIS, which quickly escalated into an open conflict that left hundreds of fighters dead on both sides. In February 2014, al-Qaeda dissociated itself from ISIS, and the well-publicised spat between the leaders of the two organisations remains unresolved.
However, al-Qaeda is nothing if not pragmatic: in a statement released in conjunction with the rebranding announcement, al-Qaeda granted Julani permission to take “whatever steps were necessary to preserve the Jihad in the Levant.” Since JFS is no longer an official affiliate of al-Qaeda, ISIS may now be willing to sign a ceasefire with the group.
Although he did not mention ISIS specifically, Julani’s statements give some credence to this theory. In his speech announcing the formation of JFS, Julani stated that “…we strive to bridge the gaps between the groups of Mujahideen [rebel groups] and ourselves, we hope to form a unified body.”
DISRUPTING US-RUSSIA COOPERATION
Another potential rationale for the rebranding may have been more tactical. In his speech, Julani stated that one of the reasons for the name change was to stop the “relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Al Sham [Syria] under the pretence of targeting Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate.” This statement was most likely in response to reports that the United States and Russia were drawing up plans to conduct joint strikes on JAN. The involvement of al-Qaeda tends to be a lightning rod for foreign military intervention; the announcement of a break with external affiliates was therefore likely an attempt to take some of the heat off of JAN fighters.
The potential effects of this strategic repositioning remain to be seen. In response to the announcement, a US State Department spokesman said that “[Jabhat Fateh al-Sham] are still considered a foreign terrorist organisation. We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.” If this is the case, it is unlikely that JFS will receive a respite from the bombing campaign conducted by the United States. However, if the change facilitates coalition-building among jihadist groups in Syria or obscures al-Qaeda’s activities in the region, it will have been well worth the effort for Julani, JFS, and al-Qaeda, who will continue to control JFS from the shadows
Colin is the Analysis division’s all-rounder editor, specialising in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency issues.