This week, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s great hope in Syria, chose a different path, breaking ranks with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s crumbling empire. Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani shed his hood and his al-Qaeda allegiance in announcing the newly branded group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, in his first ever recorded message. This new Syrian group, he told the world, will be dedicated to defeating the Assad regime and ultimately forming an Islamic State in post-conflict Syria. Joulani’s announcement comes alongside new branding, with white flags replacing the black banners of al-Qaeda and to set the group apart from the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda saved face by gracefully allowing al-Nusra to break away by endorsing the move through an audio message from their deputy Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr. The split signals a new chapter for global jihad and raises the question: What is al Qaeda without a stake in Syria?
Global Jihad: Politics, Power and Incentives First; Ideology Second
The al-Nusra break up has been a long time coming, and it represents the logical next step in al-Qaeda’s disintegration and the evolution of the jihadist movement. Since the death of Bin Laden, al Qaeda has struggled to control its legions. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) quickly pushed for emirates before being repulsed. Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s final affiliate merger, pursued a violent sharia law model as it retracted under coalition pressure. Then Syria came along. Al-Qaeda saw one last chance to regain its footing by deploying stalwart emissaries to Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that had been dispatched and resourced by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to build a jihadist and Islamist coalition against the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.
Joulani, al Qaeda’s last prince, has played a masterful game between jihad’s two overlords: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. As deputy to Bagdadi in Iraq, Joulani was sent to Syria to form an al-Qaeda branch. Yet once in Syria, Joulani revealed his true allegiance to Zawahiri, angering his ambitious boss Baghdadi and setting the stage for the al-Qaeda-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) split in 2013. Zawahiri’s rebuff of Bagdadi triggered jihad’s great schism. ISI broke from al-Qaeda and announced its independence, becoming the well-known Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and bringing the bulk of international foreign fighters into their fold. This ushered in a brief jihadi civil war won by the Islamic State that presaged the declaration of its caliphate when they took Mosul in June 2014. Al-Nusra fell back into the shadows. The group worked through Islamist partners to carve out its stake in northern Syria — filling its ranks more with local Syrians rather than relying upon foreign fighters.