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The Caliphate

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Al-Qa’ida Uncoupling: Jabhat al-Nusra’s Rebranding as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham

August 25th 2016

Free Syrian Army

On July 28, 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra, which had previously identified itself as a branch of al-Qa’ida in Syria, announced the changing of its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (‘Conquest of al-Sham Front’) in a video recording that for the first time revealed the appearance of its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. The nominal decoupling of the organizations was approved and coordinated with al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership and was designed to unify Islamist efforts in Syria and to make it more difficult for the United States and Russia to justify targeting the group. With its popularity on the rise and other rebel groups welcoming the announcement, the move appears to have paid off so far.

When Jabhat al-Nusra first emerged publicly on the scene of the Syrian civil war in January 2012, it did not publicly announce any ties to al-Qa’ida. For any close observer of jihadist media outlets, however, the fact that the group’s media releases were disseminated on what were then al-Qa’ida’s main internet forums—Shumukh al-Islam and al-Fida’ al-Islam—showed there was at least an ideological if not organizational alignment.[1] With its full name being “Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham” (Support Front for the People of al-Sham), the group represented a wider trend since the outbreak of the Arab Spring of the emergence of organizations embodying al-Qa’ida in approach but not in name, exemplified foremost in the multiple Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of sharia) brands in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.[a]

All these groups shared a broader al-Qa’ida approach of at least trying to learn lessons from past experiences, particularly in Iraq, that were perceived to have damaged the al-Qa’ida brand. The idea of openly declaring ties with al-Qa’ida was seen as strategically disadvantageous in light of this damaged brand. Indeed, senior Jabhat Fateh al-Sham official Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, whose real name is Mostafa Mahamed, illustrated this line of thinking in publicizing on his Telegram channel a quote from Atiyatullah al-Libi, who served as al-Qa’ida’s Shura Council leader before being killed in a drone strike in 2011. Al-Libi argued that even if one assumed the existence of al-Qa’ida or had ties to al-Qa’ida, those links should not be declared because they only prove politically useful to the United States as the general public image of al-Qa’ida has been marred.[2]

By late 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra had acquired a status as an effective fighting force on the battlefield against the regime. When the United States designated the group a terrorist organization and identified it as an outgrowth of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which was then widely assumed to be an al-Qa’ida affiliate even though its own relationship with al-Qa’ida was highly ambiguous, the designation was met with widespread anger in rebel circles.[3]

Public Pledge
ISI’s own designs to subsume Jabhat al-Nusra formally and expand into Syria under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) changed the calculus somewhat. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, previously a senior deputy to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who had been dispatched to Syria around 2011 to build a jihadist presence,[4] felt forced to respond to al-Baghdadi’s April 2013 open threat to subsume Jabhat al-Nusra by affirming a “renewal” of his allegiance pledge (bay’a) to Ayman al-Zawahiri. It was the first time Jabhat al-Nusra had publicly declared a tie to al-Qa’ida. In affirming a bay’a publicly, al-Julani hoped and expected—correctly—that al-Zawahiri would intervene in his favor. In his letter to both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISI, al-Zawahiri rebuked al-Julani for declaring the allegiance pledge without his consultation, likely a reflection of Atiyatullah al-Libi’s thinking, but ordered the dissolution of ISIS and for ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra to keep their operations to Iraq and Syria respectively and work together.[5] In the end, ISIS remained in Syria, while Jabhat al-Nusra began emphasizing more openly its affiliation with al-Qa’ida, even incorporating the moniker “Al-Qa’ida organization in the land of al-Sham” into its banners.[6]

Despite initial concerns voiced among other Syrian rebel factions about the open proclamation of ties to al-Qa’ida, the general trend of cooperation between Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups continued through 2013. The group’s wider standing was enhanced by defections of foreign fighters to ISIS, giving Jabhat al-Nusra even more of a Syrian image.[7] In addition, Jabhat al-Nusra eventually took the side of rebel factions in moving against ISIS in the wider infighting that broke out in January 2014, culminating in the official disavowal of ISIS by al-Qa’ida and the withdrawal of ISIS from Idlib, Latakia, Hama, and Deir ez-Zor provinces by end of the following month. It was also amid the infighting that the first hints of the issue of ties to al-Qa’ida in relation to the Syrian battlefield came up, as per a message by al-Zawahiri released on January 23, 2014, entitled “Urgent appeal to our people in al-Sham.”[8]

In this speech, al-Zawahiri commended the jihad in Syria as a stepping stone to the revival of the caliphate and the gate to the liberation of Jerusalem. Further, al-Zawahiri emphasized the following, which would form a basis for the formation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham two and a half years later:

“The brotherhood of Islam between us is stronger than all the organizational ties that can come and go and change. Your unity, union, and alliance is more important, mightier, and more precious to us than any organizational tie. For your unity, union, and unity of your ranks come above organizational and party affiliation. Indeed, those organizational and party ties should be sacrificed if they conflict with your mutual solidarity, unity, and coming together in one rank as a structured edifice.”

Even so, Jabhat al-Nusra did not break ties with al-Qa’ida. The proclamation of the caliphate and the defeat of Jabhat al-Nusra by the Islamic State in eastern Syria by July 2014, where the group had some of its strongest assets with Deir ez-Zor province’s oil wealth, provoked a sense of crisis. With the lack of any formal governing authority to rival the Islamic State, leaked recordings suggested imminent plans to proclaim an Islamic emirate in Syria.[9] Though no emirate was officially announced,[b] a harsher side of Jabhat al-Nusra began to emerge in the setting up of a Dar al-Qada[c] judicial body in several locales, officially independent but in reality a front group for Jabhat al-Nusra, breaking with the previous status quo of joint participation in Shari’i Committees with other factions. Further, Jabhat al-Nusra began moving against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a Free Syrian Army coalition that the group had previously worked with in the removal of ISIS from Idlib.[10] The focus in particular was on control of border towns, and it is clear the group perceived SRF as being cultivated as a Western proxy force to undermine Jabhat al-Nusra. By November 2014, all of SRF was expelled from Idlib[11] in a wider move partly in response to U.S. airstrikes targeting the supposed Khorasan Group of al-Qa’ida veterans in Syria.

As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra gained primary or sole control of a number of localities in the province. This included the Druze area of Jabal al-Summaq in Idlib province, where Jabhat al-Nusra forced the communities to renounce their Druze faith, demolish their shrines, and abide by Jabhat al-Nusra religious regulations, even though people there had already been forced to renounce their religion in late November 2013 under pressure from ISIS and that first renunciation had never been officially annulled.[12] In 2015, the Nusra Dar al-Qada in Hureitan implemented a number of executions of homosexuals, alleged committers of incest, and alleged cells working for the regime.[13] In Darkush, the Dar al-Qada has imposed regulations on education including the banning of subjects like music and the segregation of more mature students by gender.[14]

Jowlani
Abu Muhammad al-Julani (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham)

Calls for a Split
It appears that on multiple occasions in the period of 2012 to 2015, foreign backers of the insurgency attempted to persuade Jabhat al-Nusra to break ties with al-Qa’ida in the hope of forming a wider coalition and group that could be supported. A notable attempt came in March 2015 in an initiative backed by Qatar,[15] but it was ultimately rebuffed, even as Jabhat al-Nusra then came together with the salafi group Ahrar al-Sham and other groups to form the Jaysh al-Fath coalition—backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey[16]—that expelled the regime from Idlib city and other towns in the province.

Yet the formation of Jaysh al-Fath did not obscure internal tensions that had emerged within Jabhat al-Nusra or tensions that existed with other groups, in particular Ahrar al-Sham,[d] as notions of a unified rebel government in Idlib ultimately failed. By mid-July 2015, the internal tensions became more apparent with the sidelining of two important figures, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani and Saleh al-Hamawi, both of whom previously served in the eastern region. They had distinguished themselves as the leading ‘pragmatists’ to have emerged from Jabhat al-Nusra, and both were likely open to dropping ties with al-Qa’ida given their emphasis on unifying[17] Islamist rebel efforts.[18][e]

With Syria’s northwest firmly established as Jabhat al-Nusra’s main base in the country by 2016, it became evident that al-Qa’ida saw the area as the best hope for an emirate project to lay the groundwork for the revival of the caliphate. Unsurprisingly therefore, al-Qa’ida dispatched numerous senior operatives to Syria, a number of whom were killed in drone strikes. A case-in-point was the Egyptian Rifai Taha, an al-Qa’ida-linked former leader of the Egyptian al-Gama’a al-Islamiya. Taha was killed in a drone strike in April 2016[19] (though it is not clear if he was an intended target), and the most reasonable interpretation of the reason for his dispatch to Syria is that he was to play some kind of mediating role between Jabhat al-Nusra and other factions in the hope of creating a merger. This followed on from merger and unity initiative discussions in January and February 2016, which faltered as Ahrar al-Sham in particular insisted on Jabhat al-Nusra breaking ties with al-Qa’ida.[20]

Al-Zawahiri indicated his own hopes and expectations in a speech recorded in the February-March period and released in May 2016 entitled “Go forth to al-Sham.”[f] He started by declaring Syria to be “the hope of the Muslim Ummah, for it is the only popular revolution from the revolutions of the Arab Spring that has chosen the correct path, the path of dawa and jihad to establish the sharia and implement its ruling, and strive to establish the rightly-guided Caliphate, not the Caliphate of Ibrahim al-Badri” (referring to al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State). For this reason, al-Zawahiri explained, “our obligation today is to defend the jihad in al-Sham against the conspiracies” of the West and regional powers striving to set up a non-Islamic regime in Syria. To support the jihad in Syria would require preserving the “unity of the mujahideen.” Unsurprisingly, this theme of the unity of jihadis in Syria led al-Zawahiri to turn again to the issue of Jabhat al-Nusra’s ties to al-Qa’ida.

Here, al-Zawahiri clearly tied al-Qa’ida’s future to the prospect of an Islamic government in Syria, saying that if the people of Syria and the “mujahideen” establish such an entity led by an imam, “their choice is our choice.” For, al-Zawahiri explained, al-Qa’ida is not seeking authority, but rather seeks “the rule of sharia … We do not wish to rule the Muslims, but rather we wish to be ruled as Muslims by Islam.” Such aspirations, he argued, are ultimately more important than any “organizational affiliation,” even as he made clear he did not believe that the malign powers would simply be content if Jabhat al-Nusra parted ways with al-Qa’ida but would seek to further humiliate it.

The ideas articulated in this speech reflect long-standing concepts in al-Zawahiri’s strategic vision as articulated in his memoir Knights under the Prophet’s Banner. As outlined by Paul Cruickshank,[21] this memoir, the first edition of which came out shortly after the 9/11 attacks, argues that al-Qa’ida needs to control territory in the “heart of the Islamic world” (by which he clearly meant the Arab world) in order to have a springboard for the revival of the caliphate. Second, the jihadist movement needs to win popular support to achieve these goals. This contrasts very strongly with the Islamic State’s rejection of the requirement to win popular support, arguing instead that religious precepts can be established by force.

Tipping Point
What gave even more urgency this time to renewed discussion of Jabhat al-Nusra’s relationship with al-Qa’ida were proposals in July 2016 for U.S.-Russian coordination to target the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. In return, Russia was to refrain from targeting rebel groups backed by the United States and put pressure on the regime to ground its air force.[22] This proposal was formulated in part to address Russian complaints about the intermingling of rebel groups with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Thus, the suggestion to form a new and officially independent entity now conferred advantages, especially from al-Qa’ida’s perspective. First, from the propaganda angle, any U.S. and Russian targeting of this independent entity would show that the problem was not really about al-Qa’ida at all but rather their animosity to Islamic rule. Second, since the al-Qa’ida affiliation caused consternation in rebel circles, the idea of an officially independent entity would put the ball in the court of those factions to come together and join forces, especially groups claiming an Islamist vision. Third, the shift could offer a chance to heal the rift with the pragmatic dissenters like al-Qahtani and al-Hamawi who had questioned Jabhat al-Nusra’s direction and the insistence on official ties. Al-Qahtani in particular had become a member of a body founded in July 2016 known as the Assembly of al-Sham Scholars, which aims in particular to establish an independent supreme judicial authority to arbitrate among different factions, urging them to come together and accept such an authority.[g]

Therefore, in the run-up to the announcement by al-Julani of the rebranding of Jabhat al-Nusra as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, it did not come as a shock that pro-al-Qa’ida outlets were giving hints of an impending “break” of ties. On July 25, 2016, al-Fustaat, a jihadist Telegram outlet, put up a post indicating that “Jabhat al-Nusra will soon sever ties with al-Qa’ida with the permission of Sh. Ayman al-Zawahiri.”[23] Illustrating even further the guiding hand of al-Qa’ida, al-Julani’s video announcement was preceded by several hours by an audio message from Ahmad Hassan Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a senior al-Qa’ida operative[24] who was identified for the first time as al-Zawahiri’s deputy. The fact that the audio message was released by Jabhat al-Nusra’s media wing al-Manara al-Bayda suggested that he was already present in Syria. In the message,[h] al-Masri urged Jabhat al-Nusra to take the necessary steps according to the suggestions of al-Zawahiri’s prior talking points, in particular the need to protect the jihad in Syria and the concept of unity among “mujahid” factions as something of greater importance than organizational ties and affiliations. He harkened all the way back to al-Zawahiri’s message in January 2014, an excerpt of which was replayed in his recording.

Far from being a spontaneous move to split from al-Qa’ida, the build-up to al-Julani’s announcement of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was actually a process guided by al-Qa’ida as part of a strategy of embedding Jabhat al-Nusra more deeply within the wider Syrian insurgency. In effect, Jabhat al-Nusra was reverting to the pre-ISIS era in terms of relations between al-Qa’ida and post-Arab Spring jihadist entities—that is, al-Qa’ida in approach but not formal title.[i] Al-Julani himself made al-Qa’ida’s hand clear in his video announcement. He extended thanks to the al-Qa’ida leadership, in particular both al-Zawahiri and al-Masri, for their stance and assessment of the situation in Syria by supposedly putting the interests of the people of Syria and the jihad above organizational ties. Revealingly, he noted “their blessed leadership has and shall continue to be an exemplar.” Al-Julani explained that “in accordance with the general guidelines and directives” of the al-Qa’ida leadership, it was decided to cancel the name of Jabhat al-Nusra and form Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, ostensibly having “no link with any external entity.”[25] It is worth paying closer attention to this wording because it does not literally say that there is no link with al-Qa’ida but rather an “external entity.” The wording still allows for the possibility of links with al-Qa’ida operatives who have entered into Syria, something that has indeed happened.”[j]

Ideologically too, nothing really distinguishes the new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham from its predecessor and al-Qa’ida. This becomes apparent in the manifesto issued by the group[26] as well as al-Julani’s video announcement, with reference to establishing God’s religion and implementing the rule of God’s law. The ideological continuity was also clear in the citation of Usama bin Ladin with regard to the idea of the interests of the Ummah as the foremost priority, followed by the state, the group, and then the individual, a concept that had been invoked by al-Fustaat in its hints of an impending announcement. Judging by al-Julani’s outfit appearance in the video, a strong emulation of bin Ladin was apparent.

Windfall
A number of factions in Syria issued reactions to the formation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, generally welcoming the move as a positive step forward. That said, an interesting contrast emerges in the terminology deployed. For example, the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Uighur al-Qa’ida-affiliated group with a significant presence in Syria, followed the literal wording as per al-Julani’s video in reference to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s affiliations: “We have heard about this new entity, and this praiseworthy blessed step that the Jabhat al-Nusra group undertook, when it decided to operate under a new name—Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—and cut its links with any external entity.”[27] The Turkestan Islamic Party emphasized the need for unity to overthrow the regime and establish the rule of God’s law. Jund al-Aqsa, another al-Qa’ida-linked faction considered more hardline in its approach than Jabhat al-Nusra, also appeared to welcome the move, concluding with an expression of hope that the new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could establish Islamic authority and the rule of sharia. The group avoided speaking of a “split” or “breaking of ties” with al-Qa’ida, stressing that ideological affiliation mattered more.[28]

In contrast, Ahrar al-Sham went by the widely publicized interpretation of a break-off from al-Qa’ida: “The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement blesses the announcement issued to dissolve Jabhat al-Nusra, and break the connection with the internationally designated al-Qa’ida organization… This announcement that the people of al-Sham awaited for a long time.”[29] Ahrar al-Sham expressed hope that the move would lead to increased unity among “all the factions of the revolution,” preserving and increasing the gains of the revolution. Clearly in keeping with what al-Qa’ida wants, Ahrar al-Sham vocally denounced any U.S. and Russian airstrikes that might target the new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, noting the supposed “end of any presence of the al-Qa’ida organization in Syria.”

Far less positive was the U.S.-backed faction Division 13, which was set up in 2013 and primarily based in the Idlib town of Ma’arat al-Nu’man until it clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra in March 2016 and was consequently driven out. The group emphasized that “change is established through deeds and actions, not words,” renewing its long-standing call for al-Julani’s group to submit to the arbitration of a Shari’i court and return weapons it confiscated from Division 13.[30]

While Division 13 is too small and local a faction to put pressure on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to submit to its demands, the wider issue of proving change through actions rather than words is an important one in the long-term,[k] especially as regards the prospects of merging with other rebel factions that do not fully or partly share the jihadist vision. Ultimately, a problem here is the fact that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is essentially calling on factions to come together to form an Islamic government on its own terms. Considering how difficult it has been to establish a unified system of governance in Idlib province, there are no reasonable grounds to suppose a real merger with more ‘mainstream,’ major factions in the near future, including Ahrar al-Sham. Besides the inability to establish a unified system of governance and judicial authority in areas already out of regime control, there are also sensitive issues like treatment of minorities that prove major obstacles to other rebel groups coming to terms with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s vision. Since more ‘mainstream’ factions desire some sort of acceptability on the international stage in relation to Syria’s future, the notion of accepting policies of systematic forced conversions of minorities like Druze and Alawites[l] by merging with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would be very difficult to swallow and would serve to discredit any international recognition of political legitimacy for the insurgency.

In the meantime, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as a military actor has greatly increased its popularity. The group is widely perceived in media and on the ground[31] to have spearheaded the rebel counter-offensive from the direction of the southwest Aleppo countryside that was bolstered by increased foreign support[32] and ultimately broke the regime siege on the eastern parts of Aleppo city.[m] In keeping with the concept of the push for unity as one of the key reasons behind the formation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an audio message was released on August 5 in which al-Julani highlighted unity among factions in their military efforts as the foremost factor behind success in the efforts to break the regime siege.[33]

From the U.S. perspective, these developments only solidify the dilemma of how to put pressure on the regime and Russia in order to facilitate a political transition without empowering Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The prospects of being able to target al-Qa’ida operatives moving into Syria have also been made much more difficult, as further airstrikes will almost certainly inflame popular opinion against the United States. Far from representing a loss for al-Qa’ida,[n] the rebranding of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham amounts to an outsmarting of the United States by al-Qa’ida, even if no grand merger with other rebel factions emerges anytime soon—a much more disastrous scenario.

Substantive Notes
[a] Jabhat al-Nusra’s brand was slightly different in that it emerged in the specific context of the Syrian civil war, thus the name formulation with the idea of supporting the Sunnis of Syria against an oppressive regime. For comparison, other al-Qa’ida-linked groups in Syria, such as the Turkestan Islamic Party’s Syria branch that was set up by Uyghur refugees who had been living in Turkey, have similarly adopted the formulation of ‘Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham.’

[b] Jabhat al-Nusra clarified that although its goal is the establishment of an emirate, it had not announced its existence yet. For the clarification statement issued on July 12, 2014, with translation, see pietervanostaeyen.com.

[c] This translates to ‘House of Judges.’ A number of branches were set up in areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra or where it has had a strong influence, such as in Darkush and Salqin (controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra) in Idlib province and Hureitan (where the Dar al-Qada enjoys broader support).

[d] The two groups in Idlib are officially in an alliance with open, prolonged warfare between them a distant prospect, but Ahrar al-Sham at the local level often acts or tries to act as a restraint on harsher actions by its ally. For example, see Aymenn al-Tamimi, “Additional notes on the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq,” aymennjawad.org, October 6, 2015. This amounts more to local balancing rather than strategic balancing, to use Maxwell Martin’s terminology. For further explanation, see Maxwell Martin, “A Strong Ahrar al-Sham is a strong Nusra front,” Jihadology, April 7, 2015. Ideologically, Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Firas al-Suri (subsequently killed in a U.S. airstrike in April 2016) launched a polemical attack in his own capacity on Ahrar al-Sham in September 2015, castigating the group as sell-outs for its willingness to cooperate with “the states of kufr[disbelief] and systems of apostasy” and affirming protection for “heretical” minorities like the Ismailis who must either convert to Islam or be fought.

[e] Al-Hamawi was officially expelled from Jabhat al-Nusra in a statement issued by the group on July 15, 2015, citing “his lack of compliance with the politics and regulations of the group,” but the group added that the issuing of the decision was delayed by around six months in the hope that he would fall in line again. He responded that he had been intent on leaving the group on account of the previously leaked emirate plans and decried the notion of “violation of the group’s politics” as a reference to his critiques of “Shari’i violations that harm the group, the field, and the people of al-Sham, foremost the inclination of the group towards extremism according to what I see.” A copy of the Jabhat al-Nusra statement on the expulsion of Saleh Hamawi is available at https://justpaste.it/nusraexpelsalehhamawi. Saleh al-Hamawi’s response to the statement is available at https://justpaste.it/mei2.

[f] The Arabic transcript of the speech indicates it was recorded in Jumada al-Awal 1437 AH, which corresponds approximately to the period February 10-March 9, 2016, and thus followed on from the breakdown in the latest round of talks at the time regarding Jabhat al-Nusra’s ties to al-Qa’ida. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Go forth to al-Sham,” As-Sahab Media, May 7, 2016.

[g] Besides al-Qahtani, the new body includes Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muheisseni, who is a leading judicial authority aligned with al-Qa’ida in Jaysh al-Fateh and the main figure in the Jihad Callers Centre that primarily undertakes dawa work in Idlib, and the head of the judicial committee in Ahrar al-Sham, Ahmad Muhammad Najib. “Announcement of the formation of the assembly of al-Sham Scholars,” El-Dorar, July 15, 2016.

[h] The audio message was notably released without a title for the speech on Youtube.com on July 28, 2016.

[i] Bilad al-Sham Media, a long-standing outlet for Maldivian fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra (and subsequently Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), illustrated this line of thought very clearly with an extended post on July 28, 2016, just prior to the al-Julani video announcement, noting that the “aims, goals and strategies” of al-Qa’ida have been enhanced without declaring ties to “al-Qa’ida Central.”

[j] Careful attention to wording must also be applied to Mostafa Mahamed’s interview with CNN following the rebranding, in which he stressed “we are completely independent. That means we don’t report to anyone. We don’t receive our directives from any external entity.” Bryony Jones, Clarissa Ward, and Salma Abdelaziz, “Al-Nusra rebranding: New name, same aim? What you need to know,” CNN, August 2, 2016.

[k] See the transcript of al-Hayat’s interview with Ahrar al-Sham’s Labib Nahas, in which he described the supposed distancing of Jabhat al-Nusra from al-Qa’ida as a “positive step” but stressed that “practical steps have to follow it to establish that the breaking of the connection is not only organizational.” It should also be noted that Nahas considers Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s attempts to explain itself in public relations outreach to the outside world as a good sign in this regard. “Full transcript of Labib Nahas’ interview with the al-Hayat outlet,” All4Syria, August 13, 2016.

[l] Forced conversions were alluded to somewhat obliquely by al-Julani in his interview with Al Jazeera in May 2015. When a number of Druze villagers in the locality of Qalb Lawza were killed in a confrontation with Jabhat al-Nusra members in June 2015, several rebel factions, in condemning the incident, referred to the Druze by name, thereby not endorsing the forced conversions, whereas Jabhat al-Nusra, while also condemning the incident, did not. A full translation of the relevant part of the al-Julani interview can be found at pietervanostaeyen.com. For the contrasting statements on the Qalb Lawza events, see Aymenn al-Tamimi, “The massacre of Druze villagers in Qalb Lawza, Idlib province,” aymennjawad.org, June 15, 2015.

[m] A large number of rebel groups were involved in the campaign, ranging from the more ‘mainstream’ Fatah Halab coalition that is more active inside Aleppo city to the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition pushing from the countryside to the southwest of Aleppo. A Jabhat Fateh al-Sham member, Abu Saeed al-Halabi, credited Fatah Halab for “eliminating regime’s artillery, ATGM positions, heavy guns, and tanks” in a tweet on August 5, 2016.

[n] This interpretation of the formation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as a weakening of al-Qa’ida is advanced by Clint Watts, “It’s not you, it’s me. Al-Qa’ida lost Jabhat al-Nusra. Now what?” War on the Rocks, July 29, 2016.

Citations
[1] Aaron Zelin, “The Rise of Al Qaida in Syria,” Foreign Policy, December 6, 2012.

[2] Screenshot from Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir’s Telegram feed, August 2016.

[3] Michael Gordon and Anne Barnard, “U.S. places militant Syrian rebel group on list of terrorist organizations,” New York Times, December 10, 2012.

[4] Seth Jones, “A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of Al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists,” RAND Corporation, June 2014, p. 7.

[5] Aymenn al-Tamimi, “Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri annuls the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” aymennjawad.org, June 9, 2013.

[6] Photo of banner posted by a Twitter account for Jabhat al-Nusra in Hama, May 28, 2014.

[7] Ghaith Abdul Ahad, “Syria’s Nusra Front- ruthless, organized and taking control,” Guardian, July 10, 2013.

[8] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Urgent appeal to our people in al-Sham,” posted on Youtube.com, January 23, 2014.

[9] “The amir of Jabhat al-Nusra al-Fatih Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani gives good tidings of the rise of an Islamic emirate in Syria,” posted on Youtube.com, audio recording, July 11, 2014.

[10] Charles Lister, “The ‘Real’ Jabhat al-Nusra appears to be emerging,” Huffington Post, August 7, 2014.

[11] “Asaad: rebels joined Nusra to defeat Syria Revolutionaries’ Front in Idlib,” Zaman al-Wasl, November 6, 2014.

[12] Aymenn al-Tamimi, “Additional notes on the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq,” aymennjawad.org, October 6, 2015.

[13] For the source material, see Aymenn al-Tamimi, “Archive of Jabhat al-Nusra Dar al-Qada Documents,” aymennjawa.org, March 3, 2015.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mariam Karouny, “Insight: Syria’s Nusra Front may leave Qa’ida to form new entity,” Reuters, March 4, 2015.

[16] Kim Sengupta, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia alarm the West by backing Islamist extremists the Americans had bombed in Syria,” Independent, May 12, 2015.

[17] See Abu Mariya al-Qahtani’s warnings against obsessions with banners and invective against ghuluw(‘extremism’), “High quality audio recording by Sheikh Abu Mariya al-Qahtani about the demonstrations in Syria,” Youtube.com, March 18, 2016.

[18] Charles Lister, “Under pressure, Syria’s rebels face al-Nusra quandary,” Huffington Post, July 18, 2016.

[19] Bassem Mroue, “Prominent al-Qa’ida figure killed in US drone strike in Syria,” Associated Press, April 8, 2016.

[20] “Ahrar al-Sham calls on Jabhat al-Nusra to break its connection with al-Qa’ida,” Orient News, February 1, 2016.

[21] Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qaeda’s new course: Examining Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction,” IHS Jane’s, May 2012.

[22] Tracy Wilkinson, “U.S., Russia consider first-ever coordination on Syrian airstrikes,” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2016.

[23] Screenshot of post from Telegram feed.

[24] Background information on Abu al-Khayr al-Masri provided by pro-al-Qa’ida outlet al-Maqalaat, July 28, 2016.

[25] Video announcement of the formation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, July 28, 2016.

[26] Aymenn al-Tamimi, “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham Manifesto: Statement, Translation & Analysis,” JihadIntel, July 29, 2016.

[27] “‘Important statement’ by ‘your brothers in the Turkestan Islamic Party to support the people of al-Sham,'” July 30, 2016.

[28] Copy of Jund al-Aqsa statement, July 31, 2016.

[29] Ahrar al-Sham, “Welcoming the breaking of the connection with the al-Qa’ida organization and the announcement of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,” July 29, 2016.

[30] “Division 13 to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham: We will not abandon our martyrs or possessions whatever changes of name you make,” All4Syria, August 1, 2016.

[31] For example, conversations with two media activists in Aleppo province, August 2016.

[32] Erika Solomon, “Outside help behind rebel advances in Aleppo,” Financial Times, August 8, 2016.

[33] “Audio message to our people in Aleppo: al-Sheikh al-Fatih Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani,” al-Bunyan Media, August 5, 2016.


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