What’s in a Name? The New Jabhat al-Nusra and the Future of Al Qaeda

By Daniel Byman
Monday, October 24, 2016, 7:40 AM

On July 28, 2016, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra—the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria—announced that the group was changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, which translates to Conquest of the Levant Front) and cutting ties with al-Qaeda. A JFS spokesman contended the split and name change would remove “unnecessary affiliations” that might impede the group’s merger with other Syrian opposition forces fighting Assad—a rather vague way of saying that now, without the international opprobrium associated with the al-Qaeda name, JFS is better able to work with other rebel groups. Charles Lister, a top Syria analyst, believes JFS is playing a “long game” to gain preeminence among the Syrian opposition. JFS also hopes the United States and its allies no longer have an excuse to bomb it and groups that partner with it.

Less discussed, the declaration also may help JFS and al-Qaeda in their rivalry with the Islamic State. JFS claims that the Islamic State leaders “totally disregard all efforts of other Muslims in the world,” and their own moderation and willingness to cooperate stands in contrast. In general, JFS allows other groups to govern and serve as the public face in areas it dominates, and it has not carved out a large amount of territory as a rival caliphate of its own.

So JFS exchanged unity with al-Qaeda for unity with other Syrian groups, a better position against the Islamic State, and the hope that the United States would ease military pressure on the organization.

Skeptics immediately, and with good reason, questioned the authenticity of this separation. Even in its breakup statement, the group’s leaders praised al-Qaeda, as “an exemplar,” and refused to condemn the group or otherwise widen the distance. Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also issued a statement, noting that he approved the breakup—hardly a sign that the JFS move is another rebellion within al-Qaeda’s ranks. Nor did the group’s leadership, many of whom have close personal ties to al-Qaeda, change in any significant way after the announcement. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn, two preeminent terrorism analysts, contend that “Nusra’s rebranding as JFS does not represent a genuine split from al Qaeda.” Consider it more of a spinning off of a franchise by a big company than a divorce between rival factions.

While the true relationship between JFS and al-Qaeda might seem relevant to only a narrow subset of terrorism-watchers, it is bound up with the problems in U.S. policy toward Syria and the broader question of how safe the United States is from terrorism. JFS is perhaps the most effective group fighting the Assad regime and has played a major role in the combat over Aleppo. The group’s existing ties to other opposition groups have made it almost impossible for the United States to “arm the Syrian opposition”; doing so, after all, risks aiding al-Qaeda’s affiliate directly or at least helping its allies. As a result, opposition groups have often been torn when choosing allies: Jabhat al-Nusra was fighting the regime effectively on the ground, unlike the United States. On the other hand, U.S. air support and military training might be vital for ultimate victory, and the United States and some of its allies are reluctant to aid groups with links to al-Qaeda.

Beyond the question of Syria policy, the strength of al-Qaeda's threat to the United States is tied up with the strength of its affiliate groups. Al-Qaeda has long tried to manage its disparate affiliates, but they have all focused more locally than globally. As J.M. Berger argues, “The vision of al Qaeda as one big thing has given way to the reality of multiple al Qaedas—in Syria, Yemen, Northwest Africa, East Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent.” Lister contends that JFS’s move could hugely benefit al-Qaeda by giving it an even stronger affiliate in jihad’s most important theater.

I beg to differ with my colleagues that the rebranding means little or might make the group more dangerous. For JFS, at least, the strategy is risky. Several senior commanders have rejected the decision to cut ties with al-Qaeda, and some fighters have defected—hardly signs that the group itself sees the change as mere window dressing. The rebranding also shows al-Qaeda’s continued move toward a “near enemy” perspective. Historically, most jihadists saw local regimes like that of Mubarak or the Al Saud, not the United States, as their primary foes. Al-Qaeda, however, tried to reverse this focus, arguing that the United States was the “head of the snake” and local regimes would only fall after the U.S. puppet master was forced to cut the strings. By focusing on Syria over the United States, the near enemy has returned to the forefront.

Indeed, JFS’s rebranding suggests a certain degree of U.S. success. Other groups in Syria refused to ally openly with the group out of fear of being caught in U.S. crosshairs. Further, the group’s strategy of avoiding a state of its own and emphasis on working with local partners reflects its well-founded fear of standing alone and thus standing out—and in so doing being more vulnerable to direct U.S. attacks.

To state the obvious, focusing on the near enemy means that JFS, for now at least, will not be attacking the United States. In fact, a year ago—well before it changed its name—the group made clear it had no intention of attacking the United States, even though the United States has been bombing it for more than two years. Although skeptics rightly warn that JFS may conduct attacks after defeating the Assad regime, this is a long way off even under optimistic scenarios.

Those interim years, however, are likely to change JFS, even if its leaders secretly wish to maintain a long-term focus on the United States. To fight Assad effectively, JFS needs to focus its propaganda and resources against the regime. And bringing in more local leaders and followers—part of the purpose of the rebranding—will reinforce this new focus on Syria.

Looking beyond Syria, decentralization sounds like a good approach for al-Qaeda, and it is certainly a necessary one given U.S. counterterrorism pressure. Yet decentralization is fraught with risk. Decentralized groups may pursue their own agendas indefinitely, and al-Qaeda may not be able to reorient them toward the United States should it choose to do so: a tactical expedient may turn into a strategic reality. Further, because affiliates share the al-Qaeda brand, they can discredit it by attacking innocent Muslims, becoming bandits, or otherwise engaging in unsanctioned behavior. The captured documents from Abbottabad are filled with al-Qaeda leaders’ concerns about its wayward affiliates. The greatest danger is exemplified by the rise of the Islamic State. The group was once al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate. In Iraq, its abuses discredited al-Qaeda among ordinary Muslims, and the Iraqi jihadists used the independence they enjoyed to break away from their former leaders and eventually challenge them for jihadi superiority.

The United States faces dangers if JFS’s move completely succeeds or dramatically fails—but a middle ground is less risky. Success would mean JFS leads the Syrian opposition and even carves out a secure and large base from which to operate. This would give it sanctuary and facilities as well a pivotal role in the center of the Arab world. Perhaps surprisingly, a complete JFS failure is also risky: numerous groups that embraced al-Qaeda’s global vision began with a local agenda but expanded their horizons once it was clear that they would lose locally. Indeed, the Islamic State has expanded attacks against the West after massive territorial losses and blows to its prestige. JFS might make the same choice.

If JFS neither succeeds nor fails completely, however, the terrorism risk to the United States is likely to remain limited. In such a scenario, the group would concentrate its energies on Syria and wade even deeper into the morass there. Al-Qaeda itself would be more locally focused and struggle to manage its disparate affiliates as its leaders hide from drone attacks. This wouldn’t be victory—it would be more like kicking the can down the road. But in the Middle East, that’s often as good as it gets.