Analysis of Abu Mohammed Joulani new front: From Nusra to Fath al-Sham
Key words: Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaida, Qaidat al-Jihad, Syria.
By Elijah J. Magnier : @EjmAlrai
The leader and Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) Abu Mohammed al-Joulani introduced a new front with a new name “Jabhat Fath al-Sham” (JFS) – as published by this author on the 26th of this month – and the abolishment of the old JaN title. But did Joulani and his Mujahedeen break with Qaidat al-Jihad (AQ) in Khorasan, or is it the AQ core leadership and Mujahedeen (in Syria since the war began), who have merged into this new group JFS?
Just before Joulani’s video message showing his portrait for the first time, Al-Manara al-Bayda’ official outlet released an audio of Ahmed Hassan Abul-Khair, first deputy Emir of AQ Central (Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri) speaking about JaN, saying that it had become “a force to be reckoned with, excellently managing the liberated territories (Idlib/Syria) with legitimate courts that rule with the Law of Allah, and organising service institutions that guard and take care of what matters to people – a new generation brought up on the jurisprudence of honour, and on the Jihad as the means for protecting the region. The stage which the Ummah (Islamic nation) has now reached in terms of the spread of the Jihad and its penetration into the Muslim community (shifting from the understanding of an elitist jihad to the Jihad of a nation) should not be driven by group mentality or by a single organisation”.
Within the same audio of Abul-Kheir, from Ayman al-Zawahiri, a short message will be found: ”The organisational links are transient-metamorphic (…) Your union and your association and the unity of your groups rises above any organisational affiliation (…).” Zawaheri was clearly blessing JaN’s widely coordinated and thoughtful move towards the other groups operating in the Levant.
It is clear that neither JaN nor its Emir Abu Mohammed al Joulani have regressed by a single step on their Jihadist operational line, their ideology and their creed. These include the objectives and concept of the Islamic nation as understood by the Mujahedeen. Not only that, but JFS have raised, above AQ level, an organisation capable of providing moral and knowledge support, with its Emir acting as a father, but without the necessity to offer financial support or weapons.
Khorasan, the base of Qaidat al-Jihad, looks from afar toward its sons in Yemen, Somalia, Syria and other countries that host the same ideology but also have enough men fighting for their objectives. JaN’s move is not new to Qaidat al-Jihad. What used to be known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had also changed name. Today it is known as “Ansar al-Sharia”, “Sons of Hadramout” or “sons of Abyan”. Therefore, the question arises, what is the need and the motivation for making so much fuss around a name changed from JaN to JFS: especially when the objectives and the ideology are both stable and robust?
Abu Mohammed al-Joulani was being honest when he said “Jabhat Fath al-Sham has no affiliation to any external entity”. The new JFS has all the right elements to receive and host the Mujahideen – Mujahideen from all over the world – because it is already, as Ahmed Hassan Abul-Khair said, established in “a liberated territory”, running an Islamic administration and courts, raising the banner of “there is only one God” and is promoting jihad “for God’s sake”.
Therefore, it cannot be overstated that the exit of JaN from under the mantle of AQ is not a change of creed but a step already requested, in fact, and promoted by the head of AQ Legal Council, the late Sheikh Atiyah Allah al-Libi. He said: “The declaration of the Mujahideen that they are al-Qaeda and that they have link to al Qaeda, even this link existed, should not be expressed now, since it lacks any operational interest. The only people to gain are the Americans, who wish it because it serves their political ends. Because in word public opinion the name of AQ is now distorted, it is appropriate to keep away from it and not manifest any link to it (AQ). Perhaps, through this new stage, God is expressing his will otherwise”.
Joulani did not come out with his announcement (breaking ties with AQ, or stating that Jabhat Fath al-Sham has no affiliation to any external entity) to please the United States of America and Russia. His brief message with Abu Faraj al Masri on his right (real name Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who accompanied al-Zawahiri for many years until he reached the Levant and became a member of JaN Shura Council) is no coincidence. Joulani is relatively carefree about the attitude of stand of Russia and the US. His message in the first place is to the Mujahedeen of Nusra to say that the creed hasn’t changed, is sound and is well guarded. This is seen as a purely internal move directed towards the Syrian groups. Joulani is responding to insistent demands by all the local Syrian organisations expressing a readiness for unity, provided that Nusra disengage with the base of Qaidat al-Jihad (“the motherland”).
Al-Zawahri and his deputy therefore agreed on any step that would lead to the connection of all groups in al-Sham, moving away from any narrow organisational link. All they want from Nusra is to expand towards a much larger global jihad to including al-Sham (the Levant). This must spread and consolidate the ideology and doctrine on the ground, to unite jihadi and non jihadi groups, and integrating the rest of the Syrian and other Muhajereen (foreign fighters). That way they all become one strong front prepared for when President Barack Obama leaves.
However, there is a difference between aiming at consolidation and managing to achieve real unification. There are secular groups and others related to and directly financed by the various countries of the region, including some supported by the US. A unification of all these groups seems far from reality. Joulani and the leadership around him are aware of the Syrian theatre and the multi-diversity of its conditions for belonging. Joualni, by announcing a new front, disarms all excuses previously presented as obstacles to the unification. This was a necessity, because if these were to remain active but hidden, faced with this very public move, it cannot be ruled out that JFS might in the future adopt a more aggressive and confrontational attitude against anyone who stands in the way of the jihad.
Joulani has appeared publicly with a warm smile stretching out his hand not to America or Russia to avoid being hit, but to the Sham theatre. Will the base respond to him? Achieving unity among different factions is a daunting, near impossible task weighing not only on Joulani, but also on al-Zawahiri himself. Even Osama bin Laden was struggling with the group Joulani was belonging to previously (Islamic State in Iraq) up to the day of the divorce: then followed the rivalry and animosity between Zawaheri and the Caliph of the “Islamic State” group, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
So far, Ahrar al-Sham (another Salafi jihadi group considered the largest in numbers in the north of Syria), Tajam’mo Ahl al-Elm Fil-sham , Ansar al-Din, Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani, Fajr al-Sham and Ajnad al-Sham have welcomed Nusra’s step. The communiqué of Jund al-Aqsa, a salafi jihadist close to both al-Qaida and the “Islamic State” group (ISIS), is quite revealing, unwittingly stating that nothing has changed but the name. More groups may follow, but the overall enthusiasm to embrace a unity of all groups under one command is still shy. If Ahrar accepts to merge into one group with Nusra in its new group JFS, this step will create confusion, forcing the US and Russia to rethink their attitude toward rebel groups. If not the change of name will have been tactical, merely mythical.
There is no doubt that the Mujahideen of al-Qaeda had been absorbed in the Levant within JaN, and now today, within the new organisation JFS. Every step Joulani made was accurate, calibrated and indicates the presence of an entire team with broad experience in the jihad arena. These moves measure the consequences of every decision taken, seeking to minimise collateral and internal damage. Despite being core AQ, these moves have showed pragmatism in dealing with the various groups involved, and this includes secular ones and others connected, trained and paid for by the CIA.
There is therefore now little doubt that Qaidat al-Jihad has became part of Nusra, title “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham”.