Posted by Aron Lund on Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013
by Aron Lund for Syria Comment
There’s been some very interesting reports about conflicts within Jabhat al-Nosra, the salafi-jihadi rebel group that has been designated an al-Qaida-connected terrorist organization by the USA and several other countries.
If you follow Syria, you’re already familiar with the outlines of this, but here’s the very short version:
In a recorded voice statement released online on April 10, 2013, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani confirmed that his group had been created with assistance from the Iraqi al-Qaida wing (called the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). He also ”renewed” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the international al-Qaida leader, leaving little doubt that he had been a sworn al-Qaida member all along. At the same time, Abu Mohammed distanced himself from the suggestion that a total merger had been agreed between Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI. This was in response to a statement put out on the previous day (April 9) by the ISI emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had said that both groups would now merge into something called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (let’s abbreviate it ISIS).
In sum, there was no dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi leaders about the fact that Jabhat al-Nosra is an al-Qaida faction ultimately loyal to Zawahiri, but they differed on whether it would be absorbed into a regional umbrella (ISIS) constructed from the Iraqi franchise (ISI) or retain its own separate identity within the international al-Qaida framework.
Syrian opposition groups reacted negatively, including the main Islamist formations, although most tempered their criticism by stressing the positive contributions of Jabhat al-Nosra to the uprising so far. For some responses to the Abu Mohammed and Abu Bakr statements by Islamist groups in Syria, see a previous post of mine on Syria Comment, and these translations on Hassan Hassan’s site.
After Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s strange semi-rebuttal to Abu Bakr on April 10, both groups fell silent, and everybody seemed to be waiting for an explanation. None came. Now, suddenly, several media reports have been published, suggesting that the dispute hasn’t been resolved but is in fact growing worse. In some of these reports, purported Jabhat al-Nosra fighters even talk about the group splitting apart or losing members, although they differ on who is leaving and for what reason.
He quotes a Jabhat al-Nosra member from Damascus as saying that ”everyone I know was surprised by the statement; it was more than we’d expected to hear”, meaning the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. The Jabhat al-Nosra member now worries that there will be clashes between Jabhat al-Nosra and the Western/Gulf backed factions grouped under the FSA label, after Jabhat al-Nosra came out of the closet as an official al-Qaida franchise.
The gist of Sands’s article is that locally recruited and/or pragmatic fighters are upset with Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaida, because it will make it harder for them to focus on fighting Assad. (They’re probably right about that.) There’s no claim of an open split in the group, yet, but it does indicate internal tension between locally-minded grassroots fighters and the globalist, Qaida-connected leadership.
Writing for Reuters, Mariam Karouny has a much more spectacular take on what is going on. She also quotes people in and close to Jabhat al-Nosra, as well as some rivals to the group.
The narrative that emerges is one of a full-blown split within the group, threatening to unravel the Syrian al-Qaida network. According to this version, Jabhat al-Nosra is now torn between the adherents of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his Iraqi counterpart and self-styled superior, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In this version, the ISIS project is going ahead despite Abu Mohammed’s objections, and has already incorporated a significant chunk of Jabhat al-Nosra’s organization. Abu Bakr is said to have moved into the Aleppo region to rally his own adherents, while fighters loyal to Abu Mohammed refuse to submit to his dictates or surrender the Jabhat al-Nosra brand. Karouny quotes a Nosra source close to Abu Mohammed al-Joulani as trying to minimize the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and saying that it came about in an “attempt by [Abu Mohammed al-Joulani] to keep his distance from Baghdadi.” According to another Nosra source quoted in the article, ”The situation has changed a lot. Baghdadi’s men are working but Nusra is not working formally anymore”.
If this is true, we’re talking about a Fukushima-level ideological meltdown in one of Syria’s most important rebel groups.
ISIS vs. Jabhat al-Nosra?
Phil Spencer in the Daily Telegraph makes a similar claim, based on Aleppo sources outside of Jabhat al-Nosra, and says that its fighters are withdrawing from the Aleppo frontlines. An opposition activist in Raqqa is cited by the AFP. He makes the same case, depicting an Iraqi takeover that is being resisted by a rump faction of Jabhat al-Nosra:
The activist said that in Raqa, even within jihadists’ ranks there is division.
“The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is becoming more powerful than al-Nusra Front in some areas,” he said.
He said the [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] had tried to bring the jihadist al-Nusra Front under its full control, but could not.
“Now they are two groups, competing against each other for influence,” said the activist, who is well-informed on political developments in rebel-held areas.
al-Manara al-Beida clams up
Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nosra’s only approved source of public communications, the online media organization al-Manara al-Beida, has fallen silent since the April 10 release by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. The ISI’s media wing, al-Furqan, is also out of commission since the April 9 statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (I’m thankful to Aaron Zelin, who helped me check this. His invaluable site Jihadology provides a full list of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI statements in PDF format, drawn from the main jihadi web forums.)
Jihadi communications can be very irregular indeed, for all sorts of reasons, but the total shutdown of both these media offices simultaneously is such a striking coincidence that of course it is no coincidence. al-Manara al-Beida used to publish a batch of field reports about their (oh! glorious!) victories almost weekly, with occasional video releases and the odd media statement in between. But now, when it seems they would be most eager to explain what is going on, there’s been nothing but ghastly silence for a month and a half.
The only thing we’ve heard from Jabhat al-Nosra since April 10 has come through unofficial channels, like leaders speaking to the media, contrary to their own stated policy. There’s also been two statements purportedly from Jabhat al-Nosra’s section in the Deraa region, published on May 7 and May 22. But they didn’t arrive through al-Manara al-Beida. The Deraa statements aren’t reporting attacks either. Rather, they are an odd-sounding laundry list of complaints and sharia rulings about stuff that the Deraa jihadis are fed up with, such as people spreading rumors, fence-sitting Druze people, out-of-control salafi clerics posing as Jabhat al-Nosra representatives, swindlers scamming jihadis for money, and low-quality recruits from Jordan. As if fighting Assad wasn’t enough! But they include nothing directly related to the al-Qaida brouhaha.
Confusion all around
In the absence of any clarification from the actors themselves, nobody seems sure about what is actually going on. Does ISIS exist? Has there been a split in Jabhat al-Nosra? If so, is it between Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his locally recruited followers, who take issue with his declaration of allegiance to Zawahiri? Or is it between Abu Mohammed and the Iraqi emir Abu Bakr, who has mounted an internal coup against his leadership? And to whom would Zawahiri give his blessing, as supreme commander of al-Qaida?
Maybe it isn’t a nation-wide Syrian split, but a division which plays out differently in different parts of the organization? Maybe it’s just a little local rebellion? Or maybe it’s a huge deal, and the undertow from an ISI thrust into Syria will seep back across the border, and onwards through the global Qaida network?
Maybe. Maybe! Or maybe this is all a simple misunderstanding, a little communications mishap which will be sorted out once the three leaders involved – Abu Mohammed al-Joulani of Jabhat al-Nosra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the ISI, and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaida’s general command – have decided on the proper language for a joint statement.
Despite the fact that both the Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI media wings seem to have been knocked out cold by the April 9-10 controversy, the fighters themselves are still soldiering on. Some Jabhat al-Nosra members are said to have died in the battle in al-Quseir just the other day. And bombs are still going off at an impressive pace in Iraq, leaving little doubt that ISI is still around. Meanwhile, a thin trickle of videotapes in the ISIS name has started to show up online, although not through “official” channels, making it doubtful what or who they really represent. (On the fine Brown Moses blog, Aymenn Al Tamimi writes a guest post about this.)
So what to make of it? Oh, I have no idea. And my guess is that no one else does either, despite the tsunami of speculative hypotheses that is already starting to build at the far end of the Internet.
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty is that (1) the contradictory statements, and (2) the sudden interruption of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI communications, and (3) the flood of reports about internal discontent and splits is means that there actually is or has been a significant internal disagreement between two or more of these Qaida factions.
And whatever it is, because of (2) and (3), they will now have to deal with rumors and hostile propaganda too. Even if they’ve now sorted it all out, they have a serious public relations crisis on their hands. That’s no small matter in a situation as media-driven as the Syrian conflict.
Perhaps we will now simply get a statement setting the record straight by affirming that Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI either have or haven’t merged into ISIS. And if so, maybe they’ll shutter al-Manara al-Beida and al-Furqan and present a new media wing for them both, explaining the long silence.
If, on the other hand, there are indeed irreconcileable differences between two or more of the players involved, then I guess there will be several statements, which will make for very interesting reading. Zawahiri should have the final word, but he’s off in Pakistan somewhere, and who knows how long he can keep his Mashreqi lieutenants in line after they’ve outgrown him politically and militarily.
At some point we’ll certainly know more about what’s happening, and then we can start to draw conclusions. But right now, we don’t, and we can’t. So let’s just sit here and listen to the eerie silence of al-Manara al-Beida – the sound of one of the worst Syrian communication gaffes since March 30, 2011.
— by Aron Lund