The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra: A Looming Grand Jihadi Alliance?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The international coalition- led by the U.S.- against the Islamic State [IS], with additional American airstrikes targeting the ‘Khorasan’ al-Qa’ida group in Syria (in reality just al-Qa’ida veterans from the Afghanistan-Pakistan embedded with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra [JN])- has prompted media speculation of a wider truce, alliance or even merger between IS and JN. For example, on 28 September, Martin Chulov of The Guardian cited a “senior source” claiming “war planning meetings” held between JN and IS leaders.

More recently, a report in The Daily Beast cited “senior Syrian opposition sources” claiming merger talks between JN, IS and ‘Khorasan’, with further allegations, also claimed by the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, that IS provided military assistance to JN in the recent JN moves against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF], Harakat Hazm and other perceived Western-backed rebel groups in Idlib province, noting that this development was supposedly the result of an agreement struck just west of Aleppo between IS and JN in a meeting overseen by ‘Khorasan’, attended also by the independent, anti-jihadi infighting group Jund al-Aqsa, and some members of Ahrar al-Sham. Finally, a report for the Associated Press has just come out, citing an ‘FSA’ commander in Aleppo province and an opposition official, claiming an agreement between IS and JN to end infighting and cooperate to destroy common enemies, including the Kurds and SRF. Present at the meeting, as in the Daily Beast report’s claims, were ‘Khorasan’, Jund al-Aqsa and some members of Ahrar al-Sham.

Are these reports credible? In a word: No. The following should be noted:

– The rift between JN and IS is too great to heal at this point beyond the highly localized alliance between IS and JN in Qalamoun that reflects an exceptional situation where neither group can hold territory alone and both contingents are geographically isolated from members of their groups elsewhere in Syria, in addition to being preoccupied with constant fighting with regime forces and Hezbollah. At the broader level, IS still believes that JN is guilty of “defection” (‘inshiqāq) from IS in refusing to be subsumed under what was then the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] back in April 2013. The zero-sum demands of IS have only solidified with the claimed Caliphate status since 29 June demanding the allegiance of all the world’s Muslims.

In turn, JN refuses even to recognize IS’ claim to be an actual state, let alone a Caliphate. This was made apparent in JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani’s recent official interview on the “White Minaret” in which he made constantly referred to IS as jamaat ad-dawla (“the group of the state”), which can only be interpreted as an insult by IS, even as Jowlani made clear he believes the international coalition is intending to destroy both JN and IS.

In this context, a careful distinction needs to be made between the situation on the ground and attempts by al-Qa’ida branches elsewhere to engage in some form of solidarity outreach to IS in the face of the international coalition as a supposed war on Islam. Thus, contrasting with Jowlani’s constant use of ‘jamaat ad-dawla’ to refer to IS, both al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] simply refer to IS as IS refers to itself: ‘ad-dawla al-islamiya’ [‘The Islamic State’]. However, such attempts at jihadi solidarity are ultimately incoherent ideologically: will AQAP and AQIM actually be willing to extend recognition of the Caliphate if pressed on this issue? Indeed, in the very same areas where AQAP and AQIM are operating, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his al-Furqan Media speech released yesterday rejoiced in new pledges of allegiance to IS in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sinai, Algeria and Libya, calling for the annulment of any separate group identities and the creation of new wilayāt [‘provinces’] of IS. Will AQAP and AQIM be willing to lose their names and merge with these wilayāt? Nothing suggests any development of this sort.

– The nature of the sourcing and content of the ‘JN-IS alliance’ reports is highly suspect. Chulov’s first report in particular is to be noted for its incoherence. While he has a source claiming war planning meetings between JN and IS, a “senior al-Nusra figure” is also mentioned as having told The Guardian that 73 members of JN had just defected to IS. What sense would there be in holding joint conferences to discuss war strategy if members of JN are at the same time leaving JN to join IS? As for the Daily Beast and Associated Press reports, the degree of overlap in the content of the two pieces- such as which groups are attending the supposed merger talks/alliance discussions- strongly suggests they are relying on the same sources. When one looks at these sources, linked as they are to the opposition-in-exile, it is clear they have an agenda to play on Western concerns about dangers of ‘Khorasan’ and the possibility, however remote, of some kind of unification between JN and IS in order to insist on the urgency of more Western support for ‘FSA’ groups to push back against jihadi forces.

On further examination, details of how this agreement between JN and IS is supposed to work come across as impractical, to put it mildly. For example, how would a joint front against Kurdish forces be opened? Would JN and IS participate in a joint offensive on Afrin? But IS is still not even in the vicinity of Afrin, and needs to retake its former border stronghold of Azaz to get there, or at least secure an access agreement through Azaz. Yet the local group that controls Azaz- Northern Storm- is currently affiliated with the Islamic Front, of which Ahrar al-Sham is still a part. Will members of Ahrar al-Sham now send a request Northern Storm to provide access to IS and cease working with other rebels to fight IS for control of Dabiq and other northern Aleppo localities? As for the other two main areas where there is a Kurdish military presence to fight- Kobani and north-east Hasakah province- there is no JN presence whatsoever, having disappeared in the vicinity of Kobani last year as members of JN in nearby towns such as Jarabulus defected to what was then ISIS, and having disappeared in Hasakah province after being subjugated under what was then ISIS at the start of this year.

On the subject of alleged JN-IS cooperation in Idlib province against SRF, there is no evidence whatsoever beyond hearsay to substantiate the claim, with any supposed photos of an IS presence in this case being the result of photoshop manipulation on social media. More importantly, the Dawn of Freedom Brigades– an ex-Liwa al-Tawheed/Islamic Front grouping primarily based in northern Aleppo province and Kobani but which also had an Idlib contingent– has denied to me the claims of IS military assistance to JN in Idlib, as IS withdrew from the province in the face of infighting with rebels at the start of this year. There might be IS sleeper cells intended to conduct sabotage operations against its rivals, but that does not satisfy the need for reliable evidence for active and open IS assistance to JN as is being claimed.

Interestingly, Dawn of Freedom had initially hoped to push back against JN for its moves against SRF and other Western-backed rebels in Idlib, originally intending to issue a 72-hour deadline for JN to withdraw from Jabal Zawiya or face war. However, realizing it was too weak to confront JN militarily, Dawn of Freedom has instead intended to focus its efforts on north Aleppo province, even as its members have now been targeted there too by JN on accusations of being Western-backed. Nonetheless, the group is not playing up any notions of a supposed new JN-IS alliance.

– In questioning the veracity of these reports, I do not intend to imply that there has been no outreach to IS by non-IS affiliated jihadis. As I have outlined previously with respect to the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din , ‘neither IS nor JN’ jihadis have generally tried to avoid fighting with IS as far as possible and have tried to avoid getting into any specifics of the JN-IS rift. It would not be surprising if members of these groups and coalitions might try- most likely on their own initiative or perhaps on an unofficial request from some members of other groups- to seek some outreach to and truce with IS on behalf of non-IS jihadis in Syria on the basis of working with IS on the grounds of common ideological end goal or enemies. However, all evidence shows that these initiatives have invariably failed (cf. Muheisseni’s failed ‘Ummah Initiative’ in January and the ‘And don’t separate’ joint jihadi offensive on Kweiris airbase that quickly collapsed), rooted in IS’ absolutism which seeks recognition of IS as the sole authority. This was so even when IS was just ISIS and ISI, which, as members of rival jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam have noted, consistently insisted on its status as a state and superior authority over others.

In short, the recent reports of supposed merger and alliance talks between JN and IS need to be taken with a pinch of salt as rebel disinformation. From JN’s perspective anyway, an alliance with IS would be strategically disastrous in the long-run, as IS will seek to subjugate it. That JN, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, al-Qa’ida branches and even more mainstream Islamists in general might see the international coalition as a war on Islam is only to be expected, and is certainly relevant to the question of whether the U.S. can build an effective local Sunni fighting force against IS in Iraq, for example. But this debate needs to be distinguished from sensationalist talk of IS-JN mergers and the like that fails to understand IS’ self-perception and how it relates to its interactions at the grand level with other groups.

Comments (17)

ghufran said:

Yes, it is an evil alliance or as an American friend put it:
” it is the same”. Keep in mind that Nusra was being marketed as ISIS light by Turkey and Qatar and received support from FSA officers some of whom even joined the group. The most embarrassing part is the support those thugs received from Iraqi Baathists, “secular” opposition figures and ordinary Syrians who were complaining of being attacked by “sectarian forces”. I said that before, on the cover those islamist terrorist groups are enemies of “Rafidas and Nusairis” but in reality their actions are hurting and will hurt the majority of non shia muslims, just look at who is being displaced and killed by the animals of ISIS and Nusra, that is why a Muslim awakening (practically a Sunni awakening)is a must to defeat the two groups.
Even moderate opposition figures like Moaz are now on a death list because they dare to visit Russia and look for an end to Syria’s bloody war:
نبّه معاذ الخطيب، رئيس الائتلاف السوري المعارض الأسبق، إلى سعي أشخاص (لم يسمهم) لقتله، وذلك بعد زيارة قام بها قبل نحو أسبوعين إلى موسكو.
وكتب الخطيب على صفحته الشخصية بموقع التواصل الاجتماعي “فيسبوك”، اطلع عليها مراسل وكالة الأناضول، “أحمل مسؤولية قتلي إلى من يعتبرون أنفسهم نخباً ثقافية ومفكرين وفلاسفة، وفي بواطنهم حسد كامن وحقد دفين وعجز في الفكر والممارسة، وعندما يفلس الفكر يتجه المجتمع الى الجريمة”.
وفيما لم يحدد الخطيب أو يلمح إلى من يقصد بكلامه، إلا أنه أضاف بالقول: “الكلام ليس نزوة، بل بداية لفكرة ينشرونها، وهم مسؤولون عن كل نواتجها، قانونياً وشرعياً، وأترك كل الشعب السوري شاهداً على الاعداد لجريمة يسعى إليها الحاقدون”.

November 14th, 2014, 3:56 pm


John said:

What struck me about the initial reports regarding this supposed merger was that there were no sources from within al Nusra or IS being quoted as to the outcome. The only source stating unequivocally that a deal was done was an FSA commander, who would have motivation to exaggerate about (or outright lie) any level of cooperation between al Nusra and IS.

I’m also suspicious that the supposed meeting was organize by this mysterious “Khorasan” group, which nobody seems to have heard of before the US bombed al Nusra. How does a small group within al Nusra (that’s apparently not connected to the larger group or to it’s leadership, as that’s a distinction the US has attempted to make) have the influence to push IS and al Nustra into an alliance, which would presumably require either al Nusra to submit, or IS to stop demanding total subjugation. Neither of those two events are likely.

If “Khorasan” isn’t part of al Nusra, and so can act as a mediator, it still poses the same questions. How does a small group that nobody’s heard of have enough influence to get this done.

While I do think that it’s entirely possible for ad hoc alliances to be formed in specific areas, depending on the situation, I just can’t see al Nusra and IS putting aside their differences enough to make a formal alliance at the top level.

So as I see it, there are a couple of things that could have happened to generate this claim.

1.) The FSA source is outright lying, because he knows that an al Nusra/IS merge would push the US into taking more action against al Nusra.

2.) The FSA source is being fed propaganda by local al Nusra fighters.

3.) The FSA source is exaggerating the level of cooperation achieved through the meeting.

4.) The FSA source is exaggerating the importance of the meetings. In other words, it may have just been local al Nusra and IS factions meeting to discuss a possible alliance for local operations, not for the groups as a whole.

5.) There was a meeting, but it wasn’t about al Nusra and IS merging, but to discuss conditions for local al Nusra fighters to defect to IS.

November 14th, 2014, 4:26 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

These are just personality issues. There’s no issues of content or substance that separate IS from JAN and vice versa. Identical twins of the same poisonous tree.

Al Baghdadi has now to arrange the assassination of al-Jowlani = end of story for JAN, and the myth of “moderate” Islamists.

November 14th, 2014, 9:47 pm


Sami said:


In your view Al-Qaeda is moderate Islamist?

November 15th, 2014, 10:27 am


ghufran said:

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has admitted that Washington’s scenario to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a mistake.
“It was wrong to say from the beginning that Assad must go — although it is a desirable ultimate goal,” Kissinger said in an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel.
“I don’t agree that the Syrian crisis can be interpreted as a ruthless dictator against a helpless population and that the population will become democratic if you remove the dictator,” he pointed out.
The veteran American politician noted that from the outset of the Syrian crisis the US “should have had a dialogue with Russia and asked what outcome we want in Syria, and formulate a strategy together.”

This begs the question: why an alternative approach was not taken from the beginning, the answer is simple:
1. hatred and prejudice built a firewall around the brain of many in the opposition and their supporters.
2. the welfare of Syrians was never a top issue for the big players.

November 15th, 2014, 4:14 pm


mjabali said:

They are all the same… Nusra…IS…Jund…Ahrar…etc…they are all the same…

Thai: Same Same But Different

November 16th, 2014, 11:11 am


ALAN said:

You think that Assad attracts militants for jihad?
You are lying shamelessly.
Listen, YOU and ALL your ALLIES and your DOGS: stop planning,Engineering, financing, training and support terrorism of all colors in Syria. We are not testing ground For your dirty policies.
Your work is villainous and debunked front sight of the world.
The solution is not in your hand. The solution is in our hands. Give us alone! We are able to solve our affairs. Hands off our Country. We do not want you at all! Respect our will. Do you understand?

November 16th, 2014, 1:30 pm


Ghufran said:

مرح ماشي
(لا المرح موجود و لا البلد ماشي)

لم يتورط رئيس «تيار بناء الدولة» المعارض، لؤي حسين، في قضايا الفساد والتسليح وتمويل منظمات إرهابية، ومع ذلك اعتُقل على الحدود اللبنانية السورية. كذلك لا يتحمّل حسين مسؤولية سقوط أي من المواقع العسكرية، خلال السنوات الأربع الماضية، بسبب تقصير أو تخاذل أو انشقاق، والرجُل لم يحمل السلاح يوماً في وجه الدولة السورية.

الاعتقال جاء على خلفية مقال كتبه حسين في صحيفة «الحياة» بتاريخ 24 حزيران الماضي بعنوان «السوريون لا يشعرون بحاجتهم إلى الدولة». ويطرح حسين مشكلة السوريين المتمثلة بعدم إحساسهم بالمواطنة الحقيقية، محمّلاً المسؤولية لنظام الحكم القائم منذ 40 عاماً، ما أدى إلى خروج مناطق كاملة في سوريا عن سيطرة الدولة. الدعوى القضائية تحركت ضد المعارض السوري بتاريخ 7 تموز، ليصدر قرار بمنع السفر بحق حسين، مطلع الشهر الحالي. توجُّه حسين لزيارة عائلته في إسبانيا، عبر مطار بيروت، تطلّب عبوره الحدود اللبنانية، ما أدى إلى اعتقاله، بتهمة «إضعاف الشعور القومي ووهن نفسية الأمة»، حسب قول نائب رئيس «تيار بناء الدولة» المحامي أنس جودة. يؤكد جودة لـ«الأخبار» أنّ السلطة أرادت فهم المقال بنحو خاطئ، إذ إن السبب الحقيقي وراء الاعتقال هو عمل «التيار» في الداخل، بحكم رغبة السلطة في إظهار أنّ العدو الوحيد هو الإرهاب، ومنع الحديث عن حريات أو حراك سياسي مدني.

أهمية النشاط السياسي تقتضي العمل في الداخل السوري لا في الخارج
لا يخشى جودة من تكرار سيناريو الدكتور عبد العزيز الخير، عضو «هيئة التنسيق الوطنية» المعارضة، غير المعروف مصيره منذ أكثر من سنتين، لأسباب عدّة. ويضيف: «السلطة اعتقلت الأستاذ لؤي حسين في العلن بموجب مذكرة إلى القضاء، وهو موجود في سجونها بنحو واضح، ما يحمّلها مسؤولية سلامته. فيما أنكرت السلطة اعتقال الخيّر، وحمّلت مسؤولية اختفائه للمسلحين».
يذكر جودة أنّ رئيس التيار موجود في سجن عدرا قيد التحقيق، بانتظار مذكرة القاضي. ويلفت إلى أن حالة حسين النفسية ممتازة، إذ إنه معتقل سابق لمدة 7 سنوات. ويروي عن الرجل مساء أول من أمس، قضاءه الوقت في الأحاديث والحوارات السياسية مع السجناء. المعارض حسين الذي عارض النظام السوري في الرأي، لم ينَل من معارضي الخارج سوى التشكيك في معارضته، بعدما طاولته الاتهامات بعمالته للنظام بين بقية المعارضة، بداعي الخلفية الطائفية أيضاً. ورغم التشكيك من قبل معارضة الخارج بفعل الاعتقال على اعتبار أنه تمثيلية يتبعها النظام لإعطاء حسين صدقية، إلا أن لنائبه رأياً آخر. يقول جودة في الرد على الاتهامات: «دعونا نعمل على أساس البرنامج السياسي، دون أن يكون المؤشر هو السلطة ومواقفها. فلنناقش السياسيين وبرامجهم السياسية دون أي تخوين». ويلخص نائب رئيس تيار بناء الدولة برنامج التيار بقوله: «الحل السياسي الحالي يتمثل بوجود حكومة تشاركية يشعر السوريون بأنها سلطتهم جميعاً، وليست حكومة النظام أو جيشه. وهو الحل الوحيد والجدّي في مواجهة خطر داعش».

The regime arrests moderate politicians and the militant opposition called them traitors and regime agents.
Isis slaughters poor Syrians including soldiers but the same militant opposition insists that Isis was made in the regime’s lab, however, FSA leaders backed by the SNC declared that isis and nusra were ” brothers” fighting the Nusairi regime !!
يا أمة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

November 16th, 2014, 2:35 pm


Observer said:

No they are not the same, they are mirror images of all the protagonists. The regime is a mirror image of IS and vice versa. The Sunnis are mirror images of Shia when it comes to fanaticism and cultism. What goes around comes around. He sows the wind harvests the storm.

Here is RT report for your contemplation.

You ain’t seen nothing yet

I read today fighting is in Latakia? Is this true? Are they about to get closer to the coast? The storm that hit Lebanon is hitting Syria and hence no air force around for a few days.

I wonder whether if they had helicopters whether they would use the barrel bombs with humans attached instead of beheading them.

The Zinbarak of the region is loose, the car is running without brakes, the steering wheel is wobbly and the drivers think that they are in control.

Good night and good luck

He he he he he

November 16th, 2014, 9:59 pm


ghufran said:

Aaron David Miller:
Syria? Right now it is a veritable black hole with at least four subconflicts: ISIS vs. America; Bashar al-Assad vs. the so-called moderate Sunni opposition; jihadis vs. jihadis; and sooner rather than later, perhaps, America vs. al-Assad. What kind of Syria all of these tensions will produce is simply unknowable. Suffice it to say, a unified, democratic state where everyone lives in peace and harmony will likely not be one of them

November 17th, 2014, 1:03 am


Observer said:

Yes Ghufran I have been calling for a peaceful separation from day one.

Look at Lebanon, they are de facto divided. I took a Taxi from Achrafieh to Tarik Jadidah in Beirut a year ago and the taxi driver told me that he has never gone to that part of Beirut in the last 20 years.


November 18th, 2014, 7:27 am


Norman said:

Ghufran, the goal was and is to destroy Syria, not to have a peaceful solution, nobody came to mediate and the Arabs always like to mediate,

November 18th, 2014, 7:50 am


ghufran said:

No FSA fighters in Aleppo and Jamal Maarouf, a certified thief, fled to Turkey according to leading Turkish newspaper HR:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the recognized armed opposition group against the Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has ceased its resistance in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, withdrawing its 14,000 militia from the city, a ranking Turkish security source told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 17.
“Its leader Jamal Marouf has fled to Turkey,” confirmed the source, who asked not to be named. “He is currently being hosted and protected by the Turkish state.”
The source did not give an exact date of the escape but said it was within the last two weeks, that is, the first half of November. The source declined to give Marouf’s whereabouts in Turkey.
As a result, the FSA has lost control over the Bab al-Hawa border gate (opposite from Turkey’s Cilvegözü in Reyhanlı), which is now being held by a weak coalition of smaller groups led by Ahrar al-Sham.
The source said some of the weaponry delivered to the FSA by the U.S.-led coalition in its fight agai

translation: it is either the Syrian army or Nusra-ISIS now when it comes to Aleppo, this will easily uncover the faces of those who were hiding behind the paper tiger in Aleppo, FSA. I have no doubt that there are many Syrians who prefer terrorists over the Syrian army, this is why I see little chance of keeping Syria in one piece ruled by one government, that does not mean we have to let Syria get divided over sectarian lines, those lines are blurry and often inter-crossing plus many Urban Sunnis are unwilling to live under Nusra and ISIS rule, the problem is that the opposition failed to perform and could not hold on to any piece of territory, its leaders are only good at giving fiery press statements and some FSA commanders are using skype to communicate with crooks and prostitutes instead of reaching out to Syrians and their own fighters.

November 18th, 2014, 6:34 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Sami #4,

“…In your view Al-Qaeda is moderate Islamist?”.

I understand that there’s a catch in your rhetorical question, so, what’s the catch?

There is no moderate or radical Islamist. There is Islamist period. As Mjabali said, same same. Same book, same Hadith same traditions, same “scholars”, same visions for the political future, same supremacy, same Jihad, same hatred to everything that is not Muslim and male.

November 18th, 2014, 9:33 pm


Sami said:

No catch at all. You called Nusra which is al-Qaeda as moderate. Found that surprising.

I do agree they’re all the same, although being Muslim does not protect from their wrath.

November 18th, 2014, 9:56 pm




1. There is no need for any formal alliance between these factions. Even when they are fighting each others, they are working together given the common “grandiose dreams of empire”. The end result is the same crap, whether they do it together, or each in their own way. And their victim, which is humanity and civilization, is the same.

2. Yes, absolutely they are mirror images of the regime, as their supporters are mirror images of regime supporters. A mirror image is not an anti-image, since there is no contrast in the outcome.. destruction, murder, theft, despotism, and bullshit.

3. If you get it,… good… If you don’t, who cares..

November 19th, 2014, 1:05 am


Amir in Tel Aviv said:


I never said that JAN are “moderate”. I believe that their “moderate” show, is an attempt to fool the clueless, and to make Amrica give them weapons (that they will use against the west later on).

The US bombing of JAN / “Khorasan group” (whatever / same same), indicates that Obama is a little bit smarter than he was in 2009.

I agree with you that “being Muslim does not protect from their wrath”.

November 19th, 2014, 9:33 am


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