This series of blogposts is the result of private conversations with a Dutch speaking Jabhat an-Nusra member in Syria, known as al-Maqalaat. The following text is not edited by myself in any way. Furthermore the views expressed in this commentary are the sole responsibility of the author, al-Maqalaat. I host this text for academic purposes only.
First Question: The challenging affiliation
June 16, 2016
Pieter Van Ostaeyen:
“Lately we have been reading a lot about the ties between Jabhat Nusra and Al-Qaedah within the Jihadist community on social media. There are scholars and factions in Syria who believe that Jabhat Nusra should break its ties with Al-Qaedah because they see it as harmful for the Syrian revolution and as an obstacle for unity among the factions. I would like to explore the thoughts regarding this disposition. What are your thoughts on it?”
“Firstly, this discussion will be more theoretical than anything else, as we do not really see the negative effects of this issue on the actual ground. The formation of Jaysh Al-Fath and Jaysh Al-Fustaat and the recent victories in Idlib and southern Aleppo testify to this fact. With that being said, yes some factions and scholars like Shaykh Abu Baseer Tartoosi argue that Jabhat Nusra should cut its ties with Al-Qaedah because their ties form a danger for the Syrian revolution. The opposite is actually true. If we were to look at ISIS then they do not have any ties with Al-Qaedah, they cut their ties with Al-Qaedah and broke off from its leadership. So did this benefit the Syrian revolution? ISIS does not have any ties with Al-Qaedah but they form one of the greatest dangers for the Syrian revolution. When they were under the leadership of Al-Qaedah their weapons were aimed at the regime and its allies. But since they broke off from Al-Qaedah they are aiming their weapons at all the enemies of the regime, which empowered the regime a great deal. This is clear proof that their ties with Al-Qaedah were very much in the benefit of the Syrian revolution, as ISIS followed the sensible guidelines of the Al-Qaedah leadership. But when they broke these ties, they became an enemy of the Syrian revolution. So those who are demanding from Jabhat Nusra that they should break their ties with Al-Qaedah, because it is in benefit of the Syrian revolution, as they claim, should consider this.
The guidelines of the Al-Qaedah leadership, its Sharia politics and the methodology of Al-Qaedah will actually safeguard the Syrian revolution. There have been groups like the Hazm Movement, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Division 30, Army of Revolutionaries, and the New Syrian Forces, who did not have any ties with Al-Qaedah, but their foreign guidelines, politics and methodology harmed the Syrian revolution, and the civilians and factions in Syria agreed on this. If it wasn’t for Jabhat Nusra who stopped their corrupt projects then who knows what the damage would have been to the Syrian revolution. It was also Al-Qaedah who nullified the legitimacy of the Khawarij deviancy by ISIS. Unlike the local factions in Syria, Al-Qaedah is the only alternative besides ISIS for those who want to join a global Jihad movement. If Jabhat Nusra did not provide this target group with a legitimate alternative in Syria then perhaps they would have joined ISIS. So image how much turmoil Jabhat Nusra prevented by providing this alternative.
ISIS claimed that it wanted to foil the conspiracies of the local and global enemies in Syria, but they only empowered these conspiracies due to their foolish actions and politics. ISIS labeled everyone as an apostate and a traitor or a western agent, placing all the groups and factions in the same trench without differentiating. This made people disbelieve the claim that there were any actual traitors or agents in Syria. Because they saw ISIS accuse factions like Jabhat Nusra, Ahraar Shaam and Jaysh Al-Islam of being apostates, traitors and agents, together with actual traitors like the Hazm Movement.
There is a small select group of traitors and agents in Syria, and Jabhat Nusra is the only one who succeeded in exposing and removing them from the field; they now operate largely under the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces. Due to the balanced and clearheaded politics of Jabhat Nusra even the average civilian in Syria was and is able to distinguish between the Mujahid and the traitor, between the corrupt and the pious. That is why nobody opposed Jabhat Nusra when they got rid of the Hazm Movement, because they saw how they were harming and corrupting the Syrian revolution. Whereas they did oppose the accusations and blood spilling of ISIS, and the crimes of certain factions. The Syrian people would not have reached this distinguishing awareness if Jabhat Nusra did not use wisdom, justice and tolerance in dealing with the civilians, groups and factions.
Right after Jabhat Nusra got rid of these corrupt groups it formed Jaysh Al-Fath with other factions and liberated Idlib. Since then all the local and global conspiracies dissolved with ease. Jabhat Nusra first exposes the corruption before dealing with it, and does not blend this corruption in a mélange of truth mixed with falsehood like ISIS does. This is of great benefit for the Syrian people, as it safeguards and purifies their revolution. Jabhat Nusra has exposed the traitors and corrupt groups without exhausting the Syrian people with much effort in doing so. This saved the Syrian people much turmoil and blood spilling. While the fruitless foolish actions and politics of ISIS did the opposite, without getting rid of the traitors and agents, rather they even empowered them.
So imagine how much turmoil and blood spilling could have been saved if ISIS did not break its ties with the Al-Qaedah leadership and followed its guidelines and politics like Jabhat Nusra does, and imagine how much this would have benefited the Syrian revolution. Additionally accusing Al-Qaedah of being responsible for the crimes of ISIS would be unreasonable, as the first generation of the Khawarij broke off from the army of Sayidna Ali, may Allah be pleased with him. So do we blame Ali for their deviance? No.
Al-Qaedah has long experiences in guerilla war tactics and fighting super powers, the factions in Syria must be willing to learn from these experiences and insights. Al-Qaedah has experience with local enemies as well as the global enemies. It has experience with different groups, parties and sects. Even the turmoil of the Khawarij sect is not new, Al-Qaedah already experienced this in the past in Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Jabhat Nusra was for example one of the few factions who recognized that a cease fire with the regime was a conspiracy. More than 1500 rebels defected from other factions and joined Jabhat Nusra when those factions agreed on a cease fire with the regime. And it did not take long before those factions also realized that the cease fire was a conspiracy against the Syrian people. So they resumed the battle after catching their breath and reorganizing. This is one example of the insights and experiences we must learn from.
Claiming that the relationship between Jabhat Nusra and Al-Qaedah is forming an obstacle for unity with the other factions in Syria is not really convincing, because the remaining factions did not unite amongst each other in the first place. So what is the obstacle for them to unite amongst each other? Moreover, if the relationship between Jabhat Nusra and Al-Qaedah is the only obstacle for unity according to them, then this means that they actually agree with the methodology and politics of Jabhat Nusra. Because they are not complaining about the methodology or politics of Jabhat Nusra. Their only problem with Jabhat Nusra is their relationship with Al-Qaedah. This means that the remaining methodology and politics of Jabhat Nusra are not forming any problems or obstacles for unity. Although this is a comforting conclusion, it makes you wonder if this is really the only condition they will set for unity. It does not seem reasonable. If this relationship was really the only obstacle for unity then this would be very good news. Because this means that all other remaining factions besides Jabhat Nusra who do not have any ties with Al-Qaedah can finally unite amongst each other.
Even if some factions disagree with the methodology or certain tactics and Sharia politics of Al-Qaedah, then this should not be an obstacle for unity. If we were to look at the western countries for example and their alliance with the US, then we can say without a doubt that there are many disagreements between these western countries. Not all the western countries support the wars waged by the US, especially by the Bush Administration. Not all the western countries agreed on the extraordinary rendition policy. Not all the western countries agreed on the prison torture policies of the US in Guantanamo Bay. Not all the western countries agree on the US policy concerning drone air strikes on high value targets; 140 civilians are bombed on an average to hit just one high value target under the current Obama Administration. Not all the western countries agree on such excessive collateral damage. So there are many differences and disagreements between the allies of the US on certain politics and military policies.
But do we see these western countries break their alliance with the US because of these disagreements? No they do not, they stay united to protect their democratic ideals and values. Because they know that unity is strength. If these western countries stay united to protect their democratic ideals and values despite their disagreements, then why can’t we stay united to protect our Islamic ideals and values despite our differences? If some factions disagree with certain politics or military policies and battles fought by Al-Qaedah on other fronts in the world, then this should not be an obstacle for unity. Jabhat Nusra also does not agree with certain politics and policies by other factions, but it is nevertheless willing to unite for the greater good of the Muslim Ummah in Syria.
Al-Qaedah has united with the Taliban despite their differences and disagreements. The Taliban and Al-Qaedah do not share the exact same school of thought and methodology. The Taliban follows the Hanafi school of thought and is somewhat influenced by the Deoband movement which leans towards the Ash’ari and Maturidi theology. While Al-Qaedah leans toward Salafi Jihadism. Al-Qaedah in theory would have more in common with the Salafi Saudis than the Hanafi Afghans, but in practice we see something totally different. As the Saudis betrayed Shaykh Usama bin Laden and the Mujahideen, while the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan protected and sheltered them. The Salafi Saudis rejected Jihaad, while the Hanafi Afghans are waging Jihaad for decades. This shows us that the differences and similarities should be put in their correct context and balance.
Salahdinne Al-Ayoubi shared the Ash’ari theology but nonetheless many founding Salafi scholars –who are critical towards the Ash’ari theology– spoke highly of him, because his righteousness outweighed his mistakes. So we should not let form be predominant over content. We do not have to agree on every understanding to unite against our enemies. As long as we agree on the core principles; the internal enemy most be deposed from authority over our countries, the external enemy must retreat from our countries, our countries must be independent –politically, militarily and economically– and our Islamic countries and peoples will be ruled by the Islamic law, whether the west likes it or not.
Al-Qaedah is even closer to the school of thought shared by the factions in Syria, who do not want to unite with Al-Qaedah, then it is to the school of thought shared by the Taliban in Afghanistan. This shows us how tolerant and flexible Al-Qaedah is and how rigid and stubborn these factions are. Because Al-Qaedah is willing to unite with others even if they differ in politics and religious understanding, moreover Al-Qaedah is willing to be one of its soldiers as long as they judge with the Islamic law. While these factions do not want to unite with those who share similar theoretical doctrines and religious understandings. Sidelining Jabhat Nusra is merely the first phase of eliminating all the other factions who share similar doctrines. Ahraar Shaam and Jaysh Al-Islam and other factions will not be left as a ruling power in Syria neighboring Israel. The US knows that they can not attack all the factions at once, so they divide and conquer, and by giving up Jabhat Nusra the factions are putting themselves on the list same of extermination.
Whether Shaykh Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani declared his oath of loyalty to Shaykh Ayman Zawahiri in April 2013 or not is actually a detail. Because Jabhat Nusra shares the same methodology and Sharia politics as Al-Qaedah, even if they did not give their oath to Al-Qaedah or even if they broke their oath to Al-Qaedah. That is why the US placed Jabhat Nusra on the terror list in December 2012, before Jabhat Nusra announced its oath to Al-Qaedah in the first place. So the whole issue of breaking ties with Al-Qaedah is insignificant, because the methodology and the Sharia politics of Jabhat Nusra will stay the same, even if they broke their ties with Al-Qaedah. That is why it is incomprehensible that some are obsessed with the ties of Jabhat Nusra. If they would break their ties with Al-Qaedah this would not really change anything on the ground.
The US will not remove them from the terror list and they will not stop attacking them. Look at Jund Al-Aqsa, they split from Jabhat Nusra in January 2014, but they were placed on the terror list nonetheless. The US designated Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al-Jazaairi as a terrorist, one of the previous leaders of Jund Al-Aqsa, and bombed his car in rural Latakiyah in May 2015. The same goes for Shaykh Rifa’ee Ahmad Taha, the previous leader of Al-Jamah Al-Islamiyah in Egypt, who preceded Shaykh Umar Abdurahmaan, may Allah hasten his release. Shaykh Rifa’ee was a neutral figure in Syria, he had a great part in uniting the different factions together. He therefore posed a problem for the devide strategy of the US, so they killed him with a drone air strike on April 2016 in Northern Idlib. He was not a member of Al-Qaedah but they killed him regardless.
The relationship with Al-Qaedah is more than a political and military alliance, it is the bond of Islamic brotherhood which is rooted in the Islamic doctrine of Al-Walaa wal Baraa (loyalty and disavowal). So it is impossible for Jabhat Nusra to break this bond. It was exactly this bond and this doctrine which were put to the test when the Bush Administration ordered Mullah Muhammad Umar to hand over Shaykh Usama bin Laden. Now we are seeing that this bond and this doctrine are being put to the test once again in Syria. The Taliban is a great example for the factions in Syria. More than fifty countries gathered against the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan when it didn’t want to hand over Shaykh Usama bin Laden, and after more than 15 years of war the Taliban still controls up to 80% of Afghanistan. While we see the humiliated and desperate western countries stumble over each other to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban. This is the fate of the proud Taliban who did not want to hand over one single Muslim. The Taliban is truly a great example of unity between Muslims despite the differences.
But if some factions think that their disassociation from Al-Qaedah will benefit them in any way then they should take Omar Al-Bashir as an example. Omar Al-Bashir expelled Shaykh Usama bin Laden at the orders of the Clinton Administration in 1996. But it did not take long before the International Criminal Court charged and accused Omar Al-Bashir for genocide and war crimes in Darfur and issued an arrest warrant against him. The Pakistani court likewise issued an arrest warrant against Pervez Musharraf. Allying with the US against Al-Qaedah didn’t protect him either. The same goes for Shakil Afridi who helped the US catch Shaykh Usama bin Laden, he too was eventually sentenced to thirty years of imprisonment. So what did they gain by disassociating from Al-Qaedah? Do we really want to pursue the fate of such miserable people who backstabbed Al-Qaedah to please their masters? Or should we pursue the fate of an honorable man like Mullah Muhammad Umar who refused to disassociate from Shaykh Usama bin Laden?
The alliance between the Taliban and Al-Qaedah is actually the secret to a successful strategy formula from which the factions should learn. Having external branches to your official and restricted army is considered to be a very sharp military strategy, many proxy wars today are fought this way. Iran has multiple militias outside its official army, like Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Faylaq Badr in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. These militias can operate outside the borders and territory of the official army. The same goes for Al-Qaedah, which is an external branch of the official and restricted Taliban army. Mullah Muhammad Umar gave Shaykh Usama bin Laden the green light to operate outside Afghanistan while the official army focused its efforts inside Afghanistan. This gave the Taliban political and military flexibility. While the US was eager to negotiate with the Taliban in Qatar, the external branch Al-Qaedah was conducting operations against western embassies in the same region and western targets all over the world to weaken the coalition against Afghanistan. If it were official Taliban soldiers who were conducting these operations, in stead of their external branch Al-Qaedah, then the Taliban would not have the chance to take part in politics and move freely in the region.
The Prophet (SalAllahu Alayhi wa Selam) adopted the same strategy when he made the truce of Al-Hudaybiyyah in Medina with the pagans of Quraiysh in Mekkah, while the militia of Abu Baseer loyal to the Prophet raided their caravans on the outskirt of Medina. This went on until the Prophet successfully gained the upper hand in the political negotiations. The Taliban likewise, in cooperation with Al-Qaedah, were able to overpower their enemies military and politically. Look at the weak negotiation position of the pressured Syrian factions in Geneva, and compare this to the strong negotiation position of the commanding Taliban in Qatar. It is a comparison between humiliation and honor. Do they think that their negotiation position will improve if they disassociate themselves from Al-Qaedah? Rather their political negotiation position will improve if they would strengthen their relationship with Al-Qaedah; taking the successful formula of the Prophet with Abu Baseer and the Taliban with Al-Qaedah as leading examples.
To conclude, the mission of Jabhat Nusra is a pure Sunni project. It is far removed from extremism or negligence. They use harshness at the right time and against the appropriate people, while using softness at the right time and against the appropriate people. They are tolerant but not heedless, they are flexible and they always outweigh the benefits against the harms. They are very keen on preserving the religious, political and worldly interests of the Syrian people. That is why they withdrew from their military positions in Idlib, so that the regime would not bomb the civilians in Idlib under the pretext of attacking Jabhat Nusra. And that is why Al-Qaedah chose not to launch from Syria against western interests, so that the west does not bomb the Syrians like it is doing now in Raqqah for example. Their very first priority is repelling the transgression of the regime and toppling it. Their aspiration is building an independent Islamic government. And they are willing to cooperate with other Sunni factions in reaching this goal. They possess much needed capabilities; steadfast men who do not fight for worldly gains, independent finance, and they enjoy popular support. They are unmistakably an integral part of the Syrian people and they are one of the essential pillars of the Syrian revolution. But any faction, including Jabhat Nusra, who thinks that they alone can decide the future of Syria, is truly hallucinating. That’s why the factions must merge; there is no choice in the matter.”