This draft text was submitted to IHS Jane’s for publication. For an extensive, edited version please see here.
Best article on this topic thus far: see here.
On Sunday July 24, 2016 some analysts, activists and reporters started speculating on an upcoming video release of Jabhat an-Nusra. It was widely believed that Jabhat an-Nusra would sever its ties with its mother organization al-Qaeda. Although only some claimed to have the necessary contacts, described as high ranking islamists, for corroborating the claim, a lot of details became known. It was said the video would be released on Wednesday, that Abu Muhammad al-Julani would for the very first time show his face, that Jabhat an-Nusra was going to be called Jabhat Fath as-Sham, there were even pictures making the tour of what was supposedly the new flag of the organization.
In the course of the next few days the speculation went on, only to be fueled wider by speculative guesses on the nature of the message to be released by Jabhat an-Nusra. What was pointed out by some is that this message probably would come as a response to the talks between the United States and Russia to cooperate intensely in targeting Nusra as a high value goal in oppressing the al-Qaeda organization to gain a foothold in Syria and from there on plot attacks against the West. Dutch contacts within Jabhat an-Nusra confirmed to me that Abu Muhammad al-Julani would indeed appear bare-faced in the expected video release and that he would make a statement on the groups stance towards al-Qaeda and the other rebel groups in Syria. They wouldn’t disclose any details however, yet said they would address me after the video was broadcasted (the fact that they’re now fighting in the Aleppo offensive doesn’t promise a soon reply however).
After a lot of what ifs and when’s a first audio statement was announced by the new general Twitter account of Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Manara al-Bayda, early Thursday 28th of July. The audio statement was published shortly after. In the audio statement we heard the deputy of al-Qaeda’s general leader, Dr. Ayman az-Zawahiri, Shaykh Ahmad Hassan Abu al-Khayr state that they would “[…] work and use any possible means to safeguard the Jihad in as-Sham, righteously and strong, and to remove from it any weak excuses which the enemy places to split the Mujahidin from their supporting Sunni environment.” He pointed to the division and separation between the several groups involved in the war on the regime, and in the tradition of Jabhat an-Nusra’s previous communications, calling for unity, stated: “efforts must be headed towards a future stage that establishes an entity for the Sunnis which represents their demands and requests their rights.” His most important message followed shortly after when he stated: “We call upon the leadership of Jabhat Nusra to work for that which works in the interest of Islam and the Muslims and safeguards the Jihaad of the people of Shaam and we press them on taking the appropriate steps towards this matter.” He concluded saying that this strategic move by Jabhat an-Nusra wasn’t only approved but even supported by al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Dr. Ayman az-Zawahiri.
The video wasn’t even five minutes out before mainstream media outlets started spewing out articles on how al-Qaeda gave its permission to Jabhat an-Nusra to sever its ties with the main organization. It seemed as if the majority of the articles published were all pre-edited, rather based on the rumors circulating earlier that week, than on the audio that was just published. The general message however did never include the option of breaking ties between both groups. Al-Qaeda just stated that all means should be used to reinsure the success of the revolution against the al-Assad regime and repeated its call for unity within all groups fighting the regime.
Shortly after the release of the audio-statement by al-Qaeda, al-Manara al-Bayda announced a new video featuring Abu Muhammad al-Julani. For the very first time the man’s face wasn’t covered. The video itself opened with al-Julani explicitly thanking the al-Qaeda leadership for “their stance, whereby they gave priority to the interests of the people of al-Sham”. Al-Julani continues “They have practically implemented the words of Sheikh Osama bin Laden (may Allah have mercy on him), when he said, “The interests of the Ummah take precedence over the interest of any state; the interests of the state take precedence over the interest of any Jama’ah (group); the interests of the Jama’ah (group) take precedence over any individual.” Remarkably enough al-Julani didn’t only praise Osama bin Laden, he appeared dressed like him wearing military clothing and a white turban. In what follows al-Julani stresses the need for unification of the groups if the struggle against the unjust oppressor is to be won. He mentions the group wants “to expose the deceptions of the international community, the leaders being the US and Russia, in their relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Al Sham under the pretense of targeting Jabhat al Nusrah, an al Qaeda affiliate.”
For these reasons al-Julani states “we declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat Al Nusrah, and the formation of a new group operating under the name “Jabhat Fath Al Sham,” noting that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity.” Nowhere in the entire statement did al-Julani say that his organization would break ties with al-Qaeda, what he does state is that Jabhat Fath as-Sham would be an organization with “no affiliation to any external entity”. This points however, for those willing to read between the lines, to the fact that the leadership of al-Qaeda already is represented in this ‘unaffiliated’ new organization. We know for a fact that several senior al-Qaeda operatives were active within the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra, changing the organization’s name is not going to change that.
Over the course of the next few days it became clear how well the entire transition was planned. Group after group released a statement applauding the newly formed Jabhat Fath as-Sham as an important faction in the war on the regime, praising Abu Muhammad al-Julani for his excellent work. After the fundaments were casted for what would likely become a formidable union of several rebel groups, the next step was taken soon. On Sunday July 31st a massive counteroffensive started in southern Aleppo. In an area where the regime forces probably did not expect it, the joint groups cooperated on a massive scale attacking the Syrian army frontlines again and again. By the end of the day the rebel forces were close to even breaking the siege that holds Aleppo’s rebels and multiple civilians in a tight grip. It is to be expected that this offensive will continue in the next few days and weeks. If the rebel groups really manage to keep on cooperating in this offensive it would mean that leaving al-Qaeda in name was a master move by the former Jabhat an-Nusra, a move that might lead to a durable rebel coalition in Syria’s northern provinces. As one foreign fighter in Jabhat Fath as-Sham stated: “Today in Aleppo there isn’t a difference between FSA, JaF, This group or that group. All answered the call and moving together ….”