Jabhat al-Nusra's Split from al-Qaeda: Pragmatism or Ideology?

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Jabhat al-Nusra's Split from al-Qaeda: Pragmatism or Ideology?

Posted on: 28th July 2016
Ruwan Rujouleh

After months of speculation, Jabhat al-Nusra has announced it is officially splitting from al-Qaeda. 

"We decided to stop operating under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, and form a new group called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the Syrian Conquest Front)," the group's leader Mohammad al-Jolani said in a televised speech on Thursday evening. "This new group has no ties with any external entity." Jolani added that the new group aims to unify Syrian armed factions.

A photograph released by Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated media outlet al-Manar al-Bayda to advertise Jolani's speech was the first time the leader has been seen in public since the group formed in 2012. 

Al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his deputy gave their blessings for the split in announcements on al-Manara al-Bayda earlier on Thursday, though they emphasised that breaking ties was a purely organisational matter. The "Islamic brotherhood bonds we have are stronger than any organisational ones," Zawahiri said. 

While such a move will be a significant change for a group originally set up by ISIS, at the time al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, it does not mean a change in its Salafi-jihadi ideology. Instead, the split reflects a political shift aimed at building support among international advocates of the Syrian rebellion, and other opposition groups.

Zawahiri, even gave a tacit blessing to the move earlier this year. "If they [Jabhat al-Nusra] create their government, and choose their emir [leader], what they choose is our choice," he said. Nevertheless, the will-they-won't-they split has long been a matter of debate among the jihadi ideologues inside and outside of Syria who make up the group's Shura Council.

This debate reflects the diversity of interests found within Jabhat al-Nusra. Many members are Syrian fighters likely motivated by a desire to to depose Assad and establish a national Islamist government. But these aims are combined with those of the group's many foreign fighters, and its regional Salafi-jihadi supporters, who have a much more transnational approach. They want to expand the al-Qaeda project in the region.

There is a further division between the pragmatists and the idealists. Some former Jabhat al-Nusra jurists, such as Abu Mariyah al-Kahtani and Abu Saleh al-Hamwi, have argued for a break from al-Qaeda on precisely these grounds. Al-Hamwi has also warned the group against a tendency towards extremism(ghulu). Seeking to reassure those concerned about the potential split, leading Salafi-jihadi ideologue and al-Qaeda supporter Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi wrote on Twitter recently that "breaking away from al-Qaeda is not apostasy."

In an effort to avoid disputes over the legitimacy and ideological purity of a split from al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra created a Sharia committee called 'the assembly of the scholars of the people of al-Sham [Greater Syria],' with a mandate to show the move's legitimacy. But the impetus for the split seems much more tactical.

There are local and international reasons for Jabhat al-Nusra to be separate from al-Qaeda. The proposed name change points to one of these: Jabhat al-Nusra was listed as a terrorist group by the United States in 2012. This means that organisations and individuals working with or supporting the group are liable for US sanctions, airstrikes or worse.

It seems likely the change is also an attempt to present the group as 'moderate,' enabling direct support from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It will also make it easier to work with other rebel groups, including Islamist factions such as Ahrar al-Sham, which is a member, with Jabhat al-Nusra, of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition. The terrorist designation of Jabhat al-Nusra, and airstrikes on the group by Russia and the United States, put these other groups at risk.

Jabhat al-Nusra is not alone in trying to create distance between itself and al-Qaeda, a fact that points to pragmatism. One Jaish al-Islam jurist, Abdul Rahman Abu Kakeh, has listed the ideological differences that his group has with al-Qaeda, including the doctrine of Jaish al-Fatah (loyalty and disavowal), and the pronouncement of takfir.

While the prospect of al-Qaeda losing its affiliate in Syria may sound encouraging, the group's ideologues have not hidden their long-term intentions. Jabhat al-Nusra remains ideologically committed to Salafi-jihadism, and re-establishing a caliphate government according to a strict interpretation of sharia. The move may have benefits in the short term for some aspects of the Syrian rebellion, enabling some more powerful groups to band together without therefore becoming aligned with al-Qaeda (and thus being liable for international airstrikes). But in the long term, unless Jabhat al-Nusra abandons its ideology, it will not present a solution to the conflict.

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