Al-Nusra Front split from al Qaeda ‘a deft political maneuver’

Abu Mohammad al-Golani

Abu Mohammad al-Golani

Al Qaeda’s powerful Syrian branch, the al-Nusra Front, announced this week that it is splitting from its parent organisation, in a move FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements said may be mutually beneficial.

The al-Nusra Front announced that it was officially severing ties with al Qaeda and changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria, in Arabic) in a video message released on Thursday. The split was not ideological, but rather a strategic political maneuver aimed at advancing the al-Nusra Front’s objectives in Syria, according to FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, Wassim Nasr.

FRANCE 24: Why did the al-Nusra Front break ties with al Qaeda?

Wassim Nasr: There’s been pressure from within the al-Nusra Front to break with al Qaeda for almost a year, because some believed the “label” tainted their cause. This recently led to a big debate among the group’s leaders, both locally and abroad, who came to the conclusion that it had to happen.

The al-Nusra Front then contacted al Qaeda’s leadership, which gave them the go ahead. That’s how the head of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, was able to announce the split in a video statement, in which he appears with his face uncovered for the first time and accompanied by al Qaeda leaders.

FRANCE 24: So the goal is to help the al-Nusra Front expand in Syria…

Wassim Nasr: It’s an internal political move for the al-Nusra Front. It will allow it to ally with other Syrian rebel groups, which have been turned off in the past by its affiliation with al Qaeda. It’s a kind of a legitimisation process. The al-Nusra Front can also now present itself as a purely Syrian organsation, without foreign funding. This was an issue that sparked a lot of debate within the group – foreign members of the al-Nusra Front didn’t want to disassociate themselves from al Qaeda.

There’s also the recent deal between the Americans and the Russians, which seeks to distinguish the al-Nusra Front from other rebel groups [which, like the al-Nusra Front, are fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] in order to launch joint air strikes against them. The al-Nusra Front leadership wanted to get ahead of the deal. It’s not simply a question of changing teams. They’re pretty confident that their decision will be understood by both the rebel groups and their own fighters.

In the end, it demonstrates that they think they can obtain what they want in Syria without the support of al Qaeda. Politically, it’s very smart, they’re getting rid of the label, but they’re still continuing on the same path. But it’s also risky. It might not change how other players in Syria perceive them. We don’t know if their strategy will work.

FRANCE 24: It’s a mutual split. What does al Qaeda get out of the deal?

Wassim Nasr: al Qaeda’s message, which is in direct opposition with that of rival jihadist group the Islamic State (IS) group, is that direct governance doesn’t interest them, they say they are there above all else to serve other Muslims, they don’t want to take power. It’s a deft political maneuver. Because you have to remember that in doing so, al Qaeda is severing ties with its most powerful branch in the world.

It’s rare for a branch of al Qaeda to get the approval to leave the organisation. But you have to remember that al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, advised groups not to play up their affiliation with al Qaeda to better serve their own causes. This was the case with al Shabaab in Somalia and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.

Al Qaeda’s goal, beyond Islamist ideology, is to endure by embedding its members within the local context. It’s a way of differentiating themselves from the IS group by saying, “all that interests them is power, but we want to govern alongside local forces”.