Since Jabhat Al Nusra recast itself as a Syrian group with no external links, I have argued that the rebranding was a ruse. For me, the story is straightforward. Jabhat Al Nusra received a blessing from Al Qaeda's central leadership present in Syria to reposition itself away from Al Qaeda and towards more integration with local groups. An impressive public relations offensive, which involved leaks to journalists and analysts, preceded the announcement to frame it as disengagement from Al Qaeda.
The public statements, though, made no mention of disengagement or of the oath of allegiance the group owed to Al Qaeda. The ambiguity would later be cited by leading figures in Al Qaeda as a reason why members had accepted the rebranding, since they were apparently told it was not real.
The move was also modelled on a familiar precedent that saw the dissolving of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006, a move welcomed by Al Qaeda at the time as a “advanced phase” in jihad. Some analysts argued since 2006 that links between Al Qaeda and its Iraqi branch ended then. But ISIL, otherwise adamant that the oath of allegiance had been overturned when its previous incarnation disbanded, affirmed that it continued to act as an Al Qaeda affiliate until the breakup seven years later. It revealed so in a speech by its former spokesman in 2014 and in its weekly newsletter in 2016.
Jabhat Al Nusra’s rebranding involved a twofold effort: one directed at the group’s rank-and-file, to convince the change was not radical, and the other directed at outsiders, that the group has abandoned its links to Al Qaeda.
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In the first, Jabhat Al Nusra's leader, Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, appeared next to a close aide to Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's leader, and a Syrian jihadi who became the group's mufti. Dressed like Osama bin Laden, he declared his group was no longer affiliated to an external entity. The announcement was preceded by an audio statement by Al Qaeda deputy, Ahmed Abu Al Khayr, who was in Syria until he was killed in February, who blessed the rebranding as, again, an "advanced phase".
The green light given by Abu Al Khayr was in line with an audio statement that Zawahiri made earlier last year in which he suggested that Jabhat Al Nusra could, if it so chose, drop its Al Qaeda affiliation in favour of integration with local groups.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue, the rebranding was originally designed, and internally promoted, as an attempt to prevent foreign countries from using the Al Qaeda name as a pretence to mobilise forces against the jihadi group. This effort would later involve a push by the group, through envoys, to engage foreign countries as a Syria-first and non-Al Qaeda group.
Despite rebranding, insider sources told me last year that contact and consultation between Al Qaeda and the group’s leadership persisted. These details were later corroborated by testimonies from senior Al Qaeda members, who have since led the charge against the group as a traitor to its previous emirs and cause. A back-and-forth exchange between those members and the group’s top mufti confirmed two key points, that the initial rebranding was a ploy and that Al Qaeda’s deputy leader continued to communicate with the latter as an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Sami Al Aridi, Jabhat Al Nusra's former number two, cited the current mufti of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, Abdulrahim Atoun, as clarifying in a letter he wrote to Al Qaeda that the disengagement was a public relations stunt: "The disengagement was for media, as Atoun himself said in his response, which was why a number of the brothers had initially agreed with the move."
Observers who choose to believe the rebranding was real seem to demand no evidence from the group: not once did the group mention a breakup or issue a revocation of its oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda; testimonies from critics as well as occasional references by members indicate a deliberate misinformation campaign was involved in the rebranding. The group does not have to be genius to pull such a move — especially that the burden of proof appears to be extremely low.
On the contrary, if he has dislodged Al Qaeda, Al Jolani has then pulled off a more incredible ruse. He has essentially played the world's most powerful jihadi organisations in the space of four years. In 2013, he defied Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, his former emir and sponsor in Iraq, and refused his unilateral unification of the Syrian and Iraqi branches. Instead, he pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda to maintain cohesion and legitimacy and stop further organisational haemorrhage. And he has supposedly dislodged Al Qaeda to maintain sovereignty over the group he founded.
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If he has indeed done so, that — not the public relations stunt — is nothing short of genius.
The renewal of the debate about this issue comes amid a push by the group and Syrian oppositionists to argue against Al Qaeda’s dominance or existence in northern Syria. It is part of an effort to avoid turning Idlib into a battlefield against jihadis, especially since the Turkish entry into northwestern Syria last month. I personally received calls from individuals in the region, with close ties to the group, to convince me that Al Qaeda no longer existed in Syria.
In this context, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham invited western and regional journalists to visit and see for themselves. Mousa Al Omar, a celebrity Syrian journalist, made a visit after the group’s invitation. He recorded a video from Idlib affirming that Al Qaeda does not exist in northern Syria. His remarks prompted dozens of Syrian activists to attack him as serving as an apologist for Al Qaeda, after which he filmed a new video defending himself against “the campaign” and asserting his position.
The tendency to downplay the existence of Al Qaeda is often well meaning, such as to prevent the regime from using it as a pretext to raze Idlib, where around two million people live. But, as the responses from Syrians to assertions that Al Qaeda does not exist in the north show, the solution is not to whitewash the group or give it a free pass. Nothing is analytically useful or morally honourable in advancing the group’s propaganda, especially before it proves that it has truly abandoned its ways.