Syria’s rebellion was already fighting for its life, squeezed between the regime and the Islamic State (I.S.) in Aleppo, and on Friday night a new front appeared to open. Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, announced that it was forming an Islamic Emirate. According to a translation by Hassan Hassan, Nusra’s commander, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, said that they would now start implementing the shari’a “in the full sense of the word,” and “without compromise, leniency, ambiguity, or politeness.” Golani specifically says that Nusra will begin implementing the hudud, the harsh punishments like amputation for theft, which Nusra has very deliberately not done so far, saying war conditions suspended such punishments according to the Holy Law. At a more material level, it avoided garnering them bad press for savagery against the civilian population. Golani dismissed with contempt the secular rebels as “grovelling” to the West, and declared I.S.’s Caliphate “void” and its members ghulat (extremists).
Then confusion. Nusra’s supporters on social media said that all reports of a statement by the Emir should be ignored until al-Manara al-Bayda (“The White Minaret”), al-Qaeda’s official media outlet, has spoken, and the original audio file was deleted. The next day an “explanatory statement” was released, which gave a crib-notes version of Golani’s speech but said an Emirate has not been declared, though it will be when the scholars sign-off on it—intended to contrast with I.S.’s rashness. (According to the rumours going around Friday morning, Mullah Muhammad Omar is to be one of the scholars.) As best as can be told this is a leak. This is not all that unusual: In March and April, somebody within then-ISIS leaked videos of Adam Gadahn and al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman az-Zawahiri condemning ISIS’ manhaj (methodology) and a probable ISIS-defector to Nusra is waging a veritable counterintelligence operation against I.S. on Twitter, pointing out, inter alia, how many of its senior leadership are remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime. But this is the first time it has been an I.S. infiltrator within Nusra, which is what it must be if this is a leak. Nusra was already in a negative light—playing catch-up with its Caliphate-lite—but if it has been penetrated as well, that makes it look worse.
There is no confusion about the message in this explanatory statement, however, even if the Emirate is to be delayed in implementation. Nusra’s declaration of war on the nationalist rebels was restated. With firm statements against the “Kharijites” (I.S.), Nusra was especially adamant that it would not allow a “secular project” to “reap the fruits of jihad … and sacrifices of the mujahideen.”
The menace of the I.S. takfiris has managed to make Nusra look relatively “moderate” and pragmatic—the “sensible psychos,” as one analyst put it. But in the run-up to the ISIS announcement in April 2013, we were approaching a collision point between the rebellion and Nusra. As far back as July 2012 there were complaints from the population that Nusra wanted to turn Syria into Saudi Arabia. This is especially remarkable because the Islamists within the insurgency did not even reach parity with the secularists until late in that year and did not become a majority until early 2013. In September 2012, al-Qaeda—as Nusra was then not admitting to being—had had members struck down, and there was an especially virulent objection to the foreigners even from local Salafi-type forces. By December 2012, a common view in the rebellion was: “The next war after Bashar al-Assad falls will be between us and the Islamists.” This only got worse into early 2013. There were entreaties to the United States from rebels to give assistance against “these fucking jihadis.” In Mayadin, Deir Ezzor, the civilian population rose in protest at Nusra’s misrule in March 2013. The outbreak of intra-jihadist fighting, and the fact that the nationalists had fallen behind because they had no reliable patrons while the Islamists had plenty, overshadowed this. The break of many of the foreigners from Nusra, and their joining then-ISIS, severely weakened Nusra and it had to even-more-intensively “Syrify” itself, ostentatiously bowing to demands of local people. Nusra’s effective “hearts and minds” campaign previously and its alliance with some of the more hardline (and rich and powerful) Syrian insurrectionist units like Ahrar a-Sham against I.S. has managed to shift the paradigm and have it seen as a legitimate player within Syria.
I have argued previously that Nusra should not be seen as a rebel group, but there is no doubt it has been effective in winning support. Rania Abouzeid, who has reported extensively from inside Syria and met many Nusra commanders, notes:
“Just a year after it had announced its presence in Syria [in January 2012], the Nusra Front had achieved what the Abbottabad papers show [Osama] bin Laden had dreamed of: a formidable [insurgent] force with strong popular support.”
It was extremely well-funded so could provide social services and weapons to all of its fighters. This funding meant it did not have to loot, which had discredited many FSA-branded rebels. And it was “roaring full throttle into every battle,” not without success. This apparent-ubiquity as the tip of the insurgency’s spear might have had at least as much to do with a well-co-ordinated media campaign as it did with reality, but, as the saying goes, perception is reality, and many Syrians were happy for a force they thought could bring an end to the regime.
Nusra deliberately concealed the fact that it was a straight-out al-Qaeda project, set up by a cell of men from the then-Islamic State of Iraq, under the direction of Zawahiri. Some reports say they crossed into Syria in May 2011; others say August 2011. The official announcement of Nusra was made on Jan. 23, 2012, and the first public announcement of its Qaeda ties came on April 10, 2013, when it “reaffirmed” its baya (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri, calling on him to send then-ISIS back to Iraq, which he tried to do. He was defied by IS(IS)’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now “Caliph Ibrahim”), and tensions escalated until Zawahiri formally expelled then-ISIS from al-Qaeda in February.
There is a debate about the nationality of Golani. It’s become something of a pet project of mine to get to the bottom of this. Having asked around, there seems to be a general consensus that the man who spoke in al-Jazeera’s interview in December 2013, Golani’s only “public” appearance to date (though look for that to change after the Emirate announcement), was a Syrian. In recent days this has been made more specific, saying he is from Shuhail in Deir Ezzor. This assigned hometown was repeated by the usually-reliable Long War Journal. And Hassan, a Syrian, said the speaker Friday night sounded like he was from Deir Ezzor. We have only two (alleged) pictures of Golani, one given to AP (above) by the Iraqi government and the other appeared Friday (July 11) and is apparently from 2004. These of course don’t tell us very much more than that he is an Arab. Against this, however, is a nagging question. Golani was imprisoned in Camp Bucca in Iraq by the Americans for about a year-and-a-half. Golani had been in Lebanon on assignment for then-al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s leader Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, and came to Iraq shortly after he was killed in June 2006, and was quickly rounded up as the tide was beginning to turn. He was released in 2008. Why was he not deported on release? One answer was given by Ms. Abouzeid: “The Americans classified him as an Iraqi Kurd from … Mosul.” But that raises very nearly as many questions as it answers. How exactly did he fool U.S. intelligence? His name, pronounced with a soft-G—thus sometimes transliterated Jolani or even Jawlani—was thought to be intended to suggest he was from the Golan Heights (always unlikely but useful as a rallying cry.) But Abouzeid raises another possibility: the Jolani neighbourhood in Fallujah. For now this remains a mystery.
What is not a mystery is the general structure of Nusra, where foreigners are congregated near its leadership, and where this entire leadership has plans that have nothing to do with the Syrian State. Its goal of securing popular legitimacy before it revealed itself as al-Qaeda has been rather successful, but it might now be on this question of the muhajireen that Nusra falls.
Yesterday, despite officially not being an Emirate yet, Nusra made a quick start in attacking the rebellion in an I.S.-like move to monopolise influence for its pseudo-State. In Darkoush, Idlib, it assaulted the bases of brigades associated with Jamal Marouf. Marouf’s best friends would admit to him having been a brigand, but Nusra’s morality campaign against the “thieves” looks a bit incongruous since Nusra condemned this when I.S. did it as fitna (sedition) and the act of khawarij (an extremist sect). The indignant response of some pro-I.S. people, asking where were those demands for an independent court had gone, were exactly correct. But here is where Nusra has taken itself into dangerous territory.
Marouf’s men had not particularly focussed on fighting Nusra (though there had been clashes); they had focussed on the regime and I.S. But Marouf’s men had made a special objection to the foreigners. It will now be interesting to see what Nusra says about this. If Nusra rejects the foreigners, then I.S. and its allies will condemn it for being deviant in its beliefs: for supporting Sykes-Picot and being infested with the disease of nationalism. To defend itself from I.S. it would have to effectively decapitate its organisation, expel the foreigners, do away with those loyal to them, and integrate the remnants who were there for guns and money into the mainstream rebellion. But if Nusra defends the foreign zealots against the Syrians who want to expel them, it can then be correctly identified by the rebels and activists as a foreign interloper with an agenda apart from the Syrian desire to end the dictatorship.
After that, of course, will come the decision of whether it accepts this dissent or tries to shut it down, which has an obvious answer—and will lead to spiralling violence with the Syrian nationalist and even the non-globalist Islamist forces, and something like a repeat of the sahwa experience, something al-Qaeda, nearly as much as I.S., is already paranoid about, and which has led them to conduct “pre-emptive” brutality that has spawned the very enemies they were trying to head off. This madness will therefore fail: but the damage it can do in the meanwhile is considerable and it might take a very long time for it to be extirpated. This is good news for the long-run but it is little help to the Syrians now.
Golani claimed that $1.5 billion had either been misused, or stolen by I.S. If this is true and Nusra are still this powerful it would be extremely worrying, despite them seemingly falling behind militarily to I.S. In the world of the jihadi intelligentsia, Nusra is easily winning against I.S., who have only one major scholar who is not well-regarded by the rest. In the ideological contest for leadership of the global jihadist movement, I.S. seems to have the upper-hand for now, but this Caliphate announcement has not changed things as radically as I.S.’s fans hoped it would and even the marginal short-term advantage accrued can change on a dime. If Baghdadi is killed tomorrow and the I.S.-conquered territory in Iraq is rolled back, it’s not as if they can declare another Caliphate in a few months—this is a one-time roll of the dice—and it will seem to vindicate Zawahiri’s critique of I.S.’s manhaj, namely that as Zawahiri sees it this is still the jihad phase, so to stop fighting now and begin State-building is a betrayal of the Islamic cause of restoring the Caliphate. In short, don’t count Nusra down yet.
There will quite soon be three quasi-State entities in Syria—the sectarian killer brigades we call “the regime,” I.S.’s Caliphate, and Nusra’s Emirate—and they all have an interest in killing the nationalist rebellion. The regime would be just as happy for Nusra to represent the insurgency as I.S., and Nusra agrees with I.S. (and the regime) that the only opposition should be Islamic holy warriors, it just thinks it should be theirs and not I.S.’s. Because Nusra’s membership is mostly Syrian—it is foreign-led as opposed to I.S., which is majority-foreign—and because it has acquired this reputation for cleanliness and military effectiveness it has acquired sympathy even among secular activists, but this coming announcement should be galvanic to the awareness that whatever the thoughts of the Nusra rank-and-file, attracted by economic and security considerations, Nusra’s leadership is as fanatical as I.S.’s—it has just done better planning for a long-term imposition of an Islamic State, which involved this initial stage of “hearts and minds”. It’s possible to envision breaking away sections of Nusra’s lower- and mid-level fighters to the rebellion, but the intention should be to isolate and defeat the Nusra leadership and break the group apart.
As to the West, and specifically America, that $500 million to train a moderate rebel army by the end of the year—assuming the money gets voted by Congress and assuming the objections get dealt with quickly (neither of which is a safe assumption given that the administration is so half-hearted about this)—is too slow; the situation is more dire and more urgent than that.