Major salafi faction criticizes Jabhat al-Nosra

by Aron Lund for Syria Comment

4.5.2013 – Joshua Landis blog – The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, which is the leading faction of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and probably the biggest salafi group in Syria, has issued a statement about Jabhat al-Nosra’s recent declaration of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Ahrar al-Sham statement is available in Arabic on Aaron Zelin’s Jihadology, always the go-to place for source material on jihadi groups.

The background is as follows. In early April, Zawahiri issued a statement in support of the revolution in Syria and called for an Islamic state there. This was followed by a message from the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, i.e. al-Qaida in Iraq), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who finally acknowledged the long-known fact that Jabhat al-Nosra was an ISI offshoot and that they would henceforth work under a common name and flag as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. The day after, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani issued a surprisingly sharp rejoinder. He admitted that Jabhat al-Nosra had indeed been supported by the ISI from the very beginning, and was thankful for it, but he also said he hadn’t been consulted on Abu Bakr’s announcement and denied that the groups would merge. On the other hand, Abu Mohammed took the occasion to formally “renew” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top emir of al-Qaida.

This procedure, “al-bayaa” in Arabic, is not mere rhetoric; rather it is loaded with religious and political significance for hardcore Islamists like these. It essentially means that Abu Mohammed, and by extention Jabhat al-Nosra, promises to follow every order from Zawahiri as long as this does not contravene sharia law. It is a step in the same process that al-Qaida in Iraq went through, when Abu Moussaab al-Zarqawi first declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. His group, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, was then renamed al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, after Bin Laden responded by formally blessing their union, to signify that it was now a bona fide al-Qaida wing (it then folded into the ISI in 2006, but that’s another matter). Later, the GSPC of Algeria and Shabab al-Mujahedin of Somalia went through the same steps to become formal al-Qaida branches, and now Jabhat al-Nosra is doing it.

The new Ahrar al-Sham statement, signed May 4, 2013, criticizes both Abu Mohammed el-Joulani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to Ahrar al-Sham, their statements were divisive, lacking in realism and “put the interest of the group before the interest of the Umma”, i.e. the Islamic nation as a whole.

Ahrar al-Sham warns that Jabhat al-Nosra’s open affiliation to al-Qaida will help the regime and that it will “regionalize” the crisis by bringing other parties into the conflict, presumably in reference to US and European hostility to al-Qaida.

While frank and critical, the Ahrar al-Sham statement is not really hostile to Jabhat al-Nosra or al-Qaida. Rather it is written in the tone of honest advise for an ally who has committed a damaging mistake. In fact, the statement expresses disappointment in Jabhat al-Nosra, since Ahrar al-Sham says it had previously only seen good deeds from the group and had expected better. Ahrar al-Sham also takes care to point out that they agree in principle with the al-Qaida goal of establishing an transnational Islamic state, but asks for a bit of realism and patience given the current situation. They also say that none of today’s Islamist factions is strong enough to assume religious leadership over the Muslim community, thereby obliquely criticizing al-Qaida, ISI and Jabhat al-Nosra while also denying that they have rival leadership ambitions.

Previously, the Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI declarations had been criticized in similarly nuanced statements by the FSA-aligned SILF Islamist alliance and several other opposition factions, including the mainstream pro-Western and pro-GCC leaderships.

But it took Ahrar al-Sham almost a month to respond. The group has recently grown a lot, incorporating smaller SIF factions, so they probably had to go through some internal consultations before producing a statement on a sensitive matter like this. The SIF as an alliance has still not taken a public position on the Jabhat al-Nosra/al-Qaida affair, but I expect it will follow. And Ahrar al-Sham is by now so dominant within the SIF that their word could almost be taken to represent the SIF.

This dispute illustrates the subtle but real distinction between al-Qaida’s radically internationalist salafi-jihadism and the more locally rooted, Syria-focused and somewhat pragmatic salafi program of Ahrar al-Sham and the SIF. For more on that, see my recent report on the SIF and its member factions.