Syria Analysis: How The Media is Expanding the Simplistic Narrative of “Al Qa’eda”

Sunday, May 19, 2013 | Scott Lucas – SYRIA LIVE COVERAGE

Scott Lucas and Joanna Paraszczuk write: For weeks, we have noted how the media and “experts” have used one paragraph from the statement of a leader of the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra — ripping it out of context of the rest of the statement, let alone developments on the ground or an understanding of the Syria conflict — reducing the group to the simplistic tags of “Al Qa’eda-linked” or “Al Qa’eda affiliate”.

For weeks, we have tried to knock down that too-easy and misleading narrative, offering a full translation of Jabhat al-Nusra’s original Arabic statement and evaluating the complex political and social situation in Syria, especially in the north, and discussing how the media has created a misleading myth of “Al Qaeda” that precludes any deeper understanding of the nuanced reality on the ground in Syria and elsewhere.

However, the simplistic story that Al Qa’eda is “taking over Jabhat al-Nusra” persists. Indeed, for some journalists, that easy narrative is no longer enough. Consider, for example, an article on Friday by Mariam Karouny of Reuters, “Syria’s Nusra Front eclipsed by Iraq’s Al-Qaeda”.

    The most feared and effective rebel group battling President Bashar Assad, the Islamist Nusra Front, is being eclipsed by a more radical jihadi force whose aims go far beyond overthrowing the Syrian leader.  Al-Qaeda’s Iraq-based wing, which nurtured Nusra in the early stages of the rebellion against Assad, has moved in and sidelined the organization, Nusra sources and other rebels say.

    Al-Qaeda in Iraq includes thousands of foreign fighters whose ultimate goal is not toppling Assad but the anti-Western jihad of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri – a shift which could extend Syria’s conflict well beyond any political accord between Assad and his foes.

Let’s review. In early April, the erroneous narrative was that the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had taken control of Jabhat al-Nusra — an assertion rejected by the JAN statement, which clearly and unequivocally asserted its autonomy over operations in Syria.

Karouny actually notes this, “[Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani] said he had not been consulted and..insisted his fighters would continue to operate under their own Nusra Front banner.” This sentence, however, is swept aside by Karouny’s “bigger” story, drawn from shadowy, unnamed “sources within the insurgency”:

1. “In a direct challenge to Golani, Baghdadi traveled from Iraq to a town in Syria’s Aleppo province, where he was joined by Arab and foreign jihadis who had formerly fought for Golani’s Nusra.”

2. “The foreign and Arab wing is now operating formally under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, while many Syrian Nusra fighters have dispersed to join other Islamist brigades.”

3. Thus, the previously scary “Al Qa’eda-linked” Jabhat al-Nusra has been usurped by the even scarier “Al Qa’eda in Iraq” with “thousands” of foreign fighters in Syria.

In the process, the possibility of a story that would have offered valuable context and insight is lost. Consider:

1. The significance of the statements in early April was not that the Islamic State of Iraq was taking over Jabhat al-Nusra, but that the Syrian faction — while expressing respect and shared Islamic and Jihadi values — was rejecting that attempt at “foreign” control while emphasizing its local significance and scope.

2. ISI may or may not have responded with an attempt to seize the movement inside Syria with an influx of fighters.


3. ….the statements gathered by Karouny — which are rendered vague because we do not know the affiliation and hence the ideology and vested interests of the “rebel commanders” she has used as sources — are not necessarily accurate reports of that ISI attempt. Because we do not know who the sources are, we cannot know their context and therefore we cannot evaluate their statements.

It is possible that they are a public-relations line aimed at creating the spectre of al-Baghdadi inside Syria commanding thousands of fighters.

Without context, it is impossible to evaluate the “truth” because Karouny offers no evidence, apart from these anonymous statements — except for what she says is “a telling video published this week [in which] masked fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant executed three men they said were officers from Assad’s Alawite minority sect in the eastern town of Raqqa”.

Ahh, that video….

Last week, footage was put out on YouTube by a group calling itself the Islamic Network of Raqqa (شبكةالرقةالاسلامية), apparently showing the execution of three pro-regime militia in Raqqa. Before the trio were shot, a masked man shouted out a statement through a megaphone. At the end of the declaration — which is made not in any local dialect of Arabic but in Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) the speakers declares that he is speaking for the “Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham”.

Hours later, the blogger Brown Moses extrapolated from this and a few other videos to jump to this sweeping and dramatic conclusion: “All this evidence suggests that JAN’s name and symbols are beginning to be replaced by that of ISI, and this trend has become particularly apparent in the east of the country.”


Well, no.

Brown Moses’ assertion is based on the following assumptions:

1. That he has not seen many JAN videos from eastern Syria recently, hardly proof that JAN is not operating in the area;

2. That he has seen some ISI propaganda videos; and

3. The Raqqa footage.

But that Raqqa footage shows a few men invoking the name of “Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham”. It shows no more than this: it does not show “thousands” of fighters in the area, it does not show evidence of organised command beyond the execution of three fighters, and does not offer conclusive evidence of systematic operations.

Perhaps these men are part of a far larger ISI effort. – Perhaps, however, they are a small faction invoking the name.

The fact — inconvenient as it may be — remains that without further, in-depth research, we simply cannot draw a conclusion. All we can do is take the evidence at face value, and if we want to find out more, we must undertake additional investigations. What’s more, there was a significant sequel to the executions. Far from those killings establishing ISI control of Raqqa, they were met by protests by local residents that same night.

Brown Moses chooses to ignore that event. To her credit, Karouny does not — “After the shootings there were only muted chants of support for the fighters and activists said that small protests broke out at night condemning the execution and calling on the fighters to fight Assad instead of executing people” — however, she immediately reverts back to the fear of ISI’s “influence” and its “ultra-radical agenda”.

So instead of asking the substantial question — did ISI respond to these protests with further incursions of fighters into Raqqa, trying to take control of political affairs and “security”? — and finding no sign that this has occurred, the accounts opt for the far easier, and headline-grabbing sensational proclamation that “Al Qa’eda in Iraq” is eclipsing Syrian Islamist factions. And so this scary and dramatic — but overly simplistic and likely inaccurate — picture continues to take over from the harder-to-understand reality of events inside Syria, with judgements formed on incomplete, and perhaps misleading, data rather than on an appreciation of the complexities of this ongoing conflict.

Enduring America