Al-Nusra Front faces internal struggles as it seeks reform

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Islamic fighters from the al-Qaeda group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front, wave their movement's flag as they parade at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, to denounce Israel’s military offensive on the Gaza Strip, on July 28, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Rami al-Sayed)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Al-Nusra Front has been through many crises but it is still able to maintain internal stability to a certain degree despite the sharp differences that almost split the group. It is quite obvious that there are two opposing currents within the Front. Both of them are seeking the support of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, who opted to distance himself [from the conflict]. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, on the other hand, is trying to play the role of the wise elder and peacemaker between the members of the jihadi family.

Al-Nusra Front, or the Support Front for the People of Sham (Syria), has been through many rough patches since its emergence in January 2012. Its most prominent challenge has been its dispute with the Islamic State (IS), which eventually devolved into a jihadi civil war. The Front was the losing party in this war whose repercussions almost led to the organization’s total collapse, something that many parties were betting on. It was, however, a losing bet, not only in terms of al-Nusra’s persistence but also in terms of the belief that it is about to regain its footing.

A great deal of effort was exerted in the past two months to restructure al-Nusra Front. The endeavor, however, faced counter efforts that seem to have succeeded in thwarting this restructuring project. A jihadi source told Al-Akhbar that “Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the Front’s leader, succeeded in late June in obtaining Zawahiri’s approval of a plan to address the problems that have plagued the organization.” The source revealed that “the plan was in the process of being implemented when Sheikh Joulani’s speech to a group of new supporters was leaked.” That was the speech in which Joulani disclosed plans to establish an Islamic emirate in the Levant.

But who leaked the speech?

Before answering this question, the source explained some of the transformations in al-Nusra’s approach. He said: “During the phase of secret jihad, joining the Front was not open to everyone, the process depended primarily on nomination and sponsorship.” This changed eventually as the organization went public and the battlefield expanded. “The need emerged for more fighters and in large numbers.”

According to the source, a faction within al-Nusra Front convinced Joulani to open the door to allow in more fighters without prior conditions. The only condition is for the newcomers to express their desire to “fight in Syria.” Abu Maria al-Qahtani (the Iraqi Maisara al-Jabouri) is considered the most prominent representative of this faction.

This divergence in views was further entrenched within al-Nusra Front without actually leading to a schism in the group. But “the circumstances of the jihad, against the regime... on one hand and against the zealots on the other (meaning the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]) required turning a blind eye and postponing conducting a comprehensive review that Sheikh Sami al-Oraidi - the Front’s top Sharia cleric - highlighted the need for.”

Developments on the battlefield and the losses endured by al-Nusra Front against ISIS in Deir Ezzor weakened the position of Qahtani, who was responsible for the battle in al-Sharqiya. At the same time, the other camp was sounding the alarm bells, and so it succeeded in convincing Joulani to make up his mind and “recognize the need to conduct a radical review of how the Front operates,” according to the jihadi source.

Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abdullah Mohaisany, entered the picture and played an important role in outlining “the new phase, that is the phase of the emirate.” The source spoke of a “tripartite meeting that included Sheikh Joulani, Sheikh Mohaisany and a delegate from Sheikh Zawahiri, who responded quickly to the urgent call and sent someone he trusts.”

According to the story, “the meeting took place on Turkish territory, in a place that is only hundreds of meters away from the Syrian border, where the delegate heard both men speak and received a printed plan that was devised by Sheikh Mohaisany and finalized by Sheikh Joulani after consulting with a number of confidants.” A few days later, Joulani received word of Zawahiri’s approval of the plan, provided that “they are careful not to create divisions within the ranks of the mujahideen.”

The plan is about 20 pages and includes elements arranged over several stages. It focuses on the importance of “attracting new supporters and providing arms support.”

Mohaisany took it upon himself to secure the necessary funding and it was believed that “the project of the emirate will provide religious legitimacy to mobilize the mujahideen.”

It seems that inferring the rest the details is an easy task. It is likely that Qahtani’s camp was behind leaking Joulani’s speech, a matter that the source refused to acknowledge. He stressed, however, that “the speech was not meant to address the public. The plan was to work on the project of the emirate discreetly, not unlike the phase of secret jihad during the early stages of the Front’s formation.”

Given the source’s refusal to share his opinion in this regard, one expects that Qahtani’s motivation for leaking the speech was to thwart the project as it had not given him a real and effective role. What reinforces this theory is that the plan, according to the source, suggested “accepting efforts that are seeking to reach an undeclared truce between the forthcoming emirate and IS.”

Qahtani categorically rejects this notion, as evidenced by his insistence lately on reminding everyone of “the danger of the ISIS cancer,” be it through his Twitter account or through the letter that he sent to Zawahiri giving himself the right to give al-Qaeda leader advice as he said: “I advise our sheikh, the virtuous doctor, to make clear his position towards the zealots...”

The source believes that leaking Joulani’s speech did have an impact. “Sheikh Zawahiri informed Sheikh Joulani of the need to be patient in carrying out the different stages of the plan,” which the source stressed, “has not been shelved, but its implementation slowed down.” Information coming out of jihadi circles indicates that “Zawahiri will not accept the creation of new divisions among jihadis.” But there is no information as to how he intends to achieve this goal.

Intersecting jihadi sources indicate that “both camps within al-Nusra Front are trying to gain legitimacy by securing support from the Taliban movement and its leader Mullah Omar that would put pressure on Zawahiri to adopt this or that camp’s vision.” But Mullah Omar continues to insist on “distancing himself and his movement” from publicly getting involved in the Syrian crisis.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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