A few days ago, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri posted a recorded message on the organization’s electronic sites in response to the criticism of ISIL and as an attempt to inject his views on the current debate between Jihad-Salafi leaders, particularly in Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Zawahiri focused on trying to refute the claims that the Syrian opposition is targeted because of the presence of Al Qaeda on the ground and that the organization should leave Syria in order to reach a peaceful settlement to the war there. But who was he talking to?
He did not mention any particular groups or names other than when he attacked ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, calling him a different and belittling name. However, listening carefully to his message leaves no doubt that what he had in mind was to announce his support to one faction in Nusra (Jabhat Fatah Al Sham-JFS) and respond to critics from ISIL at the same time.
The message came in a moment when the two organizations, ISIL and Nusra, are moving towards a head-on collision in Syria. ISIL is focusing on surviving by pulling a large chunk of Al Qaeda followers away and recruiting them in Syria, Iraq and Jordan. Due to the fact that foot soldiers follow popular sheikhs, the focus for ISIL is to bring those sheikhs to its views.
Furthermore, ISIL believes that the situation in Syria will eventually evolve into a continuation of the jihad, and that part of Al Qaeda followers will be faced with the choice of accepting to deal with the negotiation track or refusing diplomacy to carry on the fight. Those who will want to continue their jihad will find ISIL waiting for them with open arms. Apparently, and before it comes under criticism when it loses all its territories, ISIL seems to have intensified its theological attacks on Zawahiri, as we understand from his message.
In fact, Zawahiri is one of a trio that defines the message. He sees that Nusra is about to step farer from Al Qaeda in order to participate in the political process. He knows that some of Nusra sheikhs are preparing to legitimize the step while others are preparing to leave Nusra and return to Al Qaeda. And he follows ISIL attempts to use Nusra cracks to attract as many as possible of its followers to ISIL.
Zawahiri was clearly on the defensive, an indication that ISIL’s theological interpretations of war and peace in Syria is gaining ground when the organization is actually losing territories. But this picture is not only related to the present debate among the influential sheiks, it is also important for the future. The current claims that Al Qaeda has deviated from true jihad will impact the course of events in the future both in Syria in general and inside Nusra in particular.
As the situation on the ground in Syria evolves to new grounds, Nusra is faced with a challenging set of pressures. On the one hand, suffering civilians in opposition territories are demanding that the organizqation shows a clear sign of distancing itself from Al Qaeda. Even other opposition groups demand that Nusra either dissolves itself or publicly prove it has nothing to do with Zawahiri in order to reduce the enmity of Russia and the US to the opposition in general.
On the other hand, the radicals inside Nusra are calling all members to stick with Al Qaeda. Zawahiri seemed to address that point when he focused in his message on what he claimed to be the US readiness to kill all those who resist its control. He cited the Japanese, the Germans, the Vietnamese and the Iraqis. He then said “It is not because of being Al Qaeda that we are bombed. It is because we resist the Americans. All those who refuse subjugation will be bombed regardless if they are Al Qaeda or not.”
The organizational block that shapes Nusra theological discourse is called Al Manaheja. The word is driven from the Arabic word Al Manhaj, which in itself means the methodology, but in this context, it means the right methodology. The most prominent sheikhs in this school of thought were divided when the Idea of severing ties with Al Qaeda was raised some ten months ago. Some agreed to sever the ties, provided that this happens only superficially. Others refused the idea in principle.
Those who refused to leave Al Qaeda, even only in appearance, were led by people like Sami Al Uraidy (aka Abu Mahmoud Al Shami), Belal Khuraisat (Abu Khadijah) and Iyad Al Tubassy (Abu Jlaibeb). All the three come from Jordan. The fourth hardliner, Ahmed Al Khalif Ismael (Abu Jundel), was killed in a road accident (presumably by ISIL) last August, just a few days after his friends decided to oppose Nusra’s decision to leave Al Qaeda. Tubassy was the leader of Nusra’s groups in Dara and Khuraisat was the leader of its groups in eastern Ghota.
Among those, Uraidy is the principle theoretician of Nusra. He took the place of Abu Maria Al Qahtani (Maysara Jabouri-Iraqi) after the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamed Al Julani, relieved Qahtani of his post in July 2014 following the defeat of Nusra at the hands of ISIL in eastern Syria.
Al Uraidi (born 1973 in Jordan) received a doctorate degree in Hadith (the utterances of the Prophet). He is a “realist” in the sense that he emphasizes the need to avoid alienating the surrounding population and the importance of working with other opposition groups. Yet, he refuses any political solution in Syria so long as the objective is building a “national state” or a democratic system. For him, democracy and nationalism are intrinsically contradictory to the essence of Islam as he understands it. The only acceptable regime for Uraidi is that which is based on sharia and implements it in all aspects of its governance. If this is not reached, then the continuation of Jihad is a religious obligation. He chose to voluntarily freeze his activities within Nusra upon its approval of severing relations with Al Qaeda.
Now, Uraidi is considering a move back to Al Qaeda. In fact, most of the “Jordanian wing” of Nusra, which is quite powerful, is looking at this option. The reason is related to the new grounds onto which the Syrian crisis is stepping. For if there would be peace talks, they will be centered on shaping the new state as specified in the Turkish-Russian agreement — that is to say, a secular national state. As Al Qaeda refuses that in principle, the superficial adhesion to the organization, in his and Zawahiri’s view, is heading for a serious test. The choice is becoming clear: It is either supporting the national state, hence contradicting Al Qaeda, or refusing it and leaving Nusra. The leader of Nusra, Al Julani, seems ready to accept the diplomatic process. His opponents think this will mount to shaking a pillar of jihad. They believe that the moves of Nusra indicate that it is going further from Jihad. After reluctantly accepting severing ties with Al Qaeda superficially, it is now heading to severing ties with jihad, as Zawahiri explained it in his message.
We do not know what is the stand of Abu Mohamed Al Maqdesi, the notorious Jordanian Sheikh who has considerable influence within the Jordanian wing of Nusra. But there is little doubt that he refuses a secular nation-state. However, we know that Assad emphasized the need to talk about the constitution of the new Syria as a first step before talking about his personal future. He knows that diplomatic talks, in this case, will never reach the second step.
With the intensive pressure we see now, Nusra will certainly split. One part will go back to Al Qaeda and the other will merge with existing organizations, like Ahrar Al Sham, or form their own. Those who left or intend to leave prefer to win first the theological debate centered on issues like avoiding to amass international adversaries, winning the minds of the civilians and gaining religious legitimacy for talking to the enemies. This is why Al Zawahiri sent his open message to remind all that the objective of avoiding a united front of all enemies does not justify abandoning the true principles of jihad as he understands it.
But those who are still members in Nusra, though with the intention to leave if the group participates in the talks, do not want to leave before doing all they can to convince other members that these talks, based on the principle of building a secular national state, is un-Islamic. If they fail, they will leave Nusra and form another group, potentially under the leadership of Uraidi and with most of the “Al Manaheja”.