Co-written by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi
The market for extremism has been so disrupted by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and its penchant for extraordinary brutality that even a group as notorious as al Qaeda is now able to reposition—or, one might say, rebrand—itself. In Syria, al Qaeda has tried to paint itself as a more reasonable jihadist force with which other rebels on the ground and outside states can cooperate.
One indication of al Qaeda’s success in this regard is that its Syrian affiliate group, Jabhat al Nusra, now openly receives financial and other material support from major U.S. allies, an arrangement that would have been unthinkable four years ago. Al Nusra plays a critical role in Jaysh al Fatah, the rebel coalition fighting against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria. Jaysh al Fatah, in turn, is backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. (The United States and other Western countries are more suspicious of the coalition and find regional powers’ decisions to back it alarming, but they have not gone out of their way to end the support.) Despite the more reasonable face that al Nusra has tried to show the world, its treatment of the Druze of Idlib province is little better than the brutality ISIS has inflicted on Yezidis, Kurds, and other minorities unfortunate enough to find themselves within their reach.
There are several reasons al Nusra has been able to curry favor with regional governments despite its treatment of minority groups. For one, Sunni states’ competition with Iran looms as their greatest concern, leading them to support an organization that has been effective at weakening the Iran-allied Assad regime even if its behavior is otherwise concerning. In addition, whereas ISIS is eager to fight every actor and state that falls short of its extreme ideals, al Nusra has skillfully integrated itself into the anti-Assad forces, making it appear as a more organic part of the landscape. Further, even if al Nusra doesn’t do the right things with respect to protecting minorities, it is at least willing to say some of the right things, in contrast to ISIS’ open brutality. Finally, whereas ISIS has embarked on a campaign of mass slaughter and brutality against religious minorities, al Nusra has instead favored reeducation and forced conversion. But the group’s endgame is the same: to extinguish disfavored religious minorities (those who are not eligible for the status of dhimmis, or protected—albeit subjugated—minority groups).
As early as July 2014, al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a directive to Abu Muhammad al-Julani, al Nusra’s emir, ordering him to improve its ties with the Syrian population and other rebel factions. These decrees codified, to some extent, al Nusra’s preexisting strategy of collaboration with other Syrian rebel groups and ingratiating itself with the Syrian population rather than dominating it. The group’s implementation of sharia law has been relatively gradual in the areas that it has come to control, and al Nusra’s preference for fighting with partners and as part of coalitions is designed to ease locals’ fears about their intentions. For example, in March 2015, al Nusra and several other prominent rebel groups, including the hard-line Salafi organization Ahrar al Sham, formed the Jaysh al Fatah coalition. The group’s preference for working with coalition partners and its behavior following its victories are designed to signal that al Nusra is open to sharing power with other organizations. After Jaysh al Fatah captured Idlib city, Julani stated that al Nusra would not “strive to rule the city or to monopolize it without others.” This approach allowed al Nusra to amass considerable public support, even though there were a few periods in which it got caught up in infighting with other rebels.
Since Zawahiri’s last decree earlier this year, al Nusra has worked to further ingratiate itself into the Syrian opposition while making itself appear more moderate to an international audience. In March 2015, the Qatari channel Al Jazeera aired an interview with Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, an Australian cleric who is also one of the organization’s top religious officials. Muhajir compared al Nusra to ISIS, stating that his organization’s primary goal was to topple Assad and to “restore the right of the Muslim people to choose their leaders independently.” Al Jazeera also conducted a rather fawning interview with Julani, who also asserted that al Nusra’s sole goal was to topple the Assad regime. The interview created the impression that al Nusra was willing to protect religious minorities; Julani promised that his fighters would target neither the Druze nor the Alawite (although he did say that the Alawite would have to renounce elements of their faith that contradicted Islam, which Al Jazeera’s English-language reporting omitted).
Besides the Al Jazeera interviews, most of al Nusra’s efforts to take itself into the mainstream have been on the ground in Syria, through its cooperation with other rebel groups. Keen observers of the Syrian conflict have recognized the effort to legitimize al Nusra within the Syrian opposition. “The slow ‘mainstreaming’ of Jabhat al Nusra thanks in no small part to Al Jazeera will haunt Syria and its people for a long time,” said Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at International Institute for Strategic Studies, via Twitter. The Lebanon-based anti-Assad Druze politician Walid Jumblatt has been one of al Nusra’s most visible supporters, frequently telling the media that they should not be seen as terrorists.
ISIS itself has even helped to foster the view that al Nusra is a more moderate group that would protect religious minorities; in the tenth issue of Dabiq, ISIS’ English-language magazine, it published a withering attack on the organization. A generic photo of the Druze in Dabiq was captioned “The wretched Druze, an apostate sect under the protection of the Julani front.” It was followed by a lengthy screed about how the Druze and other “apostate” sects cannot be afforded the second-class dhimmi status given to Jews and Christians. Dabiq likewise took al Nusra’s apology for a June 2015 massacre in one of the Druze villages in Idlib as indicative of the group’s protection of the sect. “So according to the Julani front and their allies, spilling the blood of the apostate and treacherous Druze is oppression!” the publication thundered. Al Nusra has not directly responded to ISIS’ attack on its policies toward the Druze.
It might appear that al Nusra straddles two identities: one is a rebel group fighting the Assad regime in Syria, and the other is an al Qaeda affiliate and a proponent of religious extremism. But there is, in reality, more harmony between these two priorities than might initially be evident. Ever since the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq (the affiliate that would later become ISIS), top al Qaeda commanders have explored how to repair the organization’s reputation. They appear to have settled for trying to be seen as fulfilling the aspirations of various local groups. In a letter from an unknown al Qaeda official to the affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the official criticized al Qaeda in Iraq for killing tribesmen and inciting a rebellion and stressed the importance of gaining public support, noting that “people’s support to the mujahidin is as important as the water for fish.” In a May 2010 letter, former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden himself proposed commencing a “new phase” in al Qaeda’s operations that would “regain the trust of a large portion of those who had lost their trust in the Mujahidin.” He emphasized minimizing Muslim casualties and directing affiliates to exert caution when civilians could be harmed, and he also urged a new media strategy.
As the Arab Spring brought sweeping changes to the Middle East and North Africa, al Qaeda has been able to put their plan to rebrand into action. In September 2013, Zawahiri released a document entitled “General Guidelines for Jihad” that made public al Qaeda’s new, population-centric approach. Zawahiri instructed affiliates to minimize violent conflict with Shiites and non-Muslims in order to prevent local uprisings and to abstain from attacks that could result in Muslim civilian casualties. And though ISIS’ rise has been a disaster for al Qaeda in many respects, al Qaeda’s rebranding campaign has benefited from the new group’s emergence because ISIS’ unchecked atrocities make al Qaeda appear more reasonable.
In other words, rather than trying to carry out two incompatible missions, al Nusra’s activities in Syria fundamentally advance al Qaeda’s long-standing desire to be seen in a new light. Indeed, today Syria is perhaps the foremost testing ground for al Qaeda’s rebranding strategy.
OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
But despite al Nusra’s softened image, its brutality toward the Druze is clear. The Druze in Idlib inhabit a region known as Jabal al-Summaq, over which al Nusra gained control in the summer of 2014. Al Nusra’s emir for the area, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi, forced the Druze to issue a statement from representatives of the various villages agreeing to renounce their religion. This was the second such statement that the Druze were compelled to issue, with the first coming when ISIS had control over Jabal al-Summaq. In the statement, the Druze agreed to allow their shrines to be leveled, to abide by al Nusra’s regulations on public morality, and to submit to lessons on Islamic doctrine and jurisprudence.
In June, al Nusra militants slaughtered 20 Druze villagers in the Idlib village of Qalb Lawze. The incident received plenty of media attention, and al Nusra issued an apology—but nowhere does the statement refer to the Druze. Indeed, al Nusra’s public rhetoric suggests that it views the process of coerced conversion codified in the Druze leaders’ public renunciation as a fait accompli. The statement of apology affirms that “since the beginning of the conflict in the land of Sham, [Jabhat al Nusra] has not directed its weapons against anyone except those gangs from the criminal Nusayri army, deviant Khawarij, and corrupt factions, who transgressed and assaulted the lives and honor of the Muslims.” Nusayri is a derogatory term for Alawites, in this context referring to Assad’s Alawite-dominated army. Khawarij,originally meaning a sect in early Islamic history notorious for its extremism, is now a standard Sunni rebel term for ISIS. From al Nusra’s perspective, this language, which does not mention the Druze sect at all, makes sense: the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq, after undergoing two separate renunciations of their faith, are no longer Druze in their view. The coerced renunciations of their faith have made them Sunnis.
Following the massacre, al Nusra appointed a new emir for the area, Abu Qatada al-Iraqi (not to be confused with ISIS' emir in Mosul). Iraqi began his term by delivering a speech at a mosque in Kaftin. In a recording of the speech, he does not mention the June massacre at all but focuses instead on what is seen as the real problem: lack of proper observance of sharia. Although this is a common complaint by jihadists attempting to force citizens to conform to hard-line religious law, the problem may be particularly acute in Jabal al-Summaq because the Druze had been compelled to “convert” to begin with.
“In the area recently there has been some neglect in the realm of sharia dress,” said Iraqi. He vowed that “if we see any woman displaying her adornment and unveiled, we will detain her husband, but if she is not married, we will detain her siblings or father. . . . All must embrace sharia dress.” He also called on locals to refrain from shirk (idolatrous practices) and observe the closure of shops during prayer time. For any inquiries on adherence to sharia, Iraqi said locals could consult him in his base in “Qalb al-Islam, Qalb Lawze previously.” (The Islamized renaming of Qalb Lawze mentioned in Iraqi’s speech comes amid demographic shifts, with an influx of Syrian Turkmen into the village.)
Although al Nusra has been attempting to portray itself as a more moderate jihadist group, its treatment of the Druze belies these efforts. Although al Nusra is capable of appearing moderate in comparison with ISIS, the latter group is a particularly poor point of comparison.
Unfortunately, al Nusra’s mistreatment of the Druze and other religious minorities is unlikely to undermine its rebranding campaign or the efforts of the broader al Qaeda organization to reposition itself. Indeed, al Qaeda’s rebranding may be an issue that observers wake up to only after they have lost the ability to stop it and are left dealing with a world where the jihadist organization has far more ability to operate than it did before the Arab Spring. Yet al Nusra’s determination to stamp out non-dhimmi religious minorities in Syria demonstrates that al Qaeda’s intentions remain unchanged, even if the group is making its tactics more palatable to the masses.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, CEO of the consulting firm Valens Global, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @DaveedGR
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, where his professional work focuses on Syria and Iraq.