The speech of Abu Bakr al-Qurashi Baghdadi (as he is known in the movement), the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, announcing the integration of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria into the Islamic State of Iraq, and the formation of what is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria did not surprise many observers and analysts. The link between the two groups on both sides of the border has revealed itself numerous times. Yet, the pragmatic vision displayed by Baghdadi when talking about the newly old shift in the group’s goals is remarkable.
Baghdadi announced that Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq would unify their flags. It now consists of the sentence “There is no God but God” written in white on a black background, and at the bottom, the sentence "Muhammad is the messenger of God" written in black within a white circle.
Baghdadi, whose real name is believed to be Awwad Ibrahim al-Samarrai, said in an audio clip posted on jihadist websites on Tuesday: “It is now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and the entire world that Jabhat al-Nusra is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it.”
He added: “We are determined, after asking God for his goodness, and consulting those in whose faith and wisdom we trust, to move towards the advancement of the group. ... We thus declare the cancellation of the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, grouping them together under one name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
As is the case in the Islamic State of Iraq, Baghdadi said that those leading the group [Jabhat al-Nusra] are Islamists from Syria and foreign jihadists.
Recalling the modus operandi of al-Qaeda in Iraq since 2003, Baghdadi called on the armed clans and factions in Syria to join his presumed state, before he explained the reasons why announcing the merger between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq was delayed.
He said: “The situation in Syria reached this point. ... We could not [do anything] but support them. We appointed [Abu Mohammad] al-Joulani to lead the group, along with a number of our followers, and brought them from Iraq to Syria to meet our cells there. We developed plans and a worked out policy, giving them half of our budget every month and reinforcing their ranks with experienced jihadists. They have fought courageously with the ardent people of Syria, and the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq extended into Syria. Yet, we did not announce [the formation of the group] for security reasons, and so that the people get to know it away from the media misrepresentation.”
Different signs have confirmed that the relationship between the two groups was close. The modus operandi of Jabhat al-Nusra is reproduced from the experience of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2003, before he declared allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the formation of Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn in 2005. For its turn, the group turned into the Mujahedeen Shura Council that year, after various armed factions were integrated. Then, after Zarqawi was killed, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi took the lead of the group in 2006, the group’s name became the Islamic State of Iraq.
It seems that Jabhat al-Nusra quickly went through the same advancement. It had different charters with Syrian armed groups in the field, and strongly denied its connection to al-Qaeda. That was before it implicitly admitted that in a recent video statement read by one the group’s leaders, in which he denied any responsibility of Jabhat al-Nusra for the assassination of Syrian cleric Said Ramadan Al-Bouti last month. On the other hand, he claimed that what he called “Qaeda al-Jihad” was innocent.
Prior to that date, the targeting and killing dozens of Syrian soldiers in Iraqi territory in the town of Akashat showed the communication and close coordination across the border between groups in the two countries. Moreover, the methods adopted by Jabhat al-Nusra in carrying out its operations, including the use of locally made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings, confirm that it is part of the same system adopted by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Baghdadi, who has led the group since the assassination of Abu Omar and Abu Hamza al-Masri in 2010, justified the multiplicity and change of the group names. He said: “These names are not binding, nor are they names of clans or tribes, but they are proper names that we find when necessary. The necessity of supreme legitimacy allows the cancellation and replacement of them with another name that goes in line with growth...the advancement of the group needs new names that reflect the expansion of Islam in order to bring hope for return to the ummah.”
In fact, changing the names of the group has never been a result of growing performance. Yet, it has always been a response to a pressure and has reflected the internal conflicts experienced by the group in Iraq.
The conflict between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda over the funding sources resulted in Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn. Then, the differences between Zarqawi and Iraqi armed groups over influence in Fallujah and a number of Sunni areas resulted in the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which came as a conciliatory solution. After [Zarqawi’s] death in 2006, the group’s new leaders adopted the Islamic State of Iraq, a theory that came in response to a tendency for a Sunni region, where the group distributed its Islamic Emirates exclusively in the Sunni cities.
In this context, announcing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is part of an attempt to invest anxiety and confusion, which have begun to leak into the border of the Middle East countries.
As it was known in the 20th century, the border went through a critical stage, which was firmly established by the confusion accompanying the Arab Spring revolutions and political change in Iraq.
For the first time, while concerns over the partition and the reproduction of border were unleashed in every country, Islamist satellite channels and jihadist websites have repeatedly called for the unification of Arab Sunnis in Iraq and Syria during the two-year Syrian crisis.
Moreover, seeking to reopen the border between the two countries was the core vision saying that overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime would result in three new states for the Sunnis, Alawites and Druze. It also states that such an option would accelerate the establishment of three Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states in Iraq. This vision also considers that the official and popular mood in the geographical entourage of the new map, especially in Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, will support the establishment of a state that brings together the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq in the future, in order to reproduce the regional balance, which is supposed to confront the Shiite tide represented by Iran and the Shiite part of Iraq.
In conclusion, interpreting the recent declaration of al-Qaeda must be necessarily built on understanding the moving and adaptive nature of the group, as well as its attempts to invest milestones in history in order to firmly establish a new reality in which it has the upper hand.
Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. An author and journalist who has worked in the media for 15 years, he holds a degree in political science from Baghdad University. Besides writing studies and articles that covered Iraqi crises and publishing in the local, regional and foreign media, Abbas has worked since 2003 in the Iraqi media sector and co-founded media companies. He also produced a number of documentaries for different media and has managed Al-Hayat’s office in Iraq since 2005.