Al-Qaeda makes its presence known in Syria

Four Syrian factions pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda as the group takes a more public role in the conflict.

al-monitor Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front drive in a convoy as they tour villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Dec. 2, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Topics covered

syria, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, ayman al-zawahri, armed opposition, al-qaeda

Feb 13, 2015

Al-Qaeda is mobilizing its ranks in Syria and is heading toward the formation of a unified entity, similar to the other factions that have restructured themselves and aligned in a unified front from northern to southern Syria.

Nevertheless, al-Qaeda’s move is more important than that of the other armed factions. It may indicate that many unexpected developments will occur in the next phase, which should witness a ground war against terrorism.

Each party interpreted the many leaks on the intention of Jabhat al-Nusra [to unify] based on its own interests. Yesterday [Feb. 12], the commander of the Saifullah al-Shishani battalion, Abu Obeida al-Madani, confirmed that the jihadist arena in Syria will soon be witnessing a new alliance consisting of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham brigade, the Muhajireen Brigade and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Yet Madani did not reveal the nature and objectives behind this alliance.

The common denominator between these four factions is that they all carry the genes of al-Qaeda, in terms of its composition, behavior, discipline, and religious and Sharia references. Thus, there will be a prominent shift in the Syrian jihadist landscape. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the existence of al-Qaeda in the country was planned to be covert, as its leader Ayman al-Zawahri said in a recent recording, in which he criticized Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for disclosing the issue during his dispute with Mohammed al-Golani.

Al-Qaeda is seeking now to emerge and impose itself as the most important element amidst the developments and shifts in the region, particularly the regional and international war against terrorism.

All of these factions are known except for the Muhajireen Brigade, which although it was formed a year ago, avoided the media. It includes Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which is led by Salahuddin al-Shishani; the Saifullah al-Shishani battalion, which is led by Abu Obeida; the Bukhari brigade; the Tawhid and Jihad Brigade; the Turkistan Islamic Party; the Tajiks Brigade; and Junud al-Sham, which is led by Muslim al-Shishani (Abu Walid).

Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is affiliated with the Caucasus emirate, which in turn is affiliated with al-Qaeda. The emir of the Caucasus emirate, Abu Mohammed al-Dagestani, revealed earlier that the objective behind sending Caucasus mujahedeen was the formation of a branch of [the Caucasus] emirate in the Levant.

The Saifullah al-Shishani battalion pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra, which is considered an al-Qaeda branch in the Levant. Nearly three months earlier, the Bukhari brigade pledged allegiance to Zawahri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is considered the general emir of all al-Qaeda branches in the world. Moreover, Muslim al-Shishani pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda since he was fighting in Chechnya under the banner of Emir Khattab (Thamir al-Suwailem). Thus, there will be a move designed to bring together and include in a unified entity all al-Qaeda's factions.

Although it has a tendency toward al-Qaeda and pursues the same policy, the Ahrar al-Sham movement did not pledge allegiance to [al-Qaeda]. The movement’s leaders portrayed themselves as seeking to reform the Salafist jihadist movement, to renew its concepts and objectives, and shift it from the jihad of the elite to the jihad of the people. There were many fluctuations in its approach, after the clash between two currents within this movement. The first wanted to be officially connected with al-Qaeda, while the second does not hide its quest to permanently abandon Salafist jihadism, as a result of the distress inflicted to the peoples of the region. What makes things more complicated is the presence of a third current considered closer to the Muslim Brotherhood within the movement.

Therefore, should Ahrar al-Sham join the new al-Qaeda-affiliated alliance, this means that the first current within this movement has triumphed. It should not be forgotten that this victory and the developments’ results may be temporary, particularly since the movement is threatened to be included on the list of the international coalition. The proof is: Several months ago, Junud al-Sham announced that its integration with Ahrar al-Sham in a single military alliance was near. This necessitated a denial by the movement's leaders at the time. What has changed for it to accept today what it rejected yesterday?

Although some were quick to interpret the move as a declaration of an Islamic emirate affiliated with al-Qaeda, it is more likely that the alliance between these factions does not exceed the framework of a military alliance. Its top priorities will include a way out of the war against terrorism with minimum losses. If the war was limited to IS-controlled areas, it is likely that the al-Qaeda-affiliated alliance seeks to fill the vacuum that IS will leave behind.

Yet, this move will not be free of obstacles. Within each faction, there are groups that are not convinced for various reasons, which may result in their defecting. On top of that, some theorists have also suggested that IS may consider itself a target of this move.

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