It’s Not You, It’s Me: Al-Qaeda Lost Jabhat al-Nusra. Now What?


This week, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s great hope in Syria, chose a different path, breaking ranks with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s crumbling empire. Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani shed his hood and his al-Qaeda allegiance in announcing the newly branded group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, in his first ever recorded message. This new Syrian group, he told the world, will be dedicated to defeating the Assad regime and ultimately forming an Islamic State in post-conflict Syria. Joulani’s announcement comes alongside new branding, with white flags replacing the black banners of al-Qaeda and to set the group apart from the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda saved face by gracefully allowing al-Nusra to break away by endorsing the move through an audio message from their deputy Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr. The split signals a new chapter for global jihad and raises the question: What is al Qaeda without a stake in Syria?

Global Jihad: Politics, Power and Incentives First; Ideology Second

The al-Nusra break up has been a long time coming, and it represents the logical next step in al-Qaeda’s disintegration and the evolution of the jihadist movement. Since the death of Bin Laden, al Qaeda has struggled to control its legions. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) quickly pushed for emirates before being repulsed. Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s final affiliate merger, pursued a violent sharia law model as it retracted under coalition pressure. Then Syria came along. Al-Qaeda saw one last chance to regain its footing by deploying stalwart emissaries to Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that had been dispatched and resourced by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to build a jihadist and Islamist coalition against the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.

Joulani, al Qaeda’s last prince, has played a masterful game between jihad’s two overlords: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. As deputy to Bagdadi in Iraq, Joulani was sent to Syria to form an al-Qaeda branch. Yet once in Syria, Joulani revealed his true allegiance to Zawahiri, angering his ambitious boss Baghdadi and setting the stage for the al-Qaeda-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) split in 2013. Zawahiri’s rebuff of Bagdadi triggered jihad’s great schism. ISI broke from al-Qaeda and announced its independence, becoming the well-known Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and bringing the bulk of international foreign fighters into their fold. This ushered in a brief jihadi civil war won by the Islamic State that presaged the declaration of its caliphate when they took Mosul in June 2014. Al-Nusra fell back into the shadows. The group worked through Islamist partners to carve out its stake in northern Syria — filling its ranks more with local Syrians rather than relying upon foreign fighters.

Joulani stabilized al-Nusra’s gains and worked through coalitions up to today. Al-Nusra took the city of Idlib and in many ways represents the most effective fighting force and governance option among the Syrian resistance. But by the end of 2014, Joulani’s global commitment to al-Qaeda had become more burden than benefit to Al-Nusra, as coalition airstrikes dropped ordnance on both al-Nusra and its Islamic State rivals. Al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group, an external operations and coordination cell embedded in al-Nusra, attracted U.S. airstrikes and counterterrorism pressure. Islamic State suicide bombers hammered away at senior al-Qaeda figures as they negotiated with leaders of Ahrar al-Sham – another rebel Islamist group. Pressure on al-Nusra to abandon al-Qaeda’s global agenda mounted even further in 2015 among al-Nusra’s local Syrian members. The logic was simple: Why suffer airstrikes and setbacks for being a part of al-Qaeda if al-Qaeda wasn’t providing any foreseeable benefit? Zawahiri likely felt this pressure as well, as he instructed Joulani to take a long-term tact by forgoing attacks against the West in the near term to secure a stronger foothold in Syria.  Russia’s 2015 entrance into Syria on behalf of Assad further increased pressure against al-Nusra.

Recent news of the United States and Russia potentially coordinating against al-Nusra likely brought the decision to break with al-Qaeda to a head. Joulani’s continued commitment to al-Qaeda would have likely resulted in his overthrow. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s creation provides Joulani a pathway to sustain his power, appeal to his Syrian legions, compete for a stake in post-conflict Syria, and attempt to skirt Russian and U.S. counterterrorism pressure.

The Third Option: State Building, Minus Global Agenda, Plus Local Support

Counterterrorism analysis since the September 11, 2001 attack has rigidly followed a status quo bias. Analysts were predicting al-Qaeda’s comeback in early 2014 and largely missed ISIL’s breakout and rise. Today, a similar analytical plague cripples counterterrorism. Washington constructs that envision an enduring bipolar battle between the al-Qaeda network and the Islamic State network miss the emergence of alternate jihadi pathways. Al-Nusra’s transformation into Fatah al-Sham blends preferred attributes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to create a new jihadi hybrid. In the near term, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has jettisoned al-Qaeda’s long-bankrupt Western “far enemy” global targeting philosophy, which rapidly attracted counterterrorism pressure. But Joulani’s new group kept al-Qaeda’s slower, pragmatic approach to state-building through integration with locals and the cultivation of popular support. At the same time, Fatah al-Sham sustains Islamic State aspirations for creating a caliphate in Syria, but avoids the heavy-handed violence and global agitation that’s alienated local popular support and provoked Western airstrikes. Fatah al-Sham’s hybrid approach will try to sidestep coalition airstrikes, win over Gulf donors, appease local partners, and adhere to the jihadi vision of statehood. It is politics draped in ideology, a natural jihadi evolution from lessons learned, and an approach that may be harder for the West to counter as it gains legitimacy.

What is the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham threat to the West?

Some already argue that the new Jabhat is not different than the old Jabhat or possibly just a sinister plan by al-Qaeda to mask its operations. These implications essentially rest on the question of whether Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will ultimately strike the West just as al Qaeda would have. Two factors inform this debate: capability and intent. Evidence from both Jabhat al-Nusra and the West suggests the group has the capability to deliver terror attacks against the West. The United States has repeatedly stated and still contends that Jabhat al-Nusra and now Fatah al-Islam retains an external operations capability. Reports have noted that al-Nusra operatives have tried to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities.

In the near term, Fatah al-Sham’s intent to attack the West appears low — better to secure local alliances than bring down more coalition airstrikes. Two important forces might shift Fatah al-Sham’s intentions. First, should Russia and the United States join forces to thwart Fatah al-Sham despite the group’s shedding its al-Qaeda label, it may be reincentivized to return to regional and international terror attacks in a form of self-defense.  Second, should Fatah al-Sham be devoured by the West or local competitors, it may seek out terrorist attacks to reinvigorate its brand at a time of desperation. At the moment, both of these scenarios appear likely over the long term, suggesting a return to international terror attacks by Fatah al-Sham regardless of its al-Qaeda connections — it won’t go down without putting up a fight.

How To Counter Global Jihadists Inside Jabhat Fatah al-Sham?

Al-Nusra’s rebranding represents smart jihadi strategy to unify the ranks between globalists and nationalists. The Fatah al-Sham name change attempts to slip U.S. counterterrorism justifications and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations for  targeting. Yet al-Qaeda leaders, namely Joulani, who’s fought against the United States, still lead Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. A new name should not provide devoted American enemies a free pass.

As I noted in my recent West Point Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel article “Deciphering Competition Between al Qaeda and the Islamic State,” Fatah al-Sham remains ripe for fracturing between the foreign fighters of al-Qaeda and local Syrian members. The United States might consider the following actions to check and further fragment an already fledgling union inside Fatah al-Sham. First, dangling negotiations for a post-conflict stake to Syrian members of Fatah al-Sham might incentivize defections, especially if coupled with offers of manpower, weapons, and money. Second, the State Department could rapidly accelerate its foreign terrorist designation of every known al-Qaeda member and international foreign fighter in Fatah al-Sham’s ranks. This would open global jihadists up for targeting and would communicate U.S. intentions to pursue al-Qaeda to its final end – separate from the Syrian rank and file of Fatah al-Sham. Third, an information campaign, both online and in Syria, should make clear to Syrian members of Fatah al-Sham that the United States will target all international members mercilessly. This campaign could be augmented or enhanced with Rewards for Justice payments that lead to the capture or killing of these international members who receive U.S. scrutiny. Fourth, with as little collateral damage as possible, the United States should increase the tempo of airstrikes against al-Qaeda members inside Fatah al-Sham to help foment further dissension between globalist and nationalists. Finally, the United States should avoid partnering with Russia against Fatah al-Sham. Such an alliance would only confirm Fatah al-Sham’s narrative against the United States and further radicalize another generation against the United States.

Is There Al-Qaeda Without Jabhat al-Nusra? 

Now that Jabhat al-Nusra has departed al-Qaeda, the West must evaluate whether al-Qaeda as a global terror network truly exists anymore.  As al-Qaeda’s old guard leaders have steadily expired since Bin Laden’s death, the bonds that link affiliates continue to weaken. Zawahiri has failed to inspire global foreign fighter flows, and al-Qaeda Central provides little to no men, money, media, or expertise.  Al Qaeda’s strategic guidance no longer leads the global jihad but instead reacts to recent events. Al-Qaeda’s original ideology has been twisted by the outrageous violence of the Islamic State, and its justifications for targeting the West to topple local dictators holds no water after regimes collapsed amid the Arab Spring. AQAP and AQIM appear more connected to each other than to the central headquarters, and even those connections seem quite light. Al Qaeda affiliates operate largely independent of central guidance, have little need to coordinate their actions and have shifted toward Islamic State governance models to stave off competition from rival affiliates.

Moving forward, counterterrorists will be best served if they ask, “What if there is no al Qaeda?” In contrast to Bin Laden’s original global vision, jihad has gone local in many regions, with competing jihadi factions pursuing different strategies and objectives based upon local currents. Counterterrorists still seeking to parse al-Qaeda’s grand strategy will stand on dangerous ground, likely missing key signals of emerging variants and overcommitting against lesser threats that carry the al-Qaeda name or harbor one of its former members. The global jihadi landscape has never been so widespread, diverse, and complex. Both the United States and the rest of the world will be best served by examining what a world without one big al-Qaeda or even one big Islamic State looks like, and by considering how to manage the impending stew of a more complex jihad.


Clint Watts is a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force, and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.