There is much confusion over the supposed 'merger' between Syria's Jabhet al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq group. The confusion itself emphasises the erosion of Al-Qa'ida's supra-national aims and the reduced focus on Western targets.
Confusion reigned in the Syrian jihad last week as it was first announced, then denied, with the caveat of a connection of some sort admitted to, that the Jabhet al-Nusra (or the al Nusra Front ) was officially aligning itself with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, the given name of Al-Qa'ida's Iraqi affiliate), al-Qa'ida's bloodiest franchise.
The reasons for this clumsy uncovering of what was already known could be personality based as much as anything else, but the experience did highlight a growing lack of coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. 'Al-Qa'idaism' seems to have not completely recovered from the loss of Osama bin Laden.
The announcements out of Syria were preceded by the latest audio message by Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor and the leader of what is left of Al-Qa'ida-core in Pakistan, in which he praised the 'lions of Islam' in the Levant 'who fight for the Ummah's religion, dignity, glory and sanctities.' He exhorted the fighters in the Levant to 'do everything in your power to yield a jihadist Islamic state.' A few days after this, a message appeared on the forums purporting to be from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qa'ida's Iraqi affiliate) declaring the establishment of the 'Islamic State in Iraq and Sham' (or greater Syria). In other words, unifying the Iraqi and Syrian groups into one unified force.
Making his statement, al-Baghdadi claimed to be revealing something that was always the case, but had been kept secret until now: 'what is al-Nusrah Front but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq, and a part of it?' He clarified how the Iraqi group had been responsible for the establishment of Al-Nusra Front (ANF) - providing support and funding - and how they had dispatched Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a leader of the Front's, to get the group going.
A day later al-Jawlani responded with a message that seemed to push back against al-Baghdadi's declaration. Praising the fellow jihadist leader as a warrior he had the honour of serving alongside and recognising that the Iraqi group had provided support for the Syrian fighters, he nonetheless prevaricated over the declaration of unity. He specifically stated that ANF would retain their standard and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri stating they would 'listen to and obey him in hardship and ease.' At the same time, he reassured 'our people in the Levant that the Front policy of defending the faith, your honours, and your blood, and its kindness toward you and the fighting group will remain as before.'
The message from al-Jawlani is a confusing one. On the one hand he seems to be pushing back against an overt alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq(a group he has admitted connections to), but at the same time, he is pledging direct allegiance to Al-Qa'ida core. The intent seems to be to strengthen the link to the centre while distancing himself from the group that he is most likely to benefit from materially.
It is possible that the key to understanding this mixed message lies in al-Jawlani's emphasis onAl-Nusra Front continuing to focus its work in Syria. The Front has gone to great lengths to be perceived as first and foremost a group fighting the Assad regime, bringing law, order and other public goods to people in the areas that it controls. The priority for the Front is Syria and toppling Bashar al Assad, rather than the struggle that the Islamic State of Iraq is still undertaking against the Shia governmentin Baghdad or any international goal.
This desire to focus on local struggles over distant fields is a message that has been echoed elsewhere as well. Earlier this year, Dokku Umarov, a senior figure in the jihadist struggle in north Caucasus seemed to walk back his earlier statements of praise of the Syrian jihad to tell people not to leave the battlefields in the north Caucasus for Syria as there was an unresolved conflict at home still to be fought. In March of this year, a similar call came out of north Africa where Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emphasised the need for people to stay and fight there. Syria it seems is becoming a distraction to other jihadist struggles.
There are a number of key points to be drawn from this. In the first instance, it seems clear that Syria has become the brightest flame on the jihadi map. So much so that other regional groups in North Africa and the North Caucasus are telling people not to abandon their battlefields, while Islamic State in Iraqhas sought to try to co-opt the Al-Nusra Front's success under its banner. Supporting this assessment, various national security services have all concluded that Syria is now the hottest jihadi battlefield around. Whether this is due to limited resources being stretched or mere displacement is unclear.
Secondly, the focus and unity of purpose that used to appear more obvious under Al-Qa'ida has faded. While these groups see each other as brothers and in some cases have clear connections with each other, they are more focused on their regional conflicts than any grander global struggle. Their interest is to win a local victory, something that they are apparently now willing to seek to the detriment of fellow travellers on other jihadi battlefields.
Implications for the Jihad Against the West
This regional focus also helps explain the drop-off in large-scale plots being orchestrated abroad targeting the West. Individual plots do appear, in the form of lone actors or small cells with links abroad. But in most cases there is very little evidence of much direction - this is of course not to say directed plots do not still exist, but there number seems to be lower.
None of this necessarily contradicts the message being sent out by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his latest missive, he does the rounds of international jihad, highlighting and praising warriors around the globe. He warns them to be alert to Western interference - and in fact dedicates some considerable portion of his presentation to highlighting how Iran is a major enemy of the jihadist cause - but there is little about attacking the West. Rather, the focus seems to be on people to stand firm in their jihad, defend Islam and to seek greater unity amongst Muslims.
In this light, al-Jawlani'sdecision to pledge his allegiance to al-Zawahiri while distancing himself from al-Baghdadi can possibly be understood to make sense. Al-Zawahiri's message is one of groups continuing their brave struggles in their respective fields, rather than a unified international fight against the West. This is a vision of Al-Qa'ida as the righteous global leader of those struggling in Islam's name. A vision al-Jawlani sees as useful in advancing his struggle in Syria.
Sitting in a Western capital, this all augurs quite well. Al-Qa'ida and its affiliates seem to be more focused on their local struggles over the international enemy. To paraphrase al-Zawahiri - who spoke of the near enemy (the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East) versus the far enemy (America and the west that used to bolster them) - the focus now seems to be near enemy. But this shift in focus does not necessarily mean an end to all problems. These battlefields continue to draw in young Westerners, and what happens to these battle-hardened young men afterwards remains a dilemma (some come home and do nothing, while others come back with a desire to launch attacks). There are also groups that remain bent on attacking the West. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Al-Nusra Front may not currently have much interest in attacking the West, but individuals in Pakistan - both Al-Qa'ida-core and groups like the Pakistani Taliban - as well as elements within Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remain fixated with trying to attack the West or instigate lone actor plots there.
But the broader trend is clear. For the time being at least, the priority has shifted back to the regions. 'Al-Qa'idaism' may still speak in global terms, but is increasingly regionally focused. For western government's this merely strengthens the case of why counter-terrorism efforts need to maintain vigilance at home for potential backlash from these foreign fields, but increasingly need to focus their resources abroad.
Senior Associate Fellow