Abu Muhammad al-Golani, leader of the Nusra Front, appeared on video July 28 to announce his group’s formal separation from al-Qaeda and its rebranding as the “Levantine Conquest Front.”
Don’t believe it. The separation was as loving a political divorce as any, with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri giving the Nusra Front formal permission to leave al-Qaeda as needed in order to preserve rebel “unity.” Now, the Nusra Front remains the second-strongest insurgent group in Syria, as ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda as ever, and separated by ISIS chiefly by its willingness to play the long game. For that reason, we need to sustain U.S. sanctions on the Nusra Front and recognize its name change for what it is: smoke and mirrors.
al-Qaeda’s Syrian face
Like ISIS, the Nusra Front is violent and extremist. The two former al-Qaeda affiliates share not only a lineage, but a penchant for suicide bombings, hostage-taking, and repressive governance. Launched in 2011 by then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Nusra Front has for years served as al-Qaeda’s Syrian face, repeatedly renewing its pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri even in the face of Baghdadi’s split from al-Qaeda in April 2013 and his declaration of a caliphate in June 2014.
Since 2011, the group has relied on al-Qaeda’s trademark suicide bombings, as well as paramilitary attacks, in an effort to forge its own Islamic state in Syria. And although the Nusra Front’s leader has wisely advised his members to be patient in imposing harsh Islamic laws in areas under the Nusra Front’s control, his members have already begun to do so. Last year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented the Nusra Front as it executed adulterers and boasted of cutting off the hands of Western-backed rebels. The Nusra Front has also been documented kidnapping and torturing teenagers for minor offenses, and entrapping and kidnapping gays for ransom.
There are differences between ISIS and the Nusra Front, both meaningful and cosmetic. ISIS has boasted of its brutality, using its violence to lure large numbers of the disturbed and disenfranchised to its cause. The Nusra Front on the other hand, though open about its affiliation with al-Qaeda, has sought to pitch itself as a moderate and unifying force, at times working alongside local rebel groups fighting the Assad regime and ISIS.
Both ISIS’s and the Nusra Front’s avenues to a violent, extremist governance have been met with success. While ISIS has been building its worldwide brand, the Nusra Front has patiently gained and held areas in northern, western, and southern Syria, with significantly less fanfare. The group has also attracted the second-largest contingency of foreign fighters to Syria after ISIS.
Now, as Russia has stepped up its presence in Syria and focused its attention on the Nusra Front, the group has sought to rebrand itself in an effort to force the international community’s hand. By formally—albeit artificially—distancing itself from al-Qaeda, Golani seeks to attract foreign funding from Gulf States, consolidate local support, and potentially weaken the U.S. case for sanctions and airstrikes.
In the meantime, however, Golani has made no suggestion of ideological reforms. In his rare video appearance, Golani profusely thanked Zawahiri for his support and reassured the al-Qaeda faithful that the Nusra Front is “not compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs or laxity in the necessity of the continuity of the Jihad of Al-Sham [in Syria].”
Though the political map in Syria is nothing if not complicated, there are clear pitfalls to avoid, and legitimizing the Nusra Front’s marketing campaign is one of them. While continuing to fight ISIS, the U.S. should maintain sanctions on the Nusra Front and incentivize moderate rebel factions to keep their distance from the terror group. Lastly, we should file away the group’s name change as what it is: optics. After all, behind the smoke and mirrors is a slow and steady fire, no matter what it calls itself.