The leader of al-Qaeda has ordered the group’s Syrian branch to form its own “emirate” to challenge the West in competition with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, gave his backing to a plan for Jabhat al-Nusra to create al-Qaeda’s first sovereign state.
If the plan is carried out it could see two “Islamic states” – Isil and the new al-Qaeda emirate – competing for territory and influence within the borders of war-torn Syria.
His announcement, in a speech recorded and posted online, followed multiplying reports that he has sent his senior lieutenants into north-west Syria to take advantage of the chaos induced by five years of civil war.
Among them is the man regarded as his deputy and operational field commander, a long-term Egyptian jihadist and former army officer, Saif al-Adel. Al-Adel was reportedly held under house arrest in Iran until he was released in a secret prisoner exchange and made his way to Syria in the second half of last year.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which was set up by Isil’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but split from him in 2013, fights alongside a number of other Islamist rebel groups in the Syrian war.
During the ceasefire, some more secular groups turned on it, criticising its attempts to apply a harsh version of Sharia law in areas where it was powerful. But as the ceasefire has crumbled, it has led a number of joint attacks on regime positions.
Analysts in contact with other rebel groups were already predicting it would become more brutal in enforcing its social codes. The United States and its western allies also fear that if it establishes territorial control it could use Syria as a base for attacking the West, as Osama bin Laden did in Afghanistant.
The decision marks a change in strategy for al-Qaeda, which has focused on building its networks and support base in Syria and around the region. But Zawahiri has been under pressure to assert himself as Baghdadi’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has become the public face of international jihad and a powerful rival reruitment tool for would-be jihadists.
Gulf states like Qatar have also been trying to persuade Jabhat al-Nusra intermediaries to disavow al-Qaeda and throw in their lot with other, Syria-focused rebel groups in return for aid, so he may have felt the need to reassert central control.
Zawahiri, who is in hiding and has a $25 million US bounty on his head, said he was “proud” of Jabhat al-Nusra’s work and its connection to al-Qaeda.
“If they create their government, and choose their emir, what they choose is our choice,” he said.
Zawahiri condemned Isil and compared them to the Khawarij, a seventh-century Islamic rebel group known for its brutality against fellow Muslims it decided were “apostates”.
“The Islamic nation in Greater Syria has backed [al-Nusra], realising the difference between the correctness of its methods and the methods of the new Khawarij,” he said.
The audio tape is another salvo in the complex and long-running rivalry between Isil and al-Nusra, two jihadist groups who share some goals but differ violently on their methods.
Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the dominant powers in north-western Syria and has a toehold in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and the scene of fierce bombardment by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies.
Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute who has interviewed leaders of Syria’s Islamist groups, suggested that al-Nusra would become more repressive against civilians if it imposed an emirate.
“In all likelihood, incidents of capital punishment would dramatically increase, civilian freedoms would be restricted, and Nusra Front’s tolerance of nonreligious, nationalist, and civil opposition bodies would decline,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
The move could also put al-Nusra on a collision course with other rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime.
“So far al-Nusra has been able to work with other factions, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), by prioritising the fight against Assad other its own long term objectives. The creation of an emirate would represent a significant shift in this strategy and will force other opposition groups to either back the “emirate” or fight it,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst with the Levantine Group.
Jabhat al-Nusra has been at pains to present itself as a domestic Syrian group and a product of the 2011 uprising against the Assad regime, while pointing out that Isil’s leadership is dominated by Iraqis. The arrival of al-Adel and a raft of other al-Qaeda leaders, including a relative of bin Laden himself, suggests it is about to reassert its credentials as both a local rebel group and a source of international jihadist activity, like its counterpart in Yemen.
In his audio message, Zawahiri urged the people of Syria to resist efforts to end the five-year civil war through a UN-brokered political compromise and eventual elections for a new government.
He argued that in the cases of both Algeria and Egypt, Islamic parties had won power through elections only to lose it again to coups carried out by the secular armed forces.