Al Qaeda’s presence inside Syria is now so significant that the terrorist organization has decided it is no longer worthwhile to pretend otherwise. Previously, al Qaeda operated under a thinly veiled alternative identity – the Al Nusrah Front.
In an audio statement released online yesterday, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), announced that his organization shall henceforth be known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” The new name reflects AQI’s unchecked growth, primarily into neighboring Syria, since the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Since late 2011, the Al Nusrah Front has greatly expanded its operations. The organization has become one of the most effective fighting forces in the war against Bashar al Assad’s crumbling regime.
Al Nusrah is better known in the West by its true name: al Qaeda.
“It's now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and world that the Al Nusrah Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it,” al Baghdadi says in his message, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. (The Islamic state of Iraq is, in fact, al Qaeda’s name for its Iraqi franchise.)
Abu Muhammad al Julani, the leader of the Al Nusrah Front, is one of al Baghdadi's subordinates. “We deputized al Julani, and he is one of our soldiers,” al Baghdadi explains. The head of AQI continues by explaining he “pushed” al Julani and other jihadists “from Iraq to the Levant,” and there they met up with established al Qaeda cells that had been laying the groundwork for AQI’s expansion.
“We laid for them plans, and drew up for them the policy of work, and gave them what financial support we could every month, and supplied them with men who had known the battlefields of jihad, from the emigrants and the natives,” al Baghdadi says.
Why did AQI not announce its presence inside Syria from the very beginning? Al Baghdadi says this was “due to security reasons,” which are presumably no longer a concern. Al Qaeda’s brand was also tarnished inside Iraq because of its indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. This undoubtedly led the group to pick a new, clean brand for its Syrian expansion.
None of this is surprising, of course. There were numerous reasons to see al Qaeda’s hand in the Al Nusrah Front from the very beginning. And the State Department explained all of this in its December 2012 designation of the organization, in which Foggy Bottom explained the group was simply operating under an alias for AQI.
Since at least 2011, al Qaeda has considered Iraq and Syria as one theater for war.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.