Earlier this week, the State Department designated the al Nusrah Front in Syria as an “alias” for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The head of AQI, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi (a.k.a. Abu Du'a), “is in control of both AQI and al Nusrah.” The designation says a lot about our knowledge, or lack thereof, of al Qaeda’s clandestine international network.
If you go back through all of the articles written about al Nusrah in the first eleven months of this year, and there have been many, you will be hard pressed to find any that say the group is commanded by the same man who leads AQI. Yes, the connections between AQI and al Nusrah have been widely noted, including in some very thorough reporting. But the State Department’s designation points to something beyond mere connections: command and control.
This is not intended to be a knock on the journalists and analysts (including this author) who have reported on the group. But it further proves an essential point that gets too little attention: Despite eleven-plus years of a multinational assault on the terrorist organization, al Qaeda’s command structure remains opaque.
Look at it another way. It is a short jog from Iraq to Syria, right over the border, and yet there has been no public reporting (or, none that I’ve read) on AQI’s outright “control” of al Nusrah. Again, we’ve known that the two are related, but this is different.
There has been a big assumption in counterterrorism circles that al Qaeda’s “core” in South Asia remains isolated from its affiliates. Detailed reporting about the full cache of Osama bin Laden’s documents tells a different story. And we know that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s predecessors in AQI were in contact with al Qaeda’s senior leadership. There is no reason to assume that this relationship has changed. We cannot see al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri’s contacts with AQI, but that doesn’t mean we should assume they don’t exist.
AQI, and therefore al Nusrah, remains loyal to al Qaeda’s core. AQI has sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. “I tell our brothers in Al Qaeda led by Ayman Al Zawahiri, go on with God’s blessing and be glad that you have faithful brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq who are marching on the path of right,” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi said in a statement released online shortly after bin Laden’s demise.
And as the State Department previously noted, al Baghdadi “pledged…to carry out 100 attacks across Iraq in retaliation for bin Laden’s death.” Many Iraqis have died because of al Baghdadi’s loyalty to the terror master.
The very name, Al Nusrah Front, has meaning beyond invoking “victory” in Syria. It means that al Qaeda has been working under another name, or brand, in Syria. Undoubtedly, this was intended to hide its hand in the Syrian rebellion. The State Department recognizes this, saying that while conducting nearly 600 attacks in Syria, al Nusrah “has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”
Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi have openly and repeatedly praised the Syrian rebels without ever claiming ownership of Al Nusrah. In July, for instance, al Baghdadi praised the Syrian rebels, saying they had “taught the world lessons in courage, jihad, and patience” and that the “disbelievers…are amazed by your jihad and your steadfastness…impotent to oppress you and make you submit” and “terrorized by the future of your volcano.”
Al Qaeda controlled that volcano all along.
These lessons are applicable around the globe. In numerous countries, al Qaeda and its affiliates have utilized alternative “brand” names in an attempt to resonate with the Muslim populace and obfuscate its role. To give just one example: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is located in Yemen and has also sworn fealty to Zawahiri, uses the brand name Ansar al Sharia as an “alias.” It should come as no surprise that Ansar al Sharia groups with known ties to al Qaeda have popped up in other countries.
Then there is the issue of the top-down approach to beating al Qaeda. This approach, which relies on the killing of top leaders, is the linchpin of the U.S. government’s current strategy in Pakistan and elsewhere. While vital, it has severe shortcomings. AQI’s history provides a cautionary tale in this regard.
In 2010, the U.S. military said that 80 percent of AQI’s leaders had been killed or captured. In 2011, AQI launched a new wing in Syria. Today that branch of the terrorist group has blossomed.
Finally, throughout the 2012 presidential campaign President Obama claimed he had ended the war in Iraq “responsibly.” His claim received little resistance despite its obvious tensions with reality. The war did not end for al Qaeda in Iraq, however. Instead, it expanded its operations into Syria, where it now controls the most deadly rebel group.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.