A power struggle between Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda in Iraq?

Last week’s announcement by the leader of al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that AQI and Jabhat al-Nusra have merged, appeared to be a public confirmation of what was already widely believed: that the two groups were one and the same. But the response from the al-Nusra leader, Abu Muhammad Al-Julani, suggests that the alignment between the two groups might not be so exact. Indeed, al-Nursra’s pledge of allegiance to AQI might be due deference to what it regards as vital support. Whatever AQI’s ambitions might be in terms of creating a joint Iraqi-Syrian Islamic state, al-Nusra seems more concerned about emphasizing its Syrian roots.

Matthew Barber provides translations of the statement from AQI and the response from al-Nusra’s leader, al-Julani:
A number of interesting observations can be made about this statement. First, it is amusing that al-Julani would begin his speech—a response to a speech by a fellow jihadi—by quoting a Qur’anic verse about liars. He clearly states that Jabhat al-Nusra had not been informed that the announcement was forthcoming. Though framed with respectful language, the entire statement represents a veiled rebuke to al-Baghdadi.

Al-Julani discloses the real picture of al-Nusra, revealing that the core of al-Nusra are Syrian jihadis who participated with al-Qaida in Iraq “from the beginning” of the Iraq war, only returning to Syria after the uprising began in order to engage in jihad against the Syrian regime by employing all the experience and tools gained through the long period of fighting in Iraq. And in addition to being the offspring of al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Julani affirms that al-Nusra has been supported by them throughout its tenure in Syria–supported both financially and with fighters. He intentionally downplays the numbers of fighters from Iraq, however; while expressing gratitude for their participation, he endeavors to place distance between the Iraqi and Syrian jihadi groups by framing the role of jihadis from al-Qaida in Iraq as minimal. Even when emphasizing a degree of autonomy from al-Qaida in Iraq, he nevertheless ends up indicating a measure of subordination by saying “he put his complete trust in me to produce policies and plans.”

So if al-Nusra was born of al-Qaida in Iraq, includes Iraqi jihadis, has continually received support from al-Qaida, and willingly affirms allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, what is the rub between al-Julani and al-Baghdadi’s statement? The point of tension seems to center around the declaration of an Islamic state. Though he never denies affiliation with al-Qaida in Iraq, or what he sees as the evolving emergence of an Islamic state in Syria, he seems to have taken offense to the timing and manner of the declaration, and rejects al-Baghdadi’s approach of a single state for Syria and Iraq under a single governing structure. Though he has no problem being under the authority of al-Qaida’s top command, he experiences possible resentment at the suggestion that al-Nusra be subordinate to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Al-Julani therefore rejects al-Baghdadi’s assertion that the two wings will abandon their separate titles and merge into a single unit. He maintains that al-Nusra will continue to use its name and flag. He confirms the declaration of an Islamic state in Syria (saying it is “built” by all parties who participated in the struggle), but he does not link it with that in Iraq: Rather than the “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” it is merely “The Islamic State of al-Sham.” Though acknowledging the presence of an Islamic state, he says that declaring statehood is not important, since the state has been coming into being through a process of implementing shari’a to the degree it is possible in the Syrian context. (This process is ongoing, through such projects as the effort to bring shari’a classes to the public.)

These announcements therefore do not represent a “merger of Jabhat al-Nusra with al-Qaida” but the disclosure of their equivalency. While it has long been perceived that ISI and al-Nusra were linked counterparts, this reality is now in the open.

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