One rebel group in Syria just denounced its terrorist ties, and its leaders are already trying to rehabilitate its image in the media.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s split from Al Qaeda is largely thought to be a public-relations move, and it could help the group achieve its ultimate goal in Syria — establishing an Islamic emirate not unlike the one ISIS has declared across the Middle East.
Sheikh Mostafa Mahamed, a senior leader within the newly established Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), spoke to Sky News this week in a rare interview given to a Western media outlet. Mahamed was educated in Australia, speaks fluent English, and now coordinates with the Western press.
In his interview with Sky, he marketed JFS as a defender of the Syrian people and insisted the group’s ideology is in line with what the population wants.
“It’s very clear here that by extension [Western governments] are trying to infer that our ideology is completely alien to the general masses of the Syrian population and we totally reject that,” Mahamed said. “If Western governments are expecting us to come out and say we want liberal, Western democracy, secular democracy, they have to understand that as a Muslim society our core beliefs and values define all spheres of our life.”
He also advocated establishing a “system of governance that will remove oppression” and “see justice for everyone.” He lamented that Sharia law has a bad reputation in the West.
Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym, explained what this means.
“The primary goal of the split is that al-Nusra now sees itself with a real opportunity to actually govern significant parts of Syria, nothing any Al Qaeda franchise has ever dreamed of,” he told Business Insider via email. “Even though it’s Al Qaeda’s stated goal to create/run an Islamic State, it was always more of a dream than reality.”
Now that the group has denounced its ties to Al Qaeda, it has a better chance of winning popular support.
JFS is selling the split as a move toward unification of Syria’s rebel groups against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, including Russia and Iran. Despite the terrorist presence inside Syria, the Assad regime is still widely regarded as the primary enemy of the Syrian people. The Assad regime has relentlessly bombed civilians and killed more people in the country than ISIS or Al Qaeda.
Jabhat al-Nusra proved to be one of the most well-armed and effective groups fighting the Assad regime on the ground. Its resources alone gained the group many members, but some were still put off by its terrorist image.
And al-Nusra ran into problems in Idlib province, where the population rebelled once it tried to govern.
“Al-Nusra is mostly Syrians and that is on purpose, to make them more palatable to locals,” FAisal said. “But still, the only problem was that al-Nusra was Al Qaeda. Most Syrians could not accept this no matter how effective al-Nusra was against the regime. People will cheer them in battle, but when they tried to rule using very similar methods to ISIS, people would push back and say ‘go back to the front, your place is not here.'”
That could change now that al-Nusra has rebranded.
The rebrand has been a long time coming, and Al Qaeda’s awareness of its image problem stretches back to its founding father, Osama bin Laden.
“Bin Laden actually, before he died, in his letters, he was telling Al Qaeda, ‘do not use Al Qaeda’s name, I do not want anyone to use Al Qaeda’s nam” because the moment you use Al Qaeda’s name, the West and the locals are going to come and they’re going to beat you up,” Ali Soufan, the CEO of strategic-security firm The Soufan Group, said in May at a national-security conference in New York.
“Every time they change their name, we get so confused.”
But all these groups are “poisonous fruits coming from the same evil tree,” Soufan said.
Despite this, the violence in Syria has made those still living in the country desperate.
“You see, if the devil himself rode a horse into Aleppo and freed the people from siege, starvation and bombing, people would accept it,” Faisal said. “… Very few people outside of Syria realise what it must feel like to live in those conditions every day of your life with no hope that it ends and with only the expectation that it gets worse (as it has).”
Al-Nusra’s move capitalises on its power as people inside Syria feel increasingly hopeless about their future.
“People don’t like al-Nusra’s ideology (and that has not changed in the ‘split’) but will accept it more so now given that it’s their only hope at maybe living some sort of decent life after years of this war,” Faisal said.
Ultimately, Jabhat al-Nusra’s divorce from Al Qaeda will likely help it outlast ISIS in Syria.
“This is all the long game,” Thomas Joscelyn, an Al Qaeda expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider in March. “The concept of jihad and the notion of jihad as [Al Qaeda] understands it was missing in Syria for decades. Their whole idea is to use the war to inculcate the ideology of jihad among the population.”
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