One of Syria's top terror groups just split from Al Qaeda -- Here's what that means

One of the biggest terrorism players in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, just distanced itself from its parent organisation, Al Qaeda, in what analysts see as a savvy political manoeuvre.

Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, has risen to power amid the Syrian civil war that has dragged on for more than five years.

The group, which fights the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as well as the terrorist group ISIS, is known for being one of the most well-funded and well-equipped rebel groups in Syria. But it also has strong terrorism ties, and experts believe the group is playing a long game to outlive ISIS and eventually take over Syria to create an Islamic emirate.

Announcing a split from Al Qaeda could play into the group’s long-term strategy.

Charles Lister, an expert on Syrian jihadist groups and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, profiled Jabhat al-Nusra for the Brookings Institution this month. He predicted the split from Al Qaeda and explained its significance in the paper:

“Whatever the outcome, it remains hard to fathom how the majority of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership could truly renounce and give up their decades-long devotion to al-Qaida’s global vision. Ultimately, while symbolically of very great significance, any potential decision to break ties from al-Qaida should be read more as a politically smart manoeuvre aimed at further trapping Syrians into their relationship of interdependence with the group and thus furthering the viability of Jabhat al-Nusra’s long game.”

Jabhat al-Nusra benefits from marketing itself as a moderate opposition group fighting the Assad regime. That way, it has an easier time recruiting people whose primary goal is ousting Assad, and it has a better hope at avoiding US airstrikes that target terrorist groups.

And because of its terrorist affiliations, Jabhat al-Nusra has been excluded from ceasefires between the Assad regime and moderate opposition groups.

Analysts have long warned that Jabhat al-Nusra poses more of a long-term threat to US national security than ISIS. The group has been especially concerned with long-term viability, and has kept a lower profile while the world focuses on taking out ISIS. Even if Jabhat al-Nusra appears to currently be focused on Syria, it could easily make the shift to external attacks, which has long been Al Qaeda’s focus.

Lister wrote:

“The threat of external intervention against Jabhat al-Nusra has … sparked an intense internal debate within the group’s senior leadership regarding the overt nature of its relationship to al-Qaida. Beginning in late June, a high-level track of dialogue sought to encourage those within Jabhat al-Nusra less dedicated to al-Qaida’s transnational ambitions to break away and form a new, independent faction. … The potential imminence of U.S.-Russian strikes no doubt lent a certain urgency to such discussions.”

This new faction is called “Jabhat Fatah al Sham.” Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohamad al-Jolani announced that the new group “has no ties with any foreign party.”

But, as terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn pointed out on Twitter, the language of Jolani’s announcement is very careful. And since Al Qaeda is thought to be slowly relocating its leadership to Syria, the group might not even be considered “external” to Syria anymore.

“What [Jolani] actually says (as best I can tell) is they are cancelling all operations as Nusrah, forming a new entity ‘Jabhat Fath Al Sham,'” Joscelyn tweeted. “And ‘this new organisation has no affiliation to any external entity.’ Guess what: AQ senior leadership is in Syria. Not ‘external.'”

The White House, for its part, said Thursday that it’s still concerned about Jabhat al-Nusra’s capacity to attack the West.

Hassan Hassan, an analyst from Syria and expert on terrorist groups, tweeted that Jabhat al-Nusra’s move “will complicate the situation for the rebels and help Nusra.”

“Nusra’s move won’t make it easier for countries like Qatar and Turkey to support it,” he tweeted. “No, it will make it harder for them to support other groups.”

He continued: “The US will go ahead to uproot Nusra. It’s now easier, not more difficult, to lump like-minded groups with it. Those that cooperate with it.”

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