The Enemy of My Enemy is Not My Friend : The Spectre of Al Qaeda in Syria

If civil wars have taught us anything, it is that they can be particularly stubborn problems. This is often the result of interventions by external powers seeking to further their regional ambitions, and can last for decades. The Afghan conflict is now entering its 37th year, Lebanon’s civil war lasted 15, and now the Syrian conflict is entering its 5th. When these complex conflicts spin into a cycle of perpetual war, it becomes increasingly tempting for powers lacking in political capital or a strategic advantage to align with questionable proxies to further their interests, without direct intervention. They are treated, as Henry Kissinger infamously stated about military men, as “Dumb animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy”.

This can explain a somewhat worrying trend with regards to Islamist groups in Syria. Some commentators have been tempted to brand fighters such as Radwan Nammous, aka Abu Firas Al Suri of Al Nusra Front, as “moderate”. The Independent’s Kim Sungupta inferred this when reporting his death on April 4th by an alleged US drone strike. In his article, he takes a comment made by Faisal Adburrahaman Ibrahimi, a soldier with Syrian Islamist group Ahrar ash Sham. Ibrahimi asserted that the fight against IS is stunted by this example of killing “real revolutionaries”.

Giving credence to the comments of a member of Ahrar Ash Sham indicates the growth of a common wisdom that the group is becoming less militant, expounding what Syrian analyst Sam Heller calls a “revisionist“ Jihadism. This emerging consensus does not account for their history, and underestimates their strategic depth. Ibrahimi’s backhanded appeal to this confluence of interest with The West makes it clear that he would have us categorize IS as the only immediate Islamist threat. And, judging by the above articles as well as the initial inclusion of Ahrar Ash Sham and Jaysh Al Islam in the High Negotiating Committee during the January Geneva III talks, he has good reason to believe that the western dog can be wagged this way. The mirror of IS makes just about everything look moderate, but policymakers should be aware of an old foe, playing a long game.

Al Suri, Al Quaeda and the Islamist Civil War

Al-Suri’s moderation was qualified by Sungupta, who highlighted his use of Marxist concepts when analysing the historical processes of Jihad and criticizing IS. This should not serve as an example of his moderation. Al-Suri was a disciple of Abdullah Azzam’s Makhtab Al- Khadimat (services bureau, the precursor to Al Qaeda), and was exposed to the Islamist doctrines of Sayyid Qutb to qualify Jihad as a participant in the Afghan conflict in the 1980’s. Qutb, regarded as the theoretical grandfather of the Jihadist movement, also borrowed heavily from Marxist concepts when writing his work Ma’alim (milestones) from Nasser’s brutal cells in the fifties and sixties. In it, he proposed the idea that a vanguard, or tali’a, would lead and guard the Muslim world in revolution against the unbelievers, or Jahiliyya. In much the same way that Lenin believed the Bolsheviks to be the anointed dictatorship of the proletariat, Al Qaeda at their peak believed they were the divinely anointed guardians of the revolution.

This consistency of this tali’a is precisely what cleaved apart Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ascent within the Al Qaeda affiliate, and is the crux of Al Suri’s grievance. As Truls Tønneson asserts, a power struggle occurred within the organisation after the death of its charismatic leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the merger of Baghdadi’s core group with the diminished organisation in October 2006. After a failed rebellion attempt by Abd al-Karim al-Jubouri, a figure linked to the traditionalist Al Qaeda wing, the ‘Ba’athists’ consolidated power in late 2010. As a result, many pro AQ members were assassinated, exiled, or fled to other smaller groups.

Thus, the old “Afghan Arabs” were stifled as their old organisation became Iraq-ified, ruralised and Ba’athised. The old guard were left attempting to theoretically delegitimise IS on the side-lines as IS claimed more land and more recruits, using what Fawaz Gerges calls a ‘rational savagery’ to impress potential members by striking fear into opposing, mostly Muslim, forces. In executing the Ba’athist valorisation of al quiswa, or “harshness”, IS have indiscriminately slaughtered those who do not confirm to their takfiri (excommunicatory) ideology. In the process, they have alienated other Islamist groups who recoil at their barbarism, and have broken decisively with their mother organisation. Islamists such as Al Suri are thus desperate to discredit it.

Aq’s Regional Silhouette

But while it may be argued that Al Qaeda have diminished beyond the Rubicon, it is not quite the full picture. In fact, while the centrifuge of the Syrian conflict rumbles away, Al Qaeda have begun to seek both land and legitimacy amongst locals as a viable alternative to the barbarism of IS. Al Qaeda’s largest cell, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have been busy consolidating control over communities in southern Yemen, and have seized the port town of Mukulla. They have successfully exploited the cleavage between themselves and IS to pacify local communities, providing a ‘jihadist lite’ approach to rule, looting banks and abolishing taxation, while refraining from overusing hudud punishments (extreme punishments for crimes against god) and even bartering with the government in exile for oil rights.

The prints of Al-Qaeda are visible on other smaller organisations, making a future convergence between them somewhat conceivable should AQAP create a strong fiscal base in Yemen.  What Charles Lister of the Brooking’s Doha Institute calls IS’ ‘Ink Spot Strategy’ (that of outsourcing their presence to external cells with the aim of converging borders) extends to what Al Qaeda has achieved inside smaller groups in Syria and elsewhere to survive the collapse of Al Qaeda central in 2011.

These “ink spot” connections extend not only to Abu Firas Al Suri and Jabhat Al Nusra, but to Abu Ayman al-Hamawi, leader of Ibrahimi’s Ahrar Ash Sham. He was purported to have been a close companion of Abu Zarqawi, leader of IS’ parent organisation, Al Qaeda in Iraq. This is problematic, as this extremely questionable organisation has an estimated 20,000 fighters, making them the largest rebel fighting force behind the Free Syria Army. This has been made possible by funding from US led coalition allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.

Affiliations also exist via reverence for the example set by the organisations past achievements in other Islamist organisations. The ex-leader of Jaysh Al Islam, Zahran Alloush has been documented on record as praising Osama Bin Laden, referring to him reverentially as ‘sheikh’. This is also problematic as this group were also included in the preliminary talks to resolve the Syrian conflict, and were also for a time affiliated to Ashar ash Sham as part of the Syrian Islamic Front before the organisation dissolved. This is evidence that an affinity that has been shared in the past could happen in the future under the right conditions.

So when Ibrahimi talks of “real revolutionaries” he is referring to old guard; the ones that hold links to Al Qaeda, were involved with Abdullah Azzam’s ‘caravan’ of jihadist fighters in the 1980’s, and who are now at war with IS over ownership of the brand rights of international Jihad. And when individuals such as former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford advocate opening up to Ahrar Ash Sham to avoid being left behind in the struggle to influence Syria, they do so without looking at the present or the past to save the future – they do it due to a dangerous paucity of ideas wrought by an obvious strategic disadvantage.

Nowhere Left to Turn: American Fatigue

This strategic disadvantage can be seen in Russia’s intervention. The Kremlin have the advantage of knowing who their friends are, aggressively supporting the onwards march of Assad’s forces to support its historic regional ally. America and the west do not have this strategic luxury. The constant stop-start of brokered talks is representative of Western political exhaustion, as well as the lack of political capital at home and abroad to commit to a comprehensive strategy in Syria beyond air strikes and drone attacks. The failure of Libya, the fear of mission creep in Syria, and a desire for what Obama called ‘free riders’ in the region to step up to the plate mean that American strategic emphasis has pivoted to Asia. 

But the failure of the west in the sands of the Middle East should not distract them from security threats on the horizon. While IS may remain the most immediate of these threats, Al Qaeda is down, but it is certainly not out. So when including militias in peace talks, policy makers must always refer to their histories and connections to anticipate the content of their character, and treat them with a degree of caution. After all, groups that have remained inside civil conflicts for this long are far from the subservient “dumb animals” of Kissinger’s reckoning.

About the Author

Lloyd Whittaker holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Sussex, and an MSc in Theory and History of International Relations from the London School of Economics, where he specialised in Middle Eastern history. He is currently working as a researcher for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and can be contacted via his linkedIn account at

Cover image ‘Return To Homs‘ by Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘


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