The Weekly Standard, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN, SEP 23, 2014:
The U.S. launched airstrikes in Syria for the first time overnight. Much of the public discourse in the weeks leading up to the bombings focused on the Islamic State, a former branch of al Qaeda that has captured a significant amount territory across both Iraq and Syria. But the bombings are not just intended to weaken the Islamic State. U.S. bombers are also targeting positions controlled by Jabhat al Nusrah, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
This is the right course for the Obama administration to pursue.
With its stunningly effective military tactics and mass killings, the Islamic State has garnered most of the headlines since earlier this year. The recorded beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff played no small part in shaping the American public’s opinion that something must be done.
But Jabhat al Nusrah, which has been openly at odds with the Islamic State since last year, is also a threat.
Consider all of the following.
Al Qaeda operatives embedded within Jabhat al Nusrah are tasked with targeting the U.S. and Western interests. The Obama administration says they were plotting “imminent” attacks.
In recent days, U.S. officials openly worried about al Qaeda operatives, known as the “Khorasan group,” who had been dispatched to Syria by al Qaeda’s senior leaders to plan attacks against the West. The Khorasan group, which is named after al Qaeda’s Khorasan shura, or advisory, council is embedded within Jabhat al Nusrah.
A statement released by CENTCOM notes that the U.S. airstrikes in Syria targeted “a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans – sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group – who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations.” The strikes are intended “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests.”
In an interview with ABC News, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby said, “We had very good indications that this group, which is a very dangerous group, was plotting and planning imminent attacks against Western targets to include the U.S. homeland and it was on that basis that we struck targets, Khorasan targets inside Syria.”
Kirby continued, “We believe that the individuals that were plotting and planning it have been eliminated and we’re going to continue… to assess the effectiveness of our strikes going through today.”
“Core” al Qaeda members are part of Jabhat al Nusrah and the “Khorasan group.”
U.S. intelligence officials often claim that there is a “core” of al Qaeda that is supposedly confined to the geography of South Asia. “Core al Qaeda” is imprecisely defined. But, in general, when President Obama and U.S. officials use this term they are invoking the idea that this part of al Qaeda was the most worrisome, as it was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and everything else in the jihadists’ world is necessarily less problematic. When President Obama speaks of “decimating” al Qaeda, he is referring to the idea of “core al Qaeda.”
This paradigm never fit the evidence. Core al Qaeda operatives are stationed in at least several countries, including Syria.
The head of the Khorasan group within Jabhat al Nusrah is a longtime al Qaeda operative known as Muhsin al Fadhli, who has been connected to international terrorist plots for more than a decade.
Other well-known al Qaeda leaders who have been operating in Syria include: Sanafi al Nasr (a strategist for Al Nusrah who runs his own al Qaeda committee), Abu Firas al Suri (who has served al Qaeda’s leaders since the 1980s and is Nusrah’s spokesman), Abu Sulayman al Muhajir (a senior sharia official in al Qaeda who relocated from Australia to Syria) and Abu Hammam al Suri, (until recently he was Nusrah’s senior military commander).
All of these jihadists are, by any reasonable definition, “core” al Qaeda members. It is well-established that other al Qaeda veterans have traveled from South Asia to Syria to join Nusrah’s ranks, including the “network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans” working with al Fadhli.
Jabhat al Nusrah is openly loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
At first, al Qaeda’s senior leaders attempted to hide the depth of their relationship with Jabhat al Nusrah. But after its disagreements with the Islamic State broke into the public, the emir of Nusrah, Abu Muhammad al Julani, revealed that he had sworn a bayat (oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri. The group’s top sharia (Islamic law) official publicly reaffirmed the group’s allegiance to Zawahiri as recently as late July.
Thus, Jabhat al Nusrah is one of the five official regional branches of al Qaeda. The other four are: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Shabaab in Somalia, and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). They are all pursuing al Qaeda’s agenda, as are groups that al Qaeda has clandestinely spawned or allied with.
Despite their differences, Jabhat al Nusrah and the Islamic State share many of the same goals.
The overwhelming majority of Jabhat al Nusrah’s resources have been devoted to overthrowing Bashar al Assad’s regime. Nusrah has worked hard to embed itself with the Syrian rebellion. This is because Nusrah wants to establish an Islamic state in the areas “liberated” from Assad’s control. This state would be governed according to al Qaeda’s radical version of sharia law. Nusrah officials have repeatedly stated that this is their goal.
Of course, this is also the goal of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his self-named Islamic State. Nusrah disagrees with the Islamic State over how to build an Islamic state. Baghdadi also believes that he is the top jihadist on the planet, but Nusrah and al Qaeda’s senior leaders disagree.
Many commentators and terrorism experts believe that al Qaeda is devoted solely to waging a “global jihad,” that is, attempting to strike in the West. “Local jihad,” or seeking to win territory in various unstable warzones, is supposedly the pursuit of other groups. This is a false dichotomy. Most of al Qaeda’s efforts inside Syria, via Jabhat al Nusrah and other groups, have been dedicated to winning power locally.
As can be seen with the Khorasan group, some part of the al Qaeda’s efforts will always be devoted to attacking the West.
However, al Qaeda has always had bigger plans and the U.S. should continue to factor this into any sustained bombing campaign.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.