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Al-Nusra's Rebranding: New Project Aimed at Replacing Daesh?

© AFP 2021 / Fadi al-Halabi/AMCFighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in armed vehicles in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as they head to a frontline, on May 26, 2015
Fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in armed vehicles in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as they head to a frontline, on May 26, 2015 - Sputnik International
The Al-Nusra Front's decision to break its ties with al-Qaeda and change its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has triggered a heated debate, with some experts suggesting that the notorious group may continue its terrorist activities alongside Daesh (ISIL/ISIS).

Fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front. (File) - Sputnik International
What Lies Behind Al-Nusra Front's Decision to Break Ties With Al-Qaeda
After the al-Nusra Front announced its decision to break ranks with al-Qaeda and change its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Arabic for 'Front for the Conquest of the Levant'), the question has arisen what the infamous terrorist group will do next.

In his article for War on the Rocks, former FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Special Agent Clint Watts emphasizes that the re-rebranded group has pledged its commitment to toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and establishing an Islamic state in post-conflict Syria.

According to the FBI veteran, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former al-Nusra Front, is likely to emerge as a hybrid that comprises the features of both al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS/ISIL).

"Al-Nusra's transformation into Fatah al-Sham blends preferred attributes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to create a new jihadi hybrid. In the near term, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has jettisoned al-Qaeda's long-bankrupt Western 'far enemy' global targeting philosophy, which rapidly attracted counterterrorism pressure," Watts underscores.

"But Joulani's new group kept al-Qaeda's slower, pragmatic approach to state-building through integration with locals and the cultivation of popular support. At the same time, Fatah al-Sham sustains Islamic State aspirations for creating a caliphate in Syria, but avoids the heavy-handed violence and global agitation that's alienated local popular support and provoked Western airstrikes," he adds.

Members of jihadist group Al-Nusra Front take part in a parade calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, at the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood of Aleppo, on October 25, 2013 - Sputnik International
Islamists Easily Betray Each Other Under Syrian Army Pressure in Aleppo
Watts envisions that Fatah al-Sham will try to avoid Russia and the US-led coalition's airstrikes, win over Gulf private donors, appease local partners and push ahead with the jihadi vision of statehood.

"Al-Nusra's rebranding represents smart jihadi strategy to unify the ranks between globalists and nationalists," the FBI veteran explains, "The Fatah al-Sham name change attempts to slip [past] US counterterrorism justifications and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations for  targeting."

"Yet al-Qaeda leaders, namely Joulani, who's fought against the United States, still lead Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. A new name should not provide devoted American enemies a free pass," the expert warns.

Alexander Perendzhiev, a Moscow-based political scientist associated with the Association of Independent Military Political Scientists, also believes that the essence of the al-Nusra Front's ideology remains intact.

In his interview with RIA Novosti, Perendjiev suggested that the re-branding of the al-Nusra Front could mark the creation of a new Islamist project aimed at occupying new territories for a "global caliphate" alongside Daesh or instead of it.  

"It is not merely 're-branding': the decision to change the name has not only been triggered by the desire to sidestep airstrikes. The renaming of the terrorist al-Nusra Front group may mark the beginning of a new project aimed at conquering territories for a global caliphate together with Daesh or instead of this organization," Perendzhiev underscored.

A still image taken on July 29, 2016 from an undated video shows Abu Mohamad al-Golani (C), the leader of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formely known as Nusra Front, delivering a statemtent at an unknown location - Sputnik International
Renaming of Nusra Front Sign of Political Bankruptcy of Jihadists' Supporters
According to Perendzhiev, both Daesh and the al-Nusra Front are seeking to expand their influence to create a global Islamist caliphate. However, to achieve this goal, al-Nusra Front is targeting secular governments in countries with a Muslim majority.

Despite earlier speculations that al-Nusra Front was fighting Daesh, voiced particularly by the Brookings Institution, an influential US think tank, Fatah al-Sham could be a project which aims to either bolster Daesh or replace it.

"That means that if Daesh vanishes, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham may raise its black banner," Perendzhiev suggested.

For his part, Abdel Bari Atwan, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, stressed that Fatah al-Sham has no other alternative but to push ahead with its Islamist agenda, otherwise it may lose the support of both its fighters and its sponsors.

If the al-Nusra Front really did change its ideology, they would spark outrage among its ranks, with most of its fighters defecting to Daesh, Atwan told RIA Novosti.

According to the expert, the decision to withdraw from the al-Qaeda network was prompted by two major factors: first, the terrorist group has sustained severe damage due to Russian airstrikes; second, the group is losing foreign support. Atwan called attention to the fact that Turkey is now focused on domestic problems. Furthermore, Ankara has recently resumed good relations with Moscow.   

Atwan assumes that the al-Nusra Front's private Gulf donors could have persuaded the group to officially sever its ties with al-Qaeda and change its name so that it wouldn't be accused of sponsoring terrorism.

In any event, by re-branding and severing ties with al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front has just changed its skin, not its heart, the Middle East expert emphasized.

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