Top Five Ways to tell if a Terrorist is still al-Qaeda despite name Change

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The leftist Beirut newspaper al-Safir comments scathingly on the name-change of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, to the Syria Conquest Front.

Here are some reasons that the name change isn’t going to work:

1. Al-Julani got permission from 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of old al-Qaeda, to sever public ties with him because, you know, being in a command line to al-Qaeda was a PR problem for the Syrian guerrilla opposition to the Syrian regime. But if you have to get permission from al-Qaeda to change your name, then guess what? You’re still al-Qaeda.

2. In the announcement of the name change, as al-Safir points out, there was no explicit renunciation of the ties between al-Julani and al-Qaeda or of the pledge of fealty al-Julani gave al-Zawahiri. (Or I might add, any apology for having hooked up with al-Qaeda, ). He just said that a new organization has been formed that has no relations with any foreign quarter.

3. The new name is Front for the Conquest of Greater Syria. Conquest has a bad ring to it. I don’t think Syria needs to be conquered by these seedy-looking guys (and the name implies he wants Lebanon and Jordan and Israel/Palestine, too). The Huns conquered Rome. The Mongols conquered Iran. Tojo conquered the Philippines. Maybe if they had been a liberation front or a member of one it might have a less unsavory ring. As it is, it is still obvious that they want to impose their hyper-fundamentalist ideology at the point of a gun on Syrian women, Alawis, Kurds, Druze, secular Sunnis, etc. etc.

4. Al-Safir says that the attempted image change comes way too late. The Nusra Front was asked by former CIA head David Petraeus to ditch al-Qaeda and join the coalition against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), but it didn’t. As a result, it lost most international support and contributed to a loss of support for its allies. Now, the strategic and tactical situation in Syria has completely changed, since Russia began bombing last fall. Al-Qaeda and its allies have lost enormous ground in the meantime, and now even East Aleppo has been surrounded.

5. Nobody will believe you if you look like this:

Mohammad_al-Julani h/t Wikipedia.

You might be thinking the switch from a black to a white turban would do the trick. But you forgot this one:

Osama_bin_Laden_portrait h/t Wikipedia

14 Responses

  1. I like the bite to your writing here. This was a particularly enjoyable read Professor. Clearly, these dudes aren’t ready for proganda combat in the new media environment. Something makes me suspect they might never quite get there. Backwards as they are, at least ISIS has grasped the basics of social media terrorism, these guys seem like rank amateurs.

  2. If Obama had followed McCain/ Lindsey Graham’s advice, the tag team equivalent of Richard Pearl and Joe Lieberman, and ordered generals to deploy ground troops into Syria we would have found our soldiers fighting side by side with the organization blamed for 9-11. The needless loss of life and treasury would have been staggering.

    With Assad deposed Syria could expect the kind of war and mayhem now being experienced by Iraq for a generation or more. Speaking of which, Huff Post is reporting a million Iraqis might have to flee their homes in the next few weeks.

    Thanks Bush/ Cheney….Mission Accomplished!

  3. I agree in general, but if I’m not mistaken the Arabic word فتح is mostly used in the context of the original Islamic conquests and is harking back to that, something I don’t think you harping on this English translation really reflects.

    • Juan is right (as usual) on the Keystone Kops nature of this announcement, but yes, the word also has the sense in Arabic of “opening” and has something of a historically positive connotation. It is used, for example, most commonly in the “opening/conquest” of al-Andalus (Spain) in the 7th century CE.

      • One could criticize the Arabic for being associated with the early Islamic conquests and thus taking on a religious bend if you wanted to adopt a strictly secular/atheist critique. Clearly it harks back to Khalid bin Walid rather than Ghandi or Jefferson. But going on about the English translation conquest isn’t quite reasonable, the Arabic word has different connotations and it’s clearly that they are thinking of.

        • I’m not sure what a “strictly atheist critique” actually is. But my point with regard to al-Jolani’s announcement is that he is trying to have it both ways (which I think you agree with): by using “fatah” he means conquest but also trying to tie in to a word that has a historically positive connotation in a way that the English word “conquest” does not.

        • thanks so much for your informed intervention, Glenn. Trying to have it both ways is definitely the tactic here.

  4. You left out way number 6: If the US government calls you a “moderate” rebel, you are Al Qaeda.

  5. Well one thing’s for sure – you can always identify the terrorists by their style of hair covering.

    • I don’t believe it is alleged that the US ever funded the Jabhah. Some of their battlefield allies of convenience, yes.

  6. Here in the UK we have long had a chuckle (well, not if they can hear us…) at the endless re-branding exercises of the various local and global terrorist groups that have come and gone since the 60s. The endless splinter groups in Ireland from Republican gangs eventually led to the label ‘I can’t Believe It’s Not the IRA’ (after, I believe, a the tagline of brand of margarine at the time). Good to see the Arab world following in a grand terrorist tradition.

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