By Michael S. Smith II

America’s top intelligence officials recently advised members of the United States Senate that al-Qa’ida’s newest affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusrah, is likely preparing jihadis to attack US interests. Given such, with respect to the State Department’s treatment of this terrorist group, prudence welcomes greater accuracy.

The State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusrah as an alias of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI/ISI/ISIL/ISIS) is clearly problematic:  Neither Jabhat al-Nusrah’s leadership, nor al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledge the group is either an alias, or a subordinate of AQI/ISI/ISIL/ISIS. Further, al-Zawahiri has stated Jabhat al-Nusrah is subordinated to al-Qa’ida’s General Command — not AQI/ISI/ISIL/ISIS elements, which al-Qa’ida’s General Command apparently disowned earlier this year.

As intelligence regarding Jabhat al-Nusrah was fragmented at the time of State’s designation of the group analysis pointing to al-Nusrah as a subordinate, or simply an alias of AQI may have been reasonable in December 2012. At the time, various sources indicated Jabhat al-Nusrah’s leader — an associate of AQI’s deceased founding emir — was deployed to Syria by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the purpose of growing both al-Qa’ida’s presence and operations against the Assad regime in Syria.

However, more recent developments, coupled with relevant, available data from open sources demonstrate Jabhat al-Nusrah is neither an alias, nor a subordinate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group(s).

Therefore, State should place Jabhat al-Nusrah on the FTO list individually versus maintaining its current status as an “alias” of an FTO — something which clearly reflects dated analysis.

(Disowned by AQ’s General Command in February 2014, State’s treatment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise is another matter that may require attention. What to properly call the organization pursuant to its rebranding efforts is also another matter that may require attention.)

Brief Background

After AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared Jabhat al-Nusrah was to be merged with his organization in April 2013, Jabhat al-Nusrah’s leader, Mohamed al-Jawlani, simultaneously renewed his pledge of bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri and issued an appeal for al-Zawahiri to preserve Jabhat al-Nusrah’s status as a separate entity (audio accessible here).

In a letter addressed to both al-Jawlani and al-Baghdadi that surfaced in June 2013, al-Zawahiri advised (a) al-Baghdadi was acting without the consent of al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders when he moved to subsume al-Nusrah within his group, and (b) such a merger was not approved by al-Qa’ida. Further, al-Zawahiri advised Jabhat al-Nusrah was the only AQ affiliate that should be operating in Syria; according to al-Zawahiri’s orders, AQI/ISI/ISIL/ISIS should cease operations in Syria. (Early in November 2013, al-Zawahiri’s positions on these matters were reiterated in an audio message circulated on jihadi web forums and broadcast by Al Jazeera.)

Moreover, according to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Jabhat al-Nusrah is the official manager of al-Qa’ida’s Syria portfolio.

In addition, in February 2014, al-Qa’ida’s General Command disowned ISIS. Accordingly, ISIS is no longer a “branch of al-Qa’ida.”


Two months after this post ran, the State Department amended its designation of AQI and designated Jabhat al-Nusrah as a separate terrorist organization. The following is an excerpt from State’s announcement of these changes, dated 14 May 2014:

The Department of State announced the amendment of the designation of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under section 1(b) of Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 to add the alias Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as its primary name and remove all aliases associated with al-Nusrah Front (ANF). Additionally, the Department of State announced the designation of ANF as an FTO under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under section 1(b) of E.O. 13224.

The Department will also add the following aliases to the ISIL listing: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq wa-sh-Sham, Daesh, Dawla al Islamiya, and Al-Furqan Establishment for Media Production. Furthermore, under the same authorities, the Department of State designated al-Nusrah Front as a standalone FTO and SDGT.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *