Quilliam, a British counter-extremism foundation, recently released a concept paper on jihadist groups in Syria titled “The Jihadist Network in the Syrian Revolution”. The paper spotlights the jihadist network’s inception, objectives, ideology, leadership, structure and strategies.

Al-Shorfa met with Quilliam’s Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist and the foundation’s current president, to discuss al-Qaeda and its involvement in the Syrian revolution.

Al-Shorfa: The Quilliam report discusses “Jabhat al-Nusra [li-ahl al-Sham]” as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. What is this group and what is the true nature of its connection to al-Qaeda?

Noman Benotman: A careful study of [Jabhat al-Nusra] since its inception, and [a study of] its statements — which now number in the dozens — allow [us to formulate] a key and critical conclusion: that it subscribes to al-Qaeda’s ideology in terms of its understanding of Islam in general, not just its view on what is happening in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra is a part of al-Qaeda’s jihadist network.

It also became clear to us that Jabhat al-Nusra is virtually the only force within the conglomeration of Islamist jihadist groups — and here we do not speak about the Free Syrian Army, the dominant force in the conflict among the opposition factions — that has a quasi-plan to develop an integrated organisation. They [the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra] have covered a lot of ground in achieving that plan and now have organisational components that other groups, which are loosely structured as irregular [infantry] camps, battalions and brigades, lack. Jabhat al-Nusra, in contrast, was able to develop an integrated organisational structure in record time.

During the time the report was being prepared, it also drew our attention that Jabhat al-Nusra is the only force within what is known as the jihadist conglomeration in Syria, that has what might be referred to as an ‘outreach programme’ seeking to recruit other groups in Syrian territories, succeeding on some occasions and failing on others. For example, it succeeded in recruiting a group that was affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Damascus, an FSA battalion that announced it joined Jabhat al-Nusra out of the ideological conviction it is the right banner to fight under while adhering more to Sharia.

On the other hand, we have documented cases in other regions of Syria like al-Qaseer, where fighter groups rejected Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempts to persuade them to join it. Jabhat al-Nusra approached some local groups to persuade them to join, but they refused. The vast majority of Syrian fighters are Muslim and believers, but do not view the conflict from an ideological perspective. They are only fighting to get rid of the al-Assad regime. Therefore, as happened in al-Qaseer, they rejected the offer of Jabhat al-Nusra because they do not view the fight from an ideological perspective. [That notwithstanding], no other jihadist group has an outreach programme like that of Jabhat al-Nusra to recruit rebels.

Al-Shorfa: But why does Jabhat al-Nusra operate under that name and not under the name of al-Qaeda?

Benotman: In order for us to build a solid foundation for a conclusion, let us examine the documents, because they are the primary source for dissecting terrorism. I am talking specifically about the messages found at Osama bin Laden’s house [in Abbottabad], which serve as documentary [evidence] since they [detailed] correspondence between him and the leaders of the organisation.

The documents clearly [reveal] a discussion on the need to change the name of the organisation. They clearly indicate that al-Qaeda is being despised for acts committed in its name, as well as [clearly indicate that the organisation’s leaders] have seen barriers emerge between them and Muslim segments and groups in many places. So, al-Qaeda devised a different strategy, calling on [these people] to operate under a generic unrelated name and focus instead on ideology and mobilisation, while refraining from using the al-Qaeda name so people and society will not reject them.

This is their strategy to counter the rejection [of al-Qaeda] on the part of Muslim masses that has begun to surface [on a grassroots level]. Look at what they did in Yemen: they came in under the name of Ansar al-Sharia. Look at what happened in Mali, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb exists but behind a different facade and through other alliances.

Al-Qaeda applied the same logic in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra. It wants to use the current conflict as an incubation stage where it can work on building an organisation. Then, at the end of the day, when Assad falls, it would be able to emerge with its organisation and structure. It does not want to create a problem at this point in time because it knows that regimes are using the al-Qaeda name to cast fear among citizens and in the West and in all countries that support Arab revolutions. It does not want to give cause to the further erosion of its popularity. If you fight in Syria under the al-Qaeda name, the regime would use that [against you], as would other countries, like Russia and China, which would deny the Syrian people the support they deserve. The Syrian people would point to anyone who says he belongs to al-Qaeda and say: You are the reason we were denied international support, and you are standing in the way of us achieving our goals.

So, this is al-Qaeda’s strategy to escape its predicament spawned by past actions, especially in Iraq, that alienated a large number of ordinary Muslims.

Al-Shorfa: Is the connection between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda strictly ideological or does the matter go deeper than that?

Benotman: There is an organic connection between them as well, but the ideological aspect is of critical importance here because groups do splinter over ideological differences. Even one group may split into two over ideological differences. Therefore, before proving an organic connection exists [between al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra] you need to prove an ideological connection exists. Once it is proven that the ideology — and even the terminology and how enemies are classified — are the same, the search for the organisational [connection] can begin.

The research we conducted in the field proves this case: that Jabhat al-Nusra is an extension of al-Qaeda’s plan, and that it [recycled] al-Qaeda’s old format, circa 2003 [at the time of the invasion of Iraq] in the [Syrian] framework and has revived it anew. In my opinion, if things continue as they are now, an announcement may soon be coming our way — if conditions are right — about the existence of a Levantine branch of al-Qaeda. [Jabhat al-Nusra] is the first seed in the creation of al-Qaeda in the Levant, according to the Islamic regional subdivision al-Qaeda operates under.

Al-Shorfa: But those who call themselves jihadists and are operating within the framework of the Syrian revolution are still few in number?

Benotman: If all the forces that call themselves jihadist withdraw from the battle tomorrow, the balance of the battle would not be affected one iota. The heavy burden in the battle rests on the FSA, despite all the shortcomings in its structure, which they are finally beginning to adequately address by way of professional staff officers and a disciplined structure in line with military rules and regulations. The FSA is the overwhelming force on the ground. There are also local groups of rebels who are not under the administrative authority of the FSA or anyone else, but for whom the primary battle centres on removing the Assad regime from their regions, and those groups are part of the Syrian revolution as well.

Al-Shorfa: To what benefit or detriment will al-Qaeda’s entry into [the conflict] be to the Syrian opposition, including the FSA?

Benotman: They — the FSA and the [Syrian] National Council — have expressed concern over [al-Qaeda’s] entry [into Syria] because it hurts their cause. The [crux of the] matter is simply this: a revolution for freedom, dignity, development and a pluralistic democratic system, where ‘pluralism’ precedes ‘democracy’ here because everyone lives on this earth, transforms into a closed ideological plan that will leave no room for others. This is what happened during the past ten years: wherever al-Qaeda set foot, there was no room for others.

Who would accept such a programme? No one is willing to go along with this programme, not even Arab countries, particularly Gulf countries that strongly supported the Arab revolutions. Those countries are not willing to support al-Qaeda’s programme, and neither will the Syrian people whose social structure is pluralistic. The entry of al-Qaeda and its strict ideological programme [into the country] would cause unnatural disaster. Syria urgently needs pluralism, even before democracy, and al-Qaeda does not accept such pluralism.