Al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front in Syria has restarted its propaganda operation after not releasing any official videos or messages for two months. The four new messages, which highlight operations from March and April, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, are strong evidence that a dispute between al Qaeda’s Syrian and Iraqi-based branches has been settled by the terrorist organization’s overall emir, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Al Nusrah stopped posting videos and messages online through its official media arm, the al Manara al Baydha’ Media Foundation, after the dispute broke out in April.
On April 8, ISI chieftain Abu Bakr al Baghdadi tried to place the Al Nusrah Front under his command and rebrand the two al Qaeda affiliates as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
A few days later, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhammad al Julani rejected al Baghdadi’s announcement, saying that his allegiance was owed directly to Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Baghdadi had been al Julani’s subordinate inside Iraq prior to the rebellion against Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime. The ISI helped spawn the Al Nusrah Front beginning in late 2011.
Zawahiri stepped into this dispute over the chain of command on April 11, when he wrote letters to both al Qaeda commanders. Zawahiri describes these earlier communications in a letter dated May 23 that was first published by Al Jazeera.
Zawahiri writes that he “sought to resolve the dispute by sending a message” and wanted to freeze “the matter as it was before the dispute until the matter could be arbitrated,” according to SITE’s translation.
Indeed, the Al Nusrah Front and the ISI froze the release of any new propaganda videos and messages for two months, thereby avoiding any further disputes over how al Qaeda is organized or how its operations inside Syria should be branded.
Zawahiri’s May 23 letter contained his ruling on the disagreement between al Baghdadi and al Julani. After receiving letters from both al Qaeda commanders and consulting others, Zawahiri concluded that the Al Nusrah Front and the ISI will remain independently-managed wings of al Qaeda and should avoid infighting while supporting each other with “fighters, arms, money, shelter and security.”
While Zawahiri criticized both al Qaeda commanders, his letter was a clear repudiation of al Baghdadi’s power play. The Al Nusrah Front will continue to report directly to al Qaeda’s “general command,” Zawahiri decided, and not answer to al Baghdadi.
After one year, both al Qaeda leaders are to submit status reports to al Qaeda’s “general command.” It will be decided at that time whether they maintain their leadership roles, Zawahiri writes.
In the meantime, Zawahiri has installed a longtime al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri to oversee matters and make sure that the Syrian and Iraqi branches of al Qaeda adhere to his ruling.
Although Zawahiri’s ruling is dated May 23, it was first reported to the public on June 9 by Al Jazeera, with unidentified Syrian sources quickly confirming the message’s authenticity.
On June 10, the Al-I’tissam Media Foundation, an ISI media outfit, released a propaganda video of al Qaeda’s attacks in Iraq. It was the first such video since the dispute went to Zawahiri for arbitration.
And now, four days later, the Al Nusrah Front has released its first messages since early April.
The new ISI and Al Nusrah Front releases maintain the branding that existed before the disagreement between the groups’ commanders first became public. That is, the al Qaeda affiliates are adhering to Zawahiri’s ruling in their official communications.