Center for Strategic Communication


Image that accompanied Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s audiotape announcing the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The flag was originally al Qaeda in Iraq’s banner, but has been adopted by other al Qaeda affiliated and associated groups. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.

The emir of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (also known as Abu Dua), has announced a new brand for his organization’s efforts: the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” The new name replaces all previous brands used by al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq and Syria, including the Al Nusrah Front.

Al Baghdadi’s announcement came in an audio message which was released online on April 8. The message was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Baghdadi confirms that the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s chief fighting force inside Syria, has always been a creation of his terrorist organization.

“It’s now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and world that the al Nusrah Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it,” al Baghdadi says.

The Al Nusrah Front’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani, is one of al Baghdadi’s subordinates. “We deputized al Julani, and he is one of our soldiers, and with him a group of our sons, and we pushed them from Iraq to the Levant so as to meet our cells in the Levant,” al Baghdadi explains, according to SITE’s translation.

“We laid for them plans, and drew up for them the policy of work, and gave them what financial support we could every month, and supplied them with men who had known the battlefields of jihad, from the emigrants and the natives,” al Baghdadi continues.

Al Baghdadi says that al Qaeda did not announce the Al Nusrah Front’s al Qaeda origins in the past “due to security reasons.”

Message confirms State Department designation

Al Baghdadi’s new message confirms the details set forth in a designation released by the US State Department on Dec. 11, 2012. The State Dept. announced at the time that the Al Nusrah Front was simply “a new alias for AQI” and that the group “has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”

The State Dept. explained the relationship between the Al Nusrah Front and AQI in much the same way that al Baghdadi does. Al Baghdadi “is in control of both AQI and al Nusrah,” State said, and he “issues strategic guidance to al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and tasked him to begin operations in Syria.”

Al Qaeda’s use of brands

Al Qaeda has long used multiple brands to mask its operations, as AQI did in Syria with respect to the Al Nusrah Front.

Al Qaeda’s choice of brand name can also reflect how the organization views allied organizations, as well as its current prospects in a specific geographic venue. In that vein, al Baghdadi explains that AQI’s evolution began with its first emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who established his group, “Tawhid Wal Jihad,” inside Iraq. Al Baghdadi points out that Zarqawi’s organization used the same name inside Afghanistan.

Contrary to some accounts, Zarqawi already had substantial links to al Qaeda at this time. For instance, Saif al Adel, a top al Qaeda leader, has confirmed in his writings that he managed al Qaeda’s relationship with Zarqawi. Al Qaeda supported Zarqawi’s camps in western Afghanistan prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, al Adel has written.

When Zarqawi formally swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda, al Baghdadi continues, Zarqawi changed his organization’s name to al Qaeda in Iraq, thereby “tying” it “to the global circle of jihad.” Interestingly, al Baghdadi says, Zarqawi “knew how much this pledge [to al Qaeda] would cost the Sunni people in Iraq, and how much it would cost his mujahideen sons and brothers.”

The calculation Zarqawi and al Qaeda made with respect to Iraq is similar to the one made by al Qaeda-affiliated groups elsewhere. A document recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound shows, for example, that al Qaeda’s CEO told Shabaab to hide its al Qaeda ties in order to avoid additional international scrutiny. The document confirmed previous reporting by The Long War Journal. Only months later, in February 2012, did Shabaab and al Qaeda announce their formal merger. Similarly, a document authored by the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and recovered in Mali, revealed that his wing of al Qaeda sought to hide its global jihadist aims.

Even after adopting al Qaeda’s brand, however, affiliate organizations may adopt new names reflecting their on-the-ground objectives. To this end, al Baghdadi says AQI united with other jihadist groups inside Iraq under the “Mujahideen Shura Council” (MSC) umbrella. The same name has been adopted by al Qaeda-linked groups elsewhere.

Zarqawi “extended his hands to those who were in the field from the working groups…and made it [a] condition of unity not to lay down their arms, no matter what was the nature of the tyrannical government that would be formed,” al Baghdadi says. AQI then “gave up the name of al Qaeda that frightened the enemies of Allah, which had global weight and was tied to the Sheikh of the Mujahideen Osama bin Laden…and also the other groups gave up their names” to fight as part of the MSC.

But AQI’s evolution did not end there. Zarqawi’s successors relaunched al Qaeda’s effort once again, under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al Baghdadi says that the ISI “created cells” in the Levant “that are limited to preparation and supply, waiting for the chance to continue the path of highness that must continue.” These cells joined with Abu Muhammad al Julani and his men to create the Al Nusrah Front.

But today, al Baghdadi says, all of the previous brands used by al Qaeda in the region, including the Al Nusrah Front, “disappear from our use, and become part of our blessed jihadi history like their predecessors.”

They now fight under a unifying name, the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”

Echoing Zawahiri’s call for unity, creation of Islamic state in the Levant

Just two days before al Baghdadi’s audio message was released on jihadist forums, As Sahab, al Qaeda’s official propaganda arm, released a lengthy speech by Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Qaeda’s emir called for jihadists in the Levant to forge an Islamic state.

“Do your best to make the fruit of your jihad, Allah permitting, a jihadi Islamic State that spreads justice and consultation, and protects the rights and has conscience,” Zawahiri advised, according to a translation prepared by SITE. Such a state should become “a brick in the structure of the return of the rightly-guided Caliphate on the methodology of the Prophet,” Zawahiri said.

Zawahiri also heaped praise on the Islamic State of Iraq, saying it was a bulwark against the West’s designs.

AQI’s announced creation of a new brand, the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” is entirely consistent with Zawahiri’s advice.