The US takes Syria’s Al-Qaeda off Terror Watch-lists

by Nauman Sadiq

Pictured: Fighters of al-Qaida al-Nusra Front Jabhat al-Sham Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a known terrorist organisation moderate opposition group.

According to a recent report [1] by CBC Canada, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, which was formerly known as al-Nusra Front and then Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) since July 2016, has been removed from the terror watch-lists of the US and Canada after it merged with fighters from Zenki Brigade and hardline jihadists from Ahrar al-Sham and rebranded itself as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January this year.
The US State Department is hesitant to label Tahrir al-Sham a terror group, despite the group’s link to al-Qaeda, as the US government has directly funded and armed the Zenki Brigade, one of the constituents of Tahrir al-Sham, with sophisticated weaponry including the US-made antitank TOW missiles.
The overall military commander of Tahrir al-Sham continues to be Abu Mohammad al-Julani, whom the US has branded a Specially Designated Global Terrorist with a $10 million bounty. But for the US to designate Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization now would mean acknowledging that it supplied sophisticated weapons to terrorists, and draw attention to the fact that the US continues to arm Islamic jihadists in Syria.
In order to understand the bloody history of al-Nusra Front during the Syrian civil war, bear in mind that since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in August 2011 to April 2013, the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front were a single organization that chose the banner of “Jabhat al-Nusra.” Although al-Nusra Front has been led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani but he was appointed [2] as the emir of al-Nusra Front by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, in January 2012.
Thus, al-Julani’s al-Nusra Front is only a splinter group of the Islamic State, which split from its parent organization in April 2013 over a leadership dispute between the two organizations.
In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following months, violence between demonstrators and security forces led to a gradual militarization of the conflict. In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was based in Iraq, began sending Syrian and Iraqi jihadists experienced in guerilla warfare across the border into Syria to establish an organization inside the country.
Led by a Syrian known as Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country. On 23 January 2012, the group announced its formation as Jabhat al-Nusra.
In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that al-Nusra Front had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, issued a statement denying the merger and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in al-Nusra’s leadership had been consulted about it.
Al-Qaeda Central’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, tried to mediate the dispute between al-Baghdadi and al-Julani but eventually, in October 2013, he endorsed al-Nusra Front as the official franchise of al-Qaeda Central in Syria. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, however, defied the nominal authority of al-Qaeda Central and declared himself as the caliph of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Keeping this background in mind, it becomes amply clear that a single militant organization operated in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of al-Baghdadi until April 2013, which chose the banner of al-Nusra Front, and that the current emir of the subsequent breakaway faction of al-Nusra Front, al-Julani, was actually al-Baghdadi’s deputy in Syria.
Thus, the Islamic State operated in Syria since August 2011 under the designation of al-Nusra Front and it subsequently changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013, after which, it overran Raqqa in the summer of 2013, then it seized parts of Deir al-Zor and fought battles against the alliance of Kurds and the Syrian regime in al-Hasakah. And in January 2014 it overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Iraq and reached the zenith of its power when it captured Mosul in June 2014.
Regarding the rebranding of al-Julani’s Nusra Front to “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” in July 2016 and purported severing of ties with al-Qaeda Central, it was only a nominal difference because al-Nusra Front never had any organizational and operational ties with al-Qaeda Central and even their ideologies are poles apart.
Al-Qaeda Central is basically a transnational terrorist organization, while al-Nusra Front mainly has regional ambitions that are limited only to fighting the Assad regime in Syria and its ideology is anti-Shi’a and sectarian. In fact, al-Nusra Front has not only received medical aid and material support from Israel, but some of its operations against the Shi’a-dominated Assad regime in southern Syria were fully coordinated with Israel’s air force.
The purpose behind the rebranding of al-Nusra Front to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and purported severing of ties with al-Qaeda Central was to legitimize itself and to make it easier for its patrons to send money and arms. The US blacklisted al-Nusra Front in December 2012 and pressurized Saudi Arabia and Turkey to ban it too. Although al-Nusra Front’s name has been in the list of proscribed organizations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey since 2014, but it has kept receiving money and arms from the Gulf Arab States.
It should be remembered that in a May 2015 interview [3] with al-Jazeera, Abu Mohammad al-Julani took a public pledge on the behest of his Gulf-based patrons that his organization only has local ambitions limited to fighting the Assad regime in Syria and that it does not intends to strike targets in the Western countries.
Thus, this rebranding exercise has been going on for quite some time. Al-Julani announced the split from al-Qaeda in a video statement last year. But the persistent efforts of al-Julani’s Gulf-based patrons have only borne fruit in January this year, when al-Nusra Front once again rebranded itself from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which also includes “moderate” jihadists from Zenki Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and several other militant groups, and thus, the US State Department has finally given a clean chit to the jihadist conglomerate that goes by the name of Tahrir al-Sham to pursue its ambitions of toppling the Assad regime in Syria.

Sources and links:
[1] Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate escapes from terror list:
[2] Al-Julani was appointed as the emir of al-Nusra Front by al-Baghdadi:
[3] Al-Julani’s interview to Al-Jazeera: “Our mission is to defeat the Syrian regime”:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and Petroimperialism.


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Michael McNulty
Michael McNulty
Jun 19, 2017 8:48 PM

It was said the US removed some groups from its own terrorist list so it can arm and fund them. So much for fighting terrorism, then.
No armed groups like the IRA or ETA change their names. It’s who they are, it’s what they are, it’s their identity. The fact these groups have more money and arms than established groups that are generations old is one clue they are western mercenary proxies, but the fact they often change their names proves they’re not real. It’s done for political expediency, to hide where they operated, what atrocities they committed etc, and probably because every one of our leaders is guilty of every atrocity committed by their murderous baboons.

Jun 15, 2017 11:07 AM

What’s in a name? Nour al-Din al-Zenki (the Zenki Brigade above) are the CIA funded child-beheaders; who very publicly and shamelessly beheaded 12 year old Palestinian Abdullah Tayseer Al Issa. There was no denial, only that Abdullah was older, maybe 19 (with stunted growth???) Clearly, he wasn’t. Mahmoud Raslan, who also infamously photographed Omar Daqneesh; took a group selfie to celebrate the occasion. Those involved were “detained” – at least until Martin Bashir and Channel 4 attempted to rehabilitate and normalise the groups image with their “Inside Aleppo” news segment. Now the fully rebranded and fully funded group have merged with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. No doubt they are ‘moderate’ again???

von Col
von Col
Jun 14, 2017 2:45 AM

Very interesting, the ‘US State Department’ is in charge of identifying which group is a terrorist organisation. And what is more interesting is, the world takes their terror watch-list seriously.
Did it occur to them to look into the Pentagon, the Pentagon’s agencies and private contractors, the White House and themselves, for sponsoring terrorism worldwide?
Long before the direct the Pentagon’s involvement in funding and training militias in Syria to fight Syrian armed forces, the US State department created and funded civilian groups to destabilise the Syrian government.
But don’t expect Murdoch press to remind you about US worldwide sponsoring of terrorism.
In effect, one of mainstream media’s primary roles is to cover up Western sponsoring of terrorism in every part of the world.

Jun 13, 2017 10:07 AM

Just been reading the UK headlines: you know how the M$M love a good war crime on civilian population story in Syria (and Iraq)? Well you can imagine the hysterical headlines if someone was pouring white phosphorous into Raqqa? Not if it is the Trump terrorist regime – barely a word. Apart from the Torygraph; which quotes a US spox saying that they were creating a smokeshield for civilians to escape? That’s funny, I thought they just shelled escaping civilians? If you read the Independent report, notice that the Syrian Defence Force (another misnomer: they ain’t Syrian, and they ain’t defending Syrians. Terrorists maybe?) have surrounded Raqqa from the East, North, and West?? Did no one teach them that there are four cardinal points? So there is a handy corridor to the South; through which you are free to escape. Unless you are a civilian, that is. So, quite fittingly… Read more »

Jun 12, 2017 7:21 PM

The name, frame and blame game is a psycho-political cover up of our own UK petro-Imperialism. We created Saudi Arabia; and the other Monarchic Gulf States as British Protectorates. We have always fostered and favoured Wahhabism and Zionism as our preferred bulwarks against a pan-Arabic suzerain lead by Iran. To reverse blame the entire Muslim ummah for our fostering of a particular sect is to memory-hole our responsibility.
If we were to identify the particular fundamentalist Wahhabi death cult as our principal ‘enemy’ – people might identify its Saudi roots? Surely that is why Cameron’s report on Saudi funding of extremism was suppressed during the recent election cycle? According to Bojo FM (soon to be PM?) – the report doesn’t exist. Soon to be memory-holed too? Bad for the business of BAE’s bombing of Yemeni children, no doubt?

Jun 12, 2017 5:17 PM

Important article, which I’d like to see acknowledged by the mainstream. It won’t be, but I’d like to see it: after all, al-Qaeda are still commonly held to be the boogey men of the GWOT – not its frontline troops. If not AQ: the just who are we fighting?
I refuse to play the Wahhabist Jihadist name game: it’s a Tahrir al-Sham. They might claim to; but they don’t have differing ideologies or doctrines – only terrorism. I’m not enamoured of the New Syrian Army (NSA)/ old FSA trick either. Outside of Intelligence/Media constructs – neither exist. Hence, there are no “moderate rebels.” So why give them different names? Perhaps we should coin the phrase the ‘petro-Islamic State’ to avoid confusion?

Jun 12, 2017 8:18 PM
Reply to  BigBG

Petro Islamic Sham State, perhaps?

Jun 12, 2017 8:36 PM
Reply to  jdseanjd

For sure!

Eric Blair
Eric Blair
Jun 12, 2017 4:38 PM

Speaking of Canada, the Minister of Foreign Affairs – Russophobe and Ukrainian fascist sympathizer Christia Freeland – announced recently that Canada is dutifully increasing its “defence” budget just as president Trump requested of NATO members .
Except she framed it as a move made because Trump is abdicating his war duties so Canada has to step in and pick up the slack with its formidable military “hard power.” Yes, Canada and its decrepit four boat navy and 65 plane air force is going to bravely lead the west’s imperial missions from now on. Lmfao
(AFAIK this classic example of the Canadian government’s shameless sycophantic behaviour was not challenged by what passes for news media in this country.)

Jun 13, 2017 10:30 PM
Reply to  Eric Blair

Here I am in Toronto. I couldn’t agree with you more!

Jun 12, 2017 4:28 PM

When you go to the link of Listed terrorist entities on the CBCca website
you get server not found.

Paul Baker
Paul Baker
Jun 12, 2017 2:50 PM

It’s extraordinary how America pretends it’s fighting The jihadists when in reality it has been encouraging them to destabilise the ME. As they bomb pro Assad forces in the South and as Israel steps up attacks on Hezbollah and the Saudis send their suicide bombers to Teheran it seems the World will soon have to recognise that this Perpetual War has its highest hurdle yet to come; civil war and Regime Change in Iran. If the UK is asked to join in Mrs May will jump to it if only as a patriotic distraction. Corbyn will refuse. Let the 2nd election come soon before we get dragged into a conflict that will be much tougher than toppling Saddam, which was relatively easy as the Army hardly fought back. Iranians will fight to the death.

Jun 13, 2017 4:52 AM
Reply to  Paul Baker

I think you “hope” Corbyn will refuse. Corbyn is not his party.

Jun 12, 2017 2:46 PM

Very pleased to have this potted overview of politicking that puts UK events to shame. All I need to know now is what role gas and oil pipelines play in the conflict. This is war is clearly not about democracy in an Arab Spring.