A rebel group in Syria denied on Wednesday that it was officially merging with the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, instead pledging allegiance to core Al Qaeda, raising questions of just what this means for counterterrorism efforts in the region and U.S. support for the ongoing struggle against the Syrian government.
In a confusing 24 hours, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on Tuesday announced that their alliance with the rebel group known as Jabhat al-Nusrah was now official and public, seemingly ending any uncertainty about ties between the two. Calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIGS), the new group was to be devoted to imposing a harsh form of Islamic law and establishing a caliphate throughout the Middle East.
Rather than going along with AQI’s assertion, however, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, the head of Jabhat al-Nusrah, denied AQI’s claim. Instead, in a recording, al-Jawlani said the group “pledge[s] allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the head of Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan. The State Department originally named al-Nusra as a Foreign Terrorist Organization back in December 2012, even then referring to them as an alias of AQI. Al-Nusrah is at present reportedly the strongest group locking in combat with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Whether al-Nusrah has merged with AQI or pledged itself to Al Qaeda core, the question remains just what effect al-Nusrah’s shift towards publically supporting Al Qaeda will have on the ground, given the Obama administration’s clear antipathy towards the group already. Some have suggested that the newly strengthened ties in either case opens up the Syrian offshoot to military targeting under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the Congressional approval for the Executive Branch to carry out strikes against terrorist groups responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
However, that determination doesn’t consider the full set of requirements the AUMF gives that would allow a group to be legally targeted. It would require a stretch of the language for the first part of the AUMF — that the group would have to be associated with those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 2001 attacks — to apply to al-Nusrah, should the pledge to Al Qaeda core be legitimate. Much of the debate over the AUMF’s parameters extends to just who would count as a co-belligerent to Al Qaeda, given several of the groups under discussion came about only after the September 11th attacks. The strength of these ties, as evidenced by the uncertainty surrounding the conflicting announcements, is also constantly under question, unlike formal treaties between nation-states.
Also, despite al-Nusrah’s possible allegience, and al-Zawahiri’s call for jihadi groups in Syria to unite days before the merger announcement, al-Nusrah’s statement does not explicitly mention any guiding or command structure tying the groups together. That link would be even harder to prove, should the original merger announcement between al-Nusrah and AQI pan out after all.
Moreover, the second part of the AUMF — that the group targeted be planning “future acts of international terrorism against the United States” — is much harder to pin down. While the 2001 AUMF has been read to include the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that group not only announced its intent to carry out attacks against the mainland United States, it has attempted to follow through on those threats several times. Al Qaeda in Iraq has yet to show the ability to strike the U.S. mainland, despite previous threats to do so. In Wednesday’s message, al-Jawlani said that al-Nusrah would not be changing its “behavior” in the aftermath of its pledge to Al Qaeda core.
Before al-Nusrah’s denial of the merger was made public, Kate Martin, Executive Director of the Center for National Security Studies, told ThinkProgress that the idea that the this supposed AQI/al-Nusrah merger would fall under the 2001 AUMF is “absurd.” The U.S. government has acted on the basis that the AUMF covers “associated forces,” Martin explained, but that does not cover any and every group with Al Qaeda in its name. “I would be appalled if the the Obama administration reached that conclusion, and I don’t think they could under the way they’ve interpreted the AUMF,” Martin said.
This still leaves the Obama administration with several choices to make as it attempts the balancing act of supporting Syria’s rebels fight against Assad and denying aid to terrorists, given the influx of foreign fighters into Syria. On Tuesday, CNN learned that the White House has finally signed off on a new aid package to the Syrian opposition, including possibly including such “non-lethal aid” as night-vision goggles and body armor. That decision was reportedly delayed following a National Security Council recommendation in March.