- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
Al Qaeda-aligned extremists aren’t optimistic about the war in Syria, and are preparing for a long fight — against Assad, the United States, Israel, Iran, and even other Islamist rebels. That’s the lesson of a "comprehensive strategy" posted to a members-only jihadi forum associated with al Qaeda.
The paper states some lofty goals for the forum, Shumukh al-Islam, whose members have been known to fight with jihadi groups in Syria like Jabhat al-Nusra. The author frames Shumukh almost like an al Qaeda think tank, writing, "We would like here for our forums … to be centers for research and sophisticated studies that issue reports and advisory recommendations."
They have a long way to go. In an email to FP, Cole Bunzel, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University who wrote about the report for the Jihadica blog, writes that the "forums acting as a kind of jihadi think tank is more an aspiration than a reality," though he pointed out that there are efforts within the forums to provide more analysis.
The analysis presented in the "comprehensive strategy" for Syria is bleak for jihadi groups fighting against the Assad regime. Fighters "are exposed to extraordinary pressure, assault, forced retreat, ignominy, and many, many other things," and it is only likely to get worse. Shumukh expects a long war, and believes a foreign intervention is imminent — "a Crusader power will, inevitably, arrive on Syrian territory, using multiple pretexts," the author writes. As for who would step in, the author fantasizes about a potential U.S.-Israeli-Iranian alliance; Bunzel notes in a wry footnote that the "author has a very confused understanding of Middle Eastern alliance politics."
The report speculates that the looming intervention will close Syria’s porous borders, a critical avenue for new recruits to join jihadi groups. The key, then, is preparation. Jihadis should "increase greatly the inflow of recruits … because the openness of these borders will not persist." Jabhat al-Nusra should manage a media office to produce flashy videos and press releases ("[f]or the media in this generation are equivalent to half the army"), an intelligence service, and a commando unit — a sort of jihadi Joint Special Operations Command. They should establish a government-in-waiting to prepare for the fall of the Assad regime and "fill the void and manage people’s affairs in the areas under our control," providing services in an approach not unlike Ansar al-Sharia’s strategy in Yemen in early 2012. In some places, this has already begun; a recent article about Jabhat al-Nusra notes that, "Within their ranks, an aid department distributes bread, gas and blankets." This Phase IV planning is "of greater concern to us than the ongoing war," the author of the "comprehensive strategy" writes.
The post-war planning is necessary because the jihadis expect everyone to turn on them. Shumukh advises jihadis to prepare to fight anyone who "besiege[s] or conspire[s] against [them] whether … from beyond Syria or by the brothers of the revolution itself." There is already an emerging schism between Jabhat al-Nusra and the umbrella group known as the Islamic Syrian Front, Bunzel notes, with more moderate Islamists supporting democratic governance. "That’s just the kind of soft stance that JN jihadists — and the authors of the Shumukh strategy — seem intent on opposing," he writes.
It’s an ambitious plan and "almost certainly has more analytical value for us analysts than it does practical value for jihadis on the battlefield," notes Bunzel. "What I find most revealing is the extraordinary depth of their paranoia and sense of pessimism regarding their future role in Syria." It’s also a strategy that directly contradicts Osama bin Laden’s own warning to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in a letter that was found at the complex where he was killed in Abbottabad, that trying to hold territory makes jihadis an exposed target. The strategy proved to be a failure in Yemen and provoked the very foreign intervention the report warns of when attempted in Mali. "Their calculation seems to be this: we jihadists are inevitably going to be squeezed by all the forces of the region," Bunzel explains, "so we should make sure to recruit heavily in the short term, take control of heavy and chemical weapons sites, and stake out territory for the looming fight."
This concern and uncertainty about what comes next was echoed by Abdullah Omar, a Free Syrian Army soldier, in a recent interview with the Global Post. When asked about Jabhat al-Nusra, he replied, "God only knows what’s going to happen between them and the FSA and the new government after the Assad regime falls down." The jihadis, though, aren’t waiting to find out. They’re preparing for a fight they expect will pit them against the world.