- By John Hudson
John Hudson is a staff writer for Foreign Policy where he chases down stories from Foggy Bottom to the White House, the Pentagon to Embassy Row. Between 2009 and 2012, John covered politics and global affairs for The Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August War between Russia and Georgia for Salon.com and other news outlets. Over the years, he's dug up resignation-causing FEC documents; unmasked world-famous Internet trolls; exposed bizarre Photoshopping by government media; and revealed a secret Iranian military facility. John's weakness is cold craft beer from his birthplace of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He's appeared on MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, and other broadcast outlets.
Just like in the corporate world, the merger of two established terrorist groups can cause serious disputes over branding and identity strategy. As it happens, the dynamic is driving a wedge through the newly announced alliance between the al Qaeda affiliates al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
In an audio message on Tuesday, ISI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the merger between the two sides, both of which the State Department considers terrorist organizations. “It is time to declare to the Levant and to the world that the al-Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq,” he said, noting that his Iraqi group already provided the al-Nusra Front with half of its budget. A day after the announcement, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani responded kindly to Baghdadi, calling him “honorable sheik,” but resisted an outright branding takeover.
“Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it,” he said.
The reasons not to accept ISI’s flag and official branding are manifold, but let’s start with the aesthetics. Here are the group’s flags:
If the al-Nusra Front adopts the flag and branding of al Qaeda’s Iraqi offshoot, it also lowers the legal hurdles for the United States to order deadly drone strikes on its members. As Wired pointed out yesterday, the 2001 U.S. Law Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) will grant the executive branch a legal pretext to take out the Syrian militants wherever they are. And that fear has resonated with other jihadists arguing about the new merger online. A report by the Middle East Media Research Institute, provided to Foreign Policy, tracks the online debate.
“Despite being celebrated by many as a move in the right direction, [it] was negatively perceived by others, especially due to the merge’s possible negative implications on the Syrian struggle. One such prominent case was that of Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi, who … claimed that such a move would end up impeding the Syrians from fulfilling their aspirations, while at the same time increasing Western interference in Syria’s affairs,” reads the MEMRI report. Piecing together opinions on Twitter and in jihadi forums, MEMRI picked up on views going both ways. “Supporters of the merge and supporters of JN maintaining its independence are roughly equally divided,” reads the report.
But that’s not the only wrinkle in the branding debate, as the Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn points out. In rejecting ISI’s branding, Jolani may be trying to better position the al-Nusra Front within the al Qaeda hierarchy since a full-fledged al Qaeda affiliate is more significant than a simple outgrowth of al Qaeda’s Iraqi operation. The most prominent sign that Jolani is leaning toward making the al-Nusra Front a full-fledged affiliate was his statement swearing allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leaker of al Qaeda, instead of Baghdadi. “It requires speculation to divine the intent behind al Julani’s words,” writes Joscelyn. “But he has clearly rejected al Baghdadi’s rebranding for al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. And al Julani says his boss is Ayman al Zawahiri.”
Clearly, it’s too soon to start producing company T-shirts and mugs.