Long a prime target of al Qaeda-inspired attacks, the United Nations has been discreetly cultivating informal contacts with the terror organization’s Syrian affiliate in hopes of persuading the militants to allow aid workers to safely deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-controlled territory, U.N. officials told Foreign Policy.
The contacts with leaders from the Jabhat al-Nusra terror group, which have not previously been reported, are mostly informal and sometimes involve little more than conversations between U.N. relief workers and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters at a specific checkpoint. In other cases, the U.N. funnels requests for safe passage through other more moderate armed opposition groups. Other more direct communications remain a closely-held secret. "We don’t talk about the details," said a senior U.N. official who confirmed the contacts. "These are not face-to-face contacts — they usually take place on telephone or Skype."
The outreach is highly sensitive within the U.N. and the broader international relief community. U.N. officials fear that the disclosure of any dealings, however incidental,with terror groups could fuel criticism that the world body is conveying such groups a kind of political legitimacy they don’t deserve. Still, U.N. officials say they have no choice but to deal with the militants. The world body is racing against time to get food and aid to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are facing starvation in Homs, Aleppo, and other besieged Syrian towns and cities. It has been pressing the Syrian government to allow aid workers to cross through military-held territory, but senior officials say such permissions — even if granted by Damascus, which is far from certain — would be insufficient if Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed opposition groups didn’t make similar guarantees.
"For security and transparency reasons it’s usually smart to inform all relevant parties of what you are doing," said one senior U.N. official. There are early signs that the outreach efforts may be paying off. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have so far largely refrained from targeting relief workers inside Syria, and have provided assurances that their forces will not target U.N. aid convoys. That stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an even more extremist al Qaeda-inspired movement that has abducted foreign relief workers,seized aid supplies, and launched attacks against hospitals and other opposition forces.
"They still don’t like the United Nations; they don’t trust it and see it as a tool of the United States," Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said of Jabhat al-Nusra. "But they are a pragmatic organization and they understand that humanitarian aid from the outside will do more to provide relief than anything they can do."
At a time when U.N. aid workers are facing the daily threat of suicide attacks by al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabab, the effort to cultivate ties with its Syrian counterpart would seem risky. But in recent years, the U.N. and independent relief agencies have been forced to coexist with other al Qaeda affiliates as the global terror network has spread to many of the Middle Eastern and African conflict zones where the United Nations is present.
The relationship — which is highly unpredictable — has posed moral and practical dilemmas for U.N. aid workers who face intense international pressure to deliver assistance to civilians in places under the control of extremist groups.
In Somalia, for instance, some U.N. agencies, along with other international relief groups, paid taxes to al-Shabab in exchange for a free pass to feed starving civilians during the country’s 2011 famine. But the relationships struck between the two sides have purchased little long-term good will.
Militants have been targeting the U.N. for years, but the attacks are growing far more frequent. In 2011, the Islamist extremist Boko Haram used a car bomb to flatten a U.N. compound in Abuja, Nigeria, killing at least 23 people in one of the bloodiest attacks in the world body’s history.This year has been even worse. In June 2013, al-Shabab launched a bloody terror strike against the U.N.’s humanitarian aid headquarters in Mogadishu, killing eight people. Last week, meanwhile, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.N. convoy in Mogadishu that killed several bystanders, highlighting the U.N.’s status as an enemy target. In Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents frequently target U.N. personnel.
David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who serves as president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, says aid workers have little choice but to cultivate relations with a wide range of insurgents and extremist organizations who wield influence in areas where civilians are in desperate need of assistance. He pointed to Afghanistan, where his organization has provided relief in areas under Taliban control.
"Of course we have to talk to groups the government won’t talk to," he told FP, noting that his group supplies aid to displaced civilians in Syria, including hard to reach opposition areas where the U.N. has little presence. At the same time, he added, "we have to show in our actions that we are simply tending the wounds of the people."
Al Qaeda has long viewed the United Nations with deep suspicion, seeing it as an agent of Western imperialism in the heart of the Islamic world. Osama bin Laden once accused the U.N. as serving as a criminal "tool" of the West and denounced Arab leaders who cooperated with the organization as "infidels."
But the political price of targeting the U.N. may prove costly for the movement in places like Syria, where Jabhat al-Nusra is seeking to gain support among Sunni civilians who are in desperate need of U.N. handouts. In an earlier stage of the conflict, the group’s fighters alienated local Syrians by enforcing a harsh brand of Islamic rule, and punishing other less religious Syrian fighters for crimes like blasphemy, according to Michael Weiss, a columnist for Now Lebanon, an English language publication in Beirut,who covers the Syria conflict.
"Al-Nusra has been kicked out of towns for putting people on trial," he said. "They are now trying to present themselves as more moderate champions of the Syrian people, not the draconian seventh century caliphate in the making, at least not yet." Those concerns have not extended to Alawite communities suspected of supporting President Bashar al-Assad. An internal U.N. map of towns under siege shows that al-Nusra along with other opposition forces, including ISIS, have participated in the siege of two Alawite neighborhoods, Zahar and Nubl, in Aleppo.
In a closed-door briefing last week to the U.N. Security Council, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, denounced Syrian government and opposition forces for "failing in their responsibility to protect civilians."
"Today, the operational environment is more dangerous for our colleagues than ever," Amos said, according to a confidential account of her briefing obtained by FP. "Since the onset of the crisis, at least 50 humanitarian workers have been killed, 15 of them" since the first week of October. "Others have been kidnapped by opposition armed groups or detained by government forces," she added.
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has been trying to burnish its reputation among the ranks of ordinary people throughout the region. Drawing on a strategy employed by other Islamist movements, including the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Shiite Hezbollah,local al Qaeda affiliates have sought to invest in winning hearts and minds.
In Yemen, for instance, the local al Qaeda branch provided social services to the locals and withheld the lash. Yemen’s al Qaeda leader, Abu Basir, urged his cohorts in Mali, who had at the time seized control of large swaths of territory n northern Mali, to takea similar approach.
"You have to be kind to them and make room for compassion and for leniency. Try to win them over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water," Abu Basir wrote in May 2012 to the leader of al Qaeda-inspired extremists in Mali. The letter was included among a trove of al Qaeda documents obtained by The Associated Press. "You can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how you pray. We have to first stop the great sins, and then move gradually to the lesser and lesser ones. When you find someone committing a sin, we have to address the issue by making the right call, and by giving lenient advice first, then by harsh rebuke, and then by force."
Al Qaeda’s leaders seem to be taking heed. Earlier this month, al Qaeda formally disavowed its relationship with ISIS, which has targeted doctors, hospitals and foreign aid workers. In recent weeks, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups have taken up arms against ISIS, claiming it has invested more effort into asserting control over Syrian towns than fighting Assad. Jabhat al-Nusra has participated in the fight against ISIS.
"Al Nusra’s extremist views and radical ideology are clear," Hassan Hassan, a columnist at The National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, wrote in an email. "But unlike ISIS, al Nusra has sought to avoid being a disruptive force in areas outside the front lines as part of its strategy of winning hearts and minds."