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Re-branding jihad: The bogus 'rehabilitation' of Jabhat al-Nusra

Re-branding jihad: The bogus 'rehabilitation' of Jabhat al-Nusra
Published 15 Jun 2015   Follow @RodgerShanahan

Besides oil and sand, the other inexhaustible Middle Eastern resource is conspiracy theories. They are usually designed to blame someone else for a specific or regional woe, thus obviating the need for any form of self-analysis or introspection. Which is why I normally dismiss them straight away.

But have you heard the one about certain regional countries which want to paint the al Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra as a more pragmatic, even moderate, group which the West should work with in order to defeat Assad? This theory has been gaining traction and is concerning to anyone familiar with such groups and those backing them.

Jabhat al-Nusra leader Mohammad al-Joulani being interviewed on Al Jazeera, May 2015. (Wikipedia.)

Saudi Arabia sees the need to be dealt into the Syrian situation in a more organised way; in other words, it needs a proxy. It is a pretty open secret that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have temporarily put aside their differences in order to throw their weight behind Jaysh al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). This has won the group some success against Assad's forces in Idlib. The rather inconvenient reality of this approach though, is the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the mix, either fighting alongside Jaysh al-Fatah or leading the coalition.

There appears to be a concerted campaign to bring Jabhat al-Nusra in from the cold and position it as part of the 'moderate' Islamist camp. The Saudi-owned press is doing its best, with the well-connected Jamal Kashoggi writing in May that there was a difference between killing in the name of God when applied to those who were jihadis (bad) and mujahideen (good). By differentiating between jihadis and mujahideen, some regional states are hoping to mount an argument that armed Islamist groups can be divided into 'moderates' and 'radicals'.  Even though both groups seek to establish a Syrian state under the rule of Islamic law, one group may accept something akin to constitutional limits. 

Branding Jabhat al-Nusra as mujahideen is however, no easy feat. [fold]

The Qataris assisted with the rehabilitation project by airing an exclusive interview with the group's leader, Muhammad al-Joulani, last month. It isn't the first time he has graced Al Jazeera, appearing first in December 2013 to proclaim that the war was nearly over and that the group would achieve victory soon. Confidence certainly isn't what al-Joulani is lacking; a sense of reality perhaps, but not confidence.

Talking of reality, trying to rehabilitate an intolerant and violent al Qaida franchisee has its challenges, not the least of which is trying to justify the actions of a terrorist group proscribed in several countries (including Australia).

For instance, al-Joulani assured Al Jazeera viewers in May that, 'As for transgressing against (the Druze), this absolutely did not happen. Likewise the Nusairi Al-Lawites today, after all the massacres they committed, our religion is a religion of mercy, we are not criminal killers, we fight those who fight against us. We fight and stand against oppression.' Unfortunately, the recent execution of 20 odd Druze villagers in Syria put a bit of a crimp in this narrative. What's more, al-Joulani's reassurance that, despite the fact that he remained loyal to al Qaida, he and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were 'in one boat and we will confront the enemies of God together', should also raise alarm bells. Even though these two groups are currently at odds on the battlefield, they still share the same absolutist, intolerant views about non-believers that all radical islamists do.

So, rather than allow the triumvirate of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to try to rehabilitate a violent, intolerant, proscribed terrorist group, Western states should be calling these countries to account for their relationship with an organisation with acknowledged links to al Qaida and whose behaviour besmirches those that deal with them.

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