Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What’s in the names of terrorist groups (1): Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd


For ages I have intended to write a series about the names of terrorist groups and how mainstream media and sometimes even experts tend to misname groups by mistranslating, shortening or even using a foreign appellation as the group’s name. I believe this to be an issue as the name a group uses tells us much about the group’s identity and core beliefs as well as how the group wants to be perceived by its environment. Additionally, using wrong names is just unscientific.

A good example for a group known by a name that is not its official one is “Boko Harâm”. The group calls itself “Jamâah Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Dawah wa-l Jihâd” and has rejected the name “Boko Harâm”. Still the group is usually referred to as “Boko Harâm” by the media. Alex Thurston has dealt with this group’s name in detail and I’d recommend you to read it.

As already mentioned I planned to write a series and I wanted to start with “Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd” (from now on Jabhah al-Nusrah) as the conflict in Syria in which Jabhah al-Nusrah is participating may well be the most crucial conflict of our time.



Introducing Jabhah al-Nusrah

Jabhah al-Nusrah first made news in January 2012 when the group went public on the usual jihâdî internet forums. It had been active since summer 2011 and has since claimed numerous attacks on the Assad party of the Syrian conflict. The group cooperates with various other groups some of them being part of what is known as the Free Syrian Army (from now on FSA) while most of the groups partnering with Jabhah al-Nusrah in battles and operations are salafî or like Jabhah al-Nusrah itself salafî-jihâdî. For more on this see this fine report by Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake for the Quilliam foundation.

In the media Jabhah al-Nusrah is best known for its high profile suicide attacks in the large cities of Syria but the group has participated in most of the famous conventional battlefield successes of the Anti-Assad party of the Syrian Civil War. Furthermore the group is actively engaged in providing civil services to the population in the areas held by the Anti-Assad party.

In December 2012 Jabhah al-Nusrah was designated as a terrorist group by the United States. According to this Jabhah al-Nusrah is nothing but a subsidiary company to the “Islamic State of Irâq” (a shadow-state established by the “Mujâhidîn Shûrâ Council in Irâq” – a coalition of hardline Sunnî Irâqî groups and “Qâ’idah al Jihâd in the Land of the Two Rivers” (Irâq) – and some smaller Irâqî Sunnî groups and tribes) that already was on the US list of designated terrorist groups.

The US were right. In early April it got all the more interesting as the “Islamic State of Irâq” (from now on ISI) announced via its Amîr Abû Bakr al Baghdâdî that Jabhah al-Nusrah had in fact been the creation of the ISI and would now be part of the newly established “Islamic State in Irâq and al-Shâm”.


The release of the audio message of Abû Bakr al Baghdâdî announcing the Islamic State in Irâq and al-Shâm entitled "And give good tidings to the believers" on Ansâr al Mujâhidîn Arabic Forum


Jabhah al-Nusrah acknowledged via its leader (who is interestingly referred to as General Secretary instead of the usual title Amîr) Abû Muhammad al Jawlânî that it had in fact been funded by the Islamic State in Irâq and renewed its oath to the overall Amîr of Tandhîm Qâidah al Jihâd (from now on AQ) Dr. Ayman al-Dhawâhirî. But al Jawlânî was not okay with shedding the name Jabhah al-Nusrah and its flag or to come under the command of the new “Islamic State in Irâq and al-Shâm”.

Speculations are that he thereby wanted to ascertain the independence of Jabhah al-Nusrah from the ISI. His public oath to al-Dhawâhirî thereby would mean the opening of a new AQ group in Syria. It may well be that this was his only way to come clear of the ISI. Still his missing title (not Amîr) baffles me. Maybe the real Amîr had all along been Abû Bakr. But if so why the refusal? Is he a subordinate who wants to be more or a leader who wants to save his group from any ISI fallout (the group had become quite unpopular in Irâq)?

For more very interesting overviews and ideas on this recent development read the following articles and posts by Aaron Zelin, Brian Fishman, Charles Lister, Cole Bunzel and Yassin Musharbash. Be it as it may, this is not today's topic. 



What does their name mean?

People may say: “Fine, so these guys are AQ in Syria.” Organisationally they are just that (in some way which has yet to be determined) but they did not name themselves AQ in Syria but “Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd”.

Yet that name is seldom used in its full length. Instead the phrase “Jabhat al Nusra also known as the Nusra Front” is quite common in the media. To be fair, the group does the same and often just uses "Jabhah al-Nusrah". Still the mentioned phrase leaves out most of the name and only translates 50 percent of the rest. So Jabhah or Jabhat does mean “front.” That is fine, but Nusrah is not some kind of a weird proper name. It has a meaning.

Some people got themselves their dictionaries and came up with “Support Front” or “Victory Front”. Let us ask old Hans Wehr who got it right:


Hans Wehr (4), p. 1138


So victory goes to the ones using “Support Front” – to the others: thanks for trying. I will come back to the meaning of “support” later on. So “Support Front” is the correct translation but what about the rest of the name?

The official name is جبهة النصرة لاهل الشام من مجاهدي الشام في ساحات الجهاد which means: The Support Front for the People of al-Shâm from the Mujâhidîn of al-Shâm in the fields of Jihâd.

First of all, what does al-Shâm mean? Al-Shâm is the historical name for a geographical region that may be roughly translated as “the Levant”. It encompasses modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine and according to some even parts of Irâq, namely the Anbar province. It may also be used as an alternative name for Damascus as the city was the capital of the early Muslim province of al-Shâm (Encyclopedia of Islam IX, p. 289)

In recent times al-Shâm is sometimes used as a term for the envisioned entity of Lebanon joining Syria. The widely used translation for this is "Greater Syria". As this political understanding of al-Shâm belongs to the secular pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalists Party it is obvious that al-Shâm in the context of Jabhah al-Nusrah means "the Levant". The group hereby shows that it is not willing to be bound by modern day national borders but will try and support for example Palestinians in the future.

So the “People of the Levant” shall be supported by the “Mujâhidîn of the Levant”. The term “Mujâhid” is to be understood broadly as a Muslim fighting in a religiously acceptable war (See Encyclopedia of Islam II, p. 538-540, E. Tyan). So the bulk of the members of Jabhah al-Nusrah are indentified as being local Levantines. Not necessarily Syrian but as Syria has by far the greatest population of Sunnîs in the Levant it would make sense for Syrians to form a majority in Jabhah al-Nusrah. The self identification as Levantine contrasts articles that stress the participation of foreign fighters with Jabhah al-Nusrah to the point of claiming that the group is mainly foreign.  

The members of Jabhah al-Nusrah are identified further. They are not only Levantine Mujâhidîn, they are Levantine Mujâhidîn in the fields of Jihâd. Fields of Jihâd is a term used by jihâdîs to describe regions where they are in battlefield confrontations fighting against non-Muslims or people that they consider non-Muslims. The most prominent fields of Jihâd for contemporary jihâdists would be Afghânistân, Irâq and Somalia.

In most of these places Syrians and other Levantine Arabs that want to fight there have no option but to join AQ or one of its daughters (Harakah Shabâb al Mujâhidîn in Somalia e.g.), so the name of the group basically told us from the beginning that the founding fathers of Jabhah al-Nusrah had been fighting with AQ before rushing to Syria to “support” the uprising against Assad. 



What do they mean by their name?

Let us look at this on a deeper layer – what is the intended meaning of the name: Jabhah al-Nusrah is there to “support” the uprising. They don’t want to “lead” it – or at least that is what the name says. They show themselves via their name as a group that is not excluding nor imposing. They are not named Ansâr al-Sharî’ah (Supporters of Islamic Law – another interesting name) – a name that would exclude those who do not support Islamic Law. No, they are the supporters of the people obviously they still want sharî’ah but they don’t rub it in with their name.


The flag of Jabhah al-Nusrah appears in demonstrations throughout Syria. Those who carry it are quite often civilian sympathizers. The flag encompasses the Muslim testament of faith: "There is no God but Allah - Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" in calligraphic style and the group's shortened name "Jabhah al-Nusrah" written below. 


While leaving the maybe somewhat controversial religious or partisan names like al Qâ’idah (tarnished by terrorism), Islamic State (tarnished by the doings of the ISI and quite imposing), Ansâr al-Sharî’ah (a name that jihâdîs deem a good idea in societies that are more conservative compared to Syria) or sth. like that they still use a religious term in their name: One that is quite negatively understood in the West but not so in the Arab and Muslim world namely Jihâd.

They are Mujâhidîn – those who do Jihâd (religious struggle – in this case fighting) – on the fields of Jihâd. Mujâhidîn has a positive, religiously legitimizing ring to it – see here is someone who struggles for the religion – and is furthermore including. Whether you are with the FSA (even one of the rather secular parts of that group mind you) or with an independent Islamist group or with Jabhah al-Nusrah all do use the term Mujâhîd and all may be identified by that term (Granted there was a time when Thuwâr (revolutionaries) was en vogue but no longer so).

All these including, positive and religiously wide terms are quite likely linked to the image problem that AQ suffers from and that even their late Amîr Usâmah bin Lâden mentioned in internal documents that were released by the US after the Abbotabâd Raid. He took special interest in the term Jihâd and Mujâhidîn and was not happy about the media dropping that part of the name of AQ or its daughters (example Harakah Shabâb al Mujâhidin – Movement of the Mujâhidîn Youth but al-Shabâb – The Youth). Well, it happened again with Jabhah al-Nusrah but this time they were clever enough to have the first part of the name to be positive too.



Is there a deeper meaning to their name?

After looking at what the name tells us and what Jabhah al-Nusrah wants to tell their Syrian and wider Arab/Muslim audience with their name let us go to a third layer: What does the name mean for jihâdîs themselves? The last paragraph dealt with the propaganda intent that they most likely had when choosing their name but the people we deal with aren’t mercenaries (unlike Assad's propaganda tries to convey). They fight for a cause that they believe in and that is their religion.

But what are the religious implications of their name? Jihâd and Mujâhidîn are quite obvious. They believe that they are fighting a just Islamic war against non-Muslims. There are books about the meanings of Jihâd and there are certainly different understandings but the one above is theirs and I suppose not that many Sunnî Muslims would disagree with the statement that there is a jihâd going on in Syria.

The first term that I want to look at is Nusrah – support. Obviously the word nusrah and its relative nasr appear often in Islamic literature but one Qur’ânic expression comes to mind when speaking about salafî-jihâdî reasoning for jihad:

وَإِنِ اسْتَنْصَرُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ فَعَلَيْكُمُ النَّصْرُ 
 “but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them” (Translation: Yûsuf ‘Alî)


This is part of Al Anfâl (8): 72. The sentence is widely used in jihâdî circles to justify defensive jihad. In fact so widely, that when googling it my first page of results included a speech by a Harakah al-Shabâb al Mujâhidîn member using it as the title. As you may know the islamophobic babble about the sword verses in the Qur’ân that talk about offensive jihâd is wrong, those verses are rarely used in jihâdî literature.

Jabhah al-Nusrah believes that helping the Syrian people who asked for their help (nasr or nusrah) is their religious duty. It is not only that they can open a new AQ shop in Syria they feel religiously compelled and honour-bound to help.

But let us look on the complete verse:

 الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَهَاجَرُوا وَجَاهَدُوا بِأَمْوَالِهِمْ وَأَنْفُسِهِمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَالَّذِينَ آوَوْا وَنَصَرُوا أُولَئِكَ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ بَعْضٍ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَلَمْ يُهَاجِرُوا مَا لَكُمْ مِنْ وَلايَتِهِمْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ حَتَّى يُهَاجِرُوا وَإِنِ اسْتَنْصَرُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ فَعَلَيْكُمُ النَّصْرُ إِلا عَلَى قَوْمٍ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَهُمْ مِيثَاقٌ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
Those who believed, and adopted exile, and fought for the Faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of God, as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid,- these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed but came not into exile, ye owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile; but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) God seeth all that ye do.
(8:72; Yûsuf ‘Alî's translation)

Obviously this deals with the situation of the early Muslims who had to leave Makkah for Madînah but maybe Jabhah al-Nusrah members consider themselves to be in the same position. They emigrated from Syria (and the rest of the Levant) to the fields of Jihâd. They fought with their property and their persons but now those who did not leave with them call them for help in religion. That would be quite a powerful allegory.

The other term is al-Shâm. Above the geographical question what is al-Shâm was already dealt with. But al-Shâm has another meaning to jihâdîs. Al-Shâm is according to Muslim beliefs the place where great battles will take place at the end of the world. If you want to read up on the importance of eschatoligical al-Shâm to temporary jihâdîs in English I'd point you to a book by the notorious Shaykh Abû Qatâdah al Filastînî that is entitled: Characteristics of the Victorious Party in the Foundation of the State of the Believers (the Land of Ash-Shām) and available online in an english translation. Abû Qatâdah is by the way considered one of the most influential jihâdî scholars alive. You may have heard about Britain's trouble to change his residence from Belmarsh to Jordan.

Anyways, just to give you an idea about al-Shâm in Islamic eschatology I'll quote one of the most important texts which is the following Hadîth (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that is already widely used by jihâdîs:

‘Abdullah ibn Hawâlah [Allah's blessings be on him] narrated from the Messenger of Allah [peace be upon him] that he said:

"Matters will run their course until you become three armies: an army in al-Shâm, an army in Yemen, and an army in ‘Irâq". 

Ibn Hawâlah said: "Choose for me, oh Messenger of Allah, in case I live to see that day." 

The Messenger of Allah [peace be upon him] said: "You should go to al-Shâm, for it is the best of Allah's lands, and the best of His slaves will be drawn there! And if you refuse, then you should go to the Yemen and drink from its wells, for Allah has guaranteed me that He will look after al-Shâm and its people!"
 (Imâm Ahmad 4/110, Abû Dawûd 2483)

Here we have a direct order from the Prophet Muhammad to his followers to gather in al-Shâm. The very Hadîth has ironically been used by Abû Basîr Nâsir al Wuhayshî who is the Amîr of Tandhîm Qâidah al Jihâd fî Jazîrah al ‘Arab (idah al Jihâd Organisation on the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP) to get people going to Yemen. Now it is Syria’s time to get their share of eschatologist jihâdîs who believe in the nearing of the world’s end and want to be with the “guaranteed” people of al-Shâm.

Jabhah al-Nusrah alluded to this eschatological thinking right from the beginning by naming its media arm al Manârah al Baydâ´ - the White Minaret. The White Minaret is the place where according to Muslim beliefs Jesus will descend from Heaven to fight the Dajjâl (the anti-Christ) in a great end time battle. Aaron Zelin dealt with this right after Jabhah al-Nusrah announced themselves.


The logo of Jabhah al-Nusrah's media chapter. The screen reads: With greetings from your brothers in - al Manârah al Baydâ´- Do not forget us in your sincere supplications
 

Again, this is a topic of great benefit for propaganda efforts and it is already used for recruiting purposes but I am convinced that the founders of Jabhah al-Nusrah themselves believe in this prophecy and may have come to Syria at least in part exactly because of these end time related characteristics of Syria.

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Concluding: Besides the obvious political manoeuvring concerning the role of Jabhah al-Nusrah in the wider AQ context I can totally understand Abû Muhammad al Jawlânî in so far as he does not want to let go of the carefully crafted, deeply symbolic, positive and including name that their PR bureau has worked out. Time will tell whether he prevails and Jabhah al-Nusrah keeps its name or has to fold into the Islamic State of Irâq and al-Shâm. At the moment all signs point to the latter.


The flag used by the Islamic State of ‘Irâq as seen in the release information accompanying the announcement of the Islamic State in ‘Irâq and al-Shâm and most likely the one to be used by this new group.
  

Update: For further interesting reading on Jabhah al-Nusrah in the wider Syrian Islamist context I recommend the pieces by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Eliot Higgins, Hassan Hassan and Pieter van Ostaeyen. Besides, you should follow all those quoted in this post on Twitter.

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