While terrorist groups tend to engage in violence in order to further their agenda, some terrorist groups can go through a metamorphosis and resort to quasi-nonviolent political strategies. One reason for this transformation is that the international community, with the exception of a handful of countries, condemns their actions. This stigma hinders terrorists from smoothly proceeding forward and avoiding unnecessary confrontation with superpowers.
An example of the shift from a terrorist group to a political organization is Hezbollah. For decades, Hezbollah engaged in various terrorist activities from hijacking airplanes to bombing embassies — actions that are not helpful to them anymore. Like Hezbollah, al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, feels the necessity of avoiding unnecessary confrontation with the West, in particular the United States. This does not mean that Hezbollah and al-Nusra are no longer terrorist groups. However, they have adopted a more lenient strategy toward the West.
Recently the leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, who pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri toldAl Jazeera America, “We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime [Bashar al-Assad] and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others. Al-Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the U.S. or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime.”
Although he did not guarantee that other branches of al-Qaeda outside Syria would not attack westerners, one thing is obvious; al-Qaeda is becoming more lenient.
But what event led to this sudden shift? To understand the rationale behind this new strategy we need to go back to the formation of al-Qaeda. To liberate Afghanistan, many jihadists from around the world rushed into that country. Some of them, including the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were Egyptians affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Osama Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri does not have a personal problem with the United States and is primarily focused on the mission of bringing more Islamic territories under the control of Sharia and getting rid of the Islamic countries’ corrupted leaders. Bin Laden was angry with the United States for stationing American soldiers in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, which was interpreted as the invasion of the land of the Two Holy Mosques by infidels.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization al-Zawahiri joined when he was 14 years old, allows the use of any means that helps the establishment of the Islamic State overall, the new strategy adopted by al-Nusra is justifiable. In contrast, Salafists barely relax their Islamic principles even if that relaxation brings victory to Islam. For this simple reason, ISIS has declared war against everybody without considering the negative result.
U.S. Sunni allies in the Middle East cannot see their Sunni brothers defeated by Bashar al-Assad and the Shias, or the growing power of ISIS. Al-Nusra is a group that does not use brutality like ISIS does. So, for Arab allies to support al-Nusra seems to be the remaining option that serves to both defeat Bashar al-Assad and prevent ISIS from gaining an uncontrollable power that is hard to defeat.
The reason U.S. Sunni allies give voice to the leader of al-Nusra and his organization’s new strategy through a media outlet like al Jazeera America, whose main audience are westerners, might be to diminish the threat posed by al-Nusra to be able to support them with fewer objections. By saying Syria would not become “a launching pad to attack the US or Europe,” or “our mission is to defeat Syrian regime,” the leader of al-Nusra is encouraging Americans to tolerate their power and progress in Syria.
The new strategy is completely justifiable by Islamic teachings and the Muslim Brotherhood’s understanding of it. The Muslim Brotherhood focuses on the goal of Islam, al-Maqasid, which justifies the means. Al-Nusra is becoming more moderate, the way the Muslim Brotherhood is, avoiding direct confrontation when one is in a vulnerable position.
Ghasem Akbari is certified by the Iranian Bar Association as a Number One Attorney, is admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Iran, and is the author of two books and numerous articles.
Maria Sliwa is an adjunct professor of Journalism at Columbia University @MariaSliwa