Carnegie Middle East Center Director Touts Al-Qaeda as Ally

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The director of the Carnegie Middle East Center has written an article on Carnegie’s official website portraying Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Syrian Civil War, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a possible Western ally. She calls this “An Opportunity for the West.”

In a piece entitled ‘The Nusra Front’s Game-Changing Rise in Syria,’ the Director of the Middle East Center Lina Khatib argued that “The Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, is gaining in strength and popularity, and it could become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State.”

She opens by praising the group’s successes against the regime forces of Bashar al-Assad, before stating her case thus: “The West currently sees the Nusra Front as a threat. But Nusra’s pragmatism and ongoing evolution mean that it could become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State.”

In using the term ‘pragmatism’ she is comparing Nusra to the Islamic State, whose brutality has shocked the world. Nusra is certainly more pragmatic than ISIS. One of the reasons for the split between Nusra and the Islamic State as that Al-Qaeda Central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri felt that ISIS’s brutal tactics were excessive as they would alienate the local population.

Khatib posits that Nusra has become less extreme over time. She argues that Jabhat al-Nusra’s alliance with another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham will “have a tempering effect on the evolution of al-Qaeda’s ideology and its implementation.”

Ahrar al-Sham cannot be considered a ‘moderate’ organization that might have such a ‘tempering effect.’ It also seeks the establishment of an Islamist state and was founded by members of Al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham co-founder and leader Abu Khalid al-Suri acted as a mediator between the Islamic State (then ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra at the behest of Al-Qaeda Central Aymen al-Zawahiri, during reconciliation negotiations between the two groups before the final split.

Zawahiri publically mourned when al-Suri died. Similar expressions of grief for deceased Ahrar al-Sham commanders have been expressed by Al-Qaeda figures on social media at other times.

Nor has Nusra disaffiliated from Al-Qaeda. Indeed, in early March the group angrily responded to rumors that they might disaffiliate. On Twitter they announced in a statement that the group “completely denies reports of a break-up with Al-Qaeda.”

Tempered or not, the core raison d’etre of Al-Qaeda and all other Islamist jihadist groups remains the same – the establishment of an Islamic State governed by Sharia law.

At the same time as arguing that Nusra’s ideology is pragmatic and tempered, Khatib also attempts to downplay the importance of ideology in relating to Jabhat al-Nusra. Khatib makes the statement that “Nusra cannot completely abandon al-Qaeda’s ideology for fear of losing legitimacy.” She would like the reader to believe that there is an ideological difference between Nusra and Al-Qaeda Central’s ideology.

She argues “While not everyone likes Nusra’s ideology, there is a growing sense in the north of Syria that it is the best alternative on the ground—and that ideology is a small price to pay for higher returns. ‘The one who defends me has the right to impose whatever law they see fit,’ one sympathizer told me.”

Here she is implying that it doesn’t matter what Nusra’s objectives are as long as they fight the regime and don’t exactly copy the Islamic State’s brutality. A look at Nusra’s ideology shows that it matters a great deal.

As recorded by the counter-extremism think tank The Quilliam Foundation, Jabhat al-Nusra has five strategic objectives. These objectives were decided on by the senior leadership in meetings between 2011 and 2012. They are:

  1. To establish a group including many existing jihadists, linking them together into one coherent entity

  2. To reinforce and strengthen the consciousness of the Islamist nature of the conflict

  3. To build military capacity for the group, seizing opportunities to collect weapons and train recruits, and to create safe havens by controlling physical places upon which to exercise their power.

  4. To create an Islamist state in Syria

  5. To establish a ‘Caliphate’ in Bilad al-Sham (the Levant)

These goals are to all intents and purposes identical to those of ISIS. The only differences are methodological. Any ‘Caliphate’ they might establish would necessarily be ideologically opposed to the West and antithetical to the US.

It would certainly not be beneficial to the Syrian people nor lead to an open and free society. Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, argued, “The Nusra Front will most likely outlast ISIS in Syria, and will represent a severe and existential threat to the aspirations of the Syrian people in terms of a pluralistic, democratic society.”

As a leader of a secular aligned rebel brigade put it in 2012 when asked about Jabhat al-Nusra “We are not fighting Bashar al-Assad to go from living in an autocratic to a religious prison. We want to be able to live in Syria as freely [sic]; not under a dictator or the constraints of a strict interpretation of Islam.”

There is no disclaimer in Carnegie’s pro-Nusra article suggesting that the piece is anything other than the official views of the Carnegie Middle East Center. It was not written by a junior researcher or associate, but by the director of the organization, a woman with years of experience in the field.

Furthermore she makes no mention of Jabhat al-Nusra’s totalitarian vision of rule and its application of the brutal hudud punishments, merely saying in passing that there are “some similarities” between Nusra and the Islamic State.  

For example of the implementation of hudud punishments by Nusra the video below shows the group executing a woman accused of adultery by a gunshot to the head in the street.

Warning: Graphic images

Nusra regularly uses suicide bombings as a tactic and has shown no compunction about Both Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham use child soldiers (as well as a host of other groups, including the Islamic State).

Defeating the Islamic State is vital. Nor should the crimes of the Assad regime be excused or downplayed. Yet it should be clear to all that advocating an alliance with a subsidiary of the group responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks is a breach of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s stated goal: “to advance the cause of peace.”

The Carnegie Middle East Center is a part of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, America’s oldest international affairs think tank (founded in 1910). Such a prestigious platform should not be used to provide intellectual cover for terrorist groups.

Contact the vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paul Balaran, to demand a full retraction of support for Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as an ally and the immediate resignation of Middle East Center Director Lina Khatib.

Email: [email protected]

Phone: 202-939-2223

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow with the Clarion Project.




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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.

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