Rebranding Jihad: the Case of al-Qaeda in Syria
By Timothy Davis
While corporations routinely rebrand to increase sales or transition to a new business model, you may be surprised to find that rebranding can be so successful that even terrorist organizations do it.
In the past seven years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, currently named Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has rebranded three times and will not hesitate to do so again to achieve its goals — to establish an Islamic state in line with their ideology. The U.S., as a matter of foreign policy, should strive to use the most up-to-date rebranded name of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria or risk seeming out-of-touch with the group’s changes while showing that the rebranding strategy is working.
Promoting their brand helps al-Qaeda to sell their ideology and goals, and compete with other terrorist and rebel groups. Like McDonalds and Coke, a memorable brand leads to a successful sale. For terrorist organizations, a successful sale means material support from locals, recruiting new members, and achieving ideological and tactical goals that may have been gained by other rebel and terrorists groups. The “hearts and minds” of the people are for sale and al-Qaeda wants the local populace to buy in.
Each phase of development represents a new goal that requires a new brand or name. As the group becomes confident in its current phase’s success, it moves onto the next phase with the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state in line with al-Qaeda’s ideology.
Phase 1: Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Qaeda in Syria used the name Jabhat al-Nusra (which means “support front”) to convince the Syrian rebels that they were also a rebel group. Its goal was to become a member of the Syrian opposition under the facade that they were simple “fundamentalist rebels” as opposed to jihadists.
Phase 2: Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). Here, al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate aimed to rise above the other Syrian opposition groups. It sought to become a mainstream popular movement that local Syrians would cling to and support. It focused on support strategies of local movements and population, while stating that it was formally cutting ties with al-Qaeda.
Phase 3: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This is the most recent phase of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. In an attempt to further distance itself from the al-Qaeda core and rise above the other Syrian rebels groups, JFS merged with four other Syrian rebels groups and defeated its competitor: Ahrar al-Sham.
Since that time, HTS has lost many of the members and groups it merged with when transitioning from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to HTS. The group, which remains al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, continues to operate under the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham because it provides the distinction and reputation of the new brand.
ISIS may have been removed from 98 percent of its territory in Syria, but al-Qaeda/HTS is still there. It controls Idlib, and it is constantly perfecting its operating strategies.
There is no reason to think that al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham for the time being) will not rebrand again if it deems it necessary. The group is active in propagating its disaffiliation with al-Qaeda to locals, engendering false trust.
Even though they claim to no longer be members of al-Qaeda, they are at the very least still affiliated with al-Qaeda. They should not be allowed to escape the al-Qaeda affiliation or brand simply because of their continual rebranding efforts.
Allowing al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria/HTS to further rebrand sets a dangerous precedent. It encourages al-Qaeda in Syria, al-Qaeda in other countries, and terrorist organizations all over the world to adopt the method of rebranding. Such rebranding allows for increased support from the local populace as well as the potential for deluding governments into thinking the groups are no longer terrorists and have abandoned their jihadist goals.
The U.S. must strive to oppose these methods by simultaneously using the rebranded name while also labeling the group as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. This answers the critique that it would behoove the U.S. to not recognize the group’s attempts to hide by simply calling them who they are, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. Instead the U.S. and its allies should refer to the group with the rebranded name/al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria to show that the rebranding efforts are not working.
This effortless strategy can be used for al-Qaeda in other countries as well as any other terrorist or rebel groups attempting to rebrand. Simply saying: “Hayat Tahrir al’Sham, also known as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria,” recognizes the attempt to hide behind rebranding. This also helps to show the local populace that the organization purporting to represent their interests is merely a disguised terrorist group.
Avoiding the new name ignores potential changes in the group such as loss of influential members, divisions in the ranks, mergers, etc. Additionally, by not acknowledging the new name, the U.S. can appear fearful and out of touch with developments on the ground, further drawing attention to the group.
Avoiding the name of your enemy or opponent does not delegitimize them and can, in fact, further empower them — it’s always best to call your enemy by its name. To draw from popular culture, in the words of the West Wing’s President Bartlet, avoiding their name can “make me look like I can’t remember his name… look addled… look dotty. And even if it didn’t make me look like those things, it would remain a stupid idea.
Timothy Davis is a freelance writer and graduate student in the International Relations program at New York University. His focus is on U.S. national security in the Middle East. His previous work, “An Analysis of Al Qaeda in Syria and Recommendations for US Foreign Policy,” was recently picked up by the Stanford International Policy Review.