Jim White at emptywheel wonders if Jabhat al-Nusrah is about to become “the next MEK.” MEK, if you’re unfamiliar, is a left-wing Iranian revolutionary/terrorist group that calls itself the “People’s Mujahedin,” or Mujahedin-e Khalq (hence MEK). It originated in the 1960s as part of the leftist opposition to the Shah, but in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, when it became clear that the clergy, not the communists, were going to be taking power, began to oppose the Islamic Republic. MEK was designated a terrorist group by the United States in 1997, mostly for its role in 1970s violence against the Shah and a plot in the 1990s to attack the Iranian mission to the UN, but that designation was removed last year. The US had for some time considered the members of MEK to be “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions, and they are subject to harsh treatment in Iran. However, they also allegedly dish out harsh treatment of their own in, for example, the prison camps they’ve been accused of running in Iraq, and they’ve been called a “cult” for the somewhat disturbing way the organization is run. You can imagine, if you like, that we finally removed their terrorist designation because we wanted to help them in their struggle against the Iranian regime, but in reality what happened is that MEK hired a small army of very high-profile lobbyists–major DC players like Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, Andy Card, Ed Rendell, Louis Freeh, Howard Dean, and Evan Bayh–to burnish their credentials for them.
White sees the beginnings of a similar PR rehabilitation for Jabhat al-Nusrah:
Toward the end of the New York Times story on this development, we see the al Nusra group being described as less radical than the new kid on the block, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS):
Further complicating the picture is the rise of the new Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, which has established footholds across northern and eastern Syria with the intention to lay the foundations of an Islamic state.
In recent months, it has supplanted Al Nusra Front as the primary destination for foreign jihadis streaming into Syria, according to rebels and activists who have had contact with the group.
Its fighters, who hail from across the Arab world, Chechnya, Europe and elsewhere, have a reputation for being well armed and strong in battle. Its suicide bombers are often sent to strike the first blow against government bases.
But its application of strict Islamic law has isolated rebels and civilians. Its members have executed and beheaded captives in town squares and imposed strict codes, forcing residents to wear modest dress and banning smoking in entire villages.
Because there already have been clashes between ISIS and al Nusra, I would not be at all surprised by an effort being organized to claim that those al Nusra groups don’t really mean their sworn allegiance to al Qaeda, especially since so many of the groups within that alliance previously were already described as our own moderates. Will al Nusra become the next MEK?
I agree there are similarities here, but selling Jabhat al-Nusrah as the “acceptable if imperfect” opposition to a more-hated enemy (and “enemy” here could be Assad, could be ISIS, or could be both, I guess) is going to be a lot tougher than it was with MEK. First of all it’s important to understand ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah share the same end-goal, an Islamist-ruled Syria with strong ties to al-Qaeda. They differ in two areas: leadership, in that al-Nusrah’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani won’t submit his to ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s control, and timing, in that al-Nusrah seems to be focused first on ousting Assad and then on establishing an Islamic state under their control, and is willing to work with other groups (not Kurds, though) to get rid of Assad (their participation in this joint statement supports this idea), while ISIS seems intent on creating the Islamic state (or statelets) now, then taking care of Assad after. From an American perspective, then, there’s no real daylight between these groups that would make one acceptable and the other not, and we are not about to start legitimizing ISIS when there are other strategic interests to protect (hint: “ISIS” stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”). In addition, there is a massive difference between Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist group with well-publicized links to al-Qaeda, and MEK, which not only has no ties to al-Qaeda but is not extremist/fundamentalist at all (they’re leftists, which ordinarily is enough to get the US government to hate your rotten guts, but in this case “leftie” is preferable to “Islamic fundie”). Can you imagine the DC luminaries (or “luminaries”) I mentioned above going to bat for an al-Qaeda affiliate that wants to turn Syria into a fundamentalist Islamic state? Not so much.