Nusra Front fighters north of Aleppo, Syria, November 2014.
Hosam Katan / REUTERS

Throughout 2016, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate underwent a series of rebrandings—from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—all in an attempt to present itself as a moderate alternative to more extreme groups operating in Syria, including the Islamic State (ISIS).

And although the rebranding was regarded as a bald-faced feint by many counterterrorism scholars, it just might have worked to recast al Qaeda’s image within Syria. Al Qaeda in Syria’s carefully calculated decision to distance itself from its parent organization was an effort to portray itself as a legitimate, capable, and independent force in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Another objective was to prove that the militants were dedicated to helping Syrians prevail in their struggle. Finally, it would give al Qaeda central a modicum of plausible deniability as it paves the way for its erstwhile allies to gain eligibility for military aid

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  • COLIN P. CLARKE is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for Counterterrorism - The Hague.
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