Charles Lister's recent Foreign Policy piece compounds the shoddy thinking behind his previous warnings about Jabhat al Nusra.
He tells us without evidence that senior Al Qaeda figures 'almost certainly' travelled to Syria to meet with Jabhat al Nusra leaders. Maybe so. He also emphasizes that these senior figures are very close to Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri.
Why, according to Lister, is this so alarming? It's not obvious, because Lister clearly states that Al Zawahiri has taken a moderate direction and isn't interested in mounting attacks on the West. Nor does Lister assert anywhere in his piece that these 'senior figures' will urge Nusra to undertake such attacks. In fact he asserts that the senior figures crossed into Syria because their focus is on, well, Syria. So the presence of senior Al Qaeda figures should, one would think, be reassuring. After all, every recent attack on the West has been carried out by groups not closely linked to Al Qaeda. The attackers have all identified with ISIS, which is hostile to Al Qaeda, to a significant extent because Al Qaeda is too moderate.
But Lister puts "moderate" in scare quotes. Why is that? Not because Al Qaeda is showing itself bent on attacking the West. Instead we hear that Jabhat al Nusra "has slowly revealed more and more of its extremist face while trying to avoid risking its accepted status within the mainstream opposition." Here Lister indulges in his habitual practice of conflating extremism in social or cultural policy with extremism in anti-Western policy.
Jabhat al Nusra is arguably extreme in what it expects of women and in its attitude to secular vices - though not much moreso than the Gulf States whom the US feels secure enough to arm, collectively, on a scale exceeding even what's showered on Israel. As US arms policy shows, this 'domestic' extremism, however deplorable, hasn't the slightest tendency of indicate any danger to the West. Hopefully Lister's readers are aware of this transparent bait-and-switch.
Finally, Lister warns that Jabhat al Nusra intends, down the road, to establish a 'caliphate'. Is this word supposed to frighten us? A caliphate is a kind of authority. That Nusra seeks to establish it, again, hasn't the slightest tendency to indicate aggression towards the West. To seek authority doesn't have some built-in intention to use it to threaten the world, or the West. And, also again, Lister doesn't even claim Nusra is out to threaten the West. In fact he pretty well says the opposite.
Nusra may be reprehensible in its enforced puritanism, though its enforcement is, again, no more Draconian than what's frequently encountered in the US' Gulf State allies. Nusra also has strong popular support, and little wonder, because it has often provided the most effective resistance against Assad's atrocities. Lister himself seems to believe that Assad's war on Syrians lies at the heart of the 'jihadis'' rise and therefore of attacks on the West. So Nusra is more plausible as a counter to extremist threats than as the embodiment of it.
This is not to say that, if the US continues to bomb Nusra and treat it as a major menace, Nusra will never respond. It is to say that the campaign against Nusra is far more likely to create a danger than to avert one.