A "third generation" of jihadists could soon rise to power in Syria.
Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former Army officer and FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force special agent, explained that if the Syrian civil war doesn't get resolved soon, the country might be taken over by jihadists who want to build their own state like ISIS, but with less violence.
"I think what we'll see is a third variant of jihadism," Watts told Business Insider after a roundtable discussion on terrorism at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. "We're just calling it Al Qaeda or ISIS, but I think we'll see the emergence of a third, which is taking bits and pieces of Al Qaeda and ISIS, trying to do state-building without crazy violence and trying to live in Al Qaeda's image without having the Al Qaeda label."
He continued: "So there will be a third generation of something and it'll be harder, actually, for the West to counter."
Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's powerful Syrian affiliate, recently renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in an effort to moderate its image. The hope is that the group will be able to both win over locals who might be unwilling to embrace the "Al Qaeda" name and avoid targeting from the West, which had been hitting Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.
The rebranded group will likely "engage in politics and disengage from the global ideology of Al Qaeda," Watts said.
"When they do that, we'll have less authorization and less motivation to go against it," he explained.
Jabhat al-Nusra's long-term goal had been establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria ruled by Sharia law. With the rebranding, they could come closer to achieving that. And they could back away from some of Al Qaeda's methods, namely, attacking the West.
If this happens, the new group would end up looking like a hybrid between ISIS, which emphasizes creating a fully functioning Islamic State for the world's Muslims to live in, and Al Qaeda, which has typically been more politically savvy than ISIS.
It would be "state-building without extreme violence," Watts said. "Al Qaeda's ideology without the global targeting."
ISIS is known for its gruesome beheading videos and violent crackdowns on the populations under its control. And Al Qaeda has long been associated with attacks on external targets, like the World Trade Center in New York City.
Jabhat al-Nusra has developed a reputation in Syria as one of the most well-armed and effective groups fighting President Bashar Assad's forces, and many rebels joined the group despite its terrorist ties because it had the most resources. But it ran into problems in Idlib province when it cracked down on the population.
"The only problem was that al-Nusra was Al Qaeda," Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym, told Business Insider earlier this month.
"Most Syrians could not accept this no matter how effective al-Nusra was against the regime. People will cheer them in battle, but when they tried to rule using very similar methods to ISIS, people would push back and say, 'go back to the front, your place is not here.'"
Therefore, a blend of ISIS and Al Qaeda's strategies without the negative perception that comes with the Al Qaeda name might be Jabhat al-Nusra's best chance at survival and expansion.
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