Earlier today, the news broke that Peter Theo Curtis, an American who had been held hostage in Syria since 2012, has been released by his captors. Coming just days after another American hostage, James Foley, was brutally beheaded by the Islamic State, Curtis’s freedom brings a sense of relief.
The details of Curtis’s captivity and release reveal much about how al Qaeda is operating nearly thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks. It is not an accident that Curtis’s fate differed from Foley’s.
Curtis was held by Jabhat al Nusrah, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Al Nusrah’s leaders have sworn a bayat (oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri. Just late last month, one of Al Nusrah’s most senior religious officials publicly reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri once again. Al Qaeda initially sought to hide its hand in Jabhat al Nusrah’s operations. The extent of the relationship only first came to light as a result of the infighting between Al Nusrah and the Islamic State, which was disowned by al Qaeda’s senior management.
There are many reasons why al Qaeda ultimately broke with the Islamic State, deciding that Al Nusrah would be its representative in the Levant. One of these reasons has to do with how these groups are perceived.
Al Qaeda, of course, would gladly kill American civilians in U.S. if the opportunity presents itself. Zawahiri and his ilk do not shy away from spilling American blood. But they have evolved a different approach to marketing and exploiting their violence.
While gory snuff videos, like the one produced by the Islamic State earlier this month, can encourage some segment of the jihadists’ recruiting base to commit to the cause, such productions can also turn off many in the broader Muslim community. And because al Qaeda seeks the support of that community, it typically avoids scenes such as the one depicted in the Foley video.
Al Qaeda came to this conclusion years ago. “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable…are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages,” Zawahiri wrote to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), in 2005. “You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shiekh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.”
Zawahiri did not want to spare the hostages; he simply didn’t want Zarqawi to carry on with his over-the-top executions, which sicken the stomachs of any halfway reasonable person.
“[W]e can kill the captives by bullet,” Zawahiri wrote, because “[t]hat would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts.” Simply put, Zawahiri argued, “We don’t need this.” Zawahiri comprehended that “more than half of” the jihadists’ “battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” and unspeakable acts of barbarism are therefore a liability, no matter how justifiable they are from the jihadists’s perspective.
Zarqawi continued on with his psychotic ways until his death in 2006. The Islamic State, which grew out of AQI, is today very much the heir to Zarqawi’s vision of jihad. The Al Nusrah Front, meanwhile, is the embodiment of Ayman al Zawahiri’s approach.
This difference in tactics can also be seen in how al Qaeda is handling the case of Warren Weinstein, an American who was kidnapped by al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan in 2011.
As the controversy over the Foley video dominated media headlines around the world, al Qaeda decided to remind everyone that it was still holding Weinstein. Al Qaeda’s official propaganda arm, As Sahab, tweeted a few messages concerning Weinstein’s fate. One of them invited a comparison to the Islamic State by including the hashtag #JamesFoley.
In its tweets, al Qaeda embedded a message directed at Weinstein’s family. “We are not interested in retaining the prisoner in our protection; we are only seeking to exchange him in return for the fulfillment of our demands that we have conveyed,” the message reads.
Undoubtedly influenced by the Taliban’s success in exchanging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the five top Taliban commanders at Guantanamo, al Qaeda encouraged Weinstein’s family to do more to “pressurize” the U.S. government into bargaining for his release. “Your continued silence on the inaction of your government will only lead to your prisoner dying a lonely death in prison after this deliberate and prolonged neglect on the part of your government.”
Unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda did not threaten to behead Weinstein if the U.S. refused to cave to its demands. Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda leaders do not find that to be, all things considered, a productive tactic.
Al Qaeda has, of course, brutally killed hostages in the past. Daniel Pearl’s slaying by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, in 2002 is just one example. But al Qaeda prefers to avoid such scenes and instead extract concessions without invoking outrage from the broader population. This doesn’t mean that al Qaeda and its branches won’t kill hostages again in the future, but their approach is more calculating than the Islamic State’s.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Jabhat al Nusrah was willing to free Curtis. That doesn’t make the group any less dangerous, however. And Nusrah almost certainly won't concessions for his release. The terms of the deal, which was reportedly brokered by Qatar, are not yet fully known. But Qatar is a hotbed for jihadist fundraising, meaning Nusrah's friends likely sweetened the pot.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @ThomasJoscelyn