A short video released on Twitter on Aug. 21 features three fighters from the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, shortly before they head off to fight the Islamic State’s forces north of Aleppo.
The Islamic State, which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in early February and has been fighting Al Nusrah for months, seized a number of towns north of Aleppo earlier this month. According to some accounts, the group managed to capture 13 towns in a surprise offensive that began on Aug. 13, catching its jihadist rivals off guard. In recent days, the Islamic State has advanced on the town of Marea, which is considered a key hub for jihadist and Islamist groups opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime.
It is in this context that the Al Nusrah Front’s video was produced by its so-called correspondents network. The video is titled, “Quick Words from Muhajirin and Ansar Heading to Repel the Aggression of the Kharijites.” The title means that both foreign fighters (Muhajirin) and local jihadists (Ansar) are heading off to counter the Islamic State, whose members are described as “Kharijites,” a derogatory term that refers to extremists who justify the killing of their co-religionists.
“We in the Al Nusrah Front only fight to raise the word of Allah, to make the oppressed triumphant,” the first fighter shown in the video says. “We only fight to get rid of the enemy Bashar and his soldiers. We have come to fight them so that we can impose Allah’s laws on the country. We have not come to oppress people, steal from people, or take their property … we have come to impose Allah’s laws.”
The fighter’s words highlight a key distinction between Al Nusrah and the Islamic State. Whereas Al Nusrah has focused most of its resources on opposing the Assad regime, and embedding itself within the insurgency, the Islamic State has concentrated on seizing territory, often at the expense of its fellow jihadists and other rebels. This land grab in Syria, coupled with its stunning advances in Iraq, has fueled the group’s claim that it now rules over a caliphate with its emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, being called “Caliph Ibrahim.” The Islamic State has demanded the loyalty of all other jihadists in service of its self-declared caliphate.
“I advise the members of the Islamic State, your emirs and sharia experts, I advise you to not listen to them,” the first fighter continues. “They are misrepresenting the matter to you. They have said that we are apostates and that we are a community of apostasy …. By Allah, I ask you by Allah, come to us and give us one proof that we are apostates or that we have fallen into apostasy. We have not fallen into apostasy and we have not fought alongside the apostates or infidels, in any shape or form.”
The fighter then calls on members of Baghdadi’s organization to defect. “I advise you, oh Islamic State members, oh Islamic State soldiers, return to the truth. Leave this invalidity …. Leave your ways of fighting the mujahideen and Muslims in order to raise the word of al Baghdadi or Adnani.” Abu Mohammed al Adnani is the Islamic State’s spokesman and was designated by the US government as a terrorist on Aug. 18. Adnani is known for his fire-breathing rhetoric and fierce denunciations of the Islamic State’s rivals, including al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
Addressing the foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State, the first fighter says, “Do not waste your immigration to the land of al Sham [Syria]. You have not come to fight the supporters of the religion and Allah or the soldiers of Allah, almighty. Allah almighty, thank Allah, has sent us to the land of al Sham so that we can fight the infidels.” The fighter continues, “And now you have changed your location and are now fighting the mujahideen who have come to fight the enemies of Allah. I advise you, return to the truth. Listen to the clerics, they have talked about this issue. You are the ones in the wrong … some of them have even deemed you khawarij. Listen to the words of the clerics, not those of your emirs or your sharia authorities.”
The second fighter shown in the video says the Islamic State has “come to occupy land and make the spilling of blood and property of Muslims permissible and have started to fight Muslims in cold blood.”
“They say that every Muslim who does not pledge bayat [allegiance] to Baghdadi is an apostate, and that is in contradistinction to Islamic law,” the second fighter continues. “Who placed him a Caliph over the Muslims? Who even declared a caliphate? They by themselves declared a state and then declared a caliphate and began killing Muslims and making their blood and property and honor permissible [to violate].”
A third fighter promises to fight as long as it takes to thwart the Islamic State’s advances. “We will remain in the north [as long as] we have to defend ourselves, with Allah’s permission,” the third fighter says. “We do not run away, with Allah’s permission.” To the Islamic State’s jihadists, the Al Nusrah fighter says, “You have come to fight the mujahideen, lions of jihad who wanted to fight in Allah’s cause, and you listen to your emirs and shari’a clerics. By Allah, on the day of resurrection Allah almighty will ask you why did you kill? And Baghdadi, Adnani, and any other sharia cleric among you can help you with this!”
Similar pleas from the Al Nusrah Front and others have not stopped the Islamic State’s advances against their fellow jihadists. The Islamic State’s rivals have suffered key defeats in eastern Syria, as Baghdadi’s group has consolidated its control over a significant amount of territory.
It remains to be seen if the Al Nusrah Front and its allies can turn back the Islamic State’s momentum in the intra-jihadist fighting, while also fighting Assad’s forces.