On Wednesday (May 27), Al Jazeera aired the first part of its lengthy interview with Abu Muhammad al Julani, who heads the Al Nusrah Front in Syria. The broadcast portrayed Julani and his organization, which is an official branch of al Qaeda, in an overwhelmingly positive light.
The interviewer, Ahmad Mansur, began the session by declaring that it was being conducted from one of the “liberated” areas of northwestern Syria. Mansur’s leading questions allowed Julani to emphasize Al Nusrah’s supposedly kinder and gentler approach to waging jihad.
In the months leading up to Julani’s latest televised appearance (he was previously interviewed by Al Jazeera in Dec. 2013), there were wild rumors that Al Nusrah was going to break with al Qaeda. One dubiously sourced account even claimed that Zawahiri was going to disband al Qaeda entirely. For close al Qaeda watchers, these claims were nonsensical for many reasons. Al Nusrah Front officials have said as much on their popular Twitter feeds.
In case there was any doubt, Julani made Al Nusrah’s continuing allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri crystal clear.
Mansur asked Julani if Al Nusrah would launch attacks in the West. Julani replied by saying that Zawahiri has told them to stand down for the time being.
The “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri], may Allah protect him, are that the Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime” and defeat its allies, especially Hezbollah, Julani explained. Concurrent with Assad’s planned downfall, Al Nusrah has been ordered to reach “a mutual understanding with other factions to establish a righteous Islamic rule.”
“We have received guidance to not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West or Europe so that the real battle is not confused,” Julani said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. However, he conceded that “maybe” the mother al Qaeda organization is plotting against the West, just “not from Syria.” Julani emphasized that this “directive” came from Zawahiri.
Pressed on this matter by Mansur, who asked if Al Nusrah will respond to the US air strikes on the group, Julani reiterated that his organization is “committed to the orders of Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri].” The al Qaeda leader’s “directions…up until now” have been to avoid targeting the West or the US from inside Syria. Ominously, Julani warned that this could change if the bombings continue, because there “will be results that do not benefit” the West.
In other words, Zawahiri hasn’t given the order to strike today, but this doesn’t mean he won’t do so tomorrow, or that al Qaeda hasn’t been preparing for such attacks.
Several US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal since late 2013 have said that Zawahiri has told his operatives in Syria to plan attacks, but hasn’t given the go ahead to launch them yet. The officials emphasized that this could change rather quickly, and such an order would be the final step in al Qaeda’s attack planning, not the first. Julani himself argued that Zawahiri could give the order in the future.
The “Khorasan group”
Julani’s characterization of the so-called “Khorasan group” has garnered significant attention. The US announced airstrikes against the group in September of last year. The bombings generated some controversy as few outside of government had ever heard of the “Khorasan group” beforehand, prompting some to claim that the US government had made up the name.
As The Long War Journal reported at the time, the “Khorasan group” is really just a cadre of al Qaeda veterans who were redeployed to Syria, on Zawahiri’s orders, to lay the groundwork for attacks in the West. If the Obama administration had simply said that the US military was bombing known al Qaeda leaders and operatives, then it probably could have avoided the ensuing confusion. But US intelligence officials say the administration didn’t invent the name. It is derived from al Qaeda’s secretive “Khorasan shura council,” an elite advisory body that the operatives in Syria report to.
Putting aside the debate over this identification, Julani’s testimony does not add up. Julani claimed that the “international regime” began bombing the Al Nusrah Front “under the false pretense that there is a group called the Khorasan Group.” There “is no such thing as the Khorasan Group” and this “is just a name deployed by the Americans” to justify the strikes against the Al Nusrah Front, Julani said. According to Al Nusrah’s emir, the US wants to prop up the Assad regime and the bombings are intended to weaken Al Nusrah, because it is having the “greatest impact” in the war with Assad.
Of course, Julani has little incentive to concede that there are al Qaeda operatives who are eyeing the West while fighting alongside his forces. This would only justify the airstrikes.
Beyond this straightforward observation, Julani’s claims do not square with the facts. The name “Khorasan group” did not help the American case; it only caused more confusion. Given that Julani is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri, the US obviously did not have to craft any new phrase to justify the bombings. Again, the US could have just said it was bombing al Qaeda and left it at that.
More importantly, the US has not engaged in an all-out bombing campaign against Al Nusrah. The US-led coalition is targeting select al Qaeda commanders – not Al Nusrah’s insurgency operations.
For example, a comparatively small number of US bombs fell as Al Nusrah’s fighters helped sweep Assad’s forces out of the city of Idlib in late March, or out of the surrounding areas in the weeks that followed. If the US really wanted to stymie Al Nusrah’s insurgency against Assad, then the aerial campaign would be far broader.
Instead, CENTCOM has bent over backwards to explain that the US military is not targeting Al Nusrah’s anti-Assad operations. In the process, CENTCOM has even drawn a misleading line, erroneously claiming that there is some firm divide between al Qaeda’s insurgency designs and its anti-American plans. Therefore, Julani’s characterization of the intent behind the US bombings is not consistent with the actual experience of the last eight months, that is, since the airstrikes began. The US has done little to stop Al Nusrah’s advances.
Julani concedes that there “are people from Khorasan that worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and who are now “present in our ranks.” But, he claims, the Americans “haven’t prove[n]” that they pose a threat to the West. There is substantial evidence demonstrating that Julani’s argument is false.
One of the key operatives in the so-called “Khorasan group” is a Kuwaiti named Muhsin al Fadhli, whose thick dossier ties him to plots against Western interests since 2002. According to the US government, Fadhli had some foreknowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In 2014, The Long War Journal confirmed that Fadhli had relocated to Syria the previous year. It is likely that he was behind the May 2013 plot against the US Embassy and other Western interests in Cairo. Egyptian authorities thwarted the plot, which was apparently in the planning stages. The US targeted Fadhli last September, but there has not been any firm indication that he was killed.
The Long War Journal first reported that Sanafi al Nasr, a third cousin of Osama bin Laden, is another member of the “Khorasan group.” Nasr serves multiple roles in al Qaeda. He is both a senior strategist in the Al Nusrah Front and the head of an al Qaeda committee devoted to strategic planning and policymaking. Nasr has made no secret of his desire to strike American interests. He has openly pined for such attacks on his Twitter feed – a fact recognized in the US Treasury Department’s official designation of him as a terrorist.
US intelligence officials have told the press that other al Qaeda operatives, including bomb makers sent by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have joined the “Khorasan group.” They were reportedly sent to Syria because of their expertise in designing undetectable explosives that could be used in plots against airliners or other targets.
There is an additional reason to doubt Julani’s dismissal of the “Khorasan group.” He claimed that the “theater is fully visible to the people, there are no secret groups [like “Khorasan”] as opposed to open groups.” Julani continued: “The entire group is open and visible. There is just Al Nusrah Front.”
Julani argued, therefore, that al Qaeda did not have any “secret groups” inside Syria. We know this is not true.
In 2013, Zawahiri even admonished Julani for revealing Al Nusrah’s allegiance to al Qaeda. Zawahiri explained that he did not want al Qaeda to announce its presence in Syria. Al Qaeda has also embedded senior operatives, including Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until his death in February 2014, in other jihadist groups. Contrary to what Julani told Mansur, al Qaeda has deliberately sought to hide its hand in other organizations.
Whether one calls them the “Khorasan group,” or simply “al Qaeda,” the fact of the matter remains that it is easy to document the existence of al Qaeda operatives in Syria who could potentially lash out at the West.
Al Qaeda’s revolutionary strategy in Syria
Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal that al Qaeda has several branches or “regions,” with emirs appointed to oversee the organization’s efforts in each designated area. Separately, al Qaeda has a unit that is devoted to “external work,” or plotting attacks against Western interests outside of each region. Bin Laden ordered each regional emir to assist the “external work” division, but the regional emirs do not oversee it. This structure remains in place today, meaning that Julani is not directly responsible for attacking the West unless he is ordered to assist in such terrorist plotting.
It is not surprising, therefore, that much of Al Jazeera’s interview with Julani is devoted to Al Nusrah’s strategy for waging jihad against Bashar al Assad’s regime.
In this regard, the interview gives us a unique window into al Qaeda’s thinking. Al Qaeda’s leaders, including Julani, seek to inculcate their radical ideology in the hearts and minds of generations to come. And Mansur’s interview allowed Julani to contrast Al Nusrah with the Islamic State, which has gained international infamy for its uncompromising approach to warfare.
The Al Nusrah Front works closely with other opposition groups, including those that have not adopted al Qaeda’s manhaj (or methodology). Under Baghdadi’s leadership, the Islamic State would never stand for such a thing. Baghdadi’s subordinates have even branded other jihadist organizations as “infidels” for not accepting the Islamic State’s totalitarian ways.
Mansur wanted to know what Julani thinks of other factions, including those that are not, ideologically speaking, Al Nusrah’s close cousins. “They are Muslims, and are not different from us,” Julani said. While some other factions have “faults,” the Al Nusrah Front does not label them “infidels” and has decided to “tolerate” them due to the intense battles against the Assad regime.
This, too, is consistent with Zawahiri’s orders. During his Al Jazeera interview in December 2013, Julani explained that Zawahiri “always tells us to meet with the other factions.” Julani added: “We are committed to this and this is a basic part of the principles of jihadist work in general, including work by al Qaeda.”
Mansur asked Julani what Al Nusrah plans to do with the Alawites living in the coastal province of Latakia. Al Nusrah’s recent gains have given the jihadists a clear path to a number of Alawite villages, where the inhabitants support Assad. Mansur wanted to know: How will Al Nusrah treat these Alawites (who are Shiites), if the war is brought to their villages?
Julani accused the Alawites of having a “blood debt” for all of the atrocities committed against Sunnis in Syria. However, Julani sought to assuage any concern that the jihadists will seek to extract “revenge.” Al Nusrah does not “fight those who do not fight us,” Julani said, meaning that Alawites and others who lay down arms will not be slaughtered. This is consistent with al Qaeda’s strategy in Yemen and elsewhere. Zawahiri has ordered al Qaeda’s fighters to avoid attacks on Shiite civilians and to focus their violence on military and security targets.
The Islamic State rejects this restraint, launching indiscriminate attacks on Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Another point of contrast can be found in Al Nusrah’s stated policy towards Christians. The Islamic State’s followers have carried out mass beheadings against Christians, saying that such acts are a “message signed with blood to the nation of the cross.”
Julani’s words sound conciliatory. “We are not at war with the Christians,” he told Mansur. “We do not hold the Christians responsible for what America has done; nor do we hold the Christians responsible for what the Copts did in Egypt.” The only Christians Al Nusrah will fight are those who take up arms, Julani says. And, according to Julani, Al Nusrah has not even taxed the Christians living in areas under the jihadists’ control.
It remains to be seen if Al Nusrah’s fighters abide by these policies. The jihadists have failed to live up to these standards in the past. Al Nusrah has also avoided the strict application of sharia law in “liberated” areas, as this would surely alienate many. (In addition, there have been sporadic protests against Julani’s organization.)
But Julani’s rhetoric is telling. Al Qaeda is attempting to build popular support for its ideology. And the jihad in Syria is central to that effort today. The Al Nusrah Front has had some success in this regard, as it is still popular with other rebel groups and with many civilians.
In the end, the success or failure of al Qaeda’s strategy will be determined by its ability (or inability) to garner widespread support in the Sunni areas of Syria.
Mansur asked Julani if the donations given by individual Muslims (as opposed to the more substantial support nation states can offer) are enough to sustain Al Nusrah’s efforts. “Allah the Almighty permitting, the abundance is great,” Julani responded, “Muslims love the Al Nusrah Front and Al Qaeda, and they come together with us in this regard,” Julani added. “We hope that all Muslims give aid to the mujahideen.”
A friendly interview on Al Jazeera can only help.