The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has issued a statement disavowing the massacre of 20 Druze civilians in the province of Idlib last week. The murders have been denounced by other insurgents, thereby threatening to damage Al Nusrah’s well-cultivated image within the Syrian rebellion. The slaughter was also contrary to the specific instructions issued by Abu Muhammad al Julani, the head of the group.
In its statement, which was released on one of its Twitter accounts, Al Nusrah says that the incident was not specifically ordered by the organization’s leaders and violated their “clear directives.” The al Qaeda branch adds that it has sent a delegation to the Druze villages to assure residents that this episode was contrary to its rules of engagement.
Al Nusrah claims the Druze, a religious minority, are now under its protection. And the fighters who killed the civilians are supposedly going to be tried before a sharia court for their “errors.”
The killings highlight how al Qaeda often walks a fine line in waging jihad. While the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s rival, routinely celebrates its fighters’ brutality, al Qaeda has attempted to position itself as a more moderate alternative.
In December 2013, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) publicly apologized for an attack on a military hospital. AQAP claimed that the attack was carried out by a rogue fighter, and was contrary to the specific orders issued by the chain-of-command.
AQAP, Al Nusrah and other al Qaeda branches are operating under guidelines issued by Ayman al Zawahiri, who has ordered his men to avoid most civilian targets. For the most part, al Qaeda’s branches adhere to these guidelines. For example, AQAP quickly denounced an attack on Shiite mosques carried out by the Islamic State’s “province” in Yemen earlier this year. And the apologies issued by AQAP and Al Nusrah illustrate that when al Qaeda’s jihadists run afoul of the guidelines, their actions are disowned by senior leaders.
There are also practical reasons for Al Nusrah to distance itself from the massacre in Idlib. A significant part of the Druze minority reportedly remains neutral in the fight between Bashar al Assad’s regime and its opposition. The killings may help drive the Druze community into Assad’s arms.
Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, discussed the Druze during an interview that aired on Al Jazeera last month.
“At this time, we do not fight those who do not fight us,” Julani said. “There are Druze villages located in liberated areas that have neither supported Bashar [al Assad] nor fought him, and they have not been harmed.”
Instead of attacking the Druze villages, Julani claimed, Al Nusrah has been attempting to convert the inhabitants. “As for the Druze, they are part of our dawa [Islamic call]. There have been many preachers sent to them who informed them of their religious mistakes,” Julani said. “They demonstrated their retreat from these mistakes.”
The killings in Idlib certainly do not help with Al Nusrah’s dawa efforts, however. And it remains to be seen if Al Nusrah can quell the international outrage over its fighters’ actions. The victims reportedly included elderly citizens, and at least one child.