Al Nusrah Front leader Abu Muhammad Julani defended his organization’s role in the al Qaeda network during an interview that aired on Orient News TV on Dec. 12. Julani also claimed that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is nothing more than a loosely affiliated collection of factions with no real organizational structure.
Earlier this year, sources in the Syrian opposition spread a rumor suggesting that Al Nusrah intended to break with al Qaeda. Some rebel leaders have argued that al Qaeda’s presence in Syria prevents them from acquiring the support necessary to overthrow Bashar al Assad. But Julani has repeatedly refused to disavow al Qaeda.
In his latest interview, Julani argued that even if the group broke with al Qaeda “tomorrow morning,” it wouldn’t be the end of the Syrian dictator. According to the Al Nusrah chief, the US is opposed to anyone who defies the “international hegemonic powers,” even if they aren’t connected to al Qaeda.
If “we remain with al Qaeda or not, we will never give up our principles,” Julani said. “We will continue to say that we want to empower sharia and will strive to do so. We will [continue with] our jihad and will not make truces or stop a battle with [our] aggressor” enemies. In other words, Al Nusrah is not going to change its ideology, or become acceptable to the West, any time soon.
One of the journalists in attendance pressed Julani on this issue when he asked if Al Nusrah’s relationship with al Qaeda risked “antagonizing the whole world.”
“No, no,” Julani responded. Nusrah “at this stage is only interested in fighting Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah” and they “antagonize the people of the Levant.” Julani elaborated by explaining that the al Qaeda organization “has various roles divided among various parties” and “not everyone has the same role.” Al Qaeda may have “people who are fighting the United States and operating in Europe,” but that is not Al Nusrah’s task.
Al Nusrah Front is an official regional branch of al Qaeda. As such, the organization is responsible for fighting in Syria.
During an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year, Julani explained that al Qaeda emir (leader) Ayman al Zawahiri ordered Al Nusrah to abstain from attacking the West for the time being. Julani’s latest comments are consistent with his previous testimony. However, he did not mention the veteran al Qaeda members who were dispatched to Syria to lay the groundwork for international terrorist operations. Some of those same terrorists have also helped guide Al Nusrah’s strategy on the ground in Syria.
Julani did offer one scenario in which Al Nusrah would cease to be al Qaeda. If the jihadists win, and form the radical Islamic government they envision, then there will be no need for al Qaeda. Julani cited Zawahiri in his explanation.
“If the Levant is liberated, and if the Muslims come together in a well-guided Islamic government, a well-guided Muslim state that enforces the sharia of Allah Almighty, I will be the first soldier of such a government, and I will be under its jurisdiction,” Zawahiri said previously, according to Julani.
“Even Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri] will be a soldier serving under the command of such a government” that “enforces all the instructions of Islam,” Julani said. And Al Nusrah’s jihadists “will be the first soldiers working under the command of such a government” as well.
Julani’s comments regarding the Free Syrian Army (FSA) generated some controversy, as it was widely reported that he claimed the FSA doesn’t exist at all. But that is not what Julani really said. In fact, he specifically mentioned the fighting between Al Nusrah and some FSA groups.
“There is nothing called the Free Syrian Army,” Julani said. Instead, “it is a group of factions that join under a name without any organizational links between them.” The FSA “is not an army and it is not a group, but a banner and a name that have become common among the people,” according to Julani.
Some FSA “factions” have “antagonized us and sought to target us with sticky bombs, explosions, and kidnapping.” So, “it is necessary to protect ourselves against these people” and some of them “have been arrested.”
Julani claimed that these skirmishes are not adjudicated by “security officials” in rebel-controlled areas, but instead by “a higher committee selected from among the best seekers of knowledge.” He specifically mentioned the role played by sharia judges in resolving any disputes.
While some FSA organizations have clashed with Al Nusrah, others have fought side-by-side with the al Qaeda branch as part of the Jaysh al Fateh coalition and other alliances. However, Julani did not mention this cooperation in his interview.