Banner of the Al Nusrah Front. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
The head of the Al Nusrah Front in Syria, Abu Muhammad al Julani, has released an audio recording renewing his organization’s allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
Al Julani confirms many of the details set forth in a message from the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, just two days ago. Namely, al Julani verifies parts of al Baghdadi’s explanation of how al Qaeda in Iraq spawned the terror network’s Syrian arm. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front emerge as rebranded single entity.]
But in an interesting twist, al Julani rejects al Baghdadi’s call for al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq and Syria to operate under a common name, the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
In his response to al Baghdadi, al Julani swears allegiance directly to Ayman al Zawahiri.
“This is a pledge of allegiance from the sons of the al Nusrah Front and their supervisor general that we renew to the Sheikh of Jihad, Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him,” Julani says, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. “We give a pledge of allegiance for obedience in good and bad in emigration and jihad and not to dispute with our superiors unless we see clear disbelief about which we have proof from Allah.”
Al Julani is eager to “let people know” that the Al Nusrah Front’s leadership “had no knowledge” of al Baghdadi’s announcement “other than what they heard in the media.” Al Julani continues: “If the attributed speech is true, then we weren’t consulted or issued requests.”
Al Julani clearly thinks that al Baghdadi’s announcement was premature. “The [Al Nusrah] Front’s banner will remain as-is, without changing anything, despite our pride in the [Islamic State of Iraq’s] banner and those who carried it and sacrificed their blood for it from among their brothers,” SITE’s translation reads.
The head of the Al Nusrah Front explains that “postponing” an announcement of the relationship with al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq was not “due to weakness,” but instead owed to his group’s cautious approach to implementing sharia law.
Al Julani is keen to avoid the mistakes al Qaeda made in the past and his organization is pursuing “sharia-compliant policies that suit the reality of the Levant and upon which the decision-making people in the Levant agreed from among the Front’s leaders and its students,” as well as other “factions” and “honorable sheikhs.”
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq lost much of its support from the populace after it was too zealous in its implementation of harsh laws. Al Julani wants to avoid the same mistakes in Syria.
Allegiance to al Qaeda “central”
Al Julani’s decision to “renew” his organization’s allegiance to Zawahiri is an interesting one. It suggests that he previously swore fealty directly to Zawahiri, and wasn’t solely receiving orders from al Qaeda in Iraq. This is consistent with some press reporting based on Western intelligence officials’ understanding of how the Al Nusrah Front operates.
In December 2012, for instance, the German daily newspaper Die Welt reported that Zawahiri’s “contact in Syria is Abu Muhammad al Julani, the Jabat al Nusrah leader.”
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that US “counterterrorism officials” have seen “a growth in communications among operatives from al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan.” In addition, these unnamed officials said that “growing numbers of al Qaeda fighters” are traveling “from Pakistan to Syria to join the fight” with al Nusrah.
A key part of the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, which may have a direct bearing on Al Julani’s new statement, followed: “The ties to al Qaeda’s central operations have become so significant that US counterterrorism officials are debating whether al Nusrah should now be considered its own al Qaeda affiliate instead of an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, as it has generally been viewed within the US government, according to a person familiar with the debate.”
The timing of this reporting is especially intriguing. The US intelligence officials cited in The Wall Street Journal account highlighted the Al Nusrah Front’s direct ties to al Qaeda “central” in Afghanistan and Pakistan as indicative of a push, perhaps from within the group or al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, to declare the group a new al Qaeda affiliate and not just an outgrowth of al Qaeda’s operations inside Iraq.
Just weeks later, a debate between the Al Nusrah Front’s leader and the head of al Qaeda in Iraq concerning this very same topic has bubbled to the surface.
US counterterrorism officials and al Qaeda operatives are, ironically enough, having the same debate over the Al Nusrah Front’s place in the al Qaeda pecking order.
Al Julani’s new statement makes it clear that whether the Al Nusrah Front is its own al Qaeda affiliate or still under the command of al Qaeda in Iraq, it is certainly an al Qaeda operation.
Important details confirmed, despite differing accounts
Al Julani is respectful of al Baghdadi, calling him the “honorable sheikh,” even as he rejects al Baghdadi’s rebranding of al Qaeda’s efforts in Iraq and Syria. And while al Julani tells the story of Al Nusrah’s rise a bit differently, he still confirms many of the important details that al Baghdadi set forth.
For example, al Julani says that al Baghdadi agreed “to a project that we presented to him to help our weak people in the Levant.” This sounds as if al Julani was the proactive agent in laying the ground work for the Al Nusrah Front, even if he was reticent, as he claims, to leave Iraq before sharia law was fully implemented.
In his statement two days ago, al Baghdadi said he had to “push” al Julani and his comrades into the Levant. “We laid for them plans, and drew up for them the policy of work, and gave them what financial support we could every month, and supplied them with men who had known the battlefields of jihad, from the emigrants and the natives,” al Baghdadi claims, according to SITE’s translation.
Note the difference: In al Julani’s telling, he is presenting the “project” to al Baghdadi and the al Qaeda in Iraq hierarchy. In al Baghdadi’s version, it was the other way around. Al Baghdadi and his men “laid for them plans” and “drew up for them the policy of work.”
Al Julani is clearly eager to soften al Baghdadi’s claim of credit. When explaining why the Al Nusrah Front did not want to be “hasty” in announcing its relationship with al Qaeda in Iraq and the establishment of an Islamic state, al Julani says the following:
Moreover, the Islamic State in the Levant is built by the hands of everyone, without excluding any of the main people among those who participated with us in jihad and fighting in the Levant from among the jihadi factions, the authentic Sunni Sheikhs, and our emigrant brothers, not to mention excluding the leaders of the Al Nusrah Front and its Shura [Council].
This has a very different ring to it than al Baghdadi’s top-down claim of responsibility for the Al Nusrah Front’s success.
Despite these differences, al Julani confirms important details in al Baghdadi’s account. He says al Baghdadi “gave us half of the [Islamic State of Iraq’s] money, despite the days of difficulties through which they were passing, and he placed his complete trust in me and deputized me to make the policies and the plan, and supported me with some brothers,” whom Allah “blessed” despite “their little numbers.”
It requires speculation to divine the intent behind al Julani’s words. But he has clearly rejected al Baghdadi’s rebranding for al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. And al Julani says his boss is Ayman al Zawahiri.
Perhaps al Baghdadi’s “deputy” no longer thinks of himself as a subordinate to al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.