Al Nusrah Front official explains al Qaeda’s strategy, conflict with former branch

Interview with Abu Sulayman.jpg

Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a high-ranking sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has released a video explaining the group’s ongoing conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Al Qaeda’s general command disowned ISIS in early February after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS, repeatedly disobeyed orders.

Sulayman was an extremist preacher in Australia until he relocated to Syria sometime last year to serve as a mediator in the intra-jihadist dispute. He recently joined several other jihadist ideologues in calling on Ayman al Zawahiri to issue a more detailed condemnation of ISIS.

While parts of Sulayman’s video rehash old ground, including ISIS’ unwillingness to settle its differences with other groups, the video also covers new areas. Sulayman offers a substantive discussion of al Qaeda’s strategy and “hierarchy.”

Al Qaeda’s organization scheme and Baghdadi’s insubordination

Sulayman says that the relationship between al Qaeda and ISIS was the same as “an emir with his [group].” According to Sulayman, the predecessor to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was a loyal branch of al Qaeda’s international organization. Sulayman also says that Baghdadi had sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri, and he dismisses attempts by ISIS leaders to portray this oath as anything less than a “completely binding” pledge of obedience to al Qaeda’s senior leaders.

Sulayman explains how Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), prior to its expansion into Syria, fit into al Qaeda’s organizational scheme.

Al Qaeda “draws up its plans and its strategy based on what we call al Qalim, or locations,” Sulayman says. And a leader is chosen to oversee each of these locations. For example, Nasir al Wuhayshi (the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda’s overall general manager) is al Qaeda’s representative in the Arabian Peninsula, and Abu Musab Abdul Wadud (the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) oversees the Maghreb. The “same goes for each of the locations, or al Qalim,” according to Sulayman, and Zawahiri is the emir above all of them.

The head of each location swears a bayat to al Qaeda “that binds them to the group” and means that they owe “allegiance in the matters of jihad,” because the oath “ties them to one unity, one group called” al Qaeda.

Sulayman’s interviewer, an English-speaking member of the Al Nusrah Front, asks if Zawahiri is “really the head of the hierarchy.” Sulayman scoffs at suggestions to the contrary, saying “it’s quite strange that there’s all this confusion about this particular topic” and the administration of ISIS “knows very well the rank they had in” al Qaeda.

Continuing with his description of al Qaeda, Sulayman says there is “someone [who] overlooks all of these different locations,” called Masul al Qalim. The locations al Qaeda chooses are not based on Western boundaries, such as those drawn up by the Sykes-Picot agreement, Sulayman explains. Instead, “it is a purely strategic decision based on Islamic principles and goes in line with these Islamic guidelines,” as “has been the policy of al Qaeda since its establishment.”

This is intended as a direct rebuttal to ISIS’ claims that al Qaeda adhered to Western boundaries when it ordered the group to leave the jihad in Syria and return to Iraq.

Baghdadi was named the al Qalim of Iraq, Sulayman says, but he did not have the authority to establish an Islamic state beyond its borders. Each leader of one of al Qaeda’s locations, or al Qalim, has a “certain authority.” But announcing the creation of an Islamic state “is not one of” the authorities each leader has.

Sulayman points to Shabaab (“our brothers”), al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia, and says that they “never established a State,” nor did they announce a merger “with their neighbors in Yemen,” because “they don’t have such authority.” They “must go back” to the al Qaeda “hierarchy to receive such permission.”

Sulayman says that Shabaab did not merge with AQAP even though this “would be much, much easier than the” attempt by ISIS to do the same. Here, Sulayman is likely referring to the rumors that surfaced online saying that the ISIS was going to merge with AQAP. No such merger has taken place. ISIS has also been attempting to collect its own pledges of bayat to Baghdadi, but few have been forthcoming thus far. Sulayman says that al Qaeda’s “hierarchy is precisely why we don’t see [leaders] from different areas giving bayat to Sheikh al Baghdadi.” The emir in each location swears bayat directly to Zawahiri.

Al Qaeda’s “first mediator”

During his time in Australia, Sulayman was known as an extremist preacher, but he was not publicly identified as an al Qaeda member. His latest video suggests that he has long played a role in the organization. Sulayman says he was the “first mediator” between ISIS and Al Nusrah. It is unlikely that this position would be given to anyone other than a trusted member of al Qaeda. Sulayman adds that he served in this role alongside an “Iraqi brother” whose name is not mentioned “for security reasons.”

To date, all of al Qaeda’s mediation efforts, including those spearheaded by Sulayman, have failed. But Sulayman argues that the Al Nusrah Front was willing to compromise in pursuit of a resolution. Abu Muhammad al Julani, the head of Al Nusrah, was even willing to work alongside Baghdadi and ISIS under the banner of al Qaeda in Syria. But this would have required the annulment of ISIS, something Baghdadi would not agree to.

Earlier this year, Julani issued an ultimatum to ISIS that would have expanded the infighting between the groups if ISIS did not agree to Julani’s demands. Julani backed down, however, and Sulayman explains why. Sulayman says that Al Nusrah abides by the “scholarly opinions and the rulings given by the sheikhs who are well-grounded in Islamic sciences and are known for their Islamic positions,” such as Abu Qatada, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, and Sheikh Sulayman al Alwan. Two of these three clerics advised Al Nusrah “not to widen this battle and conflict” with ISIS, so Al Nusrah is responding “as necessary, and only in the areas where [ISIS’] transgression is clear.”

Qatada and Maqdisi are both imprisoned in Jordan, but have been been actively commenting on the dispute between Al Nusrah and ISIS. The two clerics have been highly critical of ISIS, and have been publicly advising Al Nusrah on how to handle the ongoing dispute.

Even after months of infighting and heated arguments, al Qaeda still wants ISIS to submit to a common sharia (Islamic law) court to settle its disagreements with other groups. Sulayman says that while ISIS has “clearly caused the biggest rift in the global jihad” since the fall of the Caliphate in 1924, Al Nusrah will answer ISIS’ transgressions only “until they come back to the truth” and “are willing to succumb to an Islamic court wherein they are not the judge and prosecutor.”

“I’m sure that there are many good brothers, good-hearted, sincere brothers in” ISIS, Sulayman says. Al Qaeda still wants the infighting to end, according to Sulayman, but ISIS will not oblige.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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