In a video released online on Aug. 8, Abu Firas al Suri, who serves as the Al Nusrah Front’s spokesman, answered questions about the ongoing war in Syria. Al Suri denies that Al Nusrah plans to unilaterally declare an Islamic emirate (or state) in Syria. And he explains how Al Nusrah, which is an official branch of al Qaeda, differs from its rival, the Islamic State, in waging jihad.
The video was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“The Al Nusra Front did not announce an emirate in the meaning of an independent emirate, or the meaning of a state, or any meaning close to that,” al Suri insists.
“We mean the emirate should be established by consulting those who have an Islamist affiliation, whether from the jihadi factions, or the local leaders of the country, or the people of influence, and of course, with all the scholars inside and outside the country,” al Suri says, according to SITE’s translation.
Last month, a controversy erupted in jihadist circles after an audio recording of Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, was leaked online. Julani’s speech was widely interpreted as meaning that his group was going to declare itself the head of an Islamic emirate and fully enforce sharia law in the areas under its control without consulting other Islamist and jihadist groups. The potential move was viewed as a response to the Islamic State’s announcement on June 29 that it now rules as a caliphate.
“The time has come … for us to establish an Islamic emirate in the Levant, to implement the limits and punishments of God Almighty, and his laws in every sense of the word, without compromise, complacency, equivocation, or circumvention,” Julani says in the leaked message.
The Al Nusrah Front quickly issued a statement denying that it intended to announce an emirate, adding that it would only do so after “the pious scholars agree with our stance.”
However, Al Nusrah’s denial did not put an end to speculation that the group was going to move away from its strategy of closely cooperating with other like-minded rebel organizations. For instance, the Islamic Front, a coalition of several insurgency organizations, issued a statement rejecting the Islamic State’s caliphate, as well as any proposed emirate. The latter rejection was aimed at the Al Nusrah Front and Julani.
The Islamic Front has closely cooperated with Al Nusrah on the battlefield. One of the key groups within the Islamic Front is Ahrar al Sham, which is linked to al Qaeda. Ahrar al Sham was co-founded by Abu Khalid al Suri, a senior al Qaeda operative who served as Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until his death in February. It is widely believed that he was killed by the Islamic State.
Thus, Abu Firas al Suri’s video is a deliberate attempt by the Al Nusrah Front to quell any problems that have arisen with its allies since the leak of Julani’s speech.
Although Julani specifically said that his group would implement sharia law “without compromise,” al Suri argues this is not the case. Al Suri points to Al Nusrah’s “Sharia Arbitration Charter,” which is an initiative to get the various jihadist and Islamist groups to govern rebel-controlled areas according to agreed-upon sharia laws.
“In Hama alone, 14 factions signed this agreement,” al Suri claims, according to SITE’s translation. “We did not force anyone and we will not force anyone. Any faction that joins us in empowering the sharia of Allah is very warmly welcomed.”
Al Suri draws a sharp distinction between his organization’s plans for implementing sharia law and the Islamic State’s governance. “We will not be like the [Islamic] State, because the difference between us and them is not a difference in practice or a difference in behavior, but it is a doctrinal difference.”
Like other al Qaeda branches, Al Nusrah seeks to inculcate its radical ideological beliefs in the population, as well as in other allied jihadist organizations, thereby gaining more widespread acceptance for its version of sharia law. This is opposite of the Islamic State’s approach, as the former branch of al Qaeda seeks to impose its laws on all who live within its territory.
Senior al Qaeda leader who was little-known until earlier this year
Abu Firas al Suri’s senior role within the Al Nusrah Front only became known earlier this year. In the leaked audio recording of Julani’s speech, al Suri speaks before Julani and introduces him to the audience. This is an indication of al Suri’s stature within the jihadist organization.
Al Suri first appeared in an Al Nusrah video in March. Al Suri sharply criticized the Islamic State and its practices in the production.
Al Nusrah also revealed extensive details about al Suri’s background in the video. Al Suri was a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and participated in the uprisings against Hafez al Assad’s regime in 1979 and 1980.
Al Suri later traveled to Afghanistan, where he met Abdullah Azzam, a founding father of modern jihadism who was killed in the late 1980s, and Osama bin Laden. He then helped bin Laden and Pakistani jihadists establish Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organization that remains closely linked to al Qaeda to this day.
After the 9/11 attacks, al Suri helped al Qaeda families escape Afghanistan. And from 2003 to 2013 he was stationed in Yemen, where he stayed until the dispute between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State erupted. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders then had al Suri relocate to Syria, where he participated in the failed mediation efforts between the two groups.