Analysis: Al Nusrah Front explains decision to release UN peacekeepers

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, released more than 40 UN peacekeepers from its custody yesterday. And the group explained its reasoning in a video that was distributed on its social media pages beforehand. The video was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

According to published reports, Al Nusrah issued a list of demands in return for freeing the hostages. Al Nusrah reportedly wanted to be removed from the UN’s list of terrorist organizations, as well as humanitarian relief for the areas surrounding Damascus and elsewhere.

However, Dr. Sami al Uraydi, one of the top religious officials in Al Nusrah, disputes this version of events. He is the first featured speaker in the video.

Al Uraydi says Al Nusrah’s capture of the UN peacekeepers “coincided with the implications” of Nusrah “being listed under” Chapter VII of the UN’s charter. He claims that Al Nusrah “would have liked to deal with the fate of those captives until it would be stated to us the end of these implications.” The jihadist ideologue also mentions the possibility of securing relief aid in exchange for the hostages, which would have only bolstered Al Nusrah’s image inside Syria. And Al Uraydi says the group would have liked to exchange the peacekeepers for “captives in the prisons of the tyrants.”

However, according to al Uraydi, the group never made any of these demands.

Al Uraydi claims the reports “alleging that the command of the Al Nusrah Front demanded that its name be removed from the terrorism list” are “baseless news.” He goes on to say that Al Nusrah does not care about such matters, as Al Nusrah is a “part” of the “eternal conflict between the truth and falsehood,” and “a part of the jihadi history of this Ummah [community of Muslims] that extends over the past centuries.”

In the end, Al Nusrah did not extract any concessions. Why?

Al Uraydi claims, according to SITE’s translation, that a “brother from us … had given a pact of safety to those captives,” meaning that he had promised the peacekeepers they would be unharmed.

When Al Nusrah learned of this, Al Uraydi says, they referred the matter to “some of the people of knowledge and its students” and then Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Jordanian jihadist who is closely allied with Al Nusrah and al Qaeda.

Al Nusrah has promoted Maqdisi’s writings, especially those critical of the Islamic State, the former al Qaeda branch that has become a rival of Al Nusrah. And Maqdisi has explained that he corresponded with Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, as he unsuccessfully attempted to mediate the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah.

Maqdisi “gave us permission to mention his name in this publication,” Al Uraydi says. “He gave us a fatwa, may Allah reward him, that what happened falls under the pact of safety, which requires compliance.”

Therefore, Al Nusrah released the hostages.

The video certainly sends a far different message than Al Nusrah’s recent anti-UN statements.

Al Nusrah loudly denounced the UN in late August. The organization’s spokesman, an al Qaeda veteran known as Abu Firas al Suri, claimed that the UN was part of a “Zio-Protestant” conspiracy against Muslims and was only interested in protecting the “Jewish state” of Israel. According to Abu Firas’ reasoning, therefore, Al Nusrah had every right to hold the UN peacekeepers hostage.

Al Nusrah was well-positioned to extract at least some concessions. However, according to press reports, Al Nusrah got nothing in return. A UN spokesman has said that Al Nusrah did not request any ransom and that none was paid.

It is possible that money did exchange hands, of course. The UN has little incentive to admit that the international organization, or another party acting on its behalf, paid a designated terrorist organization for the peacekeepers’ release.

Indeed, the government of Qatar helped negotiate the hostages’ freedom. And, according to some sources, a large ransom was paid to Al Nusrah.

Uradyi, of course, does not discuss any of this in the video.

Propaganda value of releasing the hostages

In addition to receiving other unannounced concessions, Al Nusrah has garnered some propaganda benefit from releasing the hostages.

Al Nusrah says it is fighting to implement sharia law in Syria, and that its adherence to sharia transcends any narrower interests. Al Uraydi invokes a story about Abu Musab al Zarqawi, whose organization became al Qaeda in Iraq. According to al Uraydi, Zarqawi’s forces captured three Americans and an Iraqi interpreter, but released them after he learned that the Americans had entered Fallujah under a “security pact” with a local Muslim. Zarqawi supposedly referred the matter to a sharia committee, which ruled that the Americans must go free.

This story is intended to be analogous to Al Nusrah’s decision to release the peacekeepers. Al Uraydi even draws an implicit comparison between Zarqawi and Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir.

The matter was referred to al Julani, who, upon hearing the ruling from Maqdisi and others, allegedly remarked: “If the Shariah of Allah will release them, then I am honored to release them as a worship to Allah”

“Such are the leaders of jihad,” al Uraydi says, referring to Zarqawi and Julani, that they go out of their way to comply with sharia law.

Another Al Nusrah figure, a doctor known as Abu Musab, recounts a similar story in the video. He says that both Zarqawi and Al Nusrah did not kill their captives, who were first offered a security pact, because it wasn’t consistent with sharia law.

Of course, Zarqawi is more well-known for the brutal beheadings he committed. The Islamic State’s recent slayings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have been widely compared to Zarqawi’s barbaric acts.

Al Nusrah’s recent treatment of its hostages stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State’s tactics. The group released another American, Peter Theo Curtis, from custody in late August. And the group has now freed more than 40 UN men as well.

Towards the end of the video, Al Nusrah shows one of the Fijian peacekeepers. “We have been informed that we will be released soon and we are all very happy to be going home,” he says. “By the way, we are all safe and alive, and we thank [Al Nusrah] for keeping us safe and keeping us alive. I’d like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way.”

Thus, Al Nusrah, al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, markets itself in this video as a gracious host.

Note: This article was updated on 9/13 to include Qatar’s involvement in negotiating the hostage’s freedom, as well as reports that a ransom was in fact paid.

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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  • Erik says:

    This definitely is starting to become a popularity contest between ANF and IS, with each going to opposite ends of the spectrum.
    I would be willing to bet that ANF realized what the worlds reaction to the IS beheadings, and to keep themselves “relevant”, as far as their type can go, chose to go with the comparative moral high ground.
    I am definitely curious to see how this rift between ANF and IS develops, as it holds the potential to have a serious impact in the region.

  • Fred says:

    Al Jazeera is reporting that Qatar helped negotiate their release, or at least claim to:

  • Nusrah-r-liars says:

    Excuse me but this story, told by Jabhat al-Nusrah, doesn’t make any sense.
    How can there be a “safety agreement” when JaN and the UN soldiers reportedly shelled and fired on each other for hours and then the UN soldiers asked in a video for their release?
    If I am taking shelter by some friends which whom I have a security agreement, I certainly don’t surrender my weapons and be the actor in a hostage presentation video!
    To me it seems more likely that JaN didn’t have the capacity to keep the 45 hostages for an extended period of time.

  • blert says:

    It may have been suggested to the crew that UN blue helmets surrender all the time, at the drop of a hat, precisely BECAUSE they have no skin in the game….
    So, if al Nusrah wants to take the entire remainder of the DMZ on the Golan, the ONLY smart play is to cough up the Fijians and make a BIG deal out of it.
    It is critical to al Nusrah’s larger game to get all the way to Lebanon. The path of no resistance is the UN DMZ.
    Even the Israelis are just going to sit there and watch them pass on up the line. Hence, this will be the cheapest ‘military’ victory al Nusrah has ever had.
    Further, the UN will be leaving behind absolutely terrific bunkers facing off against Assad! Further up the line, al Nusrah can look forward to attaining a fantastic field of vision from the mountainside.
    Assad can’t really do anything about it. He’s as paralyzed as the IDF.
    At some juncture, Assad will have to pull out of the Golan. ISIS will eventually bring its M198 howitzers into the fight for Damascus. It would not take too many to drive Assad positively nuts. The Alawites are confined to specific neighborhoods. ISIS would have no difficulty lobbing shells into them.
    This would surely have every Alawite family fleeing in horror. Assad has to see this coming. He must be beside himself.
    Losing Damascus would be practically a death blow for his regime.

  • blert says:

    The events predicted — happened even before I could predict them!
    Al Nusrah is already shooting up the line, and Assad is already withdrawing in force from his hopeless position on the Golan.
    Looking back, it’s slightly amazing that al Nusrah didn’t see this play even earlier.
    The DMZ reaches all the way up Mount Hermon.
    The map ^^^ shows just how dominating the DMZ lookouts are over the Assad position.
    I’d rather suspect that al Nusrah is going to inch forward along the mountain range. Nothing stops al Nusrah from ‘cheating’ by crossing over into eastern Lebanon.
    This is terrain that even the Hez is not wild about fighting in. Recon drones change mountain warfare — permanently.
    Once Assad is peeled off the DMZ, there is no military position worth defending for the Alawite regime much south of Damascus. The Syrian DMZ bunkers have no military utility now that they can be enveloped from the east.
    Further, the DMZ is a sterile usage for any mobile units in the reduced Assad army. Even supplying them must be a nightmare.
    The UN DMZ heights totally dominate the Syrian landscape for miles around. This gambit is a strategic defeat for Assad, no doubt.


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