Al Nusrah Front leader preaches jihadist unity in Idlib

Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, has released a 15-minute audio speech in which he discusses the fall of Idlib to jihadist forces. The speech was first translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. A screen shot of the banner advertising Julani’s talk can be seen above.

Julani preached jihadist unity in the city of Idlib, which was captured by a jihadist coalition named Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) late last month. Al Nusrah, an official branch of al Qaeda, and its close ally, Ahrar al Sham, play leading roles in the coalition.

Al Nusrah does not seek to unilaterally dominate Idlib, according to Julani. Instead, Al Nusrah’s jihadists “stress that we are not looking to rule the city…alone without others.” He added that “consultation is the best system of governance.”

Julani stated that he wants to make sure the city’s public services continue to operate and the people are employed, even if there are more citizens than jobs to be filled. And he called for the establishment of a common sharia court capable of arbitrating the citizens’ disputes. “All the people should refer their complaints and their grievances to it, even if ten years passed,” Julani said, according to SITE.

In July 2014, a leaked audio of a speech by Julani caused a stir among Syria’s jihadists. Julani could be heard saying that the time for declaring an emirate (state) in Syria “has come” and Nusrah would build its state upon Allah’s “laws in every sense of the word, without compromise, complacency, equivocation, or circumvention.” Julani’s words, which were not intended for an audience outside of Nusrah, were widely interpreted as meaning that the group would not consult with other rebel groups concerning the direction of the jihad in Syria.

The implications of Julani’s July 2014 speech did not go unnoticed. Other jihadists believed it was possible that Nusrah, under pressure from its rivals in the Islamic State, could change course and attempt to dominate most of the other anti-Assad rebels. This would have been a markedly different approach, as Nusrah has long sought to embed itself deep within the rebellion. While the group has taken on Western-backed rebels in northern Syria, Julani’s policy has been to cooperate whenever possible with other insurgents, even if they do not fully share al Qaeda’s vision of the future.

In the immediate aftermath of the leaked Julani audio in the summer of 2014, Al Nusrah quickly issued a statement denying that it had declared an emirate inside Syria, adding that it would do so only when “the pious scholars agree with our stance.”

In other words, Al Nusrah would only declare an emirate after consulting with acceptable jihadist groups and other leading figures. To underscore this point, Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who serves as Al Nusrah’s spokesman, released a video saying that his group would announce an emirate after “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.”

Julani’s newly-released speech could be viewed as an attempt to quell any controversy over Nusrah’s role in Idlib, making it clear that Julani’s men would continue to work with other factions as opposed to seizing power for themselves. His decision to stress the importance of “consultation” is an echo of Abu Firas al Suri’s words last year.

Other calls for jihadist unity in coalition

Other jihadist commanders involved in the battle of Idlib have struck a similar tone. In his own message following the fall of the city, the emir of Ahrar al Sham, Abu Jaber (a.k.a. Hashim al Sheikh), issued a statement congratulating his fighters for their involvement in the successful mission. But he also reminded his men, according to a translation prepared by SITE, that true victory would only be achieved “with the coming out of the people of the religion of Allah in crowds.” This will happen if the jihadists “present to them the brightened image, for treatment of Islam and its administration towards the affairs of the people,” Abu Jaber claimed.

Abu Jaber advised that this ostensibly benign rule was only possible if the “participating groups…abandon their factional interests and put the interest of Islam and removing affliction from this wounded people over every interest.”

In other words, according to the Ahrar al Sham leader, no one jihadist faction should seek to dominate the others.

Like Abu Jaber, Julani sees popular support as essential for the jihadists’ long-term success. Julani argues the “reputation of the Muslims and the emirs is not in terrorizing people, but it is in securing them and stopping the oppressor.” Only then will the people “gather around the mujahideen instead of coming against them, and they will preserve the strength of the mujahideen to preserve themselves with them.”

In videos disseminated online and posts to his official Twitter feed, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini has also argued that the jihadists in Jaysh al Fateh should remain united and refrain from abusing the populace. Muhaysini reportedly plays a significant role in Jaysh al Fateh, and has been advising the jihadists on how the city should be administered. Muhaysini has endorsed a multi-seat council representing the main jihadist factions. According to press reports, Ahrar al Sham is set to dominate this council, with the Al Nusrah Front also holding several seats.

Multiple ties to al Qaeda

The simple fact of the matter is that Julani would not agree to such an arrangement if the Jaysh al Fateh coalition’s ruling body did not adhere to a version of sharia law that is consistent with Al Nusrah’s and al Qaeda’s beliefs.

Indeed, Sheikh Muhaysini is, at a minimum, affiliated with al Qaeda. He even timed a key initiative in early 2014 to coincide with a message from Ayman al Zawahiri.

And al Qaeda has embedded leaders within Ahrar al Sham’s ranks, giving it at least a hand in the group. Sanafi al Nasr, a senior al Qaeda strategist who joined Al Nusrah, has even confessed on Twitter that al Qaeda’s senior leadership dispatched men to Syria to join Ahrar al Sham. Abu Khalid al Suri, who served as Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until his death in February 2014, was one of Ahrar al Sham’s most senior figures. And Hassan Abboud, the leader of Ahrar al Sham, was one of al Suri’s disciples. Abboud, along with other Ahrar al Sham leaders, was killed in an explosion last September. The fallen Ahrar al Sham leaders were openly mourned by al Qaeda operatives on social media.

At least one al Qaeda veteran was reportedly killed while fighting for Ahrar al Sham in Idlib. Online jihadists identified a man known as Abu Hafs al Masri as both an Ahrar al Sham leader and as an al Qaeda veteran who fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia. According to some accounts on Twitter, al Masri served as an al Qaeda trainer at one point.

In a compilation of tweets and statements posted online, Muhaysini said he had met with Abu Hafs and praised him as one of the “martyrs” in Idlib.

In his new speech, Julani listed several “martyrs” who fell in” the “invasion” of Idlib, including two Egyptians. Julani named one of the two as “Abu Hafs,” which may be a reference to same Abu Hafs al Masri (or Abu Hafs the Egyptian). The other Egyptian Julani honored as a “martyr” is one Abu al Bara’a. According to jihadists on Twitter, an Ahrar al Sham commander killed during the battle of Idlib was known as Abu al Bara’a al Masri. It is not known if Abu al Bara’a is alleged to have an al Qaeda background similar to the biography offered for Abu Hafs.

The toppling of Bashar al Assad’s forces in Idlib was a major victory for the Jaysh al Fateh coalition. In addition to Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham, the alliance includes Jund al Aqsa, Liwa al Haqq, Jaysh al Sunna, Ajnad al Sham, and Faylaq al Sham, among others.

Al Qaeda likely has influence in at least some of these groups as well. Jund al Aqsa, for example, worked closely with Al Nusrah to combat Western-backed rebels in the province of Idlib late last year. Al Nusrah and Jund al Aqsa went on the offensive against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, capturing several towns and villages from the group. Jund al Aqsa also accused the SRF of killing its founder, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Qatari, who reportedly fought for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was “close to” Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

Calls for the coalition to continue the fight against Assad

Given the coalition’s success in Idlib, Julani called on the other jihadist factions to remain united as one army for the fight ahead. “We call on the factions of Jaysh al Fateh not to scatter their gathering, and to make their strength remain serve upon their enemy, and be merciful among one another, and to gather their power in support of Islam and the Muslims, and to march forth with the blessings of Allah,” Julani said, according to SITE’s translation. “Continue, O soldiers of Islam, in defeating your enemy. You have people who are besieged in Damascus and its countryside, and Homs and Aleppo. They wait for you to rescue them, so do not disappoint them.”

Muhaysini has called on the Jaysh al Fateh factions to “maintain” their army as well. “It is not stipulated of that you all are combined in one faction, but maintain this army, make this army stand firm, make it as the nucleus to liberate Damascus,” Muhaysini said in a video released online, according to another translation prepared by SITE. Muhaysini continued: “You prepare for a major invasion such as this invasion on Homs or Hama, or on the Sahel [Coast], or on the al-Jisr [Bridge] or on others, and pounce upon them and know that Allah will never decrease the reward of your good deeds.”

The official Twitter page for Jaysh al Fateh has posted tweets in this vein, too. The authors of the Twitter feed boast that the coalition is not a “temporary joint operations room” that was put together just for the battle of Idlib, but a “real army” that will continue the jihadists’ “conquests.”




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