The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has released a 43-minute documentary titled, “The Heirs of Glory.” The video tells the history of Islam from Al Nusrah’s perspective, culminating in video footage of the 9/11 attacks and audio clips from Osama bin Laden’s speeches.
Al Nusrah highlights the footage of 9/11 after replaying a threat made by bin Laden in 1998. Bin Laden claimed at the time that “the joint Crusader-Jewish forces” have been responsible for all of the recent “aggression” against Muslims lands. The al Qaeda founder portrayed the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and thereafter as part of a successful plot “to capture the two holy sanctuaries (Mecca and Medina).” (Of course, US forces did not capture Islam’s holy sites, but instead defended the region against Saddam Hussein’s aggression.)
“So we seek to incite the Islamic Nation so it may rise to liberate its lands and perform Jihad in the path of Allah, and to establish the law of Allah, so the Word of Allah may be supreme,” Bin Laden continued in the clip from 1998.
An Al Nusrah Front narrator then elaborates: “The letters of Sheikh Osama continued to the West instructing them to cease supporting the Jews in Palestine. He called them several times to cease looting the wealth of the Muslims and to leave the Arabian Peninsula.”
Video clips of the attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers are played as the narrator then says the following: “However, the Americans insisted and were arrogant. Thus, the choice to respond in the same manner was found to be the most effective solution, so the West may know that the Muslims will never remain silent to the crimes committed against them, and that they will resist oppression and tyranny.”
Al Nusrah’s documentary serves as a rebuttal, of sorts, to the dubious, thinly-sourced claims that the group was going to break with al Qaeda. Because of its prominent role in the insurgency against Bashar al Assad’s regime, some have tried to whitewash Al Nusrah.
Since the beginning of the year, anonymous sources have claimed that Al Nusrah was going to leave al Qaeda’s fold. One account even held that al Qaeda was going to disband entirely. Such reports ignored overwhelming primary source evidence indicating this was not true, including the fact that several high-ranking Al Nusrah officials denied that any breakup was pending. Multiple jihadist groups around the globe remain openly loyal to al Qaeda.
Abu Sulayman relocated from Australia to take part in the failed mediation efforts between the Islamic State and its jihadist rivals. In May, he was asked about the breakup rumors on his Twitter feed, which was quickly suspended. Abu Sulayman denied outright that Al Nusrah was going to leave al Qaeda, saying that the group has a binding bayah (oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri and this oath can only be broken with permission. A screen shot of one of Abu Sulayman’s tweets can be seen on the right.
Abu Firas al Suri is an al Qaeda veteran who was redeployed from Yemen to Syria in the wake of the Syrian uprising. He has served as Al Nusrah’s spokesman. Al Qaeda loyalists such as Abu Firas and Abu Sulayman are seeded throughout Al Nusrah’s ranks.
A jihadist “resurgence”
While much of the jihadists’ propaganda these days focuses on tactical gains or, in the Islamic State’s case, various atrocities, Al Nusrah took a different approach in “The Heirs of Glory.” The production is meant to tie the jihadists’ current efforts in Syria to a longstanding effort to reclaim a past ruled by various Islamic empires.
The video opens with a quote from British historian Arnold Toynbee, who wrote that “Islam is in a deep slumber.” Toynbee found that the “global situation may awake it to assume dominance once again.” The quote from Toynbee concludes: “Hopefully, this will not happen.”
But Al Qaeda hopes that it does happen, and it is working to resurrect its own caliphate — even if success is a far way off.
“We strived through this video to show that if the era of our decline has lasted for almost two centuries that once we used to lead this world for longer than twelve centuries,” Al Nusrah’s propagandists say early in the video. The West has been “eager to spread the psychological defeat between the young Muslims,” Al Nusrah argues, but it “is known that our nation today, particularly after the revolutions, has started to redefine the milestones of the civilization resurgence.”
The use of the word “resurgence” is no accident. Al Qaeda’s newest English-language publication is named “Resurgence,” which is intended to convey a sense that al Qaeda is leading a global Islamic revolution. (Of course, al Qaeda does not represent Muslims around the world.) The video’s producers long for the day when the Caliphate’s power spanned across vast territory. This can be seen in the screen shot on the right.
In that vein, Al Nusrah portrays al Qaeda’s leaders and members as the ideological descendants of various other jihadists who sought to expel foreign influence from the Islamic world and restore the caliphate to power.
One of these jihadists is Abdullah Azzam, who was one of Osama bin Laden’s early mentors. Al Nusrah includes archival footage of Azzam from the 1980s. (See the screen shot on the right.) “Three centuries ago, they were planning and enacting until they were able [to] topple the Muslim Caliphate,” Azzam said of the West’s supposed designs.
In 1924, Azzam told his audience, they “were finally relieved of the ghoul that used to haunt them day and night and chase them when sleeping and when awake, which left their eyes sleepless and terrified them every time they remembered the Caliphate. The whole world agreed that the Caliphate can never be allowed to rise again.”
Azzam was killed in 1989. His assassins have never been definitively identified. But his words still carry weight today, as can be seen by his inclusion in Al Nusrah’s video.
Other, lesser known figures included in the mini-documentary include Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Kareem al-Khattabi (who fought European forces in the Maghreb in the early 1920s), ‘Umar al-Mukhtar (“who fought jihad in the cause of Allah against the Italian occupation [in Libya] and caused them much calamities across a span of 20 years until he was captured after being wounded”), Imam Shamil and his grandsons (who resisted against the “Tsarist Russian occupation” and “then the Communist occupation” in the Islamic Caucasus), and ‘Izz ad-Deen al-Qassam (who fought the French occupation of Syria and France’s “Alawite clients,” as well as the “British occupation and the bands of Jews in Palestine until he was martyred in 1935.”)
The situation changed, however, as Western powers turned over power to local rulers. This merely meant, according to Al Nusrah, that the West now ruled indirectly. “Uprisings against the occupation arose in many Muslim lands which forced the occupation to change its manner from direct military occupation to indirect, political and economic occupation after the way had been paved for the post-military phase,” the video’s narrator says. This “post-military phase” in the mid-20th Century saw the introduction of constitutions based on Western principles, as opposed to sharia law.
But a new generation of jihadists opposed these Western-backed powers, including Sayyid Qutb, a major ideologue within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Clips of Qutb’s prosecution in Egypt are played in the video. (See the screenshot on the right.)
“Amongst the leaders of that blessed renaissance arose Sayyid Qutb, who waged war against the manmade constitutions, and through his writings called for the legislation of sharia and set the greatest example through his sacrifices and steadfastness on the religion until he [was] sentenced to death by hanging in 1966,” Al Nusrah says. “This was after he refused to strike a deal with the Egyptian regime in exchange for lightening his sentence. He responded to their offer by saying: ‘The index finger that testifies to the oneness of Allah during prayer will never write a single word in recognition of the rule of a tyrant.’”
Al Nusrah’s praise for Qutb is not surprising. During the second part of his interview with Al Jazeera, which was aired earlier this month, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhammad al Julani said that his organization teaches one of Qutb’s books in its schools in Syria.
According to Al Nusrah, another figure like Qutb was Sheikh Marwan Hadid, who “was convinced that a calamity such as the Syrian Baath party could not be confronted except through jihad.” Hadid founded “The Fighting Vanguard” and “began his efforts in Jihad,” but was “suppressed by the tanks of the Baath party in 1965.” He tried again “in 1970 only to be captured and hung in 1975.”
An “erupting jihadi center”
By the early 1980s, Al Nusrah says, “jihadi movements [had] appeared to change these regimes by force of arm,” but “were unable to achieve their goals due to clashes with the brute unjust regimes backed by the global forces of disbelief.”
These “attempts primarily ended in arrests and imprisonment until the Afghan jihad against the Russian(s), when the Muslims, from various walks of life, answered the call of Jihad. And the land of Afghanistan offered an opportunity to gather the mujahideen of the world.” Iconic footage of Ayman al Zawahiri in an Egyptian cell is shown to emphasize the failure of these pre-Afghanistan efforts. (See the screen shot on the right.)
A central jihadist myth holds that the mujahideen, through the power of their faith alone, drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, leading to the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Al Nusrah video repeats this myth, which ignores, among other things, the vast amount of financial assistance and weaponry supplied by the US and its anti-Soviet allies.
Abu Firas al Suri (seen on the right), the al Qaeda veteran who became Al Nusrah’s spokesman, explains to viewers the importance of the Soviets’ defeat, from the jihadists’ perspective. “Actually the victory of the mujahideen against the Russians had many effects. Russia was considered at the time the second most powerful country in the world, with some considering it as the most powerful,” Abu Firas says. “The Russians would proudly say that they possessed nuclear weapons with the potential, in theory, to destroy America 280 times, while we wish to destroy her just once.”
“Brothers, pure mujahideen, destroyed this giant beast,” Abu Firas claims. “This cast hope and life into the souls of the Muslims throughout the world. The Muslim is capable, if he wages jihad and clings to his creed, to achieve great things.”
While key to the jihadists’ efforts, Afghanistan is only one part of the picture. Abu Firas explains that what al Qaeda seeks to do is spark revolutions throughout the Muslim-majority world. This is very different from the story often told by Western analysts, who frequently portray al Qaeda as being myopically focused on attacking the US and its allies.
For decades after the fall of the caliphate, the “concept of jihad in the Levant was absent from people’s minds,” Abu Firas says. “Nobody even heard of the word jihad. In reality, the Levant is regarded [as] one of the most important centers in the Islamic world due to its close proximity to Palestine, to the Hijaz [Saudi Arabia] and being in the center of the Islamic world.”
Abu Firas then introduces viewers to the concept of an “erupting jihadi center,” not just in the Levant, but elsewhere. And he draws on Marxist thinking to explain what he means.
“The existence of a continually erupting jihadi center in the Levant is critical so people continue to hear about jihad,” Abu Firas says. “Even western theorists, such as Frenchman Regis Debray, author of ‘Revolution in the Revolution,’ confirm the necessity of a continually erupting center for revolutions.”
Debray’s book dealt with guerrilla warfare, especially in Latin America, and the revolutionary approaches being employed by leftwing radicals in the mid-20th century. Abu Firas says that “obviously” Debray “is not our role model or example, nor Castro, nor Guevara, but rather this is a fact.” By this he means that no leftwing Western intellectual can serve as the jihadists’ “role model.” But his explanation of revolutionary theory is telling, as it is known from various sources that al Qaeda has studied Che Guevara, Mao and other political revolutionaries in order to better understand their successes and failures.
The “fact” of Debray’s thesis “testifies to what the Messenger of Allah (PBUH),” the Prophet Mohammed, “informed us in a hadith,” Abu Firas says. The saying attributed to Mohammed is quoted as: “There will always be a group of my Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] that will fight upon the Command of Allah, they will not be harmed by those who oppose them.”
Abu Firas says this means that “there will remain a fighting jihadi group in the Islamic World, an erupting center for jihad,” such that “the people continue to hear that there is jihad in Egypt and Algeria! There is jihad in Kashmir and India! There is jihad in Afghanistan!”
The “idea of jihad is practically applied and remains erupting and implemented,” Abu Firas says. “It is not just something we read about in history books…that once upon a time our grandfathers used to wage Jihad…No!!”
Abu Musab al Suri
Abu Musab al Suri has been imprisoned in Syria for much of the time since his capture in Pakistan in 2005. (There were reports that Abu Musab had been freed, but al Qaeda has confirmed that he remains jailed.) Abu Musab is one of the most influential jihadist thinkers of the past twenty-five years and is still highly revered in al Qaeda circles.
The Al Nusrah Front includes a lengthy excerpt from Abu Musab’s seminal jihadist tract, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” in the video. Referring to the same saying referenced by Abu Firas, Abu Musab wrote: “Because Allah decreed to protect His religion and His book and keep [the] truth, [there is a] perpetual group within the Islamic Nation, fighting for the religion, un-harmed by those who let them down or by those [who] oppose them.”
Therefore, according to Abu Musab, “the seed of the Islamic Awakening and blessed renaissance was sown from the first days after the fall of the Caliphate, across various schools of thought.” All of these “schools strived toward the same goal, which was the return of the Islamic Nation to its religion, its sharia and the law of its Lord.”
Later in the video, Al Nusrah plays a clip of Abu Musab expounding upon this theme in one of his lectures. “Now the Islamic Awakening is trying to find a solution to our crisis,” Abu Musab explained. While some Islamists sought change through other means, Abu Musab and al Qaeda concluded that only jihad would do. Abu Musab said he did not doubt the “good assumptions” of others seeking to end the “crisis” in the Muslim-majority world, adding that he “consider[ed] their intentions sincere.”
Nonetheless, he disagreed. Only the jihadists’ could succeed in resurrecting an Islamic empire.
“As everyone else has a proposed solution to the crisis, our solution is through weapons,” Abu Musab told his audience in the dated footage. (A screen shot can be seen on the right.)
Abu Musab continued: “It will not be solved without weapons. This type of crisis cannot be solved without weapons, because it is about the void of governance, a conflict with the apostates, the existence of the crusaders, meaning the existence of the NATO, meaning armies, the existence of fleets. The Jews means the Israel Defence Forces, meaning the Mossad, meaning calamities. These issues are not solved through spiritual reform or education!”
Al Nusrah Front is part of al Qaeda
Al Nusrah uses Abu Musab’s lecture to introduce al Qaeda as one of the jihadist organizations that was created to solve the “crisis.” Al Nusrah does not hide from al Qaeda’s legacy. Abu Muhammad al Julani’s group fully embraces al Qaeda as its mother organization.
“As for those who chose to raise arms, the solution for every one of them was to remain firm on their battlefront, defending the honor of this nation against the [enemies], whom [had] come together and agreed to prevent the nation of Islam to rise again,” Al Nusrah’s narrator says. “Amongst these fighting groups was al Qaeda, who regarded the solution to be to focus on the head of the global disbelief, America, and create an immediate, repelling force to face their insolence, so it may stop regarding the Muslims to be an easy catch, attacking them whenever and wherever they please, without the least regard of the consequences.”
It is at this point that Al Nusrah introduces archival footage of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, a clip of bin Laden from 1998 (the same year he declared the establishment of a front for confronting the “Jews and Crusaders”), scenes from the 9/11 attack and, finally, another quote from bin Laden.
The last passage from bin Laden appears to be a commentary on the Arab uprisings that swept through the Middle East and North Africa just prior to his death in May 2011.
“So to all free revolutionaries over the world, hold firm onto your affairs and beware of ‘dialogue.’ There is no middle path between truth and falsehood, absolutely not!,” bin Laden warned. “Remember that Allah has bestowed his mercy upon you with these days, after which will come much good. You are the knights and leaders of today. In your hands are the reins; the Ummah has kept you for this amazing day; continue the journey and do not fear the hardships…The journey has started to the destination. The free have marched forth in [determination]. And when the free start their march, they will not get tired nor wll they stop!”
Al Nusrah believes that the Arab revolutions have “given life once again” to the “Muslim nation.” And the group is proud to represent al Qaeda in this new era.