On Wednesday (June 3), Al Jazeera aired the second part of its interview with Abu Muhammad al Julani, who leads the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. The interviewer, Ahmad Mansur, once again provided a friendly forum for Julani to portray his organization in a positive light.
Julani used the platform to deny reports that his organization was going to break with al Qaeda. He also contrasted Al Nusrah with its rivals in the Islamic State, thereby portraying the organization as a somewhat more moderate jihadist alternative. And Julani accused the US of pitting the Iranians against Sunni jihadists throughout the region.
“America wants to drag Iran into a war with us, with the al Qaeda organization and all mujahideen, to fight on behalf of America,” Julani said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Al Nusrah Front is al Qaeda
In the weeks leading up to the two-part interview, speculative reports argued that the Al Nusrah Front was going to break with al Qaeda. But Julani was clear that Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s initiative, and there was no hint of a coming breakup.
Julani credited Osama bin Laden with devising a strategy to draw America into costly land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which exhausted US resources to the point that it cannot send its armies and can only engage in “an intelligence war,” and a “spy war.” (Prior to the 9/11 attacks, however, bin Laden frequently argued that attacks on the US would drive its forces out of the region, not drag it into a prolonged conflict. Bin Laden cited, for instance, the American response to the attacks in Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in 1993.)
Over the course of the two-part interview, Julani also repeatedly referenced Zawahiri’s “orders” and “directives.”
During the first part of his interview, Julani said Al Nusrah was “committed” to Ayman al Zawahiri’s “orders.” According to Julani, the “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri]…are that the Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime,” and not to strike the West at this time. That could change, Julani explained, should Zawahiri order them to launch a terrorist attack in the West. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Nusrah Front ‘committed’ to Ayman al Zawahiri’s ‘orders’.]
During the second part of the interview, Mansur asked Julani why Al Nusrah doesn’t spare itself the “international campaign” targeting its locations by leaving al Qaeda’s ranks. Julani made it clear that this wasn’t going to happen.
Julani began his reply by saying “this topic was given much more that its real size,” or more attention than it deserved. Moreover, according to Julani, the US is opposed to all sorts of nations and leaders who are not affiliated with al Qaeda and yet are classified as terrorists. The real issue is their opposition to “the international order and hegemony,” so breaking from al Qaeda will not end the West’s opposition to Al Nusrah.
Julani continued his answer by pointing to al Qaeda’s true goal: the establishment of an Islamic government based on its version of sharia law. Once such a government is formed, Al Nusrah’s jihadists will be the “first soldiers” in the new ruling body.
This isn’t just his opinion, Julani said, “but the talk of Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri] himself.” Zawahiri has said that an Islamic government must be established in the Levant and agreed upon by the other factions. And this government has to be one in which “shura [consultation] prevails, justice rules, and the sharia of Almighty governs.” Then, “we will be the first soldiers in such a wise government,” Julani said.
Al Nusrah doesn’t seek to “rule,” Julani claimed, only to serve a truly Islamic government. But of course there is a catch — such a government would be based on al Qaeda’s version of sharia law, or something close to it. Therefore, Julani argued that Al Nusrah will no longer be al Qaeda only on the day that al Qaeda has achieved its real mission in the Levant.
Julani added another stipulation for the Islamic government he envisions: It must protect the “rights” of the “immigrants” who have traveled “from all over the world,” including Europeans, Chechens, Asians, and a “small number of Americans,” to participate in the revolution. He specifically criticized the Dayton Accords, which “evicted” foreign fighters from Bosnia in the 1990s. And he added that the foreign fighters serving in the Islamic State have “distorted the image of the immigrants” with their barbaric actions.
Overall, Julani estimated that the immigrants make up “30 percent” of Al Nusrah’s force, meaning that 7 out of 10 members are native Syrians. If accurate, this is telling, as it indicates Al Nusrah is a predominantly Syrian organization.
Mansur remarked that as he toured Al Nusrah’s “positions” he noticed “generations of mujahideen” who had roamed from Afghanistan to other areas for decades “until they arrived in Syria, as though the jihad that had been declared or that had started in Afghanistan would last for a long time.” Julani embraced this characterization, saying that Al Nusrah’s fight is an “inherited jihad” — a continuation of efforts that had been made since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s early efforts in Egypt and the 1980s jihad in Afghanistan.
“By the grace of Allah,” Julani said, “we have inherited this banner and this jihad.” The “al Qaeda organization or the Afghan jihad renewed the jihad,” leading it to be “extended to Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Algeria, and…the Levant.”
“We have people whose hair had gone gray in the mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere,” Julani said. “They had been involved in war against the [Assad] regime in the Levant the 1980s” and went on “to Afghanistan and were involved in the war against the Russians, then the war between the factions there and the Taliban government, and then the American war, before returning to the Levant to fight the [Assad] regime.”
Although Julani did not name any of these jihadist veterans, they are clearly in Al Nusrah’s ranks. Jihadists such as Abu Firas al Suri and Abu Hamam al Suri serve in senior leadership roles alongside Julani.
Mansur asked Julani for his view of the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010 and early 2011. “The directives issued to us by the al Qaeda Organization, by Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri], stipulated that we should support and guide the revolutions that took place,” Julani responded.
Julani went on to explain al Qaeda’s rationale. The “armies of the region,” including those in Egypt, Syria and Yemen, were not built to protect the people, but instead to quash any rebellion. Therefore, according to Julani, the people “will not find salvation unless they set up their own army.” And, of course, al Qaeda is quite willing to help them do so. The Al Nusrah Front itself “started from scratch,” Julani said.
In several spots, Julani answered Mansur by explaining al Qaeda’s perspective on the matter.
For instance, Mansur wondered why the Al Nusrah Front doesn’t proclaim itself to be a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, given that al Qaeda’s ideology is “not much different from the thinking of the” Brotherhood.
Julani agreed that the teachings of Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna and the ideologue Sayyid Qutb are largely consistent with al Qaeda’s ways. Al Banna “derived his thinking from” the “very wellspring from which we derived our thinking,” Julani said. “We teach the book authored by Sayyid Qutb” in Al Nusrah’s schools, Julani added.
But the Brotherhood has “definitely deviated,” because Islam does not allow for participating in “parliaments,” or taking “an oath about respecting the constitution.” Only sharia law should rule, according to Julani, and the Brotherhood’s tactics have led it away from proper Islamic law.
The Al Nusrah Front is attempting to groom a new generation of Syrians to think as al Qaeda does, and avoid the “deviations” of the past. “We have many generations” fighting for the cause, Julani said. “We have children at schools now receiving education based on jihad.”
And that might be the most worrisome part of Julani’s interview. Western analysts frequently misjudge al Qaeda, believing it is myopically focused on attacking the West. Its real ultimate aim is to spread its radical ideology, winning more souls for the fight to come.
Al Qaeda’s ongoing recruiting likely explains Julani’s opinion of the drone strikes. The drones “cannot eliminate al Qaeda,” but “can kill a leader here and another there.”
“Allah be praised, the nation is fertile and it produces many men every year,” Julani said.
Criticism of the Islamic State
To achieve success, Al Nusrah will have to continue to fend off multiple adversaries, including the Islamic State. Much of the second part of Al Jazeera’s interview was spent discussing Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization.
Mansur gave Julani ample room to explore the differences between the two sides. In so doing, Julani said that scholars they trust have deemed the Islamic State to be “kharijite,” that is, similar to an early sect of Islamic extremists. Julani accuses the Islamic State of killing 700 members of Al Nusrah in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor alone. And, he argues, while the Islamic State is heavily invested in the fight against Shiites in Iraq, it spends considerably less resources fighting Assad and his Shiite supporters in Syria.
Julani accuses the Islamic State of doing serious damage to jihadists’ cause. “They completely split the ranks of the mujahideen” and “have offered their services to” the US by “fighting al Qaeda.” The US would need 100 years to accomplish what Baghdadi’s group did to the al Qaeda organization, from Yemen, to the “Khorasan” (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of the surrounding countries), to the Levant.
Julani was once Baghdadi’s subordinate, and Mansur explored the history of their relationship. Julani claimed that he did not join Baghdadi “except when he told me that he was committed to a pledge of allegiance to Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri].”
“I paid allegiance to him [Baghdadi] on that basis,” Julani said. But after the Islamic State’s disagreement with al Qaeda “broke out” and the Islamic State refused Zawahiri’s order to return to Iraq, Baghdadi and his men “renounced” their “pledge of allegiance” to al Qaeda. The Islamic State accuses Julani of breaking his covenant, but the Al Nusrah emir claims that it was Baghdadi who renounced his oath first, paving the way for him to break off and form his own group.
“It is known to many people that the State was al Qaeda and al Qaeda was the State in Iraq,” Julani said.