Al Qaeda appears ‘moderate’ compared to Islamic State, veteran jihadist says

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The second edition of Al Risalah magazine features an interview with Usama Hamza Australi, an al Qaeda veteran sent to Syria to train fighters for Al Nusrah Front.

Jihadists in Syria have released the second edition of Al Risalah, an English-language magazine. The publication, which was distributed via social media earlier today, is a thinly-veiled piece of al Qaeda propaganda. It isn’t officially published by the organization, but its al Qaeda messaging is obvious.

Al Risalah’s newest edition includes an interview with a jihadist known as Usama Hamza Australi, who is originally from Queensland, Australia. “I’ve been a member of Al Qaeda for approximately fourteen years – since mid-2001 until today,” Australi says. “I’m currently in Syria as a member of Al Qaeda Central (AQC), working on their behalf with [Al Nusrah Front].”

Al Qaeda’s decision to send veterans to Syria, where they help steer Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of the group, has been well-documented. Yet, not all of these experienced jihadists have been publicly identified. In the interview, Usama Hamza Australi reveals not only his own personal role, but also additional details about al Qaeda’s operations. And he confirms a point The Long War Journal has repeatedly made: Al Qaeda is using the Islamic State to reposition itself as a supposedly more “moderate” jihadist organization.

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“One of the greatest things about IS [Islamic State] its that before people saw al Qaeda and the Mujahideen (in general) as the extremists, and those that abstain from jihad as the normal ‘moderate’ Muslims (following the middle-way),” Australi explains. “But now the truth has come out — the Mujahideen are in fact upon the correct and ‘moderate’ path, with IS being the extremists.”

Australi concludes: “So I think that IS is a blessing in disguise for the Muslim Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims].”

Of course, al Qaeda’s end goals are similar to the Islamic State’s. Both want to build an Islamic caliphate based on their radical version of sharia law. Al Qaeda simply disagrees with the Islamic State’s methodology, believing that caliphate-building is a longer-term project that requires the approval of the broader jihadist community. (Al Qaeda ideologues criticize Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Islamic State for failing to win the approval of recognized jihadist authorities before declaring a caliphate over large parts of Iraq and Syria.) Al Qaeda also argues that sharia law should be implemented slowly in order to give Muslims, many of whom do not desire jihadist-style governance, the time to acclimate to laws they have not lived under.

Australi makes some of these arguments in his interview. It is “obligatory upon us to fight jihad and to establish an Islamic Caliphate, this being our ultimate goal,” he says. Al Qaeda will not “compromise” when it comes to the Quran and “will not stop until our goal is reached.” That goal is the “full” implementation of sharia law.

Australi continues: “But you have to understand there’s a way of implementing this – which is the way of the Prophet…and (then) you have the way of the Islamic State group.” The proper jihadist “ways can be corrupted, especially with the takfir methodology and ideology.”

By comparing themselves to the Islamic State, al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly portrayed themselves as representing a “correct” and “moderate” path, as Australi puts it. This helps al Qaeda attempt to build more popular support for its cause, while masking the true extent of its designs in Syria and elsewhere. Australi goes so far as to declare al Qaeda “merciful,” as compared to the Islamic State.

“I truly believe that al Qaeda’s methodology is the right way, the way of mercy, the way of forgiveness, the way of da’wah [proselytizing], the way of strength,” Australi says, “and strength is not just in killing.”

Al Qaeda’s guerrilla warfare

Australi began his career in the Australian military before leaving for Afghanistan. Once there in mid-2001, he was taken in by the Taliban before joining al Qaeda’s ranks. He lavishes praise on the Taliban, arguing that the only real differences between the Taliban and al Qaeda were cultural and easily overcome. Australi fought in Afghanistan, including during the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, but says that he didn’t receive much military training at first. Instead, he was indoctrinated in al Qaeda’s ideology.

Over time, Australi did receive guerrilla warfare training and was taught Arabic. From 2003 to 2014, he worked for al Qaeda in Waziristan and Afghanistan. “We conducted operations from artillery (mortar) strikes, to ambushes, to assaults and raids on Afghani (apostate Northern Alliance and others of their like), American and NATO forces in Afghanistan,” he says. Australi became so trusted that he met with some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, including Abu Yahya al Libi, Sheikh Mahmood, Hafiz Sultan, and Mustafa Saeed. He eventually became a trainer himself.

Today, Australi works as a trainer for “Jaish Nusra,” which he says is a “purely military force (wing)” within the Al Nusrah Front “organization as a whole.”

“I was sent from AQC to assist with [Al Nusrah Front], I’m working with Jaish Nusra as a military trainer and advisor,” Australi says. He goes on to describe what this training entails. “Training tactically, working in small…I hate to use the word ‘Commandos’…high standard infantry tactics, long range patrols, reconnaissance patrols, ambushing, raids, sabotage, harassment behind enemy lines, reaction to combat, how to fight with the enemy in a guerrilla warfare scenario, targeting convoys, targeting installations behind enemy lines with no support, and so on.”

“These were some of the things I trained in for a number of years with the Australian military, and then experienced (in the battlefield) for almost fifteen years in Afghanistan (and here in Syria),” Australi explains. “I’m also involved in military operations…I’m a trainer who still lives to fight (smiles). Any chance I get to fight I’m certainly there, and any input, then I am certainly there.”

Although it is widely believed that al Qaeda is primarily a terrorist organization that is solely focused on attacking the West, the reality is that al Qaeda has devoted most of its resources to waging insurgencies. As the 9/11 Commission found, most of al Qaeda’s trainees from the mid-1990s on were trained in guerrilla warfare, just like Usama Hamza Australi. And the training Australi offers in Syria today, as his own description shows, is of the same variety.

“I insist that [Al Nusrah Front] trains the brothers in the highest standards of guerrilla warfare (tactics) because I believe that if they can handle the harshest, most difficult, and most intense military situations,” Australi says, “then they will be able to handle any other situation with more ease.”

As for the future, Australi believes Jaish Nusra “is going back to the old style of fighting that [Al Nusrah Front] first became renowned for in the beginning of the Syrian War.” This includes “very strong assaults, strong ‘shock and awe’ tactics” and hitting “the enemy with force.”

“We go into areas that the enemy doesn’t expect, and show the enemies of Allah that Jaish Nusra is here to stay,” Australi crows, “and if we enter into a battle we’re here to stay until it’s victory or Shahada [martyrdom].”

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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9 Comments

  • Birbal Dhar says:

    One thing that baffles me, is how did Matthew Stewart (Usama Hamza Australi) travel from Afghanistan to Syria without being noticed? Surely, he couldn’t have taken a flight to Turkey and then into Syria, when Australian intelligence knew him already. Was this a failure of Australian intelligence not informing Turkish authorities if a guy like him would attempt to go to Turkey and cross into Syria? Did he cross from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then took a flight to Turkey? I also seriously doubt whether he crossed through land borders from Afghanistan into Iran, Iraq and then Syria, that would be so risky, he surely would have been caught.

    • TRM says:

      Would the Turks listen or move if the Australians told them?

      • Birbal Dhar says:

        To be fair the Turks have arrested people when foreign countries warn them about certain people. Of course the Turks do have an interest in supporting groups that are against the YPG and the Syrian regime, which unfortunately the many groups such as the Islamic State, Al-Nusrah and other islamic fundamentalists fit in !!

    • Ron S says:

      Turkey allows Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists to travel to and from Syria freely and transport their weapons across the border too. They even have R&R stations inside Syria. So probably this guy travelled via Turkey.

  • Arjuna says:

    90% plus of the enemy’s attention is devoted to guerilla war in Muslim or “contested” territories and we are still being slowly, and steadily, infiltrated by his supporters and converts who will eventually switch on in our formerly safe societies. The plethora of high-quality English language online “magazines” is disturbing. Smart people, plus money, plus expertise, plus momentum equals more and more converts to the cause. It should be illegal to produce or distribute Islamist propaganda of any kind, online or in the physical realm. Hate speech, by definition.

  • Rock says:

    I don’t see how you can rule out a pipeline through Iran for travel from Afghanistan to Syria: Either with approval from the Iranian Government or without it.

    • Birbal Dhar says:

      Even if the Iranians approved of it or not, he would have crossed into Iraq and then how would he cross into Syria, did he pay smugglers or went a different route ? It’s a topic that very few journalists have researched into it !!

  • Michael Marks says:

    The pipeline to Afghanistan for Foreign Fighters went via Iran and Pakistan for a number of years. They simply have reversed it using the same contacts be they official or unofficial.

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