The head of Al Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al Julani, has released an audio message addressing Russia’s role in the Syrian war. Julani depicts Russia as being “Eastern Crusaders,” calls for reprisal attacks inside Russia, says the jihadists should attack Shiite villages, and argues that groups fighting the Assad regime shouldn’t seek assistance from the West or countries throughout the region. He also offers bounties of several million Euros to anyone who kills Bashar al Assad or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Julani’s 21-minute audio message, which was released online yesterday, is entitled “The Russian Intervention – The Last Arrow.” It has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Julani argues that Russia has not come to fight the Islamic State, as it claims, but is instead targeting the Jaysh al Fateh alliance, which is led by Al Nusrah and its close jihadist ally, Ahrar al Sham. Jaysh al Fateh delivered successive blows to the Assad regime since the beginning of the year and this is the reason Russia intervened, according to Julani.
It is well known “that the [Islamic] State group does not threaten the presence of the [Assad] regime, for the places controlled by the State group do not touch the depths of the regime,” Julani says, according to SITE’s translation. “No wonder then that it began its bombardment by targeting the factions of Jaysh al Fateh and the factions that were in direct confrontation with the regime forces, and by striking the safe villages, killing women and children, continuing what has been done by the criminal regime.”
A common al Qaeda talking point is that the US is part of an anti-Sunni alliance with Iran and Shiites throughout the Middle East. Julani repeats this claim in his speech. “It is no secret to anyone how Iran and its parties from among the Rafidha [Shiites] of Iraq helped the Americans in occupying Iraq, and quickly the Americans delivered Iraq on a golden platter to Iran,” he says.
Russia’s support for this axis will not change matters, however, according to al Qaeda’s man. The war in Syria “will make Russia forget the horrors they faced in Afghanistan,” Julani threatens, referring to the Afghan War in the 1980s. He argues that Russia’s airstrikes are “no different” from the Assad regime’s in terms of accuracy or efficacy.
Julani urges the “mujahideen in the Caucasus to distract” Russia’s attention from the war in Syria whenever possible by killing Russians in their home country, including soldiers. “If the Russian soldier kills from the masses of [Syria], kill from their masses. And if they kill from our soldiers, kill from theirs,” Julani says, according to SITE. “One for one. We will not be the ones who begin.”
The infighting between various factions must come to a stop, Julani argues, so that the jihadists can focus on “breaking” the “Eastern and Western Crusader campaigns.” And the jihadists should mobilize on “all the fronts” throughout Syria in response. “All must start a large battle on the most sensitive areas for the regime, and the battle must be escalated and the Nusayri [Shiite] villages in Latakia targeted.” Latakia is a coastal province that has long been a stronghold for the Assad family.
“I call upon all the factions to gather the largest possible amount of shells and rockets and strike the Nusayri [Shiite] villages every day with hundreds of rockets, just as the cursed ones do in the cities and villages of the Sunnis,” Julani says, according to SITE. “Make them taste some of the torture of our people. If they leave the villages and cities of the Sunnis, we will leave them alone and will not attack, for he who treats others the same as he treats himself is not unjust.”
Here, Julani is likely discussing the Sunni jihadists’ strategy of attacking Shiite civilian areas in order to force the Assad regime to refrain from attacking predominately Sunni areas. Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham and other Sunni jihadist groups have employed this strategy throughout the year by, for example, attacking Shiite villages in northern Syria until Assad, Iranian forces, and Hezbollah lay off of areas in the south where Sunnis, including jihadists, are cornered. Jaysh al Fateh has effectively used this plan to free civilians and some fighters stationed in Zabadani, a small city close to the border with Lebanon.
Julani warns other groups in Syria to avoid seeking assistance from “the Western states and the regional states,” saying it will only bring more “humiliation and shame.” Julani does not address this warning to any specific parties, but he could be referring to Al Nusrah’s ally, Ahrar al Sham, which receives assistance from Turkey and Qatar. Al Nusrah itself has likely received support from Gulf nations, Turkey and other actors at times. In fact, al Qaeda ideologues have explicitly condoned such arrangements, arguing that it can advance the jihadists’ cause. Al Qaeda has even said it is permissible on theological grounds to receive support from Iran, which is currently the Sunni jihadists’ foe in Syria and elsewhere. So, while Julani may openly decry this practice, it is one al Qaeda has repeatedly deemed to be acceptable.