Abu Muhammad al-Julani, sitting with his back to the camera, interviewed by Al-Jazeera (Al-Jazeera, December 19, 2013)
1. On December 10, 2013, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, head of the Al-Nusra Front (the branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria), gave a rare, 52-minute interview to Al-Jazeera, which gave him an exceptional platform to put forth his positions. He was photographed with his back to the camera but unlike other interviews, his voice was not distorted.
2. According to al-Julani, after the future fall of the Assad regime the Al-Nusra Front does not intend to be the exclusive ruling factor in Syria and is ready to collaborate with other groups in establishing a state governed by Islamic law (the Sharia). However, he did not relate to the organization's overall goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Greater Syria and its continuing strategy of jihad against Israel, the West and the pro-Western Arab-Muslim states. Evident throughout the interview was his attempt to downplay its connection with Al-Qaeda and stressing the support the Al-Nusra Front gives the local population.
3. The unusual interview and its pragmatic tone, targeting viewers in Syria and throughout the Arab-Muslim world, were meant primarily to establish the Al-Nusra Front as a legitimate factor within the Syrian population and rebel organizations without abandoning its true long-range objectives, which it plans to carry out in stages. The organization's tactical flexibility is also meant to distinguish it from its competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (the Islamic State). The Islamic State's approach is more rigid and violent towards the local population and other rebel networks. It was also meant as a response to Hezbollah's frequent accusations against the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations, which are called takfirs.
4. In effect, the Al-Nusra Front considers it very important to support the population and to establish a governmental alternative to the Syrian regime in the regions controlled by the rebels, the so-called "liberated zones." To bring aid to the local residents more efficiently and to operate public services, the Al-Nusra Front established designated bodies called "the Sharia authority." They distribute food, clothing, blankets and basic necessities, and also operate legal, policing, educational and health services (See Appendix). Western correspondents who visited the "liberated zones" reported that in most cases the local population was satisfied and that life had returned to normal after the Syrian regime in their areas had collapsed.
The first picture taken and claimed to be of al-Julani, issued on December 27, 2013, by "senior Iraqi intelligence officials." It is unknown when it was taken. According to the Iraqis, the picture was published following the detention of Al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq (Al-Safir, December 27, 2013). Whether or not it is actually a picture of al-Julani remains to be verified.
The Main Points of the Interview
5. The following were the main issues of the Al-Jazeera interview with al-Julani:
a. The establishment of the organization: The Al-Nusra Front was created as a result of the war in Afghanistan and by the activities of Muslim clerics who promoted jihad. Its first nucleus was composed of seven or eight operatives, most of them of Syrian extraction, who went to Syria from Iraq in August 2011. They began carrying out attacks, first in Damascus and later in other areas. They had three main types of targets: branches of Syrian security, the Syrian army and the heads of the Syria regime. The first attack was on December 27, 2011, against the Syrian national security service.
b. The regime after the fall of Assad: After the fall of the Assad regime the Al-Nusra Front does not plan to be the only ruling factor, but is ready to include other groups in the regime ("We do not intend to rule, the Sharia of Allah [Islamic law] will rule."). Currently the organization is consulting with Muslim clerics regarding the nature of the future regime. In any case, the country will be governed by the laws of the Sharia. According to al-Juliani, that is the common goal of all the rebel organizations and the civilians in Syrian regime..
c. Links with Al-Qaeda: Asked about the Al-Nusra Front's links with Al-Qaeda, al-Julani played down the connection with Al-Qaeda and represented it as only "an ideological connection." He admitted that there had been a dispute between his organization and the Islamic State (the branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq from which the Al-Nusra Front was established), but it had been settled by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who "ruled what he ruled." Al-Julani claimed that the dispute had been blown out of proportion by the global media and the Internet.
d. The struggle in Syria: According to al-Julani, for three thousand years regional forces have struggled to gain control of the area. Syria is the cradle of human civilization and lies in a particularly sensitive regional and international location. He added that the struggle in Syria was essentially sectarian [that is, between Sunnis and Shi'ites/Alawites]. The Alawite regime rules the entire country and "sacrificed the Sunni majority to the Jews and the international community," which want to preserve the Assad regime.
e. The organization's mechanism for civilian rule: The Al-Nusra Front established local Sharia authorities in the areas it rules and they include a number of clerics who decide matters of Islamic law. Every local authority is divided into departments according to the sphere of its activity (military law, civilian law, personal standing). Every Sharia authority is also responsible for the local civilian infrastructure (electricity, water, flour mills). Following the takeover of the oil fields, administrations for oil were also established. In addition, the organization operates hospitals and clinics. Sharia authorities were established in northern Syria and to a certain extent in Aleppo. In the upcoming months they will begin operating in Idlib, Hama and the suburbs of Latakia.
f. The Geneva Conference: Al-Julani was critical of the Geneva Conference, claiming that it was at attempt made by the international community to pump life into the Assad regime. He said it would lead to replacing Assad with a ruler acceptable to the international community and Israel, and that in effect the Alawite regime would be preserved.The future of Syria's minorities: Asked about Syria's minorities, al-Julani evaded clarifying his true position. He said only that every society had its minority communities and according to the laws of Islam they had both rights and obligations, which would be dealt with in light of the laws of the Sharia. Asked if the Al-Nusra Front would allow their blood to be spilled, he said that Allah had created both the infidels and the true believers and the definition of infidel would be determined according to the principles of the Sharia. He added that only senior clerics had the authority to determine the infidel status of an individual or a group.
g. The trickling of the war into Lebanon: Hezbollah's admission that it was fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime led the Al-Nusra Front to intervene in Lebanon for the sake of the Sunnis living there. Al-Julani said that it was "stupidity" on the part of Hezbollah to intervene in the fighting in Syria because that had paved the way for the Al-Nusra Front to enter Lebanon [i.e., al-Julani admitted that the Al-Nusra Front was involved in terrorist acts in Lebanon].
h. The trickling of the war into Lebanon: Hezbollah's admission that it was fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime led the Al-Nusra Front to intervene in Lebanon for the sake of the Sunnis living there. Al-Julani said that it was "stupidity" on the part of Hezbollah to intervene in the fighting in Syria because that had paved the way for the Al-Nusra Front to enter Lebanon [i.e., al-Julani admitted that the Al-Nusra Front was involved in terrorist acts in Lebanon].
Groups or individual Muslims labeled as infidels for not embracing the radical interpretation of Islam.
The Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that on November 10, 2012, the Al-Nusra Front had established a Sharia authority in Aleppo. The Sharia authority deals with enforcing law and order and providing local residents with services. It also collected taxes and enforced Islamization on the city (Al-Akhbar, December 28, 2012).