Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani (masked) in a rare interview (Al-Jazeera TV, June 6, 2015)
1. On June 6, 2015, Al-Jazeera TV aired the second part of the interview granted by Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani. It was broadcast as a segment of Al-Jazeera's weekly news program “Without Borders,” moderated by Ahmed Mansour. The subjects discussed in the interview included Iran’s expansionist ambitions in Syria and the Middle East, the US campaign against Al-Qaeda, the Al-Nusra Front’s relations with ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front’s ties with Al-Qaeda and the importance of the foreign fighters fighting in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front.
2. The following are the main insights that arose from the second part of the interview:
A. Iran’s expansionist ambitions: Al-Julani develops the theory that the Iranians aspire to dominate the Middle East and renew the days of the Persian Empire, making use of the Shiite community. In presenting the struggle as Persian-Arab (rather than Sunni-Shiite), Al-Julani attempts to downplay, to some extent, the sectarian nature of the conflicts taking place in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, thus differentiating himself from ISIS, which considers the Shiites as infidels and treats them brutally.
B. Severe criticism of ISIS: Al-Julani says that ISIS is killing people, including Al-Nusra Front operatives, for the sake of various interests, implying that this runs counter to Islamic law. Al-Julani stresses that his organization opposes the Islamic Caliphate, established by ISIS on an illegal basis. He claims that ISIS is prioritizing the fighting in Iraq and that it is not serious in its war against the Syrian regime. Therefore, Al-Julani stresses, there is no chance of resolving the current problems between the two organizations at the present time.
C. The Al-Nusra Front’s relations with the Al-Qaeda leadership: Al-Julani refutes the reports on the Al-Nusra Front’s intention to break off its ties with Al-Qaeda. He adds that this has been made clear to other rebel organizations that the Al-Nusra Front collaborates with. However, Al-Julani tries to allay the fears of his ties with Al-Qaeda, stressing that the Al-Nusra Front does not aspire to take over Syria, but only to establish Islamic rule in the country. In the ITIC’s assessment, these statements are nothing but lip service and, in practice, the Al-Nusra Front strives to play a dominant role in any regime established in Syria, even if this is initially accomplished in collaboration with other rebel organizations.
D. The importance of the foreign fighters:Al-Julani notes that foreign fighters account for about 30% of the Al-Nusra Front’s operatives. He says that they include “a small number of Americans,” Europeans, Chechens, and many Asians. He says that the foreign fighters are in the front lines of the fighters and are leading in battle, and therefore their “rights” must be ensured in any Syrian regime that is established. It is evident from his statements that some of the foreign fighters are likely to settle permanently in Syria (which is why they come with their families). However, experience gained so far indicates that many foreign fighters join the Al-Nusra Front (and ISIS) for a limited period, after which they return to their home countries.
E. Israel is not mentioned in either part of the interview. In the ITIC’s assessment, this is because of the current priorities of the Al-Nusra Front, which is now concentrating on fighting against the Syrian regime. For the same reason, Al-Julani also makes it clear (in the first part of the interview) that his organization is not using Syria as a springboard for carrying out terrorist attacks against Western countries. However, these priorities are liable to change in the future, as a result of developments in Syria and relations between the Al-Nusra Front and the other organizations. If and when a decision is made to take action against Israel, the Al-Nusra Front is liable to launch terrorist attacks from the Syrian Golan Heights, where it enjoys a position of power among the rebel organizations.
Some of the topics raised in the second part of the interview granted by Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Al-Jazeera TV (June 6, 2015)
Iran’s expansionist ambitions
1. According to Al-Julani, Iran’s expansionist ambitions began not with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but thousands of years earlier.He notes that the ancient Persian Empire had its eye on the region for thousands of years. According to Al-Julani, this continued until the rise of Islam, which is what put an end to the Persian Empire.
2. Al-Julani develops the theory that the Iranians are using Shiite Islam as a tool for “restoring the glory” of their ancient empire (like the Jews, he says, who “are now in Palestine, claiming to have been there 3,500 years ago”).Al-Julani claims that the Iranians are trying to take over the Middle East because they are Persians (i.e., they are not Arabs) and therefore they are trying to infiltrate into the region on behalf of the Shiites. According to Al-Julani, this is the modus operandi employed by the Iranians through Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and it is happening in Iraq as well.
3. Al-Julani adds that Iran has also infiltrated into Syria by means of the treaty signed with the regime of Hafez Assad (Bashar’s father). In Syria as well, Iran used the Shiites as a tool, and the treaty between them was based on the dissemination of Shiite Islam in Syria. According to Al-Julani, however, there is a fundamental difference between Iran’s position in Syria and its position in other countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where the Iranians handle Shiite organizations that fight on their behalf. In Syria, in contrast, the Iranians “do not handle him [Bashar Assad] but rather support him.”
Al-Julani’s theory regarding the nature and motives of Iran’s expansion is not new. As early as January 24, 2012, about a year after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front issued a video of him announcing its establishment.In the video, Al-Julani attacks Iran which, he says, is aspiring to reestablish the Persian Empire. In the ITIC’s assessment, Al-Julani is using this theory in an attempt to mobilize the Arab population in the Middle East for the struggle against Iran, by presenting it as an Arab-Persian struggle and not as a Sunni-Shiite one (and in doing so he is also, to a certain extent, trying to blunt the sting in the struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims). This position differentiates the Al-Nusra Front from the position held by ISIS, the rival organization, which regards Shiites (and Alawites) as infidels and treats them brutally. This is not new. At one time, the attitude towards the Shiites gave rise to fundamental disputes between Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (the founding father of ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda leadership (see footnote no. 3).
4. Al-Julani stresses that so far Iran has not sent its own regular military forces to participate in the war in Syria and Iraq. He says that Iran has sent several commanders to these battle zones, some of whom were killed in the fighting. It also operates Shiite militias, but its forces are not fighting directly. He says that the soldiers who are fighting for Iran in the various arenas are local operatives who are totally loyal to the Iranians.
Al-Julani’s statements are compatible with the Iranian policy of refraining from sending military forces and avoiding direct involvement in the battle zones in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. In these arenas, Iran is fighting against jihadi organizations and against additional enemies through the use of Shiite proxy organizations. These proxy organizations are directed and supported by the Iranian Qods Force (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen).
5. Referring to the internal situation in Iran, Al-Julani warns the Iranians that they are facing a volcano that is about to explode. The reason, according to him, is that there are large groups in Iran, mostly Sunni, which are on the margins of society in the Iranian State. Among these groups, he listed the Kurds, the Arabs from Ahvaz (Southern Iran), the Baloch people and the Turks. According to Al-Julani, they represent around twenty million Sunni Muslims from various ethnic groups. Al-Julani claims that there were several uprisings recently in Ahvaz and in the Kurdish regions of Iran. Al-Julani advocates support for the millions of Sunnis living in Iran, because this would force the Iranians to divert their attention from areas in which they are expanding in the Middle East in order to address their internal problems.
The Al-Nusra Front’s relations with ISIS
6. In the interview, Al-Julani strongly criticizes ISIS, the rival jihadi organization.He says that religious scholars have issued fatwas (religious rulings) stating that ISIS belongs to the Khawarij, a dissident radical Islamic sect whose name has become a derogatory term. In view of this criticism, the interviewer asks Al-Julani why he once pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
7. In his reply, Al-Julani mentions the chain of events that led to the rift between Al-Qaeda and its branch in Iraq:Al-Julani says the during the period of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and even shortly after the Islamic State [in Iraq] was declared, this organization was committed to the ideology of Al-Qaeda. However, he adds, the Islamic State ignored several orders issued by the leadership of Al-Qaeda (Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri), such as the prohibition against carrying out indiscriminate killings in Shiites houses of worship and marketplaces. Thus, he says, the organization ignored the orders of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS) actually renounced his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri (and therefore Al-Julani’s pledge of allegiance to Al-Baghdadi is no longer binding).
8. Al-Julani mentions that a phenomenon has recently emerged in ISIS, of killing people for the sake of various interests of its own. He says that ISIS operatives kill many people unnecessarily and, by implication, not according to Islamic law. They have executed many Al-Nusra Front commanders, along with their wives and children, among others. As an example, Al-Julani mentions Mohammad Fateh, the Al-Nusra Front’s local commander (emir) in Idlib, who was executed by ISIS along with his wives and children.
9. In his efforts (throughout the interview) to differentiate himself from ISIS, Al-Julani stresses that the Al-Nusra Front is opposed to the Islamic Caliphate, declared by ISIS. He says that the Caliphate was established on an illegal basis.This is because ISIS forced people to accept it, abolished the presence and activity of all other jihadi organizations in the territory of the Caliphate and created discord among the jihadi operatives. He says that by doing so, “ISIS did the United States a service” without being aware of it.
10. Al-Julani, whose organization is fighting only in Syria, questions the seriousness of ISIS’s fighting against the Syrian regime.According to Al-Julani, there is a big difference between ISIS’s conduct in Iraq and its conduct in Syria. He says that ISIS, most of whose commanders are originally from Iraq, sees Iraq as its power base. Therefore, ISIS prioritizes the fighting in Iraq and attaches greater importance to it. He said that one proof of the fact that ISIS is not serious in its war against the Syrian regime is that ISIS operatives kill Shiites in Iraq but refrain from killing members of the Alawite community in Syria (the Alawites being the power base of the Syrian regime).
11. In view of these material differences, Al-Julani stresses that there is no chance of resolving the current problems between the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS at the present time. He expresses his hope that ISIS “will mend its ways and return to Allah and to the Sunnis.” However, he adds, “as long as this does not happen, there is nothing between us and them other than fighting.”
The United States and its war against Al-Qaeda
12. According to Al-Julani, Osama bin Laden managed to drag the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In these places, “Al-Qaeda was waiting for them,” and this was a surprise for the Americans. He said that none of the studies conducted by the Americans in 1990-2003 even conceived of the possibility that Al-Qaeda would manage to establish a presence in Iraq after the US Army’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
13. The United States of today cannot fight against Al-Qaeda by means of ground forces.He says that after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans found themselves in a state of withdrawal, and the US can no longer send troops to fight outside its territory. Therefore, the US is waging a “war of intelligence” against Al-Qaeda. This causes the death of leaders but does not solve the problem for the Americans: “the United States cannot put an end to Al-Qaeda using drones. It can kill a leader here and a leader there, but praise God our nation has a high birthrate, and more and more people are born every year.”
14. Al-Julani claims (from the perspective of a plotter) that the US has given Iran freedom of action in certain areas of the Middle East such as Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. According to him, “Some people say that Iran controls Iraq. However, the truth is that Iran did not take over Iraq; the US gave Iraq to Iran.” He adds: “The US wants to drag Iran into a war with us, with Al-Qaeda and with all the jihad fighters.”
The relationship between the Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda
15. The interviewer asks Al-Julani why his organization doesn’t sever its ties with Al-Qaeda, thereby putting an end to the international attacks against it. Al-Julani says that “the matter has been blown out of all proportion,” since the international entities that attack his organization do not define it as a terrorist organization because of its ties with Al-Qaeda, but rather according to other criteria. For example, Hezbollah, Hamas and North Korea are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, they have been defined as terrorists, because “those who deviate from the international system, and those who do not surrender to international entities, are classified [by them] in a negative way.”
16. Therefore, Al-Julani continues, “we are not dealing with the matter of severing ties with Al-Qaeda” (i.e., his organization does not intend to sever the ties between them). He adds that “we have made this clear to all the factions” (i.e., the rebel organizations with which the Al-Nusra Front collaborates). According to Al-Julani, Dr. Al-Zawahiri (leader of Al-Qaeda) said that “Once an Islamic government is established in Syria, we will become the first soldiers of this government; we do not aspire to rule […]” Al-Julani reiterates that “We do not seek to rule in the country, but rather to instill the rule of Islamic law in the country. We strive to achieve justice and to eradicate injustice from all walks of life.”
17. Hence Al-Julani refutes the rumors that have been circulating in recent months about his organization’s intention to sever its ties with Al-Qaeda. At the same time, he tries to dispel the concerns raised by his organization’s ties with Al-Qaeda, stressing that the Al-Nusra Front does not aspire to take over Syria, but only overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad and replace it with a regime that will establish the rule of Islamic law in the country. In the ITIC’s assessment, these statements are merely lip service and, in practice, the Al-Nusra Front aims and intends to play a dominant role in any regime established in Syria, even if this is initially accomplished in collaboration with other rebel organizations.
The attitude to the population and the role of the foreign fighters who joined the Al-Nusra Front
18. Al-Julani mentions the control of the population in the areas occupied by his organization in Syria, emphasizing the difference between the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS. He says that in the “liberated areas” (in Syria), Al-Nusra Front operatives are “fighting and building simultaneously.” They provide the population with water and electricity, wheat, protection, a court system and a police force. In these areas, construction is in progress and trading is conducted at markets, and his organization enjoys great “popular support.” He says that the Al-Nusra Front does not strive to impose its control in Syria, but only to instill a rule of Islamic law in the country. He adds that his organization strives to ensure the “rights” of the “foreign migrants” who joined the ranks of the organization and play an important role in Syria.
19. The interviewer asks Al-Julani about the percentage of “migrants” (i.e., foreign fighters) who joined the Al-Nusra Front. He replies that they constitute about 30% of the organization’s operatives. According to Al-Julani, these operatives come from all over the world. They include Europeans and “a small number of Americans.” There are also many Asians and Chechens. These migrants, he says, “are in the front lines and are leading the battles.”
Al-Julani’s remarks indicate the major role that the foreign fighters play in his organization and the considerable importance that the Al-Nusra Front attaches to them.It is also evident from his remarks that some of the foreign fighters who came to Syria to fight in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front (and, in the ITIC’s assessment, in the ranks of ISIS as well) are likely to settle permanently in Syria. This may also be the reason for the phenomenon of entire families moving to Syria, and not only individual foreign fighters (the “ceremonies” in which the foreign fighters destroy their passports from their home countries are intended to illustrate this). However, many of the foreign fighters join the Al-Nusra Front (and ISIS) for a limited period, after which they return to their home countries.
* For details about the first part of the interview, see the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from June 1, 2015: “Al-Nusra Front Leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani said in an interview that his organization’s overall goal was overthrowing and replacing the Syrian regime with an Islamic regime. He elaborated its military achievements, especially in the region of Idlib. Prominent were his attempts to represent his organization as pragmatic and different from ISIS.”
Al-Julani mentions the Jews in the second part of the interview. He compares the Persians, who strive to reestablish their empire, and the Jews, “who are currently in Palestine, claiming to have been there 3,500 years ago”. He also accuses the West of financing the Jews “in order to reconquer our land”.
Khawarij - a radical sect in Islam, dating back to those who deserted the camp of the Fourth Caliph Ali bin Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The Khawarij perceive any Muslim who is not a Khawarij as an infidel who may be killed.Over the years, the name Khawarij has become a derogatory term. Therefore, many of ISIS’s enemies frequently claim that it belongs to the Khawarij (Hezbollah, for example, calls ISIS and other jihadi organizations by the derogatory name of “Takfiris,” i.e., those who declare Muslims as infidels and allow them to be killed).
After his appointment as Emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (October 2014), Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi formulated a strategy for managing the campaign against the United States in Iraq. From his perspective, this strategy was designed to achieve several goals: to harm the forces of the United States and its allies in the coalition; to prevent Iraqi cooperation with the United States by harming Iraq’s infrastructure, government and people; to harm Iraq’s rehabilitation efforts by attacking Iraqi civilians and aid workers involved in the rehabilitation; and to position the United States at the center of a Sunni-Shiite civil war by harming the Shiite population. A wave of terrorist attacks against the Shiite population, initiated by al-Zarqawi and stemming from his extreme anti-Shiite ideological perception, was carried out by means of suicide bombers and car bombs. They caused many casualties, sowed chaos in Iraq, made it very difficult to stabilize the internal situation in Iraq, and created a murderous legacy deeply imbedded in the ISIS of today (from which the Al-Nusra Front is trying to differentiate itself).
Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s strategy, with its emphasis on carrying out large-scale attacks against the Shiite population (and sometimes among the Sunni population as well), drew criticism from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.They feared that indiscriminate attacks against innocent Muslim civilians could compromise public support for Al-Qaeda in the entire region. In July 2005, they criticized Al-Zarqawi’s strategy and ordered him to stop his attacks on religious and cultural sites of the Shiite community. Al-Zarqawi refused, and his relations with Al-Qaeda’s leadership deteriorated. In retrospect, this can be seen as the root of the tension between Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq and Al-Qaeda’s central leadership, which is now being manifested in the independent conduct of ISIS, the rift between it and the Al-Qaeda leadership, and its problematic relations with the Al-Nusra Front.