Head of al Qaeda’s Syria branch plays ‘good jihadist’ for TV
Wearing a checkered shirt, his head and shoulders enveloped by a black shawl, one of the world’s most reclusive jihadist emirs sought to convince TV audiences Wednesday that he was that elusive oxymoron: a good jihadist.
From the limited view TV audiences were granted, with the camera behind him providing only an over-the-shoulder shot, Abu Muhammed al-Joulani certainly seemed like a rather mild-mannered, conciliatory figure.
Speaking in an even tone with a distinctly Syrian accent, Joulani portrayed his group -- al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the al-Nusra Front -- as a legitimate opposition force battling a tyrant.
That was the unlikely spectacle that greeted audiences across the Arab world tuned into the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Arabic TV station Wednesday night for an exclusive interview that had been promoted days ahead of the broadcast.
“We are not murderers, we are not criminals. We fight those who fight us. We’re standing against tyranny,” said Joulani, adding that he had received directions from al Qaeda’s leadership, believed to be in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, “not to use Syria for attacks against the West and Europe”.
A mysterious figure whose nom de guerre suggests he hails from the Golan region at the Israel-Syria border, the al-Nusra leader has been proclaimed dead by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at least twice since the uprising began in 2011.
But he has invariably emerged from the netherworld, promising, as ever, to bring an end to the Assad regime.
‘An infomercial for Al-Nusra, the moderates'
In his first-ever media interview, granted to Al Jazeera in December 2013, Joulani promised it was “only a matter of days” before Assad’s forces would be vanquished.
That was before an al Qaeda splinter group rattled the international community in June 2014 with the fall of Mosul and proceeded to seize large chunks of territory across Syria and Iraq for their so-called caliphate, or Islamic State.
The contrasts between Wednesday night’s and the 2013 Joulani interviews were stark.
A little over a year ago, Joulani -- again obscured in a black shawl -- sported fatigues and the interview was conducted in what appeared to be a drab office room.
The latest Joulani interview was held in a more luxurious setting, with the al-Nusra chief and Jazeera interviewer ensconced in ornate, upholstered chairs across a gleaming coffee table bearing the signature “al Qaeda in the Levant” black flag.
The message too was designed to win hearts and minds -- in the Arab World as well as the West.
"Al-Nusra is trying to change the West's opinion, to make it see al-Nusra as a political actor and a Syrian opposition actor," Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told the AFP. "This is one of the main reasons Joulani was sending messages of reassurance to the West."
Reiterating his group’s opposition to Assad, Joulani sought to reassure Syria’s minorities, particularly Christians and Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which the Assad clan belongs.
But he stopped short of providing them a security carte blanche, noting that Alawites should renounce the Syrian leader, their religious beliefs and lay down weapons in order to be safe.
"It's all part of a normalisation process that al Qaeda in Syria has been seeking to do for some time now," said Charlie Winter, from the London-based Quilliam Foundation, in an interview with AFP. "It wants to appear more palatable to the West... It was kind of like an infomercial for 'al-Nusra, the moderates'," he said.
A new coordination between groups
The Assad regime’s response was swift and sharp, with Syria’s United Nations ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, calling the interview a violation of UN counterterrorism resolutions and an attempt by Qatar to whitewash the al Qaeda group’s image.
"It is clear that the Qatari regime is seeking with this interview, with the head of a terrorist group as listed by the UN Security Council, to clean up the image of Nusra Front," he said. Al Jazeera had no immediate comment.
Al-Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council.
But the extraordinary rise and battlefield victories of the Islamic State (IS) group -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- has cast al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise in a more reconciliatory mould.
In recent months, the al-Nusra Front has become one of the most powerful forces in northwest Syria after a series of victories in the province of Idlib, including the provincial capital and a large military base.
The battlefield successes against the IS group was due to improved levels of coordination between rival factions, spanning from US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, to the al-Nusra Front, noted Charles Lister from the Brookings Doha Center in his report, “Why Assad Is Losing”.
According to Lister, the coordination “went largely unacknowledged by the groups involved -- and while media coverage broadly portrayed the Idlib offensives as “jihadist” or al Qaeda-led -- the reality on the ground was that the recent offensive brought together many groups holding very different ideologies”.
Most analysts believe the latest coordination and battlefield success are a result of increased pressure from a regional alliance comprising Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Qatar, in particular, "had a relatively moderating influence on al-Nusra that was clear in this interview", said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh, to the AFP.
But despite the improved cooperation on the battlefield, Syrians remain deeply suspicious of the al-Nusra Front, and it’s unlikely that al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise will improve its standing in the international community, no matter how convincing their leader appeared on Wednesday night.
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