Posted by Aron Lund on Friday, May 29th, 2015
by Aron Lund,
editor of Syria in Crisis
On Wednesday, May 27, the Aljazeera TV network ran a 47-minute interview with Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front, which is one of the most powerful rebel factions in Syria. If you speak Arabic, have a look at the interview or read the transcript. If you don’t, then start studying or proceed straight to the commentary below.
Who is Abu Mohammed al-Golani?
He’s the founder and leader of Jabhat al-Nosra, the al-Qaeda franchise that operates in Syria and Lebanon. Apart from that, no one really knows anything about him.
Is this Golani’s first interview?
No it is not. He has been interviewed by Aljazeera before. Then, his interlocutor was Aljazeera’s star reporter Taysir Allouni, a Syrian and Spanish citizen who interviewed Osama bin Laden right after 9/11 and then spent nine years in a Spanish jail accused of al-Qaeda contacts. Although no one doubts that Allouni had very tight relations with high-level jihadi figures (he hosted a certain Mohammed al-Bahaiya a.k.a. Abu Khaled al-Souri in his home in Spain and helped him apply for Spanish residency), the proceedings were marred by some really bizarre translation issues and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that Allouni had not been given an impartial trial. Since his release in 2012, Allouni has done an excellent series of interviews with rebel leaders of all stripes in northern Syria and in Turkey for Aljazeera’s Liqa al-Yawm (Meeting of the Day). He was the first and, until Wednesday, the only person to interview Golani in December 2013.
Wednesday’s interview took place on Bila Hudoud (Without Borders), a show hosted by the well-known Egyptian anchor Ahmed Mansour. Mansour, too, is obviously some species of Islamist and he seemed pretty infatuated with Golani – more so than the sympathetically surly Allouni – so the end result was a real softball interview. It was no Frost/Nixon, more like a high school date. That may very well have been intentional. Many assume that Qatar, which owns and controls Aljazeera, is eager to see the group show it’s gentler side, now that it and other rebels are capturing territory in northwestern Syria.
Will there be another interview?
Seems like it. At the end of the interview, Mansour said he’d like a second episode to talk about Iran’s role in the region and in Syria, about relations to the Islamic State, and about Golani’s view of the future of Syria. Inshallah, said Golani. [Update – June 3, 2015: A second part of the interview is now available for viewing at the bottom of this post.]
Where did the interview take place?
In “liberated territory” in northern Syria, according to Mansour. We can’t be sure, of course, but it was probably in Idleb City, which was recently captured by a rebel coalition that includes Jabhat al-Nosra. For one thing, Ahmed Mansour posted a set of pictures of himself in Syria to the Bila Hudoud page on Aljazeera.net, some of which show that he visited the Idleb region. And if you look closely, the kitschy gilded chairs and the silly little coffee-tables seem identical to those used in the governor’s palace in Idleb City. So chances are the interview actually took place there, unless we are to believe that they carted away the furniture to some other place in order to trick us. Or maybe those chairs are very common in Idleb. I hope not.
What did he look like?
Well, we don’t know, do we? We saw more of him this time than ever before, but that’s still just two hands and a nose. He had a black scarf or cloak draped over his head and shoulders, to conceal his face and features. He looked a little pudgy, too, but that may just have been a suicide bomber’s belt under his clothes. Al-Qaeda leaders like to wear those regardless of the occasion.
The rest of his clothes were a bit out of the ordinary. He wore a pale checkered shirt and something that looked like olive army pants, plus a green waistcoat with a shiny silk back. At first I took this for an unusually cruel case of sartorial terrorism, but on closer inspection he may have been wearing a traditional Syrian costume. Those can look a little different in different areas of the country, but they often involve some sort of vest and wide-waisted billowy pants of the kind still worn by many Kurds. If so, it was certainly a conscious fashion statement: eschewing the Afghan-Pakistan Pashtun hats and Shalwar Kameez tunics that jihadis like to wear, in favor of clothes that tell you he’s a Syrian. Not just any Syrian, but a real deal genuine old-school Syrian, straight out of Bab al-Hara. Shame we didn’t get to see if he had the moustache to match.
And what did he say?
The interview was mainly dedicated to one thing, which was for Mansour to help Golani explain that he’s nothing like the Islamic State. Rather, he is a responsible and sensible jihadi leader.
In line with traditional Jabhat al-Nosra rhetoric, he said that while there can be no compromise about sharia law, that doesn’t mean that his men are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists. He kept repeating that “for the time being” they’re only fighting those who fight them and implementing sharia, so if you don’t get in the way of that you’ll be OK. However, Golani didn’t step away from his ideology. He is a true believer and he’s not going to give the Islamic State any reason to claim he’s straying from the word of God.
Among other things, he claimed that Jabhat al-Nosra is not involved in operations against the West, following instructions from al-Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. That directly contradicts what the U.S. government says. It claims to have information that veteran al-Qaeda members have moved to Syria under the protection of Jabhat al-Nosra, where they are busily preparing bomb plots against Western aviation. The U.S. has dubbed this cell “the Khorasan Group,” a label that Golani ridiculed, saying there is no such thing and all the camps attacked by the U.S. belong to Jabhat al-Nosra. He did however admit that there are people in Syria who have come “from Khorasan.” In modern jihadi parlance, that typically means Afghanistan/Pakistan, so it seems likely he is referring to people on mission from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. He also implicitly clarified that contrary to current rumors, Jabhat al-Nosra isn’t about to break ties with al-Qaeda. While he didn’t address those rumors head on, he talked about receiving instructions from Zawahiri (like it was the most natural thing in the world that a Syrian group should obey an Egyptian holed up in Pakistan) and there was a little flag on the table in front of him bearing the words “al-Qaeda in the Levant.”
Egged-on by Mansour, Golani spoke in more detail than ever before about the fate of Syria’s religious minorities, mostly to stress that Jabhat al-Nosra isn’t like Islamic State in that respect. For example, he said that Jabhat al-Nosra won’t fight those Christian villages that do not fight the Muslims (meaning the rebels), adding that only after an Islamic government has been set up will they start collecting the Jizya, and even then it will only be taken from those who can afford it … and so on. Again and again, he made the point that Jabhat al-Nosra would be totally justified in taking action against certain minorities, but has chosen not to because they are in fact un-crazy non-extremists.
In one of the interview’s more memorable moments, he said that an Alawite can surrender to Jabhat al-Nosra and as long as he repents, he won’t be killed “even if he killed a thousand of us”. You won’t hear that from the Islamic State, which proudly broadcasts videos of its soldiers shooting defenseless Alawite and Shia prisoners-of-war or slitting their throats. Indeed, those who imagine there is no room for nuances in jihadi thinking, or jihadi rhetoric, are wrong. There is already more than a glint of daylight between the classical salafi-jihadism of Jabhat al-Nosra and the still-developing neo-jihadi ideology that was set loose by the Islamic State’s split from al-Qaeda in 2013. The difference will surely widen over time.
Then again, the basics remain the same and they’re extreme enough to be borderline genocidal, even when sugarcoated by Aljazeera. If you listened closely, Golani also said that Alawites are a people who have left Islam. He made it clear that not only must Alawites stop fighting for Assad, they must also abandon the elements of their faith that contradict Islam. And of course, by Islam he means his own salafi brand of Sunni Islam, not that they can be regular Shias or anything like that. So minus the wrapping, his core message remains the same: Alawites will be left alone as soon as they agree to stop being Alawites.
That doesn’t sound like it will convince many of his detractors?
No it doesn’t, but that was never the point. Golani isn’t addressing himself to non-Sunnis or secularists, or to the Americans or the Western media. He knows they’ll hate him whatever he says. He did what al-Qaeda-style jihadis always do, which is to preach to those they have a real hope of influencing: other Sunni Islamists, whose support or at least passive acceptance they need to survive and succeed.
In other words, if you didn’t like what you heard, he wasn’t talking to you.
Even today, globalist salafi-jihadism is not a popular ideology in Syria. Jabhat al-Nosra has grown in spite of its international links rather than because of them. Powerful foreign governments also are prodding their rebel clients to isolate and undermine Jabhat al-Nosra because of its al-Qaeda connection, even as they leave indigenous and locally-focused Syrian salafi factions alone. To avoid being isolated and made a target, Jabhat al-Nosra’s strategy has been to embed itself inside the wider Syrian rebellion, by making itself an appreciated and indispensable ally to other Sunni Islamists.
Most of the big rebel factions, especially those that work closest with Jabhat al-Nosra, are Sunni Islamists of some variety. The grassroots-level fighters in these groups are not necessarily very different from Golani’s men – they’re all politically hawkish, religiously conservative, and deeply disenchanted with if not hostile to the West. (I’m sure there are exceptions, but they’re exceptions.) But most of these Islamist groups are not committed to a global anti-Western agenda the way al-Qaeda is; indeed, most of them explicitly reject it. With time, many pro-opposition Sunni Muslims, including a significant number of Islamist hardliners who might otherwise be inclined to embrace Golani’s thinking, have come to think that Jabhat al-Nosra are too extreme. They’re particularly irked by its post-2014 behavior, when in the chaos after the Islamic State infighting and the U.S. intervention, Jabhat al-Nosra began to take a more aggressive and territorial approach to rebel politics, setting up their own courts and seizing villages for their sole control. Furthermore, they accuse the group of not being properly Syrian, since it is full of foreigners and takes orders from the Egyptian-born Zawahiri, whose agenda is global rather than Syrian. They also complain that Jabhat al-Nosra’s al-Qaeda connection has unnecessarily antagonized the West and is ruining the international reputation of the Syrian revolution.
They are of course right on all counts and that’s why Jabhat al-Nosra is so sensitive to that line of criticism. And that’s also why we now see Golani pleading innocent to these charges, hand on heart, saying that he is in fact not a loose cannon, he is not attacking the U.S., he is not slaughtering minorities, and he is just as Syrian as they are. (Hey, look at his clothes.)
In other words, what he is doing is to tell his fellow Sunni rebels, potential funders, and Islamist opinion-makers around the Middle East exactly what they want to hear, so that they’ll be able to convince themselves that the Americans must be wrong about Jabhat al-Nosra. (Because what have the Americans done for them anyway?) He tries to reassure them that he is just like them and that they shouldn’t listen to the U.S., which is making up fraudulent reasons to target him, when everyone knows that the real motivation for the American airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nosra is because Obama is secretly in cahoots with Assad and wants to prevent his fall.
Wait, the U.S. works with Assad?
Well, no, but that’s the idea among Syrian Islamists, not only on the jihadi fringe. You’d be surprised to know how many Syrian rebels and their sympathizers believe this (and no, it’s not entirely unfounded). So that was Golani’s other big theme for the night. He’s making the point that the U.S. and its allies want to abort the revolution and rehabilitate Assad, since they fear a “Muslim” victory. The corollary of that is that the U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nosra (“Khorasan Group,” remember?) are no different from Assad’s barrel-bombing of Syrian cities. Both airforces are operating in the same airspace and working for the same goal, Golani says, so anyone who takes aid from the Americans is – knowingly or not – also working to keep Assad in power.
He then lumps in the UN negotiations with the rest of this great Shia-Zionist-Yankee-Alawi plot. If the opposition drifts into any form of peace talks, such as those proposed by UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura, that can only serve to isolate the jihadi irreconcileables. So it’s no surprise that Golani insists that all the suggested peace conferences are secretly gamed to serve the international pro-Assad conspiracy. You shouldn’t listen to anyone who will take part in such talks, Golani says, and you shouldn’t accept the support of the West because they’ll just get you hooked on it and then reduce you to a tool for their own purposes. Instead, your only option is to accept that the Assad regime and the international community are two faces of the same coin and to charge at them in an uncompromising jihad.
Which, coincidentally, happens to be the product that al-Qaeda is selling.
Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
UPDATE JUNE 3, 2015: Part two of Golani’s interview with Ahmed Mansour is now available: