Extremism in disguise

In recent months salient and extensive organizational efforts have been made by al-Qaida and its affiliates to distinguish themselves from Islamic State.

Members of al-Qaida's‏ Nusra Front [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of al-Qaida's‏ Nusra Front [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent months salient and extensive organizational efforts have been made by al-Qaida and its affiliates to distinguish themselves from Islamic State. Against the backdrop of the blatant brutality inflicted by IS on all its adversaries – Muslims, minorities and foreigners – al-Qaida and its partners are seeking to portray a moderate and pragmatic image.
For instance, while al-Qaida and its affiliates’ spokesmen expressed their reservations regarding a cluster of extremely lethal terrorist attacks executed in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia in which most of the casualties were Muslims, IS proudly took responsibility for them. This trend of separation and differentiation between the two camps was also apparent in the recent, rare television interview given to Al Jazeera by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of Nusra Front, which is part of the al-Qaida alliances. One can learn from this interview about the prime strategic aims of Nusra Front and about its principle rivalries, but mainly it tells us of Julani’s interest in quelling the fear, harbored by many, that Nusra Front aims to turn Syria into an al-Qaida base of operation in the region.
As is the case with other al-Qaida spokesmen, Julani presented the operation of his organization as mainly defensive, as resistance to the brutal aggression of Assad’s Alawite regime. Julani clarified that his organization does not attack anyone who is not attacking it. He further added that his organization will not settle the score with its attackers, if they repent and adhere to the Muslim faith.
Julani also declared that his organization will not forcefully impose religion on its rivals or the minorities living in Syria. He promised not to attack his enemies should they follow the “right path,” despite being supporters of Assad’s regime.
Julani explicitly pointed to Hezbollah, which supports Assad regime, as a primary enemy of his organization because the Shi’ite organization, he said, shared responsibility in the regime’s crimes.
Julani vowed to collect the debt from Hezbollah and declared that when Assad’s regime falls, so will Hezbollah. Simultaneously, he sought to reassure Lebanon’s residents that despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s attempts to convince them that their country is in danger, his organization made a clear distinction between Hezbollah and the innocent citizens of Lebanon whom Nassrallah presumes to represent.
Julani also sent reassuring messages to the Western world, distinguishing it from the United States.
He warned that if the US aggression against his organization does not stop there would be retaliation, but did not specify in what way. He said his primary goal at this point was to topple Assad’s regime, not international terrorism. However, Julani did not state that al-Qaida shares this policy, and emphasized that his organization’s policy is subject to the orders of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
He did deny claims by the US that an al-Qaida faction titled “the Khorasan group” operate within his organization, recruiting activists in Syria to carry out future international terrorist attacks.
Analysis of Julani’s rhetoric clarifies that he is seeking to continue the line his organization has taken through all its years in Syria: to present a pragmatic and moderate image based on alliances and cooperation with local elements, in order to implement the shared goal of toppling Assad’s regime. For this purpose he obscures his true intention of establishing an Islamic state operating under strict Sharia law, which will surely be implemented by force. Also notable is his attempt to disguise the line his organization will take toward minorities that seek to maintain their unique character.
By comparison, his policy toward the Arab and Western countries is relatively clear, despite the fact that his organization currently isn’t mirroring the brutal acts of IS.
Though Julani didn’t specifically address Israel in this interview, its part in Julani’s operative plan is clear. Al-Qaida leader al-Zawahiri recently declared that once Assad, “the traitor from Damascus,” was removed, the liberation of Jerusalem would follow.
Yoram Schweitzer and Tali Rothchild are respectively director of the research program on terrorism and research assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies.