Screen shot showing jihadists belonging to the al-Nusra Front.
On Tuesday, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq publicly unveiled its links to the jihadist group al-Nusra Front, which is fighting against the regime in Syria. In turn, the head of the al-Nusra Front has pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who as Osama Bin Laden’s successor is at the helm of the entire terrorist organisation and has recently called for an Islamic holy war in Syria. FRANCE 24 talked to a jihadist fighter who shared his analysis of al Qaeda’s strategy in the Syrian conflict.
In his latest announcement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq – an operation al Qaeda refers to as the "Islamic State in Iraq" - confirmed what the United States had long claimed: that the al-Nusra Front had ties to his organisation. The al-Nusra Front first made its appearance in Syria in early 2012, and has since become one of the most well-organised and well-equipped groups of rebel fighters in the country. In the same statement, al-Baghdadi announced that he planned to rename his organisation the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [a historical name for Syria] in order to include the al-Nusra Front.
Propaganda video of an attack by the al-Nusra Front on the Syrian Interior Ministry in Damascus on December 12.
In an audio recording published on YouTube, Abou Muhammad al-Julani, the head of the al-Nusra Front, says he was not consulted on this decision. However, he explains that he “accepts al-Baghdadi’s call to rise toward excellence by vowing allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri.” While he did not refuse to work under the new “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, he did say he wanted to “keep the banner of the al-Nusra Front”.
Louaï Mokdad, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, which has fought alongside the al-Nusra Front, says his rebel group “does not support al-Nusra’s ideology” and that their cooperation in battle was born out of necessity. However, a few weeks ago, the former head of the Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, publicly expressed his support for the al-Nusra Front and criticised Washington for labelling it a terrorist organisation.
They Syrian regime has reacted by calling on the United Nations to officially list the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation. Since the beginning of the conflict, the authorities have repeatedly labelled all rebels as terrorists.
"Creating an Islamic state in Syria is the next logical step for us"
Mohammed is the head of Ansar al-Sharia, a Syrian jihadist group that has close ties to the al-Nusra Front.
We’re all happy with al-Baghdadi’s announcement. But we also understand our chief al-Julani, who has asked that we wait for the results of a planned meeting between all the different groups fighting in Syria to work out the details of this new form of cooperation and to understand why the al-Nusra Front wasn’t consulted beforehand.Everyone knew about the al-Nusra Front’s orientation and about its ties to the Islamic State in Iraq – that was no secret. I don’t think this has had any negative impacts on the battlefield, since, up until now, the international community hasn’t given us anything even though the Syrian regime has been murdering its people for two years now. In any case, creating an Islamic state in Syria is the logical next step for us.On Wednesday, I took part in a meeting with different groups fighting in the region of Douma [a suburb of Damascus], including the Free Syrian Army. All those that attended were in favour of creating an Islamic state. Why would we make all these sacrifices just to see foreign states name others to rule over Syria? Or even to create a democracy? We’ve seen what’s happened in other Arab states where they tried to install democracies, and the results aren’t at all encouraging.Many people think that al-Baghdadi’s announcement may have been a little premature, but there are two parameters to consider. First of all, recently, new groups of fighters have emerged, notably in the region of Ghouta al-Sharkiya [near Damascus] and in Deraa. These groups use Islamist names. But in fact, these fighters are controlled by the United States government, with the aim of curbing the al-Nusra Front’s influence. I believe the al Qaeda chiefs decided to make this announcement in order to regroup all the fighters who are truly jihadists under their banner.Secondly, there’s a political side to this: we know that some jihadist groups, like the al-Furqan brigade, are backed by Qatar, and others by Saudi Arabia. We’ve heard that these groups were getting ready to announce the creation of their own Islamic state. So it seems that al-Baghdadi decided to pre-empt this by declaring the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
"This announcement is truly a gift for Bashar al-Assad"
Salam Mohamad is an opposition activist and a spokesperson for SNN Sham News Network, a group that releases amateur videos of the Syrian uprising.
al-Baghdadi’s announcement, as well as al-Julani’s, is only directed at a small part of Syria’s rebels. The vast majority of us have, from the very start, worked to create a democracy that will include every part of our diverse society.These announcements have created quite a bit of confusion among the rebels here. This is truly a gift for [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad and his propagandists. The international community was already reticent to help, and I think that now it will be even less inclined.Whatever happens, the future of Syria must be one that is secular and democratic.