The head of the Al Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al Julani, finally granted a television interview earlier this month. Al Nusrah has long had a prolific media shop. But in a world in which al Qaeda’s jihadists use and manipulate various media channels to get their message out, Julani has pursued a different course. The Al Nusrah head is so secretive that until recently little was known about the man, even as he oversaw one of al Qaeda’s fastest growing branches in Syria.
Al Jazeera’s Tayseer Allouni conducted the interview from inside Syria with the reclusive Julani. It was the latest exclusive for Allouni, who has garnered high-profile interviews with senior al Qaeda leaders before. Allouni was the first to air an interview with Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In the years that followed his interview with bin Laden, Allouni was at the center of a high-profile trial. Spanish authorities accused Allouni of being more than just an enterprising journalist. In 2005, a Spanish court convicted Allouni of supporting al Qaeda and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Allouni spent time in prison and then house arrest.
Allouni was released in 2012 and resumed his work for Al Jazeera. After his return to Doha, Allouni denounced his conviction as “political.”
Allouni’s conviction was controversial. For Allouni and his advocates, the Spanish courts had trampled on the rights of a proactive journalist who simply used his networking skills to get the story. “I was hoovering up professional information,” Allouni explained, according to an account in the Guardian.
Among Allouni’s contacts was Imad Yarkas, the accused head of al Qaeda’s network in Spain. Yarkas was also convicted on terrorism charges.
The court rejected Allouni’s explanation of his relationship with Yarkas. Tayseer Allouni “did not belong to the group led by [Imad Yarkas]. He possibly felt superior to it … but he collaborated with it,” the Spanish court’s judgment reads. “Journalistic truth, like all other truths, cannot be obtained at any price,” the judgment continued. “Taysir Alouni committed the wrongdoing of collaborating with a terrorist group and, for that, he must now pay.”
Allouni denied providing any real assistance to al Qaeda’s network in Europe or elsewhere.
The Spanish court focused, in particular, on Allouni’s relationship with two of Yarkas’ associates: Mohammed Bahaiah (a.k.a. Abu Khalid al Suri) and Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Musab al Suri).
Both Bahaiah and Nasar had been imprisoned by Bashar al Assad’s regime. Before joining al Qaeda’s ranks, they were members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed Assad. Various accounts suggest that Allouni himself was a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but he reportedly denied that allegation.
Today, Bahaiah is Ayman al Zawahiri’s representative in Syria and throughout the Levant. He is also a founding leader of Ahrar al Sham, a Syrian extremist group that fights alongside al Qaeda’s branches in Syria. [See LWJ report, Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative.]
Nasar was also reportedly freed in the wake of the Syrian uprising, but his current status is unknown.
Alleged ties to Bahaiah, Nasar
Spain’s allegations tying Allouni to Bahaiah and Nasar have been previously summarized by the Guardian and by Brynjar Lia in his biography of Nasar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri.
Years ago, Allouni “helped Bahaiah obtain Spanish residency papers by allowing him to say he was living at his Granada home – when he was actually in Turkey,” the Guardian reported. And when Allouni traveled to Kabul in March 2000, Allouni “took $4,000 to Bahaiah,” which Allouni claimed he did as a favor “to a friend who owed Bahaiah money.”
According to Spanish court documents, cited by Lia, Allouni described his relationship with Nasar in the following terms:
We exchanged opinions. We are from the same community. I hope that you understand the peculiarity of relations within the Arab community. Thus, it is normal that an Arab and his family, who wishes to spend the night in my house, ask me. … So I invited him [Nasar] – it is not possible to deny that – and hence, relations developed.
The Spanish government also claimed that Allouni received assistance from Nasar in setting up Al Jazeera’s presence in Kabul. “[I]f you wish to come here, I can facilitate things for you and present you to some of the Taliban figures,” court documents quote Nasar as saying to Allouni.
Allouni did not deny knowing the two Syrian al Qaeda operatives, but claimed that his contacts with them were innocuous and that they were not really al Qaeda. During Allouni’s trial in 2005, Lia writes, Allouni “admitted meeting” both Bahaiah and Nasar in Kabul, describing the pair as a “source of information about al Qaeda’s activities, its followers, and the world of radical Islam.”
“I took advantage of the situation to extract information from them on what the Taliban were, on what al Qaeda was and on other organizations,” Allouni said, according to the Guardian.
Spanish court records indicate that while Nasar was living in London prior to 2001, Allouni made “frequent phone contacts” with Nasar. And when the media reported in 2000 that Nasar was part of a schism within al Qaeda, Nasar turned to Allouni to publicly deny the charge, via Al Jazeera. After the 9/11 attacks, according to the US government, Nasar swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) to bin Laden.
Reporting from the post-9/11 battlefields
Allouni’s interview with Julani is just the latest example of his work reporting from the post-9/11 battlefields. Allouni has previously reported from both Afghanistan and Iraq.
On Oct. 10, 2001, The Washington Post described some of Al Jazeera’s reporters as having “links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic organization with ties to a member of the al-Jazeera board.” Allouni, according to the Post, was the “most prominent such reporter” and “was known in the past for his pro-Taliban views.” In the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Allouni became “one of the primary outlets for Taliban statements and denunciations of the United States.”
The following day, on Oct. 11, 2001, The New York Times noted that Allouni was “the only reporter” in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. Allouni, the Times reported, had provided a “major exclusive” for Al Jazeera‘s coverage – a video of American warplanes bombing Taliban positions that was also aired on CNN.
Writing for the Times in November 2001, Fouad Ajami said Allouni’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan included a “wistful tribute to the Taliban’s public-works efforts.” Allouni portrayed the American bombing campaign as undoing the Taliban’s good work. “It appears that all the labors that had been made by the Taliban government prior to the outbreak of the war to repair the roads have scattered to the wind,” Allouni said during one video shown to Al Jazeera’s viewers.
It is no surprise that as the war in Syria rages on, Tayseer Allouni has received exclusive access once again.