Center for Strategic Communication

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, released more than 40 UN peacekeepers from its custody yesterday. And the group explained its reasoning in a video that was distributed on its social media pages beforehand. The video was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

According to published reports, Al Nusrah issued a list of demands in return for freeing the hostages. Al Nusrah reportedly wanted to be removed from the UN’s list of terrorist organizations, as well as humanitarian relief for the areas surrounding Damascus and elsewhere.

However, Dr. Sami al Uraydi, one of the top religious officials in Al Nusrah, disputes this version of events. He is the first featured speaker in the video.

Al Uraydi says Al Nusrah’s capture of the UN peacekeepers “coincided with the implications” of Nusrah “being listed under” Chapter VII of the UN’s charter. He claims that Al Nusrah “would have liked to deal with the fate of those captives until it would be stated to us the end of these implications.” The jihadist ideologue also mentions the possibility of securing relief aid in exchange for the hostages, which would have only bolstered Al Nusrah’s image inside Syria. And Al Uraydi says the group would have liked to exchange the peacekeepers for “captives in the prisons of the tyrants.”

However, according to al Uraydi, the group never made any of these demands.

Al Uraydi claims the reports “alleging that the command of the Al Nusrah Front demanded that its name be removed from the terrorism list” are “baseless news.” He goes on to say that Al Nusrah does not care about such matters, as Al Nusrah is a “part” of the “eternal conflict between the truth and falsehood,” and “a part of the jihadi history of this Ummah [community of Muslims] that extends over the past centuries.”

In the end, Al Nusrah did not extract any concessions. Why?

Al Uraydi claims, according to SITE’s translation, that a “brother from us…had given a pact of safety to those captives,” meaning that he had promised the peacekeepers they would be unharmed.

When Al Nusrah learned of this, Al Uraydi says, they referred the matter to “some of the people of knowledge and its students” and then Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Jordanian jihadist who is closely allied with Al Nusrah and al Qaeda.

Al Nusrah has promoted Maqdisi’s writings, especially those critical of the Islamic State, the former al Qaeda branch that has become a rival of Al Nusrah. And Maqdisi has explained that he corresponded with Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, as he unsuccessfully attempted to mediate the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah.

Maqdisi “gave us permission to mention his name in this publication,” Al Uraydi says. “He gave us a fatwa, may Allah reward him, that what happened falls under the pact of safety, which requires compliance.”

Therefore, Al Nusrah released the hostages.

The video certainly sends a far different message than Al Nusrah’s recent anti-UN statements.

Al Nusrah loudly denounced the UN in late August. The organization’s spokesman, an al Qaeda veteran known as Abu Firas al Suri, claimed that the UN was part of a “Zio-Protestant” conspiracy against Muslims and was only interested in protecting the “Jewish state” of Israel. According to Abu Firas’ reasoning, therefore, Al Nusrah had every right to hold the UN peacekeepers hostage.

Al Nusrah was well-positioned to extract at least some concessions. However, according to press reports, Al Nusrah got nothing in return. A UN spokesman has said that Al Nusrah did not request any ransom and that none was paid.

It is possible that money did exchange hands, of course. The UN has little incentive to admit that the international organization, or another party acting on its behalf, paid a designated terrorist organization for the peacekeepers’ release. Still, there is no current reporting suggesting that a ransom was exchanged.

Propaganda value of releasing the hostages

Even without receiving any other concessions, Al Nusrah has garnered some propaganda benefit from releasing the hostages.

Al Nusrah says it is fighting to implement sharia law in Syria, and that its adherence to sharia transcends any narrower interests. Al Uraydi invokes a story about Abu Musab al Zarqawi, whose organization became al Qaeda in Iraq. According to al Uraydi, Zarqawi’s forces captured three Americans and an Iraqi interpreter, but released them after he learned that the Americans had entered Fallujah under a “security pact” with a local Muslim. Zarqawi supposedly referred the matter to a sharia committee, which ruled that the Americans must go free.

This story is intended to be analogous to Al Nusrah’s decision to release the peacekeepers. Al Uraydi even draws an implicit comparison between Zarqawi and Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir.

The matter was referred to al Julani, who, upon hearing the ruling from Maqdisi and others, allegedly remarked: “If the Shariah of Allah will release them, then I am honored to release them as a worship to Allah”

“Such are the leaders of jihad,” al Uraydi says, referring to Zarqawi and Julani, that they go out of their way to comply with sharia law.

Another Al Nusrah figure, a doctor known as Abu Musab, recounts a similar story in the video. He says that both Zarqawi and Al Nusrah did not kill their captives, who were first offered a security pact, because it wasn’t consistent with sharia law.

Of course, Zarqawi is more well-known for the brutal beheadings he committed. The Islamic State’s recent slayings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have been widely compared to Zarqawi’s barbaric acts.

Al Nusrah’s recent treatment of its hostages stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State’s tactics. The group released another American, Peter Theo Curtis, from custody in late August. And the group has now freed more than 40 UN men as well.

Towards the end of the video, Al Nusrah shows one of the Fijian peacekeepers. “We have been informed that we will be released soon and we are all very happy to be going home,” he says. “By the way, we are all safe and alive, and we thank [Al Nusrah] for keeping us safe and keeping us alive. I’d like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way.”

Thus, Al Nusrah, al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, markets itself in this video as a gracious host.