Center for Strategic Communication

Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, has released an audio message discussing the US-led airstrikes in Syria. Julani threatens civilians in the US and Europe, saying they should not be tricked into believing they are “safe from the strikes of the mujahideen” simply because Western leaders say that their “soldiers will not be on the ground, and that they will strike from afar.”

Julani’s message was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Nusrah’s head argues that the airstrikes in Syria will lead the jihadists to retaliate in the West. And, Julani says, Western leaders are lying when they say that the bombings are necessary to protect their people.

However, according to US officials, senior al Qaeda figures known as the “Khorasan group” were already planning attacks in the West prior to the bombings. The cadre includes al Qaeda operatives who are known to have plotted terrorist attacks against the West before, including Muhsin al Fadhli, a longtime al Qaeda planner.

Sanafi al Nasr, an al Qaeda bigwig who doubles as a senior strategist in Julani’s Al Nusrah Front, has even openly pined for attacks against the US on his Twitter feed. Nasr is part of the so-called Khorasan group as well. The al Qaeda group is embedded within the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official regional branch in Syria.

The intelligence surrounding the al Qaeda operatives’ activities is what led the US to bomb Al Nusrah Front positions, in addition to the Islamic State, a former branch of al Qaeda that rivals Al Nusrah inside Syria.

Julani makes no mention of al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan group” and instead seeks to portray the bombing campaign as an assault on Islam.

The battle will come “to the heart of your land, for the Muslims will not stand as spectators watching their sons bombed and killed in their lands, while you stay safe in your lands,” Julani says when addressing Western civilians, according to SITE’s translation. “So the tax of the war will not be paid by your rulers alone, but you are the ones who will pay the lion’s share of it. Therefore, you must protect yourselves from this war by standing against the decision of your rulers, and preventing them from dragging tragedies upon you and your countries through all methods.”

The Al Nusrah Front emir tries to undermine public support for the air strikes by arguing that the West will pay a high price for its actions in Syria, just as it has in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Julani invokes the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the USS Cole bombing as examples of the “terrors” al Qaeda has delivered. And he says that the only way to avoid future attacks is for the West to abandon Muslim-majority countries entirely.

“You were told before by Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may Allah accept him, several times, that the only solution to prevent war with the mujahideen is taking your hand away from the region completely, and lifting your support and protection of the Jews, and to stop stealing the resources of the Muslims, and to leave us alone with the rulers of the area, settling the scores with them,” Julani says, according to SITE’s translation.

Julani draws on al Qaeda’s view of history in making these arguments, portraying the conflict in Syria as part of a centuries-long war between the West and Islamic countries. “We defeated your Roman empire before, and also your adversaries from the Persians, and we expelled the Jews from the Peninsula of Muhammad, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and with our feet we stepped on the outskirts of Paris and Moscow, where the Jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] for 80 years was paid to the Muslims,” Julani says.

The Islamic State, headed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and the Al Nusrah Front have been in open conflict since mid-2013. Julani was once one of Baghdadi’s lieutenants, but a personal animosity between the two has helped fuel the jihadists’ infighting in Syria.

Regardless, Julani says jihadists should not allow their problems with the Islamic State to push them into an alliance with the West. The US and its allies are part of a “Crusader” conspiracy against the jihad in Syria, according to Julani. But “no matter how grave” the Islamic State’s transgressions are, Muslims should not back the West’s “secular project.”

Anti-Hezbollah, Iran messaging

The Al Nusrah Front has been fighting Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that is backing Bashar al Assad’s regime. Al Nusrah has held a number of Lebanese soldiers and security officials hostage since August, and has executed some of them. As part of its propaganda campaign, Al Nusrah has used the hostages in its attempt to spark public outrage against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The hostages have been made to say that their captivity is owed to Hezbollah’s aggression in Syria.

Julani continues with this theme, saying the “Sunni people of Lebanon” should “follow the example of your brothers in Syria, and attack your enemy from the Party of Satan [Hezbollah].” Julani says that Hezbollah has “dragged Lebanon into an internal conflict,” which the Al Nusrah emir likens to the sectarian fighting in Iraq and Syria. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has not learned from these conflicts, Julani says, and now Lebanon is experiencing the same violence.

There is an irony in Julani’s anti-Iranian message. Two leaders in al Qaeda’s Khorasan group, Muhsin al Fadhli and Sanafi al Nasr, were formerly the heads of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network. Al Qaeda’s presence in Iran exists under what US officials have called a “secret deal” between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda.