At the beginning of a newly-released video, Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, is heard speaking to a fighter who is about to carry out a suicide operation. Julani is rarely heard in his organization’s propaganda and never seen. The latest video continues this trend with a silhouette standing in for Julani. A still image of the fighter who is about to die, a “commando” known as Abu al Zubayr al Hamawi, is also shown. (The image can be seen above.)
“These moments are historic for the Islamic umma. Do not let them pass by, brother,” Julani reassures the fighter from an “operations room.” Julani says Hamawi’s blood will not be spilled in vain, as it is the “price” to be paid for raising the jihadists’ black banner over Syria and implementing sharia law in the country.
Hamawi’s replies come across as confident. And the exchange is an effective piece of propaganda, as it shows an Al Nusrah “martyr” accepting his fate while also endorsing Julani’s leadership.
Hamawi gives Julani his “final will,” telling the Al Nusrah Front leader that “the land of the Levant is a trust in your keeping, sheikh.” Hamawi repeats the same phrase seconds later, adding that he wants Julani to strike all of Allah’s enemies, including the Alawites (Shia who support Bashar al Assad) and the Kharijites, a derogatory term used to denounce “extremists.” In this context, Hamawi is almost certainly using the word to describe the Islamic State’s leaders and members, who have openly warred with the other jihadist factions in Syria since 2013.
The back and forth between Julani and Hamawi lasts only a minute and a half. But it is a key introduction for the rest of the video, which is 48 minutes long in total. The Al Nusrah Front production, entitled “The Path to Survival in the Face of Conspiracies,” is part of Al Nusrah’s attempt to regain some of the steam the organization has lost in the propaganda war with its larger, more infamous foe, the Islamic State. Even some of Al Nusrah’s staunchest supporters have wondered out loud on Twitter about Julani’s media arm, questioning its reaction time and production capabilities.
Indeed, the latest production was first advertised online on Feb. 5, but was not released until Feb. 11. It was not posted directly on Al Nusrah’s most prolific Twitter feeds, which belong to its so-called “correspondents network.” Instead, it was first tweeted on a more obscure Al Nusrah Front-linked account (with only 1,540 followers, as of this writing) and then retweeted by the more popular correspondents’ page.
While Al Nusrah’s media arm, Al Manarah al Bayda for Islamic Media, does not have many popular jihadist hits of late, Julani’s fighters have had better fortune on the actual battlefield. And the latest video trumpets these successes with digital maps showing their advances in both northern and southern Syria. The maps show Al Nusrah and its allies pushing Assad’s forces and others out of areas in Idlib in the north and Daraa in the south.
Many of the scenes center around this fighting, as battlefield images dominate the presentation. But there are other noteworthy scenes as well. (A collection of images from the video can be seen at the bottom of this article.)
The Al Nusrah Front again criticizes the United Nations Security Council’s decision to designate it as a terrorist organization. One clip points to Security Council Resolution 2170, which called on Al Nusrah “and all other entities associated with” al Qaeda to “cease all violence and terrorist acts, and immediately disarm and disband.” The same sentence in the resolution contains a reference to the Islamic State as well, but that part was removed from the excerpt shown in the video.
After introducing the UN’s anti-Al Nusrah Front actions, the video immediately cuts to a clip of Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who has served as Al Nusrah’s spokesman. Abu Firas assumed a more significant media profile for the organization last year. He was called upon to denounce the UN’s resolution targeting Al Nusrah and other actors in Syria.
After a leaked audio recording of Julani surfaced online in July 2014, Abu Firas attempted to quell the ensuing controversy. Julani gave a fiery speech in the recording, promising that Al Nusrah would build an Islamic state inside Syria. Julani’s words were interpreted as meaning that he would no longer seek to work closely with other rebel groups and that Al Nusrah was going to unilaterally establish an emirate (state). Abu Firas promised this wasn’t true in a speech released weeks later. He said that Al Nusrah would only declare an Islamic emirate in Syria after it had received its fellow jihadists’ blessings.
Abu Firas has been relatively quiet for the past several months. It is not clear why he has taken on a less active public role, but his inclusion in Al Nusrah’s latest propaganda shows that the group still holds him in high regard.
The video closes with a short clip of Ayman al Zawahiri. The snippet is from a previous recording released by As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm. Zawahiri calls on jihadists to unite under the principle of Tawhid, or the oneness of Allah. This has been widely interpreted as a call for the jihadists in Syria to come together in opposition to their common enemies, whether it be Bashar al Assad’s regime or the Islamic State.
Leading up to the release of the video, jihadists speculated that something bigger was afoot. Wild rumors were circulated. Some claimed that Julani was about to break his oath of allegiance (bayat) to Zawahiri and fold Al Nusrah into a new coalition of rebel groups. One allegation held that Al Nusrah and other anti-Assad jihadists were about to declare the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Syria. Others claimed that Julani was going to submit to the Islamic State, a drastic move that is highly unlikely and would be totally out of character for Julani. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, was once Julani’s superior, but Julani forged his own working relationship with senior al Qaeda leadership. The personal animosity that resulted between Baghdadi and Julani is now somewhat legendary in jihadist circles.
While Al Nusrah may or may not be planning a significant announcement, the various rumors were at odds with one another and lacked any credible sourcing. The speculation even drew some denials from well-connected jihadists such as Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al Muhaysini, one of Al Nusrah’s closest allies in Syria. In one tweet, Muhaysini said that he had spoken to Al Nusrah’s leadership and that all of the rumors being passed around were untrue.
There is no evidence in “The Path to Survival in the Face of Conspiracies” that Al Nusrah is leaving al Qaeda’s ranks. If anything, the organization’s reliance on footage of Zawahiri to close out the production demonstrates its ongoing role in al Qaeda’s international network. Moreover, al Qaeda has seeded veteran leaders in Al Nusrah’s most senior positions, meaning that Zawahiri loyalists continue to direct the group.
Images from the Al Nusrah Front’s “The Path to Survival in the Face of Conspiracies”
The video closes with a short clip of Ayman al Zawahiri calling for unity:
Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who has served as the Al Nusrah Front’s spokesman, is shown in the video:
Al Nusrah denounces the UN for calling on the group to cease its violence in Syria. Al Nusrah cut the UN’s reference to the Islamic State out of the passage shown below:
The next several screen shots are taken from scenes purporting to show Al Nusrah’s military advances in Syria:
Much of the video is devoted to combat footage. The next several images show heavy weaponry being used by Al Nusrah in battle:
Some of the clips show Al Nusrah Front training camps:
One scene shows a facility where Russians had been allegedly stationed before it was overrun. The footage shows maps on the walls of the facility and a torn Russian flag that was sitting on a desk.