Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria refused to grant The Electronic Intifada an interview, accusing the publication of “unprofessional” journalism.
This rejection comes as the group is reaching out to other English-language media outlets as part of a slick marketing effort.
Late last month al-Qaida’s branch in Syria launched a rebranding campaign, changing its name from Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), or Front for the Conquest of Greater Syria, and claiming to have severed ties with its parent organization.
The group has since received widespread attention and an increasingly warm reception from Western media for playing a leading role among an assortment of opposition groups in breaking the Syrian government’s siege of Aleppo.
JFS dispatched Egyptian-born Australian fighter Mostafa Mahamed to provide Western audiences with a kinder and gentler image of the group, one detached from Osama bin Laden and the indelible images of the 9/11 attacks.
A charismatic and highly educated native English speaker, the 32-year-old Mahamed, who also goes by the name Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, knows how to communicate with Western audiences and portray the al-Qaida affiliate in soft focus.
Addressing Mahamed respectfully as “the Sheikh,” Sky News presented JFS as a unifying force in Syria’s five-year civil war that has devolved into an international proxy war among myriad foreign actors including the US, Russia, European states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon’s Hizballah and Iran.
The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain posed somewhat more challenging questions to Mahamed, but so far Western media have failed to ask JFS some key challenging questions.
Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Dubai-based Al-Aan TV, has criticized these interviews, suggesting that “al-Qaida/JFS is personally approaching western journalists via social media and offering them interviews. Journalists then agree.” The interviews “aren’t the result of hard journalistic work but only [the] result of JFS sending [direct messages] on Twitter,” Moussa claimed.
The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain told The Electronic Intifada that his interview was not the result of JFS contacting him via Twitter, but he would not provide additional detail, citing “operational security.”
“I can say that I had a contact for some time before this interview was conducted and the idea of conducting an interview with a fighter or other representative from the Aleppo conflict was broached by me,” Hussain said.
“This is not different from what is done with representatives of other groups (including Hizballah), though what was different in this case was their willingness to go on the record with a specific individual in order to facilitate an interview,” he added.
JFS did not reach out to The Electronic Intifada, so we decided to reach out to them via Twitter direct message and through an email address listed in Mahamed’s Twitter bio.
Within hours, the group sent an email stating: “As-Salaamu ‘alaykum, You have contacted the JFS Foreign Media Department, please let us know if there is anyone in particular you wish to interview.”
We responded that we were seeking an interview with their director of foreign relations Mostafa Mahamed or any other available spokesperson. For two days there was no response, so we sent a follow-up inquiry.
The next day, JFS finally replied: “Apologies for the delay in responding. There are many changes happening on the ground at present & this is taking everyone’s time at the moment.”
JFS added: “Please can you let us know the format of the piece that you are making, e.g. print/web/video, also is it a straight interview, part of another piece - if so what is the piece about?”
But two hours later, before we had even responded, JFS wrote again, with a very different tone.
“Even though it is not our practice to reject requests from news outlets that differ with our worldview, your request for an interview with Mostafa Mohamed has been decllined [sic] due to what we believe is unprofessional and innacurate [sic] journalistic efforts,” the group said.
A follow-up inquiry on how the rebranded al-Qaida branch had reached such a dim view of The Electronic Intifada’s journalism went unanswered.
Undoubtedly, the media-savvy group would have done a bit of research, and may have come across this writer’s tweets criticizing the failure of other media outlets to meaningfully challenge or scrutinize its makeover.
It may also have come across this June 2015 article detailing Jabhat al-Nusra’s cooperation with the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights.
And indeed the questions, which can be found at the end of this article, we were going to ask are far tougher than anything in the interviews the group has done so far.
Softening al Qaida’s image
In his debut interview as JFS director of foreign media relations, Mahamed told Sky News that the purpose of the name change “was to remove any potential obstacles that may impede the success of a merger [among rebel factions] – like unnecessary affiliations.”
Mahamed also asserted that Syrian Muslims are largely supportive of his group’s theocratic vision.
But Syrians opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, such as the residents of Maarat al-Numan, have also protested Jabhat al-Nusra.
In addition to a series of softball questions that served as little more than an opportunity for Mahamed to lob back his organization’s newest talking points, Sky News failed to mention critical details about his background.
Raised in the suburbs of Sydney, Mahamed, whose real name is Mostafa Mohamed Farag, is considered by the Australian government to be the country’s highest-ranking terrorist.
According to Australia’s ABC network, Mahamed “arrived in Syria in late 2012 and soon after was appointed as one of the most senior religious scholars within Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Prior to leaving Australia, he founded a childcare network that is currently under investigation for suspicion of funneling millions of dollars in taxpayer money to the militant group ISIS, also known as Islamic State.
Though JFS claims to have completely broken ties with al-Qaida, the split appears highly choreographed and purely cosmetic.
The group’s own leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani stated in a video released in July that the purpose of the name change was to “unify the ranks of the mujahidin and liberate the land of Greater Syria from the rule of the tyrant [Bashar al-Assad] and his allies.”
Al-Julani praises al-Qaida’s executed former leader, Osama bin Laden, and prays for God’s mercy and blessings on him, and lauds his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Julani explains that disaffiliation from the parent organization will “expose the deceptions of the international community, led by the US and Russia,” who have been bombing Syria under the “pretext” that they are attacking an affiliate of the hated al-Qaida.
The move also received the blessing and encouragement of al-Qaida’s senior commanders, including al-Zawahiri, who, according to the United States, played a major role in the 9/11 attacks as Osama bin Laden’s longtime wingman.
Qatar played a key role in the makeover, offering generous financial incentives.
Along with other Gulf states, Qatari officials had reportedly met with Nusra’s al-Julani on a number of occasions, promising to boost funding and arm the group if it formally separated from al-Qaida.
“The Nusra Front [Jabhat al-Nusra] is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and has been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. But for Qatar at least, rebranding Nusra would remove legal obstacles to supporting it,” Reuters explained in March 2015.
While JFS is now selling a softer image than ISIS or Islamic State, it emerged from the Islamic State in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, before eventually splitting with it.
Last year Human Rights Watch said that Jabhat al-Nusra was “responsible for systematic and widespread violations including targeting civilians, kidnappings and executions” and, like ISIS, had “imposed strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls and they have both actively recruited child soldiers.”
Jabhat al-Nusra’s well-documented violence against minorities has also not been touched on in the recent interviews.
Last year, Nusra fighters massacred 20 Druze villagers in Syria’s Idlib province.
Hundreds of other Druze villagers were spared a similar fate, though they were reportedly forced to convert to Nusra’s puritanical brand of Sunni Islam.
Al-Julani told Al Jazeera Arabic that the Alawite minority that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad belongs to will not be harmed in a future Islamic state so long as they “leave their doctrine and return to Islam.” In other words, they too must convert.
In October, however, al-Julani ordered Jabhat al-Nusra fighters to target Alawite civilians as revenge for Russian airstrikes that have killed and injured thousands of civilians in Syria.
“There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia and I call on all factions to … hit their villages daily with hundreds of missiles as they do to Sunni cities and villages,” al-Julani said.
In his interview with The Intercept, Mostafa Mahamed, representing the rebranded JFS, gave a soothing response to a question about the future of minorities under his group’s rule: “Islam’s history is very clear about the need to provide security and civil rights to minorities living in Islamic nations.”
But he continued to cast the war in Syria in starkly sectarian terms. “We are defending the majority Muslim Sunni population of Syria, who are being slaughtered by a minority backed by an international coalition,” he said. “Their rights, which were ripped away from them by an Alawite minority, need to be restored.”
Al-Qaida is once again taking advantage of catastrophic power vacuums unleashed across Syria amid the government’s vicious crackdown against protesters and its devastating bombardments of civilians besieged in rebel-held areas.
It is a strategy al-Qaida has employed since its inception, especially in an Afghanistan left ruined by the decade-long US-Soviet proxy war of the 1980s. The group’s exploitation of children in war-torn areas it has captured is perhaps the cruelest and most cynical of its ploys.
Last year VICE’s Medyan Dairieh gained access to a Jabhat al-Nusra camp in Syria in which the group’s “cubs” – very young boys, some from as far away as Uzbekistan – are indoctrinated to become fighters and demonstrate their enthusiasm with songs idolizing Osama bin Laden.
“To all the Christians and a message to America, your grave is in Syria, our front is victorious,” the children sing as they ride a bus to the Jabhat al-Nusra camp in one scene in Dairieh’s documentary.
Near the end of the film, the smallest child, who looks to be around 5 or 6 years old, is asked what he hopes to be when he grows up. The bright-eyed child responds: “I want to be an inghimasi [suicide fighter] for God’s sake.”
These are the questions we intended to put to JFS spokesperson Mostafa Mahamed:
How many foreign fighters do you have in Syria, where are they coming from and which countries are they passing through?
Which states or groups are financing your operations? Can you describe your relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or other regional states?
There are clear reports, both from Israeli media and independent sources, including UN observers, that Israel is providing medical care to your wounded fighters. Can you discuss the scope and reasoning behind your organization’s cooperation with Israel? Does this include military coordination?
You have described ISIS or so-called “Islamic State” as khawarij – people who are outside Islam. What is your view of Shia?
What is your view of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States? In light of your leader’s continued praise of Osama bin Laden to whom this operation is attributed, was this a justified action?
Your group’s leader Muhammad al-Julani called for indiscriminate attacks against Alawite villages as recently as October 2015. Has JFS changed its position on indiscriminately targeting civilians?
What is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s plan for minorities in a post-war Syria? Will minorities be allowed to freely practice their religion?
How can minority communities trust JFS given that al-Nusra is reported to have killed, ethnically cleansed and forced conversions upon Christians, Druze and Alawites throughout the conflict?
What rules will women have to follow in a post-war Syria under Jabhat Fateh al-Sham?
What do you think of the reaction in Washington, DC, to your split from al-Qaida? Does Jabhat Fateh al-Sham follow the opinions and reports issued about them from the think tanks there?
Your director of foreign media relations, Mostafa Mahamed (or Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir), reportedly founded a childcare network in Australia that is currently under investigation for funneling millions of dollars in taxpayer money to ISIS. Australian authorities have already made arrests in the case. How do you respond to those allegations? Is there any connection between Mahamed’s departure from Australia and this issue?
What right does an Egyptian-born Australian such as Mostafa Mahamed, or any other non-Syrian, have to determine the future of Syria?
Ali Abunimah contributed research.