The commander of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in Syria said Wednesday his group was instructed not to attack Western targets, but instead to focus on toppling the Assad regime “and its allies, like Hezbollah.”
Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in only his second interview since the jihadist group emerged into the limelight in 2012, told Al-Jazeera that “the instructions that we have are not to use al-Sham (Syria) as a base to launch attacks on the West or Europe, so as not to muddy the current war,” according to the Telegraph newspaper.
Those instructions ostensibly came from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who inherited the leadership of the group after the death of Osama bin Laden.
“Our mission in Syria is the downfall of the regime, its symbols, and its allies, like Hezbollah,” he said, his face covered and his back to the camera. “We will continue our focus on Damascus and on toppling this regime. I assure you, Assad’s fall won’t take a long time.”
Al-Golani spoke from Nusra-controlled areas of Syria, Al-Jazeera said, though the location wasn’t reported.
The group was once part of what is today the Islamic State, but the leaders of the two organizations turned against each other in the course of fighting in Syria’s ongoing civil war, eventually launching attacks against each other’s fighters.
The move by al-Golani may be an attempt to avoid the fate of Islamic State fighters, who have seen some of their advances halted and others even push back by US and coalition airstrikes over the past year. Al-Nusra, too, has felt the pressure of US airstrikes against its installations, though less ferociously than IS forces. Al-Golani conditioned his promise not to strike Western targets on Washington ending its strikes against Nusra forces.
Some groups fighting against both Assad and Islamic State have also been the beneficiaries of aid from Sunni states in the region, including Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, a source of largesse that al-Golani may be seeking in his ongoing campaign against the Assad regime and rivalry with IS.
The governments financing many of Syria’s rebel groups have resisted supporting al-Nusra because of its open loyalty to al-Qaeda.
US intelligence has identified a branch of al-Qaeda’s forces in Syria called by analysts the “Khorasan Group” that has allegedly been using the chaotic environment of the Syrian civil war as a convenient staging ground for planning and implementing attacks on the West.
But as part of his apparently conciliatory comments on Wednesday, al-Golani denied the existence of such a group. “We only heard about this name when the Americans said it,” he told al-Jazeera.
Al-Golani also demanded that members of the Syrian Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam considered heretical by al-Qaeda to which the Assad family belongs, renounce their beliefs and accept his version of Sunni Islam.
“If they drop weapons, disavow Assad, do not send their men to fight for him and return to Islam, then they are our brothers,” he said.
Al-Nusra, which faces UN sanctions and is defined as a terror organization in the West, has advanced in northwest Syria against Assad regime forces, recently capturing Idlib and nearing the coastal heartland of Alawite Syria. Its forces are also active in Aleppo.