In key interview, Al-Jazeera seen to back mainstreaming of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate

The appearance of Abu-Mohamed al-Julani, the leader of Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria and one of the most powerful groups in the war-torn country, on Al-Jazeera has evoked mixed reactions among Arabs.

The interview has won the channel praise from self-styled moderate Islamists. But it has given critics of Al-Jazeera and its backer, Qatar, further ammunition to see them as promoting Islamist ideology and mainstreaming militant groups like Al-Nusra.

To Islamist-leaning writers and groups on social media, the interview cast Al-Julani in a positive light and was a scoop for Al-Jazeera.

The Saudi opposition group Tansiqiyat Shabab al-Haramayn—the Coordination of the Youths of the two Holy Shrines—tweeted “In the interview, Al-Julani’s talk sounded good and to the point; it has a clear objective, vision and insight.”

Qatari academic Mohamed Mokhtar al-Shanqiti tweeted Al-Julani said “America backs the [Syrian] regime while it acts hypocritically in the media.” This is an accurate description of the American position on the Syrian revolution.”

Hakem al-Mutairi, the leader of Kuwait’s Al-Umma party and professor of Islamic theology, tweeted “The interview revealed important facts about the revolution and the future of Syria after the [predictable] fall of Bashar [Al-Assad]; it will put a stop to enemies of Al-Nusra and those who call it terrorist.”

Journalist Turki al-Jasser wrote: “Al-Julani said the small group of Abu-Malik gave [Lebanese] Hezbollah a beating. Imagine if the whole of Al-Nusra or another faction fought it. Hezbollah’s days are numbered.”

Jordanian Islamist writer Yasir al-Zaatra @Yzaatreh tweeted: “There is nothing striking in Al-Julani’s interview but his appearance at this timing is in itself a good thing.”

Al-Zaatra, a regular guest on Al-Jazeera, was not only happy with the interview with Al-Julani, but he even wants to see one with Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“The interview is a scoop. An interview with Al-Baghdadi would be a more important scoop. Is it possible? I don’t know but this would be certainly interesting” Al-Zaatra wrote.

The idea of an interview with Al-Baghdadi is not totally far-fetched. An opinion poll run on Al-Jazeera website about “Islamic State’s victories” may endear the channel to Al-Baghdadi.

The poll, which ran from 23 to 26 May, asked readers of the website if “they consider that victories of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria serve the Arab region”.

Of the total of 9349 respondents, 76.1 percent said yes and the rest said no.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 17.55.28.png

Another poll that ran from 22 to 28 May asked readers if they “consider the advance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria beneficial to the Arab region”.

Of 56881 respondents, 81 percent said yes and 19 percent said no.

To critics of Al-Jazeera, the interview is a further testament to their perception that the channel, mirroring Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists, is a platform for Islamists, moderates and militants alike, and the country’s tool to make jihadist groups mainstream.

Expectedly, the Syrian regime is among those critics.

The Syrian representative in the United Nations Bashar al-Jaafari accused Al-Jazeera and its owner, Qatar, of using the interview with Al-Julani “to promote terrorism and make threats to the government and people of Syria”.

Qatar seeks “to clean up the image of Al-Nusra Front”-designated as “a terrorist group” by the UN Security Council, as he put it.

There are reasons that suggest that this may be the case.

In giving an insight into Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, Al-Jazeera’s Pakistan correspondent the Syrian Ahmed Muwaffaq Zaydan, created the impression that the mainstreaming of Al-Nusra is underway.

Commenting on Al-Julani’s interview, Zaydan said on Al-Jazeera: “There is a major change in Al-Nusra Front’s narrative. I recall when I was in Al-Ghuta [in Syria] in 2013 to film a report there, I was invited by Al-Nusra to an elaborate Syrian meal. When I looked and smiled [at the feast], they asked me why. I told them when I was in Tora Bora and Qandahar [Afghanistan], Al-Qaeda leaders--Osama Bin Laden and others—used to eat bread and honey [a simple meal]. If we were to use a western, analytical method, this would mean the cuisine determines the way of thinking of groups and states.”

“I noticed that [in the interview] Al-Julani wore the Levantine garment and waistcoat and did not wear a turban—all signs sent to the domestic front and the outside world.”

“Externally, in terms of clothing and food, Al-Nusra has changed its ways in a significant way…The Levant changes [people] but it does not change itself,” he said giving the example of Muawiyya, the first caliph of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty (661-750). "The caliph and his successors adopted the Levantine way of life and not vice-versa."

Al-Julani sent messages to the west and Syria’s Alawites and Druze communities, Zaydan said.

[The Alawites are the ruling minority from which the Al-Assad family hails, and the Druze are a pro-regime religious minority.]

“There is a change in the narrative of Al-Qaeda in comparison with Al-Nusra. According to my information, Al-Nusra’s leaders held meetings for hours and they reached a near agreement to separate their front from Al-Qaeda,” Zaydan said.

A longtime critic of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Lebanese-American professor of political science, As’ad AbuKhalil, predicts an imminent separation of Al-Julani and Al-Nusra from Al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

AbuKhalil wrote on his blog, the Angry Arab News Service:

AbuKhalil lambasted Zaydan and Al-Jazeera.

 The interview attracted further criticism on Twitter.

@amrhamdon tweeted: “Al-Jazeera is polishing the image of the terrorist Al-Nusra Front to present it to the world as a rebel group, not killers and terrorists.”

 @dhidan111 tweeted: “Al-Jazeera and terrorism are inseparable…Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, ISIS and all terrorist organisations in the Arab world are in direct contact with it [Al-Jazeera].”