Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the Islamist militant group Tahrir-al-Sham operating in Northwestern Syria, recently gave an interview to the American investigative documentary program, Frontline. In this interview, al-Julani clearly states that his group, Tahrir-al-Sham, poses no threat at all to either the West or the United States and that their only goal is to fight Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian forces and ISIS.
“First and foremost, this region does not represent a threat to the security of Europe and America,” al-Julani told the interviewer. “This region is not a staging ground for executing foreign jihad.”
Abu Muhammad al-Julani has been one of the most notorious Islamist terrorists in Syria, with the U.S. designating al-Julani as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in May 2013, offering a $10 million reward for information leading to al-Julani’s capture. Abu al-Julani was one of the founders and the Emir (leader) of the Islamist terror group Al-Nusrah Front, designated as a Foreign Terrorist organization by the USA in December 2012. In 2013, Al-Nusrah Front became the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria.
The US State Department had cited the group’s “violent, sectarian vision” and said al-Julani’s “ultimate goal is the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the institution of Islamist sharia law throughout the country,” adding that suicide attacks carried out by his group “killed innocent Syrian civilians.”
Al-Julani was a part of Al Qaeda
Prior to Al-Nusrah Front’s formation, al-Julani was a part of Islamist Jihadist organizations like Al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State in Iraq. In his past, Abu al-Julani fought American troops in Iraq, before taking on the current role of commanding an Islamist militant rebel group against the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad.
Tahrir-al-Sham, the organization Abu al-Julani presently commands, was formed in 2017 after a merger of five Syrian Islamist militant rebel groups, including the Al-Nusrah Front. This new Islamist rebel group, Tahrir-al-Sham, was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in May 2017. Turkey and Canada also consider Tahrir-al-Sham a terrorist organization.
However, in the interview, al-Julani has challenged his terrorist designation, terming it as “unfair” and “political”.
“We didn’t say we want to fight,” al-Julani told the interviewer. Speaking on his connection to Al Qaeda, al-Julani says it “has ended”. Abu al-Julani stresses that his only focus is Syria and that his group is “against carrying out operations outside of Syria.”
The interview was recorded in the early weeks of February in the Idlib Province of Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian Salvation Government, a de facto alternative government of the Syrian Opposition forces in the Idlib province. Idlib province is one of the last Syrian rebel strongholds against the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad and is home to almost 3 million people.
Over the past two years, Idlib has come under attack from the Syrian Government coalition of Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces as Bashar al-Assad seeks to restore his country by wiping out the last strongholds of the Syrian rebels. Tahrir-al-Sham is the strongest Islamist Syrian rebel militia in Idlib.
Former U.S. ambassador James Jeffery, who served as Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said that al-Julani’s organization is an “asset” to America in Idlib.
“They are the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East,” Jeffrey said in an interview on March 8.
Many Human Rights Organizations have documented multiple human rights violations by Tahrir-al-Sham, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. These attacks led to scores of civilian casualties and may have amounted to war crimes, according to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI).
In the interview, al-Julani said he would grant access to International Human Rights Organizations to Idlib’s prisons.
“Human rights organizations could come and inspect the prisons or take a tour,” al-Julani said. “Our institutions are open to anyone. Organizations are welcome. Or people who are interested in this matter can visit and assess the situation. Are things being done properly or not?”
The Syrian civil war
The Syrian Civil War has been raging on for almost 10 years now. The civil war is seemingly in its twilight, with the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad controlling more than 65% of the country as of the present date. The only major Syrian rebel stronghold is in the Idlib province, where the designated terrorist militia, Tahrir-al-Sham, is the most powerful.
If Assad successfully manages to take Idlib, it will be a defeat for the Americans, who have backed Islamists and other Syrian rebel groups against the Assad government. Therefore, this interview of Abu al-Julani, sort of like an introduction to American audiences, can be viewed as an attempt to soften or improve al-Julani’s image in America. However, this is just speculation till the USA officially removes the terrorist designation from Abu al-Julani and Tahrir-al-Sham.