Jabhat al-Nusra fighters
On September 27th I tweeted this in response to someone else’s 140 character revelation that American-trained “moderate” rebels had traded weapons to al-Nusra in exchange for safe passage into Syria: “Good. I hope they use it to blast the Syrian military to hell.”
As some of you may know, I have little use for Twitter except as a place to forward links to my blog. It is simply impossible to express complex ideas in 140 characters. My tweet was nothing much more than a wisecrack but some like Jacobin’s David Mizner interpreted it as me “celebrating the delivery of US arms to Al Qaeda.”
For Mizner, Patrick Higgins, Adam Johnson, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and David Bromwich, there is a prima facie basis for lumping all those who fight against Assad as “jihadist”. Since the FSA has collaborated with al-Nusra against the Baathist military, this is proof positive that it is an accessory after the fact. Of course, you will find no acknowledgement in all of their writings that the FSA and al-Nusra have done more to combat ISIS until the more recent period than the Baathists. In a May 2015 al-Monitor article, the conflict between Nusra and ISIS was clearly established:
Several areas of West Qalamoun have been witnessing since two days, a fierce wave of raids conducted by Jabhat al-Nusra against IS strongholds and checkpoints, and clashes erupted between both groups.
As a result of the campaign, dozens of IS members, including leaders and emirs, were arrested. On the first day, about 47 members were detained, according to sources.
For many in the Baathist amen corner, there is an incentive to put Nusra in the foreground since any identification with al-Qaeda is bound to summon up images of 911, bin-Laden, shoe bombers, Sharia law, forced wearing of the hijab, bans on smoking and drinking—in other words all the things that get the vigilant attention of Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens when he was alive.
Ten years ago political Islam was more acceptable than it is today for obvious reasons. When jihadists were sticking it to the marines in Fallujah, it was a cause for celebration. In 2004 Mike Whitney took the side of the insurgents there without questioning their political or religious beliefs. Apparently reports such as the one that appeared in the November 10, 2004 Washington Post did nothing to persuade Whitney or anybody else in the amen corner to support the marines:
In Fallujah, [foreign fighter] Abu Thar was assigned to a group called Monotheism and Jihad. The group is headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has asserted responsibility for many of the most extreme terrorist strikes in Iraq, and who last month allied his group with al Qaeda.
Can you imagine Mike Whitney praising anything called Monotheism and Jihad today? Well, maybe if it was based in Seattle and was blowing up Starbucks, he might.
For reasons having to do with my unwillingness to take anything at face value, I never found the presence of al-Nusra in Syria to be a game changer. If the FSA was willing to work with them, more power to them.
But the recent torrent of pro-Assad propaganda prompted by the Russian entry into the war and the bombing of towns that are supposedly under the control of “al-Qaeda” convinced me to take a closer look at al-Nusra. If my taking a closer look at the group condemns me as a jihadist sympathizer, so be it. I have been called worse things over the years.
If you are looking for the typical al-Qaeda type sectarian terrorist attack, wouldn’t it make sense to look for something in the Nexis database with the keywords “Nusra mosque bombing Syria” as I just did? If you don’t have access to Nexis, try Googling it. What you will discover is that the preponderance of articles close to the top reveals this incident:
An explosion in a mosque in northern Syria killed 25 members of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, including one of its leaders, as they attended Ramadan prayers, a monitoring group said on Friday.
Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdel Rahman said the death toll could rise as dozens of civilians were also injured in the explosion during Iftar prayers in the city of Ariha.
“Twenty-five members of Al-Nusra Front, including a leader of the jihadist group, died in an explosion inside a mosque in the city of Ariha, in Idlib province,” the Britain-based observatory said.
Of course, if car bombs were going off in front of Alawite or Shi’ite mosques in Syria, you’d expect Robert Fisk to report it. What about beheading? This is the sort of thing, after all, that got Obama and Putin to start raining bombs on Syrian villages, after all. Well, Robert Fisk did report that Nusra beheaded seventy Baathist soldiers back on October 29, 2014. This is the only reference to such an atrocity I could find. However, it is significant that his article does not refer to any media account that puts the blame on Nusra. Perhaps he was embarrassed that the only source of this news was the Daily Mail, a newspaper that editorialized in favor of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s and that has lost seven lawsuits since 2001 over bogus reporting.
If the ultimate goal of Jabhat al-Nusra is to create an Islamic state based on Sharia, there’s not much relevance to what it is doing today, which is indistinguishable from all the other militias in Syria—namely to defeat the Syrian army until the Baathist state is overthrown. It is also worth noting that Iran, the supposed arch-enemy of al-Nusra, is also an Islamic state based on Sharia law. I guess some Islamic states are more equal than others.
Since Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS is so highly regarded, I thought it would be worth it to check out his March 4, 2014 article on Nusra that appeared in The National. Titled “A jihadist blueprint for hearts and minds is gaining traction in Syria”, it describes a group that is anything but fanatical:
The strategies derived from [Islamist theoretician] Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups, and put the focus on fighting the regime.
Throughout Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra is known to be a pragmatic group that does not impose its ideology in liberated areas and can even turn a blind eye to those who have to deal with the regime for daily needs. In one statement, Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader warned his followers: “Beware of being hard on them. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion.”
Abu Musab heralded the rise of what he called “the third generation of jihadis”, which is exactly what we may be witnessing now. By the first and second generations, he means the jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq who committed grave mistakes that undermined jihad.
As it turns out, Patrick Cockburn—one of the grand Poobahs of the amen corner—wrote about Nusra in his new book “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution,” that is about as dodgy as Fisk’s recycling of the Daily Mail.
In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.
Writing for the Daily Beast, Idrees Ahmed put Cockburn’s reporting under a microscope where it belongs. He wrote:
Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.
But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have happened, and it seems unlikely that Cockburn witnessed it.
Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014, column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”
The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.
For the sordid details on Cockburn’s account of Adra, read Idrees Ahmed’s article here.