THE head of Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, has described the rival Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate as ‘illegitimate’ in a wide-ranging television interview aired on Wednesday.
In the second part of his appearance on the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera news channel, al-Jolani criticised IS at length and said he did not foresee a reconciliation between the two jihadist groups soon.
Jolani speaking with his face hidden from view by a black scarf said: ‘They announced a caliphate, but the scholars rejected it as illegitimate. It is not based on Islamic law.’
The rivalry between the two groups deepened after IS declared a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq in June 2014. This conflict, Jolani said, had seen IS kill more than 700 members of Al-Nusra, as well as women and children. Jolani added: ‘There is no indication of a solution between us and them at this time. We hope that they repent and return to the Sunni people.’
He refused to call IS fighters ‘infidels’ – a term usually referring to non-Muslims – but instead said they had ‘strayed from the path of Islam’, and that the rivalry had allowed the Syrian government ‘to flourish’. They did not commit to the orders we had including not blowing up markets or killing people in mosques.’
Jolani also criticised IS for not ‘being serious in fighting the regime’ of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When asked about Al-Nusra’s ties to Al-Qaeda and whether a split was possible, the jihadist leader refrained from answering directly. ‘The issue is not about leaving Al-Qaeda.’ Jolani continued: ‘It is about who rises up against hegemony.’
Jolani who said that he had fought in Iraq said as many as 30 per cent of Al-Nusra’s members were foreigners, including ‘a small number of Americans’. Jolani rejected political solutions to Syria’s four-year war, saying an end to the crisis could only come through ‘jihad’, or holy war. He also spoke about regional developments in Iraq and Yemen, accusing Iran of seeking to expand its ‘empire’ in the Middle East. ”We will cut off the hands of Iran in the region,’ he threatened.
Last week, the jihadist chief said he had received orders from Al-Qaeda’s central command not to attack the West. He concluded: ‘Our mission in Syria is the downfall of the regime, its symbols, and its allies, like Hezbollah.’
• The US-led coalition in Iraq on Tuesday pledged support for Baghdad’s plan to retake the city of Ramadi from IS whose advance Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described as a ‘failure for the global community’.
The coalition has been carrying out air strikes against IS, and al-Abadi also called for the ‘speedy launch’ of efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, which he said was crucial to tackling the IS rampage through Syria and Iraq.
Despite a series of battlefield wins by IS, the imperialist-led coalition maintained it had a ‘winning strategy’ and gave its seal of approval to Iraqi plans to claw back territory at crunch talks in Paris. US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed Baghdad’s strategy as ‘the right plan both politically and militarily for Iraq at this time’.
He insisted the coalition had made ‘real gains’ and that Islamic State now had 25 per cent less territory than when the air strikes began in August 2014. IS nevertheless control an area the size of Italy across Syria and Iraq.
Baghdad has been fighting to wrest back Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province Anbar, since its loss to IS last month – the worst defeat for the coalition since it formed nearly a year ago. Under the emergency plan adopted by Abadi’s cabinet, Baghdad hopes to mobilise and arm the Sunni tribes of Anbar province, which they previously did not do out of fears they could turn on the Shiite-led government.
Abadi also plans to ensure all Sunni and Shiite militias are operating under the government’s authority. The loss of Ramadi as well as the historic Syrian city of Palmyra days later raised questions about the effectiveness of the coalition’s strategy. But Blinken insisted: ‘In Iraq right now we have the right strategy, a combination of air strikes, training and effective global partners.’
The rout of Iraqi security forces in Ramadi also led to a diplomatic spat as US Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said there was ‘an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight’, in comments that angered Baghdad and forced Washington to apologise. Abadi called for more from his partners, saying most IS fighters were foreign and therefore an ‘international problem’.
He said: ‘There is a lot of talk of support for Iraq, there is very little on the ground. Roughly six out of 10 IS fighters are foreign, with the remainder Iraqi. The international community has to explain why so many terrorists are from Saudi Arabia, from the Gulf, from Egypt, from Syria, and Turkey and from European countries.
‘There is a lack of intelligence, we are trying very hard on our part but this is a transnational organisation. This is a failure on the part of the world.’ Also on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said 110 jihadists who left French territory to fight alongside IS had died in Iraq and Syria.
Abadi’s criticism came as IS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on an Iraqi police base north of Baghdad on Monday that killed 37 people, mostly officers. On Tuesday IS fighters closed the gates of a dam in Ramadi, posing a humanitarian and security threat. While the focus of the Paris meeting was the crisis in Iraq, the ministers also talked about Syria. They said that with the ‘continued deterioration of the situation in Syria and the inability and unwillingness of (Bashar al-Assad’s) regime to fight Daesh (IS)’ it was urgent to find a political solution in Damascus.
In a joint statement, coalition representatives called for the ‘speedy launch of a UN-facilitated, genuine and inclusive political process’ in Syria. Abadi said the Iraqi army is in need of weapons and ammunition to battle IS, adding that most of his country’s weapons contracts were with Russia or Iran, which are both under Western sanctions.
The suicide attack against the police base slowed an operation to retake Ramadi, but Abadi said his troops’ counter-offensive was ‘advancing quite quickly’. He insisted: ‘Iraqis are prepared to fight, we are investigating why some local commanders issued commands for the forces to withdraw during the IS attack on the city.’
• The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, held ‘constructive’ talks on Wednesday with one of Libya’s governments focused on a European naval force that would fight people smuggling gangs organising Mediterranean migrant crossings in Libya. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations said that his government is refusing to give consent for UN action because European governments had discussed it with Libyan militias.
‘The meeting took place during preparations of the maritime operation EUNAVFOR MED, which will ‘focus on dismantling the business model of those involved in human smuggling’. Mogherini met with Libya’s Mohamed al-Dayri along with Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni and Britain’s Philip Hammond in Brussels.
The force’s command centre would be Italy-based, while Britain is drafting the UN resolution giving the force its legal framework. The scheme, backed by foreign and defence ministers in Brussels, will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.
On May 18, EU nations approved plans for the unprecedented naval mission but the UN resolution must pass before it can begin to destroy boats that belong to smuggling gangs in Libyan waters, where political turmoil has created a safe haven for traffickers. The worst Mediterranean disaster in decades took place in April, when a trawler packed with migrants capsized off the coast of Libya, killing over 800 people. Since the beginning of the year, more than 45,000 immigrants have arrived in Italy.