On the fifteen anniversary of 9/11, last night’s BBC Newsnight [Monday 12th] featured “an exclusive interview” with a member of a Salafist terrorist faction which a mere forty days prior was officially affiliated to al-Qaeda.
Mostafa Mahamed, puffed up as “Director of Foreign Media Relations” for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), a rebranding of the al-Qaeda in Syria terrorist faction formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, was afforded uninterrupted airtime to claim that aside from no longer being any part of al-Qaeda, his terrorist militia is “deeply embedded in [Syrian] society and cannot be singled out in any way”. Put another way, he is saying “we are the moderates”.
[Note that: after I posted this article, BBC uploaded the report on the Newsnight youtube channel — I have therefore decided to include it in an update at the end of the article.]
Reminiscent of the sudden appearance of ISIL, soon after renamed ISIS and then DAESH, JFS are just the latest al-Qaeda franchise. Except that once ISIS had splintered from al-Qaeda, they were immediately decried as the terrorist bad boys – the worst of the worst – a portrait that took a little of the heat away from remnant factions of al-Qaeda, including allied ‘rebels’ Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby enabling some in the West to recast them in a comparatively better light. This time, however, JFS – who have been loyal al-Qaeda affiliates until July 28th – are seeking to jettison the terrorist label altogether, albeit with nothing more substantial than a name change:
The name change was announced by al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani in a debut video appearance.
“We have stopped operating under the name of al-Nusra Front and formed a new body … This new formation has no ties with any foreign party,” he said, giving the group’s new name as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – the front for the liberation of al-Sham, the historical Arabic name for the Levantine region. […]
While committing Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to continuing the fight against the Assad regime and its backers, Jolani made no mention of a change of ideology or approach and said he remained committed to implementing Islamic law. The apparently amicable split with al-Qaida would suggest no substantive change has taken place. 1
[bold emphasis added]
Click here to read the full report by the Guardian published on July 28th.
Back on BBC Newsnight, and following on from Mahamed’s more or less untrammelled JFS promo, the same report continued as follows:
“JFS have concentrated on attacking the Assad regime, but some in western security establishments say despite the official break they’re still al-Qaeda. Still a danger. Something their spokesman [Mahamed] denies.”
This self-questioning caveat, evidently inserted to maintain the pretence of impartiality, cleared the way for further seeds to be planted. Over again to JFS ‘spokesman’ Mahamed:
“We’ve been extremely clear about our split, but I’ll say it again. JFS is not an affiliate of al-Qaeda. We’re a completely independent body working to establish the common goal of the revolutionary forces in Syria.”
Not to be outdone, we also heard from Michael Stephens of RUSI who told Newsnight:
“[JFS] is seen as a Syrian movement. It’s seen as standing up for Syrians and fighting the regime… and so it makes no sense to peel away from them because actually what you’re doing is weakening your own position by doing that.”
But then, Stephens is echoing the opinion of RUSI’s Senior Vice President, General (Ret’d) David Petraeus, who last year publicly advocated the arming of members of the al-Nusra Front [A report can be found from August 31st in The Daily Beast].
As Trevor Timm writing for the Guardian asked at the time, “Could there be a more dangerous and crazy idea?”
Let’s put aside for a second that there’s not much difference between arming al-Nusra and arming “some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra.” How the US can possibly “peel off” fighters from a terrorist group is a complete mystery. In Iraq – Petraeus is apparently using part of the largely failed Iraq “surge” as his blueprint here – he convinced some Sunni tribes to switch sides temporarily, but that was with over 100,000 US troops on the ground to do the convincing. Does Petraeus think we should invade Syria to accomplish the same feat? […]
Petraeus is likely not the only one who thinks this plan to work with and arm members of the al-Nusra front is a good idea. There are probably many faceless officials and spooks who are pushing the same agenda in Washington, but Petraeus is the only one with enough clout to go ahead and say it out loud (since we already know he is above the law). Now you can expect a bunch of fresh hot takes explaining how Petraeus is right and we should be arming al-Qaida. 2
Click here to read an earlier post about RUSI that includes more on David Petraeus’ involvement with the organisation.
And what about 9/11? The justification for war in Afghanistan had been to hunt down and destroy the terrorists. But 9/11 also served as the original if somewhat discarded pretext for the war on Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam. In actuality, 9/11 ignited all of the wars under the expanded guise of that initial and ongoing “war on terror”.
The territory gained by the various al-Qaeda affiliates is a direct consequence of those wars. Having moved into Iraq, they spread out again into Syria. Funded by the Gulf States, many others have been covertly armed and trained by the West throughout the so-called Syrian civil war. In Libya, meantime, Nato provided air cover to affiliated factions of extremists in their bid to oust Gaddafi. Whilst the preferred route into Syria for the terrorists has mainly been across the porous border from Nato member Turkey. The West’s “war on terror” is riddled with such blatant contradictions.
In short, all of these Islamist factions, very much including ISIS and al-Nusra (now JFS), are small but grotesque outgrowths of the legacy of 9/11 and the neo-imperialist adventuring that singular atrocity had prepared the way for.
Here, however, is what the rather clean-cut spokesman for JFS had to say in reply to the BBC’s question:
“As for 9/11, that happened fifteen years ago, and is completely irrelevant to what is happening in Syria today.”
And indeed, fifteen years on, the BBC backs this entirely false claim by providing a platform for furthering the spread of terrorism in the name of ‘revolution’.
This curtailed version of the Newsnight report was uploaded on Sept 15th with the following notes:
One of the biggest challenges facing the ceasefire in Syria is the treatment of jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al Sham — who have been excluded from the deal. Secunder Kermani reports.
Newsnight has an exclusive interview with one of Fath al Sham’s leading figures.
1 From an article entitled “Al-Nusra Front cuts ties with al-Qaida and renames itself” written by Martin Chulov, published in the Guardian on July 28, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/28/al-qaida-syria-nusra-split-terror-network
2 From an article entitled “David Petraeus’ bright idea: give terrorists weapons to beat terrorists” written by Trevor Timm, published in the Guardian on September 2, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/02/david-petraeus-bright-idea-give-terrorists-weapons-to-beat-isis