Back in February, Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Frontline programme conducted an interview with Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the founder of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and commander-in-chief of its rebranded offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Jolani, who has been identified as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US State Department, currently has a $10 million bounty on his head:
The interview conducted by Frontline’s Martin Smith is essentially a “media show”—Smith’s own words—staged to whitewash the bloody history of the Al Nusra Front’s terrorism in Syria and provide Jolani with a forum for proclaiming the front’s current iteration, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a legitimate political force and natural ally of Washington. The terrorist designation attached to himself and his organization was “unfair” and “political,” Jolani said.
Smith asked Jolani to take a pledge: “Will you say here and now then, very clearly, that you as a former Al Qaeda leader … will not support … any attacks against the United States?” The Al Qaeda veteran readily accepted.
The HTS leader was also allowed to issue blanket denials of the widespread charges of torture, disappearances, summary executions and severe repression of any form of dissent in the territory in Idlib under control of HTS gunmen. Those who made such charges, he said, were “Russian agents” or “regime agents.”
From an article entitled “Washington brings Syria’s Al Qaeda in from the cold” published wsws.org.
In the same piece Bill Van Auken continues:
A week before the broadcast, three women and one man, accused of adultery and attempted murder, were stoned to death by HTS security forces in the Idlib city center, one of many such barbaric public executions.
Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report on Syria in which it described brutal repression of Idlib’s civilian population at the hands of HTS.
“Torture and ill-treatment were widespread,” it reported. “Torture was most common in Idlib central prison and its Shahin section, in Harem central prison and Ouqab prison, with methods including severe beatings, placing detainees in a ‘coffin’ or in a dulab (tyre) or suspending them by their limbs. Victims were frequently tortured during interrogation sessions, and held incommunicado to ultimately extract confessions. Some detainees were told to write a testimony dictated to them by the interrogators, or forced to sign or thumbprint a document, with no knowledge of its content. Some detainees died as a result of injuries sustained from torture and the subsequent denial of medical care.” The report added that “former detainees described being sexually harassed, forced to strip naked, electrocuted on their genitals and raped in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham facilities.”
And on April 5, the Syrian Network for Human Rights confirmed that “at least 2,246 Syrian citizens are still detained or forcibly disappeared in HTS’s detention centers, constituting a grave threat to the detainees’ wellbeing, given the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.”
The attempt to rehabilitate Jolani not only exposes the lies, hypocrisy and criminality of US imperialist policy in the Middle East, it is a warning that new atrocities are being prepared in Washington’s quest for hegemony over the region and entire globe.
Click here to read the full article by Bill Van Auken published on April 7th.
As part of this same public relations campaign to rehabilitate the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which rules Idlib, Syria’s last militant-controlled province – former top US diplomat James Jeffrey, who served as US Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the International military intervention against ISIL, also acknowledged on the same PBS show that HTS is a US “asset”:
“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”
Lindsey Snell is an independent journalist who reports from across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2016, she was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Syria – what was then called al-Nusra Front – and held captive for ten days before escaping. Recently interviewed by Aaron Maté of The Grayzone, she was asked about her response to James Jeffrey’s endorsement of HTS:
“It was shocking but not totally shocking because a year ago he made some similar comments – something along the lines of ‘they’re not like ISIS planning international attacks; they’re just in Syria’. Just softening the image of HTS already. So it’s just been a lead up to now – you know, now [he is] explicitly saying they are a US asset.” [from 4:45 mins]
“It’s funny because their rebranding campaign actually started when I was their captive – they changed their name for the first time and they announced that they had split from al-Qaeda when I was their captive. It of course didn’t actually change anything and to this day most of them still call themselves Nusra. People in Syria referring to them call them Nusra. I mean their split from al-Qaeda was really just a cosmetic thing, it was surface level; it wasn’t real.
“They’re still the same group. They’re still the same terrorists. They’re inflicting Sharia law on everyone in their territories. While this New York Times journalist was there a few weeks ago, they executed three people for adultery. Stoned them to death.
“They’re the same group. And so all these things that they’re doing are cosmetic. I think that the only substantive thing that they’ve done is that they’re no longer capturing foreigners. I mean they’re no longer trying to take a foreign journalist and holding them for ransom. They’re working with Turkey to allow foreign journalists to basically come and propagandise for them.” [from 5:30 mins]
The full interview is embedded below:
To mark ten year’s blogging, this is the first of my re-uploads from the WoC archive. Originally posted on May 27th 2019, terrorists by any other name — BBC helps rebrand al-Qaeda for a second time covers the BBC’s role in an earlier rebranding exercise.
The Salafist jihadist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) formerly known as the Nusra Front (aka al-Qaeda in Syria) remains a proscribed terrorist organisation ever since it was listed by America in March 2017:
Canada designated HTS a terrorist organisation in May last year, and, still more recently, Turkey followed suit in August. 1
It is revealing therefore to read an article published by BBC news just last week that begins:
The ongoing government offensive against the last rebel-held areas in northern Syria has once again put the spotlight on the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant faction in Idlib Province.
Although HTS, formerly known as Nusra Front, continues to pursue a jihadist agenda, it formally split from al-Qaeda in 2016, prompting harsh criticism from al-Qaeda leadership and defections by al-Qaeda loyalists.
Al-Qaeda appears to have given up on HTS returning to the fold. A new group called Hurras al-Din which emerged last year is widely believed to be al-Qaeda’s new branch in Syria.
Despite this, the UN and a number of countries continue to consider HTS as an al-Qaeda affiliate and to frequently use its former name, Nusra Front.
The group itself appears to be trying to strike a balance between maintaining its jihadist credentials and distancing itself from global jihadist groups for the sake of survival.
HTS today is one of the strongest militant factions in northern Syria, having consolidated its power in the region through seizing territory from rival rebel groups in the past two years. 3
I have highlighted one sentence although the whole article really needs to be considered in a wider context – something I shall come to later. Written by esteemed correspondent “BBC Monitoring”, this otherwise anonymous piece is clearly of the opinion that, to paraphrase, HTS ought to be treated significantly differently from the other al-Qaeda splinter groups because it is “trying to strike a balance [how very moderate!] between maintaining its jihadist credentials [i.e., being terrorists] and distancing itself from global jihadist groups for the sake of survival.”
The tone of the piece is very telling. “Al-Qaeda appears to have given up on HTS returning to the fold” they write, backing the assertion with a further assertion about an alternative terrorist splitter group called Hurras al-Din “which emerged last year [and] is widely believed to be al-Qaeda’s new branch in Syria.”
Having made a clear distinction between the white hats of HTS and the black hats of Hurras al-Din, the author/s then reinforces the view that this white hat faction is misunderstood and unfairly demonised, by adding: “Despite this, the UN and a number of countries [including, as outlined above, America, Britain, Turkey and Canada] continue to consider HTS as an al-Qaeda affiliate and to frequently use its former name, Nusra Front.”
This is not a deceptive spinning of the words of the BBC, but simply a careful reading between the lines: lines that catch up with the next subheading “More than cosmetic change” that help to reinforce the point for readers who remain in doubt of the sincerity of HTS’s “distancing” from al-Qaeda.
The piece then briefly retraces the emergence of HTS precursor Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in an earlier rebranding of Nusra Front:
The rebranding [yes, the BBC now admit this precedent was merely a rebranding exercise] followed pressure from Syrian rebel groups who argued that Nusra Front’s link with al-Qaeda was being used as an excuse by the Syrian government and its allies to label the entire insurgency as terrorist.
In January 2017, HTS was founded as a result of a merger between JFS and other factions. The group stressed it was an independent entity, in a clear effort to indicate its separation from al-Qaeda. 4
Of course back in 2016, BBC news was reporting on what it then described as a “split”:
Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, has announced it has split from al-Qaeda.
Leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, in his first recorded message, said its new name would be Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). 5
It also released an image of Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani as the then new leader of JFS (above), while last week’s article shows Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani as new HTS leader (below):
The following is taken from a Guardian report also published at the time of the rebranding of Nusra Front as JFS:
The name change was announced by al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani [alternative spelling of al-Jawlani] 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. 6
[bold emphasis added]
Click here to read the full report by the Guardian on July 28th 2016.
Although the Guardian talks of a “split” from al-Qaeda, it describes this as “amicable” and the piece makes quite clear that “no substantive change has taken place.” The BBC however took a markedly different stance.
It was on the fifteen anniversary of 9/11, some forty days after this initial rebranding of JFS, when BBC2 Newsnight [Monday 12th] featured “an exclusive interview” with Mostafa Mahamed, the so-called “Director of Foreign Media Relations” for JFS.
Embedded below is a part of that Newsnight report as it was uploaded on youtube by the BBC on Sept 15th 2016. The upload is a highly abridged version of the original BBC broadcast which I discussed at length at the time (see below). As an introduction, these are the BBC’s accompanying 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.
Quoted below is an extended section from an earlier post in which I critically analysed the 2016 Newsnight broadcast. It begins with a quote from narrative voiceover that intersperses and thus frames the interview with JFS’s Mostafa Mahamed — it is a statement in the same vein as the one discussed above from the BBC’s latest article:
“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.”
My post then continues (and for convenience further quotes are italised):
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 2015 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. 7
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’.
Click here to read my earlier post entitled “marking the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the BBC assists the relaunch of al-Qaeda
Reminiscent of the sudden appearance of the last al-Qaeda franchise JFS, and again with nothing more than a “cosmetic change”, HTS now hopes to be able to jettison the terrorist label. The BBC in turn is assisting in that cause by quite intentionally blurring the picture, just as it did in 2016. The aim again is to nudge public opinion in favour of our proxies – the “moderate” terrorists – still fighting over territory in northern Syria.
Click here to read the full article published by BBC news.
Turkey has designated the insurgent group Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organisation, according to a presidential decision published on Friday, as Damascus prepares for a military assault in northwest Syria where the group holds sway.
From an article entitled “Turkey designates Syria’s Tahrir al-Sham as terrorist group” written by Dominic Evans, published in Reuters on August 31, 2018. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey/turkey-designates-syrias-tahrir-al-sham-as-terrorist-group-idUKKCN1LG1XU
3 From an article entitled “Syria group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the al-Qaeda legacy” published by BBC news on May 22, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-48353751#
5 From an article entitled “Syrian Nusra Front announces split from al-Qaeda” published by BBC news on July 29, 2016. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36916606
6 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
7 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