Syria's Nusra Front backs Paris attacks, despite opposition to Islamic State

#ParisAttacks

Main Syrian rebel groups have condemned the Paris attacks but supporters of al-Qaeda's affiliate have expressed support

Nusra fighters carry a banner reading: "We fight in Syria ... and our eyes are on Jerusalem" (AFP)
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Tuesday 17 November 2015 17:09 UTC
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Supporters of al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, have broken with other Syrian opposition groups to express support for Friday's deadly attacks in Paris, despite the group's official hostility to the Islamic State (IS).

"We are happy if a deviant sect successfully executes an operation against the Kufaar (infidels)" read a statement released by one member (from a Twitter account since deleted) over the weekend, adding it would have preferred that al-Nusra had carried out such an attack.

"Scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah have explained this topic: we choose the most guided from two sides."

Another al-Nusra spokesperson also praised the earlier attacks in Beirut, while cautioning against support for IS.

"I am still saying that ISIS are a riding mount of the tyrants and that they are the dogs of hellfire," wrote a spokesperson, Sheikh Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani, on Monday, using an alternative acronym for IS. 

"And that they are the ones who ruined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. And that they kill the Sunnis. But I was happy with their strikes against Hizbu Shaytaan," he said, referring to Hezbollah - members of whom were based in the Beirut district that was bombed on Thursday - with the Arabic word for Satan.

"If ISIS killed one hundred Frenchman then they have killed from Jabhat Nusra and the rest of the factions thousands of Mujahideen," he added.

A statement released through group's official channels reflecting their position has yet to be released, so far.

The remarks have contrasted sharply with statements by other major rebel groups fighting in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, who both condemned the attacks on Friday, which claimed as many as 132 lives.

"The only possible reaction to the despicable acts of terror in Paris is total and unequivocal condemnation," wrote Labib Alnahhas, foreign affairs spokesperson for Ahrar al-Sham.

Meanwhile, Jaish al-Islam condemned the attacks "in the strongest possible terms".

Both Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham have fought alongside al-Nusra in Syria, the latter as part of the powerful Jaish al-Fatah coalition which took over the northern Idlib province in July.

Ahmed Shaheed, a fighter with al-Nusra Front - al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria - told Middle East Eye that the attacks in Paris were to be expected following France's bombing of Islamic State in Syria.

“What you saw in Paris is a retaliation," he wrote in a message to MEE. “So don’t cry about it. If a country chooses to bomb someone expect to get a retaliation. Simple.”

Shaheed, who is originally Australian, is believed to be based in Aleppo, though this has not been independently verified.

Despite Nusra's longstanding rivalry with Islamic State (IS), Shaheed said they would stand with them against "tyrants".

“Listen, IS fought a 10-year guerrilla war with a full American invasion and still remained a resistance, no matter how much you bomb or how much you try, whether IS are weak or strong, they will always be a threat if the West doesn’t stop its aggression," he wrote.

“Now you have two groups competing with each other at who can do most damage to the West. Haha."

Al-Qaeda have traditionally been seen as more willing to attack targets in the West than IS, who have primarily concerned themselves with building a power base in Iraq and Syria.

January's attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris was carried out by militants with links to the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In response to a question about possible similar attacks by Nusra on the West, Shaheed said he was just a "simple soldier".

“I don’t know what Nusra has planned - I know one thing, though. If the West keeps supporting dictators against the Muslims and keeps bombing them then expect the same if not worse," he told MEE.

However, he said that it was a "good thing" that such attacks by IS were overshadowing Nusra's activities, as it prevented the media from publishing "biased narratives" about the group.

- See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/liveblog-paris-attacks-49799540#sthash...

Ahmed Shaheed, an al-Nusra fighter, told Middle East Eye that the attacks in Paris were to be expected following France's bombing of IS in Syria.

“Now you have two groups competing with each other who can do most damage to the West," he said, via a mobile messaging application. "Haha."

“What you saw in Paris is a retaliation," he told MEE. “So don’t cry about it. If a country chooses to bomb someone expect to get a retaliation. Simple.”

Shaheed, who is originally Australian, is believed to be based in Aleppo, though this has not been independently verified.

Despite Nusra's longstanding rivalry with IS, Shaheed said they would stand with them against "tyrants".

“Listen, IS fought a 10-year guerrilla war with a full American invasion [in Iraq] and still remained a resistance, no matter how much you bomb or how much you try, whether IS is weak or strong, they will always be a threat if the West doesn’t stop its aggression," he wrote.

'Expect the same if not worse'

Al-Qaeda has traditionally been seen as more willing to attack targets in the West than IS, which has primarily concerned itself with building a power base in Iraq and Syria.

January's attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris was carried out by militants with reported links to the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In response to a question about possible similar attacks by al-Nusra on the West, Shaheed said he was just a "simple soldier".

“I don’t know what al-Nusra has planned - I know one thing, though. If the West keeps supporting dictators against the Muslims and keeps bombing them then expect the same if not worse," he told MEE.

The apparent divergence between al-Nusra and other groups has become more stark as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam have apparently taken steps to moderate their image and extend an olive-branch to Western audiences who had previously feared that their ideologies - which have been labelled "Salafi Jihadism" in the same bracket as al-Nusra - made them unpalatable allies.

In 2013, Zahran Alloush, the charismatic leader of Jaish al-Islam, spoke of his desire to “wash the filth of the Rafida and Rafidism” from Syria, using derogatory terms for Shia and Alawites.

In another speech in January 2014, he also stated that Jaish al-Islam “denounces democracy completely”.

However, in a May 2015 interview with the US-based McClatchy newspaper, he appeared to have significantly changed his tune, claiming that he only wanted to establish a state free of “sectarian discrimination” against Syria’s Sunnis.

“We want to establish a state in which our rights are fulfilled,” he said. “After that, the people should choose the sort of state they want.”

Perhaps even more significantly, he stated that the Alawites were “part of the Syrian people” and that only those who had blood on their hands should face punishment.

“As for coexistence with minorities, this has been the situation in Syria for hundreds of years,” he told the newspaper.

“We are not seeking to impose our power on minorities or to practice oppression against them.”

'A mainstream Sunni Islamic group'

The position of Ahrar al-Sham as potentially the most significant rebel force in Syria has meant that its overtures to the West have been watched by analysts with intense interest.

Ahrar al-Sham went so far as to print an editorial in the Washington Post in which it criticised the broad categorisation of the Syrian opposition groups as “moderate” or “extremist”.

“We consider ourselves a mainstream Sunni Islamic group that is led by Syrians and fights for Syrians,” wrote Nahhas.

“We are fighting for justice for the Syrian people. Yet we have been falsely accused of having organisational links to al-Qaeda and of espousing al-Qaeda’s ideology.”

Despite name-dropping al-Qaeda, however, no mention was made of al-Nusra specifically, and the groups have continued to fight side by side despite reports of strains in the relationship.

For now, there appears to be a mutual agreement for both groups to set aside ideological divisions.

“We don’t agree with their [Ahrar al-Sham's] project at all,” said Ahmed Shaheed. “Because they fooled themselves into believing they can achieve their goals by being diplomatic with the kuffar [infidels], while we believe that we have to subdue the kuffar before any political processes can start.”

He acknowledged, however, that ideological differences would be set aside for the time being.

“As long as we have a common enemy the fight between us will be delayed,” he said, but added that their divergent goals would eventually “butt heads”.