He sat with his back to the camera, a black scarf over his head hiding his identity. In a 47-minute televised interview with Al-Jazeera recorded in “liberated territory” in northern Syria, the leader of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, said his group has no plans to attack the West. Its focus is toppling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The choreographed media campaign by the Nusra Front and its leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammed al-Golani, capped the group’s rise as one the most powerful of Syria’s rebel factions. Nusra fighters played a key role in a string of victories in Idlib in northern Syria over the last two months, leading an effective rebel alliance known as the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, made up of six other Syrian Islamist groups.
The effort to recast Nusra’s identity in Golani’s Al-Jazeera interview, which included a nearly hourlong second part that aired Wednesday, was just the latest sign that Syria’s civil war makes strange bedfellows. To advance in Idlib, Free Syrian Army rebels backed by the United States tacitly coordinated with the Nusra Front and other Islamist groups, according to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. That came after Nusra defeated two main rebel groups backed and armed by the U.S. last fall and earlier this year.