Following Interview With U.S. Reporter, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Leader Al-Joulani Called Liar, U.S. Collaborator By Opponents; Praised For Pragmatism By Supporters

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April 6, 2021

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On April 2, 2021, as part of its Frontline documentary series, the U.S.-based PBS television network published an article discussing an interview with Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, leader of Syrian jihadi group Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). The article, titled "Syrian Militant and Former Al Qaeda Leader Seeks Wider Acceptance in First Interview with U.S. Journalist," describes the interview with Al-Joulani, which was conducted by PBS correspondent Martin Smith in February 2021 in Idlib, Syria.[1]

The article includes two brief video clips in which Al-Joulani answers questions about the HTS designation as a terrorist organization and the group's treatment of its rivals. In the clips, Al-Joulani responds in Arabic to questions Smith poses in English, asserting that HTS does not pose a threat to the U.S. or Europe and that the group's terrorist designation was a political decision. He denies that HTS tortures prisoners, and invites international humanitarian organizations to inspect HTS prisons.

Opponents of HTS, including supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), condemn Al-Joulani and HTS based on the HTS leader's statements in the interview. Supporters of Al-Qaeda, which is currently facing a fierce persecution campaign by HTS, condemn Al-Joulani as a liar and a hypocrite and claim that the interview is part of desperate HTS attempts to appease the U.S. and the West. ISIS supporters mainly accuse HTS of collaborating with the U.S. against ISIS. Meanwhile, supporters of HTS posted the video clips, praising Al-Joulani for his pragmatism and wise leadership and justifying his policies as congruent with the shari'a, while lashing out at the group's opponents who condemn him for the interview.

This condemnation of HTS is similar to accusations that were made by HTS opponents in February 2021, when Martin Smith announced he had interviewed Al-Joulani and posted a photograph of the two men posing together.[2] Additional similar accusations were made even earlier, in February 2020, when the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank published a summary of an interview it had conducted with Al-Joulani, together with the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.[3]

Al-Qaeda Supporters: Al-Joulani Is A Liar And Hypocrite Who Infiltrated The Jihadi Movement For Personal Gain

Following the release of excerpts from the interview, Al-Qaeda supporters lashed out at Al-Joulani, claiming that the interview is part of HTS attempts to ingratiate itself with the U.S. and the West by cracking down on more extreme rivals such as Al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras Al-Din. Many Al-Qaeda supporters accuse Al-Joulani of lying in the interview and claim that Al-Joulani joined the global jihad movement led by Al-Qaeda for personal gain, then betrayed the organization after breaking his oath to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

HTS launched an ongoing campaign against Al-Qaeda-aligned factions in June 2020, which has included the killing, arrest, and persecution of fighters from Al-Qaeda-aligned factions. Al-Qaeda supporters believe that the goal of this campaign is to eliminate Al-Qaeda's presence in Syria, so that Al-Joulani can present HTS as the only moderate group in the country, which has no interest in operating outside Syria, and has the will and ability to rein in terrorist groups which present a threat to the West and other countries.[4] The reactions of Syria-based Al-Qaeda supporters to the interview indicate their deep resentment of what they view as a betrayal by HTS, itself a former Al-Qaeda affiliate that was known as Jabhat Al-Nusrah (JN), which is now persecuting Al-Qaeda members, many of whom have been in prison for months while others are still being arrested.

After watching the video clips featuring excerpts from the interview, Syria-based Al-Qaeda supporter Jallad Al-Murji'ah describes Al-Joulani as "sitting uneasily in front of the journalist as if he were at a session of examination and interrogation" while he tries to "polish his image and gain favor." The Al-Qaeda supporter lists five lies he accuses the HTS leader of telling in seven minutes, including Al-Joulani's claims that HTS does not imprison political rivals, that it does not torture prisoners, that HTS has no secret prisons, and that it was Al-Joulani who refused to target the West when he headed JN. Jallad Al-Murji'ah questions Al-Joulani's motives for giving the interview, asking whether it is reasonable that "the criminal states of the Cross who know the smallest details" need Al-Joulani to explain himself to them "so that they recall their memories and support the people of Syria or discover that they are in error before the wisdom and cleverness of Al-Joulani, who pleads with them and tries to ingratiate himself with them"? Accusing HTS of "putting [the people of Syria] to the sword, arresting them, dissolving groups, persecuting the sincere ones, assaulting women, and sending heavily armed patrols through the streets of Idlib to frighten, terrorize, and threaten them," the Al-Qaeda supporter asserts that Al-Joulani did not give the interview to benefit the people of Syria but to "present your credentials so that your group can continue to survive with international backing that is satisfied with it and legitimizes its existence and so that Al-Joulani can remain a leader who tyrannizes the people."[5]

Syria-based Al-Qaeda supporter Hudhud Al-Sham denounces the "accursed, treacherous oath-breaker" Al-Joulani as a liar and a hypocrite, accusing him of having "betrayed [ISIS leader] Al-Badri 'Al-Baghdadi', then joined Al-Qaeda in Syria so he could become stronger, then betrayed it." The Al-Qaeda supporter compares Al-Joulani to Pinocchio, claiming that lying has become a way of life for the HTS leader: "When I saw him speaking, it was as if a bluebottle fly was hovering around his tongue which was protruding from the mouth that always lies and the eye sockets which always mislead were oozing pus."[6]

Syrian Al-Qaeda supporter Abu Al-'Ala' Al-Shami expresses outrage at Al-Joulani's claim that those detained in HTS prisons were arrested for their affiliation with extremist groups. He writes: "If you would have said that you arrested Abu Husam [British-born aid worker Tauqir Sharif] because he helped your rivals whom you feared would [usurp] your throne, people would have accepted it, but to tell the West 'They are the extremists, not me' is like telling them 'These are the extremists, so kill them and bomb them'." Abu Al-'Ala' points out that Al-Joulani himself has a history of extremism, more than many of his rivals: "You were a real Daeshi [pejorative term for ISIS member] for years, then you became [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi's messenger and emissary to Syria at the beginning. You kidnapped journalists and took ransoms for them, so who then is the extremist?" The Al-Qaeda supporter further asserts that the use of Western terms such as "extremism" by the commander of a jihadi faction is "the height of misguidance and deviation." As for Al-Joulani's claims that he does not arrest or torture rivals, Abu Al-'Ala' declares that "the youngest child in the blessed Syrian revolution can testify to your lying and deception."[7]


The above image shows Al-Qaeda supporter Abu Al-'Ala' Al-Shami's reaction to Al-Joulani's interview, in which he calls Al-Joulani a liar and reminds him of his past in ISIS.

Al-Qaeda supporter Lillah Namdi lashed out at Al-Joulani, accusing him of debasing himself in a desperate attempt to gain the acceptance of the U.S. and claiming that Al-Joulani opportunistically joined the jihadi movement when it served his interests, then turned on it later on. The Al-Qaeda supporter describes the HTS leader as seeking to demonstrate to the Americans that he is "completely obedient and submissive" by wearing a business suit and styling his hair in a Western style, paraphrasing Al-Joulani's remarks as "HTS is a loyal guard of the Jews' borders, is confined to the Idlib sector, has no interest in the ummah, and is not a threat to the Americans' the protectors of the Jews." Commenting on Al-Joulani's invitation to humanitarian agencies to visit HTS prisons, Lillah Namdi writes: "The unbelieving enemy will come, see the mujahid scholar shackled in his chains, and give a certificate of good behavior and repudiation of terrorism to Al-Joulani," asserting that such a scenario could never occur in an "Islamic system of government" but only in a "secular state which is subject to the international system." The Al-Qaeda supporter asks Al-Joulani: "Why did you claim to be a Salafi-jihadi and join the Al-Qaeda organization, then you withdrew, broke your oath, defamed, and fought against Al-Qaeda?" commenting that this behavior "resembles the method of intelligence agencies to penetrate groups and destroy them" from within.[8]


The above image depicts Al-Qaeda supporter Lillah Namdi's comments on Al-Joulani's interview, accusing Al-Joulani of exploiting the jihadi movement and of seeking to ingratiate himself with the U.S.

Another pro-Al-Qaeda Telegram channel, Radd 'Udwan Al-Bughat, comments on Al-Joulani's statement that HTS arrested British-born aid worker Tauqir Sharif because he "used to work with a group that […] was rather extreme," claiming that this proves Al-Joulani persecutes Al-Qaeda-aligned groups in order to "implement the Sochi accords and improve his image." Quoting American analyst Aaron Zelin, who describes Al-Joulani as a "chameleon" and says he cannot be trusted, the Al-Qaeda supporter tells Al-Joulani that the Americans know his true nature and are only using him, "to them you are a mere card [that they will use] for certain periods, then they will burn it like any criminal who serves them." Quoting statements made by Al-Joulani in 2015 in which he said that seeking to appease the West is futile, Radd 'Udwan Al-Bughat condemns the HTS leader as a "most evil hypocrite and liar."[9]


The above image depicts the comments by Al-Qaeda supporter Radd 'Udwan Al-Bughat, who compares Al-Joulani's statements in the interview to previous remarks he made, and denounces him as a "hypocrite and liar."

ISIS Supporters Accuse HTS Of Collaborating With The U.S. Against ISIS

ISIS supporters reacted to the interview by accusing Al-Joulani of being a collaborator with the U.S. Just as Al-Qaeda supporters have grievances against HTS because Al-Joulani broke ties with Al-Qaeda and persecutes the organization's Syrian affiliate, ISIS supporters similarly bear a grudge due to Al-Joulani's alleged reneging on his pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his group's fierce fighting against ISIS.

Pro-ISIS Exclamation describes the interview as a "historic and critical interview for anyone who has doubts about the methodology of this oath-breaker Al-Joulani." Commenting on statements by James Jeffrey, former U.S. Special Representative to Syria, who describes HTS as an "asset" to the U.S., Exclamation writes mockingly: "The Al-Joulani group has the greatest percentage of shares in the asset of the Global Coalition."[10]


ISIS supporter Exclamation quotes the U.S. Special Representative to Syria, who describes HTS as an "asset" to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.

ISIS supporter Naseh Amin similarly quotes Jeffrey's assessment, asserting that it demonstrates "the collaboration of Al-Joulani's Jabhat [Al-Nusrah] with the Crusader Coalition," just as the Sahawat (Sunni tribal militias) of Iraq fought against jihadis with U.S. backing in the years following the U.S. invasion. Naseh Amin compares Al-Joulani's interview with Smith to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's interviews with U.S. media, writing that both "offer themselves like a prostitute to a pimp to gain favor," both deny responsibility for torture and claim to respect human rights, and both "present themselves as the most suitable for fighting and defeating fanaticism, extremism, and terrorism," but the "Crusader West is not that naïve and stupid" to believe the likes of Al-Joulani and MBS. The ISIS supporter suggests that the efforts of Al-Joulani and others, like the Afghan Taliban, to appease the U.S. and disavow hatred of America demonstrate their "despicability, degeneracy, and depravity," claiming that the U.S. is responsible for raping Muslim women, destroying mosques, bombing Muslims' homes, "surrendering Jerusalem to the Jews," and invading Iraq and Afghanistan and spreading "fornication and debauchery" in those countries.[11]

Independent Jihadi Clerics: Al-Joulani Has Proven His Collaboration With The U.S., HTS Is An Apostate Group

An independent Syrian jihadi cleric known by the alias Khayyal Al-Manhaj comments on the interview, asserting that Al-Joulani has "saved us some trouble" in explaining why HTS should be considered an apostate group which must be targeted. Khayyal Al-Manhaj writes that the interview proves Al-Joulani's "commitment to the United Nations mandate" and acceptance of international law, which, in the jihadi cleric's eyes, are sufficient to prove he is an unbeliever. The jihadi cleric predicts that the release of the full interview will further demonstrate the extent of the HTS apostasy, so that no one will be able to deny that the group has left the fold of Islam.[12]


Anti-HTS jihadi cleric Khayyal Al-Manhaj writes that Al-Joulani's interview has proven that HTS is an apostate group.

Another independent Syria-based jihadi cleric, Egyptian-born Abu Shu'ayb Al-Masri (Talhah Al-Musayyar), writes that Jeffrey's admission that HTS is an "asset" to the U.S. comes as no surprise. Abu Shu'ayb writes that if Jeffrey had said that "Iran, or Hizbullah, or the Houthis has been a strategic asset to the United States," everyone would be shocked, since the slogan of Iran and its proxies is "Death to America." However, Abu Shu'ayb continues, after Al-Joulani has "repressed the people of Idlib," shown "enmity to the mujahideen and rebels," protected Russian patrols, "lost most liberated areas," presented his "wickedness" to the West as "persecution of the extremists," and spoken "flirtatiously" to the West about the "benefits he can achieve for them," it is obvious that HTS is a U.S. asset.[13]

HTS Supporters Praise Al-Joulani's Pragmatism And Moderation, Accuse HTS Opponents Of Seeking To Bring The Destruction Of Idlib

Supporters of HTS, including HTS religious officials Maysarah Al-Jubouri (Abu Mariyah Al-Qahtani) and Mazhar Al-Ways, praise Al-Joulani for pragmatically seeking to ensure that HTS is not targeted and blacklisted by the U.S. and the West, and assert that Al-Joulani's policies are preferable to those followed by "extremists" such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Many HTS supporters lash out at the group's detractors, claiming that they want HTS to copy their own disastrous policies which make them pariahs to the international community and the Muslim public.

In a Telegram post dated April 4, 2021, senior HTS religious official Mazhar Al-Ways summarizes the "messages contained in the interview," asserting that the interview which "the brother, the general commander of [Hay'at] Tahrir Al-Sham, Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani" gave to Smith clearly presents the true nature of the Syrian revolution by responding to "the questions which are urgent to those inside and outside [Syria] in a way that breaks the isolation" which the group's enemies seek to impose on the revolution. Al-Ways adds: "The point is not for us to convince others, rather what is asked of us is for us to be clear to people and to the world, and for us to present ourselves as we are, not as […] our opponents wish to depict us."[14]


The poster depicted above, created by HTS media operative Abu Muhammad Al-Shimali, features Al-Ways' supportive comments about Al-Joulani's interview with Martin Smith.

Another senior HTS religious official, Abu Mariyah Al-Qahtani, lashes out at the "bad-tempered pens" of HTS opponents who were displeased with the interview, suggesting that they would prefer that the jihadi group followed suicidal policies that would bring disaster on rebel-controlled Syria. Al-Qahtani asks whether HTS opponents would be happy with "the destruction of Idlib and the killing of its people," suggesting that they "dream of seeing Idlib wearing the garb of Mosul or Raqqa," which were destroyed after serving as ISIS strongholds. The HTS cleric describes Al-Qaeda supporters as impossible to please, claiming that Al-Qaeda had asked JN, the precursor to HTS, to break its ties with the organization but later condemned Al-Joulani for doing so.[15]


The above poster, created by HTS media operative Abu Muhammad Al-Shimali, features Al-Qahtani's criticism of the "bad-tempered pens" which criticize HTS.

London-based HTS supporter Abu Mahmoud Al-Filastini praises Al-Joulani's remarks in the excerpts from the interview as "wonderful." In a lengthy Telegram post, Abu Mahmoud defends Al-Joulani's moderate policies, which aim to minimize the enemies of HTS, as more in keeping with the shari'a and serving the interests of Muslims better than the extremism of his rivals. The HTS supporter asserts that "moderation and taking the middle road" are congruent with shari'a and that "shari'a-based politics and the jurisprudence of neutralizing [enemies] complement jihad with the sword, because the goal is not jihad for its own sake but the establishment of Allah's sovereignty on Earth so that His shari'a can be sovereign and monotheism can spread." Abu Mahmoud declares that jihad demands "prudence, shrewdness, cunning, and deceit" to achieve its goals and that a jihadi leader must know how to make truces with some potential enemies in order to minimize threats and free him to fight other foes who pose a more immediate threat. He lashes out at "extremists" who believe that to be considered a sincere jihadi one must "be a prisoner and suffer torture and affliction or be persecuted and in fear of being kidnapped," describing this view as "ignorance to the nth degree." The HTS supporter praises the group for possessing the "elements of survival and permanence, achieving the threshold of the shari'a, and managing to traverse dangerous turns and many plots," claiming that the "groups of factionalism and fragmentation" such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have not managed to establish anything lasting and their excesses have caused Muslims to hate shari'a and jihad. Abu Mahmoud contends that HTS attempts to escape its terrorist designation and its disavowal of attacks targeting the West serve the interests of Muslims and do not contradict the shari'a in any way.[16]


Shown above are the first of Abu Mahmoud Al-Filastini's Telegram posts commenting on Al-Joulani's interview.

HTS supporter Ibn Al-Shahba' praises Al-Joulani as "cleverer than everyone else with his realism," asserting that the interview "removes all the excuses of the regime and Russians" to attack Idlib. The HTS supporter accuses the HTS leader's detractors of hypocrisy, claiming that they want to "turn Idlib into a second Mosul and Raqqa" and alleging that some HTS opponents declared Al-Joulani an apostate for meeting with an American journalist, even though Osama bin Laden was also interviewed by Martin Smith. Ibn Al-Shahba' claims that those who "condemn Al-Joulani's openness for the benefit of the arena are those who criticized him the most in the past, [saying] that he would bring disaster because he is Al-Qaeda" and that "those who condemn his sitting with Americans, their sheikhs had taken support from the Americans in the past."[17]

HTS media operative Abu Muhammad Al-Shimali defends Al-Joulani's efforts to free HTS of its terrorist designation and gain the acceptance of the international community, quoting Al-Qaeda-aligned jihadi ideologue Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri (Mustafa Setmariam Nasar), who listed "removing the global Islamic resistance from the confines of the accusation of blind terrorism […] emphasizing the true identity of the resistance as a jihadi movement which practices its right to self-defense," and "trying to gain public opinion in all sectors of societies and nations, on an Arab, Islamic, and global level" as worthy goals.[18]


The above poster, created by HTS media operative Abu Muhammad Al-Shimali, quotes jihadi ideologue Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri who justifies the HTS attempt to cancel its terrorist designation and gain sympathy from the West.

HTS supporter Al-Ifriqi Al-Muhajir, a foreign fighter from North Africa, condemns HTS opponents who criticize the interview, claiming that they are in a pitiful state of "hysteria." Al-Ifriqi accuses these opponents of selectively quoting Al-Joulani's words in order to portray HTS in as negative a light as possible, alleging that they are motivated by a desire for attention rather than true commitment to their principles and concern for the fate of the Syrian jihad, as they claim.[19]

 

[1] Pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/abu-mohammad-al-jolani-interview-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-syria-al-qaeda, April 2, 2021.

[5] Telegram, April 4, 2021.

[6] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[7] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[8] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[9] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[10] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[11] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[12] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[13] Telegram, April 5, 2021.

[14] Telegram, April 4, 2021.

[15] Telegram, April 4, 2021.

[16] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[17] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

[18] Telegram, April 5, 2021.

[19] Telegram, April 3, 2021.

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