The new issue of Al-Risalah, the English language propaganda magazine published by Jabhat al Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, presents the group as a "moderate" force in global jihadism. Clearly concerned about ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra uses this issue to attack its rival and stake its own claim to religious authority.
An article by Abu Qatada, who fought a decade-long battle to avoid extradition from Britain to Jordan before being aquitted of terrorism charges in the country in 2014, claims that al-Qaeda's battle in Syria will presage the "freeing [of] the entire Ummah," while an Australian foreign fighter writes of the group's goal of establishing a caliphate. Qatada has since denied that he wrote the article for the magazine, although acknowledged to Al Jazeera "it is possible that some people collected some old materials I said or published."
Using ISIS' actions and a range of religious arguments, Jabhat al-Nusra tries to dismantle ISIS' claim to legitimacy, while presenting itself as the rightful leader of global jihad. It claims ISIS is a "blessing in disguise" for al-Qaeda because of its extreme brutality. Al-Risalah, which means 'the letter' in Arabic, claims that "unlike the extremists... we take the middle path." This fits with extensive research indicating a recent al-Qaeda emphasis on moderation and even mercy, despite their shared ideological outlook with ISIS.
Jabhat al-Nusra tries to dismantle ISIS' claim to legitimacy.”
Titled 'Victory Loves Preparation,' the publication is presented as a guide to "preparing [jihadis] physically, mentally and spiritually" to "attain victory over [their] enemies and to be taken as martyrs on the battlefield." The opening contains a reflection on the power of propaganda itself – depicting a camera and tripod arranged into the form of an assault rifle, with the caption "a gun can stop a heartbeat but a camera can give life to a thousand hearts."
Despite contrasting itself tactically from ISIS, the magazine appears inspired by many of the tropes and features of the group's regular Dabiq publication. This includes the trailing of propaganda videos, providing qualitative accounts of individual fighters (using the same Quranic verse frequently cited by ISIS: "among the believers are men" [33:23]) and the use of heavily stylised images of enemies such as Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.
The magazine features a prominent interview with an Australian jihadi, Usama Hamza Australi, who claims to have been seconded to Jabhat al-Nusra by al-Qaeda Central. The organisation he describes, 'Jaish Nusra,' resembles the so-called Khorasan group of al-Qaeda veterans, which the United States claims to be targeting in airstrikes alongside ISIS. Australi says "it's obligatory upon us to fight jihad and to establish an Islamic caliphate, this being our ultimate goal." Al-Risalah condemns ISIS as "extremists," whilst claiming that Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting to establish the true caliphate.
The magazine accuses ISIS of "embarking on the path [of jihad] without preparation," and shows Jabhat al-Nusra is keen to portray itself as the true representative of the global Muslim community, regarding ISIS' 'caliphate' as illegitimate.
An article is featured by the Salafi-jihadi idealogue Abu Qatada, in which he lends his support to the al-Qaeda cause. Qatada says al-Qaeda's mission is necessary to counter the influence of the Shia in Syria who "deceive the people." Qatada goes on to say that victory for the group will cause in the "collapse" of the "state of the Jews," and laying the foundations for "the freeing of the entire Ummah." Abu Qatada was released from prison in September 2014 after being cleared of terror charges by a Jordanian court. His influence within Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly grew throughout 2015.
The magazine also includes an interview with 23-year-old Abu Usama Britani, reportedly a former Christian from London, who joined Jabhat al-Nusra about two years ago. Britani refers to ISIS' "slick media productions" as central to the group's appeal and its perceived reputation of being synonymous with jihad. Furthermore, he attributes ISIS' global status to "non-believers," presumably referring to the group's extensive media coverage.
"A gun can stop a heartbeat but a camera can give life to a thousand hearts."
While admitting he initially admired ISIS, Britani argues that the group's jihad is false and it is more preoccupied with harassing Muslims and attacking other groups fighting against the Assad regime. Asked why he fights against ISIS, Britani cites a defensive jihad to protect "Muslim blood" from the group, which he refers to as an "entity of aggression against the Ummah."
An extensive article titled 'The Mountains of Turkestan' discusses at length the perceived historic persecution of the ethnic Turkic Uighur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province. The article accuses the international community of adopting double standards by remaining silent on the plight of China's Muslims, despite voicing concern over China's actions toward Buddhists in Tibet.
Citing the experiences of jihadis that have joined Jabhat al Nusra from the Xinjiang region, the magazine lauds their bravery and courage as an example for others, including those in Europe. Jabhat al-Nusra urges European Muslims to be inspired by the "Turkestani Mujahideen" and take the "small steps" to come and join the group in Syria.
Fearing that ISIS may be gaining the upper hand, Jabhat al-Nusra uses this issue of Al-Risalah to try and advance its own cause. Going to great lengths to discredit ISIS' claim to legitimacy, the group simultaneously stakes its rival claim to represent the true jihadi movement. Emphasising its ties to al-Qaeda, with support from prominent Salafi-jihadi icons, Jabhat al-Nusra is seeking to show that it is not just another rebel group in the Syrian civil war, but is itself a vanguard of the caliphate.