Al Jazeera English instructs staff not to call Syria’s Jabhat al Nusra “Al Qaeda”

Al Jazeera English has instructed all of its news and website staff not to refer to the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – Jabhat al Nusra – as “al Qaeda affiliated,” writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.

The edict was sent in a recent email by Kelly Jarrett, the Executive Producer of News, which 5Pillars has seen. It reflects Al Jazeera’s support for the Syrian rebels in their attempt to overthrow Bashar al Assad, but also poses questions about the Qatari channel’s relationship with the terrorist group.

The e-mail also seems to reflect Al Jazeera’s attempts to present Jabhat al Nusra as the “more moderate” alternative in Syria to ISIS, something that seems to be in line with influential commentators close to the US administration who see Al Nusra as useful in the fight against Assad and ISIS.

The internal memo from Jarrett reads: “Please don’t introduce al Nusra Front as ‘al Qaeda affiliated’. Syria’s war is complex and the battlefield is crowded with competing ideologies and aims. We have a hard enough time trying to explain the state of play without including labels that mislead.

“The reality is that al Qaeda isn’t the organization it used to be and it’s irrelevant in this context. Al Nusra Front is part of Syria’s rebel coalition which is made up of multiple armed rebel groups including many based on religious ideology with various funding streams, our viewers need to understand that these armed groups form the main opposition to the government led by President Assad. And these rebel groups are opposed to, and actively fighting ISIL.

“ISIL is opposed to, and actively fighting the government. The government is attacking civilians, while fighting the rebels and ISIL. By describing al Nusra Front as affiliated with al Qaeda we’re adding another layer which causes only confusion. This applies to many of the stories we cover regularly, from Yemen to Somalia to Nigeria, please consider the context before adding any labels.”

Syrian war

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Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict Al Jazeera has presented the war as a battle between the Syrian people and a tyrant (Bashar al Assad). Al Jazeera Arabic has led the way in championing this narrative but the English channel has followed a similar line, although in a less blatant manner.

This has reflected the dominant narrative across the Arab and Western world but has also alienated many who view the Syrian conflict as a war against the Iran-led Resistance Axis bloc, as well as those Syrians who support Assad or who are concerned about the prevalence of extremist groups among the rebels.

Al Jazeera has taken a clear anti Assad, anti Iran, anti Hezbollah stance over the Syrian conflict
Al Jazeera has taken a clear anti Assad, anti Iran, anti Hezbollah stance over the Syrian conflict

Over the last few decades Al Jazeera has become one the world’s most influential and watched broadcasters, especially in the Arab world and more recently in the non-Arab world.

It has been credited with revolutionising Arab media, making it more professional and opening up the space to a diversity of views. However, its alignment with Qatari foreign policy and its own relationship with Al Qaeda have been the subject of much speculation over the years.

The station first gained widespread attention in the West when it broadcast Osama bin Laden videos after the 9/11 attacks. This led to accusations by the United States that Al Jazeera was engaging in propaganda on behalf of terrorists. The station countered that it was merely making information available without comment.

And in 2005 reporter Taysir Allouni was sentenced to seven years in prison in Spain for being a financial courier for al Qaeda, although human rights and media organizations condemned the arrest and said he was just doing his job as a reporter.

Jabhat al Nusra

Jabhat al Nusra is an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq which announced its presence in Syria at the start of 2012 and took responsibility for a succession of suicide bombings. Its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri who recently called for “lone wolf” attacks on the West.

Jabhat al Nusra is one of Assad's most effective adversaries
Jabhat al Nusra is one of Assad’s most effective adversaries

Al Nusra aims to overthrow Bashar al Assad and set up an Islamic state in Syria as a prelude to establishing an Islamic state elsewhere. It views the current violence in Syria as an Iranian plot to recreate the Persian empire and often uses harsh rhetoric towards Shias, Alawites and other minorities.

According to Human Rights Watch Jabhat al Nusra has been “responsible for systematic and widespread violations including targeting civilians, kidnappings, and executions” and has “imposed strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls.”

Al Jazeera Arabic has interviewed the Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani twice. In the most recent interview Golani pledged not to carry out attacks against the West and dismissed  the ISIS caliphate as “illegitimate.”

Western journalists

Al Jazeera English employs many prominent British and American journalists such as Mehdi Hasan, Shuilie Ghosh, Felicity Barr and Richard Gizbert. It remains to be seen how they will react to the seeming “mainstreaming” of an organization that has bombed their home countries.

However, Al Jazeera insiders told me that there has been no staff revolt over the e-mail because “anybody who cares about the channel’s editorial line has long since left the station.” Moreover, the channel is also enacting budget cuts of up to 30 per cent or more so staff “are too busy fearing for their jobs.”

Meanwhile, Middle East commentator Sami Ramadani said the Al Jazeera e-mail reflects the continuing role of the station in backing terrorist groups.

“Al Jazeera is becoming really open about their support for al Nusra and they don’t care who knows. But they realise that it would be awkward to admit that they’re effectively supporting al Qaeda so they’re trying to finesse the issue somewhat. They are putting forward the narrative that Al Nusra is fighting ISIS in order to give them respectability.”

He added: “Al Jazeera can certainly no longer claim to be an impartial media organization that is independent and unbiased. They are owned by a Qatari prince and are pro-regime in every way – they never criticize Qatar.

“They are also currently backing a Saudi war against Yemen in which Qatar is one of the coalition partners. Their true colours have come out in recent years also – they are backing US and Nato plans in the region which becomes clear when you look at their editorial line on the Libya war and now Syria.”


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