The Syrian revolution took a new turn with the emergence of fundamentalist Jihadist movements, particularly Al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda) and Islamic State. Since the latter’s domination over Al-Mosul city in June 2014 and following the declaration of the “Islamic Caliphate”, hundreds of books and research papers have been published discussing this obscure entity and Al-Nusra Front to a less extent.

Throughout this paper, we attempt to examine the media coverage of the rise of Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front as well as the relationship between the two organizations in some alternative media newspapers. This paper consists of two parts: the first is an introduction that looks into the beginnings of Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front as well as their ideological and intellectual roots. The second part is a review of alternative media newspapers’ coverage of the development of these two organizations across Syrian territories, and it concludes with an abstract.

It is worth mentioning that in order to produce this paper we relied on various references and studies the most significant of which are the following: “The Organization of the Islamic State: Sunni Crisis and Conflict on the Global Jihadist” by Hassan Abu Haniya and Muhammed Abo Rumman, “Management of Savagery” by Abu Bakr Naji – a major reference on fundamental Jihadist, “Clothes of Caliph” by the Palestinian Abu Qatada, and “The Organization of the “Islamic State”: Growing, influence, future”- a paper published by Aljazeera Center for Studies and co-authored by a number of researchers. We also made use of research materials provided by alternative media newspapers.

The emergence of the “State” and “Al-Nusra” and their intellectual and dogmatic authorities

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from recklessness to Iraq passing through Herat

Ahmad Fadeel al-Khalayleh, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is definitely the godfather of Islamic State organization. He is the anchor of Islamic State’s intellectual reference and solid organizational structure. Al-Khalayleh was born on the 20th of October 1966. He dropped out of high school and completed the compulsory military service in the Jordanian army in 1984. During his service at the army, he went through phases of recklessness and imbalance. Following that, he travelled to Afghanistan in the late 80s; however, he did not participate in Jihad against the soviets who left before he arrived in Afghanistan. There he was introduced to Abi Muhammed al-Maqdesi.

Following his time in Afghanistan, he returned to Jordan and was arrested along with Maqdesi in the case known as “Bayat al-imam”, an oath of allegiance to the leader of Islam. He was sentenced to 15 years of jail. He spent 6 of them as an emir to a Salafi group inside the prison. After his time in prison, he went again to Herat, a province in the south-west region of Afghanistan where he founded a training camp.

Following the September 11th attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, he moved between Iraq, Syria, and Iran. He founded his own jihadist group where he supervised an assassination operation that targeted an American diplomat in Amman. He later settled in Iraq after the invasion in 2003.

The chaos of the American invasion of Iraq: from Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad to Islamic State of Iraq.

While the American administration was celebrating the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, defeating his army and the end of military operations in April 2003, Abu Musab was preoccupied with the arrangement of his small group to start a new stage of resistance to the American occupation. Abu Musab was surrounded by his fiercest loyalists. “Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad” movement (‘Organization of Monotheism and Jihad’) stood out as one of the most prominent anti-American presence movements. As a result of the movement, he was able to win a strong sympathy in the Iraqi Sunni community.

During the aforementioned period, there were talks of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad joining the central Qaeda leadership. However there were disputes, the major dispute was over the strategic priorities of the Salafist jihadis like blaspheming the majority of Shiite, warfare jurisprudence and other issues. In the end, al-Zarqawi forced al-Qaeda to accept his terms especially at a time when al-Qaeda was not at its best after the Afghan war and it had failed to found and maintain a branch of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As a consequence of this failure, many al-Qaeda members joined al-Zarqawi in Saudia Arabia.

Al-Zarqawi thought of establishing a Sunni imaret in Iraq as al-Qaeda’s organization in Iraq had witnessed a growth in its capacities. Therefore, he formed the Mujahideen Shura Council in 2005 where he abandoned the leadership formally for Abdullah al-Zarqawi. At this stage, he depended more on Iraqis inside the organization. Later on, he appeared in a rare speech which included a debate on the possibility of announcing an Islamic imaret in three months’ time. He, however, was killed two months after making the speech in 7th of June 2006. His death prevented the establishment of the imaret. Nonetheless, his successors held onto the idea of the imaret and hence directly announced the establishment of Islamic Iraq state.

Islamic State of Iraq: another dispute between the central organization and the Iraqi branch

Al-Zarqawi left his followers a solid organization and they were to follow what he had wanted to do. Hence, they announced on the 12th of October 2006 the formation of “Hilf al-Tayyibin” (‘the good ones coalition’). The latter is a coalition which includes the different divisions rallying under the umberalla of the Mujahideen Shura Council and some Iraqi Sunni clan leaders. A few days after this, they announced the establishment of the “Islamic State of Iraq”. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Hamid Dawud al-Zawi) was announced as the Islamic State of Iraq’s emir and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir as the minister of war.

The state’s announcement became another source dispute to add to the already existent one between the central organization and the al-Qaeda branch. On the 12th of February 2007, the new organization issued a statement in response to those who held onto al-Qaeda stating that “the brothers in al-Qaeda organization in Iraq are part and a component in the state’s army.” The statement signifies the undeclared disagreement between al-Zarqawi’s pledge of allegiance to Bin Laden and this new form. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi confirmed this in another audio recording, where he said: “al-Qaeda is one group of the groups of Islam.” In another recording called “fe amma al-zabad fe-yazhebu ceffaan,” Abu Omar al-Baghdadi announced that al-Qaeda’s Emir Abu Hamza al-Muhajir publicly declared his pledge of allegiance to the poor slave and that the organization is officially dissolved to the advantage of the Islamic State of Iraq.

The declaration of the state led to the organization’s attempt to impose its domination over the Sunni regions in Iraq. This in turn served the American general Peter Ayos’s Sahawat (awakening of Arab tribes against al-Qaeda) strategy. The Sahawat numbers were largely increased to reach 100 thousand fighters and the organization underwent major defeats which isolated the organization in Anbar’s desert. Consequently, the organization changed its priorities and stopped following its dream of extending and spreading its domination temporarily. The organization focused more on executing security operations and fighting the leaders of the Sahawat. The latter signifies the organization’s return to al-Zarqawi’s strategy. The organization slowly recovered from its defeats. On the 19th of April 2010, it announced the killing of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir by an American airstrike. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of the organization.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the greatest Caliph

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made significant changes to the state’s structure where he depended more on the Iraqi component and on a number of former Iraqi army officials who were known to be both observant and strict.

The US-Iraq statues of forces agreement had come to an end and the American troops’ completed their withdrawal on the 31th of January 2011. Iraq, during this stage, was under the control of the Iranians and the hegemony of the Shiite component. Authoritarianism was on the rise along with sectarianism, corruption and the exclusion of Sunnis. The American troops’ withdrawal concurred with two important events: first was Arab Spring which extended to Syria in 2011, and second was the killing of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011. During this stage, the state’s organization used al-Malki’s government’s mistakes and the sectarian spillovers of the events in Syria. Events in Syria fueled the ideology of the new state.

In July 2012, (the fences). This operation was to regain influence and geographical control. A year after, the organization conducted a double attack called “Kahr al-Tawagheet” (conquering the tyrants) on Abu Ghraib and al-Taji prisons resulting in the escape of approximately 600 prisoners amongst them a number of senior leaders within the organization.

On the 10th of June 2014, the organization surprisingly gained power quickly over the city of Al-Mosul and extensive areas of Iraq. On the 29th of June 2014, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the spokesperson of the organization declared the Islamic caliphate, and the inauguration of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (Ibrahim Awad al-Badri) as the Muslims’ Caliph after the “pledge of allegiance by Ahl al-hal wal ‘aqd (which signifies the people of authority and influence)”.

Al-Nusra Front

In Syria prior to the revolution, there was no actual presence for al-Qaeda. However the Combatant Vanguard organization fighters (the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) contributed in the 70s and 80s of the last century many jihadi Salafi theorists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Baseer al-Tartusi.

With the start of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda sought to change its strategies. The new approach relied on the concept of “al-Ansar” (the supporters) i.e. attracting local population to the al-Qaeda ideology through transforming Sharia rule from an elitist to a populist action. The approach combines the military and civil and merges the local with the global.

Al-Qaeda worked to invest in the Syrian case as the revolution became militarized. Jihadist started coming to Syria in coordination with the al-Qaeda central organization and under the direct supervision from the Iraqi branch without pointing out the relationship of the latter with the center of al-Qaeda.

Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahli ash-Sham, “The Support Front for the People of Al-Sham” was officially declared on the 24th of January 2012, although the organization had been in Syria since 2012 through the action of some individuals. Al-Gholani, who was a member of the Iraqi branch and had found in their battles, offered a project to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to start jihad in al-Sham. Therefore, the front shura council was formed and included in its membership both al-Gholani and al-Baghdadi. Al-Nusra Front has suffered from an identity confusion since its formation. On the one hand, this identity confusion resulted as the Iraqi branch was not interested in the new approach of al-Qaeda and the old Iraqi branch and al-Qaeda dispute remained. On the other hand, the evolvement of the Syrian jihad scene was coming close to the new approach of al-Qaeda.

In a short time, the Front gained an extensive reputation for the best jihadi theorists in the world. The advocates of the Front around the world called for the funding of the Jammat or joining it. Al-Nusra front’s attempt at ambiguity were of no use . On the 11th of December 2012, the United States did not wait for long before it declared the front a terrorist organization. Syrian opposition, activists and Syrian media outlets received this news with great discontent. Nonetheless, the disputes between the organization in Iraq and the front grew bigger. These disputes were due to the difference between them in approach and religious reference authority The attempts at solving the dispute were unsuccessful.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proceeded to declare joining al-Nusra front to his state to become ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fī ‘l-‘Irāq wa-sh-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Al-Gholani rejected this announcement the next day declaring his pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda and requesting al-Zawahiri’s judgment in the case.

Two months later, al-Zawahiri decided to separate the Front from the state and to keep each in its geographical domain. A week later, al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri’s judgement. This resulted in clashes between the revolution’s factions and the Islamic State. When the Islamic State killed Abu Rayan, one of the leaders of Ahrar ash-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), the clashes continued and ended with the withdrawal of the Islamic State from Idlib (a city in northwestern Syria), the Islamic State’s almost full control over al-Raqqah (s a city in Syria located on the north bank of the Euphrates River), and Deir ez-Zor (the seventh largest city in Syria and the largest in the eastern part of Syria).

The Islamic State and al-Nusra Front: a dispute of religious reference

Al-Zarqawi relied on the religious reference of his sheikh Abi Abdullah al-Muhajir who had directly influence on building al-Zarqawi’s combat doctrine and jurisprudential approach. Particularly, in the issue of prioritizing fighting “the near enemy” manifested in apostates of the governors of the Arab/Islamic regimes, and the issue of the general takfir of the Shiite (declaration of individual or group of previously considered Muslim as kaffir). Al-Zarqawis’ strictest jurisprudential choices relating to suicide bombing, armor, kidnapping, assassination, beheading, horror and violence techniques are influenced by Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir’s book, “fikh al-dima” (Blood Jurisprudence). This book is considered one of the theoretical foundations of the Islamic State. In practical terms, there is also Abu Bakr Naji’s book, “Idaret al-Tawahush” (Management of Savagery) in which he justifies horror techniques, spitting the enemy and the centrality of the state organization. On the other side, al-Nusra Front was theoretically and practically influence by Abu Musab al-Suri and Atiyah Allah al-libi (senior Qaeda member)’s propositions. Al-Zarqawi adopted the concept of the “decentralization the state” in his huge book, “Calling for Islamic Resisting” where he establishes the forming of the “Islamic resistance brigades,” the concept of individual jihadists as “individual wolves,” and transforming Jihad into an Ummah project. These brigades are expected to be flexible and would cooperate with others without pledging allegiance or loyalty. These brigades would attract local actors and their objective is to “[push the attacker” through military resistance mechanics without aiming to establish an Islamic State or Islamic caliphate.

How did alternative media newspapers addressed the jihadi organizations’ course inside of Syria

We attempt in this section to review how alternative media sources covered the appearance of the Islamic state and Al-Nusra Front in Syria. In order to do this, we relied on the sequential course of events starting with al-Zawahiri’s speech on Syria in June 2011 up until the liberation of Idlib city in March 2015. In forming this timeline we benefited from two materials Abdullah Seif presented to Al-Jumhuriye (Democratic Studies Center) website titled, “al-Qaeda in Syria: from the State to the Caliphate” and “between the Islamic State al-Nusra Front: the Complete Story.” We also benefited from another important material published by Khalf Ali al-Khalf to Al-Jumhuriye entitled, “The Missed Opportunity for the power of the Syrian Opposition: from Assad’s Gown to the Sword of Islamic State.” In addition to other significant materials presented by alternative media as mentioned above and a personal tracking of the course of the events.

Souritna (a weekly newspaper)

The first issue of Souritna was on 26th of September 2011. Hence, the newspaper is the oldest ongoing alternative media newspaper until now. It focuses particularly on human rights issues in Syria with an extensive coverage on issues concerning the internally displaced Syrians and Syrian refuges in neighboring countries. Therefore, we can say that Souritna’s coverage of the rise of the jihadi movements was weak and shy.

Souritna considered that the first Midan (famous neighborhood in Damascus) explosion on the 6th of January 2012 was conducted by the regime as the article published under the title, “Why? About Midan explosions” indicates. After the second Al-Zawahiri speech on Syria in February 2012, the 22nd issue of Souritna published an article titled, “Syria and the lie of al-Qaeda’s organization.” In the article, it considered the focus on al-Qaeda as a way of diverting the world from the crimes of Bashar al-Assad. Likewise, Souritna did not cover the liberation of Raqqah in which Al-Nusra participated in March 2013. However, the newspaper published a long letter in its 77th issue by a psychiatrist residing in Germany challenging the pretexts of Al-Nusra Front and criticizing Al-Nusra’s pledge of allegiance to the Al-Qaeda command.

Souritna did not cover important events on Jihadi movements in Syria. The newspaper did not comment on al-Baghdadi’s decision to join the Front to the state nor on Al-Nusra’s rejection of the decision and its pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda. Also, it did not mention al-Zawahiri’s decision to separate the two organization and al-Baghdadi’s later rejection of the separation. The newspaper satisfied in publishing an article entitled, “The Revolution between al-Qaeda and height” in its 82nd issue. The article was strongly positioned against Al-Nusra and the shortcomings of the opposition. It also compared Al-Nusra to the Assad regime.

The opposing articles to the course taken by Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State in Syria increased. We find two articles for the writer Ilyas S Ilyas in the 95th and 96th issues of the newspaper. In those two articles, Ilyas criticizes the rise of Islamism and the hegemony of the Islamic State on oil. Another article is for Yamen al-Mughrabi in the 97th issue titled, “From the Nails of the Children of Deraa to Al-Nusra its Sisters.” He mourns what has become of the revolution. In the 98th issue, just after the kidnapping of the Father Paolo in Raqqah, we find a poem. In the 99th issue, we find a long investigation, which we mentioned above, concerning the events of Raqqah and the clashes between the Islamic factions. Subsequently, we come across reports discussing the violations committed by Islamic State and other factions. In the 146th issue, a report was published titled “Extremist Groups in Syria are using Children in Fighting Battles and are Recruiting Them through Educational Campaigns.” The portfolio of the same issue carried the name, “Now and Here, Stories from the Caliphate Times.” In the 147th issue, we find a coverage of Syrian tribes pledging their allegiance to Daesh, in an article titled, “Pledges of Allegiance in the Time of Freedom.” The newspaper did not comment on the clashes between Al-Nusra Front and Syria Revolutionaries’ Front. It only indicated a small Facebook campaign released by some activists called “Now is not the Time.” The campaign’s objective was to direct attention to the war against the Al-Assad regime only. The newspaper only covered the clashes between Al-Nusra and Hazzm movement in the 180th issue.

Jawad Abu al-Muna, editor in chief of Souritna, thinks that, “There is an obvious bias between Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State. Al-Nusra Front started as a faction fighting against the regime just like any other faction although we realize it belongs to the jihadi Salafi movement. However, its achievements against the Al-Assad regime are not to be denied. Al-Nusra Front has a major Syrian component. The organization executed an operation called “Hadim al-Aswar” (destroying the fences) and this enhanced the idea of the Front belonging to the armed oppositions without ambitions to establish an Islamic State. At the end of 2013, and with the increase of the foreign component fighting with Al-Nusra, the issue got more complicated for us. This has led us to stay away from any evaluation or uncertain coverage. In general terms, we did not address Al-Nusra directly in opinion materials. We have documented explicit and obvious violations committed by Al-Nusra in Northern Syria and south of Damascus. The newspaper issues were printed and distributed and Al-Nusra did not oppose that. This I see as something positive. However, the whole issue is very complicated which made us stay away from getting into the details of this issue. ” He added, “There is no editorial policy coordination between alternative media newspapers about this subject.”

Ayn al-Medina (the Eye of the City) a monthly newspaper

Ayn al-Medina is considered one of the most prominent newspapers issued in the city of Deir ez-zor. Currently, it is the only functioning newspaper. Other newspaper started and stopped. The first issue of this newspaper was published on the 14th of March 2013. The date on which the Islamic State took control of the governorate of Deir ez-zor. The newspaper did not mention anything positive or negative about the Islamic State or Al-Nusra Front. However, there is one material in the 28th issue of the newspaper published in May 2014. The material addressed the clashes between Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State and the effect of the clashes on the civilians. Nonetheless, there was neither a mention of the causes of these clashes nor its details.

The newspaper stopped publishing since the middle of June 2014 until August 2014. The same period in which the Islamic State took control of the city as we have indicated out. Following this, the newspaper started addressing the Islamic State issue in more depth considering the Islamic State an enemy and a threat to the Syrian revolution. In the 31st issue of the newspaper published on 1st of August 2014 . The opening of the published material considered that the revolution is going through a tough time because of the regime advancement, the dispersal of the forces of the revolution and Islamic State control over Raqqah and Deir ez-zor. The newspaper covered Islamic State violations in a series of articles in the 32nd, 33rd, and 34th issues. Islamic State committed violations in Aleppian countryside. There was a special material in the 39th issue about Islamic State songs and its audience written by Ali al-Khatab. The material addressed the newly spread songs of the organization in Deir ez-zor. Moreover, the newspaper started producing more detailed and more knowledgeable reports about the Islamic State. In the 38th issue, it mentions the Gas partnership between the Al-Assad regime and the Islamic State. In the 46th issue, it reports, “The Civil Structure of Daesh and its Qualifications”.
There are other comprehensive reports in the 48th and 49th issues about the military structure of Islamic State in al-Khair vilayet (the name Daesh conferred on Deir ez-zor governorate). The same issues addressed the reality of the media situation under the rule of Islamic State.

Tarek Ahmad, the editor in chief of Ayn al-Medina considered the newspaper’s mission is to shed light on the Syrian society activism before Islamic State took over Deir ez-Zor. He said, “Therefore, we particularly focused on the local councils, civil services, and Free Army’s activities because we considered the Free Syrian Army the representative of the revolution and criticizing it comes in the interest of the Syrian revolution.”

According to Ahmad, Al-Nusra Front was not present in Deir ez-Zor as it was present in the rest of Syria, “Al-Nusra intervened in people’s lives in a harsh way and that distinguished the people of Shahil city (the stronghold of al-Nusra) from others. The collective memory of the people of Deir ez-zor when it comes to Al-Nusra is bad. That’s why we refrain of addressing it for security fears related to reporters and distributers of the newspaper beside the fact that our issue is the Free Army as I said before.”

According to Ahmed, the paper changed its policies radically after Islamic State took control and he said, “Our editorial policies are established today on presenting knowledge about this detestable organization. Most importantly, showing its weakness and confusion even if the special propaganda of the organization tries to depict it as something else. We addressed this in many reports. Now, we are not interested in criticizing Al-Nusra Front especially because it is no longer present in Deir ez-zor.”

The newspaper does not coordinate with other papers especially when it comes to this subject. The editor in chief considered that coordination between Ayn al-Medina and al-Harmel newspaper may be the best since al-Harmel is an expression of al-Raqqah city.

Tli’na al-huriyye (we protested for freedom) half monthly newspaper

The first issue of the newspaper was published on 26th of February 2012. At the beginning, the newspaper was not interested in news coverage. It was more interested on focusing on the revolution’s principles and concepts of transitional justice and citizenship. In particular, it focuses on the Kurdish cause in Syria. Also, the case of Razan Zeitouneh and the tension with Jeysh al-Islam took wide coverage. Hence, we can say that the newspaper’s coverage of Islamic State and al-Nusra Front is weak.

The newspaper commented on al-Qazaz bombings which took place on the 22nd of May 2012. It published a lengthy analytical article for Shebab Hanano movement through which it concluded that the regime carried out the bombing. In the 20th issue, Nazeer Salih wrote an article attempting to understand the caliphate in modern terms. He considered reaching an understanding is a gradual process. In the 21st issue, the newspaper published a special report entitled, “in the Reception of al-Nusra Front” and it was an interview with Abi al-Hareth , one of the fighters in al-Nusra in the countryside of Hama. In the 27th issue and after a speech of al-Zawahiri made on 4th of August 2014, the newspaper published a statement of condemnation of al-Zawahiri intervening in internal matters. In the same issue, we find an article for Abi al-Qasem al-Suri entitled “al-Nusra Front’s Pledge of Allegiance was inevitable.” Abi al-Qasem considered that democratic and civil discourse’s recession, Free Syrian Army groups involvement in corruption and the lagging of the International Community are causes for al-Nusra’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda and its spreading in Syria. We also find an article in the 40th issue following al-Baghdadi’s declaration of caliphate. The article is entitled “al-Baghdadi’s campaign and al-Assad’s elections.” It considers “Baghdadi’s state a fake emulation of al-Assad State.” Furthermore, there are different articles about terrorism and extremism in the following issues of the newspaper.

Sada al-Sham (Damascus Echo) a weekly newspaper

Sada al-Sham is an independent weekly newspaper. The first issue was released on 29th of July 2013. Since the newspaper was released, it held a strong stance against al-Nusra Front as Ammar al-Ahmad’s opinion article points out. The article is entitled “al-Nusra Front and Destroying the Revolution.” Ammar wrote that the regime allowed al-Nusra Front to exist in order to destroy the revolution. In the same issue we find a coverage of kidnapping operations in Raqqah city which is “drowning in chaos.” In the 4th issue, we find a news coverage of the Islamic State’s kidnapping of Father Paolo in Raqqah. It was mentioned at the end of the coverage that “Islamic State is considered one of the most prominent forces fighting Syrian authorities beside al-Nusra Front.”

In the 9th issue, we find extensive coverage of Daesh’s attack on opposition camps. Also, we find an article for Ammar Ahmad warning of Daesh and al-Nusra Front danger on the Syrian Revolution.

Following al-Gholani’s interview on al-Jazeera, the newspaper published an article in the 20th issue criticizing the interview and considering the interview an attempt of al-Jazeera to improve the image of al-Qaeda in Syria. In the same issue, the newspaper conveys Syrian Sharia authorities’ condemnations of Islamic State describing it as evil.

Sada al-Sham extensively covered the news of clashes between opposition factions and Islamic State at the beginning of 2014. In the 23rd issue, we find a useful article about dividing spheres of influence inside opposition areas. The coverage of this continued in the 24th issue. In general, there are articles condemning Islamic State as it is considered an enemy of the revolution and the revolutionary brigades. In the same way, there is an article published following the clashes between al-Nusra Front and Syria Revolutionaries’ Front entitled “al-Nusra becoming another Daesh” and many other similar articles.

Sada al-Sham’s editor in chief, Absi Simesim considers,“al-Nusra Front and Islamic State are the Ummah (Islamic nation) projects threatening the Syrian Revolution. They are both similar in ideological authoritarian exclusion and in their taken approach. However, we consider Islamic State is an intelligence organization more than it being a Jihadi Salafi organization.” Regarding media coverage, Absi Simesim, adds, “we are trying to involve al-Nusra Front along with Syrian opposition factions. We also distribute the newspaper in its sphere of influence. Therefore, we try to communicate the ideas between the lines and with the least amount of provocation for fear of al-Nusra banning the newspaper.”

Kuluna Suruyon (We are all Syrians) Half monthly newspaper

The first issue of the newspaper was released on 15th of February 2014. It is a half monthly cultural and political newspaper. Because of its nature, it generally does not offer any detailed news coverage. It presents more analytical and elitist articles observing in particular the Islamic State phenomena. In the 10th issue, it comments following the declaration of caliphate by Islamic State in a piece entitled, “When You are Forced to Pledge Allegiance.” In the same issue, Assad Shlash wrote an analytical article about the emergence of Islamic State entitled, “the State of Caliphate, from Truth to Illusion .” Fadel al-Fadel wrote another article in the 11th issue entitled, “Daesh between Prose and Dysfunction.” Also, in the 13th issue, the newspaper covered extensively the executions of Islamic State of al-Shiitat Tribe and a series of lengthy analytical articles about the “Roots of Violence in Arab Islamic Thought.”

Enab Baladi (Grapes of Home) weekly newspaper

Enab Baladi released its first issue on the 29th of January 2012. Although it is released from the city of Daraya and does news coverage, it paid special attention to the course of al-Nusra and Islamic State in Syria. Nonetheless, it did not produce research materials like Ayn al-Madina.

For instance, in the 2nd issue, there is a commentary on Aleppo bombings. It accused the regime of fabricating the bombings like it did in al-Midan bombings. In the 43rd issue, there is a commentary in the opening regarding the United States listing of al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization. The commentary says, “the Syrian Population is the one who can make classifications to who is the terrorist and who has committed crimes in relation to Syrians.”

The opening of the 60 issue entitled, “is the Revolution being Stolen?” a commentary following al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the merge between al-Nusra and Islamic State, and later on the Islamic State’s rejection of the merge responding with pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Also, the newspaper covered the kidnapping of Father Paolo in the 76th issue. In the 98, 100, 101, 102  issues, it gave a lot of attention to the big campaign launched by opposition factions on Islamic State in the beginning of 2014. In the 101 issue, there is a special report entitled, “Islamic State Jihadis: were They Misled?”

In the 103 issue, the newspaper covered the clashes between al-Nusra and Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor along with another report about kidnapping Free Army leaders.

Moreover, there are articles by Ahmad al-Shami attacking al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Syria and warning from them. The newspaper considers the military achievements attained by Islamic State are just a transformation from “an occupation to another occupation.” In the commentary, the newspaper also reports the Islamic State taking control over the 17th military squad. However, the newspaper considers the achievements attained by al-Nusra Front a liberation and adds that there is a renewal movement within al-Nusra in its commentary on the interview of Gholani on the 19th of December 2013 in the 96th issue.

The newspaper generally covers al-Nusra Front and Syrian revolution forces in its news coverage for instance its coverage of the liberation of the city of Idlib in the 162 issue. Furthermore, in many opinion articles, it criticized the focus of the International Community of saving Kobani without giving attention to the rest of Syria which is going through tougher conditions although Enab Baladi covered extensively the battles in Kobani n the 137th issue.

Ammar Ziyade, the editorial manager of Enab Baladi commented on the editorial policy of the newspaper saying, “al-Nusra has always been connected to al-Qaeda. It has never been a constituent of the revolution. It believes in Imaret and custody of the people and it does not consider itself part of the population.” Adding that, “the difference in our coverage between Islamic State and al-Nusra is that Islamic State is a direct enemy to the revolution and opens fighting fronts all the time against revolution’s fighters. Islamic State’s fighters are foreigners and do not have any right to Syrian land. In contrast, al-Nusra and although is close in ideology to Islamic State, its fighters are mainly Syrians and there is a trend inside al-Nusra to come close to moderates and correct mistakes. This trend is slowly getting isolated and the ground is left inside al-Nusra to the more extremists .”

Ammar thinks that, “al-Nusra’s behavior in many places is similar to that of Daesh. It constricts the work of media personals and workers in civil society and previously it broke into some newspaper centers and broadcasts inside of Syria.”

Al-Ghurbal (a monthly newspaper)

Al-Ghurbal released its first issue on the 1st of January 2013 from the city of Kafranbel. At the beginning, it was half monthly and then it transformed to monthly because of the technical improvements and the increase of its pages. The newspaper was stopped three times because some Islamic State agents stormed the newspaper’s office because of an article by Dalaa Mufti criticizing the donations made to religious pamphlets in Syria when Syrians are killed by cold and hunger. Muhammed Salum, the editor manager was kidnapped was released later by Free Syrian Army following liberation of governorate of Idlib from Islamic State.

The newspaper gave special attention to news coverage of Kafranbel and its field situations. It covers education, health, building violations and lack of security. Therefore, it did little coverage of Islamic State and rarely mentioned al-Nusra Front. One of the few materials dealing with this subject is an opinion article by Ahmad al-Yusuf in the 15th issue entitled, “a Social Contract or a Caliphate.” Also, another article by the same writer in the 18th issue entitled, “the Decadent Culture of Religious Glories.” In the 17th issue, there is report by Rami Suid entitled, “as If He killed all people (a verse from the Holy Quran meaning he who has killed one soul is as if he has killed all of the humanity ).” The article is about Islamic State’s breach of promise and attacking a Red Crescent convoy heading to Aleppo Central Prison. Another article by Rami Suid in the 29th issue discussed the situation of the city of Aleppo following expulsion of Islamic State.

Moreover, in the 22nd issue, Rami discusses in details the joining of the brigade of Dawud to Islamic State. In the 25th issue, there is a documentation of one of the survivors from Islamic State’s detention centers. Also, in the 29th issue which was released last month, there is an extensive investigation of the Islamic State buying weapons from the market of the city of Idlib.

Ramie Suid does not agree with what we have said earlier about the little coverage and thinks, “the issue of al-Nusra Front and Islamic State has always been present in the newspaper and almost in every issue.” Clarifying that, “al-Ghurbal is committed to the Syrian Revolution which aims to establish freedom and justice for every Syrian. The newspaper’s identity is obvious: it is a critical newspaper and this enables it to stand at an equal distance from all armed factions in Syria without favoring any and without any prejudice against any faction.” According to Suid, the newspaper is not and will not be marketing anyone. He said, “Ghurbal is a platform that is neither marketing anyone nor attacking anyone. We deal with all events with objectivity and without bias.”

Conclusion

The different course and different religious reference between Islamic State and al-Nusra Front have  affected the two organizations’ behavior inside Syria as we stated before. Also, this is what proved true in alternative media newspaper. Although all newspapers are not supportive either of Islamic State or al-Nusra, still the newspapers’ stand against Islamic State is more strict than that of al-Nusra’s. The less strict stand towards al-Nusra is because of its involvement and active coordination with Syrian opposition factions. Furthermore, although al-Nusra and other Salafi movements have firm grips on media, they allow the presence of media and this has lessened harsh criticism to it.

The aforementioned newspapers’ coverage of Islamic State and al-Nusra Front fell short of addressing and covering the big events surrounding these two organizations although these two have headed most of Arab and international newspapers. We also noticed the absence of coordination between the newspapers in relation to this complicated subject.

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