American officials accuse him of being part of the “inner leadership circle” of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, most widely known as the Nusra Front, and of raising as much as $5 million for the terrorist group while signing up thousands of fighters, American officials say.
But Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini insists that he could not be more surprised to learn that the United States Treasury Department had designated him as a terrorist and ordered his funds frozen.
“Today, Syrians are shocked to find that the United States has put on the terror list a person whom they consider to be a national symbol,” Mr. Muhaysini said in a Skype interview with The New York Times last week. “It’s a very bizarre thing,”
“Abdallah al-Muhaysini is an independent figure,” he added. “How can the American State Department describe Abdallah al-Muhaysini as belonging to Fath al-Sham?” he said, using a version of the Nusra Front’s new name.
Until now, Mr. Muhaysini, a 31-year-old Saudi-born cleric who said he was calling from Aleppo, Syria, had not been the type to contact Western publications.
That he is doing so is most likely a reflection of how the Nusra Front is trying to buy itself some flexibility by publicly rebranding — even if no one in counterterrorism circles believes it is truly changing. In the contest within the jihadist world for recruits and resources, and to try to evade military reprisals from foreign powers, public relations efforts have become paramount.
In what analysts say is a calculated move to hide its ties to Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front recently rebranded itself as a local insurgency against the government of Bashar al-Assad, declaring that it no longer intended to target the West and changing its name — to Jabhat Fath al-Sham, or the Levant Conquest Front.
But experts and intelligence officials say the group is still an essential part of Al Qaeda, committed as ever to competing with the Islamic State for territory and support and leaving the fight against pro-Assad forces a lower priority.
Colin P. Clarke, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, argues that the Nusra Front is actually the biggest of Al Qaeda’s branches, with approximately 10,000 fighters. And he characterized the group’s public split from Al Qaeda as “simply a feint,” a way for the group to hunker down and rebuild as the Islamic State gets pounded by airstrikes.
“It has been used to give themselves a little bit of breathing room,” Mr. Clarke said.
Just as officials and analysts were not buying the Nusra Front’s attempt to rebrand, they will not be trusting Mr. Muhaysini’s protests that he is merely a religious scholar with no stake in the jihadist competition in Syria.
Experts on the Nusra Front agree with American and European officials in considering Mr. Muhaysini to be a senior leader in the group, with deep ties to Al Qaeda’s international network. And in his public communications up to now, Mr. Muhaysini himself has left little room between his positions and Al Qaeda’s, appearing in social media posts eulogizing dead Qaeda leaders and encouraging suicide bombers. His biography has even appeared in the Qaeda magazine Al Risalah.
Over a Skype interview on Friday, from a room illuminated by a single fluorescent bulb, Mr. Muhaysini seemed relaxed, often breaking into a toothy grin as he insisted that he posed no threat to the West.
When asked, he acknowledged having contacted Ayman al-Zawahri, the global chief of Al Qaeda. “In 2014, yes, I talked to Ayman Zawahri because he is an old and generous sheikh and I asked him to speak about Daesh because he has a huge audience,” he said, using a derogatory acronym for the Islamic State. “I wanted him to talk about Daesh to prevent the youth from joining.”
He describes the images that have appeared of him with other well-known Qaeda leaders, and the comments he has made about them, as similar to photographs that might emerge from a summit meeting in which President Obama is seen sitting next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “It doesn’t mean that they share an ideology,” he said.
After he was listed by the Treasury Department, Mr. Muhaysini contacted The Times via an intermediary. To confirm his identity, The Times compared his image on Skype to his official portrait, as well as his voice to previous recordings issued by him. He further interacted with The Times using his official Twitter account — which, with over 60,000 followers, has become a reference point for jihadists in Syria.
“I am very well known. I am like a sheikh,” he said, saying he was Skyping from a location in Aleppo Province — a detail that could not be confirmed. “People around me told me to hide my location. But I can’t hide anything because I’m known to everyone. I couldn’t be working secretly for anyone.”
Thomas Joscelyn is an analyst who has been tracking Mr. Muhaysini since 2013 and has documented his close ties to Al Qaeda. Among the signs that Mr. Joscelyn says point to Mr. Muhaysini’s allegiance to Al Qaeda is the fact that he tried to play a mediating role after the Islamic State began clashing with Al Qaeda in Syria. After Al Qaeda’s leadership disowned the Islamic State in 2014, Mr. Muhaysini took to his popular Twitter feed to tell Islamic State members to defect to the Qaeda group, referring to Al Qaeda’s leader as “the sheikh of the mujahedeen.”
Mr. Muhaysini’s description of himself as an independent observer is part of Al Qaeda’s strategy of not broadcasting its allegiance, and of using local groups as a fig leaf to obscure its real goals, Mr. Joscelyn said.
“We consider this be to be a play out of Al Qaeda’s playbook,” he said. “They want to have ambiguity about their organizational affiliations, because it makes it more difficult for them to achieve their goals if they are known as Al Qaeda — so we don’t take these denials at face value.”