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Al-Qaeda in Syria: Our Focus Is Assad, Not West

Image: Rebel fighters celebrate with their weapons as they pose in Jisr al-Shughour town after they took control of the area

Al-Nusra Front fighters celebrate with their weapons as they pose in Jisr al-Shughour town, after they took control of the area April 25, 2015. Reuters

The leader of al-Nusra Front — the al Qaeda-affiliate group in Syria — insisted on Wednesday that he is under orders from the organization's central leadership not to attack Western interests in Syria, but rather focus on toppling President Bashar al-Assad.

"The orders from Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri are we should not attack the West from Syria, because it won't help us, and it may complicate the situation," Abu Mohammad al-Golani said, speaking in a rare television interview with the Al Jazeera Arabic-language network.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor by training, is the current leader of al Qaeda, and is thought by U.S. officials to be living somewhere in the tribal region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

It's not clear where Al Jazeera's interview with Golani took place. In it, Golani wore a plaid shirt with a cloth over his head, and was shot from behind, so that his face was not visible to the camera. NBC News cannot independently confirm that the speaker was the Nusra leader, but terrorism analysts said they had no reason to doubt it.

Golani said "all options are open," for an attack on the West if his group felt compelled to act in self-defense, but he insisted that Nusra is focused on battling the Assad regime inside Syria.

"The fight in Syria will only end in Damascus (the capital)," Golani said, adding that his orders from Zawahiri are to topple the Syrian regime and fight Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group backing Assad's regime.

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Golani also issued a threat to the Shia Alawite community of Syria, saying, "if the Alawites disowned Bashar al Assad, stopped supporting his regime, and if they stopped practicing their erroneous doctrine, we would forgive them." Assad himself is Alawite.

The interview was of interest to terrorism analysts because it occurred against the backdrop of rumors that Nusra had been considering a split from al Qaeda central. The interview, however, appeared to reaffirm Nusra's link to the group.

"(Golani's) made it crystal clear that he is the follower of Zawahiri's Qaeda," Ali Soufan, CEO of security consultancy the Soufan Group and a former FBI special agent, said over Twitter.

Analysts also noted that jihadist accounts on social media watched the interview closely, tweeting in the hours before and during the interview.

"It was pretty decent propaganda for Jabhat al-Nusra," said Charlie Winter, a terrorism researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation. "They managed to get an hour of primetime television," Winter continued, adding that the interview gave "a very large platform to a very bad guy."

The interviewed aired at about 8 p.m. in the United Kingdom, or 3 p.m. EDT.

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Al-Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra in Arabic, was created in 2011, after militant leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi sent Golani, a top deputy in Iraq, to open a branch in Syria.

In an April 2013 audio recording, Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra and his group — then called the Islamic State of Iraq — had become one group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, or ISIS.

However, Golani rejected the announcement, pledging allegiance instead to Zawahiri, the al Qaeda commander, setting off a violent struggle between al-Nusra and ISIS.

Golani was listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government in May 2013.

U.S.-led forces have carried out air strikes that have hit al-Nusra targets, saying they were targeting a specific faction called "Khorasan Group." Golani said there was no such thing as Khorasan Group in Syria.

"We only heard about this name when the Americans said it," he said.