Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, November 9th, 2014
by Maxwell Martin, researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Turkey that has implemented justice related programming in northern Syria
On November 4th, 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, released a recording in which he spoke about what the militant group has been up to lately. While many observers’ attention was focused on what al-Jolani had to say about the Nusra Front’s recent altercation with the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib, the recording was also noteworthy for al-Jolani’s lengthy discussion of Dar al-Qadaa, meaning “the judiciary,” a new network of courts that the group spearheaded in July 2014. It provided the clearest view yet of the thinking behind the establishment of Dar al-Qadaa, including the Nusra Front’s interpretation of the practical and doctrinal problems that the group sought to eschew when it withdrew from other court networks it previously backed with the Islamic Front. But is Dar al-Qadaa all that al-Jolani makes it out to be?
Whither the sharia commissions?
According to al-Jolani, the Nusra Front withdrew from the sharia commissions it jointly backed with Islamic Front factions Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqur al-Sham because of the crippling influence of factional infighting. “Some looked at the commissions as a way to implement the sharia, which was right,” noted al-Jolani in a not-so-veiled reference to his own group, “while others looked at the commissions as a political front from which they wished to gain. Still others saw some kind of weakness in the commissions and wanted to drag them into cooperation with the [Syrian Opposition] Coalition,” a puppet of the West, according to the group. Previously, the Nusra Front lamented the fact that other factions simply ignored the sharia commissions when it suited them, establishing in-house judicial bodies instead. As a result, the commissions “lost the essential purpose for which they were established.”
Unsatisfied with the sharia commissions’ performance and commitment to implementing an acceptable interpretation of Islamic law, the Nusra Front undertook “to establish an alternative to the sharia commissions with stricter rules.” To rectify the internal friction that hindered the sharia commissions’ work, al-Jolani turned to other jihadi factions to help prop the new court network up and to ensure a kind of cross-factional legitimacy. Other hardline factions were invited to join the project, but al-Jolani insisted that “those who participate in Dar al-Qadaa must agree with [the Nusra Front] on the goals and the means to achieve those goals.”
Despite the Nusra Front’s controlling influence over the new project, the court network was to be separate from armed factions, and al-Jolani promised that Nusra Front fighters would be the first to submit to the new court’s authority. Dar al-Qadaa claims to be entirely independent, and jihadi fundraiser and hype-man ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini’s reported involvement in shopping the project around would seem to underscore the court’s nominal autonomy. In the past, al-Muheisini has insisted that initiatives in which he has been involved not have any affiliation with any particular faction. As such, Dar al-Qadaa’s denunciation of “the repugnant system of factional quotas” that prevailed in the sharia commissions highlights that at least on its face, Dar al-Qadaa is not intended to be a multilateral factional enterprise, but an unaffiliated, salafi-jihadi project.
The Nusra Front’s—and other jihadi groups’—renewed focus on governance and on the law was also spurred by other developments in the opposition judiciary. Al-Jolani noted that other groups, including lawyers unions, were striving to fill the justice vacuum by implementing man-made laws instead of the sharia, a grave offense in the Nusra Front’s worldview. Even the Aleppo Sharia Commission, the most prominent of the commissions in which the Nusra Front had participated, was considering taking up the Unified Arab Code, a codified version of Islamic law that is unacceptable to salafi-jihadis of al-Qaeda’s persuasion.
The challenge of multi-factional justice
Dar al-Qadaa, however, has its detractors. Last week, a former jurist in the court’s Latakia branch blasted the new judicial body, saying that it was already corrupt and beset by factionalism. The jurist, Salman al-‘Arjani, was originally of Sham al-Islam, a mostly Moroccan foreign fighter jihadi outfit, but has since defected to the Islamic State. His litany of complaints against Dar al-Qadaa included the story of how a Nusra Front emir got away with a vicious assault on a married couple because the group’s judge let him out of jail, fearing retribution if he did not, before absconding to a nearby Nusra Front stronghold in Idlib. Al-‘Arjani also complained that the Nusra Front judge unlawfully set a Free Syrian Army commander free, infuriating the independent judges in the Latakia branch of Dar al-Qadaa and leading them to suspend their work.
But al-‘Arjani went further, accusing the same emir of apostasy for replacing a cross that jihadis had torn down inside a church during a recent offensive against the mostly-Christian town of Kassab. Al-‘Arjani and other hardliners were so incensed, he said, that “some of the mujahidin were determined to kill” the emir. The result of these acts, insisted al-‘Arjani, was that the Nusra Front had “made a mockery of God’s law.”
Whether or not we take al-‘Arjani at his word, his critique implies that Dar al-Qadaa may be suffering from some of the same problems that drove the Nusra Front to establish it in the first place. The Nusra Front’s admitted oversized role in the court may tempt it—or at least individual influential members—to skirt the rules when doing so is in their interest. At the very least, it reveals the difficulty groups face when jointly attempting to govern, even among an ostensibly like-minded group of salafi-jihadis; Unlike the Islamic State—which enjoys nearly unchallenged “sovereignty” where it governs—the Nusra Front must balance between a diverse set of highly opinionated jihadis—including, apparently, ones that are more extreme than the Nusra Front itself. The process can result in a fragile consensus, challenging the overall coherence of the Nusra Front’s approach to governance and resulting in the same kind of discord that frustrated the sharia commissions’ aspirations to judicial supremacy.
Striving for Society’s Embrace
As the Nusra Front expands its footprint in northern Syria and replaces other, more nationalist-oriented armed groups—the rule of which was marred by accusations of thuggery and banditry—the performance of its judicial arm in Dar al-Qadaa will be critical. Whether the Nusra Front is seen as fair in its administration of opposition-held territories will have implications for its ability to generate popular support, or al-hadina al-sha’biyya—society’s embrace—that the group has at times deemed necessary for its success, both on the battlefield and in Islamizing Syrian society in al-Qaeda’s image. However, the group will have to balance what they deem popular and religiously acceptable governance with other, harder-line views within the coalition of non-Islamic State-aligned jihadi groups of how to best implement Islamic law, a process that could see the Nusra Front dragged further out of synch with the populations it hopes to court.