“The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi,” By Tam Hussein

What happened to ‘Man like Fatlum?’: The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi
By Tam Hussein
(All Street scene photos by author others public)
July 21, 2015

This is the back story of Abu Musa al-Britani, a young British suicide bomber who blew himself up in Iraq. He grew up in Ladbroke Grove, the area that I worked and grew up in as a youth worker. We also went to the same school. My essay seeks to answer the question as to why such a popular young man went to Iraq when he had planned a trip to Spain two weeks earlier. What compelled him to go, it also seeks to explain why the like of him and Jihadi John came from the same area. What are the factors that lead to their choices?

It is clear that neither foreign policy nor ideology are solely responsible for motivating European youth to go on Jihad. My essay argues that the reason many of these men went to Syria and join specifically ISIS is due to the subtle interplay between religion, foreign policy and gang culture and modernism. … [quoted from Tam’s email to me]

Tourists and bohemians love rummaging through the stalls on Portobello Road with its shimmering trinkets and shaggy clothes fit for an art student. To the locals it’s a “joke ting , a skank to bring tourists from all over the world to sample the latest authentic “efnik” fad. Down the road on Golborne road, a stones throw away from David Cameron’s Notting Hill, young British Moroccans feast on  platters of seafood on Hassan’s Grilled Fish stall laughing at the antics of their respective football teams.

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Fatlum with Mohammed Nasser.

Some wear the latest garms others wear the trademark white thobe, full length beard, trousers above the ankle and Nike trainers like many Salafis do. Across the road Lisboa Patisserie is packed with locals and Moroccan old timers chomping on the best custard tarts in London talking about their worries, the way they might do back home. Here on the Golborne Road, West London, the Roadman rubs shoulders with the affluent city banker and never do their worlds meet, unless the Roadman is invited to a party to dispense a bit of coke. This is where Trellick towers estate sits easy with the bohemian Portobello Road. You wouldn’t expect a young native of these parts to cancel his ticket to a Spanish holiday resort, and instead end up a thousand miles from home and hearth, fighting in Iraq on behalf of ISIS.

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Fatlum in school uniform, note the Westside gang sign he makes.

This is the story of Fatlum Shalaku, or Abu Musa al-Britani; the one who raised his index finger to the sky testifying to the oneness of God and rammed a truck laden with explosives into an Iraqi army position in Ramadi. The twenty year old Zayn Malik lookalike, handsome and muscular; popular with the ladies broke the Golden Division. The US trained special forces unit had been holding a defensive line for fourteen months and suffering heavy losses. His actions forced them to abandon the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Word in Ladbroke Grove got out pretty soon. “Heard about Fatlum?” said one, “madd ting.” On the following Friday, we sat on the floor listening to the Imam at Ladbroke Grove’s Al-Manar mosque talking about how to prepare for Ramadan. I doubt the Imam had heard about the news, for if he had perhaps he would have addressed it. Fatlum’s friends didn’t quite know what to make of it and might have appreciated a talk on this issue coming from an Imam who was quoting the very scholar that ISIS revered; Ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century Syrian scholar, the progenitor of the Salafi movement. But instead, he reminded his worshippers about the virtues of Ramadan; about the tendency to over eat during the holy month, the tendency to smoke shisha in cafes as people wait for the dawn prayer, the tendency to sleep well into the afternoon, and generally not benefit from the abstemiousness which should enrich the soul. But to some of the younger worshippers there was a need to make sense of his death. They talked about it with a sense of surprise and stupefaction. “I used to see him at the gym; lovely guy” said one, “can’t believe what he did.” In the estates around the mosque the young knew he had gone to fight in Syria but few expected him to go out like that. Another friend said, “Fatlum’s world view was twist but I know his heart was pure”. There was begrudging admiration for the young man who walked the walk even though he hadn’t talked much about it. A former school mate put it differently to ITV news: it is sad, we have to ask ourselves why a person full of dreams and possibility and potential …would…blow them selves up.”[1] Everyone seemed to say what happened to man like Fatlum?

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Golborne road North African shop

Outside of Ladbroke Grove, little is known about Abu Musa al-Britani. He didn’t have a large social media footprint. Fatlum had deleted his Facebook account before leaving for Syria according to his friends. He came from a Kosovo Albanian family and attended Holland Park School. Fatlum enjoyed his time there and was described as “popular” and “friendly.” The school population reflected the diversity of the area and had a large British Moroccan and Somali community from Shepherds Bush, Latimer and Ladbroke Grove since the Nineties. Many like Fatlum, who grew up in North Kensington, were brought into the British Moroccan cultural orbit, after all nearly sixty percent of the UK’s British Moroccan population settled in North Kensington in the 70s and 80s.

Reminders of the home country

Reminders of the home country

Some say that Fatlum was intensely moved by the Syrian conflict, but that is simply not true. When the Syrian revolution broke out as one friend of Fatlum said, “every one was gassed” about Syria. These young men were profoundly affected by the images coming out on social media. After all this is the most mediated conflict that the world has ever seen and anyone with beating heart would find it hard to bear witness to the despicable acts carried out by the Syrian regime.  As a cousin said of Mohammed Nasser, a fighter and friend of Fatlum who was killed in Iraq:

“…[Nasser] was angry about what was happening in Syria…like Iraq and Palestine. I  don’t think he was radicalised, he understood what radicalisation was and what extremism was…”

Fatlum knew of a mysterious convert, not unlike Ras in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who packed up his bags and joined ISIS. This Ladbroke Grove Ras, rootless, charismatic and confrontational had gathered around him a group of young men in Ladbroke Grove who would eventually follow him. These young men recruited others through whatsapp and other messaging services. It was chain migration in reverse. Rumours has it that he was killed by Jaish al-Fath, a rebel faction that has made recent gains in Idlib. Speaking to a local, Elias, not his real name, the fact that there was a recruiter, was something the British security services must have been aware of in the Ladbroke Grove area. They were showing locals pictures of persons of interest.

Trellick towers next to Al-Manar mosque

Trellick towers next to Al-Manar mosque

But Fatlum wasn’t that hyped about fighting in Syria or swayed by this ‘recruiter’. Like his family, Fatlum was not religious and lived a relatively secular lifestyle like many Kosovo Albanians whose parents had experienced Communist rule. He was close to Mohammed Nasser and also knew Hamza Parvez, all ended up fighting for ISIS. One theory has it that Nasser influenced him to go to Syria. Nasser had found Islam after his father died; he has been described as a charismatic and passionate young man who influenced those around him. In contrast, Hamza Parvez was described by a family member as being “lazy” and a bit of a drifter, more interested in Krispy Kremes than fighting. He followed Nasser to Syria. Usually when a close circle forms around one or two charismatic individuals who are motivated to go, others are more likely to follow, irrespective of income or socio economic background. Those who are less wedded to aspiration and the good life, might have little to lose and a lot more to gain by going. Especially as the promise for them is either paradise or ghanima, war booty. Hamza Parvez may have fitted that type, but Fatlum didn’t. Speaking to his friends it is difficult to ascertain how much of an influence Nasser was on him. In fact, Fatlum left for Syria before Nasser. According to a cousin, Nasser “was a good guy and he knew right from wrong and he had compassion. He went to uni, played football…he wasn’t the sort of guy who argued about the caliphate. I never ever suspected he would go.”

A friend told me: “If any one influenced him it must have been his older brother, Flamur. They were close and Fatlum looked up to him. He rediscovered his faith a year into his degree at uni.” Flamur was a talented young architect whose work had been showcased by the Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. His transformation, according to another school friend, was overnight, going from someone who could “be seen socialising and drinking with friends” to someone who was assiduous in worship. He was often seen at Ladbroke Grove mosque attending the congregational prayer there. It was Flamur who drew his younger brother into discussions that led the latter to confront his own perceptions about life. But whilst Fatlum might have considered the big questions, two weeks before his departure to Syria, he was still interested in the usual stuff that the Ladbroke Grove mandem were interested in. Had it not been for his older brother talking him out of his Spanish holiday, Fatlum would have larged it with the ladies.

And yet, Fatlum’s decision to fight in Syria was not just a whim, but perhaps the flotsam and jetsam of various currents that coursed through the Ladbroke Grove area.

Religious Currents in Ladbroke Grove: The influence of the Salafi-Jihadis

Inside Manar Mosque

Inside Manar Mosque

One of these currents was the religious element in Ladbroke Grove. As Raffaello Pantucci noted in ‘We Love Death as You Love Life,’ London had seen a religious revival long before Syria and long before 9/11. Ladbroke Grove in this regard was no exception. The Muslim community’s gradual confidence and religiosity found expression in the opening of Al-Manar Islamic Centre on Acklam Road in 2001. The airy mosque complete with school and sports facilities, with a hint of North Africa, was jammed in between Westway recreational grounds and a council estate. It was also an expression of the Moroccan community’s self-confidence. Now, a few decades on, and it sees about twelve hundred worshippers every Friday from all walks of life and counted amongst its congregation ISIS fighters likes Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, Hamza Parvez, Mohammed Nasser, Flamur Shalaku, Choukri Elkhlifi, Mohammed El-Araj, and Aine Davies, who all prayed there from time to time.

Inside Manar Mosque

Old Timer praying in Manar Mosque

The area was not unique in that diverse Islamic strands and traditions coursed through it. There was the traditional Islam brought over from Larache, Morocco. It was a mix of Maliki jurisprudence, scholarship and Sufi traditions. These traditions are found amongst the old timers who sit reading the Quran after the evening prayer at the mosque. Sit down with them and you will sense the rich scholarly tradition of Fez and Marrakech. The way the old timers taught Tajweed, the art of Quranic recitation to the youngsters is reminiscent of the master student relationship still alive in their home land. They come from a rich tradition of learning that had been distilled over centuries with a great deal of nuance. The student has to master Arabic, philology, grammar, Quranic exegesis, jurisprudence and moral ethics amongst other things and only then, would the teacher grant him an Ijaza or permission to teach. That sort of profound study takes more than a few years of an Islamic studies BA in any modern Islamic university. Few in Ladbroke Grove, least of all Fatlum, had time to go down that route.

Alongside this, you also had the competing modernist Salafi tradition inspired by Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahab, a revivalist scholar of eighteenth century. His movement called for strict monotheism and rejected the adherence to a school of jurisprudence, mysticism and precepts that appeared to be cultural additions. This view, believed that over-reliance on blind imitation or Taqleed of scholars was misguidance, and sought to connect the layman directly to the sources of religion and thereby get him closer to God. Salafism’s appeal was its simple call to authenticity. As one worshipper put it: “Islam is simple, all you need is Quran and Sunnah”.

But occasionally its adherents fell into a trap of interpreting the texts with out having the prerequisite skill-set. Salafism disliked ‘blind imitation’ as it was disparagingly known, or taqleed of a scholar. To the born again devotee on the Golborne Road in search of religious enlightenment, he didn’t need a religious specialist, he could just open up the Quran and take the canonical sayings of the Prophet as his guide; no middle man was required to distil that seemingly contradictory mass of Prophetic sayings and Quranic verses. To Salafism’s detractors though, this was exactly the problem. These novices were akin to a thirsty rabble drinking straight from the vast salty ocean instead of allowing the scholar to making the seawater potable. Drinking straight from the ocean would result in madness or at the very least hubris. This was something a family member complained about when Hamza Parvez found his faith:

“This was last year. He used to wear the thobe and he’d pray and what annoyed me most was when he started telling his mum what to do. It kind of gave him this superiority because he thought that she didn’t have any knowledge.

And certainly the answers and scribblings on the tumbler pages, and Ask FM answers of some these ISIS fighters appear as if they were fatwas, or religious legal rulings.

Another offshoot of the Salafis in Ladbroke Grove was the Salafi-jihadi movement. As Jonathan Birt notes in Radical Nineties Revisited: Jihadi Discourses in Britain[2], the fact that many of these radicals and Salafi-jihadi ideologues were allowed to operate in the 90s so freely meant that the conditions were in place for it to flourish by the time Fatlum encountered it. As one young Imam who grew up in the area, told me West London has always had a strong Salafi-jihadi tradition. So disturbed was the young Imam that he decided move away from the area. The Salafi-jihadi movement in a nutshell, believes that only through Jihad can the Muslim global community restore its dignity and power; in some respects it is Fanonesque in conception. It is as Abdallah Azzam, one of its icons and the father of the Afghan Jihad put it, “Men need jihad more than the jihad needs men.”  Salafi-jihadi thought was a response to the centuries-long decline of Muslim power on the world stage and the incursions of the West into Muslim societies.The communities in Ladbroke Grove through a mixture of faith and heritage were profoundly connected to the affairs of the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in Salafi-jihadi thought having a greater resonance in the community especially amongst the young. Fatlum’s older brother was certainly an adherent to the ideology and though Fatlum may not have been, in the company of his brother and like minded individuals he certainly became one.

Gang Culture and Religion’s subtle interplay

Skateboarding on the West way in Ladbroke Grove

Skateboarding on the West way in Ladbroke Grove

But Fatlum also grew up in a milieu where there was a subtle interplay of religion and gang culture. In amongst the affluence of North Kensington, gang subcultures flourish. On the estates youth workers fight a constant uphill battle, not against radicalisation but the normal problems that most inner city communities face. The predominantly Moroccan community in the area face huge challenges in North Kensington. Myriam Cherti notes in Paradoxes of Social Capital: A Multi-Generational Study of Moroccans in London, in 1998, Golborne Ward fell under the 1 percent of the most deprived wards nationally[3], this situation changed little by 2012, when it was was ranked as the second most deprived in London[4]. The same author noted in a study for the Runnymede Trust, British Moroccans: Citizenship in Action, that poverty and disadvantage was “endemic in the area”. The youth workers I met were constantly trying to get young people to channel their energies into more positive activities. One of the bolder youth workers, Khaled, not his real name, told me, “I fork out money out of my own pocket; buy them chicken and chips and then they come to the sessions.” but with funding cuts these youth workers were struggling. Khaled complained that other youth clubs were receiving funding from different funding streams but those available to Moroccan communities were mainly through Prevent funding, the governments controversial anti-terrorism policy. This cynicism is not something recent. As early as 2009 the Runnymede Trust study states that: “smaller organisations complained that the Council discriminated in their funding practices, favouring certain projects whilst blocking others’ opportunities to develop.Khaled explained that the bigger problem in the area is still drugs, knife crime, gang fights, teenage pregnancies and civil engagement rather than terrorism and radicalisation. To this youth worker, it didn’t matter that five young men had left the area to join ISIS, he had to scour the streets to stop “Kids stabbing each other over a mobile phone. Every young person is touched by gang culture around here”.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 9.55.40 AMWith marginalisation comes social problems. Drugs and criminality had always been a facet of Ladbroke Grove since the 90s. Golborne Road was the best place to pick up skunk and hash in West London. Anyone who grew up in the area knew that Ladbroke Grove had cornered the market. You could drive up in a car and some dealer would shake your hands drop the punk and walk off in his joggers. Any undercover would have a hard time finding this ghost disappear into the estates. But as time passed these men, coming mostly from the close knit Moroccan community, felt the impact of religion in their lives. Their parents were getting old and becoming increasingly devout. They started their own families in the area and with the profundity of having one’s own family they too began to consider the deeper meanings of life. “Once a man holds his own kids in his arms” said one, “he starts thinking about their future, you can’t help it. That’s just God’s way”. A few decades on and these same dealers who had shot the stuff to willing punters, were sporting beards and praying five times a day looking for ways to atone themselves. These men raised in the school of hard knocks found that Salafi-jihadism fitted their temperament just like perhaps a creative temperament might prefer a Sufi understanding of Islam.

Despite the prejudice faced by the Moroccan community in North Kensington political engagement has always been high especially at local level. However, as the Runnymede Trust study found, there was also political discontent especially in the second generation. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 being the main boon of contention. The punishing decade of sanctions that preceded it with over half a million children dead and Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, quipping that the price “was worth it” jarred. To many in Ladbroke Grove, the Iraq war wasn’t a L’Oreal advert. Long before the area produced AQ adherents like Bilal Berjawi and Ramzi Mohammed, there were rumours that some old skool British Moroccans were expressing their political disenchantment by adopting Salafi-jihadi ideology and even trying to join the insurgency in Iraq. There was always talk of ex-Ladbroke Grove criminals suspected of a string of crimes in and around West London to fund their Jihadi activities. These criminal acts, it was said, were justified by the legal fiction that they were living in Dar al-Harb or ‘House of War’; a classical Islamic term developed by a body Islamic Jurisprudents during the medieval period to denote the lands that the Muslim world was at war with. Jihad as any jurisprudent will tell you was an all encompassing term referring to warfare that was nuanced, localised and differed according to time and place. So for instance, if the enemy mutilated your dead, you were not allowed to mutilate their dead because it was considered unjust and in direct contravention of God’s injunctions. Some of those rulings, albeit a minority, allowed for repaying the invaders of Muslim lands with the same treatment in extreme circumstances. That understanding allowed that everything was permissible, fraud, robbery, even enslaving women and so on. One worshipper told me, on condition of anonymity, that one “Grove man” had the audacity to rob a security van, and then turned up to offer Asr prayer at the mosque with the money box next to him, and after finishing casually walked off home with it. It was also rumoured that some of these men joined the smaller battalions within Syria’s splintered rebel factions like Katibat al-Khattab and Sham al-Islami brigades; the latter drew predominantly from North African participants.

Golborne Road with trellick towers

Golborne Road

But one thing these Ladbroke Grove Salafi-Jihadis were not; unlike many of the younger generation of Jihadis; they were not blatantly Takfiri in outlook in the way ISIS adherents were. Although there were some exceptions, most refrained from making Takfir or excommunication. Compare for instance the latest comments made by the late AQ spokesman Adam Gadahn, regarding the execution of Alan Henning and ISIS’ position. The latter considered it a sin. Like it or not, Salafi-Jihadism does have a theological discourse, with its thinkers, scholars and traditions. Usually the older fighters from Gadahn’s generation kept to within that framework. They looked at the West as an oppressive colonising infidel power that needed to be opposed, those Muslims who took a different view, were not declared automatically infidels en masse. This type of Salafi Jihadi still had respect for tradition and the sanctity of Muslim blood, even if they had none for UK law. But nevertheless as one Imam who knows Ladbroke Grove and those that adopted that opinion, told me, “is it victory at all cost that these men wanted? By adopting such an extreme opinion, they essentially did away with any ethical considerations of the Sharia, did the Companions and the Prophet do any of these things they did? No of course not, what they did do was open up the flood gates for the next generation where they could do anything they wanted.”

Despite the obvious problematics of Salafi-jihadism within Islamic intellectual discourse as well as outside of it, the newly emerging strain of Salafi-jihadis was hard to grasp by the older generation. The old skool jihadists were now criticising Fatlum’s generation for spiralling out of control. In fact, most recently the Jordanian Salafi jihadi cleric Abu Qatada, one of its main ideologues, criticised young Westerners coming to Syria with no religious training killing Islamic Jurisprudents with years of religious learning. The new generation they said lacked tarbiyyah or sound upbringing; their sincerity was not enough. There was clearly a generational disconnect. In many ways the conflict between Nusra Front and ISIS is also a reflection of this conflict between Old Skool Jihadis versus the New Skool. This new strain of Salafi-jihadism was seen as even more radical, virulently takfiri; they cared nought for any tradition that would ground them, nor for scholarship, and any kind of normative except their own. This idea seems to be confirmed by Thomas Pierret, Lecturer at Edinburgh University and author of Religion and State in Syria: the Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution, in a post on Facebook he says of the older generation Jihadis they were:

“motivated by the will to defend fellow Muslims against oppression. Their propaganda was a never-ending complaint about the plight of Muslims across the world. ISIS-generation of foreign fighters are completely different. Their Propaganda and behaviour suggests that not only are they totally indifferent to the plight of the Syrians, but they’re happily imposing upon them a ruthless form of oppression as part of their narcissistic settler-colonialist utopia[5]

It is true that young Ladbroke Grove Jihadis like Fatlum were different. According to a friend, Fatlum was “extremely Takfiri” in outlook, but he didn’t proselytise it the way other ISIS fighters did on social media. But to him the sacred and the profane was photoshopped with pop culture. These young men, in typical post-modern style comfortably mixed iconic images of Jihadica with Call of Duty. Sitting in an Italian cafe, Ali, a student who grew up in and around Ladbroke Grove told me even more bluntly what he thought the problem was; “There’s more to it, you have a high percentage of Roadmans who don’t know anything about the faith and they discover Anwar Awlaki on Youtube and it’s a disaster. On top of that everything they watch from Lord of the Rings to 300, to Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down everything about the Western culture celebrates heroism and self sacrifice. Some of their fathers also fought in Afghanistan, they have a fighting mentality because of the streets and once you put religion into it; which says helping the weak and oppressed is good, you got a Jihadi Roadman. It’s so predictable. Notice that most of these Roadmans joined ISIS; the rest with any sense of the faith didn’t.”

Fatlum’s friend Mohammed Nasser was a case in point; going through his twitter feed you notice that Grand Theft Auto Five is mentioned in the same breath as martyrdom, even though GTA is probably the most antithetical to the Islamic moral ethic. On his twitter feed. He flitted from talking about his friends to messaging Pro-ISIS disseminators like Shamiwitness[6]. The connections they were making, the culture they were creating was one particular to their generation. They had their own terminology, they wore their Salafi-Jihadism on their robes, blended it with rebellious Roadmannism, garnished it with a bit of Anwar Awlaki, Quran,Sunnah and a bit of thug life. They could yearn desperately for forgiveness and paradise, and in their youthful ardour want a sense of belonging and adventure. West-side hyperbole turned into “the land of the Muslims have to be defended.” The new generation Jihadi Roadmans short circuited the Salafi-jihadi tradition for just Team Muslim-no matter what; the response was not un-similar to the American patriot who cried Team America: no matter what. These men no doubt sincere in intention had become a law unto themselves and could wreak havoc and go against well established Islamic principles. These men joined ISIS.

Flamur’s artwork brother of Fatlum

Flamur’s artwork brother of Fatlum

When Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, 23, from Maida Vale, held out a decapitated head and declared to his tweeps that he was: [8]‘Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.’ To many it contradicted traditional concepts of chivalry and everything that Jihad represented. “No one is saying that war is a walk in the park, its ugly and nasty, but the whole point about Jihad is that when man has license to be at his most brutal, most callous, he doesn’t give in to his baser nature. It is easy to be clement, merciful and civilised in our everyday lives, but in war a man can actually show his true nobility, by being merciful, clement, and chivalrous, even when he has been wronged and his instinct is telling him to be brutal and unforgiving. And this is something that many fighters in ISIS have forgotten” said one Imam who asked to be anonymous.

A cursory glance through Medieval literature on famous Muslim warriors shows them to be cultured both in war and also the humanities, the autobiography of Usama bin Munqidh a 12th century knight during the crusades and Ibn Shaddad’s biography on Saladin for instance is testimony to that. Both are able to show magnanimity towards their enemies. Read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, a novella declared by the literary critic Harold Bloom to be “sublime” and you notice Tolstoy’s deep admiration for a Muslim warrior. A Jihadi   who refused to give in to the demands of the world, least of all Tsarist Russia. Fast forward to the twentieth century to Abdullah Anas, a veteran of the Afghan Jihad and the son in law of Abdullah Azzam, and find a man disgusted by the antics of these young fighters who kill men and upload it on twitter. As he told me in his office in North London:

“Prisoners have full rights. We fed them the same food, gave them the same clothes and the same quality of life. After several months, many of the Soviet troops started to believe that they weren’t prisoners because we were on such good terms with them.  Through our conduct we showed them we were not bloodthirsty people. Some of them became Muslims, others remain our friends to this day[9].”

To the veterans the Abdul Barys of this world were just expressing Roadmannism found in every day Ladbroke Grove, only the location was different. So what had happened in-between the period between Old Skool Jihadists and the modern day Jihadist who joins ISIS? According to Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American Muslim convert and freelance journalist who spent a considerable time in war torn Syria it seems to be a case of a ignorance and loosing one’s moral compass. Sitting in a cafe sipping a latte and relishing a chocolate chip cookie, he told me that some of these fighters “are extremely sincere in their intentions but because they don’t know the basics they attach themselves to a group who they think will take them to God, so they get played…I couldn’t believe it…we were inside a car once and they were discussing whether it was permissible to target women and children, I’m like brother, why are we even having this conversation?! Islam doesn’t allow that. That’s how ignorant they were.” Fatlum’s knowledge of Islam was at the time of leaving, described by friends as basic but continued under Islamic State proselytisers.

When Fatlum left it wasn’t just faith and the International community’s inactivity that pulled him there. There were complex factors at play, the influence of individuals, the interplay of Salafi-jihadi thought, Roadman culture, identity, or simply a need for adventure and atonement that made him get on that plane to Turkey. In spring 2013 the brothers went to Turkey transiting off a European country.

To their father, Muhamet, the news came as a complete shock. The brothers had kept their faith secret from the family. Once they were in Syria contact with family was intermittent. They told the parents that they were doing aid work. Fatlum’s mother fell into deep depression. Although the parents did not report the two missing immediately, their disappearance did not go unnoticed, the police were aware that they had left. The father said that special branch had visited them and taken their computers away. He perhaps naively, believed they would help to retrieve them. The officers were particularly interested in the two following the revelation of the identity of Jihadi John.

In Syria, what had started as a true revolution began to resemble 12th century Andalusia during the age of the Muluk at-Tawa’if or the Party Kings. Each emir of Andalusia’s fractured principalities, supported by various Christian kings, made war on each other for hegemony of the Spanish Peninsula. Many foreign fighters who had come to fight Assad, instead found themselves embroiled in this intra-rebel infighting. Abu Layth al-Khorosani, or Anil Khalil Raoufi from Manchester, for instance died fighting the Free Syrian Army instead of Assad. When the fighting broke out between ISIS and Nusra Front, to the surprise of one friend, the two brothers did not get involved in the internecine Jihadist infighting that broke out in January 2014. Fatlum made his choice quite early on. Contrary to reports, the two brothers did not defect from the Nusra Front but rather after they had finished their training with Katibat al-Muhajireen (KaM) led by Georgian national Omar Shishani and his former deputy Abu Mus’ab al-Jazairi, they joined ISIS. It is not clear why the two brothers left Katibat al-Muhajireen for Islamic State. Perhaps they followed Omar Shishani as he made his oath of allegiance or hoped to join a group that would take them to Paradise, it is hard to tell. Nevertheless their aloofness from fighting their former comrades earned them the respect even of their enemies. This may have been one of the reasons they ended up in Iraq, precisely because they wanted to avoid fighting their ex-comrades. Instead they preferred to fight the Shi’ites and the Kurdish YPG, the former who Salafi Jihadis consider to be heretics, and the latter who they view as godless Atheists due to their secular or communist beliefs.

Abdullah Anas in middle

Abdullah Anas in middle

Flamur Shalaku or Abu Sa’ad as he was known, was killed in March of this year in Iraq. His father, Muhamet received a phone call where a distant crackly arabic voice spoke in broken English and said: “Everything is good with your son”. The father was not devout, he didn’t quite understand what that meant. He came to see me one rainy night in Whitechapel, to see if I could locate him. I didn’t know how to break it to him, his red nose with delicate red veins hinted at a man who liked Jack Daniels, I told him that the Grapevine said that Abu Sa’ad had been killed.

He stumbled, he woke up, his eyes watered up, his lips quivered for a moment. I wanted to give him a hug. I felt like a scumbag. But he didn’t let me hug him, he composed himself. He told me about the phone call. I explained what that meant.

“To Islamic State death means martyrdom. For them it’s good news”

“I don’t know what to tell his mother” he said as if Flamur was still alive. “Is there anyway we can get Fatlum back? I need to tell him to come back? If we lose him, we are finished you know? Finished. I will not tell anything to the mother for now.”

A month later I called him to ask about Fatlum’s death.

Perhaps Flamur’s death made Fatlum want to join his brother, by this time he had lost Mohammed Nasser and now his brother. And so he stepped into a truck laden with explosives and stuck his index finger out for the camera and drove towards his target. He blew himself up hoping to be flung in to paradise. Whilst his friends in Islamic State rejoiced in his self-annihilation, the reverberations of the explosions were also felt in Ladbroke Grove. Friends and locals were shocked by the fate of such a popular young man. Some of the younger ones rated him for dying for his beliefs, “he was a man of action y’get me- he talks the talk and walks the walk. To the old timers there is a sense of foreboding that the spotlight will once again fall on a community that is afflicted by far greater problems than ISIS.

[1] http://www.itv.com/news/2015-05-22/revealed-the-british-schoolboy-who-became-an-islamic-state-suicide-bomber/

[2] https://www.academia.edu/8689148/The_Radical_Nineties_Revisited_Jihadi_Discourses_in_Britain

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lf1YAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=british+moroccans+are+marginalised&source=bl&ots=I4vsPXJqsi&sig=V4s4EkLI-he1KF23UdMey7ZKG-c&hl=en&sa=X&ei=URqTVcCkNMa4UbfIgagF&ved=0CFIQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=british%20moroccans%20are%20marginalised&f=false

[4] http://www.kcsc.org.uk/news/8-mar-2012-1448/golborne-ranked-second-most-deprived-ward-country

[5] Facebook post on 7 July 2002

[6] http://www.channel4.com/news/unmasked-the-man-behind-top-islamic-state-twitter-account-shami-witness-mehdi

[7] http://www.channel4.com/news/iftikhar-jaman-syria-death-isis-jihad-british-portsmouth

[8] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2723659/ISIS-militants-seize-key-towns-villages-close-Syrian-border-Turkey.html

[9] http://eng.majalla.com/2014/02/article55248465

* Tam Hussein is an award winning investigative journalist and writer. He speaks five languages and holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His work appears in the Guardian, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Sharq Al-Awsat, etc.

“Mohammad Nassif: The Shadow Man of the Syria-Iran Axis,” by Mohammad Ataie

nassifThe Shadow Man of the Syria-Iran Axis
For Syria Comment, July 16›
By Mohammad Ataie

Throughout the Syrian-Iranian partnership, few men had a more important role in the genesis and evolution of the alliance than Major General Mohammed Nassif. Known by his sobriquet, Abu Wael, he was the last of Hafez Asad’s men to remain at the heart of the regime. He died on June 28, 2015 in his 80s. The secretive Major General was central, from the early 1980s, in forging Syrian policy towards Iran and directing their often turbulent cooperation in both Lebanon and Iraq.

Nassif was known for his political clout and elusive character as a central member of the security apparatus. His star began to rise in the 1970s, when Lebanon’s Shia emerged as an important political force under the leadership of Musa Sadr. Musa Sadr turned to President Asad as an ally when he fell out the Shah of Iran. Asad directed Nassif to take responsibility for Shia affairs in Lebanon and to act as liaison with the clergy there. According to Sadr’s family, Musa Sadr stayed at Nassif’s house when he visited Damascus. Nassif also cultivated friendships with leaders of the Lebanese Amal movement, such as Nabih Berri and Mustafa Chamran, who was an Iranian member of Amal. After 1979, Chamran became minister of defense in Iran. With Sadr’s disappearance, Nassif’s ties remained strong with his family, including Sadr’s nephew, Sadegh Tabatabai. In 1981, Nassif while on an official visit in Tehran, asked Tabatabai to arrange a meeting for him with Ayatollah Khomaini, the leader of the revolution. The meeting did not take place.

With the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon two years later, Damascus drew closer to Tehran. Nassif’s importance in nurturing the creation of Hizbullah and the emerging “Shiite Crescent” could not have been more important for Iran because Saddam threatened the survival of young Islamic Republic. Claiming to be the shield of the Sunni Arab World, the Iraqi leader dragged his country into its eight-year conflict with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf accustomed to Sunni supremacy and Shiite docility believed that Saddam could contain, if not crush the new revolutionary force in Tehran.

Mohammad Nassif sensing that Syria could harness the Shiite awakening to its advantage became infatuated with Ayatolah Khomaini and Shia doctrine. His rapport and common intellectual outlook with Iran’s revolutionary clerics helped make him indispensible in Damascus, where secular Arabism seemed to preclude real sympathy with the Persian upstart. The secretive Major General was one of very few people, according to Patrick Seale, who could telephone Asad at any time of day or night. In the eyes of Iranians, he was not only a key channel to the Syrian President but also a power behind the throne.

In 1980, when Ali Akbar Mohtashami went to Damascus in the hope of exporting the Islamic Revolution, he was sorely disappointed by his cold reception by the secular Baathist leaders of Syria and with a “sluggish bureaucracy” in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. He was unable to get an audience with the President himself or stimulate interest in the president’s office. Mohtashami, the key Iranian in building the eventual Syro-Iranian alliance, was not put off. Undaunted, he cultivated a close relationship with Muhammad Nassif, a winning strategy. If either the Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office threw up road-blocks in front of Mohtashami or if conservative Sunnis, such as Abdulhalim Khaddam or Abdul Rauf al-Kasm, looked with distaste at Iranian advances, Nassif could find ways around them; he helped convince Assad that the Iranians offered a stable and strong ally in the dangerous sea of fickle Arabs partners surrounding Syria. For the Iranians, he was the right man in the right place.

Musa al-Sadr

When Iran’s revolutionary leaders sought to get to the bottom of the 1978 disappearance in Libya of Musa Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese divine and Shiite politician, they turned to Mohammad Nassif. To their surprise, Nassif openly accused Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of kidnapping Musa al-Sadr and used the strongest invective in characterizing Libya’s strongman, but despite his belief in Qaddafi’s guilt, Nassif explained to his Iranian counterparts that any investigation into Sadr’s death would be useless. All the same, the Iranians insisted on talking to Hafiz al-Asad. True to Nassif’s warning, the President told the Iranian envoy: “the issue of Mr. Imam Musa Sadr is over. Unfortunately, I must insist that you not follow up Mr. Sadr [‘s case]”. Syrians never publicly accused the Pan-Arab leader of Libya of murdering Musa al-Sadr and, as it turned out, neither did Tehran. They swallowed their anger in recognition that Libya was too important to the unfolding Middle Eastern chess game to be sacrificed in an unconsidered fit of rage. Some insisted that Qaddafi murdered Sadr because the Libyan leader was furious at the mocking tone adopted by the learned Imam as the two leaders debated Sunni-Shiite theological differences. Others claimed that Yasser Arafat had asked Qaddafi to dispatch Sadr, a competitor in Lebanon. Now that Qaddafi has met his grisly death, the real reasons for Sadr’s death may never be known.

In the early 1980s, Syrians were concerned lest Iran embrace Yasser Arafat as an instrument of its broader revolutionary policy in the region. Khomeini seemed to flirt with the idea of forming an alliance with the PLO to harness the passions created by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mohammed Nassif took a strong anti-Arafat position; he advised Tehran against cooperation with the mercurial Palestinian. In 1981, an Iranian delegation dispatched by Tehran to meet Arafat in Beirut, stopped off in Damascus to see Nassif on their road West. Nassif argued against depending on Arafat who he described as unreliable and two-faced. Instead, Nassif asked the Iranians to side with Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, Lebanon’s dominant Shiite political movement. Syria’s anti-Arafat stand kept Iran from choosing Arafat, but despite Syria’s advocacy of Berri, Ayatollah Khomaini never agreed to meet Berri and the revolutionary clerics hung back from choosing a Lebanese client until the rise of Hizballah following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Nassif remained a key player in the triangular relations that bound Syria to Iran and Lebanon during the next decades. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he added Baghdad to his brief. In both Lebanon and Iraq, Syria’s two principal arenas of cooperation and competition with Iran, Nassif played a crucial role. A loyal and substantial figure under both Asads, he knew how to remain in the shadows and eschewed self-aggrandizement or promoting family. His death brings to an end the influence of the original architects of the Asad regime.

* Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and a PhD student in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than Northern Front” by Marika Sosnowski

MSosnowski-1The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than the Northern”
For Syria Comment – 9 July 2015
by Marika Sosnowski – @mikisosnowski

The coalition of several dozen local insurgent groups, known as ‘the Southern Front’, is consolidating its control in and around Daraa and the Houran Plain in Syria. While the Southern Front is not a cohesive organization but instead an alliance of units that are each individually linked to and funded by the Western- and Arab-backed Military Operations Center (MOC) in Amman, the coalition has in recent months shown itself to be adept in understanding the importance of establishing and maintaining a legitimate and authoritative justice provider. This is because a strong judiciary shows Syrians, and the world, that the Syrian opposition can effectively govern areas under its control. A strong judiciary also makes the Southern Front one of the few viable alternatives to the Assad regime that has emerged from this crisis.


Syrian policemen stand in front the burned court building that was set on fire by Syrian anti-government protesters, in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Monday March 21, 2011. Mourners chanting “No more fear!” have marched through a Syrian city where anti-government protesters had deadly confrontations with security forces in recent days. The violence in Daraa, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, was fast becoming a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Around November 2014, financial and military setbacks forced Jabhat al-Nusra, which also has a strong presence in the south, into an alliance with the Southern Front and other Islamists. The alliance consolidated the various Hay’at Al Sharia, or Islamic Justice Committees, that had been operating in the Southern Front’s area of control, into one Dar al-‘Adl known as the Dar al-‘Adl fi al-Hawran, or the Houran Courthouse, which is located in Gharz, southern Syria. Before that, the Islamic Justice Committees of the Southern Front had used a mix of tribal, Islamic, and customary law to maintain order, with some success.

While in many ways the union is borne out of strategic necessity the real difference with the formation of the Dar al-‘Adl is that nearly all the factions seem to back it, whereas the courts in the north are more fragmented and affiliated with smaller sets of armed groups. As such, the northern courts do not command the same authority or legitimacy with Syrians that the southern court seems to be garnering. Additionally, the relative strength of the Southern Front, gained in part through the consistent coordination and backing of the MOC, have enabled the creation of a unified court that includes groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The formation of the court draws on lessons learned from the north in seeking to prevent the Islamists from creating their own systems of governance.



In a display of both military power and good faith, the groups negotiated to appoint sixteen judges to the court. Half were chosen by the Southern Front with al-Nusra appointing four and the remainder selected by other Islamist groups that are part of the alliance, Harakat al-Muthana and Ahrar al-Sham. It is not clear whether the judges are independent or simply members of their respective factions. However, the Courthouse is not wholly religious or civil, following the original Justice Committees by using tribal, Islamic, and customary law to deal with cases common in rebel-held Syria. These include military, criminal, and administrative matters, as well as reconciling disputes involving civilians and armed factions. For example, once the court was established detainees being held by the various factions were handed over to the court for sentencing and detention. The Court also seems to be playing an active mediation role between armed factions, such as the Shohadaa al-Yarmouk Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra. In the aftermath of a military operation in April to secure the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, the Court was also charged with establishing a judicial committee to record the claims of people affected during the operation.

While each faction would certainly prefer sole-control, the establishment of the Houran Court reflects a necessary practicality. With all sides unable to decisively establish dominance over the others on the battlefield, they have been compelled into compromise. Additionally, the establishment of one main justice provider is part of a pragmatic effort by the Southern Front to win civilian hearts and minds. External backers of the revolution may also see the Court as a relative success story for pragmatism showing that the Syrian opposition can create, ‘a “third way” of local governance that threatens Bashar al-Assad’s depiction of the Syrian opposition movement as extremists and terrorists.’

The effectiveness of the Courthouse in Houran in upholding and enforcing the law is in stark contrast to the situation in the north of Syria. In rebel-held Idlib and Aleppo, many courts have been essentially white-anted by the armed groups or other power brokers in town making it impossible for them to enforce the law. While some courts operating in rebel-held areas, such as those established in the image of armed groups like the Islamic Front’s Aleppo Sharia Court, have the ways and means to enforce their rulings, other courts, such as the Unified Judicial Council that operated until February 2014 in Aleppo and northern Idlib, have little to no ability to implement the law without the support of an armed group.

Additionally, because a cohesive legal structure is essential to effective governance, local communities need to establish and develop one main justice provider (and an associated legal hierarchy) as well as decide on one consistent body of law to deal with legal issues. In Kafr Nobel and Saraqib in northern Idlib province, for example, there are as many as five justice providers including a Sharia Court, the local police force and a Security Committee. Additionally, there is as yet no opposition agreement on whether pre-Ba’athist Syrian Law, the Unified Arab Code or Sharia law should be used to arbitrate disputes. Particularly regarding civil matters, the opinion of local tribal leaders also remains authoritative.

The obstacles that plague the establishment of the rule of law in northern Syria don’t seem to be happening with the Dar al-Adl in the south. Groups have so far honoured the courts decisions including cases of criminal allegations against their own members. The Court also seems to be using a consistent body of law that builds on the work of the Southern Front’s original Justice Committees. However, at this stage, the Court remains firmly wedded to its armed backers.

In wartime, fortunes are won and lost on the battlefield. As the most recent battle for control of Daraa unfolds, it will be interesting to see how military results affect the Southern Front’s relationship with its Islamist partners. If the Southern Front gains militarily, its professed nationalist and democratic agenda could offer new hope for a Syrian opposition that, until relatively recently, was considered by many as either extremist or fratricidal.

*Marika Sosnowski is a Middle East researcher. She has taught the history and politics of the region at a number of universities and is a regular guest on Melbourne radio station Triple R.

End article


Idlib Falling Victim to Systematic Looting

Weeks after the city fell in the hands of rebel groups, Idlib is reportedly witnessing the systematic looting of public and private properties.

In the last few days, a number of activists from the city have been reporting the rising number of incidents involving the theft of state institutions and private assets alike.

In an interview on an opposition-affiliated radio, Ghazwan Qronfol, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Assembly, said, for instance, that members of the armed opposition groups had stolen hundreds of passenger cars and looted the private homes of many residents of the city, in particular those considered wealthy.

Other activists have also reported that public assets stolen have included the warehouse of the agricultural directorate of the city as well as the equipment of the Olive Bureau, the body in charge of monitoring the country’s olive sector and that is affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Also, machinery and equipment at the Idlib Spinning Plant, a large factory employing thousands of people, are reported to have been stolen.

Other parts of northern Syria that were taken over by opposition groups in the last three years have already been largely victim of chaos, theft and looting. Aleppo’s city, for instance, has seen the looting of hundreds of its plants.

However, many had hoped that Idlib would not face the same fate because of warnings by civil society groups and statements by rebel leaders that the same mistakes would not be repeated.

The chaos engulfing the city, however, raises again the case of the incapacity of the opposition to administer areas that fall outside the control of the regime.

The Syrian regime lost Idlib at the end of March after only a few days after the beginning of an offensive led by the Nusra Front and other radical Islamist groups.

At the time, the issue of how the city would be administered was raised and the National Coalition, the main non-military grouping of the opposition had asked rebel groups to protect private and public properties, to preserve the state’s institutions and ensure that they continued operating normally “to prove to the world that Syrians are capable of managing their country properly.”

While activists are making their anger increasingly heard on social media, there haven’t been yet reports of an opposition on the ground to the behaviour of the armed groups.

In addition to the prevailing lawlessness, the city faced a systematic bombing from the Syrian air force as soon as it fell outside the hands of the regime.

In a scenario that is reminiscent of many similar events in the last few years, the actions of the regime and of armed rebel groups have combined to make life unsustainable in the so-called “liberated” areas.

Who was Mohammad Nasif Kheirbek?” by Mohammad D.

Who Was Mohammad Nasif?
By Mohammad D.

For Syria Comment – June 30, 2015

Muhammad Nasif

Muhammad Nasif

Mohammad Nasif Kheirbek, one of Bashar al-Assad most trusted aids, died around 5 AM. Sunday, 6/28/2015 in al-Shami Hospital in Damascus  from Prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with about 8 years ago.  Mohammad Nasif, as he is known in Syria, held important security positions under Hafez al-Assad, and then became an Assistant to Vice President Farouk al-Shar’a during the current rule of Bashar al-Assad.  He was very highly trusted by both Assads, and was one of the very few who made it from the reign of Hafez al-Assad to that of his son Bashar.

The family of  Mohammad Nasif

Not too many people know that Mohammad Nasif Kheirbeik hails from a very big and important Alawite family.  His grandfather is Isma’il Kheirbek (1822-1858), the head of al-Mtawra Alawite tribe. He traces his ancestry to al-Makzun al-Sinjari (1187-1240), one of the most important figures in Alawite history.

Ismai’il Kheirbek rebelled against the Ottomans and was able to carve out an independent enclave for about two years 1856-1858 that was centered in Misyaf (45 km west from Hama).   He fought the Ottomans and  their local allies, like al-Danadesheh, and allied himself with local Christians, like M. Nawfal. He and his allies tried to build bridges with the British.  Ismail’s effort at rebellion and independence ended when his uncle Ali al-Shilleh  poisoned him. Most of his family were subsequently killed and their bodies sent to the the Ottoman authorities. Soon, the Ottomans shelled al-Laqbah, Ismail Kheirbek’s village. Although Ismail had build a Sarai, with their artillery. That year, 1858, the Alawites rebelled again.

Hawash, the son of Isma’il Kheirbek, who survived the family bloodbath, started a rebellion. But, he was caught and exiled first to Akka and then to Rhodes, where he died in 1897.

The Hawash Kheirbek family played a prominent role in the Alawite State that was granted a broad degree of autonomy during the French during the Mandate (1920-1946).  Aziz Hawash became the  governor/muhafez of Damascus in 1936, Jihad Hawash, an Ambassador in the 1950s, married a granddaughter of Abd al-Qader al-Jazairi. Mohammad Hawash was an army general in the 1950s who also wrote a history about the Alawite State.

The life of Mohammad Nasif

Mohamamd Nasif was born in al-Laqbeh in 1937.  His father died when he was 4.  Later, as a teenager, he moved to live with his well-to-do father’s sister living in Hama.  Not too many Alawites lived in Hama at that time.  But his aunt took care of him and Mohammad was able to graduate form Ibn Rushd high school.

After high school, he moved to Aleppo to get Ahliyat al-Ta’lim (certified as a teacher), at a two-year institute.   He became an elementary school teacher in 1958.  Then, he was appointed in al-Qamishli becoming a principle for an elementary school in two years.  But, in 1960 he was called to do mandatory army service.  At this moment, he changed his career outlook and joined the Military Academy in Homs, where he graduated in 1964.  In 1965 he was appointed in Far’a 225 where he spend the next ten years. In 1975, he was transferred to head Far’a 251 of Amn Dakhili (Interior Security).

It was during his years working for al-Amn al-Dakhili that Nasif became what he is.  So, when the fight between Hafez al-Assad, and his regime versus the Muslim Brothers’s started in 1979, Mohammad Nasif was in the midst of it.  His loyalty to Hafez al-Assad was crucial.

During this time period, Mohamamd Nasif played an important role combating the enemies of Hafez al-Assad in and around Damascus.  “He was a very hard working man. Did not get married and spent all of his time in his office at that time period,” according to a source.   His security branch, along with the two headed by Ali Duba (Mukhaba Askariyah/Army Intelligence) and Mohamamd al-Khuli (Mukhabarat Jawiyyah/ Air Force Intelligence), were according to many, the bedrock of Hafez al-Assad’s rule.

The enemies of Mohamamd Nasif speak of his reign on top of al-Amn al-Dakhili as an era of terror, intimidation, and torture.

Muhammad Nasif was let go from al-Amn al-Dakhili in 1999.  He was given a high job in the Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Ammah (Intelligence General Directorate), and later in 2005 he was appointed the Assistant to Faruk al-Shar’, the Syrian Vice President.  He was one of the few that were left from the old guards of Hafez al-Assad.

When the Syrian Crisis started in 2011, Muhammad Nasif was almost retired, according to members of his family.  He was brought back because of his knowledge and good relations with many people. Most important was his close relationship with Iran’s top leaders.

According to those who knew him, Muhammad Nasif was a workaholic and man of few words. He rarely answered questions and always spoke politely.  Not too many things were known about him, which was just as he liked it.

The Massacre of Druze Villagers in Qalb Lawza, Idlib Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

On 10 June, a number of people in the village of Qalb Lawza- one of a collection of Druze villages in the Jabal al-Summaq region of Idlib province- were massacred in a confrontation with members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which dominates the area.  Below are the names of those killed as a result of this clash. As is apparent from the family and middle names, many of these individuals appear to be close relatives of each other.

1. Sheikh Nadim Faris Shaheen
2. Sheikh Rasheed Sa’ad
3. Milad An’am Allah Razaq
4. Fakher Ahmad al-Shabali
5. Fakhro Ahmad al-Shabali
6. Ahmad Fakhro al-Shabali
7. Man’am Fakhro al-Shabali
8. Faraj Fakhro al-Shabali
9. Muhammad Sharif Aqfali
10. Faraj Fakhro al-Shabali
11. Aymenn Muhammad Aqfali
12. Maymun Muhammad Aqfali
13. Wissam Nazhat Hussein
14. Manhal Nazhat Hussein
15. Melham Faris Shaheen
16. Ahmad Muhammad Hussein
17. Muhammad Ahmad Hussein
18. Badro Khayro al-Shabali
19. Khayro Badro al-Shabali
20. Lami’ Thabit al-Shabali
21.  Hayder Fariz al-Shabali
22. Khayro Thabit al-Shabali
23. Rashad Faysal al-Shabali

Muhammad Sharif Aqfali (Abu Aymenn)

Badro Khayro al-Shabali

Aymenn Muhammad Aqfali, son of Abu Aymenn above.

Maymun Muhammad Aqfali

Rashad Faysal al-Shabali

Sheikh Rasheed Sa’ad

Ahmad Muhammad Hussein (Abu Muhammad)

Before giving the more immediate context of these killings, it should be noted that Qalb Lawza is one of the Druze villages in Idlib whose inhabitants were compelled at the beginning of this year to renounce the Druze faith and accept Sunni Islam at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, including destruction of Druze shrines and other Jabhat al-Nusra regulations such as gender segregation. These impositions have not been cancelled and remain in force to this day, which became clear not only in an interview carried out by Syria Direct in March 2015, but also most recently from the testimony of a resident of another of the villages- Kaftin- who agreed to speak to this author in the aftermath of the massacre on condition of anonymity. This is so despite supposed mediation efforts by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has tried to convince the Syrian Druze that their best interests will be guaranteed by throwing their weight behind the rebellion, even as Jabhat al-Nusra is heavily intertwined with that rebellion. Indeed, Jumblatt himself acknowledges the group’s important role in the broader insurgency, and has thus tried to downplay its status as a jihadist threat and al-Qa’ida affiliate. Nor have other rebel groups in Idlib province been able to mediate to cancel or mitigate this Islamization program imposed on the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq.

Not only has much media coverage of this latest incident in Qalb Lawza overlooked these facts, but Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani has also tried to spin his group’s treatment of the Druze in his interview with al-Jazeera that reflects a clear attempt to legitimise the group as a mainstream opposition force: commenting on the interviewer’s praise of Jabhat al-Nusra’s ostensible protection of the Druze villages, Jowlani portrayed his group’s approach as one of mere da’wah (proselytization) and acceptance. It is true that Jabhat al-Nusra has generally not harmed the inhabitants of these villages, but only because they have accepted the imposed Islamization program, which is possible through religious dissimulation: in other words, true faith is in the heart, not outward practice, as one pro-regime Druze contact put it to this author at the time the impositions first came to light. In this context, one should note a statement issued from the village of Kaftin in early May 2015, officially denying allegations of mistreatment. Reading more closely, one soon realises this statement is an affirmation of the acceptance of the imposition of Sunni Islam and a call for other Druze to follow in this path:

“We the peoples of Jabal al-Summaq reject and condemn all who write about the situation of our land and they do not know the truth. The reality in which we live is that we are all well and no one attacks or oppresses us, and we are living in this land and our program/direction is the Book of God [Qur’an] and the Sunnah of His Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). And we confirm that we have the same rights as our Muslim brothers and what is upon them is upon us from the obligations in accordance with what Islamic law demands, as brought in the noble Hadith: ‘…Be brothers, servants of God. The Muslim is the brother of the Muslim: he does not oppress him, nor does he fail him, nor does he despise him…Every Muslim is sacrosanct on the Muslim, including his blood, wealth and honour.’ As for what has been mentioned in the media regarding the opening of our homes to our Muslim brothers, we have undertaken our human and Shari’a obligation, and we have offered aid to the poor.

And we confirm that we have been present in our land for thousands of years and no one has been able to make us leave, force us to migrate, or challenge our Arab identity because we are genuine Arabs from the descendants of Qahtan. We have roots in history and deep ethnic and primordial roots in Arab identity and Islam. And our Ansar ancestors who supported Our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in al-Madina al-Munawara, and when a part of our affair was reduced, our poet, the companion Nu’man bin Bashir al-Ansari said:


On the basis of the guidance of our Prophet al-Mustafa (PBUH), indeed religion is advice and we call on all to return to the authentic Book of God…and that (God) place us and them among the guided guiders calling to God the Lord of the Worlds. And we urge all who have deviated from the authentic path through ignorance or knowingly to correct their path and return to the straight path […]

Kaftin: 20 Rajab  1436 AH”

Unlike the Druze areas of the south, which have seen many soldiers fight and die for the Syrian army even as resistance to conscription has grown, the Druze villages of Jabal al-Summaq have generally been known for a neutral stance towards the conflict, while giving refuge to displaced persons, as the Kaftain statement also affirms. This author’s contact from Kaftin, for instance, claims to have hosted 80 displaced people since the regime first attacked the villages that rose up in revolt. He also says only a handful of people from Jabal al-Summaq have joined armed groups in this conflict.

However, since becoming dominant in Jabal al-Summaq, Jabhat al-Nusra has been confiscating properties in the area of people living outside the villages, either giving them to their own members to dwell in or to internally displaced persons. In the latest case in Qalb Lawza, Jabhat al-Nusra seems to have tried to confiscate the home of a man living in regime-held Syria, on the grounds that he is a soldier in the regime army. This home though was apparently within the property of relatives of the man, who confronted members of the group as they were trying to build a wall on the property, eventually leading to an opening of fire on residents by the Jabhat al-Nusra members.

In a statement on the incident in Qalb Lawza, Jabhat al-Nusra describes the event as an “unjustified error that occurred without the leadership’s knowledge, and the village and its people continue to live securely and calmly under our protection and in areas of our control,” while declaring that those involved in the mishap will come before a Shari’a court to ascertain what happened and decide on the appropriate rulings. Further, Jabhat al-Nusra claims it has only directed its arms against those who have infringed on the “blood and honour of the Muslims from the gangs of the criminal Nusayri [Alawite] army, the heretic khawarij [Islamic State] and the gangs of the corrupt ones,” while portraying itself as transparent: “the doors of Jabhat al-Nusra are open to all.” Yet the statement makes no explicit reference to Druze at all, and in talking of defending Muslims, sugarcoats the real reason why the inhabitants of this village and others in Jabal al-Summaq are officially protected.

A number of rebel groups (Ahrar al-Sham, Levant Front, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sham, ‘Go on the Right Path as You Have Been Ordered’ grouping) also issued a joint statement on the incident, differing somewhat from Jabhat al-Nusra’s account of the events in that Ahrar al-Sham is given the role of mediator and putting a stop to the bloodshed. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, the statement explicitly makes reference to “sons of the Druze sect” in reference to Qalb Lawza, and hails their “support for the Syrian revolution and giving refuge to the sons of their homeland who have fled from all areas of Idlib province under pressure of the bombing of the Assad regime and its criminal actions.” The statement continues with a condemnation of the incident,  a call for neutral Shari’a court arbitration, a declaration of the incident as a contravention of Islam that forbids the unjust spilling of blood of members of any sect, and a promise to work to coordinate with members of all other sects to prevent this kind of incident from happening again in “liberated areas.” Declaring (like Jabhat al-Nusra’s statement) that arms are only to be directed at the regime, the Islamic State and their allies, the joint declaration concludes with an ostensible non-sectarian stance that the “revolution is a people’s revolution.”

Impressive as the joint statement may sound, it is still problematic in overlooking the point that Jabhat al-Nusra has forced the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq to profess Sunni Islam, and there is little these rebel groups can do about it. Indeed, considering how closely they have all coordinated particularly in the recent Idlib gains that have almost entirely expelled the regime presence from Idlib, the other rebels cannot afford a full-blown confrontation with Jabhat al-Nusra.

More generally, Jabhat al-Nusra’s treatment of the Druze of Idlib reflects two different strands of the group that have emerged. On the one hand, in areas it dominates/controls as strongholds, the group exhibits a more hardline face through its Dar al-Qada judicial front body and its implementation of Islamic law, even though there is no pretence to being a complete state in the manner the Islamic State presents itself: that is, whereas the Islamic State claims its own services departments like the Diwan al-Khidamat, in its own strongholds Jabhat al-Nusra appears to allow independent civilian service councils to function. On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra’s embedding within the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition and its advances reflects the traditional picture of the group that emerged over the course of the Syrian civil war as a conciliatory force willing to work with other factions militarily and in administration of newly taken areas, only pursuing a very gradualist strategy of consolidation.

Finally, analysts should consider how this incident in Qalb Lawza will resonate with the Druze in the south as rebels edge into Suwayda province with the fight over Tha’ala airbase. More mainstream rebels in the south may try to reassure the Druze they have no interest in sectarian bloodshed, but the ongoing coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra may prevent the alleviation of concerns regarding the rebels’ intentions.

The Iran-Syria Alliance: Sectarianism or Realpolitik? — by Mohammad Ataie

Mohammed AtaieThe Iran-Syria Alliance: Sectarianism or Realpolitik?

by Mohammad Ataie


They are witnessing the Islamic awakening and feel profoundly imperiled by the spreading idea of political Islam and the rule of Islam.”

“The project of political Islam has failed, and there should be no mixing between political and religious work.”

These two contradictory remarks were made in the wake of the Arab “revolutions,” not by two rival Middle Eastern leaders, but by two longtime allies in the region. The first statement is from Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has described the Arab uprisings as an “Islamic Awakening.” The second came from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has called political Islam a “plague” and asserts that Syria is “the last stronghold of secularism” in the region. The conflicting statements run against the grain of the dominant narrative that describes Damascus-Tehran partnership as sectarian and its raison d’état the creation of a “Shi‘a crescent.” In the past four years, the mainstream media and pundits have had a tendency to overplay the split between the Sunni and Shi‘a to explain the sanguinary war in Syria. In doing so, they have reduced the manifold crisis and the complexity of the Damascus-Tehran relationship to a simplified narrative of Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism.

As a key feature of the modern Middle East, the Syrian-Iranian axis has been an important factor in shaping the geopolitics of the region in the past three decades. The partnership between a pan-Arab secular state and a Persian Islamic Republic—and the longevity of this alliance—has always triggered the curiosity of observers, to which a plethora of academic and journalistic writing attests. Some observers, especially critics of the alliance, tend to trace the roots of the relationship to the reign of the Shi‘i clergy in Iran and the Alawite in Syria and simply conclude that religious affinity has been inherent in the formation and continuation of the partnership. This sectarian narrative, so prevalent in the mainstream media, downplays significant political disagreements between Damascus and Tehran and overlooks the irony of the paradox in their ideological foundations—a factor which has indeed been vital for perpetuating the alliance.

Contrary to notions of post-revolution Iran’s foreign policy as fanatic and purely religiously driven, the Islamic Republic’s partnership with Ba‘thist Syria was not constructed on a spiritual basis to spread Shi‘a ideology. Rather it was primarily aimed at reaching out to the Sunni movements in the Arab East, a policy that was in line with Tehran’s overall strategy to present itself as the heart of Muslim revolutionary struggles and a champion of resistance for both Sunni and Shi‘i movements. To export the revolution, the clergy in Tehran established ties with Hamas, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, including its Syrian branch, as well as Sunni clerical factions in Lebanon. This alliance lent a very credible Sunni dimension to the Islamic Republic’s policy.

Bashar al-Assad receiving a big gleaming golden "Allah" from Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's Parliament after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Damascus, December 2014

Bashar al-Assad receiving a big shiny golden “Allah” from Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s Parliament after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Damascus, Dec. 2014

The unification of Islam’s two sects has been central to post-revolution Iran’s foreign policy. Iran’s leaders advocated this kind of Muslim unity and issued fatwas that banned the fomenting of disagreements harmful to “the brotherhood of Muslims.” Through specific support for the Palestinian cause and symbolic initiatives such as the declaration of the Week of Unity between the Shi‘a and Sunni, Iran has sought to create a united Islamic front against the common enemies of the umma, i.e. the Muslim community. This approach in Iran’s regional policy has continued under the current leader of Iran, who has repeatedly stated that “Iran does not seek to Persianize Arabs or convert other Muslims to Shi‘ism. Iran is after … reviving the Islamic umma.”

The Islamic Republic’s effort to shed its image as a Shi‘i entity and assume an Islamic universalist discourse should be seen in the historical context of Iran’s ethnic and religious isolation in the region. Historically, Iran’s identification with the Shi‘a has been an obstacle to claiming a universalist Islamic mantle and gave its regional rivals a pretext for depicting it as heretical Persian entity. Iran’s regional rivals have been able to undermine Tehran’s endeavor to overcome these ethnic and cultural barriers to its regional influence by highlighting Iran’s Shi‘i and Persian characteristics. This partly explains why media affiliated with Saudi Arabia and Qatar constantly project a provocative sectarian image of Tehran’s involvement in the region to both demonize the clergy and mobilize Sunni public opinion.

For Tehran, the paramount importance of Syria is its geographic location at the heart of the Arab East and its historic role as a bastion for pan-Arabism. This ideological weight was significant during the Iraq-Iran war when Hafez al-Assad’s support blunted Saddam Hussein’s anti-Iranian propaganda and prevented the conflict from becoming an all-Arab war against Persians. Syria is an essential link to the frontline of the struggle with Israel and an entry point into the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas. For Iran, an unfriendly regime or a power vacuum in Damascus, resulting in the spread of extremists to neighboring countries, would jeopardize Iran’s allies in both Lebanon and Iraq. The partnership between a divine state in Iran and a secular Baʿthist Syria is in the first place a product of these historical and geostrategic factors.

The irony of this alliance is that the two states espouse contradictory ideologies. At odds with prevailing views, it is not religious affinity but ideological disagreement that has been a crucial factor in the longevity of the Syrian–Iranian axis. As Jubin Goodarzi argues in his book about Syria–Iran relations, “in the Middle East, the record clearly shows that states sharing a common ideology compete for the mantle of leadership rather than form durable alliances.” An example of this is that despite the structural and ideological similarities between Assad’s and Saddam Hussein’s regimes, the unity plans between the two Baathist parties in the 1970s ended in failure and animosity partly because each claimed to be the legitimate leader of Ba‘thist pan-Arabism.

The ideological paradox, however, did exact a toll on the Syria–Iran relationship in the formative years of the alliance. In the 1980s, the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was concerned with the export of the Islamic Revolution and connections between Iran and his Muslim Brotherhood opposition. While Iran’s relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood remained limited, the clergy’s support for radical Sunni factions and Hezbollah, an alternative to the pro-Syrian secular Amal, led to major tensions between Damascus and Tehran in Lebanon. Likewise, the Iranian clergy were upset with anti-Islamic practices of the ruling Ba‘thists. Around the same time that the ayatollahs in Iran imposed an Islamic dress code on women, the Ba‘thists in Syria sought to enforce the unveiling of women and to target any public Islamic symbols that could bear a trace of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Iranian diplomats in Syria were appalled by the Ba‘thist’s extreme policies, such as harassing ordinary people merely for their Islamic look. At one point Syrian security forces even arrested an Iranian diplomat and his chadur-clad wife in a Damascus street and took them into custody believing that they were Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Even though the current turmoil has made Damascus heavily reliant on Tehran, political and ideological contradictions are still apparent in their foreign policy. President Bashar al-Assad calls political Islam “a plague that hit the Islamic world” and has proclaimed that “the project of political Islam has failed.” This is in stark contrast to the Islamic Republic’s promulgation of political Islam in the region. From the very beginning of the Arab uprisings, Iran’s leader called them an Islamic Awakening and declared that this “unique historical moment” would usher in Islamist governments in place of pro-West authoritarian regimes. But for Assad, “Arab uprisings have only brought chaos.”

The paradox of the alliance between the Iranian clergy and secular Ba‘thists of Syria is one of the most intriguing aspects of the partnership between the “odd couple.” The alliance’s survival to this day despite various internal contradictions and regional differences remains an exceptional phenomenon in the history of the modern Middle East. The Damascus-Tehran relationship should be primarily analyzed in this context and not by the two states’ common Shi‘i roots. Recognizing the complexity of the historical and geopolitical factors behind the alliance would provide insights into building a common ground with Iran over solving regional problems, including the conflict in Syria.

* Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and a PhD student in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A previous post from Mohammad can be viewed here.

Outstanding Book & Article on Syria. Prizes by Syrian Studies Association

Call for Submissions: Syrian Studies Association Prizes for Outstanding Book and Article on Syria

Charles Wilkins

In order to promote and highlight excellence in research, the Syrian Studies Association awards annual prizes for the best writing on Bilad al-Sham until 1918 and on Syria in the period following.

In 2015, the SSA seeks submissions for the most outstanding book published between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2015, and the most outstanding article or book chapter published between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015.

In order to be considered for the prize, candidates must join the association. Information about the Syrian Studies Association is available at the our website.

Submissions in languages other than English are welcomed.  Articles should be sent electronically. Books can be sent either electronically or in hard copy.

The deadline for submissions is July 15, 2015.

All submissions should be sent to Charles Wilkins, Chair of the Prize Committee, at the following address: charleslwilkins@gmail.com.

Winners will be announced at the SSA annual meeting in November 2015. Inquiries should be directed to Charles Wilkins.

“Is Zahran Alloush in Amman?” by Aron Lund

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis.

zahranAccording to rumors doing the rounds now, the Islam Army leader Mohammed Zahran Alloush has traveled to Amman to meet with foreign intelligence services and coordinate a purge of Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements in Syria.

Zahran Alloush is the most powerful rebel leader in the Damascus region. A Sunni Islamist of the salafi tendency, he is the son of a Saudi-based Syrian theologian named Abdullah Alloush. He ran into trouble with the authorities long before the uprising and was held in Seidnaia Prison until June 2011, when he was freed in an amnesty.

Upon his release, he immediately began to construct the armed faction now known as the Islam Army, which eventually grew into the most powerful militia in his hometown Douma. He now controls the Unified Command in the Eastern Ghouta, an area of satellite towns, suburbs, and farming communities on the outskirts of Damascus, which includes Douma. The Eastern Ghouta region has been under government siege for much of the uprising, turning it into an enclave; inside that enclave, Zahran Alloush is by far the most powerful leader. He is a controversial figure, however, and has been accused of silencing dissent by force.

The Unified Command and its member factions are mostly Sunni Islamists of some variety, but with considerable personal and even ideological differences between factions. Together, they have fought hard to root out the Islamic State from the Damascus region, but they have so far cooperated with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front (which is not part of the Unified Command). The idea of starting a war with the Nusra Front would be controversial among other rebels. Many are wary of Nusra’s extremism and international agenda, but they see no urgent need for diverting resources to fighting the group, which is held in high esteem for its ability to inflict damage on Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State alike. Being a very useful ally, it would also be a very dangerous enemy. Indeed, some rebels would probably feel inclined to support the Nusra Front rather than Alloush—which is precisely why the topic is so sensitive.

Zahran Alloush Goes to Turkey

In a surprise move, Zahran Alloush recently left his stronghold in the Douma to go to Turkey, where he has been meeting with foreign governments and other rebel leaders. According to recent reports, Abu Mohammed al-Fateh, who is the leader of another Ghouta-based Islamist group, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, has taken over after Zahran Alloush as head of the Ghouta Unified Command. I have asked two representatives of the Islam Army about this. One says it’s false and has been denied by all involved. The other says it is true but only a temporary arrangement, while Zahran is out of the country.

Whether or not he traveled on to Amman this week, Zahran Alloush’s trip abroad seems to be related to the recent Turkish-Saudi push to empower the Syrian rebels and reorganize the insurgency. A lot of things are happening at the moment, with the quietly Saudi-approved Cairo II conference for moderate opposition members slated to start in Cairo on Tuesday and another conference scheduled for after Ramadan in Riyadh. Meanwhile, President Khaled Khoja of the National Coalition—the Syrian opposition’s internationally recognized exile leadership—has ordered the dissolution of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, a more or less defunct exile body set up in 2012 to coordinate support to the rebellion. Something new will surely take its place. Recent reports suggest a reorganization into a two-pronged structure: the Northern Front and the Southern Front. While the insurgency in the north is a mess, albeit a successful mess, a Southern Front structure already exists, though less as an independent entity than as a label for the groups that are jointly backed and coordinated by Western and Gulf states operating out of Amman.

As these pieces start to fall into place, many suspect that Zahran is being groomed for a bigger role in the new rebel leadership structure—or at the very least, that he is independently angling for one. He may not be the most popular rebel leader in Syria, but he is surely the person most likely to grab the presidential palace if the Assad regime starts to crumble. In a recent interview with the McClatchy news agency, he tried to back away from his previous hateful rhetoric against Shia and Alawite minorities in Syria. It is hard to shake the feeling that this was aimed at making him more acceptable to Syrian and international opinion.

Now, a note of caution: there is no confirmation of these news yet. Instead, the most detailed version of the rumors about Zahran’s meetings in Amman comes from @mujtahidd, an anonymous account on Twitter that is dedicated to critical commentary on Saudi politics. Whoever or whatever is really behind the @mujtahidd account, it has an enormous following in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, but there is no way of confirming these reports—so make of them what you will.

What follows is my quick translation of @mujtahidd’s tweets, which are available in the original Arabic here.


Zahran Alloush spent last week meeting with Saudi, American, and Jordanian intelligence in Amman hotels, in order to coordinate the situation against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and for other tasks.

The meeting with the Americans took place a week ago. He met with the Saudis two times: last Friday between 14.30 until 16.00 and on Sunday at 20.00 in the Hayat hotel in Amman.

Saudi intelligence was represented by Abu Badr, who is close to Mohammed bin Nayef. In the first meeting, Zahran Alloush was accompanied by Mohammed Alloush and Abu Ali al-Ajwa. In the second meeting, he was alone.

The goal was to coordinate the war against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Alloush said that the war against the Nusra Front will be more difficult to justify than the war on the Islamic State, and that they will have to help him with that.

Alloush was asked to coordinate with the Southern Front, which consists of the remains of what’s left of Jamal Maarouf’s troops and the rest of the mercenaries. A meeting was set up between Alloush and Abu Osama al-Golani, who is one of the leaders of this front.

Alloush started coordinating with the Southern Front to fight the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Deraa and Quneitra. With the Saudis, he discussed replacing the Islam Army flag by the revolutionary flag.

The meetings were arranged by members of the Jordanian intelligence services. No fewer than ten were seen there and several of them attended the meetings.

Despite insisting on the destruction of the the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in all of Syria, the main focus was on keeping the Damascus front in his hands so that he will be able to reap the fruits even if the regime is toppled by someone else.

An interesting point is that the person known as Abu Badr asked in detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength on the various fronts. It was not clear if the question was in order to push them out or to make use of them.

An observation: the meetings took place in the Hayat hotel, but Alloush is living at the Crowne Plaza. Of course, they’re all in Amman. We ask God to expose all the hypocrites.

— Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi Responds to al-Julani’s al-Jazeera Interview

by Matthew Barber

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi is a respected Sufi scholar and teacher from Damascus who has been an outspoken voice against IS and other extremist groups in Syria. Throughout the course of the uprising, he has been consulted by rebel fighters seeking guidance regarding their conduct in the war. In this capacity, the Sheikh has provided numerous fatwas against acts of extremism, violence against civilians, sectarian violence, and the killing of prisoners. Sheikh Yaqoubi has previously been interviewed for Syria Comment, and more information on his background and activities can be found in that article.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi speaks in Chicago 2014

This past week, Sheikh Yaqoubi published a short book containing a detailed religious argument against the behavior and tactics of IS. The first of its kind, the book is entitled The Obligation to Fight ISIS: A Detailed Fatwa Proving That ISIS Have Strayed from Islam, Opposed Sharīʿah and That Fighting Them is Obligatory. (The title of the Arabic version is: إنقاذُ الأمَّة: فتوﻯٰ مفصلة في إثبات أن داعش خوارج وأن قتالهم واجب) A strong refutation of IS’ ideology, this work is designed to influence Syrian fighters against IS as well as to curb IS’ recruitment of Muslim youth around the world. It can also serve to encourage IS fighters to leave the organization. An Arabic version of the book has just been published in Turkey and is available here; an English version is forthcoming. The book refutes IS on theological grounds for many aspects of its practice and positions, including their revival of slavery practices (for information on IS’ project to enslave Iraqi Yazidis, see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Also this past week, al-Jazeera ran an in-depth interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida organization. Highlights of this interview, translated into English can be read here, and the previous post on Syria Comment deals extensively with the interview. Eyebrows have been raised by what has appeared as an attempt to improve Nusra’s image as a more moderate alternative to IS that does not practice takfir (the practice of declaring a Muslim an unbeliever or apostate).

I spoke with Sheikh Yaqoubi on Friday. He shared with me his current efforts to ideologically combat IS, as well as his thoughts on the way that al-Jazeera handled the interview with al-Julani, the ranking representative of al-Qaida in Syria. Below is our discussion.


Sheikh Muhammad, what did you make of al-Jazeera’s interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani?

The interview was fifty minutes of mockery—a scandal for professional journalism. It is unbelievable that al-Jazeera is doing the dirty job of beautifying this man before tens of millions of viewers, ordinary Muslims, telling them that he is a good man who is doing a good job, helping the Syrian people, a good Muslim, a moderate Muslim—he’s not! It was clear from the interview that the ideology of al-Nusra Front has not changed. Al-Julani twice confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaida, saying that he receives orders from its leader Dr. Aymenn [al-Zawahiri], and the interviewer never interjected any question about this. All the interviewer did was attempt to portray him as a nice man. He never asked him a critical question; he never challenged him.

What do you think is happening today that allows an important representative of al-Qaida to be featured on television in an accepting way by a mainstream voice of the media?

This question should be directed to Qatar’s government. Why are they doing this?

The man clearly stated that he hasn’t abandoned any of his principles. He only stated one thing that differs from his earlier positions: he says that he has received orders from al-Qaida leader Dr. Ayman to not target the West. This is the only real [ideological] change from what he conveyed in his earlier interview in 2013. Now they are just trying to get statements from him to the effect that “we do not do takfir.” And yet in the same interview, he confirmed the extreme position that visiting shrines of saints is kufr or shirk, accusing people who visit shrines of being mushrikiin [those who “commit polytheism” by ascribing “partners” to God]. This means he is going to have to consider most Sunni Muslims apostates (which for him could mean having to kill them) because they have shrines of saints and visit them, such as our shrine for Ibn ‘Arabi in the heart of Damascus, or in Konya the shrine for Mawlana Rumi, the most famous Muslim saint in the world. You have saints everywhere, from Morocco to South Africa, from Indonesia to Istanbul. All these Muslims are mushrikiin—non-Muslims, unbelievers—according to him? How can this be? This ideology is alien to the Syrian people and to the nature of Islam in Syria.

And ironically—or perhaps even sarcastically—they are trying to present him as so friendly toward [minority] sects.

As he said that Nusra will not kill Alawites or Druze.

Druze and Alawites—“if they don’t fight us, if they don’t work with Assad,” then they will not kill them.

But he made changing their religion a prerequisite for this.

This is the key moment where the interviewer failed to interrupt to pose any hard questions. He [al-Julani] gave two conditions. The first was that they abandon Assad, or defect—and this is the understandable politics of war. But the second condition, at which the interviewer did not pause to question him, was, when talking about the Druze villages in Idlib, he said “we have sent them duʿāt” [proselytizers], people to correct their dogma or their Islam.” And about Alawites, also he repeated that “if they accept Islam, we’ll be fine with them.” His approach to Druze and Alawites is that they should become Muslims and “then we will accept them,” which differs from the long-established position adopted by Sunnis, such as the Hanafis and Malikis, who accepted these groups and made them equal to the People of the Book. Al-Julani’s position means that Alawites have the only the choices of converting to Islam or being killed; they would not even be extended the option of deportation.

Now, these Alawites and Druze, along with the Isma’ilis, have lived side by side with Sunni Muslims for over a thousand years, and Muslims did not attempt to erase, eradicate, or convert them, even though Muslims had power, as the rulers of the land, such as the Ottomans. This is because it is part of our legal system that these people could be treated as the People of the Book, which means they are full citizens of the countries where they live. It is in the Hanafi school, the Malaki school, it is even one opinion of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

Now I understand the position of the Shafi’is, but it was never practiced, so why pick it up after all these centuries? While the majority of Muslim scholars say that even mushrikiin can be treated as the People of the Book? Imam Malik says this very clearly and so does Abu Hanifa. This was practiced for many centuries in Syria, so why now? Why turn the tables after all of this history and begin forcing people into Islam? Al-Julani wants to claim to be more loyal to Islam than the Muslims? More than the Ottomans, more than the Ayubids, more than the Abbasids, more than the Umayyads, more than the companions of the Prophet? This is very strange.

What Shafi’i position were you referring to?

The Shafi’is said that jizya can only be taken from Christians, Jews, and Magians [Zoroastrians], not from others. But this has never been practiced; the Shafi’i opinion on this has never been followed. We have a rule in fiqh: “Practice takes priority.” In other words, the position of a madhab that becomes majority practice is validated, whereas an opposing position of another madhab, if not followed in a certain land, cannot be practiced there. Therefore the Shafi’i position on this has become invalid in Syria and neighboring countries because it was never adopted by any Muslim government. This is even echoed now by one of the major leaders of the current Salafi-jihadi movement, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who states that the majority opinion on this is superior and should be practiced, and that all should be considered as People of the Book and should not be forced into Islam. He says this on his website.

Help me understand the difference between the Shafi’is on the one side, and the Hanafis and Malikis on the other. Both would agree that the option to pay jizya [rather than convert] is provided to the People of the Book, but the difference is about who is considered People of the Book?

The difference is about who can be annexed to the category, i.e. who can be merged into the People of the Book. It is about whether the “People of the Book” can be extended to include others who can be treated as the People of the Book, or not. Because in the past, when Muslims waged wars, they always offered the enemy three options before fighting: 1) the enemy could become Muslim, 2) they could remain non-Muslim and pay jizya, or 3) they could choose to fight. So for mushrikiin, the payment of jizya was not considered an option, in some opinions. But this was in regards to pagans among the Arabs. And the Hanafis, for example, and the Malikis on a larger scale, and even Ahmad ibn Hanbal according to one narration from him, all quote hadith from the Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, reporting that when he sent people to fight pagan mushrikiin, he asked them to offer [to the latter] all three options. This means that even pagans cannot be forced into Islam, if they choose to pay jizya. There is also another hadith, one about the Magians, in Sahih Bukhari, that says “treat them like the People of the Book.”

So from these proofs, these portions of hadith tradition, among others, scholars and Muslim jurists went on to say that all non-Muslim sects are annexed to the People of the Book. Let me state it clearly: Muslims were not keen on killing people. Muslims tried to save the lives of people under any pretext when any proof was available. They valued human life as God’s creation, so when they found these clear proofs from among the words of the Prophet, they knew that Islam was a religion of mercy, because this is the higher purpose of the shariʿa: mercy—not killing people, not harshness, not savagery.

This was the practiced pattern when Muslims had power. Today Muslims are weak, and a group like al-Nusra thinks that it can survive and become a superpower? This is ridiculous. Muslims were superpowers and controlled two thirds of the world, and they did not eradicate sects. They did not force them into Islam.

So when al-Julani mentioned placing duʿāt among the Druze in Idlib, the interviewer did not interrupt him to question the practice.

He didn’t challenge him at all. The way that al-Julani put it was “we sent missionaries, duʿāt, to them, to correct for them their misunderstandings of Islamic dogma.” But Julani is very aware that Druze are considered non-Muslims in books of theology. When they have freedom, they will identify as Druze.

There is no basis for forcing or pressuring others to enter Islam. In my new book on fighting ISIS, I mention that it is even forbidden to slander a Christian or another non-Muslim. Ibn Nujaim, one of the greatest scholars of fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh in the Hanafi school, said that it is haram, forbidden, to say to a non-Muslim: “you kāfir,”because it upsets him, and you are not supposed to upset him by pointing out his difference in beliefs. This has been established in Islam for centuries. This is why when I once spoke in America at the Catholic University in Washington, I said that the concept of “tolerance” is alien to us, because tolerance means “bearing up with difficulty,” i.e. doing a favor to the other. It is derived from the Latin verb tolerare which means “to endure pain.” The Muslim relationship toward other sects was not based in “doing the favor” of tolerating them; they considered their separate beliefs as their right. Ibn ʿĀbidīn even says in his book Radd Al-Muḥtār that oppression against non-Muslims is worse than oppression against Muslims.

So where do these people like Julani and Baghdadi come from? But this is what results when they destroy the twelve-century-long corpus of law of the four schools. This is what you get: everyone is implementing his own opinion. Everyone who carries a gun is now a mujtahid or a mufti, producing his own fatwas and acting as judge. They claim to act in reference to the book of Allah and the sunna of his Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, but they act according to their own understanding—or misunderstanding.

Islamic law develops [over time]. One of its beautiful characteristics is its flexibility. We have certain things that are constant over time, things like the pillars of Islam (prayer, fasting, and so forth), but then we have things that may evolve and change over time. There are a lot of these things, including jizya. It is not something that is rigidly defined, even though it is mentioned in the Qur’an.

So what do you think was the goal of that interview?

The purpose of the interview seemed to be just to elicit certain statements from al-Julani, particularly that “we don’t do takfir to anyone,” in a way that would increase his appeal to the public. It was a very dangerous interview.

And in the interview we don’t really see a renouncing of takfiri practice or ideology?

No. And even if we did, there is more at issue with al-Qaida than the practice of takfir. For example, anyone who believes in democracy, for them, is a heretic. Another example: any Muslim ruler or country that enters an alliance with or seeks assistance from a non-Muslim country—they become unbelievers. There are many problems with al-Qaida, and the ideology is basically the same as that of ISIS, though ISIS has more extreme practices that have now made al-Qaida look nice. But we know that several thousand fighters moved from al-Nusra to ISIS.

Throughout the Syria conflict, every time a more radical group would appear, it would make the groups preceding it look less bad. People were concerned about Islamist groups, but after Nusra emerged, it began to appear as the bigger threat, making the other Islamists appear more moderate. After ISIS emerged, even Nusra began to look better, simply because it was not as extreme. People would perceive any opposition to whatever was the more extreme party as a good thing.

[laughing] Well if you believe in relativity, then that is the case! But we don’t believe in relativity in this criminal arena. You can’t say that a murderer who kills one person is a saint because someone else is killing more.

Let me ask you how you perceive the recent successes of Nusra and other Islamists. You are someone who wants to see a future peace in Syria, and you see both the Assad regime and Nusra as obstacles to that peace. So when you see Assad losing ground and Nusra or other Islamist groups gaining ground, do you interpret this as a positive or negative development, or neither?

Kicking the regime out of areas like Idlib is definitely good, but the ultimate solution for the crisis in Syria will be political. Sometimes people are happy that a piece of land is liberated, but then you see barrel bombs falling on people morning and night in that area, killing civilians and innocents. So it is good that the regime is now weaker, that more people are safe from the torture of the regime’s prisons, from its special art in killing people. But what we need is to finally reach a political solution, where no fighting takes place.

Until now the regime has refused to talk seriously about any political solution. Do you think that with all its recent losses it may experience enough pressure that going to the negotiating table will become a real possibility?

I think that there may now be an agreement to get rid of Assad. Even Russia and Iran now believe that he has become a burden. But what system would follow? Of course Iran wants to guarantee its own interests in the country, and Russia wants to guarantee its interests. We do not want the major destruction of Damascus. So what is happening now is more military pressure on the regime to bring it to the negotiating table, where hopefully Assad could step down, an interim council would be created to which power would be handed over, and we would eventually witness a new Syria.

If that doesn’t happen and the present fight continues to move, say to Latakia or Damascus, the destruction will just go on.

Let me say this: continuing the fight is no longer in the interest of Syrians.

Including the opposition.

Including the opposition because the opposition is not in power and is not represented by the people fighting on the ground. Those fighting are mainly extreme groups like ISIS and others who want to impose their own version of Islam, which is alien to the moderate Sunni Islam that the region has known for centuries. When you look at the four schools you realize that Islam is not about killing. For example, Islamic penalties could not be implemented in times of war, times of famine, times of ignorance and so forth. By putting Islamic penalties on hold, I am not challenging the book of Allah or the sunna. I am not challenging the books of fiqh. I am precisely following the reliable opinion of every school of law. Shariʿa is not about Islamic penalties; these extreme groups have reduced shariʿa to Islamic penalties, they have reduced shariʿa to jizya for non-Muslims. What about truthfulness, what about mercy, what about respect for citizens, what about protecting life? Islam is about these things.

Tell me about the new book you have written. It is a long fatwa about IS. What do you hope to accomplish with it?

First of all, I have seen a lot of need, from inside Syria and from around the world. From inside Syria I receive questions from fighters and commanders, from certain military groups, asking whether they should engage in the war against ISIS, asking whether ISIS are Muslims and whether they can fight against Muslims. And from non-Muslims around the world, you are aware how much fuss there is about ISIS and its crimes, especially after the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Allah have mercy on him. So I saw the strong need [for an authoritative religious response to this], and there was only the one letter that was issued before, that I cosigned [www.lettertobaghdadi.com], but which did not go into enough detail regarding the proofs for the refutation of ISIS, but which mainly presented the basics. So I wrote this book directing the reader to the major positions held by ISIS, such as allegiance to Baghdadi and its validity, kidnapping, burning, slavery. Slavery is one of the major issues and I mentioned that as jurists, doctors of the law, from an Islamic point of view we are bound by international law on the issue, which we [Muslim countries] have signed, and Muslims must not breach their promises. Slavery should not be practiced and cannot be practiced; it is now forbidden in Islam for it to be practiced. This does not contradict the book of Allah or the sunna of the Prophet; it is rather in conjunction with them, because in Islam we are ordered to respect our covenants and contracts. Before the coming of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed participated in a covenant called the Hilf al-Fudūl that was made among tribes in Mecca to protect the oppressed. And after the message of Islam had come, the Prophet said that if he was again invited to such an accord that he would agree to it. So slavery in Islam is not obligatory; it is not the only option. Slavery was one option in Islam only because it was practiced in the world into which Islam came, and if the world comes to agree on abolishing it, we are bound by this. Even more so because our enemies do not enslave us. The only case in which slavery could still be applied would be if the world were to abolish the Declaration of Human Rights and begin to enslave Muslims. In such a scenario, Muslims could enslave their enemies as a kind of reciprocity. But this is impossible, an entirely imaginary hypothesis. There is now no place for slavery at all; it is out of the question.

Now when we spoke in 2013, you mentioned that many fighters were seeking your religious guidance, sometimes about relations with other groups, sometimes about fighting the regime. As the first sheikh to issue a fatwa validating resistance against the regime after its use of violence against the peaceful protesters, you played an important role in legitimizing the armed struggle of the opposition. I wonder now, in early 2015, whether similar numbers of fighters still consult you.

No. The reason is that many moderate fighters, for financial reasons or for lack of weapons and arms support, moved to join with al-Nusra or others. Three years ago there were so many military groups on the ground. Many of them were moderate and were fighting for a new Syria, and their goal was to take out the regime, not to create that form of a state which Nusra or ISIS is seeking to establish now. We all know that many Syrian fighters are now with ISIS or Nusra—they are well paid. Many looked at the international community with frustration, because they didn’t see any support.

But some still contact me and I have received requests from some of the major military groups that still exist, from around the country. Their questions now are not about the regime but mainly concern fighting ISIS.

How much practical influence do you think that your book can have?

It is designed to impact three target groups. The first group is the fighters inside Syria.

And can it physically reach them?

Yes. One major rebel group inside Syria has already requested 10,000 copies of it. A second group has requested 5,000 copies. These are good signs. They want to educate their fighters, to discuss what is right and wrong, who represents Islam, and what kind of Islam is to be practiced. So this is very encouraging. And this is just in the first few days. By the way, I have published 25,000 copies [in Turkey, to be distributed to Syrian fighters] at my own expense. I have had no sponsors. But we are expecting that 100,000 copies will eventually be needed.

The second target group for the book is the youth outside of Syria, around the world, who are at risk for recruitment. They can be reached online, and when they read this book they will realize that ISIS does not represent Islam. Through this effort we will try to minimize the levels of recruitment. That is why there are versions in both Arabic and English.

And the third target group is academia and the media. I receive a lot of questions from both academia and the media about the legal stance of Islam and the various schools on these issues, and this work can help answer those questions from concerned observers.

We are hopeful about the potential of this book and feel that its reception is promising.

“Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s Aljazeera Interview” by Aron Lund

by Aron Lund,
editor of Syria in Crisis 

On Wednesday, May 27, the Aljazeera TV network ran a 47-minute interview with Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front, which is one of the most powerful rebel factions in Syria. If you speak Arabic, have a look at the interview or read the transcript. If you don’t, then start studying or proceed straight to the commentary below.

Who is Abu Mohammed al-Golani?

He’s the founder and leader of Jabhat al-Nosra, the al-Qaeda franchise that operates in Syria and Lebanon. Apart from that, no one really knows anything about him.

Is this Golani’s first interview?

No it is not. He has been interviewed by Aljazeera before. Then, his interlocutor was Aljazeera’s star reporter Taysir Allouni, a Syrian and Spanish citizen who interviewed Osama bin Laden right after 9/11 and then spent nine years in a Spanish jail accused of al-Qaeda contacts. Although no one doubts that Allouni had very tight relations with high-level jihadi figures (he hosted a certain Mohammed al-Bahaiya a.k.a. Abu Khaled al-Souri in his home in Spain and helped him apply for Spanish residency), the proceedings were marred by some really bizarre translation issues and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that Allouni had not been given an impartial trial. Since his release in 2012, Allouni has done an excellent series of interviews with rebel leaders of all stripes in northern Syria and in Turkey for Aljazeera’s Liqa al-Yawm (Meeting of the Day). He was the first and, until Wednesday, the only person to interview Golani in December 2013.

Wednesday’s interview took place on Bila Hudoud (Without Borders), a show hosted by the well-known Egyptian anchor Ahmed Mansour. Mansour, too, is obviously some species of Islamist and he seemed pretty infatuated with Golani – more so than the sympathetically surly Allouni – so the end result was a real softball interview. It was no Frost/Nixon, more like a high school date. That may very well have been intentional. Many assume that Qatar, which owns and controls Aljazeera, is eager to see the group show it’s gentler side, now that it and other rebels are capturing territory in northwestern Syria.

Will there be another interview?

Seems like it. At the end of the interview, Mansour said he’d like a second episode to talk about Iran’s role in the region and in Syria, about relations to the Islamic State, and about Golani’s view of the future of Syria. Inshallah, said Golani. [Update – June 3, 2015: A second part of the interview is now available for viewing at the bottom of this post.]

Where did the interview take place?

In “liberated territory” in northern Syria, according to Mansour. We can’t be sure, of course, but it was probably in Idleb City, which was recently captured by a rebel coalition that includes Jabhat al-Nosra. For one thing, Ahmed Mansour posted a set of pictures of himself in Syria to the Bila Hudoud page on Aljazeera.net, some of which show that he visited the Idleb region. And if you look closely, the kitschy gilded chairs and the silly little coffee-tables seem identical to those used in the governor’s palace in Idleb City. So chances are the interview actually took place there, unless we are to believe that they carted away the furniture to some other place in order to trick us. Or maybe those chairs are very common in Idleb. I hope not.

What did he look like?

Golani to the left.Well, we don’t know, do we? We saw more of him this time than ever before, but that’s still just two hands and a nose. He had a black scarf or cloak draped over his head and shoulders, to conceal his face and features. He looked a little pudgy, too, but that may just have been a suicide bomber’s belt under his clothes. Al-Qaeda leaders like to wear those regardless of the occasion.

The rest of his clothes were a bit out of the ordinary. He wore a pale checkered shirt and something that looked like olive army pants, plus a green waistcoat with a shiny silk back. At first I took this for an unusually cruel case of sartorial terrorism, but on closer inspection he may have been wearing a traditional Syrian costume. Those can look a little different in different areas of the country, but they often involve some sort of vest and wide-waisted billowy pants of the kind still worn by many Kurds. If so, it was certainly a conscious fashion statement: eschewing the Afghan-Pakistan Pashtun hats and Shalwar Kameez tunics that jihadis like to wear, in favor of clothes that tell you he’s a Syrian. Not just any Syrian, but a real deal genuine old-school Syrian, straight out of Bab al-Hara. Shame we didn’t get to see if he had the moustache to match.

And what did he say?

The interview was mainly dedicated to one thing, which was for Mansour to help Golani explain that he’s nothing like the Islamic State. Rather, he is a responsible and sensible jihadi leader.

In line with traditional Jabhat al-Nosra rhetoric, he said that while there can be no compromise about sharia law, that doesn’t mean that his men are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists. He kept repeating that “for the time being” they’re only fighting those who fight them and implementing sharia, so if you don’t get in the way of that you’ll be OK. However, Golani didn’t step away from his ideology. He is a true believer and he’s not going to give the Islamic State any reason to claim he’s straying from the word of God.

Among other things, he claimed that Jabhat al-Nosra is not involved in operations against the West, following instructions from al-Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. That directly contradicts what the U.S. government says. It claims to have information that veteran al-Qaeda members have moved to Syria under the protection of Jabhat al-Nosra, where they are busily preparing bomb plots against Western aviation. The U.S. has dubbed this cell “the Khorasan Group,” a label that Golani ridiculed, saying there is no such thing and all the camps attacked by the  U.S. belong to Jabhat al-Nosra. He did however admit that there are people in Syria who have come “from Khorasan.” In modern jihadi parlance, that typically means Afghanistan/Pakistan, so it seems likely he is referring to people on mission from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. He also implicitly clarified that contrary to current rumors, Jabhat al-Nosra isn’t about to break ties with al-Qaeda. While he didn’t address those rumors head on, he talked about receiving instructions from Zawahiri (like it was the most natural thing in the world that a Syrian group should obey an Egyptian holed up in Pakistan) and there was a little flag on the table in front of him bearing the words “al-Qaeda in the Levant.”

Egged-on by Mansour, Golani spoke in more detail than ever before about the fate of Syria’s religious minorities, mostly to stress that Jabhat al-Nosra isn’t like Islamic State in that respect. For example, he said that Jabhat al-Nosra won’t fight those Christian villages that do not fight the Muslims (meaning the rebels), adding that only after an Islamic government has been set up will they start collecting the Jizya, and even then it will only be taken from those who can afford it … and so on. Again and again, he made the point that Jabhat al-Nosra would be totally justified in taking action against certain minorities, but has chosen not to because they are in fact un-crazy non-extremists.

In one of the interview’s more memorable moments, he said that an Alawite can surrender to Jabhat al-Nosra and as long as he repents, he won’t be killed “even if he killed a thousand of us”. You won’t hear that from the Islamic State, which proudly broadcasts videos of its soldiers shooting defenseless Alawite and Shia prisoners-of-war or slitting their throats. Indeed, those who imagine there is no room for nuances in jihadi thinking, or jihadi rhetoric, are wrong. There is already more than a glint of daylight between the classical salafi-jihadism of Jabhat al-Nosra  and the still-developing neo-jihadi ideology that was set loose by the Islamic State’s split from al-Qaeda in 2013. The difference will surely widen over time.

Then again, the basics remain the same and they’re extreme enough to be borderline genocidal, even when sugarcoated by Aljazeera. If you listened closely, Golani also said that Alawites are a people who have left Islam. He made it clear that not only must Alawites stop fighting for Assad, they must also abandon the elements of their faith that contradict Islam. And of course, by Islam he means his own salafi brand of Sunni Islam, not that they can be regular Shias or anything like that. So minus the wrapping, his core message remains the same: Alawites will be left alone as soon as they agree to stop being Alawites.

That doesn’t sound like it will convince many of his detractors?

No it doesn’t, but that was never the point. Golani isn’t addressing himself to non-Sunnis or secularists, or to the Americans or the Western media. He knows they’ll hate him whatever he says. He did what al-Qaeda-style jihadis always do, which is to preach to those they have a real hope of influencing: other Sunni Islamists, whose support or at least passive acceptance they need to survive and succeed.

In other words, if you didn’t like what you heard, he wasn’t talking to you.

Even today, globalist salafi-jihadism is not a popular ideology in Syria. Jabhat al-Nosra has grown in spite of its international links rather than because of them. Powerful foreign governments also are prodding their rebel clients to isolate and undermine Jabhat al-Nosra because of its al-Qaeda connection, even as they leave indigenous and locally-focused Syrian salafi factions alone. To avoid being isolated and made a target, Jabhat al-Nosra’s strategy has been to embed itself inside the wider Syrian rebellion, by making itself an appreciated and indispensable ally to other Sunni Islamists.

Most of the big rebel factions, especially those that work closest with Jabhat al-Nosra, are Sunni Islamists of some variety. The grassroots-level fighters in these groups are not necessarily very different from Golani’s men – they’re all politically hawkish, religiously conservative, and deeply disenchanted with if not hostile to the West. (I’m sure there are exceptions, but they’re exceptions.) But most of these Islamist groups are not committed to a global anti-Western agenda the way al-Qaeda is; indeed, most of them explicitly reject it. With time, many pro-opposition Sunni Muslims, including a significant number of Islamist hardliners who might otherwise be inclined to embrace Golani’s thinking, have come to think that Jabhat al-Nosra are too extreme. They’re particularly irked by its post-2014 behavior, when in the chaos after the Islamic State infighting and the U.S. intervention, Jabhat al-Nosra began to take a more aggressive and territorial approach to rebel politics, setting up their own courts and seizing villages for their sole control. Furthermore, they accuse the group of not being properly Syrian, since it is full of foreigners and takes orders from the Egyptian-born Zawahiri, whose agenda is global rather than Syrian. They also complain that Jabhat al-Nosra’s al-Qaeda connection has unnecessarily antagonized the West and is ruining the international reputation of the Syrian revolution.

They are of course right on all counts and that’s why Jabhat al-Nosra is so sensitive to that line of criticism. And that’s also why we now see Golani pleading innocent to these charges, hand on heart, saying that he is in fact not a loose cannon, he is not attacking the U.S., he is not slaughtering minorities, and he is just as Syrian as they are. (Hey, look at his clothes.)

In other words, what he is doing is to tell his fellow Sunni rebels, potential funders, and Islamist opinion-makers around the Middle East exactly what they want to hear, so that they’ll be able to convince themselves that the Americans must be wrong about Jabhat al-Nosra. (Because what have the Americans done for them anyway?) He tries to reassure them that he is just like them and that they shouldn’t listen to the U.S., which is making up fraudulent reasons to target him, when everyone knows that the real motivation for the American airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nosra is because Obama is secretly in cahoots with Assad and wants to prevent his fall.

Wait, the U.S. works with Assad?

Well, no, but that’s the idea among Syrian Islamists, not only on the jihadi fringe. You’d be surprised to know how many Syrian rebels and their sympathizers believe this (and no, it’s not entirely unfounded). So that was Golani’s other big theme for the night. He’s making the point that the U.S. and its allies want to abort the revolution and rehabilitate Assad, since they fear a “Muslim” victory. The corollary of that is that the U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nosra (“Khorasan Group,” remember?) are no different from Assad’s barrel-bombing of Syrian cities. Both airforces are operating in the same airspace and working for the same goal, Golani says, so anyone who takes aid from the Americans is – knowingly or not – also working to keep Assad in power.

He then lumps in the UN negotiations with the rest of this great Shia-Zionist-Yankee-Alawi plot. If the opposition drifts into any form of peace talks, such as those proposed by UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura, that can only serve to isolate the jihadi irreconcileables. So it’s no surprise that Golani insists that all the suggested peace conferences are secretly gamed to serve the international pro-Assad conspiracy. You shouldn’t listen to anyone who will take part in such talks, Golani says, and you shouldn’t accept the support of the West because they’ll just get you hooked on it and then reduce you to a tool for their own purposes. Instead, your only option is to accept that the Assad regime and the international community are two faces of the same coin and to charge at them in an uncompromising jihad.

Which, coincidentally, happens to be the product that al-Qaeda is selling.


Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

UPDATE JUNE 3, 2015: Part two of Golani’s interview with Ahmed Mansour is now available: