Al-Qaeda’s Syrian Judiciary—is it really what al-Jolani makes it out to be?

by Maxwell Martin, researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Turkey that has implemented justice related programming in northern Syria

The flag of Dar al-Qadaa, the Nusra-backed court network in Syria

The flag of Dar al-Qadaa, the Nusra-backed court network in Syria

On November 4th, 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, released a recording in which he spoke about what the militant group has been up to lately. While many observers’ attention was focused on what al-Jolani had to say about the Nusra Front’s recent altercation with the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib, the recording was also noteworthy for al-Jolani’s lengthy discussion of Dar al-Qadaa, meaning “the judiciary,” a new network of courts that the group spearheaded in July 2014. It provided the clearest view yet of the thinking behind the establishment of Dar al-Qadaa, including the Nusra Front’s interpretation of the practical and doctrinal problems that the group sought to eschew when it withdrew from other court networks it previously backed with the Islamic Front. But is Dar al-Qadaa all that al-Jolani makes it out to be?

Whither the sharia commissions?

According to al-Jolani, the Nusra Front withdrew from the sharia commissions it jointly backed with Islamic Front factions Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqur al-Sham because of the crippling influence of factional infighting. “Some looked at the commissions as a way to implement the sharia, which was right,” noted al-Jolani in a not-so-veiled reference to his own group, “while others looked at the commissions as a political front from which they wished to gain. Still others saw some kind of weakness in the commissions and wanted to drag them into cooperation with the [Syrian Opposition] Coalition,” a puppet of the West, according to the group. Previously, the Nusra Front lamented the fact that other factions simply ignored the sharia commissions when it suited them, establishing in-house judicial bodies instead. As a result, the commissions “lost the essential purpose for which they were established.”

Unsatisfied with the sharia commissions’ performance and commitment to implementing an acceptable interpretation of Islamic law, the Nusra Front undertook “to establish an alternative to the sharia commissions with stricter rules.” To rectify the internal friction that hindered the sharia commissions’ work, al-Jolani turned to other jihadi factions to help prop the new court network up and to ensure a kind of cross-factional legitimacy. Other hardline factions were invited to join the project, but al-Jolani insisted that “those who participate in Dar al-Qadaa must agree with [the Nusra Front] on the goals and the means to achieve those goals.”

Despite the Nusra Front’s controlling influence over the new project, the court network was to be separate from armed factions, and al-Jolani promised that Nusra Front fighters would be the first to submit to the new court’s authority. Dar al-Qadaa claims to be entirely independent, and jihadi fundraiser and hype-man ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini’s reported involvement in shopping the project around would seem to underscore the court’s nominal autonomy. In the past, al-Muheisini has insisted that initiatives in which he has been involved not have any affiliation with any particular faction. As such, Dar al-Qadaa’s denunciation of “the repugnant system of factional quotas” that prevailed in the sharia commissions highlights that at least on its face, Dar al-Qadaa is not intended to be a multilateral factional enterprise, but an unaffiliated, salafi-jihadi project.

The Nusra Front’s—and other jihadi groups’—renewed focus on governance and on the law was also spurred by other developments in the opposition judiciary. Al-Jolani noted that other groups, including lawyers unions, were striving to fill the justice vacuum by implementing man-made laws instead of the sharia, a grave offense in the Nusra Front’s worldview. Even the Aleppo Sharia Commission, the most prominent of the commissions in which the Nusra Front had participated, was considering taking up the Unified Arab Code, a codified version of Islamic law that is unacceptable to salafi-jihadis of al-Qaeda’s persuasion.

The challenge of multi-factional justice

Dar al-Qadaa, however, has its detractors. Last week, a former jurist in the court’s Latakia branch blasted the new judicial body, saying that it was already corrupt and beset by factionalism. The jurist, Salman al-‘Arjani, was originally of Sham al-Islam, a mostly Moroccan foreign fighter jihadi outfit, but has since defected to the Islamic State. His litany of complaints against Dar al-Qadaa included the story of how a Nusra Front emir got away with a vicious assault on a married couple because the group’s judge let him out of jail, fearing retribution if he did not, before absconding to a nearby Nusra Front stronghold in Idlib. Al-‘Arjani also complained that the Nusra Front judge unlawfully set a Free Syrian Army commander free, infuriating the independent judges in the Latakia branch of Dar al-Qadaa and leading them to suspend their work.

But al-‘Arjani went further, accusing the same emir of apostasy for replacing a cross that jihadis had torn down inside a church during a recent offensive against the mostly-Christian town of Kassab. Al-‘Arjani and other hardliners were so incensed, he said, that “some of the mujahidin were determined to kill” the emir. The result of these acts, insisted al-‘Arjani, was that the Nusra Front had “made a mockery of God’s law.”

Whether or not we take al-‘Arjani at his word, his critique implies that Dar al-Qadaa may be suffering from some of the same problems that drove the Nusra Front to establish it in the first place. The Nusra Front’s admitted oversized role in the court may tempt it—or at least individual influential members—to skirt the rules when doing so is in their interest. At the very least, it reveals the difficulty groups face when jointly attempting to govern, even among an ostensibly like-minded group of salafi-jihadis; Unlike the Islamic State—which enjoys nearly unchallenged “sovereignty” where it governs—the Nusra Front must balance between a diverse set of highly opinionated jihadis—including, apparently, ones that are more extreme than the Nusra Front itself. The process can result in a fragile consensus, challenging the overall coherence of the Nusra Front’s approach to governance and resulting in the same kind of discord that frustrated the sharia commissions’ aspirations to judicial supremacy.

Striving for Society’s Embrace

As the Nusra Front expands its footprint in northern Syria and replaces other, more nationalist-oriented armed groups—the rule of which was marred by accusations of thuggery and banditry—the performance of its judicial arm in Dar al-Qadaa will be critical. Whether the Nusra Front is seen as fair in its administration of opposition-held territories will have implications for its ability to generate popular support, or al-hadina al-sha’biyya—society’s embrace—that the group has at times deemed necessary for its success, both on the battlefield and in Islamizing Syrian society in al-Qaeda’s image. However, the group will have to balance what they deem popular and religiously acceptable governance with other, harder-line views within the coalition of non-Islamic State-aligned jihadi groups of how to best implement Islamic law, a process that could see the Nusra Front dragged further out of synch with the populations it hopes to court.

Comments (16)

Alice Gissinger said:

Interesting point about ‘Arjani and the Nusra emir who replaced the cross in Kassab. There’s many references in the Islamic tradition to Muslims making it forbidden for Christians to repair churches – or at the very least, jurists claiming that this is the rule. There is also a rule that Christians are forbidden from displaying crosses. These clauses are found in many proto-versions and versions of the so-called “Pact of Umar,” invoked by Muslim jurists and, sometimes, rulers as the standard set of clauses regulating Christian/Jewish status in Muslim society. I doubt if Arjani actually had that text in mind, but I would suspect this idea – assuming they are not destroyed, no new churches and/or repairing existing ones – is widespread in the circles in which he travels. A Nusra emir putting up a cross would be a strange sight indeed. Khalid al-Qasri, back when he governed Iraq in the 8th century, did not make the jurists and pietists happy when he put up a church for his mother.

PS. About the Pact of Umar: the best, and sadly relatively unknown, text I’ve seen on that document is a Ph.D. thesis by Daniel Earl Miller, U. of Missori-Kansas City (2000). It pretty convincingly shows how the text emerged in Syria in the early 2nd hijri century, and certainly not in the time of the caliphs Umar I or II.

November 10th, 2014, 4:09 am


ghufran said:

Joshua responding to critics:

I don’t doubt that many Sunnis want to live under democracy and hate Assad. I just don’t know how to produce democracy in Syria. I do not believe that any Western power is going to destroy Assad. I also did not give the name Sunni north on the map. I wanted it simply to be called northern Syria. People at the show thought it would be clearer with the word Sunni.

Many call me names, but many call for an ISIS victory. Others call for cleansing the country of religious minorities. Most Syrians seem to believe that their side will win if given more time. Thus, they do not like the idea of a cease-fire and the division of the country that a cease-fire would mean.
Many believe that ISIS was created by Assad to destroy the Free Syrian Army. Others call the division of Syria a Sykes-Picot like foreign plot. But Syria has already been divided by its inhabitants.
The regime supporters believe that Assad will take back the whole country and that the US will inevitably support Assad in this slow re-conquest, because Washington has no partners among the rebels. They believe that Assad is the natural ally of Washington because they are both fighting terrorism.
Rebel supporters, who are not ISIS, are sure that they will eventually win. They believe that their forces are making gains in the south and the north around Idlib. They also seem to believe that the United States will come to understand that Assad is the creator of ISIS and that so long as he remains in power, ISIS will remain strong.
It would seem that this war is far from over.

November 10th, 2014, 11:43 pm


Sami said:

Louay Hussein was arrested by Assadists moukhabarat today.

How can anyone argue that this regime can be reasoned with…

November 12th, 2014, 11:44 am


ALAN said:

The speech alone is not enough. Our professors in International Law at the University of Aleppo and Damascus will file a case for the trial of Mr. Joshua at everything he did and caused damage to Syria. He must bear the responsibility for violating international laws and norms ..
Was not his idea of the distribution of anti-aircraft weapons to terrorists and now paints division of the Syrian state map? That all the rebels, who are arming by the influence of the ideas of Mr. Landis through American policy-makers, are now in the heart of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

November 12th, 2014, 1:12 pm


Sami said:


When will these very same professors make a case against Assad and his henchmen for the brutality and death they have caused?

One would think it would be a much simpler task holding Assad for his direct actions than professor Landis for whatever you want hold him accountable for…

November 12th, 2014, 4:00 pm


ALAN said:

Are you in harmony with Landis in his Zio-mapping?
Coalition Divided Over Goals

November 12th, 2014, 4:20 pm


Sami said:


Now will you answer my question, or you’ll as usual not answer and dump more cut and paste garbage?

November 12th, 2014, 4:35 pm


ALAN said:

bad trick! You still depend demonizing presidents approach, not loyal to the criminal Western will.
From the outset, the topic about drawing maps of Syria as a product of religious engineering in which Landis participated deeply. Will not be able to circumvent the issue.

November 12th, 2014, 5:05 pm


Sami said:

What trick?

Assad’s actions has demonized him, not me.
Landis never ordered to bomb Syrians and Syrian cities, Assad did.

If you dislike the professor so much, why spend so much time on his comment section?

November 12th, 2014, 9:00 pm


Ghufran said:

More ” moderate rebels” join Isis:
أعلنت عدة فصائل معارضة عن بيعتها لتنظيم ” داعش ” يوم الثلاثاء (11.11.2014)، بعد أن كانت انسحبت من ريف حمص.
وقال ناشطون معارضون إن كتائب الفاروق ولواء القصير (الجيش الحر) بايعوا التنظيم على السمع والطاعة.
وقال قائد لواء القصير المقدم محي الدين الزين المنشق عن جيش النظام في تصريح له على صفحته في فيسبوك : ” تزاما بأمر الله وانتهاجاً بشرع الله وتطبيقاً لسنة سيد الخلق محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم نبايع دولة دولة الإسلام والخلافة على طاعة الله ونتهيئ للموت في سبيل الله ضد المجوس الشيعة المفسدين في دين الله والملوثين طهر الاسلام في بلاد الشام “.
The FSA group vowed to fight the “Shia Majous ” in the name of ” Allah”

November 12th, 2014, 9:20 pm


ALAN said:

/If you dislike the professor so much/
I do not hate anyone, I’m going to denounce the practices harmful to the interests of our homeland.

November 13th, 2014, 6:38 am


Sami said:

If you’re denouncing what’s harmful to Syria, this would bring us back to my first question, why haven’t you denounced Assad yet?

He’s caused more harm to Syria and Syrians than anyone else!

November 13th, 2014, 10:10 am


ALAN said:

After disintegrated and decomposed Arab nation I advise you to listen to Alexander Lukashevich
Should fight terrorism instead of launching unsubstantiated accusations against Syrian government

November 13th, 2014, 2:37 pm


Ghufran said:

Zuhair Ramadan of Syria’s artists union declared that he has a list of Syrian artists who will be denied membership in his mukhabarati union for having an opinion that is different from those who are unable to understand that the love for the country does not automatically translate into loving the regime.
Jamal Slaiman is on zuhair’s list:
يقول النجم جمال سليمان: «هذه عقلية النظام وشبيحته القائمة على التدجيل والافتراء هي التي دفعت إلى المزيد من سفك الدماء».
أما عن موقفه السياسي فيقول: «كنت ممن شجبوا حمل السلاح، واعتبرت أن قضية الشعب السوري قد شوّهت منذ اللحظات الأولى لرفع السلاح وتبني الشعارات الإسلامية. وقد استجبت لدعوة الائتلاف التوسعية بهدف دعم القوى الفكرية المعتدلة، وعندما لم ألمس جدية في الموضوع اعتذرت فوراً.
علماً أنني لم أحضر أي اجتماع، لكن في المقابل يحق لي القول بأنّ عقلية مثل عقلية زهير رمضان هي من أرست التطرف.
ومن مهازل القدر أن يصبح شرف الانتماء لنقابة الفنانين بيد شخص مثل رمضان، وهذه جزئية صغيرة من كارثة كبيرة، إذ لم يسمح لي بتجديد جواز سفري وحرمت من أدنى حقوق المواطنة فهل لي أن أحزن على عضوية نقابة الفنانين؟!».
من جانب آخر، يقول سليمان: «يعرف رمضان وأسياده أنني لم أوفّر جلسة عامة أو خاصة إلا وأعلنتُ فيها رفضي حمل السلاح.
لكن يبدو أن الشخص المعتدل هو أهم أعداء تلك العقلية التي أدخلت مواطنين سوريين مثل عبد العزيز الخير، ولؤي حسين السجن رغم رفضهما التدخل الخارجي وحمل السلاح، وهو ما فتح باب التشكيك بهما من قوى معارضة متطرفة».

November 13th, 2014, 10:44 pm


Ghufran said:

Louai Hussain was arrested and sent to Adra prison for writing an article while the boneheads in regime media are playing the drums of “national dialogue” “النظام السوري خلال العقود الماضية.. عمل على تحطيم البنى الاجتماعية السابقة للدولة، كالقبيلة والطائفة، من دون أن يبني، أو يتيح بناء، بنية وطنية تقوم على المواطنة بين المواطن والدولة”.
واضاف “لهذا لم يكن عند الفرد السوري، في أتون هذا الصراع القاسي، أي منظومات اجتماعية…، يمكنه أن ينتظم فيها. لهذا نجده تائه الولاء، يرحب بأي جماعة يمكنها أن تقدم له شيئاً من الحماية أو بعضاً من الخدمات، حتى لو كانت جماعة أصولية”.

November 14th, 2014, 8:56 am


Hopeful said:

#15 Ghufran

This is really too bad. Whenever it feels like there is a dimmer of hope, the hardliners on either sides escalate their games to make sure no political compromise is found.

November 14th, 2014, 11:20 am


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