Global Jihadists Converge on Syria But With Widely Divergent Goals

Isolated for years from the spread of global Salafist jihadist groups, Syria has become a hotbed of such activitiy since the uprising began. Tareq al-Abed writes of the divergent priorities of Islamic groups benefiting from Syria's turmoil.

al-monitor A man waves a Syrian opposition flag during a protest organized by Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir, against the Syrian regime in Sidon, southern Lebanon, Oct. 7, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

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syrian uprising, syrian, muslim, jihadists, al-qaeda

Nov 2, 2012

The daily crazy death toll and the series of car bombings hitting Syria are probably the reasons that prevented people from paying attention to the message of Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, who called on the people of Syria's neighboring countries to rise in support of those "slaughtered" at home.

This is hardly news, given the several reports indicating that fighters are flowing from various countries to fight alongside the armed opposition in Syria.

However, the difference lies in the public call for jihad alongside insurgents, most of whom are Salafist jihadists, the most armed and organized type of fighters whose presence revealed a wide spread of al-Qaeda supporters.

This presence [of jihadist fighters in Syria] was concealed for reasons related to the conflict and the Salafist ideology, but it eventually disclosed wide preparations and deep studies about Syrian political life, despite the fact that jihadists had not previously been interested in Syria.

Syria did not experience an explicit meaning of the Salafist Jihadist ideology throughout its creation in the last century. With the growing research on the ideas of Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam during the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Syria remained away from this movement, and served, in contrast, as a stage for the Muslim Brotherhood and its fighting vanguard.

However, Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir bin Mustafa bin Hussein bin Ahmed Almazik Aljakiri (later known as Abu Musab al-Suri), a member of the Brotherhood, joined the "fighting vanguard" and was trained in Iraq and Jordan at the hands of the regime of the late President Saddam Hussein. He was then appointed member of the Supreme Military Command led by Said Hawa.

But Abu Musab al-Suri later announced that he left the "Brotherhood" because of their dealings with the Iraqi Baath Party and the secular forces. He tried to revive the "fighting vanguard" with Adnan Aqla, but then he went to Afghanistan to become one of the most prominent cadres of al-Qaeda and Taliban.

Without his knowledge, al-Suri, who was arrested by US intelligence in 2005, garnered supporters at home.

These supporters adopted his jihad-based approach, which follows the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and his relationship with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda organizations in Afghanistan and Algeria. His books were spread over the Internet and Salafism was on the rise during the period of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite all of this, Syria remained the last priority of jihadist organizations, which were focusing instead on Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Later on, however, [Syria] witnessed major signs indicating the rise of the extremist movement, which started with what was called back then the "Invasion of Embassies," in reference to the invasion of the Danish and Norwegian embassies on Feb. 5, 2006.

This invasion was gradually followed by other manifestations. Several fighter cells, especially in provinces that are far from Damascus, were caught, as Syrian fighters returned from Iraq, knowing that some of them joined al-Qaeda in [Iraq].

All of these factors gave clear signals that there was a Salafist jihadist presence in Syria, but that it was an inactive presence, as ordered by the jihad theorists abroad.

With the outbreak of protests in Syria, the Salafists did not hesitate to participate in demonstrations and various forms of mobility, all the while maintaining a distance from the rest of the secular forces calling for a civil state.

Their role was not that different from that of the rest of the forces, except for when the Syrian "revolution" became militarized, with Zawahiri showing interest, for the first time, in Syria and calling for jihad there. This prompted Salafist groups to further get armed, and military organizations emerged such as Liwaa al-Islam [Arabic for the banner of Islam] and Ahfad al-Rasul [Arabic for the Grandchildren of the Prophet], among others, in various areas.

These groups did not declare loyalty to al-Qaeda — unlike the Al-Nusra Front, which was subsequently formed — and they claimed responsibility for several operations. But they collectively refused to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — for reasons that are yet to be defined — despite the issuance of jihadist fatwas praising the FSA and giving it legitimacy to fight.

These battalions carry out major strikes and qualitative operations, and some of them ask for parental consensus before accepting volunteers. They receive military and financial support from Salafists abroad, especially in the Gulf, given that the relationship between these groups and the government of Saudi Arabia and other countries is very bad.

The fact is that the Gulf rulers are fighting these movements, arresting their strategists and contributing to their killing, the Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki being the most recent example.

Despite their declaration that the Islamic state, or caliphate, is a project that cannot be applied in Syria, the various books and speeches made by this movement's theorists lash out at minorities.

Some of them even go so far as to say that what is happening is a revolution in which a community is slaughtered at the hands of another community. Others, however, attack secular and liberal leaders, calling on them to leave Syria if they are against armed jihad.

Some Salafist factions have accepted to deal with the media. However, the most extremist ones are still refusing to talk to the media or express their views, arguing that they do not care about their image, be it outside or inside, and that they only work with absolute confidentiality.

These say that they have an enormous mobilization, recruitment and training ability that is far more important than that of all of the fighting battalions — including those founded by military defectors — given the experience that their fighters acquired during the US invasion of Iraq.

On the other hand, Salafist groups refuse to recognize the religious authorities in Damascus despite the fact that a large number of supporters of the Salafist movement are originally students of the Damascus Sheikhs, such as Osama Rifai, Saria Rifai and Mohammed Nabulsi.

However, these decided to split with their teachers after they left the country and stopped issuing fatwas which explicitly support armed action and jihad, all the while focusing on the need to preserve civil peace and prohibit murders.

This prompted many students of these Sheikhs to opt for Salafist jihadism without declaring their Damascus Sheikhs unbelievers, all the while getting closer to al-Qaeda and the thought trains of the jihadist Ibn Taymiyyah.

Perhaps the same applies to their relationship with the political opposition, and the Syrian National Council (SNC) in particular. In fact, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Salafist theorist, said that the Salafists were not consulted when the SNC was formed and that they are at odds with it for accepting all of the opposition parties — especially the liberal and secular movements — which they consider as part of the opposition, but do not believe that they are entitled to be among the leaders of the "revolution" in Syria.

However, Tartusi says it is not necessary to provoke a battle with the rest of the opposition parties, highlighting the importance of unifying the opposition's ranks and expressing reservations about the ideas of the political opposition.

The relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood does not seem much better given that the history of the relationship between the two parties is ridden with mutual accusations.

On the one hand, the Brotherhood accuses the Salafists of being violent and of having a tendency to fight. On the other, the Salafists accuse the Brotherhood of being corrupt and of forging alliances with forces considered unbelievers.

Salafists refer to their major theorist Sayyid Qutb's criticism of the Islamic Group. Add to this the Brotherhood's role in what is happening today and its relationship with the SNC, which puts the two parties far away from each other, as Salafists insist on their unwillingness to govern and focus on the need to wage jihad and support the oppressed — as they put it.

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