Meeting Syria’s Mujahedeen

Omar Kayed spends time with jihadist leaders in rural Damascus in an effort to find out more about their goals and ideology.

al-monitor A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra is seen in front of a burning vehicle, caused by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian air force fighter jet from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, at their base in eastern Syria's Raqqa province, May 12, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Hamid Khatib.

Topics covered

syrian opposition, syria, jihadists, jabhat al-nusra, islamists, extremism

Oct 20, 2013

What does a person think about when he blows himself up in the presence of those he considers enemies? What is the last thing he sees? What is the last thought that passes through his mind? What is the nature of the feelings in his heart? There are many questions, yet few answers. The murdered man asks, Why was "I" a victim? And the murderer wonders for what purpose did he sacrifice the most valuable thing he possesses — the remains of his soul and fragments of his body. Fundamentalists, radicals, terrorists and extremists … there are many names that are given to anyone who carries a black flag, grows his beard, wears a shortened robe and screams Allahu Akbar [God is great] on the battlefields. The region is passing though a dangerous stage. Suicide attacks have spread and the scope of chaos has widened, in light of al-Qaeda's growing influence. It is a game in which death has become the easiest way to achieve goals, by all means deemed appropriate. 

When I arrived to the Damascus countryside, I informed the group that I was a journalist and wanted to write some articles on the Syrian opposition. In the afternoon, two young men accompanied me to a local house. Many people were coming and going. It seemed to me that this house was an operations room. No one noticed my presence; I was there for about 1 1/2 hours. A chubby man with a long beard was distributing tasks to fighters. He welcomed me when I arrived, and acknowledged me from time to time when he had the chance. He didn't ask me anything … Then, I went to the place where I intended to spend the night.

At five in the morning, this man came and asked me to go with him. As we were walking, he asked me why I had come all the way here. I told him I was a journalist and wanted to educate people about what is going on. He was cautious, and told me that journalists usually had ties to the intelligence services. He asked how I could prove to him that I didn't have such links? I told him he could either trust me, or I would go back to where I came from. I said, "It is my first time coming to this area, and I know nothing about the geography. If you want, you can blindfold me as a precaution. I don't know your military secrets. I want to know the secrets to your ideology and your view of the conflict. I want to understand why you're fighting. And what is your future vision for Syria?" I told him that I had studied Sharia and was aware of [Islamic] issues. He asked me a few questions about Sharia, and I answered him. We arrived at one of their camps, located in a garden in rural Damascus. At that time, I realized I was in the midst of an Islamic battalion, but it never crossed my mind that I may be with a group from Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization that is characterized by its secrecy and brutality.

Abu Malik in the Levant

Abu Malik informed me that he was a Jabhat al-Nusra leader in the Levant. I was eager to learn about these people close-up, but at the same time I was very worried. I asked to videotape the interview but he refused for security reasons. He said, "We don't appear in the media." I said, "No problem. Let's talk then. I want to understand how you think. I want to discuss these issues with you in a clear and honest manner. But you need to ensure my protection, since I'm just a defenseless man among you." Abu Malik laughed and said, "You'll be safe, Muslims can put up with one another." I told him that one day I may publish these conversations, and he said that wasn't a problem, "I hope you publish them with honesty and integrity." I talked with Abu Malik for about a week, we often talked about sensitive topics and nearly crossed some red lines. … These are the most notable topics we discussed:

The world of al-Qaeda

How does someone transform into someone who denounces everyone who is different from him, and then into a fighter in the name of God? What are the main differences between al-Qaeda and the Islamic currents?

Is al-Qaeda based on a single ideology, or are there branches? And what are the main differences between its factions?

How do these people get involved in an international game whose dimensions they may not be aware of?

According to Abu Malik, Salafist jihadist ideology is based not on the idea of governance advocated by Sayyid Qutb and Abu Ala Mawdudi. [According to this ideology], a Muslim's goal is to strive to liberate Muslim lands from colonizers and establish God's law. God Almighty said: "Judgement is only through God," so any legislation [other than Sharia] is invalid. In Abu Malik's opinion, the way to establish God's law on earth is through jihad and fighting. This group was called Salafist jihadist because it adopts jihad as a means of achieving change, "so everyone who believes this idea becomes our brother in religion."

The second pillar [of Salafist jihadist ideology] is loyalty and disavowal. Al-Qaeda members believe that anyone who embraces this ideology is a Muslim brother who they must support. However, anyone who violates these beliefs is an infidel and an apostate, and they must disown him.

I asked him, "Pardon me, Abu Malik, but how did you enter into the world of al-Qaeda?" He told me that he had accompanied a friend to visit a man called Sheikh Abu Muhammed in Jordan. Later, he became convinced of Abu Muhammed's statements claiming that humans' purpose on earth is to apply this heavenly message and join their brothers to establish God's law.

What are your goals?

Abu Malik said, "The main objective is to establish God's law on earth. But priorities vary from one place to another before reaching this goal. The [secondary] goal could be to expel the colonizers, as happened in the 1980s in Afghanistan with Arab fighters. Or it could be to target foreign interests, as happened in Yemen beginning in the 1990s, including the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, the bombing of a French tanker in 2002 and the targeting of British and Australian tourists in Abyan in 1998. Or the goal could be to control some areas — to find a base for launching [operations] and places for training and recruitment, as was the case in Afghanistan with the Taliban and Arab [fighters] from al-Qaeda."

Everyone is an infidel?

In Abu Malik's opinion, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, leftists, secularists and nationalists are all infidels. For him, this is not open for debate. As for the Islamic sects, he believes that Shiites and Druze are infidels. And when it comes to Sunnis, Abu Malik considers that everyone who participates in the democratic process and the legislation of civil law is an infidel as well as those who vote for deputies in parliament. Furthermore, anyone who doesn't consider those who vote to be apostates, he himself is an apostate. [According to Abu Malik], the evidence for this is God's statement that "those who do not judge by what God has revealed, they are disbelievers."

I said to him, "Abu Malik, based on this theory, everyone who doesn't agree with your ideology is an infidel. Thus, there are no devout believers on the face of this earth other than you [Salafist jihadists]. Also, the Prophet Muhammad said that on judgement day the Islamic nation would be numerous." Abu Malik responded, "The day will come when everyone goes back to the true Islam. This will happen when the caliphate returns." 

We digressed a little in our discussion to talk about precepts for takfir … Honestly, I was a little anxious, fearing that in the end they would issue a judgement deeming me an infidel since, naturally, we did not agree. I asked Abu Malik to promise me that "he would open his heart to me, even if I fall into the trap of atheism, since I am no more than a student seeking to learn more about my religion." Abu Malik laughed and said, "Don't fret, dear journalist, for our religion calls for people [to come to God] in their best form." I said, "In their best form!? What do you have to say about the gruesome images of murders that fill social networking sites? [These include images of] people having their heads chopped off, eating hearts …" He said that these were exceptions and abnormal behavior that al-Qaeda currents do not agree with, and that he would continue with this topic later. I said to him, "We will discuss this point later, after we finish discussing the topic of takfir, which is an important topic that involves many strange statues and behaviors.

I told him that we should first lay down some conditions before delving into the matter. The Prophet said: "Whoever deems a true believer an infidel, he himself is an infidel." This means one should be very cautious before deeming any person an infidel. I told him that, based on my Sharia studies at Al-Azhar, the word "apostasy" — which occurs in the Quran and hadith — usually doesn't mean someone has left [Islam]. Rather, there are cases where someone commits apostasy but is not an infidel.

The Prophet Muhammad said: "He who commits adultery is not a believer while he commits adultery." For [committing] adultery, of course, does not mean a person is not longer a Muslim. It is about disobedience. The issue isn't about whether or not someone is a believer, rather its about levels of faithfulness. The Prophet said: "The treaty between you and us is prayer, so those who have abandoned [prayer] have apostatized." Moreover, he said that whoever swears on anyone other than God is committing idolatry. According to well-known Sharia scholars, these cases all involve apostasy but not an apostate. They do not mean a person has left Islam. [The 9th-century Islamic scholar] Muhammad al-Bukhari titled a section of his book on the hadith: Apostasy without an apostate. This type of apostasy is called "disobedient apostasy" and is not an apostasy of belief and doesn't mean leaving Islam. It was called "apostasy" to scare believers, so that they do not commit apostasy of belief. If one does not pay attention to these instances of "disobedience," it could lead to a larger form of apostasy.

I told him, "Scholars of Quranic exegesis said that the 'disbelief' referenced in the verse, 'And whoever does not judge by what God has revealed — then it is those who are the disbelievers' [Quran 5:44], is a form of disbelief that does not involve apostasy. It does not mean they have left Islam. God said that those who do not judge by what God has revealed are immoral." Abu Malik interrupted me and said, "Yet, those who think that civil law is better than God's law, these people are true infidels." I said, "Let's assume this is true, but how do we know someone's true beliefs, as long as beliefs are convictions in the mind and the heart? How can we know what is in someone's heart?" I told him, "Even if things are as you say, it is a controversial topic. It is not permissible to consider someone an infidel unless he violates a command that is categorical and permanent." Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad said: "Whoever says 'there is no god but God' will enter heaven. So, isn't it sufficient for someone to recognize the oneness of God to be spared of charges of apostasy, particularly given that many people are not informed of the details of Islamic Sharia.

Second, with regard to establishing the law of God, I don't believe that the best way to do this is through violence. The prophet stayed in Mecca for three years, calling on God to provide him [a way to escape the violence]. He didn't fight the Qureish tribe until he went to Medina, and they began fighting him. Violence only begets violence. [Fighting for Sharia] also creates a hostile environment for Islam, and results in Muslims being branded terrorists; people are afraid of them. Thus, the evil is greater than the good. In Islam, fighting is [only] for self-defense, expelling colonizers and fighting despotism. When it comes to establishing God's law on earth, this must be done through proselytizing, education, elections and convincing the people within a peaceful framework. Abu Malik stood up and began walking toward some trees. He was holding a stone in his hand, and he threw it into a small pool of water in front of him. "Wake up from your dreams," he said in a harsh tone. "Do you think Islamists will be allowed to be involved in a peaceful process of change if they reach power. There are two clear examples: Algeria in the early 1990s and Egypt now. They just allow Islamists to enter into the electoral process to accommodate them. But when things get out of their control, they eliminate them. They punish them and put them in prison. The whole world is conspiring against them. You can only achieve change through power, rights are protected by the sword."

The Islamic state

The next day, Abu Malik joined me in the same place where fighters were training and wearing black shrouds. Abu Malik pointed to one of the young men, saying that he had defected from the Syrian regime’s army. He pointed to another explaining that he had fought in Iraq, while another had gone to Afghanistan. They have all left the world behind them and have been brought together by one goal: to raise up the word of God on earth. We went over to another brigade allied with them; however, it was formally affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). I reached the emir of the group, called Abu al-Qaqaa. In a discussion with him, he gave me his phone and asked me to watch a video of an “infidel” — as he described him — being executed. I asked him when he killed him, to which he replied that it had occurred three days ago. “Why did you kill him?” I asked. He said it was because he was a Shiite infidel. I asked him if he had fought the ISIS or killed one of its members. He replied that he had not, but that he was a supporter of the regime. I asked him if it is permissible to kill someone simply for being a supporter of the regime, but one who did not fight against them (the ISIS). He said it is enough that he was a Shiite. I asked him if it was permissible to kill a person just because they ascribe to a different religion or maintain different opinions. He said that anyone who supports the regime and is Alawite, Shiite or Christian is an infidel and must be killed. So I asked him, “Sir, can I talk to you calmly for a little bit,” to which he agreed.

I said, “You are the emir of this group and have issued fatwas to kill human beings for some time. Don’t you know that fatwas require people to be informed of religious matters?” He said, “I am informed,” to which I replied, “For a person to move beyond the stage of imitation, he must master a number of Islamic subjects. Mastering these subjects does not make him diligent, but rather it just means he is no longer an imitator. Diligence has its conditions, a status that cannot be attained except through spending a lifetime of reading and studying Sharia texts. Do you know these texts?” He replied that, yes, he did know hadith, the [Islamic] creed and jurisprudence. I said, “I mean the origins of jurisprudence, for the study of origins guides us to provisions and mechanisms by which we can work out and derive the rulings of the Quran and the way of the Prophet. Next [in this process of striving toward diligence] is the Arabic language, the language in which the Quran came down to us. There are verses in it where the real meaning is contained in a figurative meaning, or something is meant rhetorically or sarcastically. The third of these sciences is the study of the origins of hadith so that we might ensure they are correctly and properly passed along.”

I said to him, “Abu al-Qaqaa, have you studied these subjects?” to which he replied that he had. I replied that there is a basic field of study within the origins of jurisprudence called “comparison.” This comparison relies on the “cause.” I asked him, “Can you differentiate between cause and reason?” He tried to explain to me the difference between them, but he was wrong. I hinted that he was correct out of fear that he might grow resentful of me, and think that I was trying to embarrass him before his brigade. Afterward, I asked him about the difference between hadith independently of the study of the origins of hadith. He did not know anything. I asked him a few questions about the Arabic language, and it became apparent to me that he did not know even the most basic things about it. In these moments, I was looking to Abu Malik, wishing I had met Abu al-Qaqaa three days earlier before he killed that man. I imagined I could have saved his life. I asked Abu al-Qaqaa which Islamic madrassa he had studied Sharia in. He said he had studied with scholars, but not at any madrassa or university. I began to feel he was growing annoyed by my presence, so we excused ourselves and went back to where we had come from.

Along the way, I asked Abu Malik with shock apparent on my face, “Is it right for orders to kill to be issued this way?” He informed me that excessive killing of those [regarded as] violators was a basic point of contention between Jabhat al-Nusra factions themselves, us and the ISIS. I explained to him that it was still killing and ending the life of a human being, one of the clearest issues against which the Islamic religion warns. It defames Islam and Muslims alike. It was also not proven that the man Abu al-Qaqaa killed was fighting them. I moved onto the subject of killing civilians, asking him if it was permissible to kill civilians with bombs. He replied that he would answer this question the next day.

The next evening at 11 p.m., Abu Malik accompanied me to his home, turning on his computer and showing me a number of video clips from their websites. It showed Jabhat al-Nusra being halted in some of its operations due to the presence of civilians. He informed me that they did not kill the elderly, children, women or any other civilians if not necessary. I asked him, “Do all members of Jabhat al-Nusra think this way as well?” He replied, “Unfortunately, no. Some elements and brigades close to the ideology of the ISIS permit the killing of civilians during operations. They are few, however, and most of them eventually join the ISIS.” I asked him what he would say about explosions in the heart of Damascus. He pointed his finger regarding these operations at the regime; however, he did not deny that some Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated groups or the ISIS were behind them. He claimed that they have their convictions, and that he would explain them later when we spoke about the differences between the various wings of al-Qaeda. I asked him, “Does this mean that there are [different] trends within al-Qaeda?” He said, “Of course." This matter caught my attention, and I asked him to explain to me a bit about these differences, especially between them and the ISIS.

Currents within al-Qaeda and their branches

Abu Malik asserted me that both Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS espouse al-Qaeda’s ideology and follow Ayman al-Zawahri. The difference is that:

  1. The organization of Jabhat al-Nusra’s factions are mostly Syrian and are more powerful and organized than the ISIS. This is because they have been around for several months longer and know the areas and villages of Syria well. They do not kill Syrians as randomly as the ISIS and do not observe any Sharia-based ban against forming alliances with the rest of the opposition’s factions. Contrarily, the ISIS, if it were carrying out joint operations with other opposition brigades, does not allow the formation of alliances with them because they are infidels. They only align themselves with Jabhat al-Nusra.
  2. The second difference between us and the ISIS is that the latter is hastily trying to declare the establishment of an Islamic state as soon as possible. After declaring the state, it intends to violently impose Sharia, destroying shrines and leveling graves to the ground. It will also ban smoking, establish limitations — even on young boys — close stores during prayer times, beat everyone who breaks their fast during Ramadan and charge violators, all of which has cost the organization its popular immunity. Abu Malik continued, “ISIS primarily targets members of other sects. It kills all Christians, Druze, Alawites or Shiites as well as any Sunnis who oppose it. It killed one of the most prominent sheikhs from the Aleppo countryside, because he criticized the way the organization was behaving. It is this behavior that we see in the greater Syria area and other contributing countries before that pushed Osama bin Laden and Zawahri after him to issue a letter leveling harsh criticism against the behavior of ISIS led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling for them to stop killing those who differ with them in matters of religion if they had not engaged them in fighting.” As for us,” Abu Malik continued, “We have our priorities — first and foremost of which is to bring down the regime until things stabilize, after which we will declare the establishment of the Islamic state.
  3. “ISIS has no problem killing civilians during its operations, even if they were Sunnis and even if there would be no great benefit brought about by the operations. They say that civilians cannot stand in the way of jihad. Most of our brigades, on the other hand, do not see it appropriate to carry out operations if civilians will be killed as a result, as you have seen in the videos I just showed you. Some see it depending on the size of the operation. If it is a large operation wherein a small number of civilians will die, it is OK, because the benefits will be larger than that which is lost. This applies to bombings as well — if the number of 'infidels' killed is larger than the number of 'believers,' there is no problem in carrying out the operation.”
  4. “The ISIS works according to the rule that states: “Attack them as they attack you,” issuing a fatwa to destroy churches and Shiite seminaries, since the regime is destroying Sunni mosques. They also justify slaughtering people because the regime is slaughtering and permits killing the children and women of their opponents because the regime is doing that to them. They probably even allow the use of chemical weapons, since, according to them, the regime used them on more than one occasion.” I asked him, “What do you all believe?” to which he replied, “There are some groups that espouse such ideas.” I stated, “But many scholars have interpreted these verses differently from the way you interpret them. What is meant by 'attack' is response to an attack, because it is only God who can order one to attack. Responding to an attack is only according to what is stipulated by the holy texts, which command that we not kill the elderly, children or women. The prophet — peace be upon him — commanded that people not sharpen their blade in front of what they are going to slaughter. So how would this be if it were a person [that was to be slaughtered]? Surely, one must search for the most humane ways to kill a person if they fight you. What we see in YouTube movies, however, shows a grave sort of savageness that alienates us from Islam.” He states that this was a matter of difference between us; however, if we were to see with our own eyes the way some mujahedeen are killed and the way their bodies are mutilated, you would change your mind.

I asked him his opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood. He said that they were “the Brotherhood of Satan, made up of men who cooperate with infidels and the Americans, just as they are untrustworthy and hungry for power. If they were allowed to ally with the regime that might offer them some sort of benefit, they would surely have done so. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt; what have they given us: nothing. Has the treaty with Israel been nullified? Of course not, and of course it never will be since they are collaborators. Change must be carried out on a radical and revolutionary level — anyone who complies with the laws of infidels are also infidels. The Muslim Brotherhood agreed to enter into the democratic process, participating in the regime instead of carrying out God’s will.

Pawns in the game of nations?

I thought a lot about those youth, and I was certain their ideology only served their enemies. Their behavior defamed the image of Islam and Muslims. I tried the next day to express this opinion to Abu Malik.

Abu Malik did not answer my questions, for he had died

Abu Malik came to me at dawn, and we went up to the roof of his home. There was a full moon in the sky as we started off into our discussion. I thought that by bringing some of my ideas to him I could tip the balances a little. I told him I feared he had changed to the point where they would not even know that they were mere tools in the hands of bigger countries and that their actions and jihad efforts would only serve the United States in the end, as was the case in Afghanistan. He laughed and asked if I was joking. I assured him that I was not. He told me to fear God and looked in the direction of Mount Qasioun, saying that the young men I had seen carry faith were sturdier than these mountains. I told him, “I do not doubt that, I did not intend to cast doubt on your faith. I wish to clarify my perspective,” to which he told me to go ahead.

I told him, “Faith alone is not enough, Abu Malik. You must also be knowledgeable of the larger countries. Here, I want to ask you a question: Why is the West paving the way for you into Syria?” He replied, “The West did not make things easier. We crossed the rugged borders and traversed great expanses to get to our brethren, nearly getting killed at times.” He told me of some of his friends who had been arrested by the Jordanian army at the border.

I asked him, “Why did you leave your country?” He replied, “We came here to help our weakened brethren in Syria to victory.” I told him that thousands of fighters could not have entered from the Turkish border if they had not been given the green light from the United States, the United Kingdom and France, as happened in the past with Arab fighters who went to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. I told him I wanted to tell him something to think about: “Major countries have facilitated your entrance into Syria to get rid of you in the countries throughout which you have proliferated, especially after the US ambassador was killed in Libya. Another goal for major countries is to establish military balance with the Syrian regime on the ground. This sort of balance will prolong the war in Greater Syria, thus destroying the country and taking it out of the equation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Syrian opposition is unable to persevere in the face of the regime, and thus there is no alternative but to look to al-Qaeda for help.

"The West also wants to impart a sectarian dimension on the ongoing war, especially since the regime’s allies are Shiite and Alawite, while the opposition is Sunni. The fourth goal is to do away with the largest possible number of you. Any settlement reached in the end will be to your detriment, and you will have the greater cost to pay. This is because no one agrees to what you are putting forth, even among Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention secularists."

I told him in the end that I fear that the goal of the Americans is to destroy Syria and spread chaos. Even if the regime falls, you will surely point your rifles at the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds and other brigades. This will compel revolutionary Syrians to turn to the West to save the country and rid them of you. After this, the Americans, French and British will come galloping back in on their white horses to take the reins of the intelligence game in Syria and around the region. Negotiations, national wealth and peace with Israel will all be paid for through stability and security. I think many groups belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS have been infiltrated by their intelligence. “Mark my words, Abu Malik,” I told him, “if God predetermined for you to live, you will see that the Islamic state is but a dream and fabrication that cannot be achieved by you in Syria, and that al-Qaeda and its allies will be dealt a powerful and painful blow.”

He told me, “You are journalists, and you take worldly matters into consideration. We believe that everything that happens is fate from God. God the Almighty said, 'There is no victory but through God,' and 'they shall plan and so shall God, but God is the greatest planner.'” To this, I replied that this way is simply how we look at issues. God said to prepare as much as possible, but this preparation is more than military. It is also scientific and technological and in understanding priorities and global balances of power. The next day, I called Abu Malik. … I communicated with him only a few times after that. A few days ago, I received a message: Abu Malik had died as a martyr.

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