Yesterday [March 7], Saudi Arabia made a preliminary terrorism list that included the names of many organizations and movements inside and outside the kingdom.
Adopting that list was part of the February royal decree that criminalized anyone fighting outside Saudi Arabia. The decree ordered forming a commission to prepare a list of currents and movements that qualify as terrorist groups, thus criminalizing belonging or sympathizing with them.
The commission is composed of representatives from the ministries of interior, justice, Islamic affairs, and foreign affairs, the Council of Grievances office, the investigating committee and the prosecutor’s office. The commission explicitly named some organizations and movements — such as al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Yemen, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Hezbollah within the Kingdom, the Muslim Brotherhood organization and the Houthi group.
However, the commission’s list contained vague terms that rendered the list very hard to interpret and subject to many variations. That may have been intentional in order to leave maneuvering room and flexibility for Saudi authorities regarding some organizations with which the kingdom has strong ties, especially in the Syrian arena. Perhaps the most prominent of those is specifically the Army of Islam, and generally Jabhat al-Nusra.
It is not clear whether the terrorism list encompassed the Islamic Front. The Islamic Front was not mentioned on the list, which may suggest that it was excluded from the terrorism label and that Riyadh will continue to fund the front’s components, especially the Army of Islam, led by Zahran Alloush. But the commission asserted that the list encompasses “every organization that is similar to these organizations in thought, word, or deed” and “all organizations contained in Security Council resolutions and international bodies” and “known as terrorist and practice violence.” That indicates that the Saudi decision left room for many organizations and movements that are not mentioned on the list by name, whereby it is up to the discretion of Saudi political leadership to classify some groups as terrorist at the proper time and in the way that serves Saudi interests.
The initial impression, however, is that Saudi Arabia has effectively excluded the Islamic Front from the terrorism label. There is no doubt that this exception puts the kingdom in front of serious contradictions. How can it justify the classifying the Brotherhood as terrorist and yet exclude groups that describe themselves as “Salafist jihadist,” such as Ahrar al-Sham, which dominates the Islamic Front? “Salafist jihadism” is known to be more extreme than the Brotherhood, in both thought and deeds. More important is that Ahrar al-Sham includes leading al-Qaeda figures. We are not referring only to Abu Khalid al-Suri, who was killed, but a jihadist source confirmed to As-Safir that Hani al-Lahem, who was killed earlier, was also a leading person connected to al-Qaeda.
Both those men were killed before the Saudi list was issued. But the source mentioned the name Abdul Hamid al-Suri, whose real name is Bahaa al-Jaghal, stressing that he is an al-Qaeda leader (for the al-Qaeda current that opposes Osama bin Laden and includes the Syrians Abu Musab al-Suri, Abu Khalid al-Suri and Abdul Hamid al-Suri), one of the founders of Ahrar al-Sham and a prominent leader in it.
Jaghal was arrested in Pakistan by US intelligence in May 2002 for his association with al-Qaeda and handed over to Syrian authorities, which released him at the end of his sentence in late 2011. He then joined Ahrar al-Sham and became one of its influential leaders.
The source added that another person, Abu al-Sadeq, a leading figure in Ahrar al-Sham and who was its representative in the Sharia Court in Aleppo, is also among the leaders linked to al-Qaeda. He fought alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But, according to the source, he was an agent for Saudi intelligence, which, between 2004 and 2005, when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, tasked him to form an Islamic organization in Syria because at the time Syria was expected to see violence, as has been happening in the last three years.
Yet his organization was exposed and Abu al-Sadeq was arrested by Syrian authorities. He gave a full confession about the organization and its links, prompting Riyadh to recognize that its attempt failed. The Syrian authorities handed over a number of wanted men linked with Sadeq, most notably his brother Hassan Safwan. There is no information on when Sadeq was released. But it is certain that he is now one of Ahrar al-Sham’s leading figures.
The contradiction in dealing with Ahrar al-Sham is not the only obstacle. The Muslim Brotherhood is classified as a terrorist organization according to the Saudi list and that represents a serious challenge to the Saudi authorities, particularly in the Syrian arena. Although there are no battalions or armed factions in Syria that are directly affiliated with the Brotherhood, except the “Civilians’ Protection Committee,” it is known that Brotherhood followers and supporters are distributed among many factions and armed brigades.
Abu Issa al-Sheikh, the president of the Islamic Front Shura Council and the commander of Suqur al-Sham Brigades, belongs to a known Muslim Brotherhood family. His father fled the country during the bloody events of the 1980s, and there were conflicting stories about the Syrian authorities arresting and executing the father.
Also, the Army of Islam, led by Alloush, has many Brotherhood members and sympathizers. Liwa’ al-Tawhid, Jabhat Thuwar Suria — led by Jamal Maaruf — and other groups are not specifically identified in the Saudi list, despite its assertion that it includes “every organization similar to these organizations in thought, word, or deed.”
It is expected that the Saudi decision to classify Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS as terrorist organizations will affect the field developments in Syria, especially in terms of the conflict between the two organizations. Classifying Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group and excluding its ally, the Islamic Front, will lead automatically to one of two possibilities.
One, it may create a rift between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, because the latter cannot deal with a group that Saudi Arabia considers as terrorist, especially since most of the Islamic Front’s funding comes from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. And that could push Jabhat al-Nusra to move closer to ISIS.
Two, which is unlikely, is that the Islamic Front rebels against the Saudi decision and maintains its alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra against ISIS. That may cause a major fault line within the Islamic Front, which may end up unraveling and dividing because Alloush, who leads the Army of Islam and is, at the same time, a military commander for the Islamic Front, cannot rebel against the decision of his Saudi masters.