Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni was born in 1938 in Aleppo and brought up in a religious family, where his father and grandfather were both well known Muslim scholars. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood while in secondary school, in 1954, and went on to receive training as a lawyer. After spending time in prison, he emerged to become the deputy leader of the Brotherhood in 1977. He left Syria two years later and eventually settled in Jordan, where he remained for twenty years. He arrived in Britain as a political refugee in 2000, after the Jordanian authorities requested he leave the country. This interview was conducted on August 5, 2005 in London by Terrorism Monitor editor Mahan Abedin.
Mahan Abedin: How would you characterize the strength of the overall Islamic movement in Syria today?
Ali Bayanouni: There is a continuum of movements, with the Sufis at one end of the spectrum and the Salafis on the other. But there is a mainstream Islamic awakening in the country and the growing religiosity of the people testifies to this. The opposition parties regard the Muslim Brotherhood as the largest and most influential opposition force in Syria. The Syrian regime tries to frighten the West about the Brotherhood and our activities by claiming that any change in the country would facilitate the rise to power of Islamists. This is clearly an exaggeration and designed to prevent any meaningful political change inside the country.
MA: How optimistic are you about change in Syria?
AB: The status quo is unsustainable, especially if Syria is increasingly alienated by the outside world.
MA: Do you still regard the Alawis as a heretical sect?
AB: We do not discriminate against Alawis and as they say they are Muslims, we do not contest that. The problem of Syria remains political, a minority elite has seized a state and is oppressing the majority.
MA: What is your assessment of the pressures applied on Syria by the West, in particular the United States?
AB: These pressures are not designed to meet the interests of the Syrian people and instead work in favor of American and Israeli interests. Therefore we do not attach too much significance to these pressures. We work inside Syria and address the Syrian people directly. Moreover, we will never accept an Iraqi-style solution for Syria; in short we do not call for outside interference.
MA: What is your assessment of Syrian foreign policy?
AB: Syrian policy in Lebanon created a lot of problems, for instance keeping Emile Lahoud in power against the will of the Lebanese people is a very foolish move. More broadly the regime’s desire to please the United States at the expense of Syria’s relationship with Europe is an unwise move.
MA: Would you have liked for Syria to prolong its military presence in Lebanon?
AB: Of course not, especially because the Syrian regime repressed the Lebanese in the same manner that it has been repressing its own people for decades.
MA: How about Syria’s alliance with the Iranians and their support for Hezbollah?
AB: Syria has been exploiting Hezbollah for its own ends. They have used Hezbollah to consolidate their influence in the region.
MA: How would the Muslim Brotherhood manage Syria’s foreign policy?
AB: We would not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
MA: How about Israel?
AB: Israel is occupying Palestinian and Syrian lands and these should be returned. It would be preferable to secure their return through peaceful and political means.
MA: Would you adopt a tougher policy on Israel?
AB: Nowadays the Syrian regime does not react against any Israeli aggression. They support the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and Palestine, but why don’t they support resistance against the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights?
MA: Let us discuss terrorism and Iraq. Are you aware of any Syrian involvement in the top leadership of al-Qaeda?
AB: It is possible. Some individual Syrians may be involved in al-Qaeda.
MA: How powerful are the Salafis inside Syria?
AB: Their influence is limited. Salafism has weak foundations in Syria, as the majority of Sunni Muslims subscribe to Sufism.
MA: Has the invasion and occupation of Iraq strengthened the position of Salafis and other Islamic extremists?
AB: The American intervention in Iraq has radicalized people all over the region.
MA: Do you envisage the outbreak of violence inside Syria, similar to what occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
AB: The situation is very unstable and even the slightest provocation can have very serious consequences. The events in Qamishli should have been a wake up call for the Syrian authorities.
MA: There were some small bombings in Damascus last year and the government reflexively blamed Islamic militants, do you believe them?
AB: There has been a lot of speculation on those bombings, and to date the Syrian government has not produced any evidence to back up its claims. The regime would like to portray itself as a victim of terrorism in order to gain sympathy in the international community and convince certain countries that they are fighting terrorism. Moreover, the Syrian government has given some lists to the CIA, identifying alleged terrorists. Even the names of some members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood falsely appear on these lists. Both the Americans and the Syrians have acknowledged that they cooperate together in the intelligence and security field.
MA: How extensive is this cooperation?
AB: The Syrians give the Americans any information they need. Moreover, the Americans send Syrian captives to Syria for tough interrogations.
MA: Do you know Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri)?
AB: Mustafa Setmariam was originally a member of Marwan Hadeed’s Fighting Vanguard, but he left that organization in 1981. Afterwards he traveled extensively, staying in Afghanistan, Spain and the UK.
MA: What more do you know about him?
AB: Mustafa Setmariam received his political and ideological training from Adnan Oqla and other Fighting Vanguard members. He was a highly extravagant individual. We don’t know much about his activities today, but it is clear that he has become a Takfiri icon.
MA: Is it true he is currently in Iraq?
AB: I have not had any verifiable information on him since 1981.
MA: Does Nasar have a lot of influence on the youth in Syria?
AB: The repression of the Ba’athist regime has created an environment conducive to the growth of these extreme ideologies and methodologies.
MA: What do you make of reports that foreign fighters are accessing Iraq through Syria?
AB: It is well known that initially the Syrian government wanted to keep the Americans under pressure in Iraq. But recently, especially after U.S. pressures, the Syrians have begun detaining mujahideen and tend to send them back to their countries.
MA: What is the situation right now; is the Syrian government complicit in the transit of fighters into Iraq?
AB: Many of the transit operations could not have taken place without the knowledge of Syrian intelligence.
MA: So the Syrian government is complicit in the transit of fighters?
AB: There is no doubt about that.
MA: But how do you explain the fact that on the one hand the Syrians give sensitive information to the Americans, and on the other create real difficulties for them in Iraq?
AB: Syria does not wish America to succeed in Iraq. But in order to ease the pressures they cooperate with them in this so-called war on terrorism.
MA: How extensive is the transit of fighters from Syria to Iraq?
AB: During the early months of the war the transfer was extensive. In that period even many Syrians left to fight in Iraq. Today if these individuals come back to Syria they are immediately detained. But I must stress we do not have accurate information on the extent of transit operations.
MA: What about reports that remnants of the former Iraqi regime are operating in Syria?
AB: A branch of the Iraqi Ba’ath was historically controlled by the Syrian government.
MA: I am not talking about the pro-Syrian left-wing of the Iraqi Ba’ath; I am referring to remnants of the regime that sought sanctuary in Syria following the fall of Baghdad.
AB: Saddam Hussein established good relations with the Syrians, 3 years before the fall of Baghdad. For instance they prevented the Syrian opposition in Baghdad from criticizing the Syrian regime too harshly. This 3 year period enabled both regimes to develop friendly relations, and the flight of remnants of the Saddam regime to Damascus must be seen in this context.
MA: What is the position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the situation in Iraq?
AB: We believe that Iraq is an occupied country. The Americans invaded to serve their own interests, not to liberate the Iraqi people. The chaos prevailing in Iraq today is a direct consequence of the occupation. Resistance against occupation is the legal and moral right of all people. The Iraqi Islamic Party has adopted peaceful resistance, but others are fighting through different means.
MA: Do you think the empowerment of Iraqi Shi’as makes it less likely for Syrian Sunnis to overthrow the Alawi-based regime?
AB: No, I don’t think there are any direct relationships here.
MA: Do you think Syria could be invaded by the Americans?
AB: No, America will not repeat that experience in Syria.
MA: Now, let us discuss the Muslim Brotherhood and your own role in more detail. Firstly, is the Syrian government still terrorizing the opposition in the West?
AB: Yes, they focus particularly on the Islamic opposition.
MA: Have you been harassed by Syrian government agents here in London?
AB: They used to tell the British government that I have links to al-Qaeda, but of course the British do not believe their propaganda.
MA: What is your current position in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood?
AB: I am the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (MB). I am responsible for all the global activities of the Syrian MB organization.
MA: What is the nature of your work here?
AB: I lead the political and media activities. More broadly I attend to any other pressing matter relating to the Syrian MB.
MA: Do you also directly supervise MB activities inside Syria?
AB: Law no. 49 in Syria authorizes the killing of anyone affiliated with the
MB, therefore we avoid an organizational presence.
MA: How do people inside the country maintain contact with the party?
AB: We only keep general contacts. One month ago a child of 14 was sentenced to death for alleged involvement with the MB after returning from exile, but his sentence was lowered to 6 years in prison.
MA: How extensive are your secret activities in the country?
AB: We have members inside Syria, but we avoid giving these activities any identifiable structure.
MA: How closely were you personally involved in the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s?
AB: I was the deputy leader at that time and I can tell you that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had no involvement in violent events whatsoever. Two influential people in particular reacted to Ba’athist repression in a violent manner; Adnan Oqla, who was dismissed from the MB five years before the outbreak of full scale violence and Ibrahim el-Youssef, who was an officer in the Syrian army and a Ba’athist with no relations to the MB whatsoever. The Syrian MB issued a statement condemning the massacre at the artillery school in Aleppo in 1979 committed by Oqla and el-Youssef. The authorities blamed the Brotherhood for the event simply because they wanted more excuses to deepen and intensify the repression.
MA: But what about al-Tali’a al-Muqatila [The Fighting Vanguard], were they not closely associated with the Syrian MB?
AB: Some groups affiliated to Marwan Hadeed adopted that name [Fighting Vanguard], but when the Brotherhood found out about their association, it expelled them from the party and canceled their membership. Most of the events that occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s, particularly events involving violence, were beyond the control of the Brotherhood. It was the Syrian people who rose up to defend Islam and the Brotherhood in the face of the aggressions of the Ba’ath regime. The conflict acquired a sectarian characteristic because most of the influential people in the Syrian regime came from the Alawite sect. This imbalanced sectarian representation in a diverse society inevitably created instability and frustration among the Sunni majority and led to a massive confrontation.
MA: Are you referring to the events of Hama in February 1982?
AB: Hama is a stronghold of Sunni Islam in Syria and well known for its resistance against French colonialism and it is not surprising that its people were the most frustrated under the circumstances. The MB leadership asked the Brothers not to fight in the city and to withdraw from the battle, but the military forces besieged the city and bombarded it for 3 weeks.
MA: Does the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood categorically reject violence?
AB: We have always rejected violence, and have a long history of participating in the political life of Syria, but the Baath regime created conditions under which no political party could engage in peaceful political activism. All documents of the party outline our peaceful approach.
MA: How do you explain the decline of the MB after the events in Hama?
AB: The regime destroyed three quarters of Hama, and repressed popular uprisings in other cities in a similar fashion. The brutality of the Syrian regime, and its willingness to use conventional military capabilities against its own civilian population, is unparalleled in modern history. They detained over 60,000 people in that period.
MA: So unprecedented repression was the only cause of the decline?
AB: After the coup d’etat in 1963 all political parties were harshly repressed in Syria, but the Brotherhood, because of its size and the serious threat it posed to the Ba’athists, received the harshest treatment. But in spite of this repression, in particular the massacres of the early 1980s we remain the largest opposition force.
MA: What has happened to the leaders of the struggle? I refer specifically to Adnan Saad al-Din, Said Hawa and Issam al-Attar.
AB: Sheikh Said Hawa died more than 15 years ago. Issam al-Attar has been leading the Talaa’i organization in Germany since the late 1970s. Our relationship is very good and we meet regularly. Attar leads a loose organization that works mainly with non-Syrian Muslims; hence Attar is no longer exclusively engaged with Syria. But the aims and objectives of his organization are very similar to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. We coordinate and consult closely on Syria-related issues. As for Adnan Saad al-Din, he left the Muslim Brotherhood in 1986 and formed a breakaway faction. This breakaway faction rejoined the main body of the MB in 1991, but Saad al-Din never again returned to the party. But we still maintain a good relationship.