Holier Than Thou: Rival Clerics in the Syrian Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 14

Jabhet al-Nasra (Source: Veterans Today)
The Syrian conflict is emerging as an extremely attractive recruiting ground for jihadi groups – in February, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaida, called upon “every Muslim and every honorable and free person in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to go to aid his brothers in Syria” (as-Sahab Media Productions via shamikh1.info, February 11). The uprising is largely Sunni Muslim in character, with the armed insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s secular Alawite-dominated regime almost exclusively focused in rural Sunni Arab regions: Deraa, Homs, Hama, Idleb, parts of the Aleppo and Damascus countryside, and Deir al-Zor, as well as some Sunni enclaves on the Mediterranean coast. [1] Most fighters are locally recruited Sunni Arab civilians and army defectors, while ideological Islamists form only a small minority of the rebel manpower, albeit of growing influence.
The Free Syrian Army and Sunni Radicalism
The most well-known Syrian rebel formation is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a poorly defined network of largely autonomous rebel groups self-described as ”brigades” regardless of their actual size. The FSA itself is almost entirely Sunni Arab, but lacks a distinct ideology. It is loosely allied to the Syrian National Council (SNC), based in Turkey and supported and funded by Western and Gulf Arab states. It includes some of the largest militia formations inside Syria, such as the Farouq Brigade of Homs, and has the nominal support of many more. [2]
The FSA’s leadership, a collection of mid-ranking Sunni Arab military defectors headed by  Colonel Riyad Musa al-As’ad from a base in Turkey, is actively courting Western support and has unambiguously condemned jihadi groups. This attitude is not necessarily shared by the fighters on the ground, who tend to label themselves FSA whether or not they are in actual contact with the FSA headquarters. With Sunni sectarian perspectives becoming more central to the armed uprising as time passes, most FSA factions are now steeped in religious rhetoric and there are a number of explicitly Islamist groups calling themselves part of the FSA, some of whom use radical jihadi slogans. One such group is the al-Bara bin Malek Brigade, which uses the Salafi-Jihadi flag made famous by al-Qaeda in Iraq and vows to carry out “martyrdom operations.” [3]
Outside the FSA umbrella, there are other groups which are more radical and more hostile to Western influence over the uprising. These include the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, a network of Islamist militias spread over several provinces, as well as a Salafist group in Homs called the Ansar Brigade. Others, such as Fath al-Islam, a Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian group, predate the uprising. There is not, however, a formal al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, after the failed attempt to establish al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Sham (”al-Qaeda in the Levant”) in the mid-2000s, though this situation may be about to change (al-Hayat, September 28, 2010). 
The Rise of Jabhat al-Nusra
The most prominent Syrian jihadi group, by far, is the Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (”The Support Front for the People of the Levant by the Levantine Mujahedin on the Battlefields of Jihad”). Jabhat al-Nusra (as it is known) emerged in early 2012 and has rapidly captured the imagination of jihadi activists and the attention of international news media through spectacular suicide bombings (Shamikh1.info, January 24, 2012). 
While non-jihadi Syrian dissidents often accuse Jabhat al-Nusra of being a regime creation, most signs indicate that it may be a spinoff from the al-Qaeda-affiliated ”Islamic State in Iraq”  (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 22). U.S. government sources have repeatedly linked Jabhat al-Nusra to al-Qaeda generally and the Iraqi branch specifically, and the group has a very active branch in the Deir al-Zor region along Syria’s eastern desert border, where tribal smuggling networks have remained active since the Iraq war (McClatchy, February 10; Guardian, March 22; see also Terrorism Monitor, June 1). Jabhat al-Nusra is now seen by the vast majority of international Salafi-Jihadis as ”their” group in Syria, despite the presence of other contenders. It has been actively promoted by the major jihadi web forums, perhaps indicating that trusted sources have vouched for its credibility. 
A number of prominent Salafi-Jihadi scholars have also endorsed Jabhat al-Nusra in the past months, further raising its visibility. Examples include Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, who is based in Irbid in northern Jordan (an area tribally linked to Syria’s Dera’a region), where he supports Jordanians who seek to join the jihad in Syria (Shamikh1.info, March 14; al-Jazeera, June 6). Another locally influential name is Abu al-Zahra al-Zubeidi (a.k.a. Osama al-Shihabi), a Lebanon-based preacher and activist considered a leading authority for Fath al-Islam. While some sources claim that al-Zubeidi is in fact the amir of Fath al-Islam since Lebanese intelligence killed its former leader Abd al-Rahman Oud in August 2010, al-Zubeidi emphatically denies even being a member of the group (al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 24). In a written statement released to jihadi forums in May, al-Zubeidi called on everyone – including other jihadi organizations – to “join Jabhat al-Nusra to strenghten it and to avoid fragmenting the efforts” (Shamikh1.info, May 15). Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti, a Mauritanian scholar who issues religious edicts for the influential Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad website, has also strongly backed Jabhat al-Nusra (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, June 6). 
Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti vs. Abu Basir al-Tartusi
However, there are dissenting voices in the jihadi community, chief among them the London-based Salafi-Jihadi theologian Abu Basir al-Tartusi (a.k.a. Abd al-Mun’im Mustafa Halima).  Abu Basir, who fled his native Syria during the the 1979-1982 Islamist uprising against Hafez al-Assad, is a leading light of the contemporary jihadi movement. He has been strongly supportive of armed jihad against the Assad regime, and has established a minor group called al-Mu’arada al-islamiya lil-nizam al-souri (Islamic Opposition to the Regime in Syria). [4] In May 2012, a short video clip was published of Abu Basir alongside armed rebels, implying that he had now joined the fighting inside Syria, although the scene could also have been shot in the border regions of Lebanon or Turkey. [5] 
Abu Basir has regarded Jabhat al-Nusra with skepticism from the very start, raising doubts about its authenticity and asking why there is no known spokesman for the group (its leader, known by the nom-de-guerre al-Fatih Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, appears only through distorted voice recordings). [6] Abu Basir has angrily refuted jihadi complaints about the FSA. These have tended to focus on the concept of al-raya, ’the banner’ – i.e., the requirement that mujahideen should flock to a single legitimate leadership, fully committed to Islamic rule, for their jihad to be legitimate. According to Abu Basir, what matters at this stage is to topple the regime, not to split hairs about theological concepts such as al-raya. He considers the FSA to be  ”heroic mujahideen” and their detractors to be ”present-day Kharijites.” [7]
This position has led to a public clash with Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti, who states that by ”announcing his support for those who adopt the democratic program and at the same time attacking those who will apply Islamic Shari’a,” Abu Basir displays “a great shortcoming” (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, May 21).  In contrast to Abu Basir, Abu al-Mundhir has been wary of the FSA all along. He believes that jihadis need to maintain working relations with the FSA on the battlefield, but laments that the FSA ”doesn’t fight under the banner of Shari’a, [but] to implement democracy and consecrate Western values” (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, May 21).  Muslims should instead ”hurry to join the mujahideen in Jabhat al-Nusra, the existence of which has eliminated the need for any other group,” because unlike the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra fulfills the demand for al-raya. On a more flexible note, Abu al-Mundhir supports the use of secular-sounding movement names as a tactical ruse, and says that jihadi groups can also cooperate with the FSA in order to tap into its foreign funding. (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, June 6).
Personal or Political, Local or Global?
Some of the differences between Abu al-Mundhir and Abu Basir could perhaps be explained by Abu Basir’s special relationship to the conflict. As analyst Joas Wagemakers notes, the Tartus-born jihadi ”obviously cares about Syria,” and has been striking a much more nuanced tone than is usual in jihadi politics – ”one of concern for his native land.” [8]  How deeply personal the struggle against the Assad regime is for Abu Basir was illustrated by his post to Facebook on May 31 – a wrinkled and yellowed photograph of his brother Abd al-Qadir, abducted by Syrian intelligence in 1981 and never heard from since. [9]
But the difference in perspective is not simply personal, nor is it limited to Syrian affairs. Abu Basir has always been an odd bird in the militant community due to his negative view of suicide bombings. Almost alone among the major Salafi-Jihadi scholars, he opposes this favorite jihadi tactic on theological grounds. [10] His FSA dispute with Abu al-Mundhir has also coincided with a similar public conflict about jihadis in Yemen, with Abu Basir criticizing the extremist tendencies of Ansar al-Shari’a and Abu al-Mundhir attacking Abu Basir’s “disgusting deviation.” [11]
As obscure as these intra-jihadi quarrels may seem, they are not unimportant. As Wagemakers points out, Abu al-Mundhir and Abu Basir “may well be the most influential and most prolific radical scholars in the world right now,” if only because the other contenders are dead or in prison. [12] Their conflict is not simply one of egos, but an example of the tension between principled radicalism and business-minded pragmatism which has long dogged the jihadi movement. In a situation where the core leadership of al-Qaeda has been decimated and militant Salafism becomes ever more decentralized, the fact that two of its most senior theologians have started to appear as ideological polar opposites will further fragment the global jihadi community.
Aron Lund is a Swedish journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.
1. Fabrice Balanche,”Géographie de la révolte syrienne”, Outre-Terre, no. 29, 3/2011.
2. For the FSA, see Joseph Holliday, “Syria’s Armed Opposition”,     Middle East Security Report 3, Institute for the Study of War, March 2012. For the SNC, see Aron Lund, “Divided they stand: An overview of Syria’s political opposition factions,” Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Olof Palme International Center, May 2012, https://www.feps-europe.eu/en/news/122_divided-they-stand-an-overview-of-syrias-political.
3. See ”Ansar al-Sham, in steadfast Homs: Announcing the formation of the al-Bara bin Malek Brigade under the banner of monotheism,” February 17, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFDyw1cYATg.
4. A packet of Abu Basir’s collected writings on the Syrian revolution are available for download on his website. See Abu Basir al-Tartusi, “Daftar al-thawra wa’l-thuwwar” (Notebook of the revolution and the revolutionaries), https://abubaseer.bizland.com/books/read/b%2040.doc.  
5. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgihhPIECag (May 12, 2012).
6. Abu Basir al-Tartusi, “Al-muarada al-islamiya lil-nizam al-souri,” Facebook, February 27, 2012, https://www.facebook.com/moaradaislamiya/posts/332542243454471.
7. See https://abubaseer.bizland.com, February 15, 2012.
8. Joas Wagemakers, “Al-Qaida Advises the Arab Spring: Syria,” Jihadica, November 19, 2011, www.jihadica.com/al-qaida-advises-the-arab-spring-syria/. 
10. Abu Basir al-Tartusi,”Suspicions of Sin in Martyrdom or Suicide Attacks,” November 11, 2005, www.en.altartosi.com/suicide.htm.
11. Wagemakers, op cit. 
12. Ibid