Much has been written about the Aleppo-based Syrian preacher Abu al-Qaqa since Syrian security apprehended an armed group on June 2 that was attempting to carry out a terrorist attack at early dawn on the Ummayad Square in the heart of Damascus (Terrorism Focus, June 13). The story remains confusing as to the precise target of the terrorist group since the Ummayad Square is surrounded by several important sites, including Syrian TV, the General Customs Department, the Damascus Opera House, the al-Assad National Library, the Ministry of Defense and Army Headquarters. What is known for sure is that one security official was killed along with a guard at Syrian Television, while two others were wounded. The police managed to gun down four militants, wound two and arrest four. Pictures of the dead assailants were displayed in Syria’s state-run dailies the next morning to end all speculation that the ordeal was fabricated by the Syrian government. Those who were killed and those who were arrested were carrying CDs with inflammatory speeches by Abu al-Qaqa.
The sermons were being preached under the banner of an unknown group called Ghuraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria). On the CDs, Abu al-Qaqa is seen screaming: “We will teach our enemies a lesson they will never forget. Are you ready?” When the crowds respond affirmatively with thundering voices, he says: “Speak louder so George Bush can hear you!” Abu al-Qaqa addresses a crowd of hundreds, who are so moved by his speech that they begin to cry. He then begins to weep as he speaks, telling his audience: “Guests have come to our land…slaughter them like cattle. Burn them! Yes, they are the Americans” (al-Arabiya, June 4).
Abu al-Qaqa—sometimes referred to by his original name Dr. Mahmud al-Aghasi—is a rising phenomenon in Syrian politics because of his growing popularity in Syria since 2003. Abu al-Qaqa was born to a Kurdish family in the village of al-Foz, north of Aleppo, in 1973. His father was not a religious scholar, but rather lived the life of a simple farmer. Al-Qaqa studied Islam at Damascus University and obtained his MA and PhD from the Islamic University in Karachi. He began to preach to the pious at the Alaa Bin Hadrami Mosque in Aleppo in the 1990s. Loudly anti-American, he attracted a wide audience during the Iraq War in 2003 and his reputation has been spreading ever since. His speeches, which by now were recorded on cassettes and DVDs, began to reach thousands and were distributed in towns and villages all over Syria. One person who has seen his sermons described him, saying, “He is an inflammatory speaker and possesses great oratory skills, in addition to being a master of dialogue” (author interview in Syria, June 22).
It is said that he has mastered the Arabic language, and uses it with eloquence to appeal to the masses that attend his sermons. In an interview with al-Arabiya TV on June 23, Abu al-Qaqa denied that he was calling on Syrians to go to war in Iraq. He cited an example when he spoke at a youth festival shortly after the fall of Baghdad, attended by 15,000 Syrian young men, advising them not to go to Iraq. He admitted that he received thousands of Arab recruits who visited him in Aleppo and wanted to go to Iraq for jihad; due to Aleppo’s proximity with Iraq, and the reputation of its clerics and their history of opposing the U.S. occupation, it was a stop for many jihadists en route to Iraq. He convinced them, however, to return to their countries, saying that warfare at such a stage “harms the nation” (al-Arabiya, June 22). This seemed to contradict what Abu al-Qaqa had been saying on the recorded CDs, but he qualified his new stance, arguing that he was calling on the youth to “burn” and “slaughter” the Americans only if they came to Syria (al-Arabiya, June 22).
He insists that anger of the religious youth should never be unleashed on their fellow Syrians or their government. This explains why the Syrian government has tolerated him since 2003. Many speculated that he was an agent of the Syrian regime, being used by the government to appease the rising Islamic street that was boiling with anti-Americanism. As long as he was not preaching against the state, it was believed, Abu al-Qaqa could be free to say what he wished in Aleppo. In conversations with friends and supporters, Abu al-Qaqa stresses that he is not against the state, emphasizing: “The state and I are against what is wrong” (author interview with Syrian source, June 22). He always calls for “Unification of the security and religious apparatus in Syria.” He explains this bizarre argument: “Every believer must see that security is a positive action. The objective of a believer’s religion is to prevent harm to human beings. This is done by the security services” (al-Rai al-Aam, June 14).
Abu al-Qaqa has authored a 10-page booklet, which is popular among religious Syrian youth, entitled The Rights of the Ruler. The book is dedicated to: “The sons of my country: the rulers and the ruled, the officials and the citizenry, those with ranks and those with beards, preachers of religion and political actors, security officials and soldiers of belief.” Jihadists usually see regimes in the Arab World as heretical—but Abu al-Qaqa sees them in good light, explaining why many people write him off as an imposter and a creation of Syrian intelligence. In page two of his booklet, Abu al-Qaqa adds that he will not wrestle with the government for leadership of the state, saying that he hopes to unite the people of Syria, “governors and those who are governed, on the basis of coherent cooperation” to obstruct all Western and Israeli ploys in Syria. He adds that he is unrelated in any manner to al-Qaeda, seeing it today as a U.S. creation to bring havoc to Iraq. He is also unrelated to the Jund al-Sham organization that emerged in Syria since 2003. He says: “We will be agents of construction not destruction for our country, even if we are oppressed or harmed.” He says that the status of the ulema and the rulers (in reference to the Baathists) is untouchable, since if both are tarnished, “lost is belief and lost is Sharia.”
It is no secret that Abu al-Qaqa is not on the offensive with the Syrian regime. This mindset is new to men of religion, especially those who preach jihad in the post September 11 world, who are usually at the opposite end of the political spectrums with established governments in the Middle East. He continues to live in Aleppo—unlike previous reports that said he currently has Pakistani citizenship and lives in Chechnya—and walks around the city freely with bodyguards. He drives a luxurious Mercedes Benz 600, has a rented apartment in a residential district of Aleppo and is never short of funds (author interview with an Aleppo-based admirer of Abu al-Qaqa, June 20). He is connected to the Aleppine mercantile class and is widely supported in his campaign to preach tolerant political Islam. Many people donate funds to him to avoid being harassed for saying no, to appease the government that supports al-Qaqa and because some believe he is truly an honest man of religion who needs to be funded, seeking his blessing as a spiritual cleric.
Since he was supported—although not necessarily created—by the security services to appease rising discontent in the Syrian street, it is likely that certain followers deviated from his path, seeing that he was too closely tied to the government, and created cells on their own that are influenced by his teachings, but carry separate agendas for jihad and political conduct. On April 12, for example, fighting broke out between al-Qaqa’s former supporters and members of Syrian security from a newly created branch called the “Combating Terrorism Unit.” The fighting led to the killing of two assailants, two security officials and one bystander in the Naqqarin neighborhood of Aleppo. At the time, the sermons of Abu al-Qaqa were briefly stopped in Aleppo—a sign that his rhetoric was what inspired the terrorist attack.
Lately, some have accused Abu al-Qaqa of the would-be terrorist attack on the Ummayad Square. In an exclusive interview with al-Muharrir al-Arabi, published on June 16, Abu al-Qaqa denied all involvement in the incident. He added that these accusations were not directed against him personally, “but rather targets the wise and civilized Islamic project in Bilad al-Sham.” The would-be attack on the Ummayad Square was a “bitter event,” he added. “My stance on it is similar to my stance on criminal acts: total rejection.” As for the CDs found on the terrorists, Abu al-Qaqa pointed out that this recording was among 2,000 others distributed and sold easily in the Islamic world, saying that it is no proof that he planned the attack.
For now, it is not clear who to believe in the entire ordeal of Abu al-Qaqa. What kind of a jihadist dabbles with a secular regime like the Baathists? What kind of a jihadist drives around in broad daylight in a Mercedes Benz? Abu al-Qaqa is one of two things. He might be a regime creation, whose supporters strayed from his loyalty to become terrorists working against the Syrian regime and against Abu al-Qaqa himself. These men might have carried out the failed Ummayad Square operation. Or it might have been executed by his opponents, who purposely planted his CDs, to place him in bad standing with the government. Or he might be a double-agent, working for the Syrians and international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, wanting to play both sides against each other. History will prove how serious of a man Abu al-Qaqa is and what effects he will have on Syria.