Salafism and Salafis in Syria: From reform to jihad

Published in Syria

By Abdul Rahman Al-Haj 

Two key features characterise the Syrian Salafis. Initially, the Salafis called for non-violence, as a result of the repression that the regime had imposed on the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. They then transformed to become Salafi jihadists, as a reaction to the regime's military repression of peaceful demonstrations.

Since their emergence at the end of the nineteenth century, the ideology of Syrian Salafis has been transformed. The two most important centres where this process took place were Damascus and Aleppo. Initially, the Syrian Salafi movement was akin to reformist Salafis, who originated in Egypt through the teachings of Sheikh Muhammad Abdu. Its main icons were religious and intellectual people of stature, including Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Kawakibi (1849–1902), Sheikh Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi (1914–1966), and Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935). Their primary concern was politics. Shami (Levantine) Salafi thought is not different from the ideology of the Salafi reformist school in Egypt. A large number of the early and senior national politicians were influenced by the ideas of the leaders of this school, particularly those of Qasimi. He coordinated a forum attended by the likes of Lutfi al-Haffaar, Abdul Rahman al-Shahbandar, Faris Al-Khouri, Rafiq al-Azm, Mohammad Kurd Ali, Salim al-Jaza’iri, Abd al-Hamid al-Zahrawi, and others.

Several organisations branched off from Levantine reformist Salafi thought, and rapidly began to play important roles in political life. The most important of these was al-Jam’iah al-Gharra (The Radiant Assembly), which was founded by Sheikh Abdul Ghani al-Daker in 1924. It tried to engage with social changes that had resulted through the importation of modern western life. Its activities had broad social impact, and it began to receive support from politicians and other people of power who hoped to use this support to attract votes. These included Shukri al-Qutali who, through the encouragement of the Assembly, succeeded in the 1943 parliamentary elections. Another supporter was the Assembly’s Secretary, Sheikh Abdul Hamid al-Tabbah. He was placed on the coalition’s candidates’ list, and was elected to the Syrian parliament in 1943.

The Jam’iah al-Tamaddun al-Islami (Society of the Islamic Civilisation) was founded in 1930 by Ahmed Mazhar al-Azmah – who later became a minister, and Bahjat al-Baitar, a student who had been associated with Qasimi. In 1946 the society launched, with its name, a magazine that might be considered the most important record of the Levantine Salafi reformist movement and its activities. The Assembly was shut down after the 1982 Hama massacre.

Despite the disbanding of political parties, and the abolition of democratic life in Syria for the sake of the unity with Egypt, the Levantine Salafi reformists remained loyal to their principles. After the 1963 coup by the Syrian Ba’ath party, and the subsequent dissolution of political parties and undermining of political pluralism, the reformist Salafi movement began to disintegrate. Its institutions transformed into mere charities, and its journals became cultural publications. Its followers engaged in controversies about dogma, with this trend reaching its peak at the end of the 1970s. That was followed by a shift to an academic Salafi movement, typified by a debate between Sheikh Said Ramadan Buti and Sheikh Nasser al-Din al-Albani.

The seeds of jihadist Salafism

The first seeds of the jihadist Salafism were planted during Hafez al-Asad’s rule, in a regional and international environment that witnessed several heated conflicts. These included the Second Gulf War, which was followed by a harmful economic blockade of Iraq; the coup against Islamists in Algeria after their victory in the elections; and the genocide in Bosnia against Muslims. Furthermore, the period witnessed the end of the Afghanistan war of liberation from Soviet occupation, the return of many Arab Afghans to their country, and revelations of the suffering of Syrian Islamists in prisons after hundreds of them were released from 1992. Over 17 000 prisoners had been subjected to mass executions. Videos, books, and articles that emphasised the massacres of Bosnia, as well as the Arab jihad in Afghanistan, were circulating internationally. As such, the international community had a limited opportunity to recognise the suffering of Muslim communities abroad. In the mid-1990s, ‘jihad’ was declared against the Russians in order to gain Chechen independence, as was obtained by other countries that had previously been part of the Soviet Union.

These factors galvanised the younger Syrian generation towards a jihadist orientation. They formed unregulated small groups based on their common jihadist interest. This phenomenon certainly did not arise from the Islamic and Syrian political memory of the 1980s, or directly from the jihadist literature. Rather, they were influenced by some of the newly emerging Salafi symbols of the Afghan and the Caucasus jihads, and some of the new Salafi symbols of the Islamic awakening in Saudi Arabia. More specifically, they were influenced by the charisma of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, who had become a symbol of the Arab Afghan jihad after he had been killed in 1993 in Pakistan with two of his sons. Azzam represented the ideology of the pioneer fighters of a global jihad.

The first Palestinian intifada, which broke out in 1987 and lasted until 1993, and the activities of the Palestinian Islamic resistance organisations – Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was significant and impressive. It inspired and encouraged younger generations. This response was similar to that associated with southern Lebanon and the Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah, which was launched in 1985, and achieved victories under revolutionary Islamic slogans. The ‘negative effects’ of sectarian differences in Syria did not prevent the acceptance of jihadist forces, which were significantly influenced by the Lebanese resistance. Hizbullah’s impact was on par with that of its neighbours in Palestine.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, which had long supported Asad’s regime, had collapsed, and the Marxist doctrine suffered its final defeat. This increased local and international interest in Islam. The regime created alliances with and supported some religious groups, particularly those that were hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood. It did so in order to control the ‘Islamic awakening’ which Syria and the region witnessed, and which could have posed a threat to the regime. The escalation of the Islamic awakening and the emergence of Islamic movements in neighbouring countries influenced Sheikh Muhammad Said Ramadan Al Buti. He was a senior religious scholar who was well respected among many Sunni Syrians. He was the most prominent opponent of Salafism and the closest religious personality to the Asad regime. He was also well-known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had begun in Egypt and its founder was Hasan al-Banna. The group advocated physical action and, if necessary, war to achieve Islamic ends. Buti, however, was a government supporter. Buti could therefore not confront the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood physically. However, the government used him to direct Sunni Muslims away from taking up arms against the state. This was done by funding his writing of government-approved books against the real principles of jihad, in order to confront the jihadist ideology in Islamic jurisprudential terms. This was exemplified in his book Jihad in the path of God: How do we understand it and how do we practise it? (1993), which justified the repression of the Syrian regime against the Islamists.

The fast-moving developments, suppression of the media, and limited progress in communication led to the growth of a new sentiment. The younger generations who had experienced the suppression of the Islamist movement in the eighties became anti-American and opposed the Arab regimes. This mood generally led them to individually embrace Salafi jihadist ideas. Its ideas were spread through wide network of literature and video distribution. This methodology was based on the experience of the Arab Afghan mujahideen, but those who used it were still unable to act cohesively. The bloody tragedy during the repression in the 1980s had left deep scars. The resultant fear continues to penetrate into society, to the extent that, until recently, it was not even acceptable in Syrian society to support any organisation that adopted violence against the Syrian regime. With these factors hindering progress internally, the new jihadist Salafi forces automatically focused externally. The regime did not waste time in providing them with the necessary facilities, and invested in them. Accordingly, it began to tolerate Islamist organisations abroad such as Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood at unprecedented levels. This occurred simultaneously with its violent and intolerant suppression of any organised Islamic Syrian opposition. It threatened the Syrian community in several ways by reminding people of the suppression of the 1980s. These factors made it even more difficult for the Syrians to accept the Salafi jihadist ideology.

The domestic Salafi jihadist

Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the second-tier leaders from among the vanguard fighters, and one of the icons of al-Qa’ida, issued a statement on the death of President Hafez al-Asad, complaining about the reluctance of the Syrians for jihad, and bitterly noting that many Syrians had become ‘content with the life of this world’, and had ‘found tranquillity’ in it. He said that they would reject his words, and would take revenge against those who call for jihad. He blamed ‘many evil’ sheikhs and Sunnis for, from 1986 to 2000, ‘killing...the seeds of resistance’. The events of 11 September 2001, he said, had stimulated the Salafi jihadi everywhere. He believed the internet’s entry into Syria had made it easier for Syrians to communicate with the jihadist world.

Scores of people were arrested when the Syrian authorities, cooperating with the American CIA, investigated groups with possible links to al-Qa’ida. Everyone suspected of being a Salafi, (including those who were not jihadists and not linked to any ‘terrorist’ organisation) was summoned and interrogated. Among those arrested was Shakir al-Absi, who later became the leader of a new jihadist organisation in Lebanon named Fath al-Islam. He had direct links with the Syrian intelligence services.

While preparations were taking place for the American-led occupation of Iraq, the atmosphere in the media and within the population, hinted at the creation of a wave of new jihadists. Jihadists were growing on the basis of confronting the ‘infidel’ West’s violation of Muslim lands. The official Syrian clergy as well as those who were allied to the Syrian regime, had discussions, and politicians made official statements regarding this jihadist mobilisation. On 26 March 2003, the mufti of the republic, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, called Muslims in all parts of the world to jihad. In essence, the call was intended to ‘use all possible means to defeat the aggression, including martyrdom operations against the invading soldiers’. This call for an ‘obligatory jihad’ was repeated by Sheikh al-Buti in Friday sermons. He urged young Muslims to ‘proceed to great reward, which God Almighty and All Glorious has saved stored for the fighters.’ Many other clerics adopted the same approach.

In conjunction with this mobilisation, the young Sheikh Mahmoud Qul Aghassi began to gain prestige in a very poor area in north Aleppo, where the Salafi jihadist discourse was publicly adopted. Under the nose of the regime, he coached his followers in the Alaa Bin Hadrami Mosque on combat operations. He also widely disseminated CDs which contained videos of these exercises in military uniform, and spirited jihadist speeches. He thus played an important role in mobilising youth and preparing them for jihad, which had just been launched in Iraq. In the autumn of 2003, however, fatwas (juridical decrees) were issued to jihadist groups in Iraq to assassinate him because he was a ‘security trap for hundreds of youngsters who believed his claim’. He subsequently disappeared, only to emerge two years later with a well-kept beard. He became a Salafi reformist imam at the Iman Mosque in a new upscale Aleppo area. He was assassinated on 28 September 2007, however, by a group calling itself ‘Tawhid and Jihad in the Levant’. It was subsequently discovered that this group did not exist except in the official media.

Hundreds of young Syrians rushed to Iraq and committees in support of Iraq were formed. These facilitated the volunteering of youth, and their transfer to the battlefield. Most volunteers for jihad in Iraq did not go to the battle on the basis of a Salafi jihadist ideology, but, instead were led by mixed feelings of Arab and Islamic chivalry. Many were inspired by Hizbullah’s successful experience in southern Lebanon, and its defeat of Israel in 2006. Returning to Syria was not as easy as leaving, however, and many returnees were summoned for investigation.

On 27 March 2004, the Syrian government alluded to an ‘Islamic threat’ facing the country, after pressure from the USA and the coalition forces. The government declared, via the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), that there had been a clash in Damascus between an armed terrorist group and security forces. Since the 1980s, such a situation was the first of its kind in Syria. Many questioned the credibility of the report, and western media dismissed it. There was a common belief that the story was ‘locally formulated’. Thereafter, the announcements of jihadist operations ended.

During a meeting of the United Nations Commission against Terrorism in June 2005, the then Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan said there was ‘absolutely no activity of al-Qa’ida or the Taliban movement on Syrian territory’. Nevertheless, after only one month, on July 11, 2005, there was an announcement of an armed clash resulting in the arrest of members of ‘takfiri’ groups (groups that considered other Muslims to be disbelievers), and a group calling itself ‘Jund al-Sham li al-jihad wa al-Tawhid’ (Levantine army for jihad and monotheism) which had links to al-Qa’ida. This was followed by other, similar announcements. Several experts believed these operations had been fulfilled by small, isolated local groups, without international connections. There were also those who believed that the regime had employed these groups to generate internal and external propaganda. Human rights organisations, however, provided information (including details of indictment records and trials) that showed that the spread of the Salafi jihadist ideology was extremely limited. They proved that the associated groups were small and of varying size, and did not have a unified leadership. They were influenced by the ideas of international organisations such as Jund al-Sham li al-Da’wah wa al-Jihad (Levantine army for Calling and Jihad) and Takfir wa al-Hijra, or even Al-Qa’ida. The state media claimed that Al-Qaeda had existed in Syria. This was untrue. The state prepared a list of accusations against Sunni Islamists in advance, in order to justify repression. These accusations were based on unreliable evidence, as noted by human rights lawyer, Razan Zaytuna.

The striking point is that the large number of detainees accused of being Salafis, Salafi jihadists, or of being affiliated to ‘terrorist’, radical religious organisations, were from the rural parts of Damascus and other areas. Those from the major Syrian cities were a fraction of the detainees. This strengthens the notion that in conjunction with local politics and regional circumstances, poverty and marginalisation play an important role in stimulating jihadist ideology.

Accordingly, no strictly Salafi jihadist religious organisation existed. Studies suggest that there is a continued rise in the spread of the Salafi protest ideology, and a shift of many young Salafis from Salafi religious thought to Salafi jihadist ideology. For many, this shift occurred during their prison experience, especially since the vast majority of Salafi detainees did not belong to jihadist groups, and their jihadist ideas had not been clearly developed. At the time, there were no groups even within prison that believed in undertaking jihad operations within Syria. As such, the repressive security policy used by the regime against Salafis, and the exceptionally unfair trials that did not function according to the minimum standards of justice, led to the expansion of Salafi ideology.

Provoking Shi’a proselytising

From the beginning of 2005, the Asad regime adopted a new policy. The Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’as were allowed, under security cover and with unprecedented facilities, to proselytise their beliefs. It was subsequently noted that that missionary call also provided Iran an advanced popular base in Syria. The roots of this lie in the moment that Bashar al-Asad came to power as an inheritance from his father, and the strengthening of the Iranian-Syrian alliance. In fact, many factors strengthened the strategic relationship between Syria, Hizbullah and Iran. There were two defining events: the occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the assassination of Rafeek Hariri in Beirut in 2005. These events made it clear that the extreme pressure on the regime may lead to its collapse, and therefore the alliance had an important role in maintaining the regime. This relationship was invested in as a bargaining chip and a means by which to pressure Arab regimes and the international community. That was one of the main reasons for the repressive security policy towards Salafis, and, in particular, towards the Salafi jihadist groups, which formed a bitter sectarian rival to Shiism.

As a result, most Sunni Muslims and even the Christian minorities began to experience a deep sense of discrimination and deception in government policies, especially in comparison to the privileges and subsidies enjoyed by the small Shi’a minority. It seemed as if most government measures were directed against specific sectarian and religious groups. In this way, during Asad’s reign, government policies played a role in the growing phenomenon of Salafism and Salafi jihadism, as it increasingly played on sectarian instincts. For the first time, jihadist forces were protesting against domestic policies. This would create fertile ground for the development of jihadist Salafis.

Non-violent Salafi revolutionaries

Within the Salafi educated section of the Circassian Caucasian minority, a trend emerged towards a new, non-violent Salafism. It did not materialise until the early 1980s, and was promoted on a limited basis, among only a few groups. It is possible that Islamic thought had not witnessed an Islamist movement, let alone Salafism, that considered any form of violence illegal, including violence in self-defence. The leader of this trend was Sheikh Jawdat Said (born 1931), from the Circassian minority. Since the early 1980s, he had begun to spread his Islamic philosophy of non-violence. He was well aware of the possibility and implications of political arrests, which he had experienced on several occasions.

Said had been influenced by the ideologies of Pakistani reformist thinker Muhammad Iqbal, and Algerian reformist thinker Malik Bennabi. It appears that Said had launched his theory of non-violence as a reaction to the events of the 1980s. His intellectual reference points, however, and the lessons that he had delivered for many earlier in al-Murabit Mosque in Damascus, reflected an ideological trajectory that was different from that of Islamists of the period. In 1966, his book The doctrine of the first son of Adam: The problem of violence in the Islamic World was published as a response to the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach of using political violence. The importance of this book lies in the fact that it was the first attempt in modern history to formulate the concept of a non-violent Islamism, and was the first direct response to the writings of Sayyid Qutb (died in 1966), which had formed the intellectual foundation of Islamic resistance movements.

Said was unable to form an organisation that believed in his ideas. This changed in the early 1990s, when major global events occurred, including the fall of the Soviet Union and the Second Gulf War, sparking the need for new thinking. Said was able to fill some of the symbolic void left by the 1980s, but the group he had formed began to disintegrate towards the end of the 1990s, influenced by events in Syria that drove people to extremism and militancy. Despite this, a select group of students continued to admire his views. They included Hanan al-Lahham, who had been his student, was an active preacher, and who led her own women’s group; his brother-in-law, Khalis Chalabi, an author and known Islamic thinker; and a group of activists who centred around the Salafi Sheikh, Abdul Akram al-Saka in the town of Darya. The principle of non-violence was not just an enlightened religious thought, but was, in essence, an idea of political reform. Although Said did not show any personal political aspirations, he did not hide his desire for a peaceful change of the political system.

The arrest of members of the ‘Darya group’ in 2003 was an indication of the growth of the impact of Said’s ideology of non-violence. Nearly a hundred young people emerged in a silent demonstration on the morning of the fall of Baghdad to American forces. They raised anti-corruption slogans, called for a boycott of American goods, and cleaned the streets of the city. The authorities arrested twenty-four of the protesters on 3 May 2003. Despite their protest being non-violent, they were referred to field military courts because they were Salafis, albeit of a non-violent strand.

The fall of Baghdad was a milestone for the leader of the non-violent Salafi group. Since then, in all forums and public intellectual meetings that he attended, Sheikh Said had begun to wear a white jacket upon which ‘European Union’ was written in his own handwriting. This was to encapsulate his political idea that a union based on interests is a solution rather than an opportunity for conflict and violence. This was his first public activity that clearly indicated his political stance. The group engaged with political thought, which they expressed mainly through religious Qur’anic vocabulary. Said became one of the most prominent signatories of the ‘Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change’ in October 2005. The declaration united political opposition groups and individuals.

A number of Said’s students displayed public opposition to the regime. When the Syrian peaceful revolution was launched in mid-March 2011, the star of the Sheikh Said shone strongly. A significant number of youth found, in non-violent Salafism, a form of Islamic thought that they could relate to and depend on. The group’s icon, Sheikh Said, and his words became familiar symbols appearing on banners in the peaceful demonstrations. This brief period represented the height of the golden age of non-violent Salafism. It regressed after only a few months, as repression by the regime intensified. Peaceful protests turned into an armed revolution, and non-violent Salafi ideas no longer held the same attraction.

Revolutionary armed Salafis

Hafez al-Asad’s legacy and the Syrian memory of the events of the 1980s left deep wounds, which the regime was eager not to heal because that experience sustained a ‘disciplinary’ or ‘deterrence’ effect. In addition, government policies under Asad’s son, Bashar, indicated significant changes, and an important turning point in the manner in which the regime dealt with religious groups. The regime also changed from one that relied on politics, negotiations and internal social balance to one that relied, instead, on security-based control, based on intimidation and the regime’s foreign policy interests. This rapidly infuriated the Salafi groups, and significantly changed their political aspirations.

Government actions reflected its high regard for security, with little regard for the social and political implications on Syrian society. This is especially true with regards to the regime’s attack on Islamic groups and its attempts to control all religious spaces and interfere in religious institutions. This interference included the dissolution of family charity associations and imposing on such associations councils mandated by the government; the removal of successful municipal election candidates because they were religious; and the abolition of the annual breakfast to which the clerics and scholars were invited. In addition, the government decided to deploy women teachers who wore headscarves to administrative positions that were unrelated to teaching. This all occurred in light of the revolution set off in Tunisia. Syria was thus the powder keg that required a mere spark to be set off.

The revolution exploded, and it engaged various parties, organisations and the other civil society groups. None of them played a leadership role, however. In the first months of the revolution, the traditional and jihadist Salafis were outside the framework of the uprising. There was no party organisation or Salafi movement, and those Salafis who did involve themselves in the peaceful civilian ranks of the revolution were few and far between, and acted as individuals. Many of them were victims of the 1980s, and participated as a result of having this background.

The peaceful revolution had continued for ten months, had spread across the country and had mobilised many Syrians against the regime. But the Baba Amr events in March 2011, during the siege of Homs, transformed public sentiment and persuaded the protesters that the regime was capable of responding with more than just guns to kill demonstrators. It was clear that the regime was capable of attacking them with tanks, planes, and missiles. This opened the door for the formation of military units aimed at protecting civilians and peaceful demonstrators from being murdered. Later, these units expanded their mandate to protection of neighbourhoods and cities, and their goal very soon became one focused on overthrowing the regime by force. The first free army brigades appeared in the middle of 2011, and the general shift in the Syrian opposition deciding to use armed action began at this time too. The emerging military brigades were initially formed from army defectors, but were joined by an increasing number of civilian volunteers.

Asad initially pursued a strategy of keeping the urban centres under firm control, as his regime’s survival was linked to these centres. Rebels in rural areas were able to move more freely, allowing for the initiation of what became a revolution of the peripheries. When the militarisation of the opposition began, most of the brigades were formed in the countryside, and then began to slowly move onto the cities. Due to the poverty-stricken conditions, the lack of development and marginalisation characterising the rural areas, people there were more willing to accept radical Salafi ideology. This coincided with the violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime against the population, the emergence of sectarian features, people’s disappointment regarding the refusal of the international community to intervene to protect civilians, as well as Iran’s increasing interference. Salafi ideology was spreading among most armed brigades; a new map of Salafism in Syria was being drawn. Many people were attracted to simple, radical ideology that could be used to confront the violence with greater sacrifice and strength. This created an ideal environment for the Salafis. The Salafi map will be incomplete without mentioning the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusrah li ahl al-Sham (the Victory Front for the Levantine people) which began operating against the regular army and the Shabbiha regime militias in January 2012.

The new Salafi map

The attraction of non-violent Salafism decreased, while that of jihadist Salafism began to increase exponentially. It is extremely difficult to formulate a detailed map of this situation due to the spread of the various brigades. With increasing victories that were achieved on the ground, there was an influx of volunteers. As a result, many of these brigades transformed, developed, or decayed. In this context, the Salafi map defining the military brigades should not be based solely on brigades’ names as they do not necessarily reflect Salafi tendencies. Sometimes the labels are pragmatic and aim to attract donors from the Gulf. Alternatively, they reflect general religious discourses that are part of the popular religious imagination. People gradually began to differentiate between the Islamic jihadist brigades and the free army brigades. While the Islamic jihadist brigades seemed cohesive and organised, the free army brigades appeared disorganised, and, therefore, less effective.

Al-Nusrah (The Victory) Front: The third generation of Salafi jihadists

While the demonstrations reached their peak in the middle of 2011, the Syrian fighters in the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq decided to explore options in the rural north and south. This resulted in the militarisation of the revolution. Small groups of brigades calling themselves the ‘Brigades of Victory for the People of the Levantine’ were formed. Among them were some foreign fighters who had gained military and financial support from the emir of the State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An announcement to this effect was made in January 2012.

The leaders of the Nusrah Front benefited from their fighting experience and failures in Iraq. They attempted to attract all experienced fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Lebanon with whom they shared close relations. Many fighters were in the Saidnaya military prison, where Salafi jihadists and others were detained. They decided to work together on the basis of winning over popular support that they had they lost through the ‘awakenings’. Jabhat al-Nusrah was unique in its military objectives. These included toppling the Asad regime, confronting the Shi’a and Alawis who were part of the regime, and confronting Iran. However, al-Nusrah did not have a clear vision for the post-Asad stage. The political and military opposition in Syria were unable to refuse the support of al-Nusrah, despite doubts about its relation to al-Qa’ida, and ignorance regarding its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani.

Jabhat al-Nusrah experienced two important milestones. The first was when the United States announced on 5 December 2012 that the Front had been placed on the US terror list.

The second milestone was when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusrah would be under his command and that it would merge with the Islamic State in Iraq to form the ‘Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant’. Many Syrians perceived this as dangerous because the USA and other western states would regard it as an indication that Syrians wanted to create an Islamic state along traditional Islamic lines, and would assume that the Syrian struggle was part of a global jihad. Al-Nusrah was certain that this would deny them international support. The front then made available videos of its operations that it had carefully filmed. Al-Nusrah invested much effort to strengthen public support for and credibility of the group. Thus, the US decision resulted in a backlash from Syrians and the political opposition found itself compelled to defend the front during the fourth Friends of Syria conference in Morocco. At the conference, Baghdadi attempted to append al-Nusrah to his organisation, prompting Nusrah’s leader to hurriedly issue a statement emphasising his allegiance to al-Qa’ida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This resulted in a rift in Nusrah’s ranks and shook the popular support base it had cultivated.

Two streams thus emerged: those wanting to support progressive civil action to establish an Islamic state, and another that seeks the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria as a prelude to a global Islamic caliphate. The early Syrian leaders who were members of the organisation of the vanguard fighters and who joined the Afghan jihad – such as Abu Basir al-Tartusi – regard the declaration of allegiance to Zawahiri a mistake. They view it as a serious threat to jihad activity in Syria, and as a benefit to the regime.

Al-Nusrah represents the third generation of al-Qa’ida’s global jihad. The mujahideen of Afghanistan represented the first generation, and the fighters in Iraq represent the second generation. In the third generation, there is a clear civilian tendency. The leaders of the front have shifted in their personal convictions, represented by Abu Mohammad al-Julani who shifted fromcivil to military action. Al-Nusrah’s are Syrians, mainly from urban centres. While some of them are even fanatically connected to these centres, their bases are mostly rural.

A new organisation named the Mujahideen Shura Council emerged in Aleppo and eastern Syria in November 2012. It is similar to an organisation that appeared in Iraq in 2006 which represented global jihadist Salafi thought, as well as a similar organisation in Gaza in 2010. Unlike al-Nusrah, the Mujahideen Shura Council is not linked to al-Qa’ida, and does not reflect ideological developments similar to those observed in the front. It is an active, medium-sized organisation. Some organisations tried to imitate al-Nusrah, such as Jaish al-Sahabah fi Bilad al-Sham (Army of the Companions [of Muhammad] in the Levant) from around August 2012, and Jund al-Sham (Levantine army) from Aleppo from August 2012. These groups have not had much success, however, and some collapsed while others remained marginal.

‘Immigrants’, or foreign fighters, came to Syria for various reasons. The vanguard from Iraq came to support their colleagues in al-Nusrah, and the others came through private social networks for various political reasons. Libyans, for example, wanted revenge against the regime that had supported Qaddafi, and Chechens because they are fighting Russians in Syria. The number of these foreigners has been exaggerated for political purposes as a result of the Islamic-secular polarisation occurring in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries. In reality, the total does not exceed 2 000 fighters of various nationalities, in all parts of Syria. The immigrants represent a model of a hard al-Qa’ida ideology in its Jihadist form in the State of Iraq. News of their unique spirit of sacrifice, bravery and exceptional courage has spread across the country. Most Syrians, however, did not accept their ideological inclinations. The typical civilian Syrian, with their urban openness, cannot accept the strict al-Qa’ida code, so the jihadists secluded themselves in brigades known as ‘immigrants’ brigades’ in the rural parts of north-western Syria. They realise that their presence in Syria is temporary.

The jihadists of the global deferred caliphate

Although the Salafi jihadist movements all share the idea of a global Islamic caliphate, the groups in Syria differentiate themselves as a result of their experiences in Syria. Salafi jihadists believe in the notion of a state of Syria, but believe that it should be Islamic. They have (temporarily) delineated their activities to be confined within the borders of Syria, while maintaining the idea of a deferred global caliphate. One of the brigades was the Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (Brigades of the Free People of the Levant), which was formed in the countryside of north Idlib on 25 July 2012. In February 2013, it absorbed three other brigades to form Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (Movement of the free people of the Islamic Levant). The other three groups were: the Brigades of Nur al-Din al-Zangi in the countryside of western Aleppo, which was formed in October or November 2012; Kataib al-Tali’ah al-Muqatila (Brigades of the Fighting Vanguard) which was formed in July or August 2012; and Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyah (Movement of the Islamic Dawn) in the eastern countryside of Idlib, formed in November 2012.

With the exception of Kataib al-Tali’ah al-Muqatila, most of the other brigades include some foreign fighters or ‘immigrants’. Their counterparts are the local fighters called ‘ansar’ (helpers). Unofficial finance from Gulf countries plays an important role in strengthening these brigades, unlike funding from Gulf governments which fluctuates and is limited.

Traditional Salafi jihadists

A Salafi organisation was formed in the east Damascene countryside under the leadership of Sheikh Zahran Alwash, a graduate of the Islamic University in Madinah. It was named Liwa al-Islam, (Brigade of Islam), and was formed in March 2012. It is based primarily on the Salafi Wahhabi ideology that is associated with Hanbali jurisprudence, and its leaders generally follow classic Salafism. Their political ambitions are for an Islamic state within Syrian national borders, at least temporarily. The organisation is the largest militant group in the vicinity of Damascus. Its stronghold is Douma, which represents a stronghold of the revolution in the eastern countryside of Damascus, and is the only stronghold of the Hanbalis in Syria. It is believed that Liwa al-Islam was responsible for the 18 July 2012 bombing of the headquarters of the National Security in the Damascus neighbourhood of al-Rawdah. The blast killed the president’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat; the defence minister, Dawoud al-Rajiha; the commander of the regular army; his deputy; and a number of senior officers. Despite the Salafi preferences of its leadership, the group’s Salafism converges with traditional Islamic preferences that were hardened by the war. Most brigades are allied to Liwa al-Islam under the umbrella of Tajammu Ansar al-Islam fi Qalb al-Sham (Coalition of Islam’s helpers in theHeart of the Levant), which was formed in August 2012, as well as al-Sahaba Brigade, and Ahfad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Messenger) Brigade. The members of these groups are mostly traditional Muslim conservatives who have not previously been involved in Islamic political or civil society organisations.

The al-Ansar Brigades, which was launched in January 2012, in the countryside of Homs represents traditional Salafi thought, and adopts a discourse that focuses on Salafi beliefs and behaviour. It displays missionary tendencies along with its mission of jihad. This is reflected in the relationships between the brigades, and the behavioural guidance provided to the combatants by other brigades.

Several brigades have begun to express Salafi inclinations in order to receive funding. They occasionally reflect this in their names, and, sometimes, in official discourse. Despite this, many brigades fail to obtain the desired funding. This includes the most important brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Liwa al-Tawhid, which was formed in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and is led by Abdel Qader al-Saleh and Abdel Aziz Salama, both of whom are sympathetic to Salafism. Another example is Kataib Suqour al-Sham (Levantine Hawks Brigade), which was launched on 25 November 2011. It is led by Ahmad al-Sheikh, who initially indicated that he was from the Free Syrian Army. He later stopped mentioning this. He displayed an increasing tendency towards Salafism.

Democratic jihadist Salafism

Most brigades are formed from Salafi-leaning civilian volunteers, and unite under the (FSA) umbrella. This is a symbolic umbrella, and does not represent a unified collective organisation. The Salafism of most of these people is therefore soft. Thus they do not constitute a coherent school of thought, but have scattered ideas and convictions. Under the circumstances of war and the battles in Syria, this seems to be understood as it developed from reactions during the fighting. Most of its members are democratic and eager to build a modern, democratic state, exemplified by the brigades formed by the children of teachers from. An example is the Abu Amara Brigades in Aleppo.

There is also a crisis within Salafism; some brigades that have responded to violence, and have been affected by funding. It is, therefore, more of a pragmatic Salafism than a stable doctrinal Salafism. For example, Liwa al-Haq (Brigade of the Truth) was formed in Homs in August 2012, and is one of the brigades that operate in Homs city and the countryside. The same applies to Al-Farouk Brigades, which was formed in November 2011 by army defectors. Subsequently, through the way members and specifically leaders expressed themselves, it showed a gradual tendency towards Salafism. Ultimately, their Salafism is a kind of ‘official’ Salafism. The founders of Al-Farouk had defected from the regular army; and they were trained by the regime. Their composition is thus inconsistent with the hardline Salafi trend.

Non-violent Salafism flourished in an atmosphere of civil mobilisation. It then transformed, but continued to be under civilian control. For its adherents, militarisation is regarded as necessary only in an emergency, and is viewed as a temporary activity. They retain their original position of desiring a return to democratic life and having a modern state. The result of this new Salafi thinking is a unique and attractive model for the effective establishment of brigades and local civic councils in a city such as Darya.


Unlike in some ‘Arab Spring’ countries – particularly Egypt, traditional Salafis participated in the Syrian revolution from the outset. Their civil participation was not based on religious beliefs in an Islamic state however, but on the idea of a caliphate, linked to revenge against, and the fall of, the regime.

Several of the Salafis have suffered monitoring, prosecution, and unfair trials. At the same time, there were systematic plans by the Syrian regime to protect and increase the proliferation of the ‘natural enemy’ of Salafism – Shiism – with Iranian support. For most Salafis, the ideal model of participation was as experienced in Douma and Harasta, in the Damascene countryside. When the uprising rapidly militarised, however, they began discussing a concept of the state as a ‘civil Islamic state’ that may be part of an Islamic caliphate. That position has shifted to now focus on the state, rather than a caliphate.

The strongholds of the Salafi movement remain the outskirts of cities and the peripheries of urban centres. It has survived despite this peripheral location. The methodology for its field mobilisation was to crawl from the peripheries to the urban centres, and it has had limited influence on urban centres. Interaction with the urban centres created a soft Salafism that was prone to collapse as soon as the dispute over the building and the form of the post-regime state came to the fore.

The civil war has assisted in the spread of Salafi thought. There has not been sufficient time for it to become a firmly rooted doctrine; its spread was, rather, an instrument of war. The new map of the spread of Salafi thought will thus be subjected to dramatic change after the war ends. It is worth noting however, that the new Salafi tendency was generally felt amongst revolutionary fighters within the brigades, and not among civilians. Nevertheless, its impact will definitely extend to a broader social space, especially in areas where Salafi fighters hail from.

Most of the brigades’ senior commanders had combat experience in Iraq, including al-Nusrah leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani; some leaders of Liwa al-Islam; and leaders of Ahrar al-Sham. Others, such as leaders of the Fighting Vanguard, had experience in Afghanistan; and some in Lebanon, such as the commander of the al-Zangi brigade. Many second-tier leaders and some first-tier leaders were detained in Saidnaya military prison, accused of being adherents of Salafism or jihadist Salafism. The emerging Salafi brigades relied on a network of relationships formed inside and outside prison, which connected them to Saidnaya prison graduates.

To date, no significant Salafi political movements have been established. This is despite the fact that since the beginning of the revolution and since the militarisation of the Salafi movement, there has been a unique political sentiment. Even before that, movements such as al-Mu’minun Yusharikun (The Believers Participate), launched in November 2011, and Hizb al-Islah wa al-‘adalah (Reform and Justice Party), launched in June 2011, were taking form. That no Salafi organisation has emerged as a promising political force is an indication that, from the Salafi perspective, the revolution far from being over. Furthermore, political activity without military action is viewed with a great deal of suspicion.

The military organisations established civilian units to help prepare a social base for them in the post-Asad phase, and to help them implement their ideology. For example, al-Nusrah formed an alliance with Liwa al-Tawhid and a number of other ‘Shari’ah brigades’ in order to fill the organisational, judicial, service, and security-related vacuum in the areas under their control. The idea of implementing Shari’ah is widespread among Salafis, and is similar to that of various Afghan factions during the jihad against the Soviet Union. One of the leading brigades in the northern countryside of Aleppo formed a group to ‘invite to virtue and prevent vice’. This group, however, received a cold response from the population and was socially alienated, probably due to people’s understanding that it was linked to the Saudi or Taliban models.

All Salafi movements will be faced with difficult questions after the fall of the regime, specifically regarding the form of a new regime and the plan for establishing it without internal fighting. It seems that the Islamists who support the idea of a democratic state have the best opportunity to dominate in this during the transitional phase. Adopting the idea of a democratic state is also a possible solution to the current environment of ideological polarisation, which is becoming increasingly more severe as the armed revolution continues against the Syrian regime.

* Abdul Rahman Al-Haj is a researcher specialising in Islamic movements, and a professor at the University of Islamic Sciences in Malaysia

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 15:30

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