The Virtues of Sham: The Place of Syria in Muslim Sacral Imagination

The nature of the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, has become overtly sectarian and ideological. Undoubtedly the foreign fighters who continue to trickle in are coloured by this. There is also enough evidence to suggest that the presence of informal recruiters, usually through friendship networks, play an influential role in the choices they make. There seems to be a confluence of humanitarian, political and ideological factors that has led to a situation that looks and feels apocalyptic. However, what has often been ignored is the unique position that Syria occupies within Islamic tradition.

Keeping our focus on Sunni foreign fighters, Syria has attracted foreign fighters in a way that no other conflict has. Burma or Central African Republic certainly have not attracted Muslim foreign fighters. Not even the lands of Afghanistan or Yemen or Iraq for that matter, have drawn so many men and materiél in from all corners of the Muslim world. Admittedly, their remoteness is certainly one of the inhibitors. Syria after all is easy to get to. But now with Turkey tightening its border and Europe being more vigilant and punitive, they still seems to trickle through. If it was simply Salafi-Jihadi ideology that galvanised men, then many of these ideological fighters would flock to the aforementioned countries; but they do not. They are choosing to travel to Syria. Whilst William McCants has tried to explain the Islamic apocalyptic narrative that ISIS has to an English speaking audience, it does not deal with the role of Syria within the Muslim sacral imagination. Rather Syria or Sham- by Sham I mean modern day Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, parts of Turkey and parts of Iraq- is the meeting point not only for geopolitics, a terrible humanitarian crisis, but also for Jihad within in the Sunni tradition.

Map of Greater Syria or Sham
Map of Greater Syria or Sham

Arguably, Sham has become a destination for rootless Muslims already struggling with their place in Europe. Sham has become the land that transcends arbitrary borders and where they can belong. The powerful image of ISIS bulldozing the border between Iraq and Syria has demonstrated how transient the lines drawn in the sand by Sykes and Picot truly are. The name Islamic State has, despite its association with cruelty and terror, introduced an idea within the Muslim world that perhaps it is possible to have some sort of state ruled by Islamic law. It has also reignited the idea of Sham and offered up new questions. If an Islamic state should come to being what should it look like and how should it behave? The answers to these questions will undoubtedly lead to further tumult in the Middle East and Europe, long after ISIS or AQ or any other organisation which calls for it has faded away.

Sh. Muheisini referring to Al-Ghouta the listeners are all aware of the place he is referring to.
Sh. Muheisini referring to Al-Ghouta the listeners are all aware of the place he is referring to.

Certain parts of the Muslim world such as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Syria have sacral importance in the Muslim imagination. These places entwine the eschatological traditions involving the past with the prophetic predictions made of the future. It is for no reason that ISIS calls its magazine Dabiq, the place where Muslims will have their final victory in the Islamic tradition. It is redolent with significance. The Syrian conflict cannot just be interpreted through the cold lens of geopolitics, for Syria is indivisible to faith by virtue of their sacral associations. To ignore this aspect will result in ill-conceived policy decisions that will last decades.

The very symbolism of Sham itself and what it promises, the return of the Shariah, has meant that foreign fighters can now attach themselves to a land which not only is intrinsically linked to their faith, but supersedes the Westphalian nation state. Their Hijra, their Jihad, their Ribat- all of it is blessed, as Sunni tradition seems to suggest. This is accompanied with a vision of an end game. Unlike CAR, Burma and others- Sham has an end game: victory for the believers. Admittedly, Afghanistan does too in the sense that there are prophetic traditions suggesting that the Black banners of Islam will come from Khorasan, modern day Afghanistan. But it does not have the potency of Syria. Syria is the place where, according to tradition, the caliphate will revive, where prophets walked, and where it shall all end in the Muslim imagination. Syria then, as a land, is bigger than nationalism and yet paradoxically has many affinities. Thomas Hegghammer in The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad, is on to something when he says:

“Transnational militancy is obviously ideology driven, but the ideology in question—extreme pan-Islamism—arguably has more in common with nationalisms than with utopian religious constructions.”

Syria gives the rootless Western Muslim an identity, a purpose and also a glorious end game in a way that no other land will. Faith is intrinsic to the land. And so Turkey might close their borders but foreign fighters will continue to enter.

Jihadi ideologues like the late Abu Mus’ab al-Suri identified it as a crucial geopolitical chess piece in the Muslim world, but Syria isn’t just relevant to Jihadists. Syria’s importance exists within several axes: Islam’s martial tradition, within the prophetic past, within its historical past, and the future eschatological tradition. Salafi-Jihadis don’t own this tradition. Up to recent times the Syrian government boosted its tourism industry by encouraging the concept of Siyaha, that is Muslim spiritual travel to its sacred places. It is similar to the way Christian pilgrims travel to holy sites such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Lourdes in France.

What Jihad promises the foreign fighter.
What Jihad promises the foreign fighter.

To illustrate this point more clearly let us take a text that does not come from the Salafi-Jihadi tradition. The Excellence of Syro-Palestine -al-Sham- And its People by Gibreel F. Haddad, a sufi scholar, and a follower of the late Sheikh Nazim Haqqani of the Naqshbandi order and a vehement opponent of the Salafis. This text follows a common literary genre within Islamic scholarly tradition; that of collecting forty canonical sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But here Haddad has focused on the virtues of Syria. This is not novel. Nasir al-Din Albani for instance, one of the scholars that Salafis follow, has also edited a text on the virtues of Greater Syria. Haddad’s text, it should be noted, was written in 2002, several years before the Syrian uprising.

The author draws on nine books of the canonical sayings of the Prophet in order to establish Syria’s paramountcy in the Muslim imagination. He draws on the Prophetic canonical collections of Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah. He draws on the Musnads of Ahmad and al-Darimi as well as extracting traditions from ibn Hibban, ibn Khuzayma and al-Hakim. Moreover Haddad relies on the giants of Sunni Islamic tradition such as al-Nawawi, ibn Hajar and al-Suyuti, as well as on great Quranic exegetes such as al-Qurtubi, al-Bayhaqi and al-Tabari. He goes to great lengths to frame his work within the Sunni intellectual tradition. In other words this work is not just for Sufis but also for the orthodox with no Sufic inclinations.

Moreover Haddad points out his connection to the likes of Muhammad al-Yaqoubi in order to firmly ground his work within Sunni scholarship. To emphasise this point, he has a foreword written by some prominent religious scholars of Sham such as Shaykh Adib Kallas, one of the leading jurisprudents of Damascus, Salah al-Din al-Fakhri, the administrative director of Dar al-Fatawa in Lebanon and finally it is endorsed by ‘Abd al-Razzaq Turkmani on behalf of the Sufi sheikh Sayyidi ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghuri.

These names are relevant to demonstrate that traditions around Sham are cultivated and are not just for those living in the rarified stratosphere of Islamic scholarship. The very existence of these traditions within Islam will draw foreign fighters to Syria despite the hardship that they may encounter. This author interviewed one foreign fighter who recounts how he met a battalion of Chechens who had left the fight against the Russians in their homeland, in order to fight in Syria due to the latter’s importance in the Islamic world. It demonstrates clearly that Syria is not owned by the Salafi-Jihadis, nor does it have more significance to them than to the rest of the Muslim world. But just like the Zengids and the Ayoubids during the Crusades, who utilised the symbolism of Jerusalem to propagate Jihad, so too has similar symbolism been used by the Salafi-Jihadi groups to encourage men to fight and come to Syria. Jerusalem after all is part of Sham.

Syria, according to Haddad, is mentioned ten times in the Quran and there are numerous hadiths that recount its virtues. The Prophet is said to have prayed for the land and it is considered blessed. Accordingly, God has put angels in charge of guarding Sham and the Prophet Muhammad has prayed for the country. It is cited by Syrians as proof that their country has a manifest destiny. Syrians know and often cite the hadith that says if goodness ends in Sham there will be no goodness in the world. Now it is doubtful that most foreign fighters know all of these traditions, but most at some point will be schooled by those already in Syria about its importance. And Syrians will certainly make you aware of its significance in the religious landscape as this author has experienced.

The Land of Faith

The land then, according to Haddad, is intrinsically linked to Islamic tradition. Al-Tabarani narrates a hadith by one of the Prophet’s Companions, Salama ibn Nufayl, that the Prophet said: “The heartland of the abode of Islam is Sham”. Another saying of the Prophet:

“[Sham] is the quintessence of the lands of Allah. There do the quintessence of his servants go for protection. Therefore whoever departs from Syro-Palestine earns [His] wrath, and whoever enters it from somewhere earns His mercy…” [see Haddad]

Thus blessing and the land are intimately connected in a way that other territories of the Muslim world are not, apart from Medina and Mecca.

The land, according to one prophetic tradition, is said to house seventeen thousand graves of prophets alone. Makhul, one of the earliest Islamic scholars, relates that there were five hundred prophets buried in Damascus alone. Some of these prophets visited locations in Syria. The Prophet Muhammed visited Bosra, Adam visited mount Qasyoun, Eve went to Ghouta, Seth went to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, Lot passed by Barzeh in Damascus, John the Baptist was buried in the Umayyad mosque, Job in the Hawran, and Jesus and Mary sought refuge in al-Rabwa and so on.

Thus blessing and the land are intimately connected in a way that other territories of the Muslim world are not, apart from Medina and Mecca.The land in between Damascus and Homs is known as the land of the thousand martyrs on account of the numerous anonymous Companions of the Prophet said to have died there whilst fighting the Byzantine empire. The land was visited by the Companions of the Prophet and early Muslims. It is well known that Hussein’s head, the grandson of the Prophet, is in the Umayyad Mosque, Khaled bin al-Walid, Islam’s greatest general is buried in Homs. Bilal, the Muezzin of the Prophet, is buried in Damascus. It is also said that both Abu Ubaydah, the conqueror of Damascus, Shurahbil bin Hasana, the famous warrior commander, are also buried close to Bab Sharqi in the Old City and so on. Numerous scholars have passed through Syria including the great ascetic and scholar al-Ghazali. Ibn Taymiyyah, the father of the Salafis, is buried in Damascus University grounds, as are Sunni Islam’s great heroes, such as Salah al-Din and Nur al-Din Zengi. One needs only to flick through the voluminous collection of the History of Damascus by the medieval scholar ibn Asakir to realise that the who’s who of the Islamic world all gathered in Damascus.

Moreover, Syria is mentioned by several companions including Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, and ibn Masu’d as the land of the Abdals, a group of forty awliya or saints, through whom people are given sustenance and victory. And it is these men and women who will aid the awaited Mehdi, the messianic figure who will restore the land on the methodology of Prophethood in the Final Days. Syria is also the place where Jesus will descend and slay the anti-Christ. In fact, the environs of Ghouta, which Jaysh al-Islam currently control, is the rallying place on the day of Armageddon and it is believed to be the land of Resurrection. In fact, in Ghouta’s history, Muslim communities fleeing persecution have settled specifically there to fulfil this prophecy.

As a Companion of the Prophet, Abu Darda, narrates:

“The Prophet said: The rallying place of the Muslims on the day of Armageddon is in al-Ghouta, next to a city called Damascus which is among the best cities in al-Sham” [see Haddad]

Syria’s role in Jihad and Hijra

Syria is also tied to Jihad and Ribat, Ribat here means guarding and fortifying front lines. There is a mass transmitted (mutawatir) hadith which says:

“a part of my community will remain in firm adherence to the Divine command, unharmed by those who betray or desert or oppose them, until the coming of the order of Allah, while they are victorious over all people…they are the people of al-Sham” [see Haddad]

The Prophet has described the outer borders of Sham as permanent frontiers. Who ever takes up residence there is a Mujahid, a fighter in the service of God. It suggests that those travelling to fight in Syria then, will be rewarded. As the Prophet has said:

“Now has fighting come! There will not cease to be a group in my Community that will remain victorious over all people. Allah will cause the hearts of some to go astray and those [the former] will fight them and receive from them His sustenance until His command comes to pass…Lo! Truly, the heartland of the believers is al-Sham! Immense good will remain tied to the forelocks of horses [i.e. Jihad] until the Day of Rising!” [see Haddad]

Another hadith related by Abu Hurayrah:

“A part of my Community will not cease to fight at the gates of Damascus and its surroundings, and at the gates of Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem] and its surroundings. The betrayal or desertion of whoever deserts them will not harm them the least. They will remain victorious, standing for the truth, until the Final Hour rises.” [see Haddad]

There are also traditions which suggest that Syria is the place of Hijra- or emigration. For instance the Prophet advises people: if Fitna, [usually translated as civil strife] increases one should head to Syria. And this injunction is something that Muslims have done since Islam’s inception, whether that be the Kurds settling in Rukn ed-Din during the time of the Crusades or the Hanabila settling in Salihiyeh district in Damascus or the Circassian community escaping the push of the Russian empire.

There are two points here that feed the Jihadi’s call: that of Jihad and that of emigration. In the modern context, some Salafi-Jihadis interpret fitna- to mean shirk, associating partners with God, meaning that when shirk proliferates in the land then Sham is the place to head to. And since Shirk, in the puritanical vision of Salafi-Jihadis, has proliferated then it is best for people to emigrate to Sham. There is a Prophetic tradition mentioned in Haddad’s text which says:

“The Hour will not rise before the best of the people of Iraq first go to Sham and the worst of the people of Sham first go to Iraq. The Prophet said: “You must go to Sham!” [see Haddad]

This is why one Western Muslim woman was told by a foreign fighter to go against the fifth pillar of Islam the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and make Hijra to Sham instead, because Shirk has even entered the holy city.

The Shami confluence

Whilst Haddad’s book does not negate Sham as a land of Jihad and Hijra, arguably, what he aims at are three things. Firstly to connect Syria’s paramountcy to the old tradition of Siyaha-that is spiritual travel. Secondly, to warn against the Najd vis-a-vis modern day Saudi Arabia- Haddad is indirectly criticising Salafism since the movement began there with Muhammad Abdul Wahab in the 18th century. Thirdly, he wants to raise the status of Syrian religious scholars over the Saudi scholars whose influence Haddad views in a negative light. Jihad, Ribat and Hijra, whilst important, are mentioned in the book as something that will come to pass. There is no indication that the reader has to act on it. But one should also remember that Sufis did act upon these injunctions in the past. Sufis played a major role in both the counter crusades of Salah al-Din and Nur al-Din as well as in the Ottoman armies. This author met graduates of Abu Noor University, established by the Damascene Sufi and Grand Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro, in the ranks of Syrian rebels. It is also worth noting that the Sufi militant group the Naqshbandi Army or JRTN and ISIS were allies once in Iraq.

What the Salafi-Jihadis and other Islamist battalions do with Sham is to connect the status of Sham to the martial tradition. This arguably is not an illegitimate thing to do as there is historical precedence, the Crusades being a good example. Carole Hillenbrand in The Crusades: an Islamic Perspective, points out that during the Crusades there was a close correlation between the rise of works extolling the virtues of Jerusalem and the works extolling Jihad.

Salafi-Jihadis may be very different from classically conceived Jihad but they believe that they are continuing in the footsteps of an old tradition which goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Prophet. Whilst it is noteworthy that Jihad occupied a very small part of the Prophet’s life, the first books written about his life was about his battles. From there a whole literary genre called maghazi developed. Moreover, there are historical compendiums such as Futuh al-Buldan of al-Baladhuri, one of the earliest surviving texts on how Islam conquered the classical world with offensive jihad. Apart from the jurisprudence dealing with the legal issues surrounding the concept of religious warfare, there are plenty of works written on the battles of the Companions, as well as books dealing with the concept of Futuwwa, martial and spiritual chivalry, and of course there are biographies of famous warriors such as ibn Shaddad’s Life of Salah al-Din and Abu Shama’s book on Nur al-Din Zengi and Salah al-Din. A recent example being a biography on Khaled bin al-Walid by Lieutenant General of the Pakistani army A. I. Akram. One should also not forget the numerous examples of Ummayyad to Ottoman poetry extolling Jihad and the love for martyrdom. In fact, even Ataturk, the secular founder of modern Turkey, was not averse to calling himself a Ghazi, a Mujahid, and neither was the Pan-Arab Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein. We should also remember that the statue of Salah al-Din in Damascus was unveiled by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, in 1993. Thus the elegiac poetry surrounding Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s death, the nasheeds that emerge from many Jihadi factions, as well as the names chosen by the various battalions situate themselves in this tradition. To illustrate, look at the numerous eulogies that are emerging on al-Adnani: they reach back and touch the past. Below is an extract of Abu Shama’s eulogy of Nur al-Din, one could easily mistake it for a eulogy of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

“He displayed religious orthodoxy in Aleppo and changed the innovation (bid’a) which they had in the call to prayer and he tamed the heretics there and built there religious colleges, established endowments and dispensed justice… in war he was steadfast in going forward, good at shooting, hard in striking…he would run the risk of martyrdom…he often studied religious books” [see Hillenbrand]

A recent example of a eulogy of Adnani.
A recent example of a eulogy of Adnani.

Thus what the Salafi-Jihadi and other Islamist battalions do is to attach the traditions around Sham to Jihad in the same way that Salah al-Din and Zengi did with regards to fighting the Frankish Crusaders in the Levant.

What analysts and journalist must grasp is that many Muslims, even non-devout ones, are well aware of the glorious deeds of their predecessors. They name their sons Hamza, Khaled, Seifullah for this reason and are, however vaguely, aware of the sacred geography that countries like Syria occupy. Sham then, in the imagination of the prospective foreign fighter represents something that resembles to use St Agustine’s phrase, a kingdom of God. The very land is blessed, full of faith and the place where the history of Islam unfolded and the End of Time will be played out. It is an exciting and seductive prospect for an adventurous young man with a bellicose temperament. This, combined with the international community seemingly unwilling to stand up for Sunni Muslims being killed by barrel bombs in their thousands, means that all the ingredients are there to make the conflict thoroughly apocalyptic.

This article has sought to demonstrate that the very raw material used by Sufis to encourage spiritual peregrinations can equally be used by the various rebel factions to encourage their men to fight as well as to support. For they tap into a pre-existent martial tradition. Of course, it doesn’t exclud

Here is an example of modern Jihadist propaganda tapping into an old tradition.
Here is an example of modern Jihadist propaganda tapping into an old tradition.

e the role of identity politics in the seventies in the Middle East having an impact on the Muslim diaspora in the West. Nor does it exclude other reasons why young Muslim men go to Syria. But certainly grasping this idea as to what role Sham plays in the Muslim imagination makes it easier to understand why young, often rootless Muslim men continue to travel to fight in Syria despite the difficulties they face. For this reason it may be argued that foreign fighters will continue to go to Syria even if JFS, IS and other Islamist rebel groups fade away. Resolving the conflict will certainly reduce this trickle further.

This post was first published in Syria Comment.

Islamic State Attacks in Europe: A Rough Guide to ISIS Lone Wolves

How an ISIS organised attack looks like

There is a myth that the Islamic State claims every terror attack in the West as its own. But even its claims of responsibility for events should be accepted sceptically. Let’s establish a criterion that distinguishes between directed attacks – that is those organised by ISIS and those attacks which are inspired by ISIS.

ISIS press release
ISIS press release

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris and Brussels attacks, it soon became pretty clear that it was directed by the organisation. All the signs and tropes were there. ISIS issued its press release in a seamless whole, the language of the press release was luxurious, full of detail from location, to weapons used and so on. The press release was almost a conclusion to an operation that had gone well. There was no doubt in any one’s mind that ISIS had directed this operation from its head quarters in Raqqa and Mosul. In these cases the attackers were referred to as the ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’.

With the Brussels attack ISIS was far more reserved probably due to its operatives still being active. But the level of detail offered suggested that this was something directed by ISIS itself. Let’s take another more recent attack, the Holey attack in Dacca, Bangladesh. Four gun men took over a pretty exclusive restaurant in Dacca and caused devastation amongst Italian expats and others. Here too it possessed all the hall marks of ISIS direction. As Amarnath Amarasingham, a Fellow at the George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism, points out: “as the attack was happening…ISIS media channels posted, almost in real time, photos and details about the assault that turned out to be accurate. These included the number of people killed as well as photos from inside the bakery. Shortly after the attack, ISIS media channels also posted images of five smiling attackers in front of the Islamic State flag. This was all accompanied by official claims of responsibility and a video promising more attacks.” This then is how an organised ISIS terror attack looks like. Seamless.

Press release on Hooly
Press release on Hooly

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Orlando watershed

Now compare the ISIS inspired operations, the lone wolf attacks that ISIS has retrospectively claimed responsibility for such as Magnanville, Orlando, Nice and the attacks in Germany. What it shows is a messy and an uncomfortable relationship that exists between ISIS and those who carry out operations in its name.

When Larossi Abballa gave allegiance to Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Amaq claimed responsibility for the killing of a French police officer with a curt statement: “Islamic State fighter kills deputy chief of the police station in the city of Les Mureaux and his wife with blade weapons near Paris.” Their channels were following events and gleaning as much information as they could and quoting sources as disparate as CNN to the Express. Their response wasn’t real time, nor was it slick.

This was also the case with Omar Mateen’s action in Orlando. But the case of Mateen blew up in ISIS’ face. Arguably, it was a propaganda own goal, whilst ISIS welcomed the damage inflicted on US civilians resulting in the loss of forty nine souls, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack perhaps a little too soon. After all Mateen had given his ‘oath’ of allegiance to ISIS. But this oath turned out to be problematic. As more details emerged regarding the killer, from being a practising closet homosexual to his wild threesomes, Mateen clearly hadn’t renounced his sinful lifestyle for one of piety and abstinence. Instead Mateen, the sort of man ISIS throws down tall buildings, became one of their most successful ‘blessed’ soldiers and martyrs. It didn’t sit too easy with ISIS media channels. From then on they exercised much more restraint in claiming responsibility for every act of terror in its name.

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When Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel careered down the corniche in Nice, initially the Telegram channels affiliated to ISIS were cautious. This was not directed by the ISIS hierarchy but probably organised by low-level French fighters from Nice encouraging their mates to do lone wolf terror acts. But whilst the Telegram channels affiliated to ISIS revelled in the deaths of French citizens and the recycled memes were released in real-time some channels cautioned that one shouldn’t be too quick to draw too many conclusions about the perpetrator. Why? Because lone wolves were wild cards. ISIS telegram channels just like every one else, were looking for proof that it was carried out by one of theirs. But equally hoping that ‘their’ own was sufficiently clean. Later as the Nice situation became clearer, whilst no press release from Amaq was forth coming, some Telegram channels suggested that Bouhlel was a Munāsir, ‘helper’ not a soldier. In other words this attack wasn’t directed from the upper rungs of ISIS command but rather this was a spectacular lone wolf attack.

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Moreover, as the channels were waiting for further details to emerge about this killer, Amaq still didn’t claim responsibility. He was someone who didn’t pray, drank, smoked cannabis all day, was a petty thief who abandoned his family and beat his wife not the ideal poster boy for an ISIS soldier. He didn’t have ostensibly at least, any signs of ‘tauba’ or repentance where the man had renounced his past and made good. With Larossi, here was an intensely zealous man, before the killing he had to be kicked out of the mosque because he was reciting the Quran, he had links with Jihadists, there was a history of activism to say the least. With Bouhlel nothing. He was like Mateen, a man who picked up old men for possible sex sessions. But still his background was vague enough, Amaq decided to refer to Bouhlel as a soldier but gave him a degree of independence, in a carefully worded statement they said he ‘responded’ to the call of al-Adnani’s speech that called on Muslims to attack the West in what ever way they could. The wording was precise and careful. They knew he could be a PR disaster.

With Riyad Muhammad, a 17 year old Afghan refugee going on an axe rampage in Würzburg, they started to follow an established formula. Again the Telegram channels whilst celebratory were careful to simply claim it out right. When responsibility was claimed the language was near identical to Nice and consistent with the idea that this was a lone wolf operation rather than it being directed. A similar pattern could be observed with Ali Sonoboly’s mass shootings in Munich on the anniversary of Anders Breivik massacre in Norway. What was interesting was that the ISIS affiliated channels believed that it was indeed one of their own and kept on updating its followers on the channels willing the shooter to be an ISIS soldier. There were even pictures being uploaded showing how Germany was helping the ‘apostate’ Libyan fighters against them in Sirte. It was implied that this was possibly the reason for the attack in Munich.


I am certain that had Ali David Sonboly pledged allegiance a similar press release would have been given. This is suggested by a similar press release for the suicide bomber of Ansbach, Mohammed Daleel. It was only released after their own ISIS affiliated Telegram channels mentioned that the suicide bomber had given the oath of allegiance which was around 3 PM UK time. Only after that did Amaq give out a formulaic press release using near identical language that they had used for Bouhlel- that is he is a soldier who acted in response to ISIS’ calls to attack the Coalition. The truth is Amaq didn’t know who the suicide bomber was. Otherwise they would have mentioned his name just like they did with the suicide bomber who carried out the recent attack on the Baghdad shopping centre that killed over a hundred people. ISIS mentioned the name Abu Maha al-Iraqi in the actual press release . With the Ansbach suicide bomber they may have claimed responsibility for it around 3 PM UK time, but they released his name and photograph around five and a video of the attacker reading out a martyrdom testament later. None of that information was forth coming immediately as an organic whole organised and directed from the top. It probably had some low level ISIS input perhaps a friend of the Ansbach bomber was guiding him in the way we have seen British ISIS fighters like Reyaad Khan and Junayd Hussein were doing with Britons in the UK. It suggests that this lone wolf attack whilst it may have low level contacts with ISIS members, was smothered with a heavy dose of hype.

Abu Maha mentioned in attack
Abu Maha mentioned in attack

What exactly does this reveal about ISIS and its lone wolves? Firstly it’s a tactical animal, rather than a long term, strategic animal. It looks at situations and takes advantage where there is advantage to be had without understanding the far reaching consequence to its goals. It has an uneasy relationship with ‘lone wolves’, it doesn’t get too close to wolves because as the case of Omar Mateen has showed, it can damage ISIS’ reputation. It wants to claim responsibility when there is tactical advantage even if that means its home constituency- that is Syria and Iraq gets some sort of catharsis from the West feeling the pain it feels every day.

Finally Western media shouldn’t assume that just because Amaq claims responsibility for an event it does not necessarily mean that it actually had much to do with it. ISIS knows how to talk a good game even when it had no role to play in an event whatsoever. Journalists should have a criteria to distinguish between those ISIS directed terror attacks and those that were inspired by ISIS in order to dispel the idea that ISIS’ organisational reach is far.

For all links see this was published in Huffington Post first.


A Day in The Life of The Jungle: Syrians Camped out in Calais


Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 21.23.12Apart from the odd father attending to the needs of their families, most Syrians sleep in late in the Jungle in Calais. They are wrapped up inside their tarpaulin and plywood hovels resembling one of those Hoovervilles from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Sometimes new arrivals, exhausted, just curl up and sleep on the dusty path, not caring that in this makeshift camp rats are oblivious to men. In fact, this is the very reason why they call it the Jungle; for here men live like animals. The Junglists though, whether Syrian or not, don’t sleep in because they are idle. They have been up all night trying; trying with an indomitable will to reach the white cliffs of England.

England though doesn’t want the Syrians or any other Junglist. Westminster has invested France with vast funds to put up fencing as white as the cliffs of Dover. These fences tear apart Calais’ green expanse and resemble the Israeli security measures in the Occupied Territories. These are patrolled night and day by the police, gendarme and the hated CRS, the riot police. The CRS have the role of Roman centurions on a frontier outpost, desperately trying to keep the barbarians out. As the sun sets, you see them putting on their shin guards, shields and helmets at the petrol stop where the English stock up on some cheap plonk. Usually there are eight CRS vans, each carrying twelve men. There are other vans concealed in the shrubbery, ready to throw their spotlights at opportunistic Junglists, so the riot police can move in with harsh batons and pepper spray.

The Road to Calais
The Road to Calais

The powers that be have taken many measures to prevent the men from going to England. They have advised that the lorries with no cargo leave their carriages open during the night, so that the Junglist knows that there will be nothing to protect him from the pepper spray once it’s opened. The trucks heading towards the Calais port follow a strict procedure. Once they reach junction E16, they are inspected by the police and then they are instructed to launch themselves towards the ferry port so they are not intercepted by the Junglists. This enclosed stretch of motorway runs right alongside the camp and you can see the trucks hurtle down towards the port as if taunting the men.
As a further precaution, the authorities have created a buffer zone along the fenced motorway. Now the Junglist will have to make that hundred and fifty meter run towards the fencing to get at the trucks.


There is always a police presence in and around the camp. But it is in the evening that the CRS makes their presence felt because, under the cover of darkness, the Junglists try to make it to England. In the evening, if the men have managed somehow to evade the police, they cut the fencing and wait for one of those trucks. When they see one truck hurtling towards them, they jump in front of the truck hoping that it will stop. Many lives are lost in this way, especially the children, because they are harder to spot and tend to work in packs. Other times the Junglists throw something in the path of the truck. Whatever the methods, the objective is the same: create a Dugar- a traffic jam of lorries.

When the cry for Dugar is heard, distinct whistling noises spread across the camp and the Junglists start to move in the direction of the Dugar. They have half an hour to try to get through the gap in the fencing and clamber into the trucks that pile up before the police arrive. It used to be two days before they came but now they are here within half an hour. The police have little choice but to fire rubber bullets at close range because they are outnumbered and most men will have knives as standard issue; how else are they going to cut the fencing? Sometimes the hot tear gas canister gets thrown back by an Afghan wearing gloves and the police get to taste its acrid smell. Most men fail and laugh about it afterwards, showing their bruises; it’s gallows humour, the same humour you find in war torn Syria- a bitter dark sort formed in the hearts of cynical men.

More recently the authorities have cut the camp down to size. The camp used to be one kilometre by half a kilometre, but the authorities have bulldozed two thousand Hoovervilles which promptly moved to the southern precinct. They then destroyed the southern precinct so that in eight weeks the population in the northern precinct increased fourfold. But it is not all bad news: the buffer zone now serves as a great place where Afghans can bowl googlies and be struck for six. They can shout ‘no ball’ or ‘Howzat’ as if they were playing at Lord’s cricket ground to their hearts’ content. Others, like the Eritreans and the Syrians, don’t quite understand cricket, and you hear them making comments as to why you need to keep your arm straight when bowling. They stick to the simplicity of football.

When one of the Syrians try a ‘muhawala’- an attempt to cross the English Channel- it is as if the man is going off to the war front. I met Ammar cutting onions at a soup kitchen. He is a pensive quiet man, thinning prematurely at the top. He smokes rolling tobacco sitting on the roof of the soup kitchen. Men say he should be on suicide watch or on anti-depressants. It is hard to tell whether this is the case. Ammar is from Qusayr, Syria. He escaped after his city fell, his family is scattered all over the world. His mother is in Egypt, and three siblings in Lebanon, Sweden and the UK. He says he doesn’t care for any country and will return to Syria, “better to die there in dignity”. But despite this, he is still going to try to get to England.

Ammar peeling onions in the soup kitchen.
Ammar peeling onions in the soup kitchen.

Ammar serves dinner to the Junglists who form an orderly queue at seven o’clock. And then wearing his crocs, with a bag donated by a French girl, he bids farewell and off he goes into the night. He is convinced that he will make it to England tonight. Perhaps we will never see him on this earth again. He’s jumped trains, clambered onto trucks, by hook and crook tried it all and failed. And yet tonight he is convinced he will make it. Everyone thinks they will be the one. There is another, Ali, sitting in front of a shop. He is visiting the Jungle. He made made the journey from Afghanistan through Italy, stayed there long enough in Naples for him to speak Italian. He too, ripping up a naan, says he’s been trying. He once made it to England but was sent back. But he is going to try again, “Fanculo tutto il mondo” he says apologising for his swearing, “only England will do. Germany, France, Italy is (sic) racist, they treat us like animals.” And then there is fourteen year old Hani, from Aleppo whose parents were killed by the Syrian regime, he too tries every night. He too has tried to get on the Eurostar which, if it catches you, doesn’t even stop. Apart from a slight bump, no one onboard will know that a child died on their journey into St. Pancras International.

The Syrians from Der'aa celebrate
The Syrians from Der’aa celebrate

It seems impossible to pass through the fencing, the walls, the buffer zones and tunnels, but they do. There is something quietly quixotic about them as they try night after night. They embody the indignity of the ‘have nots’ against the ‘haves’, of human folly and yet at the same time hope. Has England become an obsession or does it contain some hidden street paved with gold? In the UK a refugee will receive five pound twenty a day, he will rely on food banks and suffer hardship but he is safe and that is worth its price in gold. After all, these people have journeyed from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and many other countries escaping brutal dictators and war. The English channel will not thwart them. In fact, during the night, the Syrian corner of the camp is lit up by a twelve foot flame seen by all. Initial fears that the shanties are ablaze are dispelled by the sound of whooping and singing. One of their brothers have made it to London. How? God knows, but the story is a testament to human resilience.

If Ammar makes it he has to convince the UK authorities that he has arrived with out knowing that he has been transiting through other European countries. More than that, he hopes that he hasn’t been snapped up by one of the men working for the British intelligence services. Junglists are aware that many people at the camp work for the intelligence services because friends who have made it, have seen them at Dover police station fraternising with the officers. In truth, the security services have no choice. The Jungle is a security concern, especially in the wake of Paris and Brussels.

For Ammar, though, there are easier ways. He can seek asylum in France and then be put in Camp Salaam with its the pristine white containers and warm showers. But Camp Salaam feels like prison. They are kept there till their application is processed. Those that apply seem to be from the Francophone world so France is the most logical destination to seek asylum. In any case, they probably do not have any finger prints any where else in Europe. If they do, the Dublin Agreement III requires that the host country send them back to the first European country of entry. They will be deported from that camp and find themselves in Serbia or Greece. This is what the Junglists fear the most; being sent back. These refugees prefer the freedom outside of Camp Salaam, but the freedom of the Jungle is fused with the ever pervasive smell of human excrement and rank green water that gather in pools where brown rats have pool parties.


Even though there is no capo in the camp, somehow things just fall into place. There is an anarchic sort of order here. One would expect the Junglists coming from such different cultures to be at each others’ throats. But they behave very much like the prophecy of Micah, in the Old Testament, whose message is displayed in the camp for everyone to see:

“They shall all sit under their own vine and the fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”

Each community rests with their own. Each area is loosely identifiable. The Kurdish area has its flag fluttering red, white and green with the sun in the middle. The Afghans with black, red and green, the Sudanese more so for their practice of playing dominoes at all times of the day and burning incense.

The Syrians have no flag, neither the flag of Assad, nor the flag of the revolution flutters here. Most are barely men, sons of farmers who joined the uprising in their teens. It is hard not to love their generous spirit. They continuously fill your cup with coffee and tea. Many of them, as Umm Sulaiman says, hail from “Der’aa al-manquba”- “The city of Dera’a that is riddled with holes”. It is the same city where the Syrian uprising began.

And yet, after five years, the revolution, at least from the Jungle, is hard to discern. In April 2013, the former Syrian Brotherhood Spokesman Zuheir Salem warned: “If Assad stays, you will see Europe flooded with fifteen million Syrian refugees.” This is coming to pass. But Syrians do not unquestioningly apportion all the blame on the regime or its barrel bombs for the failure of the revolution. The rebels have had five years to cobble together a credible opposition and they have failed miserably. Syrians can’t quite figure out why the revolution has failed. Some of the refugees say, without providing a shred of proof, that DAESH or ISIS is the creation of Shi’ite Iran with its head quarters in London. Others blame America and others blame themselves. Abu Umar from Idlib, pulls on his cigarette, sitting in his tidy hut and says: “Is there any government in the world that isn’t oppressive now? Is it not the case that my cousin took the bribe, my brother tortured prisoners, my neighbour did such and such? We are given rulers that we deserve as the Quran says.” Abu Umar believes that Syria’s solution can only be solved once Syrians achieve inner piety.

But though they have no common flag, there are still strong kinship ties. Umm Sulayman, for instance, has no one. She looks like one of those Okies from 1930s America. Her children, one six year old boy and one two year old girl, play barefoot in the sand. Her husband was killed by the Assad regime and now she relies on her countrymen and the Jungle to support her. There are men like Jamal, an engineer from Newcastle, who ensures that her camper has enough gas, that they are fed and that her two children are looked after. Like the Okies who dreamt of going to California, she hopes to join her family in England. But in truth; there is no possibility of that. The lawyers can’t help her, the Dublin Agreement III again is the problem. If she arrives in the UK her application for asylum will fail. She has to convince the immigration officers that she did not stop in any other country. If her story is not airtight the immigration officers in Lunar house, Croydon, will put holes in it.

In the camp, religion does play a part in ordering the lives of the Junglists. One greeting of salaam, one prayer to protect their family breaks down barriers and suspicion. There is one church and seven mosques. Masjid al-Mouhajer is the one the Syrians go to. The central mosque is the Umar mosque, a tarpaulin structure, set up in order to unify and give a sense of solidarity amongst the Junglists. Umar mosque was the brain child of a Syrian, Abu Omar, Jamal and other imams who came together and encouraged the men to set up a mosque for the sake of fraternity. It is this mosque that helps to diffuse the tensions that flare up in the camp periodically. The mosque is led by Imam Katibullah, a Pashtu with piercing grey eyes who speaks Arabic, walks the camp in his black shawl, panjabi and Pakhool, and gives pastoral care to all and sundry and seems loved by the camp.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 21.20.20At evening prayer, it is as if all the ills suffered by the Muslim world gather; there stands its past glories and its present misery and its future hopes, all united behind the Afghan Imam, Katibullah. Watch the men pray and raise their hands to their Maker and you see that some pray for paradise and some, dare one say it, pray to England, and some pray as if tonight will be their last day on Earth. And sometimes it really is their last day.

Whilst the politicians in Westminster wrangle over what is to be done, the people of England show the same generous spirit that accepted refugees in the past, whether Hugenot Protestant, Jew, Pole or East African. This is acknowledged by the Junglists. One guesstimate puts it that ninety percent of the volunteers are from Britain. They donate disused caravans that go to the most vulnerable. There are makeshift medical clinics offering primary care, youth clubs, legal advice and other services, all funded by these volunteers. Names like Sophie, Claire, Iona are mentioned with intense reverence and affection and, though some of these volunteers do not believe in saints or God for that matter, they are trusted like saints and many children are given to their care. But there is also a sense that whilst these men and women give to the refugees, they too seem to gain something. It is hard to tell as to exactly what that is, but as Jamal says: “they cannot go back to their societies and live normally after the Jungle.” Whilst some volunteers come to experience the anarchic freedom, the hospitality of the men with nothing, perhaps even to savour the cannabis, you get the sense that they too maybe searching for something.

There are also those like Jamal who are clear as to why they do it. Him and his wife and a handful of Malaysian volunteers feed a thousand men a day and run it purely on the good will of those across the English Channel who donate food and goods. He sold everything to set up a soup kitchen and is also the camp’s handyman. Why give up everything, I ask? He replies: “My father used to read a Hadith of the Prophet at bed time, which stayed with me: ‘no one of you really believes if you go to bed with a full stomach and your brother’s stomach is empty’”. And so Jamal, his wife and a bunch of volunteers serve food to the camp every evening. But it is not enough; most newborns in the camp are still undernourished.

That is not to say that there is not ugliness. The camp is etched with the pain and desperation of its inhabitants. One Junglist, an Iraqi from Salahdin, who looks like a cross between a guitarist from Nirvana and an army major, complete with blond beard and bob tail, chops onions and serves the poor and yet he goes to bed seeing visions of both his brothers having their throats slit in front of his very eyes. Abu Uday, a Damascene, has the picture of his six and three year old in Lebanon hanging on his wall, as a permanent reminder of his duty towards them. Two days ago six boys were found in a Hooverville in great distress. They had been raped. Children disappear in the camp. Jamal tells of a story where a mother abandoned her six month old infant and it was looked after by the camp; moved from family to family. A phone call came, and the voice claimed to be the newborn’s family, Jamal rushed to the hospital where he was told to go with the child. But on the way, they stopped at a cafe and he was asked to hand the baby over to some men; he realised they were people smugglers and pulled out. There was a notorious Kurdish smuggler known as Hajji, he was hated in the camp. Before making it to England Hajji had already spent considerable time in an Italian prison smuggling people to Italy from Libya and had set up shop in the Jungle. It is the presence of these undesirables that means that the camp has ears and is rife with intelligence services who do not know who these men are and what their motives are.

War has no doubt changed the character of these people. Jamal recalls a scene described as if it was from the battle of Agincourt, where the Afghans squared up to Sudanese and battled each other with flaming projectiles, sticks and knifes. Sixty men were injured, ten were hurt critically. The fighting occurred right in between the mosque and the kitchen, the latter being used for first aid. None of the Afghans knew why they were fighting; it was merely in solidarity with their compatriots and the Sudanese likewise. It turned out that it was a dispute over a bicycle: an Afghan had not paid the ten euros owed. And so the Sudanese came to collect and a medieval battle started. The Afghans went to aid their man and the Sudanese theirs. Hajji fired two shots in the air, only the playing of Quranic verses on the loud speaker from Masjid Umar calmed the situation down, and the next day, battered and bruised, the same men were hugging each other and asking each other for forgiveness. As Jamal explains, when you have witnessed twenty years of war it corrupts you. It becomes instinctive to fight, that’s why the French police are puzzled as to why the Afghans just react by fighting and throwing stones when there is no need to. They have seen nothing but war.

The jungle has the good, the bad and the ugly. And no doubt politicians will continue to build bigger walls that cost millions to keep them out. There is a sign in the Jungle asking the question: “Is me majnoun [mad] I am thinking about the world. I hope that we can be treated equally.” But the Jungle is not unique, there are more Jungles being built all over the world. The same phenomenon can be seen in Buenos Aries, Santa Fe and Rio De Janeiro. In Lima, poor Chileans scale the 10 km wall to glance at the Haves, they are all Junglists. All over the world walls are being built to keep out the needy, the destitute and the poor. At some point those walls will fall, and if England is not careful, perhaps Micah’s Prophecy may come true in London, just as it did for Jerusalem. As for the Syrians they will keep on coming, English Channel or no English Channel, if this conflict is not resolved.

This article was first posted in Syria Comment

Asia Alfasi’ ‘Extraordinary Tales’: Bringing Together Libya, Scotland, and Manga

Omar Mokhtar by Asia Alfasi

By Valentina Viene

In a world of opposing ideologies and intense scrutiny, critically thinking individuals must often migrate to an imaginary world to express their ideas. For writers with a message, fiction offers that free space where they can create their own scenarios and explore their own ideas. While new genres like science fiction are gaining increasing visibility, Arab graphic novels and comics remain relatively unknown to the Anglophone readership, although comics are familiar to both audiences. As a genre, comics have the advantage of facilitating communication, thanks to the cross-cultural overlaps.

Comics and cartoons are by no means new to the Arab world. The “Sindibad” series for children were already popular in 1950’s Egypt, and the Middle East has long used cartoons as an invective against oppression. Now, these traditions are coming to public attention in the West. For instance, some of these cartoons and cartoonists were showcased at the Shubbak Festival in London last July.

One of the emerging voices in the world of comics is Asia Alfasi, a young but prolific artist based in Birmingham who describes herself as a “Muslim Libyan Arab British graphic novelist.” Alfasi’s story of how she came to manga cartoons is quite unique. At the age of eight she moved from Tripoli, Libya, where she was born, to Glasgow, Scotland. At school, she struggled at establishing relationships with her peers. The cultural distance was a great obstacle for her, and Alfasi was bullied.

Outside of school hours, she would watch manga cartoons and draw. Then something happened that changed her life. Her classmates discovered that she could draw manga, and draw well, too. She suddenly became popular and children started respecting her. She not only managed to “subdue a monster,” to use Alfasi’s own words, and pull down those walls of fear, but she felt that her drawings could influence the world.

Her intimate relationship with drawing has resulted in recognition. Her work was included in the Mammoth Book of Best New Manga in 2006, alongside artists of international reputation. “The non-savvy non-commuter” was displayed on the walls of the Piccadilly Circus tube station on its 100th anniversary in 2006, a year after London was left in shock by the 7/7 terrorist attack. It talks about a Muslim girl from Scotland, Ewa, who uses the London underground after a long time. She very quickly becomes a commuter’s nightmare because of her clumsiness. She joins a childhood friend, Yasmin, who in seven years of living in London has dramatically changed in looks, such that Ewa does not recognize her. A discussion between the two follows, where Ewa expresses her astonishment at Yasmin’s transformation. Yasmin calls it “tactical re-branding” to adapt to her new environment. Ewa disagrees with her and asks her friend to look at the people in the underground and notice how their differences come together to make a beautiful symphony. And the fact that Ewa wears a hijab means that her identity is represented in the crowd.

While Alfasi’s first pieces were focused on her personal experiences, the Arab Spring has taken her work in different directions. She returned to visit Libya in January 2011, but with the uprising against Gaddafi, she ended up staying for a year or more. During that period, she encountered first-hand the horrors of war and the victims of the Gaddafi era.

When she decided to write about Libya, her parents tried to dissuade her, since two of her uncles had already been imprisoned then killed for being too vocal under Gaddafi. For a while, she left her new project, but then felt compelled to recount those stories, which, after her stay in Libya, had found new meaning. These stories inspired Alfasi to write her first semi-autobiographical novel which is soon to be published by Bloomsbury USA. Alfasi harnesses the fact that she is an in-betweener. She has realized that she can talk about Libya and Scotland from an insider’s perspective and “give each culture a chance to look at themselves through the eyes of a person who has lived there first as a national and then almost as a newcomer.”

Alfasi’s message is a message of optimism, and that words can change the world. If manga helped her gain acceptance in her school, surely, she suggests, this will contribute to a reduction in the distance between the West and other cultures.

“The moment,” she says, “you step away from stupid generalizations and predictable stereotyping, you suddenly enter the realm of intriguing stories that will add and benefit and teach you and enlighten people.”

In “Hijabstrip,” a white girl is caught by surprise when she first enters her Muslim friend’s bedroom. She has Bruce Lee posters hanging on her walls. She opens her friend’s wardrobe and discovers that she has some really fancy dresses. Her eyes almost pop out when she realizes that not only is her friend not covering her head with a scarf, but that her hair is blue! The Muslim girl teaches her friend not to judge by appearances. She also wears a Pikachu pyjama and takes part in Karate tournaments.

The artist describes her work as “a cultural blend of extraordinary tales.” Her work is truly extraordinary: she is among the the first Arab artists to have introduced Muslim characters in the manga world, as well as legends and myths of which the Libyan culture is so replete. She also has sense of humour, which makes her stories a pleasure to read. Her re-adaptation of Juha’s traditional tales to comics, for example, is brilliant and can be read on her Facebook page, both in Arabic and English.

Currently, she is also working on a project to turn a theatrical piece, “Looking for yoghurt,” into a graphic novel. She is writing a third story, “The Adventures of Joseph and Jasmine” which should be published soon. Because of her bilingualism, her work is accessible to a great variety of readers, which will no doubt bring her a wide audience.

This article was cross posted from Arablit here .

What happened to ‘Man like Fatlum?’- The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi

Abu Musa al-Britani nom de guerre of Fatlum Shalaku
Abu Musa al-Britani nom de guerre of Fatlum Shalaku

Tourists and bohemians love rummaging through the stalls on Portobello Road with its shimmering trinkets and shaggy clothes fit for an art student. To the locals it’s a “joke ting”, a skank to bring tourists from all over the world to sample the latest authentic “efnik” fad. Down the road on Golborne road, a stones throw away from David Cameron’s Notting Hill, young British Moroccans feast on  platters of seafood on Hassan’s Grilled Fish stall laughing at the antics of their respective football teams. Some wear the latest garms others wear the trademark white thobe, full length beard, trousers above the ankle and Nike trainers like many Salafis do. Across the road Lisboa Patisserie is packed with locals and Moroccan old timers chomping on the best custard tarts in London talking about their worries the way they might do back home. Here on the Golborne Road, West London, the Roadman rubs shoulders with the affluent city banker and never do their worlds meet, unless the Roadman is invited to a party to dispense a bit of coke. This is where Trellick towers estate sits easy with the bohemian Portobello Road. You wouldn’t expect a young native of these parts to cancel his ticket to a Spanish holiday resort, and instead end up a thousand miles from home and hearth, fighting in Iraq on behalf of ISIS.

Fatlum ShalakuThis is the story of Fatlum Shalaku, or Abu Musa al-Britani; the one who raised his index finger to the sky testifying to the oneness of God and rammed a truck laden with explosives into an Iraqi army position in Ramadi. The twenty year old Zayn Malik lookalike, handsome and muscular and popular with the ladies broke the Golden Division. The US trained special forces unit had been holding a defensive line for fourteen months and suffering heavy losses. His actions forced them to abandon the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Iconic Trelick towers built on the Brutalist architectural style. Credit: Author
Iconic Trelick towers built on the Brutalist architectural style. Credit: Author

Word in Ladbroke Grove got out pretty soon. “Heard about Fatlum?” said one, “madd ting“. On the following Friday, we sat on the floor listening to the Imam at Ladbroke Grove’s Al-Manar mosque talking about how to prepare for Ramadan. I doubt the Imam had heard about the news, for if he had perhaps he would have addressed it. Fatlum’s friends didn’t quite know what to make of it and might have appreciated a talk on this issue coming from an Imam who was quoting the very scholar that ISIS revered; Ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century Syrian scholar, the progenitor of the Salafi movement. But instead, he reminded his worshippers about the virtues of Ramadan; about the tendency to over eat during the holy month, the tendency to smoke shisha in cafes as people wait for the dawn prayer, the tendency to sleep well into the afternoon, and generally not benefit from the abstemiousness which should enrich the soul. But to some of the younger worshippers there was a need to make sense of his death. They talked about it with a sense of surprise and stupefaction. “I used to see him at the gym; lovely guy” said one, “can’t believe what he did.” In the estates around the mosque the young knew he had gone to fight in Syria but few expected him to go out like that. Another friend said, “Fatlum’s world view was twist but I know his heart was pure”. There was begrudging admiration for the young man who walked the walk even though he hadn’t talked much about it. A former school mate put it differently to ITV News: “it is sad, we have to ask ourselves why a person full of dreams and possibility and potential …would…blow them selves up”. Everyone seemed to say what happened to man like Fatlum?

Credit: Author

Outside of Ladbroke Grove, little is known about Abu Musa al-Britani. He didn’t have a large social media footprint. According to his friends, Fatlum had deleted his Facebook account before leaving for Syria. He came from a Kosovo Albanian family and attended Holland Park School. Fatlum enjoyed his time there and was described as “popular” and “friendly.” The school population reflected the diversity of the area and had a large British Moroccan and Somali community from Shepherds Bush, Latimer and Ladbroke Grove since the Nineties. Many like Fatlum who grew up in North Kensington, were brought into the British Moroccan cultural orbit. After all nearly sixty percent of the UK’s British Moroccan population settled in North Kensington in the 70s and 80s.

Fatlum and Mohammed Nasser
Fatlum and Mohammed Nasser

Some say that Fatlum was intensely moved by the Syrian conflict, but that is simply not true. When the Syrian revolution broke out as one friend of Fatlum said, “every one was gassed” about Syria. These young men were profoundly affected by the images coming out on social media. After all this is the most mediated conflict that the world has ever seen and anyone with beating heart would find it hard to bear witness to the despicable acts carried out by the Syrian regime.  As a cousin said of Mohammed Nasser, a fighter and friend of Fatlum who was killed in Iraq:

“…[Nasser] was angry about what was happening in Syria…like Iraq and Palestine. I don’t think he was radicalised, he understood what radicalisation was and what extremism was…”

Fatlum knew of a mysterious convert, not unlike Ras in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who packed up his bags and joined ISIS. This Ladbroke Grove Ras, rootless, charismatic and confrontational had gathered around him a group of young men in Ladbroke Grove who would eventually follow him. These young men recruited others through whatsapp and other messaging services. It was chain migration in reverse. Rumours has it that he was killed by Jaish al-Fath, a rebel faction that has made recent gains in Idlib. Speaking to a local, Elias, not his real name, the fact that there was a recruiter, was something the British security services must have been aware of in the Ladbroke Grove area. They were showing locals pictures of persons of interest.

But Fatlum wasn’t that hyped about fighting in Syria or swayed by this ‘recruiter’. Like his family, Fatlum was not religious and lived a relatively secular lifestyle like many Kosovo Albanians whose parents had experienced Communist rule. He was close to Mohammed Nasser and also knew Hamza Parvez, all ended up fighting for ISIS. One theory has it that Nasser influenced him to go to Syria. Nasser became devout after his father’s death,  and it seems that this charismatic and passionate figure influenced those around him. In contrast, Hamza Parvez was described by a family member as being “lazy” and a bit of a drifter, more interested in Krispy Kremes than fighting. He followed Nasser to Syria. Usually when a close circle forms around one or two charismatic individuals who are motivated to go, others are more likely to follow, irrespective of income or socio-economic background. Those who are less wedded to aspiration and the good life, might have little to lose and a lot more to gain by going. Especially as the promise for them is either paradise or ghanima, war booty. Hamza Parvez may have fitted that type, but Fatlum didn’t. Speaking to his friends it is difficult to ascertain how much of an influence Nasser was on him. In fact, Fatlum left for Syria before Nasser. According to a cousin, Nasser “was a good guy and he knew right from wrong and he had compassion. He went to uni, played football…he wasn’t the sort of guy who argued about the caliphate. I never ever suspected he would go.”

Flamur's art work featured in Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. Credit: Open Source
Flamer’s art work featured in Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. Credit: Open Source

A friend told me: “If any one influenced him it must have been his older brother, Flamur. They were close and Fatlum looked up to him. He rediscovered his faith a year into his degree at uni.” Flamur was a talented young architect  student whose work had been showcased by the Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. His transformation according to another school friend, was overnight. He went from someone who could “be seen socialising and drinking with friends” to someone who was assiduous in worship. He was often seen at Ladbroke Grove mosque attending the congregational prayer there. It was Flamur who drew his younger brother into discussions that led the latter to confront his own perceptions about life. But whilst Fatlum might have considered the big questions, two weeks before his departure to Syria, he was still interested in the usual stuff that the Ladbroke Grove mandem were interested in. Had it not been for his older brother talking him out of his Spanish holiday, Fatlum would have larged it with the ladies.

And yet, Fatlum’s decision to fight in Syria was not just a whim, but perhaps the flotsam and jetsam of various currents that coursed through the Ladbroke Grove area.

Religious Currents in Ladbroke Grove: The influence of the Salafi-Jihadis

Al-Manar mosque Credit: Author
Al-Manar mosque
Credit: Author

One of these currents was the religious element in Ladbroke Grove. As Raffaello Pantucci notes in ‘We Love Death as You Love Life,’ London had seen a religious revival long before Syria and long before 9/11. Ladbroke Grove in this regard was no exception. The Muslim community’s gradual confidence and religiosity found expression in the opening of Al-Manar Islamic Centre on Acklam Road in 2001. The airy mosque complete with school and sports facilities and a hint of North Africa, was jammed in between Westway recreational grounds and a council estate. It was also an expression of the Moroccan community’s self-confidence. Now, a few decades on, and it has about twelve hundred worshippers every Friday from all walks of life and counted amongst its congregation ISIS fighters likes Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, Hamza Parvez, Mohammed Nasser, Flamur Shalaku, Choukri Elkhlifi, Mohammed El-Araj, and Aine Davies, who all prayed there from time to time.


The area was not unique in that diverse Islamic strands and traditions coursed through it. There was the traditional Islam brought over from Larache, Morocco. It was a mix of Maliki jurisprudence, scholarship and Sufi traditions. These traditions are found amongst the old timers who sit reading the Quran after the evening prayer at the mosque. Sit down with them and you will sense the rich scholarly tradition of Fez and Marrakech. The way the old timers taught Tajweed, the art of Quranic recitation to the youngsters is reminiscent of the master student relationship still alive in their home land. They come from a rich tradition of learning that had been distilled over centuries with a great deal of nuance. The student has to master Arabic, philology, grammar, Quranic exegesis, jurisprudence and moral ethics amongst other things and only then, would the teacher grant him an Ijaza or permission to teach. That sort of profound study takes more than a few years of an Islamic studies BA in any modern Islamic university. Few in Ladbroke Grove, least of all Fatlum, had time to go down that route.

Alongside this, you also had the competing modernist Salafi tradition inspired by Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahab, a revivalist scholar of eighteenth century. His movement called for strict monotheism and rejected the adherence to a school of jurisprudence, mysticism and precepts that appeared to be cultural additions. This view, believed that over-reliance on ‘blind imitation’ or Taqleed of scholars was misguidance, and sought to connect the layman directly to the sources of religion and thereby get him closer to God. Salafism’s appeal was its simple call to authenticity. As one worshipper put it: “Islam is simple, all you need is Quran and Sunnah”.

But occasionally its adherents fell into a trap of interpreting the texts with out having the prerequisite skill-set. Salafism disliked   Taqleed– the practice of following an Islamic jurisprudent because it was disparaged as ‘blind imitation’. To the born again devotee on the Golborne Road in search of religious enlightenment, he didn’t need   a religious specialist, he could just open up the Quran and take the canonical sayings of the Prophet as his guide; no middle man was required to distil that seemingly contradictory mass of Prophetic sayings and Quranic verses. To Salafism’s detractors though, this was exactly the problem. These novices were akin to a thirsty rabble drinking straight from the vast salty ocean and not allowing the scholar to make the seawater potable. Drinking straight from the ocean would result in madness or at the very least hubris. This was something a family member complained about when Hamza Parvez found his faith:

“This was last year. He used to wear the thobe and he’d pray and what annoyed me most was when he started telling his mum what to do. It kind of gave him this superiority because he thought that she didn’t have any knowledge.”

And certainly the answers and scribblings on the tumbler pages, and Ask FM answers of some these ISIS fighters appear as if they were fatwas or religious legal rulings.

Trellick and Manar mosque Credit: Author
Trellick and Manar mosque
Credit: Author

Another offshoot of the Salafis in Ladbroke Grove was the Salafi-Jihadi movement. As Jonathan Birt notes in Radical Nineties Revisited: Jihadi Discourses in Britain, the fact that many of these radicals and Salafi-Jihadi ideologues were allowed to operate in the 90s so freely meant that the conditions were in place for it to flourish by the time Fatlum encountered it. As one young Imam who grew up in the area, told me West London has always had a strong Salafi-Jihadi tradition. So disturbed was the young Imam that he decided move away from the area. The Salafi-Jihadi movement in a nutshell, believes that only through Jihad can the Muslim global community restore its dignity and power; in some respects it is Fanonesque in conception. It is as Abdallah Azzam, one of its icons and the father of the Afghan Jihad put it, “Men need jihad more than the jihad needs men.”  Salafi-Jihadi thought was a response to the centuries-long decline of Muslim power on the world stage and the incursions of the West into Muslim societies.The communities in Ladbroke Grove through a mixture of faith and heritage were profoundly connected to the affairs of the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in Salafi-Jihadi thought having a greater resonance in the community especially amongst the young. Fatlum’s older brother was certainly an adherent to the ideology and though Fatlum may not have been, in the company of his brother and like minded individuals he certainly became one.

The subtle interplay of Gang Culture and Religion

Credit: Author

But Fatlum also grew up in a milieu where there was a subtle interplay of religion and gang culture. In amongst the affluence of North Kensington, gang subcultures flourish. On the council estates youth workers fight a constant uphill battle, not against radicalisation but the normal problems that most inner city communities face. The predominantly Moroccan community in the area face huge challenges in North Kensington. Myriam Cherti writes in Paradoxes of Social Capital: A Multi-Generational Study of Moroccans in London, in 1998, Golborne Ward fell under the 1 percent of the most deprived wards nationally, this situation changed little by 2012, when it was was ranked as the second most deprived in London. The same author noted in a study for the Runnymede Trust, British Moroccans: Citizenship in Action, that poverty and disadvantage was “endemic in the area”. The youth workers I met were constantly trying to get young people to channel their energies into more positive activities. One of the bolder youth workers, Khaled, not his real name, told me, “I fork out money out of my own pocket; buy them chicken and chips and then they come to the sessions.” but with funding cuts these youth workers were struggling. Khaled complained that other youth clubs were receiving funding from different funding streams but those available to Moroccan communities were mainly through Prevent funding, the governments controversial anti-terrorism policy. This cynicism is not something recent. As early as 2009 the Runnymede Trust study states that: “smaller organisations complained that the Council discriminated in their funding practices, favouring certain projects whilst blocking others’ opportunities to develop”. Khaled explained that the bigger problem in the area is still drugs, knife crime, gang fights, teenage pregnancies and civil engagement rather than terrorism and radicalisation. To this youth worker, it didn’t matter that five young men had left the area to join ISIS, he had to scour the streets to stop “Kids stabbing each other over a mobile phone. Every young person is touched by gang culture around here”.

Credit: Author
Credit: Author

With marginalisation comes social problems. Drugs and criminality had always been a facet of Ladbroke Grove since the 90s. Golborne Road was the best place to pick up skunk and hash in West London. Anyone who grew up in the area knew that Ladbroke Grove had cornered the market. You could drive up in a car and some dealer would shake your hands drop the punk and walk off in his joggers. Any undercover would have a hard time finding this ghost disappear into the estates. But as time passed these men, coming mostly from the close knit Moroccan community, felt the impact of religion in their lives. Their parents were getting old and becoming increasingly devout. They started their own families in the area and with the profundity of having one’s own family they too began to consider the deeper meanings of life. “Once a man holds his own kids in his arms” said one, “he starts thinking about their future, you can’t help it. That’s just God’s way”. A few decades on and these same dealers who had shot the stuff to willing punters, were sporting beards and praying five times a day looking for ways to atone themselves. These men raised in the school of hard knocks found that Salafi-Jihadism fitted their temperament just like perhaps a creative temperament might prefer a Sufi understanding of Islam.

Credit: Author
Credit: Author

Despite the prejudice faced by the Moroccan community in North Kensington political engagement has always been high especially at local level. However, as the Runnymede Trust study found, there was also political discontent especially in the second generation. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 being the main boon of contention. The punishing decade of sanctions that preceded it with over half a million children dead and Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, quipping that the price “was worth it”- jarred. To many in Ladbroke Grove, the Iraq war wasn’t a L’Oreal advert. Long before the area produced AQ adherents like Bilal Berjawi and Ramzi Mohammed, there were rumours that some Old Skool British Moroccans were expressing their political disenchantment by adopting Salafi-Jihadi ideology and even trying to join the insurgency in Iraq. There was always talk of ex-Ladbroke Grove criminals suspected of a string of crimes in and around West London to fund their Jihadi activities. These criminal acts, it was said, were justified by the legal fiction that they were living in Dar al-Harb or ‘House of War’; a classical Islamic term developed by a body Islamic Jurisprudents during the medieval period to denote the lands that the Muslim world was at war with. Jihad as any jurisprudent will tell you was an all encompassing term referring to warfare that was nuanced, localised and differed according to time and place. So for instance, if the enemy mutilated your dead, you were not allowed to mutilate their dead because it was considered unjust and in direct contravention of God’s injunctions. Some of those rulings, albeit a minority, allowed for repaying the invaders of Muslim lands with the same treatment in extreme circumstances. That understanding allowed that everything was permissible, fraud, robbery, even enslaving women and so on. One worshipper told me, on condition of anonymity, that one “Grove man” had the audacity to rob a security van, and then turned up to offer Asr prayer at the mosque with the money box next to him, and after finishing casually walked off home with it. It was also rumoured that some of these men joined the smaller battalions within Syria’s splintered rebel factions like Katibat al-Khattab and Sham al-Islami brigades; the latter drew predominantly from North African participants.

But one thing these Ladbroke Grove Salafi-Jihadis were not; unlike many of the younger generation of Jihadis; they were not blatantly Takfiri in outlook in the way ISIS adherents were. Although there were some exceptions, most refrained from making Takfir or excommunication. Compare for instance the latest comments made by the late AQ spokesman Adam Gadahn, regarding the execution of Alan Henning and ISIS’ position. The latter considered it a sin. Like it or not, Salafi-Jihadism does have a theological discourse, with its thinkers, scholars and traditions. Usually the older fighters from Gadahn’s generation kept to within that framework. They looked at the West as an oppressive colonising infidel power that needed to be opposed, those Muslims who took a different view, were not declared automatically infidels en masse. This type of Salafi-Jihadi still had respect for tradition and the sanctity of Muslim blood, even if they had none for UK law. But nevertheless as one Imam who knows Ladbroke Grove and those that adopted that opinion, told me, “is it victory at all cost that these men wanted? By adopting such an extreme opinion, they essentially did away with any ethical considerations of the Sharia, did the Companions and the Prophet do any of these things they did? No of course not, what they did do was open up the flood gates for the next generation where they could do anything they wanted.”

Despite the obvious problematics of Salafi-Jihadism within Islamic intellectual discourse as well as outside of it, the newly emerging strain of Salafi-Jihadis was hard to grasp by the older generation. The old skool jihadists were now criticising Fatlum’s generation for spiralling out of control. In fact, most recently the Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi cleric Abu Qatada, one of its main ideologues, criticised young Westerners coming to Syria with no religious training killing Islamic Jurisprudents with years of religious learning. The new generation they said lacked Tarbiyyah or sound upbringing; their sincerity was not enough. There was clearly a generational disconnect. In many ways the conflict between Nusra Front and ISIS is also a reflection of this conflict between Old Skool Jihadis versus the New Skool. This new strain of Salafi-Jihadism was seen as even more radical, virulently Takfiri; they cared nought for any tradition that would ground them, nor for scholarship, and any kind of normative except their own. This idea seems to be confirmed by Thomas Pierret, Lecturer at Edinburgh University and author of Religion and State in Syria: the Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution, in a post on Facebook he says of the older generation Jihadis they were:

“motivated by the will to defend fellow Muslims against oppression. Their propaganda was a never-ending complaint about the plight of Muslims across the world. ISIS-generation of foreign fighters are completely different. Their Propaganda and behaviour suggests that not only are they totally indifferent to the plight of the Syrians, but they’re happily imposing upon them a ruthless form of oppression as part of their narcissistic settler-colonialist utopia”

It is true that young Ladbroke Grove Jihadis like Fatlum were different. According to a friend, Fatlum was “extremely Takfiri” in outlook, but he didn’t proselytise it the way other ISIS fighters did on social media. But to him the sacred and the profane was photoshopped with pop culture. These young men, in typical post-modern style comfortably mixed iconic images of Jihadica with Call of Duty. Sitting in an Italian cafe, Ali, a student who grew up in and around Ladbroke Grove told me even more bluntly what he thought the problem was; “There’s more to it, you have a high percentage of Roadmans who don’t know anything about the faith and they discover Anwar Awlaki on Youtube and it’s a disaster. On top of that everything they watch from Lord of the Rings to 300, to Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down everything about Western culture celebrates heroism and self sacrifice. Some of their fathers also fought in Afghanistan, they have a fighting mentality because of the streets and once you put religion into it; which says helping the weak and oppressed is good, you got a Jihadi Roadman. It’s so predictable. Notice that most of these Roadmans joined ISIS; the rest with any sense of the faith didn’t.”

Fatlum’s friend Mohammed Nasser was a case in point; going through his twitter feed you notice that Grand Theft Auto Five is mentioned in the same breath as martyrdom, even though GTA is probably the most antithetical to the Islamic moral ethic. On his twitter feed. He flitted from talking about his friends, to messaging Pro-ISIS disseminators like Shamiwitness. The connections they were making, the culture they were creating was one particular to their generation. They had their own terminology, they wore their Salafi-Jihadism on their robes, blended it with rebellious Roadmannism, garnished it with a bit of Anwar Awlaki, Quran, Sunnah and a bit of thug life. They could yearn desperately for forgiveness and paradise, and in their youthful ardour want a sense of belonging and adventure. West-side hyperbole turned into “the land of the Muslims have to be defended.” The new generation Jihadi Roadmans short circuited the Salafi-Jihadi tradition for just Team Muslim-no matter what; the response was not un-similar to the American patriot who cried Team America: no matter what. These men no doubt sincere in intention had become a law unto themselves and could wreak havoc and go against well established Islamic principles. These men joined ISIS.

When Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, 23, from Maida Vale, held out a decapitated head and declared to his tweeps that he was: “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him”. To many it contradicted traditional concepts of chivalry and everything that Jihad represented.  “No one is saying that war is a walk in the park”, said one Imam who asked to be anonymous, “its ugly and nasty, but the whole point about Jihad is that when man has license to be at his most brutal, most callous, he doesn’t give in to his baser nature. It is easy to be clement, merciful and civilised in our everyday lives, but in war a man can actually show his true nobility, by being merciful, clement, and chivalrous, even when he has been wronged and his instinct is telling him to be brutal and unforgiving. And this is something that many fighters in ISIS have forgotten”

Credit:Open Source
Credit:Open Source

A cursory glance through Medieval literature on famous Muslim warriors shows them to be cultured both in war and also the humanities, the autobiography of Usama b. Munqidh a 12th century knight during the crusades and Ibn Shaddad’s biography on Saladin for instance is testimony to that. Both are able to show magnanimity towards their enemies. Read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, a novella declared by the literary critic Harold Bloom to be “sublime” and you notice Tolstoy’s deep admiration for a Muslim warrior. A Jihadi who refused to give in to the demands of the world, least of all Tsarist Russia. Fast forward to the twentieth century to Abdullah Anas, a veteran of the Afghan Jihad and the son in law of Abdullah Azzam, and find a man disgusted by the antics of these young fighters who kill men and upload it on twitter. As he told me in his office in North London:

Abdullah Anas (centre) Credit: Open Source
Abdullah Anas (centre) Credit: Open Source

“Prisoners have full rights. We fed them the same food, gave them the same clothes and the same quality of life. After several months, many of the Soviet troops started to believe that they weren’t prisoners because we were on such good terms with them. Through our conduct we showed them we were not bloodthirsty people. Some of them became Muslims, others remain our friends to this day.”

To the veterans the Abdul Barys of this world were just expressing Roadmannism found in every day Ladbroke Grove, only the location was different. So what had happened in-between the period between Old Skool Jihadists and the modern day Jihadist who joins ISIS? According to Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American Muslim convert and freelance journalist who spent a considerable time in war torn Syria it seems to be a case of a ignorance and loosing one’s moral compass. Sitting in a cafe sipping a latte and relishing a chocolate chip cookie, he told me that some of these fighters “are extremely sincere in their intentions but because they don’t know the basics they attach themselves to a group who they think will take them to God, so they get played…I couldn’t believe it…we were inside a car once and they were discussing whether it was permissible to target women and children, I’m like brother, why are we even having this conversation?! Islam doesn’t allow that. That’s how ignorant they were.” Fatlum’s knowledge of Islam was at the time of leaving, described by friends as basic but continued under Islamic State proselytisers.

When Fatlum left it wasn’t just faith and the International community’s inaction that pulled him there. There were complex factors at play, the influence of individuals, the interplay of Salafi-Jihadi thought, Roadman culture, identity, or simply a need for adventure and atonement that made him get on that plane to Turkey. In spring 2013 the brothers went to Turkey transiting off a European country.

To their father, Muhamet, the news came as a complete shock. The brothers had kept their faith secret from the family. Once they were in Syria contact with family was intermittent. They told the parents that they were doing aid work. Fatlum’s mother fell into deep depression. Although the parents did not report the two missing immediately, their disappearance did not go unnoticed, the police were aware that they had left. The father said that special branch had visited them and taken their computers away. He perhaps naively, believed they would help to retrieve them. The officers were particularly interested in the two following the revelation of the identity of Jihadi John.

In Syria, what had started as a true revolution began to resemble 12th century Andalusia during the age of the Muluk at-Tawa’if or the Party Kings. Each emir of Andalusia’s fractured principalities, supported by various Christian kings, made war on each other for hegemony of the Spanish Peninsula. Many foreign fighters who had come to fight Assad, instead found themselves embroiled in this intra-rebel infighting. Abu Layth al-Khorosani, or Anil Khalil Raoufi from Manchester, for instance died fighting the Free Syrian Army instead of Assad. When the fighting broke out between ISIS and Nusra Front, to the surprise of one friend, the two brothers did not get involved in the internecine Jihadist infighting that broke out in January 2014. Fatlum made his choice quite early on. Contrary to reports, the two brothers did not defect from the Nusra Front but rather after they had finished their training with Katibat al-Muhajireen (KaM) led by Georgian national Omar Shishani and his former deputy Abu Mus’ab al-Jazairi, they joined ISIS. It is not clear why the two brothers left Katibat al-Muhajireen for Islamic State. Perhaps they followed Omar Shishani as he made his oath of allegiance or hoped to join a group that would take them to Paradise, it is hard to tell. Nevertheless their aloofness from fighting their former comrades earned them the respect even of their enemies. This may have been one of the reasons they ended up in Iraq, precisely because they wanted to avoid fighting their ex-comrades. Instead they preferred to fight the Shi’ites and the Kurdish YPG, the former who Salafi-Jihadis consider to be heretics, and the latter who they view as godless Atheists due to their secular or communist beliefs.

Flamur Shalaku or Abu Sa’ad as he was known, was killed in March of this year in Iraq. His father, Muhamet received a phone call where a distant crackly arabic voice spoke in broken English and said: “Everything is good with your son”. The father was not devout, he didn’t quite understand what that meant. He came to see me one rainy night in Whitechapel, to see if I could locate him. I didn’t know how to break it to him, his red nose with delicate red veins hinted at a man who liked Jack Daniels, I told him that the Grapevine said that Abu Sa’ad had been killed. He stumbled, he woke up, his eyes watered up, his lips quivered for a moment. I wanted to give him a hug. I felt like a scumbag. But he didn’t let me hug him, he composed himself. He told me about the phone call. I explained what that meant.
“To Islamic State death means martyrdom. For them it’s good news”
“I don’t know what to tell his mother” he said as if Flamur was still alive. “Is there anyway we can get Fatlum back? I need to tell him to come back? If we lose him, we are finished you know? Finished. I will not tell anything to the mother for now.”
A month later I called him to ask about Fatlum’s death.

Perhaps Flamur’s death made Fatlum want to join his brother, by this time he had lost Mohammed Nasser and now his brother. And so he stepped into a truck laden with explosives and stuck his index finger out for the camera and drove towards his target. He blew himself up hoping to be flung in to paradise. Whilst his friends in Islamic State rejoiced in his self-annihilation, the reverberations of the explosions were also felt in Ladbroke Grove. Friends and locals were shocked by the fate of such a popular young man. Some of the younger ones rated him for dying for his beliefs, “he was a man of action y’get me- he talks the talk and walks the walk.” To the old timers there is a sense of foreboding that the spotlight will once again fall on a community that is afflicted by far greater problems than ISIS.

This post first appeared on Syria Comment here.


Why Did Jund Al-Aqsa Join Nusra Front in Taking Out ‘Moderate’ Rebels in Idlib?

The recent push by Nusra Front into Idlib and the defeat of Jamal Marouf’s Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) has brought a little known group, Jund al-Aqsa, into prominence in the West. Jund al-Aqsa, or The Soldiers of Aqsa (referring to Islam’s third holiest mosque in Jerusalem), is an independent battalion that has grown since the strife between Islamic State and Nusra Front began in January this year. It has also shown restraint in not joining the infighting between ‘moderate’ FSA fighters and Islamist rebel forces, concentrating instead on combating the Assad regime. This restraint has lead to many, both Syrian and foreign fighters, joining them. However, recently they took the unprecedented step of joining Nusra Front in finishing off Jamal Marouf’s SRF.

Jund al-Aqsa, initially known as Sarayat al-Quds, was founded by Abu Abdul ‘Aziz al-Qatari, a close friend of Sheikh Abdul ‘Azzam, the father of the Afghan Jihad in the 80s and close mentor to Osama bin Laden. It draws its inspiration from scholars like Hamid bin Hammad al-‘Ali al-Kuwaiti and is in contact with the likes of Sheikh Maqdisi and Sheikh Suleiman Ulwan, the former being one of the most important scholars within the Salafi-Jihadist discourse. Its current leader is a Syrian. Jund started off as a battalion within Nusra Front, but then separated partly because Nusra Front was growing too quickly. The brigade was over-stretched and running into debt and has been hurt by fighting Islamic State.

Jund has not made the same mistakes as Nusra Front and has avoided the intra-rebel imbroglio. Jund al-Aqsa’s vision is to knock out the Assad regime and set up a state running on Islamic law. Where they differ with the Islamic State is not necessarily its goals, rather its methods. Jund al-Aqsa seems to have learnt a lesson from groups who pronounce Takfeer (accusation of apostasy) on each other. Accusing someone of apostasy means that rebels can potentially deprive each other of their life and property. It’s also a good excuse to loot and kill. So far, in the Syrian context, this has been used to validate widespread torture and bloodletting. This is not just, as is commonly believed, an Islamic State trait but other battalions do the same. On the 15th October, Jamal Marouf’s SRF, declared Nusra Front to be apostates and it is alleged that they killed and kidnapped foreign fighters belonging to Islamist forces as a consequence. According to locals in Idlib province, SRF are notorious for extortion and kidnapping and its stronghold of Jebel Zawiya is known as ‘Mafia Mountain’.

Jund has refrained from making Takfeer on other groups, whatever the personal view of their fighters. Its neutrality has meant that it has continued to receive funding from wealthy private donors from the Gulf who do not want to finance groups involved in the rebel infighting. Moreover, its perceived independence has allowed it to play an important role in resolving the disputes between the warring rebel factions. The late Abu Abdul ‘Aziz al-Qatari had been instrumental in trying to mediate between Nusra Front and Islamic State and could have succeeded had it not been for his death, allegedly at the hands of Syrian Martyr’s Brigade.

Jund al-Aqsa has a mixture of local and foreign fighters of around a thousand men and is growing daily. It works with all groups, from Salafi Jihadi, Palestinian movements to groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and even with the FSA. Whilst visiting the group in October, I received unconfirmed news that sixty Ahrar as-Sham fighters had joined Jund. Speaking to some of the fighters, it appears that defections are common.

A lot of Jund al-Aqsa’s military expertise is drawn from veterans of the Iraqi, Afghani and Bosnian Jihads. Approximately seventy percent of the battalion are Syrian, the rest are foreigners. The soldiers’ background ranges from the wealthy Saudi fighter to the quiet Brit from the suburbs, to the itinerant Taliban fighter who is determined to raise the flag of Islam everywhere. Some of these foreign fighters can reach a high level of responsibility; for instance, one of the members was the late Abu Hafs al-Britani, who was trained by Albanians and who, in turn, trained other rebels. Abu Hafs was, like many Brits fighting in Syria, middle class, and did not have a social media presence. He devoted himself to religious studies until the Syrian civil war broke out. He joined the rebels and proved himself a capable fighter. The battalion prefers to recruit Muhajirs, emigrant or foreign fighters, because they tend to be more motivated by their faith and from other groups with recognised fighting credentials like Ahrar as-Sham or Nusra Front. They avoid US funded groups like Harakat al-Hazm. There are also a number of ‘freelance’ unaffiliated fighters who work closely with the group. The most notable being Yilmaz, the Dutch ex-soldier who appears regularly on Western media outlets.

The areas that Jund controls centre mostly in and around Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo and are held jointly with other Islamist forces. They seem to have local support and have not alienated them. I witnessed a close relationship between the fighters and the locals. This, one assumes, is because the locals acknowledge its charity work and its members’ good discipline. Another reason for their success is probably because they do not enforce their vision of Islam on the local populace relying instead on winning their hearts and minds through their charitable works, victories and proselytization.

Their military strategy so far has been to attack areas that they know they can hold. Up until the recent conflict in Idlib, significant battles include Ma’an, Khattab, Arzeh, and Khan Sheikhoon. The group is also known for its bomb making expertise, especially for the quality of their hell-fire mortars which they produce in their own workshops. In terms of martyrdom operations or suicide bombings, whilst the group have not taken part in any, they are not averse to them but unlike Islamic State, they will use them only as a last resort.

Jund’s attitude towards the West can probably be described as Salafi-Jihadi with an anti-colonial tinge. One of their emirs, Abu Nasser, a former soldier from the Arabian Peninsula for instance, told me that he had come to help the Muslims first and foremost, and it was the world’s silence on the chemical massacre which moved him to join the conflict. A lot of the men I interviewed clearly viewed the United States as an aggressor. In their opinion, US led air-strikes against Islamic State and Nusra Front are an attack on all Muslims. In fact, they consider it a point of religious creed that one cannot ally oneself with non-Muslim Western nations to attack fellow Muslims. One fighter, Abu Talha, stated that even to “rejoice at the bombing of Islamic State by a non-Muslim country is to have a faulty creed and could lead to heresy”. This probably explains why Jund decided to join Nusra Front in fighting SRF and any battalion aligned to US interests.

Before the defeat of Jamal Marouf’s SRF, Jund had been buffeted by the former’s declaration of war on the Nusra Front. SRF are seen as favoured by the US. This, combined with the US air strikes on Nusra Front strongholds, has probably pushed Jund to break its neutrality. Jund naturally sided with Nusra Front due to its close working relationship and its ideological closeness. Not only is Jund’s position indicative of its indignation towards SRF’s questionable practices, but it’s also a sign that US intervention is pushing other forces, whose goal was Assad, to take more hard line positions.

See also report on Jund al-Aqsa here on BBC and here on Nieuwsuur  and here on Channel Seven

Full Transcript of Shareef Alnimer Interview: A True Blue Aussie

There’s been a lot of coverage of my interview with Australian combat medic Abu Ousama or Abu Safiyah shown on Channel Seven, Australia it was subsequently picked up by all the major Australian broadcasters and newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and so forth. The exclusive reached the Australian prime ministers office.Shareef Alnimer

Sharif Alnimer was based in Idlib province had been in contact with various rebel battalions including ISIS before joining Jund al-Aqsa, an off shoot of Jabhat al-Nusra.  I met him in Taftanaz where he lived with his wife.  My first impression of the man was his affability and friendliness. It was clear that he was loved by the men, Arab or non- Arab because of this quality. When he described himself as a true blue Aussie that is the only way I can describe him.



Alnimer described himself as a combat medic and was involved in the local hospitals. Although the press reported that he had died in an air strike in September 2015, Telegram channels reported his death much earlier by several months.  It is believed he died in Fua after coming under regime attack.

Alnimer was 27, a Sydney youth worker linked to Community Youth Centre in Campbelltown where alleged Islamic State (IS) recruiter Hamdi Alqudsi was also an active member.


Below is the full transcript.

Q: Where are you from sir?

A: Born raised, true blue Aussie.

Q: What on Earth are you doing here in Syria? What does Australia have anything to do with the Syrian conflict?

A: Australia had nothing to do with the Syrian conflict – until now. Still has nothing to do with the Syrian conflict maybe that’s why so many people were able to come from Australia without too many problems at the start. As it happens to be Australia is getting involved now, I don’t know this Abbott blokes come in and wants to getting involved with bringing his troops out, of course Australia is going to get involved. Of course Australia at the start wasn;t involved and isn’t involved no-one from here has any problems with anyone from Australia at all – so far that is.

Q: Australian politicians believe Australian fighters are a threat to Australia. Do you think this is correct?

A: I don’t believe that Australians that are here are a threat to Australia at all. Australians that are here are here because of Bashar. Bashar is coming in – he’s killing these people. He’s killing innocents. If Australia is going to come in and support him in any way to kill these innocent people and we say every day they are our brothers and sisters. If he’s going to IN ANY WAY SUPPORT THAT THEN AUSTRALIA HAS SOMETHING TO WORRY ABOUT. They’re aiding someone that is fighting and being a part of terrorizing and destroying these lives. At the moment Australia is not getting involved and Australia has nothing to do with it – if you’ve done nothing wrong  why should you be afraid?

Q: Now you have a coalition happening where Australia might get involved. What is going to be the impact?

A: If Australia does get involved it is obviously going to put a bad taste in the people’s mouths – the hatred that has been here for the last three years that Bashar and his army will be on his people the same hatred  will be on anyone hating him and supporting him. If Australia is going to get involved with its aeroplanes or simply just with its words it’s going to immediately put this feeling in the hearts  of not just the Australians who are here but anyone who is upset to see the sight that we are seeing.

Every day we are seeing the body parts of little kids, you’re seeing women and children getting shredded up. Anyone that is seeing this is going to get upset and is going to have hatred toward anyone who is associated with this tyoe of work. So Australia getting involved, thinking it is stopping the issue is to me in my eyes is going to cause more problems.

That old saying goes keep your friends close but your enemies closer. If Australia does believe Muslims are its enemy you should bring them close to you without pushing them away. So far Australia is a new country. 500 years it hasn’t caused any problems. It did in Iraq a bit but it pulled out and cleaned its face looked we’re all sweet. You hardly have any problems with terrorist attacks. The last thing you want to see is

Aussies. Turn into… It will cause a lot of problems. The first time the Cronulla riots happened it was good because the Government had nothing to do with it – it was civilians against civilians it was good. The Government dealt with it in a couple of days. But once you have the Australian Government coming in and raiding people’s houses with no excuse or starting to put force the same way Bashar started with his country I know that for sure – number one Australians themselves. Once they see these things won’t stand for it….

The true blue Aussie  the one that’s a good bloke. Jack and Bob. They won’t stand for it. They know that Mohammed down the street Mohammed at my work is a top bloke is a good bloke why would they come and do that to them. They’ll stand with him Knowing the Aussies – the ay they are they will actually a huge number will stand side-by-side with them against these new laws. They are unjust. That is one of the good attributes about the Australians, whenever they see something that is unjust they will stand against it.

Q: Do you hate Australia?

A: How can I hate Australia? I haven’t seen anything from Australia to hate Australia. It hasn’t done anything wrong to me. It has stood next to America through its times of causing trouble and that but there is no hatred between me and Australia and home is home. Everyone is going to love their country.

Q: What do you miss?

A: Other than the coco pops. Home and the whole lifestyle there. Work is that good in Australia you wake up and want to go to work. It will be sad to see if Australian troops cause trouble with other countries, which they don’t need to be a part of. America doesn’t need Australia to stand next to it. America is big enough to understand its own dramas. Australia doesn’t have to stand next to America and take all the hatred people have for America and it will rub off on Australia. So Australia has a good name.

Q: If we have American and Australian allies walking into Iraq and Australia – will you fight them?

A: It comes down to how they come in if they come in and they want to stop the fighting. But if they’re go0ing to come in with aeroplanes and shoot missiles and kill innocents. You’re forced to….I don’t see how Australians coming in will help. Help by putting pressure on the Syrian Government to stop. Allow people to come and help. It’s like a bully coming into your house. A bully comes into your house you’re going toi stop him, not excess force, he’s got nothing to do with coming into your house Enough to keep him out and that’s it. If it comes down to it… it’s called self-defence it’s not called terrorism or anything like that.

Q: A lot of people are going to say you’ll be a danger because you’ve been radicalized you’ve experienced war probably learned how to make bombs. Do you accept that as an assessment?

A: I think it’s the opposite after you see the destruction of housing and buildings you hate war. You hate everything about it. You start to appreciate the day you can go to sleep without thinking maybe I should sleep outside. The whole atmosphere of it becomes something you don’t want to see. You don’t want that happening. You want a place of peace.

You don’t want trouble coming to Australia. Which is why I’m sad to see Australia coming to a  place it doesn’t need to be because it will cause a reaction.

Q: Do you regret coming here?

A: My job started with aid. We started handing out aid to refugees. But it didn’t satisfy that you helped the people. So you wanted to go to that next step – next step, you’re coming in even coming in and giving poor people didn’t satisfy you. Until you see a little kid Seven Year old and rockets hit from an aeroplane. Grabbing him rushing him to the hospital whatever he needs. That’s when you feel you’ve done something. It is hard and you think I’d like to be back in safety. You can’t remove that feeling that you might have saved someone’s life.

Q: What’s an average day?

Average day for a fighter is sitting in the sun sun baking…going from that to fighting. That was the hardest. If there was no battle on there was nothing to do. I enjoyed training the brothers with fitness etc. Even though it was hard… it was. Fajar  – Koran lesson etc etc Half an hour jog going back having breakfast 9am leave house go to local hospital 9am to 3pm  do the work – change wounds etc – etc and then come back, you’ll come back.

The group we’re in will do as much as they can. Which is hard, because you don’t know. Coming from Australia and having the Aussie dollar behind you has helped me until now. And it’s been just over a year and a bit that I’ve been here. But is has reached that point tat I think maybe I shouldn’t spend so much here. It is sad because you remember the times you could always give. Now you’re helping with your hands you lose that ability to open your wallet.

Q. What does your family think?

A: Any family would be upset – nobody wants you to go that war torn country. Proud to see their son or husband is helping make a difference for the people.

Q: What will happen when you die?

A: What I hope will happen I hope Allah accepts the good  we have done and blesses us with the reward for the highest paradise, now war no pain no suffering and this is the best. What more could you want? Seeing Allah’s face.

Q: Is this about saving lives or is this about establishing Sharia?

When people (muffled)… it always came down to loving them and the beauty in… A lot of me coming here was for me to help the people for me to make them feel, I think am I better than them. I think I am fortunate to be raised in Australia – are they? That love that causes you to want to help is the same love that wants you to power the world to have Islam because that’s the only thing that is going to prevent the whole world from having any wars is if everyone wants Islam and wants Islam and lets Islam take over their lives.

Q: What about these beheadings?

A: You have these beheadings – some people might call them barbaric. Some people might have all these names for them. What is the difference between a missile that comes into a house which kills 15 kids compared to a man dying getting cut by his throat. That missile whether it is America or Bashar in the end it is causing the same death – in the end death is death.

Islam is supposed to stand for justice – yes death is the same – people are going to not accept it as the same. Why should they bear the sin of the crime of the bombings?–

There is no answer that is going to satisfy the person – but you look at history when Australia first started, it’s a new country – when Australia first started.  How many people did it have to kill to make its state:? It went through not just hundreds but hundreds of thousands to rise up and say we’re a state. We want this land, we’ve taken this land – we’re a state. No-one is really standing next to the Syrians in this country. No-one is standing next to the Syrians. So you have this body whether its ISIS that have taken this role of protecting the innocent Muslims of this land so they have to do what they need to do to have this Islamic State – they have the power, if they’r eblackmailing America don’t shoot a missile – for one bloke. How can we say that’s even equivalent to it being a wrong.

The guys, they’re going to send ho many planes for one person dying. One beheading whether its 50 or 100. It’s not even equivalent. There hasn’t been one state. Let America how much people it has to kill before it could say United States of America. How much people Australia killed. Once ISIS have reached that limit then start counting themn for every person they’ve killed to build their state. Hasn’t even been one or two perscent just to call Australia Australia.

Q: Why specifically with this battalion?

There was a process when you took up the gun – a training camp, what was that process. At that stage, I got injured. Five months not being able to work it was Jund al-Aqsa that picked me up fixed me up  – more of a strategic pull out as we pulled out.

The Ansar al-Sham Battalions


Islamist brigades have grown exponentially in Syria’s rebel ranks over the past three years, partly due to the decline of the mainstream groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In northwestern Syria, one of these ascendant Islamist factions is a group that analysts know very little about but that now helps shape the crucial battles in Syria’s coastal region: the Ansar al-Sham Battalions.

Ansar al-Sham, whose name translates in English to “Helpers of the Levant,” is mostly active in the Latakia and Idlib Provinces in Syria’s north, where I recently traveled to report on and study the Syrian uprising. It is clear that the group has grown in strength over the last three years. It has allied itself with other Islamist groups in the so-called Islamic Front, a major coalition announced in November 2013 that is now embroiled in heavy fighting against the jihadi faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Having successfully adapted to the shifting tides of rebel politics, Ansar al-Sham now seems set to benefit further from the ISIL being pushed back.


According to Aron Lund’s paper, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front, Ansar al-Sham formed out of eleven core battalions. Since Lund’s report was published in March 2013, its numbers have grown to over 2,500 men, according to Abu Mohammed, who leads the al-Zahir Baybars Battalion, which is a subfaction of Ansar al-Sham.

When traveling in the rebel-held areas of northern Latakia, I was able to see that Ansar al-Sham plays a crucial role in aid delivery in the areas where it dominates. The group has been catering to internally displaced persons, and it seems to have supplanted the international aid organizations in delivering humanitarian relief to some of these areas. White tents with the Ansar al-Sham logo prominently displayed are on show in the fields of northern Latakia.

Interestingly, the group also highlights its aid work in its propaganda, such as on its YouTube channel, to an even greater extent than its battles with the regime. It is as if the organization is following a strategy similar to the classic Muslim Brotherhood doctrine, seeking to win the population over through social work.


The founder of Ansar al-Sham has so far been unknown. Many analysts have tried to point to to the London-based Salafi preacher known as Abu Basir al-Tartousi, since there are YouTube clips of him together with the group. But Abu Basir has denied being the leader of Ansar al-Sham and says he works with many groups.

Abu Mohammed, the Ansar al-Sham subcommander, told me that the group was originally founded by a man from Latakia City called Abu Omar. Abu Omar is an adherent to Salafi Islamist doctrine and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who returned to his native city to take over the family sweetshop. Other sources confirm this: Salam Abdelkarim, who is the Latakia correspondent for the pro-opposition Shaam News Network and himself a native of Latakia, also knows of Abu Omar and says he was admired by the local Sunni boys because he refused to be intimidated by the regime and stuck to his religious convictions.

The sweetshop owner, though, is not the military strategist. Abu Omar seems more involved in providing guidance and funds, and there appears to be a close link between Saudi Arabia and Ansar al-Sham when it comes to the aid work. Military strategy instead falls to a Chechen member of Ansar al-Sham known as Abu Musa al-Shishani, who is wary of the limelight.

Despite the Chechen’s presence in its leadership, Ansar al-Sham remains overwhelmingly Syrian, consisting of a mixture of local army defectors, shopkeepers, workers, farmers, and artisans. While the group is not averse to foreign fighters, I have visited a number of local battalions attached to Ansar al-Sham and didn’t come across a single foreigner. According to Abu Jihad, second in command to Abu Mohammed in the al-Zahir Baybars Battalion, the fighters of Ansar al-Sham are organized in a military register (diwan) and each is paid a salary of $60 per month. Relative to what a Syrian citizen would earn doing national service, that is an acceptable income.


Politically, Ansar al-Sham wants a Sunni Islamic state within Syria’s borders and rejects secularism. The group has managed to straddle the ideological fault lines of the uprising, even as Latakia became the scene of conflict between FSA factions and radical jihadis. In summer 2013, a group of ISIL members led by the Iraqi jihadi known as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi killed the rival FSA commander Abu Basir al-Ladhiqani, a member of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, raising ISIL-FSA tension throughout Syria.

According to one of its commanders, called Abul Harith, Ansar al-Sham does not work with the FSA. But neither does it fight the FSA, and Ansar al-Sham has in fact forged local alliances with FSA commanders such as Abu Basir al-Ladhiqani, even though its members grumbled about his conciliatory policy toward the Alawites and perceived hubris.

Most Ansar al-Sham commanders that I interviewed clearly condemned the ISIL’s Abu Ayman al-Iraqi for killing Abu Basir al-Ladhiqani. Yet, on the ground at least, Ansar al-Sham did not break ties with the ISIL completely, despite considerable tension between them—partly, one suspects, because many of the ISIL’s members in northern Latakia were local Syrian boys who are connected to Ansar al-Sham members through family and social ties.

From the numerous interviews I did with its members, it is clear that many Ansar Sham commanders and fighters support the approach of the al-Qaeda–aligned faction known as the Nusra Front, which has decided to focus on removing Assad before building an Islamic state. The group has also had good relations with smaller jihadi factions, like the Ansar al-Mujahedin Battalion led by Sheikh Suqor or the Sham al-Islam Movement led by Abu Ahmed al-Maghrebi, which has a large North African contingent.


Moreover, the vagueness of Ansar al-Sham’s religious ideology makes it attractive to religiously conservative Sunni Syrians, including wealthy funders of the rebellion. Its close ties with members of Syria’s Sunni religious class, like Dr. Khaled Kendo, and the fact that its commanders do not actively embark on a program of religious indoctrination means that Ansar al-Sham is able to absorb Sunni Muslims of all persuasions. The group delivers religious lectures, but these are held by local clerics in touch with the community. Abu Mohammed and his battalion, which used to belong to the FSA network, is a good example of how Ansar al-Sham recruits. Abu Mohammed admits that he wanted to join Ansar al-Sham partly due to a lack of funding but also because of his own religious evolution. He met with Abu Omar, whose vision of Islam he deemed to be “more correct.” A decision to join Ansar al-Sham was then made by Abu Mohammed and his second-in-command, Abu Jihad, and their fighting men acquiesced.

The way in which Ansar al-Sham has played its cards and its presence in the important coastal region suggests that if the Islamic Front alliance manages to regain its footing after the infighting with the ISIL has ended, this medium-sized Islamist group could go on to play a larger role both in rebel politics and the Syrian civil war.

This piece was first posted on Syrian in Crisis blog here

A Brotherhood Vision for Syria

Ali al-Bayanouni photo Tam Hussein
Ali al-Bayanouni photo Tam Hussein

In Syria, Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have gradually emerged as one of the main threats to the survival of the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Ironically, however, the presence of thousands of jihadists—always talked up by the pro-Assad media—has also provided the struggling Syrian government with a card to play. The willingness of Western governments to become more actively involved in the Syrian conflict in support of the rebels, particularly through the supply of lethal weapons, suffered a setback due to the mere possibility of those weapons falling into the hands of jihadist groups.

The spectrum of violent Islamism has long offered the Ba’ath Party a narrative through which Syria’s governing party has justified its legitimacy. Among other Islamist groups based in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has historically been the focus of the regime’s oppression. “We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s, and we are still fighting with them,” said the current president of Syria after the initial protests in Deraa. Most notably, a six-year-long uprising against the government of Hafez Al-Assad, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, was brutally crushed in 1982 in the western city of Hama.

Despite the brutality of the Syrian civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood has again become one of the main players on the ground, after years operating underground. The Majalla spoke with Ali Sadreddine Al-Bayanouni, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood from 1996 to 2010. Born into a pedigreed family of religious scholars in Aleppo, he became interested in the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of sixteen. He was encouraged to take part in the group by his father, Sheikh Ahmed Izzedin Al-Bayanouni. While his father preferred Sufism and the duties of running a mosque, the young Bayanouni soon began his political activities in earnest.

In 1979—during the Islamist insurgency in Syria—Bayanouni’s family were targeted by the government and then sent into exile. Nevertheless, he is a tenacious man who has secretly entered Syria several times. From 1980 onwards he lived in exile in Jordan, pursuing his political activities. But the Hashemite Kingdom’s relationship with Syria gradually improved, and in 2000 Bayanouni was informed during a visit to the UK that he could not return to Jordan. Consequently, he sought refuge in the UK and now resides in London.

What is your analysis of the current situation in Syria?

I am optimistic. It is natural that after fifty years of this oppressive regime, it’s not going to be easy. The regime’s violence and the Hama massacre have left a scar on the minds of many. No one could have imagined that there would be a revolution in Syria, but it happened. Syria, in many ways, has more of a right to revolt than Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. That it is taking so long is also natural. What is unnatural is that the international community has been so patient with the Assad regime, when it was not with Gaddafi or Ben Ali. Why?

Q: Don’t you think that the reason the West doesn’t want to get involved is because it is scared that Syria will turn into another Iraq?

The situation in Syria is different from Iraq. Rather, the international community does not want the revolution to succeed. They want to exhaust the people of Syria and the regime until the two are forced to come to a political solution; this political solution will be based on the regime being in place, but it has different faces.

Q: What do you think of the position of the US and Britain?

They are not with the Syrian people. It has become a case of self-interest, and when the [Assad] regime handed over their chemicals they abandoned the Syrian people because this regime serves the security of Israel. No one cares about the Syrian people.

Q: What is your position on the Islamist brigades and the Free Syrian Army brigades?

Our position is to help the people of Syria and all the brigades against the regime, irrespective of creed or ideology. But we do not accept Takfirists [those who deem other Muslims apostates], nor do we accept foreigners coming and enforcing their vision on the Syrian people.

Q: So do you agree with Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who called on Sunnis with military experience to go and fight?

We don’t object to that, but it is not for them to interfere in Syria’s destiny. The Syrian people know best what is needed for their future. Syrians do not need foreign fighters, but if they come to help they are welcome as long as they don’t come to decide Syria’s future.

Q: Should we be scared of brigades like Ahrar Al-Sham or the Al-Nusra Front and others?

The truth is that this is not about religious hardliners, but about the Islamic character of the revolution. That scares a lot of people. Many do not want Islam’s ascendancy in Syria, and this is why they want to exhaust all sides: so there can be a political solution. I believe there is no fear of extremism, because Syrians are moderate by nature and if there is extremism they are a small minority.

Q: If the regime falls, will the Syrian Brotherhood not find itself in a similar situation to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood?

Certainly, there are attempts at counter-revolution in Egypt and Tunisia and other places. But I believe that Syrians are capable of realizing their aspirations democratically.

Q: You don’t envisage Syria turning into a scenario similar to Libya, with a multitude of brigades claiming to be the protectors of the revolution?

It is possible. There will be many threats because the regime killed any form of political life in Syria over the last fifty years. The presence of extremists has also created this situation; however, the Syrian people are able to overcome these challenges and realize their democratic ambitions.

Q: Many Islamist brigades do not recognize a democratic Syria. How is the Syrian Brotherhood, who claim to believe in democracy, going to convince them?

We have the political experience to deal with this vacuum. Most moderate Syrians will accept democracy because it is a tool to choose, remove or appoint a leader. This does not contradict Islamic governance and exists within Islamic tradition [since] the time of the Prophet.

Q: You have established a new party, the Syrian Waad Party. What is the thinking behind it?

We did not establish it, we cooperated with other groups—Islamic and non-Islamic ones—the only condition being that all accept that Islam is the source.

Q: Why is your new party different? Some argue that these are just cosmetic changes to the same policy.

This is not like Freedom and Justice Party [which is considered the Egyptian political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood], rather, we are a part of a new party. We are cooperating with others. We have a third [of the membership], other Islamists have a third and the rest will have a third. The latter could be secularists, Alawites, Christians and so on. This is what the party consists of. We believe that our politics can be best expressed through this party, and if it doesn’t work for our members we can always leave. You cannot judge this new experiment with the past, because there is no precedent for it.

Q: With regards to the Syrian Brotherhood’s vision, many Christians fear that it will not be inclusive of Christian sensibilities. How do you counter that?

We have good relations with Christians and others. We have lived side by side in coexistence and understanding with our Christian brethren. Sheikh Mustafa Sibai [one of the Syrian Brotherhood’s founders] used to have excellent relations with Faris Al-Khoury [former Syrian-Christian Prime Minister] and supported his candidacy. In the past, we have worked with Christian candidates under one banner. The minorities have never been threatened [by us], it is the regime that has created sectarianism for its political ends. Christians and Muslims are citizens, and this is an Islamic principle. All citizens are equal in terms of their rights and duties.

Q: Is it possible for a Christian to be leader of this new party?

Yes, this is possible if they are elected. Currently we have a Christian vice-president.

Q: The fighters on the ground in Syria have dismissed many of the opposition groups outside the country as not really representing their interests. What are your thoughts on this?

It is absolutely right for those on the ground to say that the opposition outside do not represent them. We [the Syrian Brotherhood] don’t claim that. We support the revolution and cooperate with the opposition, but it is not possible to dismiss the opposition outside as it is not possible to belittle the revolutionaries who are sacrificing their blood and lives. Our role is to support the revolution with whatever they need.

Q: Do you have your own brigades?

There are no Muslim Brotherhood brigades. However, there are people who are fighting in brigades who share our ideas. We do support and prefer brigades that are moderate and share our views.

Q: Should the government eventually be overthrown, there is fear that there will be another civil war in Syria. What are your thoughts on this?

This is a real fear, and the longer the conflict continues the greater the risk becomes. But the majority of the revolutionaries are ready to surrender their weapons once the revolution is over. There will be a small minority who will resist this, but I believe their reluctance will not be hard to overcome.

Q: What is your opinion of Turkey’s role in Syria?

Turkey has been the most supportive, both materially and morally, in the revolution. They continue to support the revolution without an agenda. They have suffered difficulties inside their own borders as a result, but they continue to help Syria. They recognize the danger of this regime remaining, and have tried in the past to encourage Assad to join the democratization process, but to no avail.

Q: Could you comment on the Kurdish situation in Syria?

Kurds have a right to express their identity through their language and culture, and they should have complete rights, like other Syrians. However, we will not accept the demand of extremist Kurdish nationalists who wish to split Syria up. As for any other issues pertaining to Kurdish rights, we will address them, but always within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity.

Q: Has Hassan Rouhani’s ascendancy to the presidency of Iran affected things in Syria?

There is no change in the policy of Iran, [Iranian fighters] continue to fight with the Syrian regime [who support] them with weapons and wealth and brigades. [Iran] prefers its strategic needs over the Syrian people.

Q: Some analysts believe Hezbollah is compelled to fight because they are dependent on Iran. Can there ever be re-engagement between the Syrian Brotherhood and Hezbollah as fellow Islamists?

In the past there were no issues between us and them, when they directed their resistance against [Israel]. Syrians supported them in 2006 and opened up their doors and homes to Hezbollah, whether they were Shi’a or non-Shi’a. But when resistance turns within Lebanon and Syria into a sectarian weapon, [Hezbollah] becomes like an enemy.

Q: Some religious scholars say that you shouldn’t use Islam in politics, What do you say to that?

No-one has a monopoly on religious expression in Islam. There is no such thing as political Islam. Islam is Islam. In Islam there is politics, society, economics, inheritance and other things. Islam is a complete system. If you want politics without Islam, you will have something without ethics. We believe that Islam concerns itself with life—and that includes politics. This is why a separation of religion from state is impossible.

Q: What have you learned from failure of the Arab spring in Egypt?

The attempt to scupper the revolution [in Syria] has many reasons [behind it]. The rulers are scared of the people. They show the destruction of Syria to their people and say, ‘Woe to you if you revolt.’ The secularist rulers scare the people with fear of terrorism. They don’t want Islam to establish itself, and that is why they are fear-mongering and trying to make this revolution fail. But Islam is coming to Syria.

Q: Do you understand why the West is not keen on the Islamic movement?

The West has begun to realize that moderate Islam can actually prevent extremism. It is impossible to ignore the power of Islam in the Syrian revolution. It is a reality. I believe that in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the strength of the revolutionaries was Islam. The West will work with reality

This article was first published in the Majalla

Why I Became Persona Non Grata in Tunisia


‘Free to live it all’ says the advert by the Tunisian tourist board on a London black cab. I used to think that, after the Jasmine revolution, this was more or less true. But after my last experience I have had to reassess that opinion. Tunisia’s democratic project has kept me interested precisely because I have been at the receiving end of Middle Eastern police states. I have spent a significant period of time in this small country on the Mediterranean and written many an article about it. However, my work surprisingly hit a nerve. It seems I went beyond acceptable criticism and annoyed the interior ministry so much that I, an insignificant hack, became a security threat to the country.

I need to give some background here. Several months ago I did some field research on the state of poverty, health, education and agriculture in the governorate of Kairouan. I did not rely on the accounts of the sons and daughters of the ancien régime or on Paris-educated stringers. My research was based on salt of the earth interviews. I had to do field research because official statistics were unreliable and could have been massaged by the previous regime. As a result, I am probably the West’s foremost expert on the Kairouan governorate, simply because no-one cares about this part of Tunisia. The testimonies and photographs I took revealed a nuanced Tunisia that is extremely politicized.

What becomes clear is that the revolution may have decapitated the head of state but, because it was a relatively peaceful transition, government structures survived unscathed. This meant that the old order remained and is desperately trying to hold on to power while the new order wants to realize its revolutionary ideals. This is not a particularly radical theory; that is just how the laws of history work.

One of the remnants of the old order is the security services controlled by the ministry of interior. They operate under the remit of keeping the nation safe. But the truth is that anyone who bypasses officialdom becomes a threat. My work required me to speak to those who lived in hovels, not bureaucrats or those tortured by the previous regime.

The interior ministry didn’t like the fact that I spoke to Salafists, and to Ansar Sharia supporters who accused the former of stoking up fear of terrorism. I spoke to people like Murad, an activist who had suffered 12 years of back-breaking hard labour. I visited dusty settlements that had not seen a government official since the floods of 1997, when military helicopters dropped off some food. I took snaps of abandoned homes that fell victim to the greed of the clan of Ben Ali, the ousted President. I spoke to a woman who complained about Ben Ali’s family members who sold the local hospitals bad meat and suffered the consequences of whistleblowing. I spoke to government employees who admitted that the previous regime had poured perfume in to the sewers and planted palm trees for a Ben Ali visit and then abandoned a UNESCO world heritage site to its fate, taking the palm trees with them. I met women who lived on $80 a month and families which had lost children because it was either rent or medicine. I went inside insect-filled sheds and goat pens that served as homes. I spoke to brilliant Tunisian girls whose hopes had been dashed because of a local government that didn’t care. I spoke to doctors and medics who begged me to get this information out there to put pressure on the powers that be.

Tunisia was not what it seemed, they kept on saying. The old order wanted to sabotage the revolution. I didn’t write the sanitized report that the local security services and potentates who ran the governorate like a fiefdom wanted me to write. That was the real problem.

Consequently, on the pretext of an old Ben Ali law which stated that all foreign journalists had to be supervised, they worked a two-man shift on me for a month, 24 hours a day. According to a source I knew inside the interior ministry they wrote half a dozen or so reports on me, tapped my phone, followed me, rifled through my things and apparently tried to intimidate me. But unless he’s hitting you in the ribs it is hard to be frightened of fat men with tartar teeth or mustachios who don’t use deodorant. This is probably why the reports described me as arrogant, not giving the secret services due deference. I left the governorate happy that this wealth of information would lead to effective aid delivery. But that was not to be.

When I returned to Tunisia with a health consultant who would do a more in-depth needs-analysis on the governorate, I was flagged up in passport control. It was under the pretext of security. The men in cheap grey suits and jackets took my passport away. Apparently there had been some explosions a few days ago and coincidentally a guy with the same surname and country of origin had been behind it. An agent who was meant to be inconspicuous sat next to me, smoking, listening and said in English: ‘I don’t understand English.’

Agents tried to unsettle me using classic police-state tactics. ‘You look like a good man, this is just between you and me, we are just following orders, what do you think you have done?’ Another might say, ‘you see that man over there? He’s been here for five days.’ And then a bit of Orwellian indoctrination: ‘Ah, you know, people regret the revolution these days because of the way things are going. They want to feel safer like in the past.’ In the end they detained me without bashing my head in like in the days of Ben Ali. They didn’t tell me why I was being detained, nor did they allow me to respond. As they escorted me to the plane that would return me to London they proffered sugary hypocrisy ‘marhaban bik, marhaban bik’ – welcome, welcome. ‘Get in touch with the embassy and clear it all up. See you soon.’

Back at Heathrow airport I was met by a Tunisian official asking me what I had done that had caused such a security stir in his country. ‘You tell me,’ I countered. ‘I just wrote a few pieces on poverty…’ Before I could even finish, he said, ‘that’s it’. He knew why I had been sent back. He sighed stoically and handed over my passport as if this was completely normal in Tunisian democracy.

This article was first published in the New Internationalist