By Waleed Rikab for Syria Comment*
Abdallah al-Muhaysini came to Syria in 2013 to partake in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. He presents a unique case of the outsized role a single person can play in the lawless world of the Syrian rebellion. He has positioned himself at the center of radical jihadist politics, fund raising, and legal opinion.
Al-Muhaysini hails from the al-Qassim region in Saudi Arabia. Prior to his arrival to Syria, he completed his MA and PhD studies in Islamic Jurisprudence in the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, with a dissertation on “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in Islamic Jurisprudence.” A self-professed Salafi jihadist scholar, al-Muhaysini is often seen on the battlefields of northern Syria together with various Islamist factions, prominent among whom are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in addition to other factions affiliated with the Jaish al-Fateh coalition. He has set up institutions that provide military and financial aid to jihadist groups, and runs a proselytization (Dawah) center (named “The Jihad’s Callers Center“) in Idlib Province.
Al-Mushaysini holds the title General Judge of Jaish al-Fateh. He is highly revered in the jihadi-Salafi landscape (notwithstanding Islamic State adherents), embracing a leading role in the warfare – most recently in the Jabha al-Nusra takeover, together with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) of the Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base and in the Jaish al-Fatah battles for control over al-Fuah this month (September 2015). During clashes in the last year, he was documented delivering inflammatory speeches to the troops and bestowing religious blessing upon suicide bombers before embarking on their missions.
A picture of his activities since arriving to Syria two years ago reveals a person immersed in all aspects of the effort to establish Islamist rule in Syria, currently developed mainly in the Idlib Province, but also spreading to other regions (as demonstrated in the creation of Jaish al-Fateh – Qalamoun and Jaish al-Fateh – the southern region). His main activities are:
- The highly successful Jahed bi-Malak (wage jihad with your money) enterprise that operates with the declared aim of collecting donations to arm mujahedeen groups in Syria. In May 2015, he claimed that the Idlib campaign needed US$ 5 million that the rebels were able to secure.
- The aforementioned Jihad’s Callers Center that has been steadily developing in Idlib Province and now boasts branches in many towns and villages.
- Active participation in all major military campaigns in northern Syria in the last year, such as the takeover of Idlib city and Jisr al-Sughour in March-April 2015, and Wadi al-Dief in December 2014. During the Idlib city campaign, al-Muhaisni was documented surviving a rocket attack. Al-Muhaysini is also involved in the sanctioning and enlisting of recruits for martyrdom operations.
A glimpse into the ideology espoused by al-Muhaysini was revealed through his role in the reported summary execution of Syrian Army soldiers and officers following JN’s capture of Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base. Al-Muhaysini gave a speech while standing alongside the blindfolded captives: “These are only some of the prisoners that were captured by the Mujahideen…they claim to be Sunnah. I don’t like to call them Sunnah. They were once Sunnah but became murtadin (apostatized) once they enlisted in the Nusairi (a derogatory term for Alawites) regime…Oh mothers of (Syrian Army) soldiers, either you see your sons like this and then you see them killed, or you force them to desert this army…the battle is between the Sunnah and the Nusairis and Rafida (derogatory term for Shiites) so why would you involve your sons in this carnage?…No doubt, whomsoever sheds blood, his blood shall also be shed.”
Indeed, validating al-Muhaysini’s words, several days later it was reported that JN had executed 65 soldiers and officers at the air base, with images being circulated on social media of the captives standing on the tarmac before their execution.
Photos confirming the mass killings surfaced on social media, but were not officially published by JN. The fact that there was no formal documentation of the aftermath of the mass killing, at odds with the large volume of JN and TIP publications regarding the capture of the air base, may stem from JN media strategy, which tries to distance itself from the negative image of the Islamic State and its affinity for gore. It is also in line with guidelines given by al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who instructed the group not to alienate the local population. On a separate note, these guidelines also explain the successful cooperation between JN and other Islamist factions, as opposed to the Islamic State.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s operation at Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base, the overall success of the Idlib campaign, the co-optation with the TIP and the recent pledge of allegiance by Jaish al-Muhajiroun wal Ansar, are all signs that JN continues to enjoy momentum in Syria. It is able to generate the appeal and success needed to further consolidate its hold over regions in Syria that are all but an unprecedented base of operations for AQ since Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks.
Al-Muhaysini propagates hardline Salafist concepts through the Dawah initiatives of the Jihad’s Callers Center in areas held by Islamist rebels in northern Syria. This enterprise promotes a militant worldview among residents of Idlib Province, and is expected to provide an inventory of future recruits to Islamist groups, as is already demonstrated in this video, where al-Muhaysini personally trains children on his version of jihad. The maintenance and expansion of these Dawah centers requires substantial funding, apparently provided by al-Muhaysini. Furthermore, an article by Jordanian cleric Eyad Qunibi that appeared in a magazine published by the center titled Jihadi Reflections leaves no doubt as to the goal of the Dawah activities conducted by the center in Syria – to shape a state of affairs in which a Sharia-ruled Syria will be perceived as the only option by the Syrian population, without democratic elections.
Al-Muhaysini’s activities are crucial to ascertain the degree to which Ahrar al-Sham (and Jaish al-Fateh in general) and JN differ in their orientation and plans for Syria. Al-Muhaysini seems to play a crucial role in aiding both, providing financial aid and religious guise to their operations. Furthermore, his presence in both JN and Jaish al-Fateh operations, and his official role in Jaish al-Fateh, are proof of the persisting links between the two fighting forces.
The Jaish al-Fateh push toward the Alawite heartlands on the coast may be one reason why Russia jump into Syria to support its ally. If unchecked, al-Muhaysini will continue to help entrench Islamist groups in Syria and radicalize Sunni rebels. Finally, if al-Muhaysini’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian population succeed, it will surely complicate U.S. efforts to promote a democratic post-Assad Syria, due to his rejection of democracy in favor of Sharia governance.
* Waleed Rikab heads the Strategic Research Department at Terrogence, a privately-owned counter-terrorism company.