Bilad al-Sham: Jihad’s Newest Hot Spot
By: Radwan Mortada
Published Monday, August 6, 2012
Syria has become a magnet for the world’s jihadis.
It has been attracting them since the start of the crisis, lured by what many believe to be a divine promise that jihad in Bilad al-Sham, Greater Syria, will set the stage for the emergence of the true Islamic state.
With victory and the downfall of the regime thus pre-ordained, jihadis from far and wide have been heeding the call.
According to jihadi sources, the fighters currently operating in Syria include Jordanians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Tunisians, Libyans, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as Muslims from non-Arab countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The biggest single contingent of foreign fighters is said to be composed of Lebanese, Jordanian, Iraqi and Palestinians who had previously fought against US forces in Iraq.
But while all Islamist fighters rally under the same banner, they are divided among many factions and schools of thoughts.
Some – such as al-Qaeda’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the Jabhat al-Nusra li-Bilad al-Sham (Support Front for the Land of Syria) inspired by Mauritanian cleric Abul-Munther al-Shanqiti, and the Doura Fighting Group – espouse hardline takfiri ideology.
All three draw inspiration from a 200-page tract called The Return of Salaheddin, and see themselves as following in the footsteps Saleheddin al-Ayyoubi, the 12th Century commander who defeated the Crusaders in Jerusalem. They maintain that the latter-day liberation of Jerusalem requires the prior “purification” of its hinterland, and that they have a religious obligation to perform this task. This means ridding Greater Syria of apostates – i.e. expelling or eliminating all Shia Muslims and Christians.
These extremist groups tend to have more combat experience than the others, and reports indicate that they are bracing for what they expect to be a major decisive battle.
Some foreign jihadi factions are less doctrinally hardline, such as the Liwaa al-Umma (Banner of the Nation) Brigade which was formed by Libyan jihadists. It too holds that every Muslim has a pressing religious obligation to fight to liberate Syrian from “the tyrant” and establish “right-guided Islamic rule” in the country. However, it subscribes to Islamic rules of warfare, which include not targeting non-combatants, carrying out reprisals against innocents, or harming property or possessions.
The group is headed by two former commanders of the Tripoli Brigade during the Libyan revolution, sheikhs Mahdi al-Harati and Abdul Hakim al-Misri. Harati is also a citizen of Ireland, where he is Imam of the al-Noor mosque and established a school of teaching the Quran and an Islamic foundation. He was also a passenger on the 2010 Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, and was detained in an Israel jail.
Another main Syrian Islamist armed organization is the Suqour al-Sham (Hawks of Syria) Brigade, led by Ahmad al-Sheikh, known as Abu-Issam, a native of the village of Sireh. This group is said to consist of more than 50 fighting units active in the provinces of Idlib, Rif Dimashq, Latakia and Hama, and particularly in Jabal al-Zawiya, Khan Sheikhoun, rural areas east and west of al-Maarah, Saraqeb, the town of Idlib, and Sarmin. These formations include: the Mohammad al-Khalaf Brigade; the Daoud Brigade led by Hassan al-Aboud; the Ansar al-Haq Brigade led by Rashid Abu-Abdu; The Dhi Qar Brigade headed by Abdul Aziz bin-Wassam; the al-Muhajerin wal-Asar Brigade, whose leader is known as Abu-Musaab; the al-Khansa Brigade, headed by an Abu Shayma; and the Martyr Mohammad al-Abdallah Brigade, commanded by Nidal al-Hajj Ali.
Also prominent is the al-Ansar Brigade, which was established by Abu-Ali al-Ansari, a former member of the Fatah al-Islam group in Lebanon, who reportedly went to Syria after escaping from jail, and died fighting in Homs. This group and others interpret certain passages of the hadeeth – sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammad – about the need to fight injustice as applying to present-day Syria. They see victory as inevitable, now that the revolutionaries have “turned to God,” provided they perform their duty of carrying out jihad.
Similar views are held by the Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami Brigade, based in the countryside near al-Boukamal close to the Iraqi border, whose Salafi jihadi followers are taught that the Prophet foretold current events in Syria.
In Homs, a total of 23 jihadi fighting groups are estimated to be active, under the auspices of the Homs Military Council. This is led by a Majlis al-Shura, a consultative council consisting of five clerics who provide both religious guidance and practical leadership. It is considered the most powerful body in Homs, with the power to make war or peace.
Military affairs in Homs are run by a 16-member committee of brigade commanders, which oversees the deployment of fighters, the provision of arms and ammunition, and inducting new volunteers, army defectors or Arab fighters into the ranks of the revolution.
A civil council meanwhile takes charge of securing food, medical supplies and shelter, both for fighters and civilians in rebel-controlled areas.
The biggest of the fighting groups in Homs is the Farouk Brigade, consisting of 16 separate battalions under a general commander – currently known as Abu-Sufyan – chosen by the Majlis al-Shura.
The next largest is the Khalid Ibn al-Waleed Brigade, which takes its political lead from the Muslim Brotherhood and is thought to have around 1,200 fighters, some of them from other Arab countries, including Libyans and Tunisians. Details of the group’s structure are unclear, but its main power-base is in the town of al-Rastan, and it is commanded by a former army captain Ahmad al-Deek. In addition to Homs, the group is active in al-Qusayr and Tal-Kalakh.
Other Islamist militias in Homs include the Abadelah, Omar Ibn-al-Khattab, al-Ahrar, Haraer Homs, and al-Mujahideen battalions. The latter is a secretive outfit said to consist of 53 experienced fighters, all of them veterans of the war in Iraq, led by a man referred to as Abdul-Lateef.
Leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), including its commander Riyadh al-Asaad, have been strenuously denying that jihadi groups have been fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda in the current battles in Aleppo. When confronted with documentary evidence from the Arab world Western media, they tend to play down their numbers or dismiss them as irrelevant.
One FSA commander also maintained that heavy weaponry used by the rebels in recent fighting, including tanks, armored vehicles and artillery was all seized from the Syrian army. But he denied reports that rebel fighters had been supplied with anti-aircraft missiles, charging that such claims were “an excuse by the regime to bomb us with Mig-23s.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.