The mufti of the Syrian opposition

A rebel fighter takes aim at the location of pro-regime fighters, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on March 3, 2014. (Photo: AFP-AMC/Mahmud Abdel Rahman)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Since the start of the Syrian crisis, Abu Basir al-Tartousi played the role of the opposition’s mufti - issuing a number of religious edicts on how the uprising in Syria should take shape. Even though they might not have heard of him before, many protesters who took part in the demonstrations were following his edicts. A jihadi source told Al-Akhbar that “the opposition’s elite seized upon his edicts and through them they guided the masses.”

This is the biography of Tartousi who is considered “a member of one of the first generations of the mujahideen.”

At a time when the political and armed opposition have seen the rise and fall of so many figures, al-Tartousi has been a constant presence from the early days that had peaceful protests all the way to the jihadi phase. Although his name is not often mentioned in the media in connection with the Syrian crisis, his religious edicts have an undeniable strong presence, earning him the title of the opposition’s mufti.

His real name is Abdel Moneim Mustafa Halima. He was born in the coastal Syrian city of Tartus on October 3, 1959. “He was raised in a Salafi family,” according to a jihadi source and was always proud of the jihadi ideology that accompanied him since his childhood. Eventually he married a Palestinian woman and has four children from her.

Abu Basir was an active participant in the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in Syria that reached its peak in the 1980s. He was detained in 1976 at the age of 17 for four months on charges of writing jihadi graffiti on the walls of Tartus. At the time, he was in direct contact with some of the most well known jihadis, especially Adnan Akla. By 1980, he had become one of the jihadis who chose to flee to Jordan, which played at the time a role similar to that of Turkey in the current crisis.

Jordan was only a temporary stop for Abu Basir. From there he moved to Iraq, then Pakistan and finally Afghanistan in 1981. It is reported that he was “the first Arab jihadi there.” He met Abdullah Azzam in Peshawar and accompanied him on one of his jihadi trips to Afghanistan.

He also met Sheikh Jamil al-Rahman al-Afghani, one of the most prominent jihadi leaders at the time. Abu Basir wrote in one of his books that focused on his time in Afghanistan: “I stayed with him in his own home, working with him and his group for a period of over five months. I also had the honor of joining military fronts that were under the sheikh’s command.”

In the mid 1980s, he returned to Jordan. In 1987, he became Abu Musab al-Zarkawi’s neighbor in al-Maasoum neighborhood in al-Zarka in Jordan. He wrote in one of his books: “Abu Musab’s house was a few meters away from my house. At the beginning of his religious commitment, he became close to me and found recourse in some of my books and he would seek my advice on many issues.”

He published in Jordan several books before he was asked by the Jordanian intelligence to stop publishing any more books before running them by the intelligence agencies. But contrary to these instructions, he published a book entitled Rules of Apostasy, which resulted in his deportation.

After his deportation from Jordan, he chose to go to Yemen where he lived for about three years before getting arrested and deported. Next he headed to Malaysia where he lived illegally for several months and from there he went to Thailand and then Britain. According to a jihadi source, Abu Basir described Britain as “a country of infidels where he found freedom to preach Islam, a right he was denied in Muslim countries because of their infidel rulers.” In April 2012, he joined the fighting in Syria.

Abu Basir did not waiting for the Syrian crisis to write and theorize about jihad. Many jihadi movements, including ones that were active in Algeria and Somalia, already considered him a religious guide and he even issued religious edicts supporting the Taliban.

The uprising’s compass

From the start of the Syrian crisis, Abu Basir’s edicts were ready. They are the source of many of the practices that were adopted by the opposition. He has used several platforms to launch his edicts. First, his website that he set up during his stay in Britain. Then the Facebook page, the Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime, which he opened on March 20, 2011 and served as its admin. And a closed Facebook group whose members are among those “active in the the protest movement.”

Abu Basir was one of the first people to consecrate a sectarian discourse. He issued an edict in late March 2011, days after the protests began, arguing that “what mostly threatens the sectarian Qarmat (a ninth century Shia religious group) Syrian regime and accelerates its collapse is to diligently point out its sectarianism.”

From the beginning, he announced that “the goal of the Syrian revolution is the downfall of three regimes, the sectarian Syrian regime, the rafida (a derogatory term for Shia Muslims) Iranian regime and its influence in Syria and the region ,and Hezbollah, the Lebanese rafida party.” Basir has been attacking Hezbollah since 2003 and it was within this context, that he propagated his famous claim that “ Hezbollah is taking part in killing Syrian protesters.”

He also issued a decree stating that “Syrians should abstain from paying taxes and bills until the regime falls.” He also called for the suspension of education in Syria issuing his motto “No schooling and no education before toppling the president.”

The godfather of the coordination committees and the Free Syrian Army

Few people know that Abu Basir was behind the idea of forming the revolution’s local coordination committees. He suggested forming committees “in cities and villages... that are independent and whose fate and decisions are not determined by one person or one political party.” In addition, he was a strong proponent of the idea of establishing a revolutionary military force on the ground. He said in this regard: “They want the revolution to be peaceful like Ghandi’s revolution in India, but God refuses to let it be anything but a jihad for His sake.” He even welcomed foreign military intervention in Syria which he argued is a good idea.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Abu Basir was active in two respects. The first was issuing religious edicts and the second was establishing contacts with supporters of jihad, most prominently Kuwaiti Salafis, in order to procure material and moral support while they waited for the jihadi phase of the revolution to begin. The jihadi source told Al-Akhbar that “the role that Abu Basir played was central to providing support for the mujahideen.”

In April 2012, he decided that it was time to “call for jihad.” So he went to Turkey where he had several meetings with “some friends that support jihadi activities,” according to the source. Then he crossed the border into Syria where he established al-Fajr Islamic Movement which was launched from the Idlib countryside and whose activities would later on spread to Aleppo. He also played a central role in establishing al-Hak Brigade in Homs. These two groups became central allies with Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement whose cells were being clandestinely formed since May 2011 with direct ideological guidance from Abu Basir. Till this day, he is considered the movement’s “godfather and mufti” and through it, one of the most influential figures in the Islamic Front.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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