Who Pulls the Strings of the Islamic Front’s Shura Council?

A member of jihadist group Al-Nusra Front stands in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 11, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Baraa Al-Halabi).

By: Rasha Abi Haidar

Published Friday, January 17, 2014

Who is Ahmad Issa bin Zakaria al-Sheikh, the chairman of the the Islamic Front’s Shura Council? With Muslim Brotherhood leanings, he managed to bring together Syrian opposition battalions under a Qatari umbrella and open direct lines with Saudi Arabia and Washington.

On November 22, 2013, major Islamic factions and brigades agreed to a pact that led to the formation of the Islamic Front, becoming one of the main armed opposition groups in Syria. The front includes: Liwaa al-Tawhid (Unity Brigade), Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), Liwaa al-Haq (Righteousness Brigade), Suqur al-Sham (Hawks of the Levant), Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam), and Ansar al-Sham (Partisans of the Levant). They were later joined by the Kurdish Islamic Front.

The front’s Shura (consultative) Council is headed by Ahmad Issa bin Zakaria al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Issa al-Sheikh, whose role is no less important than that of the military leader Zahran Alloush, formerly head of Jaysh al-Islam.

Sheikh’s calm personality enabled him to bring together the various brigades affiliated with the front and avoid any internal strife. He is also the front’s most prominent spokesperson, especially with outside parties.

His Muslim Brotherhood Affiliation

Sheikh was born in 1972 in Sarja, a village in Jabal al-Zawiya, a highland region in the Idlib province in northern Syria overlooking the border with Turkey. He grew up in a Muslim Brotherhood family. His father Zakaria was an active member of the Brotherhood in the Hama events in 1982. As a result, he was arrested and, it is believed, liquidated shortly after his imprisonment because of evidence proving his role in the assassinations carried out by the Brotherhood in Syria.

Abu Issa, who studied religious studies and undertook preaching, was imprisoned in March 2004 in Sednaya Military Prison in the Damascus countryside, where he met Alloush who became his comrade and fellow traveler. They both benefited from the presidential pardon issued in June 2011 and were released together.

Those who have met him agree that he is a mysterious figure and a clever and wily interlocutor. A source who was close to him during his imprisonment told Al-Akhbar that Abu Issa is “Talibani at heart” pointing out that “this was enough to get him unlimited Qatari support on all levels, financial, military, political and in the media.”

Suqur al-Sham

Two months after his release from prison, Abu Issa formed Suqur al-Sham Battalion in his hometown in Jabal al-Zawiya. The group quickly attracted a large number of fighters because of its high financial liquidity. Its activity spread dramatically, reaching over one-third of Idlib province in addition to a part of the Hama countryside.

Some of the areas that embraced this battalion, in addition to Jabal al-Zawiya, include: Khan Shaykhoun, Ariha, Maarrat al-Numan countryside, the city of Idlib, and Sarmin.

After the quick expansion of the group and the increase in fighters and affiliated brigades, the formation of Liwaa Suqur al-Sham (Suqur al-Sham Brigade) was announced. It consisted of more than 10 fighting battalions all over Idlib. It was also joined by Liwaa Daoud (Daoud Brigade) led by Hassan Aboud, who is currently a political official in the front.

The formation of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front was announced in September 2012 under the leadership of Sheikh, and Liwaa Suqur al-Sham was considered one of its most prominent constituents.

The new group included battalions from different provinces such as Deir al-Zour, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, before the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front joined the Islamic Front in November 2013 and Sheikh was chosen head of its Shura Council. His appointment came “as a natural result of the support he received from several foreign parties that have been providing the fighters with arms and money.”

Sources close to the head of the Shura Council told Al-Akhbar, “Sheikh visited Turkey frequently and met with Salafi financiers, primarily Kuwaitis, and with representatives of intelligence agencies, mainly Turkish, Saudi, and American.”

Sources said, “The friendship between Alloush and Abu Issa facilitated the latter’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially since Alloush is Riyadh's man.” They confirmed that Abu Issa accompanied Alloush on his recent Hajj.

The source describes Abu Issa’s relationship with US intelligence agencies as “very good,” especially since the United States is counting on an Islamist organization that is not hard-line. He pointed out that the brigades that have recently joined the front are in “constant contact” with US intelligence agencies.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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