Jihadis in Syria: The Cracks Start to Show
By: Radwan Mortada
Published Wednesday, October 3, 2012
The emergence of extremist Islamists groups joining in the war against the Syrian regime has been a cause of serious concern to many on both sides of the conflict. As groups and factions split over their ideological and political agendas, fierce fighting is repeatedly breaking out in the opposition camp.
Several days ago, the commander of a group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Levant, was assassinated. Abu Mohammad al-Shami, better known as al-Absi, was killed by Islamist fighters from the Salafi-leaning al-Farouq Battalion, which is also ideologically affiliated with al-Qaeda.
These Jihadis conspired with elements from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to ambush and kill Absi in a border area near Turkey. Two different accounts are being circulated regarding his death.
According to the first, the assailants caught him by surprise, abducted him and then took him to an unknown destination where they stabbed him to death and disposed of his body. Reportedly, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartusi and the commander of Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, Abu Abdullah, tried to intervene to secure Absi’s release before he was killed, but to no avail.
The second account purports that the assassins had asked Absi to meet them to discuss some issues and then killed him.
Absi’s death led to violent clashes between his group and militants from the Farouq Battalion backed by fighters from the FSA, killing scores and leaving more injured. The clashes have been described as being among “the most serious to have occurred since the beginning of the uprising among Jihadi elements” who flocked to Syria from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Europe and beyond.
Absi had come as an emissary of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front-group, to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria. Absi was, along with his battalion, “the first to liberate the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, raising the black flag [of al-Qaeda] over official buildings there,” according to a Salafi Jihadi source.
There are many possible motives for Absi’s murder, including disputes over influence, leadership, and the application of Sharia as well as accusations of treason. In this context, the source revealed to Al-Akhbar that “the reason for [Absi’s] assassination was the tolls he imposed on the flow of weapons.”
Following Absi’s takeover of the Bab al-Hawa crossing, the Jihadi leader levied protection payments from all arms smugglers and the groups receiving weapons shipments through the crossing. These taxes were often paid in the form of a portion of the shipment, sometimes up to 30 percent, and were turned over to Absi personally. He reportedly claimed the arms were being stashed away in preparation for the decisive battle looming, “the great battle expected to occur after the fall of the regime,” according to the Jihadi source.
Absi’s actions angered the Farouq Battalion, which is active in Aleppo and Idlib, as well as the FSA. The two groups set their many differences aside and agreed to eliminate Absi after securing a green light from Turkey. The Turkish side had sought to persuade Absi several times to exempt Turkish arms shipments sent to groups affiliated to Turkey, but he refused on the grounds that his Islamic duty required him to take a cut.
Absi’s assassination was not the first time the Jihadis have killed one of their own.
According to reports coming from Idlib and Aleppo obtained by sources in the Syrian opposition, clashes between Islamist militant groups have become more frequent as they compete for power and influence, each one asserting that their religious interpretation is the only true path.
There also appears to be a cultural clash between non-Arab Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Chechnya on the one hand, and Arabs from Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Jordan on the other, over the exploitation of sex slaves.
Some Islamists consider these women to be spoils of war, especially the wives and daughters of regime supporters, but local fighters are more apprehensive about the issue. Dozens of women have reportedly been sexually assaulted.
Others within the movement have firmly stood up to these groups and rejected such practices. For one thing, they believe that this will turn sympathetic Syrians against them.
These power struggles play out over a number of issues, but a trend has emerged of justifying assassinations by accusing the target of collaborating with the regime.
The result of this fracturing is that Syria is being divided into territories controlled by rival militant groups that dare not cross into another area without expecting a bloody confrontation.
Meanwhile, Al-Akhbar has learned that a number of Lebanese and Palestinian Jihadis who went to Syria to join the fighting have since forsaken the movement and returned home after witnessing the fierce internal fighting.
“We are now afraid of the regime falling, because our people have already started slaughtering one another. We can only guess at what will happen tomorrow, when the regime collapses,” said one of these disillusioned fighters.
Many Islamist leaders contacted by Al-Akhbar believe that this splintering is damaging to their cause and even threatens the revolution itself. Reconciliation efforts led by global leaders of the Islamist movement are currently under way, with several delegations dispatched to Syria. So far these initiatives have not borne fruit.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.