A jihadist blueprint for hearts and minds is gaining traction
A top Sharia official in Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda formal affiliate in Syria, has acknowledged for the first time that his faction is influenced by the teachings of Abu Musab Al Suri, a Syrian jihadist who fought the Assad regime in the 1970s and 1980s, before becoming one of the world’s most renowned jihadist ideologues. The acknowledgement did not spark much media attention, but is hugely significant for understanding the ideological underpinnings of Syria’s jihadist groups.
Dr Sami Al Oraidi – who was mentioned by Jabhat Al Nusra leader Abu Muhammad Al Jolani in his only media interview as an official who represents the group’s ideology – listed 19 recommendations by Abu Musab on his Twitter account, writing: “We have been able to implement some of them, but we could not implement others.”
The idea that the group is influenced by Abu Musab’s teachings had been long suspected by some jihadist watchers. On this day last year, I wrote in this space that multiple sources had told me that the ideologue’s writings had been cited privately by members and leaders of Jabhat Al Nusra. But the revelation by the group’s official is the first evidence to the claims. In practice, the influence by Abu Musab can help to explain the group’s dynamism, relative to like-minded groups.
The essence of Abu Musab’s teachings is that a new generation of jihadists should be committed to an “individualised” jihad, which places their ideology above and beyond any organisational affiliation. This way of thinking is geared towards shielding the jihad from organisational mistakes through decentralisation: jihadists could pursue their aims without waiting to be guided by an elite vanguard that made all the important decisions.
In the United States and Europe, the legacy of Abu Musab is often associated with lone-wolf attacks, which pose a profound security challenge for the West. But in Muslim-dominated societies such as in Syria, “individualised jihad” and other aspects of Abu Musab’s teachings play out differently.
In practice, jihadists in Syria focus on ensuring that the country will remain a place to wage jihad on a personal or group level, regardless of the political outcome. The priority is to establish deep ties with local communities even if that requires flexibility on some principles.
The strategies derived from Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups, and put the focus on fighting the regime.
Throughout Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra is known to be a pragmatic group that does not impose its ideology in liberated areas and can even turn a blind eye to those who have to deal with the regime for daily needs. In one statement, Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader warned his followers: “Beware of being hard on them. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion.”
The fact that Jabhat Al Nusra has an organisation and holds territory does not go against the idea of “decentralised” jihad. First, the nature of the Syrian conflict (as an open civil war) makes it necessary to work within fighting groups. Second, Abu Musab recommended that small groups operate on a local level. Although Jabhat Al Nusra has four levels of hierarchy, each has a high degree of autonomy.
Abu Musab heralded the rise of what he called “the third generation of jihadis”, which is exactly what we may be witnessing now. By the first and second generations, he means the jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq who committed grave mistakes that undermined jihad.
Abu Musab, who was born in Aleppo, unsuccessfully tried to apply his theories on jihadist ideology after he left Syria in the wake of the regime putting down the Brotherhood-led uprising in Hama in 1982. But after the 2011 uprising, his journey seems to have made a full circle: several Syrian groups and individuals now appear willing to implement the ideas of their compatriot.
Western and regional countries should consider the impact of such thinking on an individual or local level, rather than whether jihadist groups can be defeated militarily. As Al Jolani made clear in his interview with Al Jazeera, Jabhat Al Nusra does not seek to dominate Syria as a group but as an idea. Among all groups in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra is the only one that has consistently grown in strength and popularity.
The ideological circle that represents Abu Musab’s thinking appears to be expanding. Other groups that have been working closely with Jabhat Al Nusra seem to be tied loosely together through this ideology. Abu Khalid Al Suri, one of the founders of Syria’s Salafist group Ahrar Al Sham, comes from this tradition. Plenty of material released before and after Abu Khalid’s death last month showed that he had a central role in bringing various groups and leaders together to prevent jihadists’ infighting.
It remains to be seen how far this ideology has made inroads into Syria. What is clear, however, is that Syria represents a true “spring” for the jihadi teachings of Abu Musab Al Suri. Non-jihadists might cheer continued infighting among these radical groups in the hopes that they will wipe each other out, but continued fighting in Syria also holds the potential for a far more dangerous outcome.
The teachings of Abu Musab could spark the rise of a more formidable generation of jihadists, who spread beyond Syria’s borders and defy any attempts to defeat them through military means.
On Twitter: @hhassan140