Gatekeeper of the Jihad
Meet the Jordanian cleric who's sending young men to fight and die in Syria's civil war.
MA’AN, Jordan — Al-Qaramseh Center is a sparsely furnished meeting hall a short ride down a potholed road in the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an. We arrived at dusk, as the call to prayer rose into the darkening sky. Across the street from the center, a small group of men headed into a mosque for the fourth prayer of the day.
Stepping out of our car, we saw the unmistakable jihadist black banner declaring that “There is no God but God” hanging from the top of the meeting hall. We had made the three-hour drive south from the capital of Amman last month at the invitation of Mohammad al-Shalabi, a leader in Jordan’s Salafist jihadist movement who is better known as Abu Sayyaf. He was so eager to be interviewed that he went out of his way to invite us to attend a funeral at this center. The event was not supposed to be a sad occasion — rather, it was billed as a ceremony to “accept congratulations” for what we learned to be the suicide operation of Muhammad Monzar Abu ‘Aoura, a 25-year old Jordanian fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa.
Abu Sayyaf had invited us to his home as part of our research project to better understand Salafist jihadist groups, and the role of political Islam more broadly in the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Salafist jihadists are Sunnis who adhere to a literal interpretation of Islam that allows for the use of violence to establish the Islamic state. Their extremist ideas and dedication to violence has transformed them into a force to be reckoned with across the Middle East, and the ongoing upheaval in Syria and Iraq has only strengthened their hand.
Abu Sayyaf’s perspectives on Syria’s civil war, just a few hours to the north, offered a window into the men who are helping to define the battle lines of Syria’s war — and also shaping the worldview of hundreds of Jordanian youth who, enticed by his promises of battles to defend Islam, willingly go to die in Syria. In the eyes of many of his critics, Abu Sayyaf himself is not a learned scholar of Islam, but he nevertheless enjoys an alarming and thus far uncontested level of local influence over young men.
President Obama came to office keen on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and keeping the United States from becoming entangled in other military confrontations in the Middle East. The threats posed by al Qaeda’s successors and other Islamist radicals, however, endure. As Syria’s conflict rages, it has become a new rallying cry for a new generation of Islamist radicals. The experience these groups are gaining there and the space they have to operate poses new threats to stability in neighboring countries and beyond. More than a dozen years after 9/11, the ideology that drove al Qaeda lives on and has found new roots in the heart of the Middle East. Jabhat al-Nusra’s own senior religious cleric is Sheikh Sami al-Uraydi, a Jordanian. It just may be that the next radical Islamist to grab the world’s attention is currently building his support in a dusty city like Ma’an.
During the drive to Ma’an the night before our interview, Abu Sayyaf called us to check on our status. He was eager for us to attend the funeral of the Jabhat al-Nusra suicide bomber, and direct and efficient in his instructions. This invitation was meant to demonstrate that Abu Sayyaf was actively involved in backing the foot soldiers in what has become the most dangerous conflict in the Middle East.
Many signs along the road to the funeral employed a creative turn of the phrase “bridal procession” to describe the event, which was hailed as “the martyrdom of the hero Muhammad Monzar Abu ‘Aoura, who was martyred in a martyrdom operation in the Levant at a checkpoint against the nusayri military [an offensive term used to describe the Shiite sect from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hails].”
Despite these signs, the mood inside the center wasn’t celebratory. The neighborhood’s men sat quietly sipping on strong coffee with solemn faces, with some whispering quietly to each other.
As prayers finished, more young and old men filed into the halls and said “may God have mercy on him” to the deceased’s family members, and sat along the sides of the large square room. A couple of men dressed in military fatigues came by to pay their respects.
The political and economic ties linking this corner of southern Jordan with Syria are far older than the region’s current borders. Ma’an lies on the historic Hejaz Railway, which once connected the Syrian capital of Damascus with Medina in Saudi Arabia, the same railway famously bombed by Arab fighters led by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Ma’an has maintained its conservative cultural roots. The city is tribal and “East Banker” Jordan, the traditional heart of a country that is now majority Palestinian in origin, according to most estimates. It is also economically depressed and ignored by the center of political power: There are few job opportunities here, and we did not see a single policeman on our drive through the city.
The men gathered at the funeral were curious about our presence at this peculiar wake — one asked: “Are you journalists with Al Jazeera?” Keen on checking our bona fides, one bearded man asked: “Are you on Twitter?” He found our accounts and began to scrutinize them as we talked about Abu ‘Aoura, the young man who lost his life in the Syrian jihad.
The jihadist was a high-school graduate, but when we asked what he did, someone said, “He was sitting at home.” One of our hosts stressed that his unemployment wasn’t the reason he became a suicide bomber. “Don’t make the mistake that it is poverty that led him to Syria,” he said. “He loved Islam and he wanted to defend his religion.”
Through the decades, Jordan has seen its share of notable figures in radical Islamist movements. Jordanian analyst Hassan Abu Hanieh explained that al Qaeda’s aim at the turn of the past century was to recruit more East Bankers in order to spread its ideology to Jordan’s tribal areas. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was one product of that strategy. Abu Sayyaf was another.
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Like many Salafist jihadist leaders, Abu Sayyaf has a checkered past. Abu Hanieh, himself a former jihadist, said that before Abu Sayyaf fashioned himself a sheikh, he used to get into trouble with the law. “I remember Abu Sayyaf, we first noticed him in prison,” Abu Haniya said. “But he was there for criminal reasons — not jihad.”
Abu Sayyaf would later become a government-licensed imam, but he was sentenced to death after being accused of leading riots in Ma’an in 2002, which resulted in at least seven deaths. In 2004, he was convicted of plotting attacks on Jordanian bases hosting United States military trainers, but received a special pardon in 2007 that commuted his death sentence. In 2011, Abu Sayyaf was released from prison along with other militants under a special amnesty issued by King Abdullah to commemorate the 12th anniversary of his accession.
Abu Sayyaf was at pains to underscore what we had heard the night before: Muhammad Abu ‘Aoura had gone to Syria to defend Muslims. And he wasn’t the only one from Ma’an to do so. We saw other banners inviting people to celebrate the martyrdom of other young men of the city.
In follow-up conversations on the phone and the Internet with Abu Sayyaf’s assistant, we learned that three more men from Ma’an had lost their lives in Syria’s civil war in the past few weeks: Mohamed al-Qaramsah, 24; Abdullah al-Qaramsah, 27; and Ouday Kreeshan, 23. Both Abdullah and Ouday were recruits in Jordan’s Civil Defense Services, the country’s civilian emergency and disaster relief corps. Abu Sayyaf claimed that “at least 1,800” men from Jordan have gone to fight in Syria, a figure of which he was immensely proud.
Abu Sayyaf’s number one priority was rallying support for the jihadist cause in Syria, whose civil war has sent at least 1 million refugees streaming into Jordan. He claimed that the Salafists had at least 10,000 members and supporters in Jordan. “The Syrian people — the Sunnis fighting the Shiites — called on Muslims for help, but all of the Muslims let them down except us,” he explained.
Top Jordanian officials dispute Abu Sayyaf’s figures for the Jordanians fighting in Syria and the Salafists in the country. Abu Sayyaf accuses the Jordanian government, in turn, of adopting a passive approach toward the Syrian war. “It never called on people to go fight jihad in Syria, but it left people alone to an extent,” he said. “Those who would fight and come back wouldn’t be punished.”
While Abu Sayyaf is virulently anti-American, he is willing to accept the principle that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least temporarily. For that reason, he does not oppose American efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. “I said this before and some people opposed me. But we are with any power that removes the Assad regime,” he said.
He was doubtful that the U.S. government would get involved in the Syrian conflict now, because of its hostility toward Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. The West will continue to support the Free Syrian Army, he argued, but they “won’t support [Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamists] — it is impossible for them to remove [Assad’s] oppressive regime and bring in, in their view, a terrorist regime.”
For now, just getting all the Syrian rebel groups to coordinate their efforts has proved to be a herculean task. Syria has become the new rallying cry for Islamist extremists of all stripes: These days, the media and government officials around the world use the broad label “al Qaeda” to describe a phenomenon that defies simple categories. This disarray is on full display in Syria: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front — these are all different group struggling for preeminence in Syria’s jihadist sphere.
Abu Sayyaf tried to explain the differences between Syria’s Salafist jihadist groups, saying that all of them essentially had the same creed (manhaj) but that their “political” outlooks differed. For example, a main point of contention between ISIL and other groups was on implementing punishment for violations of Islamic law. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front favored a gradualist approach, believing that people could not be punished without first being educated. “The Islamic State [ISIL] has a different point of view — either you are with us or against us,” said Abu Sayyaf.
He noted that Jabhat al-Nusra, the group with which he most closely coordinates when young Jordanian men go to Syria, is different because it has made a concerted effort to embed itself in Syria’s social fabric. “It is interacting with society and using schools,” Abu Sayyaf said. “If they see a mixed gender school, then they might isolate it. They do not immediately repress it — they try to educate people and tell them what is halal or haram. They don’t implement hudood [the strict criminal punishments of Islamic law] right away.”
Abu Sayyaf held out the hope that Syria’s various Salafist groups could reconcile and coordinate. He believed that they all had the same basic worldview, after all, and this worldview wasn’t all that disconnected from the ideology of al Qaeda. He blamed the open debate occurring in both physical and online space for the disorder. “Today we have the Internet … you can listen to any sheikh you like
on the Internet.”
In our conversation, Abu Sayyaf also lamented last year’s coup in Egypt and dismissed the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a pipe dream. But his focus kept returning to Syria, which he sees as central in the battle to defend Islam from its enemies. In the jihadist “day after” scenario for when Assad falls, Abu Sayyaf envisions a Syrian Islamic state to which the world’s jihadists and other Muslims would flock. Jihadists had a similar dream for Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal in 1989, but that country’s remoteness meant that only the most dedicated would make the trek. For jihadist, Syria — where they believe Armageddon will take place — is both strategically and religiously significant.
Abu Sayyaf’s focus on Syria may have been fueled by ideological conviction, but it was also grounded in a pragmatic recognition of his constraints at home. He was quick to acknowledge that his movement was not ready to confront the political order at home. “I said many times before that the regime that rules Jordan is an apostate regime, a regime that we must remove,” he said. “But doing this is tied with our ability and capacity. When we become capable, this regime will not be left alone.”
It’s a threat that officials in Amman are taking seriously. Jordanian security officials we met with raised concerns that Islamist militants are gaining valuable experience in Syria and that this could poses a threat to stability in Jordan — and they complained that several countries in the Gulf were playing a dangerous game in backing militant groups in Jordan.
But he also underscored to his American guests that he saw this fight in the context of a broader, global fight for Islam. “We hope to conquer the whole earth,” he said. “But for now, to you your religion and for me, mine. In Islam, we offer non-Muslims the option of conversion, paying a tax, of fighting. Fighting is the last option.”
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Twitter: @Katulis