Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Befriending terrorists

Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood poses as a moderate Islamist group, but its links with terrorist outfits tell another story, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

A few months after the launch of the Syrian Revolution three years ago, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood felt almost certain of victory. Once the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was removed, the Brotherhood felt that it would have what it took to rule the country.

However, first the Brotherhood needed to control most of the country’s political and military groups, a task that needed cash as well as military prowess. The cash was not a problem, for the Brotherhood has never had trouble raising money from its friends elsewhere. But to have the upper hand on the battlefield was another matter.

This was when the Brotherhood, a group that boasts of its credentials of Islamic moderation, began to shop around for jihadists to boost its military standing. The tactic was not totally new to the Syrian scene, for it had been tried before by none other than Al-Assad’s own regime.

After the fall of the Iraqi regime during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Syrian government, a fellow Baath Party autocratic regime, felt vulnerable. To boost its clout in the region, it decided to make a deal with jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, allowing the groups to use Syria as a transit point on their way to Iraq though banning them from its own territories.

This was a risky game, and eventually Al-Assad decided it was in his interest to distance himself from the terrorist groups. He arrested key members of Al-Qaeda with whom he used to have good relations, tightened control of the Brotherhood and the Salafists, and chased many of the jihadist movements out of the country.

After the revolution had broken out, the regime changed its tactics once more. Its tactic now was to lure jihadists into the country, brand the entire opposition as terrorists, and thus neutralise international support for the opposition.

In May 2011, two months after the revolution started, the regime freed prisoners affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Salafist groups. Among these were Abu Mosab Al-Suri, a senior Al-Qaeda ideologist, and another was Abu Khaled Al-Suri, who had spent nearly 40 years of his life in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.

Abu Khaled Al-Suri was a close associate of Osama Bin Laden in Peshawar. He was a good friend of Ibn Al-Khattab, a disciple of Bin Laden and once the foremost jihadist leader in Chechnya. He also served as the right-hand man of Abu Mosab Al-Zarqawi in Iraq and Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi in Syria.

Louay Al-Zoabi and Abu Basir Al-Tartusi, key figures in the Fighting Vanguard, or Talia Moqatila, a group that the Brotherhood founded in the 1980s, also returned to Syria after the revolution.

Al-Zoabi was one of Bin Laden’s top aides in Sudan, and Al-Tartusi is a top ideologist in Al-Qaeda. Neither men resigned from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but rather drifted smoothly from the Brotherhood to Al-Qaeda.

The return of Al-Zoabi and Al-Tartusi and others from abroad, coupled with the release of Abu Mosab Al-Suri and Abu Khaled Al-Suri from jail, accelerated the violent path that the Syrian Revolution eventually took.

Some of the coalitions that formed in the country in the early months of the revolution eventually served as a springboard for extremist groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nosrah Front.

During the revolution, the Brotherhood made alliances with various leftist and liberal groups and became involved in relief work. According to opposition sources, it also formed armed outfits that – unlike those of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – had ample funding and weapons.

The Brotherhood’s precise involvement in military activities remains unclear, as key members of the group seem to differ about its extent. One spokesman, Melhem Al-Dorubi, said in August 2013 that the Brotherhood had formed armed battalions in Syria, though another, Zoheir Salem, denied it.

Syrian Brotherhood General Guide Riyad Al-Shaqfah is adamant that the Brotherhood has no military outfits of its own. But two of the agencies the group has set up ostensibly for charity and relief work seem to have a different intention.

Some say that both the General Agency for the Protection of Civilians and the National Work Group are military wings of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is also known to have backed a military organisation called the Revolution Shields Agency, which joined the Free Syrian Army and is believed to receive funding from Turkey.

Some Syrian opposition members claim that the Brotherhood has given funding to several armed groups in the country, including the Farouq Battalion, the Tawhid Brigade, the Suqour Al-Sham (Hawks of Syria) and the Ahrar Al-Sham (Free Syrians).

Ahrar Al-Sham was the first Syrian organisation to admit foreign jihadists, including Al-Qaeda fighters. One of its leaders is Abu Khaled Al-Suri, a man whom Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri once described as “the best we’ve worked with”.

Such is Al-Zawahiri’s trust in Abu Khaled that he asked him to mediate between Abu Mohamed Al-Julani of the Al-Nosrah Front and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi of the ISIS. It was not long before most of the foreign fighters in the Ahrar Al-Sham began leaving the group and joining the Al-Nosrah Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate founded in late 2011.

The front swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Ayman Al-Zawahiri in its first online postings, yet Brotherhood general guide Riyad Al-Shaqfah was offended when the US placed it on its terror list. According to Al-Shaqfah, “any weapon fighting the regime is sacred.”

Abdel-Kader Saleh, commander of the Brotherhood-backed Tawhid Brigade, said that his group maintained a “high level of coordination” with other fighting groups, including the Al-Nosrah Front.

According to Saleh, the Tawhid Brigade is in “military agreement” with the front, although it disagrees with its political views. The Tawhid Brigade cooperated with the front in creating the Sharia Agency in Aleppo, though it later withdrew from it.

In battle, the Tawhid Brigade has fought jointly with the Al-Nosrah Front in battles in Aleppo, including an attack on the Hananu Barracks and a radio station. The Tawhid Brigade has also cooperated on the battlefield with ISIS.

Another group that has the backing of the Brotherhood is the Ahrar Al-Sham. This also has close military relations with the Al-Nosrah Front and the two run a joint operations room in Aleppo.

As the civil war has continued in Syria, many of the foreign fighters who joined groups backed by the Brotherhood have opted to join the Al-Nosrah Front and ISIS instead.

The Brotherhood-backed groups have been relieved to see foreigners leave their ranks, for they have been eager to distance themselves from their brand of militancy.

Analysts say that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood now has only two options. It can maintain close links with Al-Qaeda affiliates and risk being branded a terrorist group, along the lines of what has happened in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Or it can sever all ties with the jihadists and practice moderation in reality and not only in rhetoric.

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