Over the past five years in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as an important political and religious experiment. As one of the most powerful groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has struggled to reconcile the legacy of many of its founders as jihadi veterans with the need for an acceptable political discourse in the war-ravaged country. As the group engages cautiously in the political process for a transition, it is also important to understand whether it has really broken away from Salafi-jihadism.
The ideology of the group is further muddled by the fact that it works closely with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though Ahrar al-Sham participates in political conferences and pacts that appear to deviate from the canons of jihadist organizations. After the death of its top leaders in an explosion that took place during a high-level meeting in September 2014, Ahrar al-Sham has also sought to present itself to the outside world as a moderate group and an indispensable fighting force on the ground.
Countries involved in the conflict in Syria are split about the organization. Some, primarily Russia and Iran, are pushing for its designation as a terrorist organization. Others, such as Qatar and Turkey, tried to present the organization as a moderate group and include it in the international funding scheme for nationalist rebel forces. The latter effort entailed the involvement of sponsors and clerics close to the group to steer it in that direction, combined with a public relations offensive to present the group as such.
But is Ahrar al-Sham merely a conservative Syrian faction immersed in an armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or is it still a bastion of Salafi-jihadism, the movement to which its top echelon once subscribed? Ali al-Omar, the group’s deputy leader, answered some of these questions during an hour-long talk he gave on Friday, “The Place of Ahrar al-Sham Among Islamist Currents.”
Three points in the presentation stand out. First, al-Omar began by laying out three main Islamist movements that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He said the movements differ in their approach but the objective is one: the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. Two of these movements, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tablighi Jamaat, seek to establish an Islamic state through political participation and proselytization, respectively. According to al-Omar, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s model led to the rise of a third one: jihadism (also known as Salafi-jihadism), which combines fundamentalist religious concepts with a political ideology that seeks to establish a caliphate through jihad and the mobilization of the Muslim masses against existing political orders.
Ahrar al-Sham belongs to a new movement that sees merits in each of the movements he mentioned. The group combines, rather than departs from, the approaches of all of its predecessors—and that is a key distinction. Al-Omar pointed out that the difference between Ahrar al-Sham and jihadists is that the group does more than just jihad. The difference between the two is not that jihad is a temporary tactic for them, al-Omar said—a key clarification because some observers think that Ahrar al-Sham’s engagement in armed struggle is dictated by the reality in Syria, as the war against the regime rages. Al-Omar prefers the word “mujahideen” instead of jihadists, even if shortly after the sentence he describes members of al-Qaeda in Iraq after 2004 as mujahideen.
“We are mujahideen, not jihadists. This is important,” he said. “The difference is that we seek jihad in Syria because we view it as the main tool to attain our rights and to defend Islam and Muslims. But we are not jihadists in the sense that we limit ourselves to jihad to attain our rights. Jihad is the main factor. There is no doubt that jihad will continue until the Day of Judgement, but we don’t limit ourselves by armed jihad.” Al-Omar added that the fall of the Assad regime is a “medium-term objective” not a long-term one.
Despite al-Omar’s attempts to draw a distinction, the group’s position on jihad is heavily shaped by Salafi-jihadism. According to a recent 78-page study by Ahmad Abazeid, one of the group’s closest observers, the group “adopts the writings of Salafi-jihadism in its training camps and discourse.”
A second prominent point in al-Omar’s lecture is his group’s real stance on political participation. He explains that Ahrar al-Sham’s participation in political talks, conferences or pacts is designed as a form of takhtheel (disruption, subversion, or disorientation). This is a particularly telling statement, considering that it is such “flexibility” that led many to rethink the group’s ideology and to conclude that it broke away from Salafi-jihadism—the “crucible from which it emerged,” in the words of one of its media activists.
Third, al-Omar singled out the Taliban as a model worth following. This is the second time Ahrar al-Sham has officially praised the Taliban in this way. Last August, the group paid tribute to former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, describing him as “the noble prince” and his group as “the blessed movement” when the Taliban acknowledged his death.
“When we speak about the Taliban, the group included all Sunnis from different spectra in Afghanistan,” al-Omar said. “It included Sufis, including in leadership levels, and Tablighi Jamaat. It succeeded in establishing a Muslim state. It is true that it did not last, but it did establish one, one that is worth contemplating and studying. … We have to regard this project as a project for Sunnis, to mobilize all Sunnis for it; otherwise we will be left on our own.” While such views may be shared by other Islamist forces, they indicate that Ahrar al-Sham sees itself as part of a broader global effort even if the focus is local.
Throughout his talk, al-Omar emphasized that his group’s objectives are part of a broader global Islamist project, and echoed common beliefs among Salafi-jihadists that Syrian society’s Islam has been distorted by decades of a Baathist education system. In his view, Syrian society is not Muslim enough—another manifestation of the discourse common among jihadist organizations. Al-Omar also clarified that political engagement and flexibility are a ploy, as part of the Ahrar al-Sham’s strategy of combining the approaches followed by the three movements he cited as influencers of his group.
“[Ahrar al-Sham] has dealt with [the Syrian conflict] as a pan-Islamic project,” he said. “To emphasize the pan-Islamic project, it consults religious clerics and other specialists from Syria and from the region. Syrians are conducting a battle on behalf of Sunnis in the entire world. It’s no longer a Syrian issue.”
He also echoed numerous arguments frequently made by Jabhat al-Nusra, such as the importance of the “social base,” or “social incubator” as they call it, to justify the delay of implementation of sharia. Al-Omar further pointed out that the group should encourage everyone to be involved in the project but that the struggle should be led by “the elite” and and those who have the “right methodology.” (Methodology, or manhaj, is a common term in Syria since 2013 to describe Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State, and Ahrar al-Sham, who are known as ikhwat al-manhaj or brothers in methodology.)
“Which is better,” al-Omar asked, “to fight under the banner of someone whose faith is not perfect or that he fights under your banner? Of course the latter. When Ahrar al-Sham followed this [logic], critics started to criticize it.”
Before regional countries pushed last year to include Ahrar al-Sham as a mainstream group, very few disputed the organization was in al-Qaeda’s ideological orbit. Discussions about the organization’s changes led some to argue the group was abandoning the canons of Salafi-jihadism. Even the eulogy of the Taliban’s Mullah Omar issued by Ahrar al-Sham last August, at the height of the so-called changes, was justified by observers as a sign of moderation, that the group was somehow trying to show it was pragmatic and willing to engage with the Americans. Even if Ahrar al-Sham tried to break away from a strict understanding of Salafi-jihadism last year, the effort has hitherto been stalled. According to Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Middle East Institute who follows the group closely, the current represented by leaders such as al-Omar has won the internal debate and is the dominant one today.
People in rebel-held Syria still see Ahrar al-Sham as it is, as a jihadist organization. Yes, the group’s tactics differ from those of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, in the same way that the latter deviated from its jihadist predecessors. Such differences should be examined as an example of how Salafi-jihadism is a fluid movement, not a static one, as some mistakenly label it. If the remarks made by al-Omar were intended to represent a shift from jihadism, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.