Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Monday, May 28, 2007

New Syrian Jihadist Group Delivers Anti-Alawite Calling Card

A man identified by the pseudonym ‘Abu Jandal’ and who is described as the 'Emir' (leader) of the Monotheism and Jihad Group in the Levant (jama’at altawhid wel jihad fi bilad alsham, henceforth ‘MJ-Levant’) delivered a 43 minutes speech—his group’s first—that was posted as an audio file onto several jihadist-friendly discussion boards yesterday.

‘Abu Jandal’ begins the substantive part of his speech by offering his condolences to the Islamic ummah on the “martyrdom” of Dadallah, the military commander of the “State of the Taliban.” He then proceeds to deliver five messages to different constituencies within Syria.

I've translated what I think are the highlights of the speech.

First Message: “Who are we, and why do we wage jihad?”

“We are Muslim mujahedin from the blessed Levant who are pained by the condition of our ummah that has languished under the Nusayri occupation for tens of years, and the Nusayris—who resent the Sunnis—are creative in desecrating the sanctities and the honor of the Muslims under the cruel guidelines set down by the Nusayri [Hafiz al-Asad]…”

The term ‘Nusayris’ is the historically-accurate name for the Alawites, given to them by their theological opponents, and first employed in an 11th century Druze polemic against them (…or more accurately against a single ‘Nusayri’). The term Alawites, which is the one they use now to describe themselves, only gained currency during the 1920s when it was first introduced by the French colonial powers which sought to energize Alawite particularism. The Arab Alawites of Turkey still refer to themselves as Nusayris, to distinguish themselves from Turkish and Kurdish Alevis.

The Asad family is Alawite, and Alawites fill most of the key security positions within the Syrian regime. The Alawites constitute a minimum of 12 percent of the total population, and are concentrated in the provinces of Latakiya, Tartous, Hamah and Homs. Their religious system of beliefs is confusing, suffice to say that most Muslims, Sunnis as well as mainstream Shi’as, see them as too heterodox to fit within even a liberal framework of what it takes to be a follower of Islam.

“And we see the necessity of emerging against the leaders of unbelief who rule over the necks of the Muslims, and who became apostates when they changed the law [of Allah] and became partners in legislation along with Allah, and heeded the judgments of the tyrants of the East and the West…”

“And we believe that fighting the Nusayris comes before fighting others because their unbelief is certain among the consensus of the clerics of the Muslims…”

Abu Jandal then quotes the third fatwa issued by Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (hard-line 13th century Damascene jurist who is the originating ideological fount of Wahabbism and modern Salafism), which lumps the Druze along with the Nusayris, and rules that they are so far beyond the confines of religion that even the food they prepare is forbidden for Muslims to consume and it is unlawful to have intercourse with their women or to accept their repentance—in other words, their only treatment is physical annihilation, which is something that the Mamlukes, through Ibn Taymiyya’s prodding, tried to do within his lifetime.

Ibn Taymiya's broken headstone on the grounds of Damascus University, Nibras Kazimi, June 2006--for the record: It wasn't me who broke it...

Side note: interestingly, I never understood how Wahhabi Saudis who marry Alawite women or even take them as concubines justify their actions in light of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa. This is particularly important in Osama Bin Laden’s case, whose mother and first wife (Umm Sa’ad, who happens to be his maternal cousin) are both Syrian Alawite women from a village to the east of Latikiya. In Ibn Taymiyya’s understanding, Bin Laden’s very presence is a sin—hmmm, interesting, maybe that’s why Abu Jandal mentions virtually all the big shots in the world of jihad by name and extols their virtues (Abdullah Azzam, Zarqawi, Zawahiri, …etc) but not Bin Laden.

Second Message: “To the Muslim people in Syria”

“Oh our people in Syria…You who are renowned for your bravery, generosity, pride, dignity and poise, and the rejection of injustice, how do you accept to be ruled by the lowliest of creatures, the Nusayris, the Druze and the haters? …Didn’t the Nusayris kill your sons in Hamah, and in Damascus, and in Aleppo, and in Qamishli, while you were silent?”

“…Rise up as one man and cut up the limbs of the Nusayris and their necks, strike them down everywhere, for they are spread in every place to make it easier to hit them and to uproot them…”

“There is no use for dialogue with those Nusayris, for they only know the language of raids, and assassinations and desecrating sanctities, [which they have done] for all to hear and see across the world, and the massacre of Hamah, the land of men and heroism, is not distant from you, nor is the massacre in Aleppo and its likes, and lastly but not finally the suppression of the Kurdish revolt during which the Syrian forces of evil and their intelligence service killed the demonstrators with live ammunition, within sight of the whole world that claims to respect the rights of minorities and human rights, and the new world order that is sponsored by America, the bearer of the Cross, and the great sponsor of unbelief…”
This is interesting because here the jihadists are jumping on the bandwagon of Kurdish nationalism, clearly hoping to attract sympathy from Syria’s oppressed underclass of ethnic Kurds. However, the bonds of Sufism—which to the Wahhabist are an anathema—are stronger among Kurds than other groups within Syria, and that is coupled with a more favorable impression of America shared by ethnic Kurds across the Middle East due to America’s perceived latter-day role in supporting Iraqi Kurds, so it remains to be seen how much headway the jihadists can make among this, the largest non-Arab minority in Syria.

“Oh people of Syria, fitna [sedition] is a must in order to test and cleanse the ranks of Muslims for Allah Almighty wants to show to the people who is truthful and who is a liar…”
Third Message: “To the issuers of [fake] fatwas and the charlatan merchants of religion”

This section is directed against the pro-regime Sunni clerics, such as Muhammad al-Habesh, a leading Syrian ‘evangelist’ that is popular on satellite shows, and Ahmad Hasoun, Syria’s Chief Mufti, wherein Abu Jandal warns them that the regime easily discards its supporters for whom it no longer has any use by staging suicides such as those of “Al-Zu’bi [former Prime Minister] and Kana’an [former Minister of Interior]”.

Fourth Message: “To the dogs of the secret police, the intelligence service, the police and the army”

“You who have blasphemed against your God and turned Bashar and before him his dead father, that perfumed dog, into a god…For you there will only be slaughter, then slaughter, then slaughter, at the hands of the youths of Islam, and your end is near, Allah willing. Protect yourselves from our imminent strikes for your master won’t benefit you, and take heed of [what happened] to your brothers in the pagan [National] Guard in [Iraq], for the men of the Islamic State have cut off their necks and paralyzed their shoulders and sent them back to their families in coffins…”

Abu Jandal then goes on to quote, at length, verses of poetry attributed to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (‘Isam al-Barqawi) who used to be Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi’s ideological mentor and is currently serving a prison sentence in Jordan. The poem admonishes and threatens the “sultan’s spies”. Bringing in Maqdisi is also interesting for Maqdisi claims to have originated the term ‘Monotheism and Jihad’ on his website, and was unhappy when Zarqawi appropriated the name for his own start-up operation early on in the Iraqi jihad; Zarqawi later changed the name when he joined Al-Qaeda in autumn 2004.

Fourth Message: To the tyrant of Qerdaha, who is called Bashar al-Asad”

Abu Jandal says “the fourth message” instead of the “fifth”, calling into question his proficiency in mathematics…

Qerdaha is the hometown of the Asad clan.

“You should know, you perfumed dog, that you have blasphemed against Allah and his prophet…And it is obligatory to fight you…”

“…Have you forgotten the Golan that your dead father sold through a deal with the Jewish entity; he declared the fall of the Golan even before a single Jewish tank or Jewish soldier had entered the Golan…”

Abu Jandal then enumerates some of the “martyrs” of his group: Omar Hamrah al-‘Asani, ‘Abu Shamil’, who was killed at the Lebanese border; ‘Abu Hajer’ who is alleged to have fought in Fallouja and in Anbar province and was killed in the Zamelkeh raid; Muhammad Nassif, of Zabadani (killed March 14, 2006), among others who went unnamed.

Abu Jandal says that these are the grandsons or rather the heirs of Marwan Hadid, “the Lion of Hamah”, who led the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in that city in 1982, to be subsequently crushed.

Abu Jandal also plays on the sympathies of the Palestinians and Syrians who ended up as refugees from Iraq:

“Didn’t the land fit all the Lebanese rafidha [derogatory term for Shi’as] during the summer war with Hizb-al-Lat [Party of Lat, a pre-Islamic pagan deity, a common moniker that jihadists employ when referring to Hezbollah] under the leadership of the rotten [sayi’, a play on seyyid] Nasr-el-Lat [Victory of Lat, a play on the name Nasrallah], and didn’t the land take in all the Iraqi rafidha who are buying and selling with the money of the Sunnis that they looted [in Iraq], and have come to trade with it, to the point that some streets are known as the streets of the Iraqis. Why did the land fit all these [people] but couldn’t fit the Palestinians and Syrians who escaped the hell of Iraq…Is it because they are Sunnis, while the Iraqis and Lebanese rafidha are your cousins, the grandchildren of Ibn al-‘Alqami, and you and your thugs are Nusayris, the grandchildren of Ibn Nusayr al-Tusi…”

[Note: Resentment against Iraqis and all the money they’re throwing around is a popular theme among Syrians nowadays who are pissed off that property values continue to rise, hiking up rents. However, most of the Iraqi capital being spent in Syria is probably Sunni in character.]

Addressing Bashar as the “dog of the Nusayris”, Abu Jandal promises a “long, long guerilla war” that “we have prepared for you and that you can’t imagine.” Abu Jandal laments that Bashar narrowly missed a “tight ambush” that was allegedly laid for him by MJ-Levant during the opening of the new soccer stadium of Aleppo [this happened on April 3, 2007]. “Dog of the Nusayris” may be a play on the tribal affiliation of the Asad family, who belong to the Kalbiyyeh, one of the major Alawi tribes, allegedly descended of the respected Arabian tribe of Kalb, or ‘Dog’.

Abu Jandal moves on to address a rival jihadist group, Jund al-Sham, and encourages them to cut off the heads of the Nusayris and to take some of them hostage so as to trade them with their own prisoners in the regime’s jails, and warns them against infiltrations, and commends them for being the pioneers of jihad in Syria.

Abu Jandal then shifts back to Asad, and says, “Oh you dog of the Nusayris, do you really think you will finish a second term?” Syria just went to the polls yesterday—a presidential referendum to be exact—to extend Bashar’s term by another seven years.

Abu Jandal then gets into, and that with much detail, the alleged corruption of the inner circle and the relatives of the Asad family, including Bashar’s cousins of the Makhlouf family and his in-laws of the Shaleesh family and the Sunni Akhras family of Homs. Abu Jandal repeats the usual data that is put out by the political opponents of the Syrian regime on this matter and says that Bashar himself colludes in the corruption. Interestingly, Abu Jandal alleges that Muhammad Makhlouf tried to strike a deal with Senator John Kerry during the latter’s recent visit to Damascus by which the “Asad mafia” invests its billions in the United States in return for the Democrats easing Syria’s international isolation.

Abu Jandal concludes by calling the Ba’ath Party the “party of the devil that should be wiped clean out of Syria’s great history”—the only point I wholeheartedly agree, to cover all Ba’athists everywhere.

So there you have it: anti-Alawite sectarianism will be the headlining event in the jihad against the Asad regime according to this one jihadist ‘manifesto’. Question is, are the ruling Alawites and their Sunni and minority partners enough of a force to beat back this challenge, a la 1970s and 1980s, or is this enemy too determined and advanced, and the political and social stage too ripe for widespread sectarian conflict, to bring about the eventual demise of the regime? Will all the Alawites fight? Or will most of them opt to protect their own turf in their mountains, the adjacent plains and the coast and turn their backs to the fluke historical accident that made them the overlords of the symbolic Sunni nodes of Damascus and Aleppo?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Scoop: Khalaf Alayyan tied to parliament bombing and other violence...

Eli Lake delivers the goods today in the New York Sun:

An American military official this week confirmed to The New York Sun that on April 3, American forces raided Mr. Ayan's house in Yarmouk and found stores of TNT that matched the kind used in the suicide belt that detonated on April 12 at the Iraqi parliament's cafeteria. That blast killed a member of parliament, Mohammed Awad, a Sunni Arab member of Mr. Ayan's Dialogue Front, yet the terrorist who killed him is believed to have been a member of Awad's security detail.

But the background on Mr. Ayan, who has threatened to return to "resistance" if the political process does not yield to the demands of his Sunni constituency, also implicates him in a string of attacks in Mosul on May 17 that detonated bridges and blew up a police station, according to one senior Iraqi Sunni official and an American intelligence officer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the investigation. A raid last week on his parliamentary offices, in which American forces participated, yielded time-stamped before-and-after photos of the attacks, according to these sources.

More of that 'bringing them to the table' business, anyone?

New Al-Qaeda Branch Rears its Head in Lebanon

In a seven minute tape released today, a young man claiming to be the Military Commander of a newly established Al-Qaeda franchise calling itself ‘Al-Qaeda in the Levant’ (…best translation from the Arabic: alqa’eda fi bilad alsham القاعدة في بلاد الشام) threatened Lebanon’s Christians of drowning them in “seas of blood” if the Lebanese Army does not call off its attack on the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli.

The ‘Military Commander’ did not even offer us a pseudonym, and the overall feel of the tape was amateurish. I believe that this is the first time that any organization calling itself by this name has issued a taped broadcast that is in keeping with usual hallmark of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda style.

But the message was important: Al-Qaeda in the Levant feels compelled to come to the defense of the Fatih al-Islam organization (headed by ‘Abu Hussein’, Shakir al-‘Absi) and the Palestinians residing in the camp, and is threatening anti-Christian sectarian violence.

The tape begins with a long lament over the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who, among other things, are not allowed to own property—“not even a cemetery to bury their dead in.” The Military Commander highlights the sectarian reasons behind keeping the Palestinians in such a lowly state: to provide cheap labor for Christian capitalists such as the Murr family and others, and because “of the Sunni and jihadist nature” of the Palestinians who would tip the demographic scales in favor of Sunnism within Lebanon should their numbers be naturalized as Lebanese citizens—a common refrain that’s been heard since the 1960s and in part led to the initial tensions of the Lebanese civil war.

The commander goes on to say that the Shi’ites and Christians have exploited an “apparent Sunni weakness”—a probable reference to the political paralysis of the Hariri bloc—to attack Fatih al-Islam in “the city of clerics and mujaheddin, Tripoli” and that this attack was fanned by the “fiery statements” of the likes of the “Jewish agent, the treacherous head of the Lebanese Forces,” a reference to Samir Gaegae, and “the ally of the majus, the hateful Crusader who strives to take over Lebanon, Michel Aoun”—majus is a pejorative term employed by anti-Shi'a jihadists as a reference to what they allege are the pagan and Persian roots of Shi’ism; Aoun is a political ally of Shi’i Hezbollah.

The ‘Military Commander’ directs a message to “the head of Christianity in Lebanon, that sneaky Maronite Sfeir” (Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir) to “call off your dogs” or else “there will be no sanctuary for Christians in Lebanon after today.” And if this demand is not fulfilled then “we will rip your hearts out with explosives and besiege your places with detonations and target all your business concerns starting with tourism…for you have declared it a Crusader campaign and we welcome the fight.”

The ‘Military Commander’ demands that the “Christian leader of the Lebanese Army” should withdraw his men from the vicinity of the Nahr al-Barid (he makes a mistake by calling it ‘Ain al-Barid) camp, and counsels the Christians to “return to their senses” because they live in a Sunni medium that will drown them out if they persist in their obstinacy.

I believe that this is the real deal, and I’ve been waiting for an Al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon, something that I’ve suspected has been around for a long time (over two years) and specifically of the Zarqawi variety, to make itself known. I’m personally not convinced that Fatih al-Islam is a real and independent jihadist organization, and I believe they are manipulated by a regional intelligence agency. But these recent clashes, which have all the marks of overreach on both Fatih al-Islam’s side and that of the Lebanese government’s and hence were unplanned for such a scale of strife, have created an opportunity for chaos that an ‘Al-Qaeda in the Levant’-like organization may want to exploit and enlarge in order to function more openly, and with more maneuverability, within and around Lebanon. And needless to say, an early and conclusive quelling of a jihadist challenge—though it may originate from a bogus organization such as Fatih al-Islam—by a confident Lebanese state would not be helpful for the image and prospects of a successful jihad to be launched at a later stage by other jihadist groups in that country.

The next danger signs to watch are the following: how will the Franjiyeh partisans in Zgherta respond to this Sunni threat next door (…they may want to seize upon it and set off clashes in order to make the Sunnis in government, principally Hariri’s man Siniora, look bad and consequently break off chunks of the Sunni-Maronite alliance to Gaegae’s detriment), and whether there will be flashpoints among Sunnis and ‘Alawites around Tripoli and in the few villages of ‘Akkar were ‘Alawites predominate.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Back from Syria

I’m sort of back and I have a column about Syria: Smug in Damascus. It's about the upcoming presidential referendum and why these things don't matter.

The odometer on the rental car says that I travelled exactly 3999 Km within Syria.

Castles visited, all 20 of them: Shmeimis, Masyaf, Qadmous, Kahf, Khawabi, Marqab, al-Husn, Sheizer, Rusafa, Ullayqa, Mayneqa, Abu Qobeis, Saone/Salaheddin/Sahyoun, Bani Qahtan/Bani Isra’il, Harim, Ibn Wardan, Burzeh, Yahmur, Mheilebeh and Safita tower.

Major Alawi shrines visited=32 (not counting every dome I stopped at…): Nebi Younis (Jebel al-Nabi Younis), Nebi Younis (near al-Kahf castle), Sheikh Mousa al-Rabti (near Abu Qobeis castle), Nebi Metti (Jebel al-Nabi Metti), Nebi Metti (near Husn Suleiman), Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Hamidi (near Safita tower), Sheikh Mousa al-Hakim al-Fatimi (near Dreikish), Sultan Ibrahim (near Dweir Reslan), Ibn Hani (near Ras Shamra), Sheikh ‘Issa al-Yahmuri (in Yahmur), Sheikh Hamdan (in Wadi al-Qala’), Sheikh Hassan (in Dweir Ba’abda), Sheikh Ahmad Qirfays (in Qirfays), Maqam al-Khidhir (near Banyas), Sheikh Gharib (near Hraysoun), Sheikh Ali (near Snober), Abu Laith al-Kittani (near Deiretoun), Maqam al-Sheikh Isma’il (in Jobet Birghal), Al-Arba’in (near Mheilebeh castle), Ja’afar al-Tayyar/Melek Sultan (Jebel Sayyidna Ja’afar), Ja’afar al-Tayyar (hills above Rasel Baseet), Sheikh Dhahir/al-Khidhir (in Bijlaya), Sheikh Hassan Bisqini (up in Boor al-Jird), Al-Khidhir (bil Habees), Nebi Roubil (near ‘Ain al-Teeneh), Khidhir (in Rasel Baseet), Zein al-Abidin (Jebel Zein al-Abidin above Hamah), Hassan al-Makzoun (allegedly in Kefer Souseh near Damascus, used to be in Al-Kabir Mosque, removed, disputed), Sheikh Nmeir (used to be near Qal’at Sharif in Aleppo, disappeared, probably sabotaged in early 1980s), Al-Nour Mosque (near Qinnesrin Gate in Aleppo, being renovated), Ammar bin Yassir (in Raqqa, visited by Alawis too), and Hussein bin Hamdan al-Khasibi (within Hananoo barracks in Aleppo, visited on an earlier trip). Druze shrine: Nebbi Habil, near Zabadani.

So I’m showing off a bit, but here’s my take: after a while, all castles begin to look alike, and all shrines look (and smell) the same. I've kissed many dead saints on this trip, and not withstanding the dermatological nightmare, I kinda feel like a spiritual slut!

Plus, there were many churches on the itinerary: visited Deir Mar Gergis/Khidhr on his holy day, May 6.