Jihadis grow more dangerous as they conquer hearts in Syria



The details about different jihadi groups in Syria are still sketchy. While reporters and intelligence services have, to a degree, identified a range of different slogans that guide some of the prominent groups that are fighting the regime, the nuances of their ideologies and the full implications for Syria's future are often guesswork.

The study of these groups should start with Abu Musab Al Suri, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue with global jihadi influence who became notorious after he was implicated in the London bombings in 2005. Three separate sources have told me that Al Suri's teachings are being invoked by jihadi groups in different areas across Syria. If this is true, Syrians need to be aware of it. A new ideology among extremists would present a different threat.

Al Suri, an engineer from Aleppo, was reportedly handed over to Syrian authorities in 2005 by the CIA under its rendition programme. Early last year, there were unconfirmed reports that Al Suri had been released by the regime in Damascus as a warning to the US and Europe, where he had operated for years. In truth, his whereabouts - and whether Damascus did actually release him - remain unknown.

In the 1980s, Al Suri joined the Fighting Vanguard, an offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, to fight the Baathist regime. His teachings focus on the "failure of the jihadi experience in Syria" in the 1970s and 1980s, and how new militant groups can avoid the same mistakes that led to the decisive victory by the Alawite-dominated regime.

In his writings, he offered 17 reasons for the earlier failure, including the failure to build strong ties with local communities; the focus on large cities while neglecting large swaths of the countryside; the reliance on outside support with no strategy on the ground; the splintering of fighters into diverse groups with no common leadership; the focus on quantity at the expense of religious awareness and personal abilities; and the failure to devise long-term guerrilla warfare strategies.

Other advice to jihadi groups includes maintaining secrecy in strategy and ideology; refusing to deal with regional countries, even temporarily, to avoid exposing tactics because these countries will eventually turn against the jihadis; mobilising various forces, including Kurds and tribes; and focusing on religious figures for training.

According to Murad Batal Shishani, an analyst of Islamist groups, jihadists in Iraq tried to apply Al Suri's guidelines after the US invasion in 2003. But they failed on two points: mobilising provincial communities and avoiding being labelled as extremist. Mr Shishani wrote in the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper that since 2008 Al Qaeda has sought to redefine its religious discourse and cultivate links with local communities.

Mr Shishani cites a statement made by Abu Muhammed Al Joulani, the leader of Jabhat Al Nusra in Syria, after the group was designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States. The statement offered advice to jihadis: "Day after day, you're getting closer to the people after you have conquered their hearts and become trusted by them." He also warned: "Beware of being hard on them. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion."

Throughout Syria, jihadi groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra work closely with provincial communities and leaders to win hearts and minds. Besides their impressive military discipline and prowess, such groups are widely considered to be more effective and committed to providing much-needed services and resources through relief programmes and the maintenance of order.

But apart from logistics and strategy, perhaps the most original part of Al Suri's teachings has to do with the idea of sectarian jihad. Al Suri preached that all confessional groups in "Bilad Al Sham", the area that includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, are well-armed except Sunnis. He lists Alawites, Christians, Shia, Druze and Jews as groups that are allowed by outside powers to carry arms - a reality that must be changed, according to his teachings.

It would not be accurate to say that this ideology is popular in Syria, but it is certainly gaining currency as the international community fails to stop the regime from destroying the country. People see that the only effective forces willing to face this barbarism are jihadis. And people have no reason to reject jihadis who have become more resilient and sophisticated in dealing with communities, unlike in previous conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Chechnya.

The new jihadi strategy - "we are here to stay" - presents new challenges that cannot be solved by drone strikes or other military operations. It requires a counterstrategy of winning hearts and minds.

By failing to support people's just demands, the world is missing a chance to undermine extremism. Nowhere is this failure more pronounced than in Bilad Al Sham, which jihadis consider a "paradise" for fighting the near and far "enemies of Islam", including both Arab and western governments.

As countries have failed to provide services and protection to their people, jihadis on the ground have presented themselves as the alternative. In the first year of the Arab Spring, during the uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, the appeal of jihadis in the region faded into the background. Today, they are as strong as ever.

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