Sunday, November 17, 2013

Saudi Preacher Relocates to Syria

While most of the high-profile Gulf-based financiers sending money to Syrian rebel groups emerged in late 2011-mid 2012, there are late entrants still getting in the game. One of these sheikhs, referenced in a recent article by Ben Hubbard detailing Kuwait's role as a conduit of funds from across the Gulf, is a Saudi citizen named Abdullah bin Muhamed al-Mohisni.

Mohisni preaching in Syria
Although the Saudi government shutdown private charities openly fundraising for Syrian rebel groups in 2012, Mohisni's Jihad bi-Malik campaign is able to operate for two reasons. One, Mohisni directs potential donors to phone numbers based in Kuwait and Qatar where they receive instructions for sending funds. Two, unlike most financiers who remain in the Gulf while making regular trips to northern Syria, Mohisni relocated to Syria around fall 2013. This action has raised Mohisni's profile. Prominent preachers including Suleiman al-Alwan have publicly praised Mohisni for giving up his wealth and position preaching at his father's mosque in Mecca to support the fighting in Syria.

Mohisni, whose uncle died in Deir Ezzor in April 2013 fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, is very open about financing al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliates. While other Gulf sheikhs are also financing Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), they generally avoid distributing photos of themselves meeting with high profile leaders from these groups (although other people have distributed these images). Mohisni does not appear to have any inhibitions about posting photos of himself meeting with ISIS leaders.
Mohisni meeting with ISIS
commander Omar a-Shishani

Like many other rebel financiers, Mohisni is also involved in more legitimate charity work. Mohisni actively supports the Jamia Rahma, a charity based in Mafraq, Jordan, which provides services to Syrian refugees. A number of celebrity Salafi sheikhs have participated in Jamia Rahma's programs including Mohamed Arifi and Nabil al-Auwadi. In general, the access that Salafi sheikhs now have to Syrian refugees is worrying as charitable work inevitably mixes with preaching. In fact, Mohisni praised Jamia Rahma for focusing its efforts on preaching to refugees.

Kuwait and Qatar's unwillingness to dissolve networks publicly fundraising for Jihadi groups in Syria has undermined Saudi efforts to shutdown financiers in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, prominent Salafi sheikhs are not only influencing the battlefield by providing money and fighters to sometimes foreign-led Jihadi groups, they are also influencing the next generation of Syrians through organized preaching to a vulnerable Syrian population.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Kuwaiti Financiers Get a Martyr

In late June, Syria Survey reported that the rebels’ Gulf financiers were regularly traveling to northern Syria for battlefield visits with their clients. This week, Kuwait’s Ajmi clan, among the most prolific of the Gulf financiers, announced that clan member Saud Faiz al-Huwila al-Ajmi was killed in Idlib province during the mid July fighting near the village of Basanqul. The recent clashes at Basanqul were notable for the destruction of a bridge that spanned the Aleppo-Latakia highway.

Rebel groups involved in the fighting at Basanqul included the Daoud Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and Deraa al-Thawra. It is unknown which group Saud was with at the time of his death, but only Ahrar al-Sham, a known Ajmi beneficiary, reported his death on their social media account.

Hajaj al-Ajmi, who told Kuwaiti media that Saud did his work in secret and avoided media attention, is now using the memory of Saud to raise more funds for the Syrian rebels.

A Hajaj al-Ajmi fundraising poster using
Saud Faiz al-Huwilal al-Ajmi's memory 
Saud Faiz al-Huwila

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Former UAE Colonel Dies in Syria

It is well know that Muslim males, from teenagers to middle aged men, are travelling to Syria to fight, and in some cases die, with the Sunni rebels. The stories of some of these martyrs, which are told on social media and web forums, tie together events from across the Muslim world. Muhamed al-Abdouli from the Fujairah Emirate in the UAE is one of these martyrs. 
al-Abdouli as an officer in the UAE military

As a young man, al-Abdouli joined the UAE's military, rising through the ranks to colonel. Despite his successful military career, al-Abdouli got involved in opposition politics and was reportedly imprisoned in 2005 without a trial. At some point, al-Abdouli became the head of the Emirati Hezb al-Umma (Party of the Nation), an Islamist Gulf opposition movement with parties in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.

While maintaining his position atop the Emirati Hezb al-Umma, al-Abdouli traveled to Syria sometime in 2012 where he joined the Salafi rebel group Ahrar al-Sham. al-Abdouli reportedly participated in several high profile battles including the capture of the Taftanaz and Jarah airbases, as well as Raqqa City where he died in early March 2013.

al-Abdouli making a statement from the cockpit
 of a captured fighter jet at Jarah Airbase
Al-Abdouli's story highlights a few interesting things. One is the depth of Hezb al-Umma's involvement with Syrian rebel groups. Not only did al-Abdouli, the head of Hezb al-Umma in the UAE, die fighting with the rebels, but both Hakem al-Matiri, head of Hezb al-Umma Kuwait, and Muhamed Mufrah, a leader of Hezb al-Umma in Saudi Arabia, are involved in financing Syrian rebel groups. This legacy of supporting a revolutionary movement overwhelmingly popular in the Sunni Muslim world may increase the appeal of Hezb al-Umma as it continues to challenge the authority of the Gulf monarchies.

Second, al-Abdouli's story highlights the diversity of experience that foreign fighters bring to the battlefield. Not only do foreign fighters range from young muslim males with no military experience to young men who have fought in Libyan or Iraqi armed groups, but some have learned military trade craft as officers in Middle Eastern militaries backed by the West.

al-Abdouli (bottom right) with Mohamed al-Mafrah (top left)
 and Hakim al-Matiri (top row, second from left)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rebel Financiers Flock to Northern Syria

 al-Hajri (left) and al-Ajmi (right) in
Northern Syria
Sheikhs in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and across the Gulf are financing Syrian rebel groups. Those leading the fundraising efforts are making regular trips to northern Syria, taking advantage of the opportunity for photo ops with weaponry and prominent rebel beneficiaries for use as fundraising tools.

One of the most prolific sheikhs involved in the financing effort, Hajaj al-Ajmi, along with his fundraising partner Irshid al-Hajri, traveled to northern Syria in late-Spring 2013. Their itinerary included a stop at Maarat al-Numan, located approximately 60km from rebel controlled border crossings with Turkey. Al-Ajmi delivered a sermon at a Maarat al-Numan mosque and the delegation visited the nearby Wadi Deif battlefield (and took pictures).

al-Ajmi delivering a sermon at a
mosque in Maarat al-Numan
Other Gulf sheikhs are making similar trips as well. Muhamed al-Mafrah from the Saudi opposition party, Hezb al-Umma al-Islamiya, visited members of the Umma Brigade earlier this year, also at Wadi Deif. Meanwhile Muhamed al-Owaihan, a young Kuwaiti financier accompanied Ahrar al-Sham on their May 2013 capture of the Shabiba military base located in Idlib Province on the Aleppo-Latakia highway.

These trips appear to be effective fundraising tools. In addition to providing the sheikhs with opportunities to transfer cash directly to rebel beneficiaries, the sheikhs often take and disseminate attention-grabbing photos from the battlefield that can help with fundraising efforts. Inspiring statements from inside Syria, posted on YouTube and promoted on Twitter, are another common product of these trips. One fundraising video by Hajaj al-Ajmi recorded in Syria received over 60,000 views on YouTube. Trips to northern Syria are used by Gulf sheikhs to establish their bonafides with battlefield appearances and attract increased attention from donors back home.

Mafrah looking the part in front of an
 Umma Brigade flag
Mafrah posing with Hitham Abu al-Farouq,
leader of the Umma Brigade

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Housam Najjair Planning a Return to Tripoli

Housam Najjair, a veteran of both the Libyan and Syrian revolts, is preparing to reenter the fray in post-Qaddafi Libya. I spoke with Najjair recently and it was clear that he is frustrated with those who have emerged politically empowered by the revolutions. Old-guard politicians in Libya, and religious extremists in Syria.
Najjair (left) in Libya during the

Najjair, an Irish citizen of Libyan decent, is the brother-in-law of Mehdi al-Harati. Harati was the leader of the Tripoli Brigade which played a crucial role in the battle for the Libyan capital in 2011. Najjair‘s exploits as a sniper in the Tripoli Brigade were documented by journalists from France 24, bringing Najjair fame in Europe. Najjair then traveled with Harati to northern Syria where they established the Uma Brigade around Kafr Nabl. The Libyan leaders of the brigade were later prevented from reentering Syria by the Turkish government, at which point the brigade came under Syrian leadership.

After leaving Syria, Najjair returned to Ireland where he wrote a book on his experiences in Libya entitled “Soldier for a Summer.” Najjair stated that he did not write the book not to encourage young Arab males in Europe to fight against Middle Eastern dictators, but as a form of therapy to help him digest the combat experience he went through without the benefit of any real tactical training or psychological preparation. He described the flow of foreign fighters into Syria as a “bitter sweet” phenomenon. “It is a bitter feeling to have children filling the boots of the international community, and sweet because people have to much of a conscience to let this go without a response.”
Najjair (left) with Mehdi al-Harati (right)
in Syria during the summer of 2012

Najjair is highly critical of the international community’s insufficient response to the war in Syria. He believes that the diminutive flow of weapons into the country from the West has empowered extremist groups that have other, well-developed, sources of weapons. He singled out Jabhat Nusrah for criticism, asking why they are concerned with how people are dressed during a time of war. He said that these actions have caused him to “question their true loyalty.”

In Libya, Najjair feels that the country is being run by “dinosaurs” left over from the old regime. After the fall of Qaddafi, Najjair explained, the old guard politicians were worried that the revolutionaries would come looking for them to settle old scores. When this did not happen, they returned to their old professions. Najjair feels that the same people who ran the country for decades have regained power, locking out the young revolutionaries who want change.

Democracy, according to Najjair, has not succeeded in Libya. In addition to empowering the wrong people, it has fostered divisions within Libyan society at a time when unity is crucial. He said that “The unity of the revolution didn’t last a week after the fall of the regime.” 

He is also concerned that democracy will destroy Libya’s conservative culture. He fears the arrival of nightclubs and alcohol on Libya’s Mediterranean beaches. The local reaction to the recent poisoning of a number of people in Tripoli after drinking bootleg alcohol indicates that Najjair probably is correct in asserting that most Libyans would not support this, but he fears that unbridled democracy may allow it to occur nonetheless. Najjair stated that he does not favor of a Sharia state, but later said that he could support some elements of Sharia if it was necessary to protect Libya’s conservative society.

Najjair (right) speaks with NATO Secretary
General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2011
Najjair said that he plans to return to Tripoli in the near future. He wants to use his unique ability to speak to the media to build bridges and help Libya move forward. It will be interesting to see what role he comes to play in the cynical world of post-revolutionary politics.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reports of Iranians Fighting in Syria

Reports of Iranians fighting in Syria heated up this week. First, on April 2, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that members of the National Defense Forces, a pro-regime paramilitary group, claimed that “Iranian combatants have been taking part in the Syrian conflict since approximately a month.” The members of the National Defense Forces claimed to have received training in Iran, then returned to Syria with Iranian fighters who were given Syrian I.D.s.

On April 3, Muhanad Issa, leader of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, gave an interview on Orient TV on clashes near Idlib Province’s Shia villages of Fua and Kafaraya. In the interview, Issa claimed that his men were facing Iranian fighters. A post then appeared on Shuhada Idlib’s Facebook page in which the brigade claimed to have killed one Iranian and captured another during clashes near the Shiite villages.  In February, Ben Hubbard reported that a spate of kidnappings have been escalating between the Shia villages of Fua and Kafaraya on one side and surrounding Sunni villages such as Binnish on the other.

Muhanad Issa (left) holding the identification papers of his
Iranian hostage (right)
Later on April 3, Orient TV posted an interview between Issa and the captured Iranian. In the video, the Iranian, speaking in broken Arabic, claimed to have been in Syria for five months in order to train pro-regime fighters. 

The Shuhada Idlib Brigade clearly believes that it has captured an Iranian fighter. Given the individual's age and presence in an intense war zone, I am inclined to believe Shuahada Idlib’s claims, although it should be noted that they do not match up with the report from the National Defense Forces. Shuhada Idlib’s Iranian captive claims to have been in Syria for five months not one, and in the video Issa displays the captive’s Iranian papers. It is possible, however, that small groups of Iranian fighters have been sent to different locations at different times.

1) Maarat Misrin
2) Kafarya
3) Fua
4) Binnish
5) Taftanaz
6) Idlib City
Screen Shot of Iranian Identification papers from the interview
between Issa and the Iranian Captive

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Umma Brigade's Political Manifesto

The Syrian rebel leadership may hold more sway over the revolution's political future than the Syrian opposition's external political leadership which is falling back into disarray after showing encouraging signs of cohesion. It is therefor important to understand the rebels' political goals. Most groups have not detailed any vision for post-Assad Syria while others have given broad descriptions of the state they seek to build. The Umma Brigade, an Islamist rebel formation operating in northern Syria, is fairly unique in that they published a detailed political manifesto in December 2012.

The Umma Brigade has been widely covered in western press. It’s founder, Mehdi al-Harati, is an Irish-Libyan who participated in the Gaza Flotilla in 2010, before leading the Thuwar Libya Brigade into Tripoli in 2011. He then served as Deputy Head of the Tripoli Military Council before relocating to Syria in the spring of 2012 to found the Umma Brigade in Kafr Nabl. With funding from sheikhs in Kuwait, the Umma Brigade rapidly expanded and gained a reputation for being well supplied and trained relative to many FSA groups. The Umma Brigade is an Islamist group and has even been referred to as "Salafist" in a report published by the Idlib Revolutionary Council.

In the fall of 2012, the core of the Umma Brigade got bogged down in the fight for Wadi Deif along with many Idlib rebel groups. Around that time, the brigade’s Libyan leadership was reportedly barred from reentering Syria by the Turkish government. The brigade has since been under Syrian leadership. 

In late December, the Umma Brigade published a document entitled “a political vision for establishing a system of government.” This political manifesto laid out 25 guiding principles for a future Syrian state. Some of the significant clauses are translated below.

While this document has some relatively liberal clauses regarding religious and ethnic pluralism, it also includes deeply troubling phrases for those in favor of a secular state. For example, the first clause cites Sharia as "the reference for all state affairs," and clause 14, gives the state a role in the “prevention of vice and promotion of virtue,” a phrase often used to justify the establishment of religious police. 

While there is little risk of this document being implemented in the near term, it does provide a window into the type of constitution that Islamist rebel groups are likely to promote in the future. 

Significant Clauses:

1) “Islam and Sharia (Book and Sunna) is the reference for all state affairs including the constitutional, political, legislative, judicial, economic and media.”

2) “The People are the source of power through direct and free elections”

5) “The separation of powers between the executive, legislative, judicial and financial institutions as did the caliphs”

8) “Respect for human rights and dignity”

9) “Respect for religious and ethnic pluralism and cultural components of the Syrian people. There is no compulsion in religion, nor the persecution of minorities on the basis of religion or nationality.”

10) “The protection of individual freedoms and privacy in their homes, meetings and contacts, and no spying on them.”

12) “Justice, equality and equal opportunities for all, in public, in front of the judiciary, and in all that is shared by society, without any discrimination.”

13) “Promote the positive role of women in society, and approve all their legitimate political, social, economic, scientific and professional rights, as stated in the Hadith (women are the sisters of men).”

14) “Carry the message of Islam to the world, and the Dawa to it in everyway, in word and deed. strengthen the position of the jurists, scholars, and preachers, and provide whatever help to them in carrying out their responsibilities… and the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice…The promotion of ethical values…and protection of the family and the people, and promote science, culture, and knowledge. Care for the Arabic language and literature, connecting the nation to its religion and its faith as well as its identity, history, and civilization”

16) “Open the way for civil society to do all activity it needs, whether political, professional, cultural, or legal, by allowing the establishment of advocacy groups, charities, trade unions, and political organizations.”

18) “Protection of private property, and maintenance of public funds”

19) “Protection of agricultural, residential and pastoral land…and the distribution of land to everyone equally.”

24) “Rejection of any foreign aggression on any Islamic country. The right of the nation to resist aggression, and liberate their land…and for the district of the Zionist entity, a refusal to deal with it, and work for the liberation of the land of Palestine, and retrieval of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the right of the Palestinian people abroad return to their land, and establish their own. Reject any agreements or treaties which waive any rights of the nation to an inch of its land or interests. There is no recognition of those treaties.”

The Manifesto: