By Mohamed Sami Al-Kayyal
In the study of recently formed jihadist groups in Syria, there has been little emphasis on their ideology and declared beliefs. Nor has there been an attempt to analyze them or assess them within the social and historical conditions in which such groups have operated and interacted. Rather, the majority of the analysis has been directed at various narratives—almost like detective stories—about the emergence and workings of these groups. This has greatly delayed the emergence of studies of the internal nature of these organizations, and as such our knowledge of them has become superficial and restricted. Prominence has been given to that which is considered absurd or perverted according to the ideology and particular political outlook of the analyst in question.
If we were to study the declared beliefs of Syria’s jihadist groups, we would soon be struck by the fact that the main jihadist groups have not, in fact, revealed a clearly defined ideology. They are content with a highly professional media rhetoric, which has focused on their unrivaled military capability in their fight against the Syrian Army, while deliberately and consistently obscuring the political and social aims of their fight. Indeed, they are content to murmur vaguely about two organically linked principles: nusra and ghurba.
The notion of ghurba, meaning roughly “self-imposed exile” but often translated as “separation,” has its roots in Islamic heritage, and more specifically in that of Sufism. Its original meaning was essentially the idea of a spiritual movement (and later a physical one) away from corruption and idolatry, to one of faith and moral decency. The concept developed significantly with the emergence of Sufi military groupings on the frontiers of the Islamic empire, also known as ribaat, made up of fighters who had abandoned worldly pleasures in order to defend the borders of Islam. Sufi circles thus became a unifying point for the fighters’ military and religious orders.
Despite the well-known hostility between Sufis and Salafists, the Sufi concept of ghurba was reclaimed, in its entirety, by the emerging Salafist jihadism. So the spiritual, and then military, ghurba, or “separation,” became a jihadist ghurba for those who had been all but ostracized from what they called their “corrupt” communities. They left everything behind and set out to give support to persecuted Muslims around the world.
With the formation of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, it seemed that Syrian jihadism had claimed the best aspects of ghurba. These professional fighters, despite the uncertainty enveloping them, had indirectly declared that their aim was nusra—literally “support”—rather than domination. They lived on the outskirts of towns and cities, did not interfere directly in their affairs, and were known for their isolation, their excellent morals compared with other rebel groups, and the fact that they did not engage in looting or kidnapping. They fought the regime with competence and proper military logistics, driving many members of the Free Syrian Army to abandon their brigades and join the Al-Nusra Front. Since the new forces could only participate once they had undergone advanced military training, in addition to some mysterious ideological guidance, the movement was able to maintain its elitism.
In certain areas of the country, the Al-Nusra Front has also played a vital social role, providing aid, support and basic civil administration in some cases. It has also helped to bring about significant social changes, for example in the town of Binesh in Idlib, which was at one point considered the capital of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria. There, through covert actions, it helped to promote a new leadership class, drawn from the poorest social groups and small families, and it broke down the social and military control of the large, influential families that had dominated the city since its liberation. This nearly exposed the group to the chaos of their internal squabbles.
Contrary to other Salafist jihadist cells, like Ahrar Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front has not published any written intellectual or political manifesto, and it has been satisfied with the publicity around its military activity alone. In fact, it has knowingly taken advantage of all this suspicion and intrigue in order to enhance the air of mystery surrounding the group. Meanwhile, it continues to exploit a key principle in the narrative of ghurba, that the “outsiders” are both misunderstood and oppressed by the majority, but need pay no attention so long as they maintain their total separation from the corrupt mindset of this world.
In short, the Al-Nusra Front, with its military capability, its favored overarching themes of nusra and ghurba, and its social interaction with the people, has met many of the needs of the rebel groups, which are the most damaged and marginalized in Syrian society. It has given them a shining ideology within a harsh and bloody war of existence. This has provided the Al-Nusra Front with a strong popular base, which has extended to the leading elements of the organization, lending it a distinct local color without sacrificing its all-important elitism. Yet this shrewdness leads us to question the validity of ghurba presented by the Al-Nusra Front: is it really a deep Sufi purity detached completely from self-interest? Or is it a conscious political and ideological exploitation of the concept—one which is highly profitable for the organization?
Yet this process and its natural progression were stalled following a now-notorious series of events earlier this year. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the insurgent group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), made an announcement declaring that the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS were officially merging; Abu Mohammed Al-Jawlani, the leader of the Al-Nusra Front, denied such a merger, relying instead upon the symbolic power of “the Emir of jihad,” Ayman Al-Ẓawahiri, and pledging loyalty to him. Ẓawahiri, in turn, announced that ISIS should be dissolved.
There was never any doubt that the Al-Nusra Front would exploit its position in Syria and advance its cause. Yet if you add to that the notion of ghurba, steeped as it is in history, and being applied with consciousness of social reality and all its complications, and dominating much of the structure of the group, it was bound to produce a clear-cut, dedicated authority in so far as it is possible in the current circumstances.
The fundamental disagreement between Baghdadi and Jawlani lies in both the timing and crudeness of Baghdadi’s announcement and his effort to take immediate control of what the Al-Nusra Front leaders have tried to construct quietly and patiently through months of considerable difficulty. It was this, as well as his lack of regard for the minutiae and complexities of the local arena, that made Baghdadi’s announcement both authoritarian and careless, and, indeed, completely “separated” from reality.
Yet none of this has prevented Baghdadi from penetrating Syrian land, nor has it prevented the many foreign and Syrian fighters from switching their allegiance from the Al-Nusra Front to ISIS. Yet Baghdadi’s group has remained estranged from the milieu in which it operates, whatever loyalties he may have formally obtained. Equally, its authoritarian methods, its withdrawal from fighting the regime, and its preoccupation both with strengthening the roots of its authority and with its expansion in the liberated areas, have attracted much resentment and hostility.
Looked at objectively, we can see how Baghdadi has handed the regime everything it needed in its media war against the revolution, whether on an internal level between supporters and opponents of the regime, or on an international level, in circles that already harbor anti-Islamist views.
The loyal supporters of the Al-Nusra Front did not get embroiled in an open war against ISIS, and they endured its appropriation of their sites and their fighters. Yet this only lasted for a short period, for gradually Baghdadi’s state began to diminish and become isolated, ending up in an unenviable position in the regional political wrangling. Meanwhile, the Al-Nusra Front maintains its alliances and its old military approach in order to furtively lay siege to ISIS. Yet in the process of this quasi-cold war, the Al-Nusra Front has been forced to reveal its hand and disclose many of its true ambitions.
In this context, and contrary to how it would initially appear, Baghdadi’s “state” appears to be drowning in its ghurba, whereas the strategy of the Al-Nusra Front appears closer to achieving the aims of ISIS.
But given the severity of the social destruction in Syria, the engrossment of the leaders of the conflict in local power struggles, and their lack of concern for their supposed popular base, it has become impossible to talk about the real needs of society. Yet these war games and power struggles will render the leaders of the conflict nothing more than ineffectual warlords presiding over a devastated country.