Mahmoud Qul Agassi is a young Syrian of Turkmen origin. His surname means “The Military Captain” in Old Turkish and he stands more than 2.1 meters tall. His speeches invigorate audiences in minutes, thanks to his unusual tone that’s emotionally evocative and soulfully inspiring. While studying Islamic law at university in preparation for teaching in Sharia schools, Agassi soon turned away from his original goal in order to use his preaching in the service of the dangerous Assad regime.
Agassi was born in 1973 on the outskirts of Aleppo, and would become a phenomenon years later. His presence would seem strange among the secular Baathists in Syria, a country controlled by a regime employing a variety of cunning intelligence mechanisms. Indeed, while the War on Terror raged around the world in the aftermath the 9/11attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, something else was happening in Syria. Specifically, if you looked into Aleppo’s municipal stadium (named after Basil al-Assad, son Hafez al-Assad) you would see a group of fighters who bound their heads with green and black ribbons, inscribed with jihadist words of martyrdom, standing under the glare of the Syrian security, but fully sponsored by the Syrian state apparatus.
When you sit with the young Sheikh, Abu al-Qaqaa, you might not find what his followers found. When you look into his eyes and face, you might not find what they found, nor see what they saw—but you still could touch the deep soul shrinking inside the man whose destiny turned him into a contractor for terrorism, and a dealer of it, in the name of jihad and religious teachings, Jerusalem and honor, without a personal goal. You would also see much pride in the power that his tools gave to him: a special calmness, an ability to lose himself in his work, unconsciously asserting his dominant character. Al-Qaqaa explains, “I swear to you that my mind can hardly catch up with my tongue, I do not know what to say, but God leads me to what makes people shiver and cry of fear of God.”
Aleppo woke up one day with an articulate preacher who boasts of his ability to influence the thousands of people who attend his speeches until the squares around the mosque and the streets surrounding it become overcrowded with people who end up with emotional crying and whimpering.
Syrian Rasputin … The Rise
Abu al-Qaqaa studied in Syrian universities and, after studying preaching, made contact with those who provide licenses [to preach]. In Syria, those people are limited to the senior security officers in the Air Force Intelligence, military, political and security, and other intelligence branches of the Syrian government that employ tools of popular influence, beginning with moves the spirit.
“Here are the axioms, memorize them and understand them: We will never sign the death certificate of Palestine question. We will not sign even if they threatened us or killed us. Teach them to generations, let al-Aqsa be on your tongues, let it be in the minds of your children, an issue to speak about and a milk to suckle, let the adults grow with it.”
In a full unison with the alleged official Syrian-Iranian resistance and opposition, pressing on the weakness of the Syrian and Arab street represented in the Palestinian bleeding wound, then he would never save the speech about Suraqa bin Malik and how he tried to catch up with the Prophet Muhammad after he escaped from Ghar Hiraa with Abu Bakr, then what took place between them, and the promise the prophet made to Suraqa that he will wear Kisra's bracelet if he allowed to migrate, concentrating on the promise to the Jihadists of gaining the booty, then he never hesitates to say
“Pilgrimage is linked to jihad for the sake of God, and when you go to Hajj you will find verses reminding pilgrims of Jerusalem, and of the need and necessity of jihad, declaring that any attempt to recover our dignity will not succeed if not heading to this holy spot…”
And recovering dignity was one of the ways Abu al-Qaqaa influenced the minds and souls at that stage.
Mahmoud Qul Agassi visited many countries of the Arab and Islamic world, looking for Islamic organizations, connecting with their leaders, studying their development, and accessing their secrets. He repeated in his sharp deep voice:
Do not reconcile O my son Qaqaa, O sword of God, do not reconcile, because when I swore, it was not retaliation for retaliation alone. My retaliation is no longer for a pierced heart, but a heart that has been let down. But my retaliation is for the body of dignity, I do not see more than cowardice in their custom. My retaliation became in my presence never to give up… I will not reconcile… let me be ignorant of their customs, they are people satisfied with servility… and they want to sell my sword, and they want my blood to be lost…each of them is crying on his properties… and the liberals and I are here crying alone over the death of dignity… so do not reconcile, do not reconcile.
The Syrian intelligence grabbed the outspoken preacher. He was a majestic young man who liked to copy the look of the Afghans, lining his eyes as if perhaps trying to go back to the time of the Prophet, as Salafists say. Later, when Abu al-Qaqaa changed his look, I asked him about it. He replied, “The legitimate appearance can only be at the time of empowerment of Islam, and we are not in a Muslim country. When the Islamic state is built, we will go to Sharia in its full meanings, both in the appearance and the organization!”
Donations began to pour in to Abu al-Qaqaa from around the Muslim world in support of the armed resistance in Iraq. Meanwhile, major-generals Deeb Zaitouneh and Mohammad Mansoura, two of the senior officers in the Syrian intelligence, and some of the other officers were paving the way for the arrival of the assistance. It was a common scene to have bags of cash and packages of different currencies in the Agassi’s house and the other houses belonging to him. The blood money was passing before the eyes of the secular Baathists to blow up the situation in Iraq.
Relaying news of his fighting in Mesopotamia with his Jihadists followers and brothers, Abu al-Qaqaa said, “I swear to you that I fought with Uday and Qusay Saddam Hussein in Iraq in one of the battles.” The height of the Sheikh’s success came in 2004 as Iraq burned and he was turning Syria into the Silk Road of the bloodstained resistance against the “Neo–Crusaders.”
The effect of Abu al-Qaqaa on young men was much bigger than you can imagine, he would say, “Skulls and body parts and blood must be submitted in the name of Allah, and the cabinets of victory will not open but with lives that leave bodies in the yard of martyrdom.”
Young men were mobilized by those words to get involved in the project without thinking, and al-Qaqaa was one of their first slaughter mentors. “There are guests who landed in our land, so be good in our hospitality, and slaughter them like sheep or chicken and burn them. They are Americans, who desecrate the land and this is an opportunity that must not be lost.”
It was a pleasure to Mahmoud Qul Agassi to move around. It lent a Mafia-like ambiguity to his condition, which made him feel some truth about his own claims. So he acted as if danger followed him, before it actually did… Years later he phoned me in the middle of a rainy winter night in Aleppo in 2005.
“Hello, do you know why I was gone this time?… It’s even better! I was captured by the infidel coalition forces”
“Where were you arrested?” I asked.
“I will send some of the brothers to accompany you and tell you what happened,” He responded.
Minutes passed before two cars arrived where I was in the area of Halab al-Jadida. Inside the car were two of his followers to accompany me to some unknown place, in the heart of ancient Aleppo and its poor neighborhoods. There’s a small house with high doors leading to the roof where more than a hundred people were gathering around the Sheikh. He is talking to them and they are listening as if in a trance, “For this I banned jihad in Iraq!” You looked at him and [notice] he has changed his words, from calling for jihad to prohibiting Jihad.
“We are not the ones supposed to judge those Jews and Christians, God will judge them. We have to dedicate ourselves to reform, a project led in Syria today by Dr. Bashar al-Assad, and when we reform ourselves, we do more jihad, the Jihad of the self.”
An old devotee from the people of Aleppo with a white beard is kneeling on his knees in front of Abu al-Qaqaa asks, “Our lord, what is the rule for dealing with Syrian Christians?!” Al-Qaqaa replies, “Shame on you, you accuse the Christians of being atheists?! They are our people and they are the people of our Prophet Muhammad!”
“What has changed, Dr. Mahmoud?” I asked him.
“They captured me while I was returning from a missionary visit to Casablanca, the plane stopped at the airport in Riyadh. They got me off the plane and put me in Hayir prison, where I remained more than fifty days, in which I finished reading Prophet Mohamad’s Hadith books.
Syrian regime files and blackmailing the region
“But what has changed? Why is jihad forbidden today?” I asked.
“I was exchanged for thirty of the major Jihadists who are much more important than me. They were in Syrian prisons, and the President [al-Assad] did not accept my captivity in a Saudi prison, so he delivered them in exchange for my release! I did not agree, but I had no choice… Jihad is a way to kill innocent people.”
“Do you know any of these Jihadists?” I asked him.
“I know all of them and they are brothers of arms, including Abu Nasser Al-Qahtani,” He replied. Al-Qaeda media has published the news, ‘The arrest of the brother Jihadist Abu Nasser Al-Qahtani in Bagram prison to deliver him later to Hayer prison in Saudi Arabia,’ while the international media published, ‘Saudi leadership received the senior leader in al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, he had infiltrated overland to Iran and Afghanistan, through the mysterious secret passage.’ This passage was Syria, through which dozens of al-Qaeda activists infiltrated into Afghanistan and then to Iraq and other countries in the region.
Abu al-Qaqaa and the approaching end
The next stage was the most dangerous for Mahmoud Qul Agassi, after his return from (supposed) prison. His sharp intelligence began to sense a terrible fear of the consequences of the end of his role, ( I feel that Abu al-Qaqaa is dying) .. (shall I part from my friend who accompanied me all these years?) ..he was babbling (and the Da'wa?) .. (and the hundreds of families that depend on us? What will happen to them?).
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a quick visit to Damascus on Friday, May 2, 2003, the day after George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” announcement aboard an American warship. Upon Powell’s return to Washington, he explained more of what happened in Damascus, stating, “What I said to President Assad was that he can be part of a positive future, or remain in the past with the policies he follows… The choice is his.” [Assafir Newspaper 3 May 200]
America had become a neighbor, which Assad had to understand. But he understood in his own way, realizing the importance of his regime to helping the US in Iraq. So he used his influence to manipulate Iraq as a major pressure point on Washington, along with the support of Iran, which wanted to inherit everything in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, had been ousted by taking advantage of American panic about al-Qaeda. Al-Assad had no choice but to create appropriate conditions for the Americans to be considered among the main warriors against al-Qaeda in the region. The appropriate way to do this was to penetrate the organization itself more deeply, provide logistical support and intelligence to it, and prepare gear and men who have crossed the Syrian-Iraqi border in thousands, amid Americans' protest, and who have stated many times that Assad should control the border. Assad didn’t hesitate in telling America that, since they couldn’t even control their borders with Mexico, how about they ask him to administer the nearly eight-hundred miles to the east of Damascus.
Hariri's assassination and the panic of Abu al-Qaqaa
The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a shift toward Iran and Syria for the region, with those two countries attempting to minimize the leadership of moderate Sunnis in the region’s political scene, who generally enjoyed direct support from Saudi Arabia, the United States, and France. Iran and Syria saw it as necessary to do away the phenomenon of Hariri. But whoever made the decision to assassinate him was wrong in estimating the international reaction. The first loss was the Security Council's resolution to withdraw the Syrian military presence in Lebanon on 26 April 2005, followed by the application of Security Council resolution 1559, which demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanese territory, the dismantling of the militias, and the extension of state authority over all Lebanese territory. But Assad did not agree to leave Lebanon without recreating what he needed in order to interfere, directly or indirectly. This included the same agents who were carefully cultivated during his father’s reign, and also through the Iranian focus on destroying Lebanese civil political life, in order to amplify the of Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah .
The first blow Abu al-Qaqaa received was the mysterious suicide of Syrian Interior Minister, who was intimately involved in the Lebanese affairs, General Ghazi Kanaan, on 12 October of the year 2005. Kanaan had become the main sponsor of the Jihadist sheikh—if you want to meet Mahmoud Qul Agassi in Damascus, you’d have to go tothe Police Club in Damascus, in the Barzeh neighborhood, where Major General Ghazi Kanaan gives instructions for the club and his hotel to book a whole floor for Abu al-Qaqaa and his companions in order to maintain his security. With the killing of Mahmoud Ghazi Kanaan, Agassi began to sense the dangers to come. And indeed, things had already started to spiral out of control.
The summer of 2006 brought with it a big surprise for Abu al-Qaqaa. The Syrian intelligence found cassettes of his speeches with a jihadist group that had attempted to occupy the Syrian radio and television building. The Syrian regime’s news reports, newspapers, and websites showed pictures of the body bags containing those jihadists killed during the aborted attempt to occupy the most important building in Umayyad Square next to the Syrian chiefs of staff headquarters. The pictures showed the face of al-Qaqaa on the covers of audio and video tapes that the terrorists had planned to be displayed on the screen, according to Syrian regime's claims and media agencies.
I asked him if he had a relationship with this group, “I have nothing to do with them, and it is difficult to believe that our young people can get to the television building, this is deception.”
“But who is behind that trick?” I asked.
“Thing are complex,” he answered. “And there are those who do not wish us well. You can see that in the recent movements that took place in the security services, the substituting of some officers along with the demobilization of some honest ones.”
His statements denying a relationship with al-Qaeda and the Salafis became more frequent, and he began waging a violent attack on the organization, saying that it is in step with the American project in the region. Now, he says, he doesn’t have any relationship with the organization of Jund al-Sham, and that his foundation, Ghurbaa ash-Sham, does no more than media activity. But al-Qaqaa couldn’t resist the attraction of power and leadership, so sometimes he would say, “Although my followers are thousands in Syria and other Arab countries, we are against these organizations, which are fundamentally against us because we represent the conscious Islam and we reject violence.”
Hawks of Abu al-Qaqaa … and Nahr al-Bared
The events of Nahr al-Bared later in 2007, the emergence of the organization of Fatah al-Islam, and its elimination by the Lebanese army (which almost completely destroyed the camp over the heads of its inhabitants during an operation supported by the U.S. military and with the coordination of Syrian security) played a significant role in intensifying the concerns of Mahmoud Qul Agassi. All the events seem to point to him, as if there was someone deliberately mentioning his name in every significant matter related to terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Agassi began feeling death approaching, and he tried to change his life, and shape his presence and his relations. He got rid of his Afghan appearance for good, shaved his beard, held cultural meetings to say that his doctoral thesis was basically against extremism, and that its title “The art of Da'wa” is a summary of his idea that Islam is an art of life. He started wearing expensive suits with luxurious global brands, and you could often see him returning from skin-care salons, enjoying sitting in the back seat of one of his modern American cars, turning up the in the streets of Damascus, and listening to the Islamic songs of Sami Yusuf “Hasbi Rabbi, Jal Allah.”
The de facto end of the Jihadist Sheikh
But his role was over, and the appearance of Abu al-Qaqaa in a public place or a religious ceremony became a reason to outrage the security forces, who prevented him from speaking, closed the media center of his movement, Ghurabaa al-Sham, and accelerated the pace of his estrangement. He looked like an enemy of the secular state, while he retreated to a small house in Jdaydet Artouz that was destroyed by the Assad regime’s shelling after the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution. The number of those around him decreased, and nobody kissed his hand more than once every quarter of an hour. The religious Sheikh became a thing of the night, sleeping during the day and only emerging after midnight. No one knew how he was practicing his religious commitments and prayers with that kind of this daily routine.
In our last meeting, in the same house in the Damascus countryside, we talked at length about the appearance of the witness Hussam Hussam, and about his discussion of the role of Islamists in the assassination of Hariri, and how defendants had started secretly travelling to speak with international investigators. Abu al-Qaqaa was terrified of the possibility that all the witnesses would claim that the one behind the assassination was Abu al-Qaqaa and nobody else. “I'm afraid that they will forge charges against us!” he worried, adding, “this time it will not be trivial.” Our meeting continued until dawn, amid the Sheikh's fears of a predicament that, he knew, the Syrian intelligence would put him in.
Abu al-Qaqaa moved to Aleppo again in a final trip, and he was able to beg for a religious position where he would complete the final chapter of his life, and later he became the imam of the mosque of Iman in the Halab al-Jadida,. The moment he left the mosque, one of his followers approached him and he was shot by a silenced pistol, on Friday September 28, 2007.Abu al-Qaqaa was transferred in critical condition to al-Shahba hospital in Aleppo where he died hours later. The killer was arrested, but he disappeared in Assad’s prisons, was not mentioned later, and no one knows anything about his trial.
Abu al-Qaqaadied, after that dramatic life, but it is as if he is alive in his moral school and his students are deployed in Syria today, following his intellectual approach, his flexibility with the security forces, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the intelligence apparatus. There need be no more evidence of this than the existence of jihadist organizations that kill Syrian rebels, arrest activists, warn against democracy, dovetail perfectly with the interests of Bashar al-Assad, restrict freedoms, whip the backs of people, and cut off heads to swing global public opinion away from the revolution that asks for freedom, dignity and a civil state.
I have found, in the case of Mahmoud Qul Agassi something important and sensitive, which I captured in its moments of humanity, something that can conjure up with many files, and it goes on with those who made it on the edge of the Syrian security risk which, in every moment, is about to prevent the researchers from any reality in Syria, the country controlled by a regime which used and invested, as it does today with many, a young Syrian gifted in the charm of persuasion, then did not hesitate for a moment in assassinating his after stripping him of everything he owned of tools and reasons of power.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer