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Syria and the rise of radical Islamist groups 


Mullins, Creighton A. 


Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School 
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NAVAL 
POSTGRADUATE 
SCHOOL 


MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA 


THESIS 


SYRIA AND THE RISE OF RADICAL ISLAMIST 
GROUPS 


by 
Creighton A. Mullins 


March 2015 


Thesis Advisor: Anne Marie Baylouny 
Second Reader: Mohammed Hafez 





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March 2015 Master’s Thesis 

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SYRIA AND THE RISE OF RADICAL ISLAMIST GROUPS 


6. AUTHOR(S) Creighton A. Mullins 


7. PERFORMING ORGANIZATION NAME(S) AND ADDRESS(ES) 8. PERFORMING ORGANIZATION 
Naval Postgraduate School REPORT NUMBER 
Monterey, CA 93943-5000 


9. SPONSORING /MONITORING AGENCY NAME(S) AND ADDRESS(ES) 10. SPONSORING/MONITORING 
N/A AGENCY REPORT NUMBER 


11. SUPPLEMENTARY NOTES The views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy 
or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. IRB Protocol number N/A 


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13. ABSTRACT (maximum 200 words) 


The Syrian uprising began as a secular, nationalist struggle in 2011 but gradually devolved into a vortex of sectarian 
warfare with more than 200,000 dead and another 10 million displaced. Amid the chaos, the radical Sunni Islamist 
groups Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State became the most prominent in the conflict. This thesis 
explores why and how the groups emerged in Syria, rose to power, and proliferated to unprecedented levels by tracing 
the progression of the Syrian conflict through three cycles of contestation: protest, insurgency, and civil war. 
Combining elements from social movement, insurgency, and radicalization theories as well as civil war literature, this 
thesis dissects the radical Islamist ideology, the institutional legacies from prior struggles, and the role of external 
sponsors; and places each in the context of the Syrian conflict. 


History has proven that the radical Islamists fighting in Syria today are the next generation of leaders in the global 
jihad movement. Understanding their rise to power provides crucial insight to our future enemies. This thesis seeks to 
go beyond a recitation of facts and links multiple frameworks with the rise of the most powerful radical Islamist 
groups in the Syrian conflict. 


14. SUBJECT TERMS 15. NUMBER OF 
Syria, social movement theory, insurgency theory, radicalization theory, civil war, Islamic State, Ahrar | PAGES 
al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, global jihad movement 163 


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ll 


Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited 


SYRIA AND THE RISE OF RADICAL ISLAMIST GROUPS 


Creighton A. Mullins 
Major, United States Air Force 
B.S., U.S. Air Force Academy, 2002 


Submitted in partial fulfillment of the 
requirements for the degree of 


MASTER OF ARTS IN SECURITY STUDIES 
(MIDDLE EAST, SOUTH ASIA, SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA) 


from the 


NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL 


March 2015 
Author: Creighton A. Mullins 
Approved by: Anne Marie Baylouny 
Thesis Advisor 
Mohammed Hafez 


Second Reader 


Mohammed Hafez 
Chair, Department of National Security Affairs 


ili 


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iv 


ABSTRACT 


The Syrian uprising began as a secular, nationalist struggle in 2011 but gradually 
devolved into a vortex of sectarian warfare with more than 200,000 dead and another 10 
million displaced. Amid the chaos, the radical Sunni Islamist groups Ahrar al-Sham, 
Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State became the most prominent in the conflict. This 
thesis explores why and how the groups emerged in Syria, rose to power, and proliferated 
to unprecedented levels by tracing the progression of the Syrian conflict through three 
cycles of contestation: protest, insurgency, and civil war. Combining elements from 
social movement, insurgency, and radicalization theories as well as civil war literature, 
this thesis dissects the radical Islamist ideology, the institutional legacies from prior 
struggles, and the role of external sponsors; and places each in the context of the Syrian 


conflict. 


History has proven that the radical Islamists fighting in Syria today are the next 
generation of leaders in the global jihad movement. Understanding their rise to power 
provides crucial insight to our future enemies. This thesis seeks to go beyond a recitation 
of facts and links multiple frameworks with the rise of the most powerful radical Islamist 


groups in the Syrian conflict. 


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vi 


Il. 


Il. 


IV. 


TABLE OF CONTENTS 


INTRODUCTION vecsvicssssestedesionv scosnied sscutesveconteoiied sssuen seusesed seeutoiied ospves seesased sessbennasonvestedes 1 
A. MAJOR RESEARCH QUESTION. ...........ccccssscssscsssssccsescsccsccsscssssssesssesseseees 1 
B. SUGINTBIC ANG Ei svesestisceshpsnacaneaccaceskesoudsecabsccedigacecansnbncnentaseacdogssasasdagoneuadseiosess 2 
C. ELEBRA TURE REVIEW | isssscssicasossecsdinancoasiedbe cecaieabe tebeneicbesncsdeesgivencedaseavesabive 4 
1. MTVGD OCUURCUIOH ghss55 cotecits soliccuncecncienecesadssentnassuschpaas¥ sobababsnesdavonsoneatbosousoasbenke 4 
2 Social Movement Theor y..........ccsccsssssssssssssssessssscsssssessssscsssssesssssessecses 5 
3 RAdiCaliZatiOm: VHCOLY a ieciestesscvesexosscontcdesueshescsevnnneceonscocdnencvecadeusnassosees 6 
4. PMSUPSONCY THGOLY siveascccicaaticccatanecbesssiagiauiacaaticcsincsentessessaseiiacemiaseasasaase 8 
5. Vil War LAterat re isscisccscssctsisssasensesassentesoxssbissessbvcessvneiosbenceisievsnn 11 
6. COM CTS NO cise acecssicatsckhitsaccdesacsncetanesectansasesuainanstesabepucugarecn coanastuctsaecvesen 13 
D. POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS AND HYPOTHESES .............sccscssssseees 14 
1. Hypothesis 1: [deology..........sscsssccsssrscssssscsssscesssscessccssscsssessssssscsssoees 14 
2. Hypothesis 2: Experience, Organization, and Strategy.................. 15 
3: Hypothesis 3: External Spomnsors............ccsssccssssscssssccssssscssssesssssssees 16 
E. THESIS OVERVIEW AND CHAPTER OUTLINE .j.u0.......cccesssecsscssceeeees 16 
HESTORICAL OVERVIEW cevsecsssessdsess ovacssupsnsdsvssvsdensdbensdosssenaseassoessesscveessvsesssesssons 19 
A. SYRIA’S TURBULENT EARLY HISTORY ............ cc cesscsccssscsescecsseceseees 19 
B. POST-INDEPENDENCE: 1946-1970) ..........ccscssscssscsssssccsecssccssscsesseessessseees 22 
Cc. THE RULE OF HAFEZ AL-ASSAD.u..........cccscssccescssccsccssccsecceescecssescsessecees 24 
D. BASHAR AL-ASSAD AND THE SYRIAN UPRISING .u........cecssscesseeees 27 
E. POLITICAL OPPORTUNITY EXPLANATION TO THE 
EMERGENCE OF RADICAL ISLAMIST GROUPS ...........ccscssssssssecesees 30 
1; Political Opportunity Structures: An Overview ...........sccsssccssssscees 30 
a. The Fragmented Opposition..........s.ccsssccssrsccssrsccsssscssssccesssceees 31 
b. Al-Assad’s Counter-Insurgency Strategy.......sccsecccssrrecessccees 33 
F. CONCLUSION wivedeseuustuviadetecdedsvedssuudecsdsveyabides sesvctucasevncstudsoadedspistevssdasatdbsrontes 35 
PDO OOGN ssvciegusditustisosadessusstecsclesseinwulsceatctosWousccedsensusecees elasestetoaduentubatecsevocaivaecdasenn 37 
A. SALAFISM AND THE ROLE OF IDEOLOGY .............cscsscsssceccseccsesscees 38 
B. THE AL-ASSAD REGIME: THE PERFECT JIHADI ENEMY.............. 40 
C. SYRIAN SUNNI MORAL OUTRAGE 20.0... cesscssscecseccsccssccsescsessnsssessseees 42 
D. FRAMING THEORY: AN OVERVIEW ........cccscsssssssssccssscscsssscscscocssecsseees 45 
1. Ahrar al Sham: the Median Voter Option ...............scccssssssssscssseseees 46 
2; Jabhat al Nusra: the Hybrid Option ...............ccscccsssscsssscesssscesseccees 49 
3. Islamic State: the Manichean Choice...............sssssscssssscesscssceesceeee 53 
E. PONE LESION sesicetisssisisicsdecseincseacaneceatudantss bsacspncasavoahioulioeettineactiseabesasasiostes 56 
EXPERIENCE, ORGANIZATION, AND STRATEGY ..........ccscssscssscscssssesceecees 57 
A. THE BENEFIT OF PREWAR NETWORKS: MOBILIZING 
STRUCTURES AND REPERTOIRES OF CONTENTION ...........ccsce00e0 58 
B. THE INSTITUTIONAL LEGACIES OF SYRIA’S RADICAL 
MS ELA WILS UN i setiestist acess soucceosasthccpssenwanshSitanspsossadedssenssesobsas seeseavtecascetnobonkecunde 59 
1. The Islamist Opposition to Baathism from 1963 until 1982 .......... 60 


Vil 


a. Marwan Hadid: Syria’s First Jihad Entrepreneur................ 61 


b. Impact on Ahrar, JAN, And IS ......sscccssscssssssesscssescesssscesesecees 64 
Zz; From Local to Global: The Radical Islamist Exodus in the 
TOROS aiid! 1998 vi ins caieiassacadassacasvitececicaruscteasessncadiviaresspscobuchinanctesnuasessep 65 
a. Abu Musab al-Suri: Syria’s Second Jihad Entrepreneur.....66 
b. Impact on Ahrar, JAN, And IS ......scccsssccesssssesscssesscssssscssssecees 70 
3. The Iraq War in the mid-2000S ...............ccccssscssssssssccssssscccsscsseesccesees 73 
a. Abu Musab al-Zargawi’s Foreign Fighter Network ............. 75 
b. Impact to Ahrar, JAN, And IS .....cssccssssccessscsesscssssccesssscessseeees 78 
C. CONCEUSTOIN sviosseisastout ss ces cvtecsshsoetedes hesashial tenses teaatnnodbsanpseckastusseestsnestiaabie 85 
V. THE INFLUENCE OF EXTERNAL SPONSORS. ..........ccsscsscssssscsscsssccsesseesseceees 87 
A. SPONSORS IN CIVIL WARS AND INSURGENCIES: AN 
COV HRV DEW (isscciscinasstecancssiacssecsazsasevesicoaiasesneabeascasebalssntcaestiaabsivacoedesoccdenveusadss 88 
B. THE SAUDI-IRANIAN RIVALRY AND THE SYRIAN 
CONNECTION sisisasistacceaiassalicincevecastios canis bnccegscssntaoascecdisuapesteinessctancapessastonee 91 
GC SUNNI EXTERNAL SPONSORG..........ccsssssssssosssscssessscssssssescoessscssnssscssesssencs 95 
1. Saudi Arabia: Unintended Consequence .............ssccsssssssssscsessscesees 96 
pa Qatar: Sponsorship Gone AWTy ..........cssccssssccssssccssrccssssccssscssssessees 102 
3. Kuwait: The “Epicenter” of Radical Islamist Financial 
SSULP PONG acai soa depesssivacscnnsashecuceseuecontsnpecs Ganceceosacaecsnas oovisenasaveneavenceeacusence 108 
D. CONEE USION escscetsas saucdeisth couvasessonsseuecebnsa chase tush anieausinteacehssubsanonasubansbenesnie 116 
VI. CONCLUSIONS AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS ...........ccccssssssscsssseees 119 
A. HYPOTHESIS T? IDEOLOGY sssciccicsncesccstscesidecudenccesvcssscces talecenseebsccectesecce 119 
1. Policy RecOMMEeENdCAatiONG..............ccccccscccscssssscccsscessccssssssccsssssecssseees 121 
B. HYPOTHESIS 2: EXPERIENCE, ORGANIZATION, AND 
SPA TEIGY scsi sscadolsssdosataicssaed snadecaauseyustevssestocecasevdsdeudsoadscorsstebboeinesarsedeboavconens 122 
1. Policy RecommMendation...............ccscrsccsssssssssscssssccsssscsssssssssssssseesees 123 
C. HYPOTHESIS 3: EXTERNAL SPONSORS .u........cccccsssssccscssscsssseesseceses 125 
iF Policy RecommMendatiOns..............ccccccsccccssssscccssssscccsscsssccsssssscsccsees 126 
D. FENAL FHOUGHUS bogs sosetccacetiebetaccsteveisacesiciecatehaateebshessaticehivaciccisrdseiedaves 129 
LIST OF KE BE RE NCES 3 secescisccscodsccleseschtcicsdesenndveucis sie cescdacsisetavendesceccwuctebecdbscccesitedaviedaccs 131 
INITIAL DISTRIBUTION. LIST  issscscesesdesscscvccnstessccsnctinscivcastecssexeadenetuss cosnsteezeavesnaasenveecs 149 


Vill 


LIST OF ACRONYMS AND ABBREVIATIONS 


Ahrar Ahrar al Sham 

AQ al-Qaeda 

AQI al-Qaeda in Iraq 

CIA Central Intelligence Agency 
DNI Director of National Intelligence 
DOD Department of Defense 

FIU Financial Investigation Unit 
FSA Free Syrian Army 

GCC Gulf Cooperation Council 

IMF International Monetary Fund 

IF Islamic Front 

IO Information Operations 

IS Islamic State 

ISI Islamic State of Iraq 

ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham 
JAN Jabhat al-Nusra 

LCC Local Committee Council 
MANPADS Man-Portable Air Defense Systems 
SIF Syrian Islamic Front 

SILF Syrian Islamic Liberation Front 
SNC Syrian National Council 

UAE United Arab Emirates 

UAR United Arab Republic 


1X 


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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


To my thesis advisor, Dr. Anne Marie Baylouny, thank you for listening and 
being patient with me. You gave me the freedom to take risks, and your candid feedback 
constantly pushed me to improve. You introduced me to social movement theory, and 
many of the ideas I expressed in this thesis were generated in your classes. I am truly 


grateful. 


To my second reader, Dr. Mohammed Hafez, I cannot thank you enough for your 
constant encouragement throughout this process. Your faith in me gave me the 
confidence I needed, and your assistance in helping me brainstorm was invaluable. You 


inspired me to expand my original framework, which made for a richer final product. 


To Noel Yucuis, thank you for meticulously reviewing every chapter. Your 


feedback, insight, and edits not only refined this thesis but also improved me as a writer. 


To the faculty of the National Security Affairs department and my classmates, I 
would like to express my heartfelt thanks. Your insights and perspectives challenged me 
to become a better student, writer, and critical thinker. All of you exposed me to different 
theories and ideas that opened my eyes to different ways of examining the complexities 


of the Middle East. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this experience. 


To my family and friends, especially my father and brother, thank you for your 
support and suffering through the long discussions about my thesis. Your questions 


pushed me to dig deeper in my analysis, and your encouragement meant the world to me. 


Last and most important, to my beautiful wife, Julie, and my children, Mairyn and 
Hunter, I wanted nothing more than to join you on your many adventures in Monterey. 
Thank you for being so patient and understanding while I secluded myself to write. I love 
you with all my heart. Any success I have had at the Naval Postgraduate School is yours— 


none of it would have been possible without your unwavering love and support. 


Xl 


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xii 


I. INTRODUCTION 


A. MAJOR RESEARCH QUESTION 


When the Arab Spring erupted throughout the Middle East in 2010, it hit with 
unexpected force as Arab citizens demanded their freedom and liberty. Few could have 
guessed at its onset that the Arab Spring represented the harbinger of doom for 
authoritarian regimes. In less than a year, popular uprisings removed dictators in Tunisia, 
Egypt, and Libya, and in March 2011, the Arab Spring spread to the rural areas of Syria. 
Unlike other ousted regimes, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad proved resilient, but the situation 
devolved from secular protests to an insurgency to a brutal civil war with as many as 
200,000 dead to date and an additional 10 million people displaced, which accounts for 
roughly half of Syria’s population. ! 


While the opposition began as secular, democratic, and nationalist in 2011, radical 
Islamist groups began taking hold in the unfolding chaos in 2012. By 2013, radical Sunni 
Islamist groups, or Salafi-jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), Ahrar al Sham 
(Ahrar), and the Islamic State (IS), were firmly entrenched in the conflict.2 Brian Jenkins 
from RAND warned that “the jihadists have become the cutting edge of the rebellion.’ 


By 2014, few groups in the opposition were as visible and prominent as JAN, Ahrar, and 


1 “The War in Syria: Can Hell Be Frozen Over?” The Economist, November 15, 2014, 
http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/2 1632626-limited-un-ceasefire-plan-has-little- 
hope-success-can-hell-be-frozen-over. 


2 The terrorist organization known as the Islamic State has undergone a considerable amount of name 
changes over the years, which often leads to confusion. The group’s original name was al-Tawhid wal- 
Jihad. Its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi changed it to al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, more 
commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), in 2004. AQI rebranded its name to the Islamic State of Iraq 
(ISD) in 2006, and once its leaders decided to expand into Syria, they changed the group name yet again to 
the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Some experts also refer to ISIS as ISIL, which refers to the al- 
Sham portion of its name as the Levant. Some also refer to the group as Da ‘ish or Daesh, its acronym in 
Arabic. In mid-2014, the group changed its name to the Islamic State, which has been resoundingly 
condemned by Muslims and others around the world. Regardless, this thesis will use the current name the 
Islamic State (IS) when referring to the group since that is how the group refers to itself. This is in no way 
meant to imply endorsement or acknowledgement of the terrorist group’s legitimacy as an actual state. 


3 Brian Michael Jenkins, The Role of Terrorism and Terror in Syria’s Civil War (Santa Monica, CA: 
RAND, 2013), 3, http://www.rand.org/pubs/testimonies/CT402.html. 


1 


IS, and leaders in the U.S. intelligence community rated all three groups as “the most 


effective opposition forces” fighting in Syria.4 


This thesis seeks to better understand the rise of radical Sunni Islamist groups in 
Syria. How did they proliferate and thrive in a conflict that began as a secular, nationalist 
struggle? Why have these groups overshadowed the secular opposition? What are the 


resultant policy implications or recommendations for the U.S. government? 


B. SIGNIFICANCE 


The Syrian conflict presents a vexing situation for the United States. While the 
U.S. government would normally welcome the demise of the al-Assad regime, the rise of 
radical Islamist groups in the current conflict paralyzed any quick U.S. response. Once 
the conflict turned violent in 2011, many security experts clamored for the West, 
especially the United States, to arm the notoriously fragmented and unorganized secular 
opposition. However, an equal number of experts expressed caution in 2012 that any 
Western supplied arms could end up in the hands of the radical Islamists. This fear was 
compounded by the concern that the current batch of radical Islamists in Syria could 
represent the next generation of global terrorists. Prior to 2014, the situation represented a 
catch 22 for the United States; however, once IS began making blitzkrieg-style gains in 
Iraq and Syria, the United States was forced to respond. 


In September, U.S. President Barak Obama outlined his four-pronged strategy to 
destroy IS in Syria and Iraq, which now has been extended to other jihadist groups such 
as JAN.° A tenet of President Obama’s strategy is to “strengthen the [Syrian] opposition 
as the best counterweight to extremists like IS, while pursuing the political solution 
necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”© The dilemma is the overall estimated 


strength of the insurgency in Syria ranges “between 75,000 or 80,000 up to 110,000 or 


4 Christopher Blanchard, Carla Humud, and Mary Beth Nikitin, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview 
and U.S. Response (CRS Report No. RL33487) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 
September 17, 2014), 3, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33487.pdf. 


5 The White House, “Statement by the President on ISIL,” news release, September 10, 2014, 
http://www. whitehouse. gov/the-press-office/20 14/09/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-address-nation. 


6 Ibid. 


115,000 insurgents, who are organized into more than 1,500 groups of widely varying 
political leanings,” according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James 
Clapper.’ Among the dizzying array of opposition groups, the radical Islamists are some 
of the largest and most powerful. While estimates vary and group affiliation can be fluid, 
the CIA estimates IS’s strength as 20,000 to 31,500.8 According to The Economist, 
Ahrar’s estimated strength is 10,000 to 20,000.92 RAND estimates JAN’s strength as 
5,000 to 6,000.!° If the United States hopes to defeat the most extreme factions and 


support friendly opposition elements, it is vital to understand who the “extremists” are. 


This thesis will have well-timed policy implications. First, it will show what 
conditions led to a fertile environment for the rise of radical Islamist groups. If the United 
States has a better understanding of the causes, it can potentially provide a better 
diagnosis of the problem. Second, there is a tendency to treat radical Islamist groups as a 
homogenous entity. Close analysis may reveal that they are not monolithic, and some 
groups may require different instruments of power other than a military option to be 
defeated. Understanding the roots of the prominent radical Islamist groups will help to 


explain what they truly represent. 


This thesis will also benefit military planners. As the United States ramps up its 
strategy in Syria, Department of Defense (DOD) planners must contrive contingency war 
plans. This thesis will help DOD planners to better understand the major players involved 
and the operating environment. Lastly, from an academic perspective, most literature on 
the Syrian conflict profiles the various insurgent groups, provides historical synopses of 
events, or explains fleeting moments in the conflict. This thesis seeks to go beyond a 
recitation of facts by applying multiple theoretical constructs to identify causation and fill 


key analytical gaps. 


7 Blanchard et al., Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, 3. 


8 Richard Barrett, The Islamic State (Washington, DC: The Soufan Group, 2014), 10, 
http://soufangroup.com/the-islamic-state/. 


9 “Competition among Islamists,” The Economist, July 20, 2013, 
http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/2 1582037-one-islamist-rebel-group-seems-have- 
overtaken-all-others-competition-among. 


10 Brian Michael Jenkins, The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2014), 9, 
http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE100/PE115/RAND_PE115.pdf>. 


i) 


C. LITERATURE REVIEW 
1. Introduction 


Islam is one religion with many interpretations. As a result, the terms “Islamism” 
and “radical Islamism” have wide ranging connotations and must be defined. The 
International Crisis Group views Islamism “as synonymous with Islamic activism” and 
defines it as “the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws, or policies 
that are held to be Islamic in character.”!! Mohammed Hafez distinguishes between 
peaceful Islamic activism and radical Islamism by asserting that radical Islamism “entails 
an ideological commitment to establish an Islamic state ... and a strategic commitment to 
engage in violent mobilization.”!2 The dividing line between Islamists and radical 
Islamists is the use of violence to achieve their aims. This thesis will focus on radical 
Islamist groups, and a more thorough examination of their ideology is addressed in 


Chapter III. 


The rise of radical Islamist groups in the Syrian conflict can be analyzed through 
numerous theoretical constructs due to the evolution of the uprising from protests to 
insurgency to civil war; thus, elements of social movement theory, insurgency theory, 
and civil war literature apply. Additionally, radicalization theory has the potential to offer 
additional insights by complementing aspects of social movement theory to explain the 
process of violent radicalization. This section will systematically review the following 
fields of study and derive applicable factors to assist with analysis: social movement 


theory, radicalization theory, insurgency theory, and civil war literature. 


1 Understanding Islamism (Washington, DC: International Crisis Group, 2005), 1, 
http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/037-understanding- 
islamism.aspx. 


12 Mohammed M. Hafez, “Illegitimate Governance: The Roots of Islamist Radicalization in the 
MENA,” in Governance in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Abbas Kadhim (New York: Routledge, 
2012), 86. 


4 


2. Social Movement Theory 


Three broad factors form the basis of social movement theory: political 
opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framing.!3_ Beginning with political 
opportunities, Sydney Tarrow defines the concept as “consistent—but not necessarily 
formal or permanent—dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for 
people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or 
failure.”!4 Essentially, structural changes occur or are perceived as occurring in the 
external environment that directly correlates to enhanced opportunity, which tips the risk 
versus gain scale towards collective action. In the case of Syria, the civil war is the most 
obvious political opportunity that created space for the rise of Islamist groups; however, 
as this thesis will demonstrate, other nuanced clusters of opportunities occurred that 
provide more analytic clarity than simply citing the civil war as the root cause for the 


Islamist mobilization and development. 


According to Doug McAdam, mobilizing structures are defined as “those 
collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and 
engage in collective action.”!5 Unlike the notoriously fragmented Syrian secular 
opposition, radical Islamist groups have made efficient use of private and public ties at 
the local, regional, and global levels to acquire and consolidate leadership, manpower, 
and valuable resources such as financing and weapons; however, as Hafez stressed, 
“formal mobilization structures are rarely the starting point for social movement 
activism.”!6 As a result, this thesis will pay careful attention to pre-existing informal 
mobilization structures and networks that catapulted Islamist groups to the forefront of 
the uprising. 

13 Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing 
Structures, and Framing Processes—Toward a Sythetic, Comparative Perspective on Social Movements,” 
in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and 


Cultural Framings, ed. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald (New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 1996), 2. 


14 David S. Meyer and Debra C. Minkoff, “Conceptualizing Political Opportunity,” Social Forces 82, 
no. 4 (June 2004): 1459. 


15 McAdam et al., “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes,” 3. 


16 Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom 
(Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2007), 21. 


5 


David Snow defines framing as “the conscious strategic efforts by groups of 
people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate 
and motivate collective action.”!7 According to Glenn Robinson, “framing is the 
bumper-sticker version of how issues get interpreted within a certain ideological 
context.”!8 Framing is a way for groups to translate grievances into action by promoting 
“a specific version of reality and to make this version resonate with the worldview of 
potential recruits.”!9 In order for frames to be effective, they must resonate with the 
target audience by tapping into master narratives, which Jeffrey Halverson et al. define as 
“transhistorical narratives that are deeply embedded in a particular culture.”29 Generally, 
framing strategies contain three core types of frames: diagnostic, prognostic, and 
motivational. By using carefully crafted frames that diagnose specific problems, proffer 
solutions, and motivate collective action, radical Islamist groups make themselves more 
appealing to potential recruits, legitimize their actions, and create an insurgent 


consciousness. 


The power of the social movement theory framework over other approaches is it 
captures analytical factors at multiple levels. It combines structural issues with group 
level factors while accounting for cultural influences. Social movement theory provides a 
context to understanding the “why” and the “how” of group emergence, identifies 
patterns of mobilization, and gives indications of a group’s staying power. Lastly, it 


shows how groups organize before mobilizing and illustrates their pathway to insurgency. 


3. Radicalization Theory 


Since this thesis is concerned with the rise of radical Islamist groups, it is 
necessary to explore radicalization theory, which overlaps with elements of social 


movement theory. Risa Brooks defines radicalization as a “transformative process or a 


17 McAdam et al., “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes,” 6. 


18 Glenn Robinson, “Hamas as Social Movement,” in /slamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory 
Approach, ed. Quintan Wiktorowicz (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 116. 


19 Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen, “Violent Radicalization in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not 
Know,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33, no. 9 (2010): 802. 


20 Jeffry R. Halverson, Steven Corman, and H.L. Goodall, Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism 
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 


6 


conjunction of behavioral and belief changes that may precede an _ individual’s 
engagement in terrorist activity.”2! Dissecting Brooks’ definition reveals a couple of 
important observations: while there are trigger factors and sources of grievances, 
radicalization is a process, not a single event, and the process precedes violent action by 
reducing obstacles for those who are radical leaning to embark on a path of violence 


through various pathways or mechanisms. 


Applying a social movement approach to radicalization provides a dynamic view 
by focusing on how people gradually evolve into terrorists. A key tenet of social 
movement theory is grievances alone do not trigger violent action; rather, violent radicals 
are bred through “a social process that results from interaction with and within a radical 
group—a process by which the individual is gradually convinced that the perceived 
injustices require the individual to engage personally and that violence is religiously 
sanctioned.”22 Thus, radical groups are rational actors that operationally design and 
employ strategies to progressively transition activists towards violence using existing 


social contacts and networks. 


Many prominent scholars such as Quintan Wiktorowicz and Marc Sageman 
espouse theoretical models of radicalization with a social movement and network focus to 
provide insight to the process of how a person can become radicalized to join a violent 
Islamist group. Wiktorowicz promotes a linear model of radicalization that consists of 


four stages: cognitive opening, religious seeking, frame alignment, and socialization.?4 


Wiktorowicz defines a cognitive opening as a crisis or experience dealing with 
discrimination, victimization, or humiliation that causes a person to be receptive to 
radical ideas.24 Religious seeking entails a person being more receptive to religion and 


open to the worldviews espoused by radical groups. Frame alignment occurs when a 


21 Risa Brooks, “Muslim ‘Homegrown’ Terrorism in the United States: How Serious is the Threat,” 
International Security 36, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 12. 


22 Tbid., 802. 


23 Michael King and Donald M. Taylor, “The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of 
Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence,” Terrorism and Political Violence 23, no. 4 
(September 2011): 605. 


24 Ibid. 


person believes his or her views correspond to the group. During frame alignment, radical 
groups actively employ framing strategies to increase the likelihood of alignment. Lastly, 
socialization and joining entails a person “officially joining a group, embracing the 


ideology, and adopting the group identity.”’2> 


Sageman agrees with some of Wiktorowicz’s factors but favors a non-linear 
process that consists of four prongs when combined in any order help to explain the 


oe 


radicalization process. The four factors are “a sense of moral outrage, a specific 
interpretation of the world, resonance with personal experiences, and mobilization 
through networks.”26 Similar to Wiktorowicz’s model, radicalization begins with a 
cognitive event that is perceived to be a major moral violation that elicits outrage and 
ends with interactions with a social movement that has organizational capability and an 


ideological base that resonates with a recruit. 


The implication that both scholars point to is that a trigger event can increase the 
likelihood of attraction towards a violent ideology. In the case of the Syrian uprising, 
there are numerous examples of regime brutality that constituted major moral violations 
on the Sunni population to trigger the radicalization process. Both Sageman and 
Wiktorowicz’s models provide the basis of a framework to examine how radical groups 


in Syria have bolstered their numbers. 


4. Insurgency Theory 


As with many aspects of the Syrian conflict, the evolution from non-violent 
protests to an armed insurgency was more of a process than a precise moment. An 
important distinction when analyzing radical Islamist groups in general is that they 
simultaneously function as both social movements and insurgent groups. Unlike social 
movement theory, insurgency theory does not offer a precise framework, but just as with 
radicalization theory, elements of insurgency theory can greatly assist with not only 


disaggregating the radical groups but also specifying their strengths, weaknesses, and 


25 King and Taylor, “The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists,” 606. 


26 Mare Sageman, “A Strategy for Fighting International Islamist Terrorists,” Annals of the American 
Academy of Political and Social Science 618, no. 1 (2008): 225. 


8 


cohesion. Additionally, insurgency theory provides a framework to analyze various 


insurgent typologies, organizational design, and strategies. 


Bard O’Neill identifies seven types of insurgencies: anarchist, egalitarian, 
traditionalist, pluralist, secessionist, reformist, and preservationist.27 Based on the goals 
of radical Islamist groups in Syria, the traditionalist category, which is defined as 
insurgents that “seek to displace the political system, but the values they articulate are 
primordial and sacred ones, rooted in ancestral ties and religion,” is most applicable to 
this thesis.28 According to Richard Shultz, revolutionary-minded insurgents like 
traditionalists combine the following list of elements for sustaining an insurgency: 
ideology; leadership; mass base; logistics; organizational apparatus; political, 
psychological, and paramilitary tactics; and external linkages/assistance; however, Shultz 
stresses that the combination of ideology, leadership, and organization are the most 
crucial.2? O’Neill’s typology and Shultz’s elements provide an initial start to apply 
insurgency theory, but more clarity and specificity is needed from an organizational and 


strategy standpoint. 


In Paul Staniland’s recent book Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent 
Cohesion and Collapse, he examines how insurgent groups are organized. He categorizes 
them in four types: integrated, vanguard, parochial, and fragmented. Integrated groups 
are characterized by “leadership unity and discipline at the center and high levels of local 
compliance on the ground;” thus, they have excellent command and control of forces.3° 
Integrated groups are the most cohesive, effective, and resilient. Vanguard groups have 
strong central control but weak local ties. They are dominated by elites without strong 


links to local communities. According to Staniland, when JAN and IS began operations 


27 Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd edition 
(Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), 17-21. 


28 Ibid., 18. 


29 Richard Shultz, Global Insurgency Strategy and the Salafi Jihad Movement (Colorado Springs, CO: 
Institute for National Security Studies, 2008), 25, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi- 
bin/GetTRDoc? AD=ADA482684. 


30 Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Ithaca: 
Cornell University Press, 2014), 6. 


9 


in Syria, both resembled vanguard groups that transitioned to integrated groups.3! 
Parochial groups contain weak central control but robust local control. Staniland explains 
that parochial groups “resemble a coalition of distinct suborganizations; even if they are 
loosely held together by a central leader, he or she lacks consistent control over major 
commanders,” which epitomizes Syria’s largest secular opposition entity the Free Syrian 
Army (FSA) and in some ways the largest Salafi bloc the Islamic Front.3? The last type 


is fragmented groups that have neither central nor local control. 


Aside from typologies, Staniland stresses that pre-war networks, which he refers 
to as “social bases,” often determine the structure of a group.33_ The social bases may or 
may not be violent in nature and seem to resemble the concept of mobilizing structures 
from social movement theory; thus, identifying the prewar networks or institutional 
legacies of the main radical Islamist groups in Syria should provide valuable insight to 


their organizational design, military effectiveness, and corresponding strategy. 


Organizational design can clearly inhibit or expand strategy options. There are 
two general insurgent strategies: a traditional Maoist strategy and a conventional strategy. 
The primary goal of the Maoist strategy is “to engage the government in long, costly wars 
of attrition in which insurgents rely on subversive tactics—both violent and nonviolent— 
to lower the morale and raise the costs of war for the government.”34 According to 
O’Neill, a Maoist strategy consists of three phases: strategic defensive, strategic 
stalemate, and strategic offensive.*> The crux of the Maoist strategy is to wage a 


protracted war while garnering the popular support of the people, which makes political 


31 Paul Staniland, “Insurgent Organization and State-Armed Group Relations,” in The Political 
Science of Syria’s War (Washington, DC: the Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 38, 
http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


32 Ibid. 
33 Staniland, Networks of Rebellion, 17. 


34 Seth G. Jones and Patrick B. Johnston, “The Future of Insurgency,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 
36, no. | (2013): 5. 


35 O'Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism, 35-36. 
10 


and propaganda strategies just as important as military.3° Maoist style insurgencies tend 


to dominate rural environments, which appears similar to JAN and Ahrar’s strategy. 


According to Seth Jones and Patrick Johnston, the second strategy is a 
conventional strategy that involves “skipping Mao’s first two stages and focusing on 
conventional military action against the government.”3’ Insurgents waging a 
conventional strategy perceive their organizational strength and resources to be greater or 
equal to government forces, and as a result, the focus for the conventional insurgent is to 
seize cities and govern territory, which seems to resemble IS’s strategy. Garnering 
popular support is not seen as a prerequisite, and rather than the small hit and run style 


tactics of a Maoist, conventional insurgents conduct large-scale operations. 


Combining both strategies with Staniland’s typologies stresses the necessity that 
an insurgent group’s organizational design needs to match the operational environment, 
and each group needs some semblance of a safe haven as a base. Abdulkader Sinno 
defines a safe haven as “a portion of the contested territory where an organization’s rivals 
cannot intervene with enough force to disturb its operations.”38 There is no lack of safe 
havens in the rural areas of Syria. This provides a potentially interesting aspect to analyze 
because JAN, Ahrar, and IS each have different organizational designs and each operate 


from different strands of safe havens. 


5. Civil War Literature 


According to Fotini Christia, civil war is defined as “an internal armed conflict, 
directed against the government of a sovereign state, which has caused at least 1,000 
cumulative battle related deaths.’”39 With a death toll of over 200,000, Syria has long 


surpassed the numerical threshold; however, just as with identifying when the insurgency 


36 Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare (Washington, DC: 
Brassey’s, 2002), 42. 


37 Jones and Johnston, “The Future of Insurgency,” 5. 


38 Abdulkader H. Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and beyond (Ithaca: Cornell University 
Press, 2010), 44. 


39 Rotini Christia, Alliance Formation in Civil Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 


11 


began, the exact moment when the conflict transitioned to a civil war is equally murky. 
Joseph Holliday, a former senior research analyst from the Institute for the Study of War, 
points to the summer of 2012 as the critical timeframe.49 Regardless of when it 
happened, James Fearon categorizes the Syrian civil war as one of the “most intense of 
around 150 civil wars since 1945.”4! As a result, civil war literature has the potential to 
provide valuable insights to analyzing the radical groups in the Syrian conflict in two key 


areas: the impact of group fragmentation and external sponsors. 


In multi-party civil wars where the opposition is fragmented and the government 
is unable to control major portions of the country, the dynamic encourages people to flee 
to areas dominated by their respective identity group, which reinforces sectarian 
cleavages.42 The civil wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan illustrate the point, and the same 
situation has occurred in Syria. Additionally, the more intense and vicious the war 
becomes, the impetus for retaliation increases because powerful factions must maintain 
credibility in the eyes of their fighters and supporters as well as their opponents. A 
consequence of the escalating situation is mistrust between the various factions increases 
because none of the warring parties believe the other would honor a cease-fire and fear 
that if they demobilize, the other side will not.43 Thus, group fragmentation has two 
adverse impacts: it thrusts identity and ideological differences to the forefront, and the 
longer and more barbaric a civil war becomes, the less likely groups are to agree to a 
compromised solution, which extends the conflict. The cumulative effect is that ideology 


and identity as well as power distribution become critical factors.44 





40 Joseph Holliday, The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency to Civil War (Washington, DC: 
Institute for the Study of War, 2013), 7, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/assad-regime. 


41 James Fearon, “Syria’s Civil War,” in The Political Science of Syria’s War (Washington, DC: the 
Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 13, http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and- 
syrias-war/. 


42 Fotini Christia, “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict,” in The Political 
Science of Syria’s War (Washington, DC: the Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 9, 
http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


43 Fearon, “Syria’s Civil War,” 14. 
ae Christia, Alliance Formation in Civil Wars, 6. 


12 


Often, the more sectarianism is stressed, the more it is framed as an existential 
threat to one’s identity, which can draw funding and recruits from outside sources. To 
complicate the situation in Syria further, “the ideological dimension of the Syrian civil 
war overlaps with a geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran over domination 
of the Arab world,” according to Laia Balcells and Stathis Kalyvas; therefore, Syria has 
an element of being a proxy war between regional rivals.4> Christia adds that the flow of 
foreign support in civil wars leads to longer conflicts and favors groups that have stronger 
social ties and effective organizational mechanisms to absorb the external resources.46 


Additionally, the local causes of the conflict become intertwined with regional interests. 


The implication for both group fragmentation and external sponsors is that the 
number of “veto players” increases dramatically, which David Cunningham defines as 
“actors that have the capability to unilaterally block settlement of a civil war.”47 Christia 
extends the concept of veto players further by referring to radical Islamists in the Syrian 
conflict as local “spoilers” because they “have no interest in seeing the conflict coming to 
an end.”48 Overall, civil war literature provides a bleak and depressing outlook for the 
future of Syria’s civil war but highlights the necessity of understanding group 
fragmentation and the debilitating impact of external sponsors, which favor strong 


sectarian identities. 


6. Conclusion 


This literature review demonstrated the multi-faceted nature of the Syrian 
conflict. It has evolved through three phases of contestation: protest, insurgency, and civil 
war. Elements of all of the outlined theories provide theoretical frameworks to analyze 


different aspects of the rise of radical Islamist groups in Syria, and this thesis contends 


45 Laia Balcells and Stathis Kalyvas, “Technology of Rebellion in the Syrian Civil War,” in The 
Political Science of Syria’s War (Washington, DC: the Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 12, 
http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


46 Christia, “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict,” 10. 


47 David E. Cunningham, “Veto Players and Civil War in Syria,” in The Political Science of Syria’s 
War (Washington, DC: the Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 26, 
http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


48 Christia, “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict,” 10. 
13 


that any viable explanation must contain a combination of the reviewed literature. By 


fusing different disciplines, this thesis expands on the reviewed theories. 


D. POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS AND HYPOTHESES 


Overall, the focus of analysis in this thesis is the three main radical Islamist 
groups: Ahrar, JAN, and IS that operate at the meso level. This thesis explores how each 
group links to the societal and individual levels through their different strategies. The 
dependent variable for this thesis is the rise of the aforementioned radical Islamist groups, 
specifically in the context of the Syrian conflict. Since this thesis focuses on analyzing 
the rise of radical groups during a specific event, the following hypotheses sacrifice 
parsimony for specificity to enhance the explanatory power. Based on the literature 
review, each theory stressed that the following variables had to come together and 
reinforce each other for any group to emerge, grow, and prosper: opportunity, ideology, 
organization, resources, and sponsors. In this thesis, I limit the factors to ideology, 
organization, and sponsors, and each forms the basis for subsequent hypotheses to 


explain the rise of radical Islamist groups in Syria. 


1. Hypothesis 1: Ideology 


The rise and success of radical Islamist groups in the Syrian conflict is due to 
ideological appeal. There is no shortage of scholars and politicians that cite Islam as the 
root cause of the rise in Islamist groups as a whole around the world. This notion fits with 
Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations Theory, Bernard Lewis’ assertions in “The 
Roots of Muslims Rage,” and Mark Juergensmeyer’s “Cosmic War” explanation.*? 
Additionally, Michael Hoffman and Amaney Jamal demonstrated that religion was an 


important rallying call during the Arab Spring uprisings, and Daniel Byman stated that 





49 Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993); Bernard 
Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic, September 1, 1990, 
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1990/09/the-roots-of-muslim-rage/304643/; Mark 
Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 2003). 


14 


religion is a vital component to insurgencies containing Islamist groups.°° While the 
above scholars point to the influence of Islam in general, they do not specify the 
attraction of radical Islamism. By exploring the possibility of the ideological appeal of 
radical Islamist groups in Syria, I attempt to go beyond a simple ideological explanation 
and explore other factors that can contribute to the likelihood of an extreme ideology 


resonating in the context of the Syrian conflict. 


2. Hypothesis 2: Experience, Organization, and Strategy 


The rise and success of radical Islamist groups is a result of their organizational 
and strategic coherence based on institutional legacies. In the book Ashes of Hama: The 
Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Raphael Lefevre traces the revival of Islamist groups such 
as the Muslim Brotherhood since their decimation by the Syrian regime in Hama, Syria in 
1982.51 Lefévre’s book demonstrates that Islamist groups and radical offshoots have 
established both formal and informal networks throughout Syria over the past 30 years 
and received invaluable experiences in the global jihad movement in Afghanistan and 
Iraq. In addition to Lefévre’s conclusions, researchers from numerous think tanks and 
policy institutes such as Elizabeth O’Bagy, Aron Lund, and Azeem Ibrahim have also 
cited the robust logistics networks built by al-Qaeda affiliates fighting in the Iraq war in 
the mid-2000s.°2. The combination of all these factors makes the assertion that radical 
Islamist groups are not only tapping into institutional legacies but also had considerable 


prior experience dealing with the Syrian regime that the secular opposition did not. 


50 Michael Hoffman and Amaney Jamal, “How Islam Mattered in the Arab Uprisings,” The 
Washington Post, July 17, 2014, http://www. washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/07/17/how- 
islam-mattered-in-the-arab-uprisings; Daniel Byman, “Fighting Salafi-Jihadist Insurgencies: How Much 
Does Religion Really Matter?,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36, no. 5 (May 2013). 


51 Raphael Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (New York, NY: Oxford 
University Press, 2013). 


52 Elizabeth O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2012), 
http://www.understandingwar.org/report/jihad-syria; Aron Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the 
Syrian Islamic Front (Stockholm, Sweden: the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, 2013), 
www.ui.se/eng/upl/files/86861.pdf; Azeem Ibrahim, The Resurgence of al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq 
(Carlyle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2014), 
http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1210. 


15 


3. Hypothesis 3: External Sponsors 


Formal and informal external sponsors incentivized sectarian identities, which 
favored radical Islamist groups. According to Curtis Ryan, Syria represents “the new 
Arab Cold War,” which is a historical reference to inter-Arab power struggles from the 
1950s till the 1970s.°3 The 21st century has witnessed three traditional centers of power 
in the Middle East: Egypt, Iraq, and Syria greatly diminish in prominence while other 
regional players surged to the forefront, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.>4 A strong 
religious and ideological element accompanies this interstate competition that pits Sunni 
against Shia. As groups in Syria compete for external support and resources, they adopt 
an ideological outlook that matches their donors. This dynamic discourages groups to 
unite since they do not need each other for support, and as the conflict intensifies, groups 


become more outwardly sectarian, which uniquely suites radical Islamist groups. 


E. THESIS OVERVIEW AND CHAPTER OUTLINE 


Rather than emphasize one hypothesis over another, this thesis contends that each 
hypothesis provides a critical piece to a three-part puzzle explaining the rise of radical 
Islamist groups. As a result, each hypothesis forms the basis of separate chapters. 
Overall, this thesis consists of six chapters. Prior to delving into the three hypotheses, 
Chapter II provides a historical overview of how Syria evolved from its independence in 
1946 till the present. It links Syria’s history to the events that led to the current uprising 
and identifies specific opportunities that gave the Islamists unprecedented space to 
mobilize and emerge in Syria. Chapter II sets the foundation for why Syria was a fertile 
environment for radical Islamists and provides a historical backdrop for the remaining 


chapters. 


Chapters III, IV, and V systematically address each hypothesis. I explore the 
foundation of the radical Islamist ideology in Chapter III and use elements of 


radicalization theory and cultural framing from social movement theory as an analytical 


53 Curtis Ryan, “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria,” Middle East Report 262, vol. 42 
(Spring 2012) http://www.merip.org/mer/mer262/new-arab-cold-war-struggle-syria. 


54 Ibid. 
16 


framework to examine the ideological appeal of radical Islamist groups in the context of 
the Syrian civil war. I argue that a combination of the Salafi-jihadi ideology with a Sunni 
population polarized by indiscriminate regime repression presented a fertile environment 


for the framing strategies employed by Ahrar, JAN, and IS. 


I examine in Chapter IV how the institutional legacies of Syria’s radical Islamists 
affected the mobilization and strategies of Ahrar, JAN, and IS. Using the concepts of 
mobilizing structures and repertoires of contention from social movement theory as well 
as aspects of insurgency theory, I demonstrate that the remnants of prior struggles gave 
the radical Islamists a significant advantage from a leadership, manpower, and tactics 
perspective. I use elements from social movement and insurgency theories as well as civil 
war literature in Chapter V to explore the role of external sponsors in the Syrian conflict. 
I conclude that while geostrategic politics of the region incentivized sectarian identities, 
Gulf donors at the state and non-state levels disproportionately favored radical Islamist 
groups in the Syrian opposition, which facilitated the rise of radical Islamists from a 
resources perspective. I summarize all findings in Chapter VI and make specific policy 


recommendations. 


17 


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18 


I. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW 


Following World War I, Syria was one of the most politically unstable countries 
in the region. When Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, he pacified the country by 
creating a cohesive ruling elite reinforced by a highly repressive security apparatus. 
When his son Bashar entered office in 2000, he tried to enact economic reforms within a 
system that was not designed for change, with disastrous consequences. This chapter has 
three goals: to trace the historical roots of the challenges Syria faces today, to identify 
how they relate to the Syrian uprising, and to specify what factors promoted the initial 
rise of radical Islamist groups at the structural level once the uprising began. I assert that 
a combination of political repression, socio-economic issues, and inspiration from the 
Arab Spring were the driving factors for the start of the uprising, and once the uprising 
started, the fragmented opposition and the regime’s counter-insurgent strategy created 


unprecedented space for radical Islamist groups to mobilize. 


This chapter is divided into two main parts. The first section details Syria’s early 
history as a French mandate, its unstable post-independence period from 1946 till 1970, 
and Hafez al-Assad’s consolidation of power from 1970 until 2000. The second section 
explains why the Syrian uprising started and uses political opportunity structures from 
social movement theory as a tool to identify structural factors after the uprising began 


that transformed Syria into an ideal breeding ground for radical Islamist groups. 


A. SYRIA’S TURBULENT EARLY HISTORY 


According to James Gelvin, “healthy states exhibit three characteristics: a 
territory, a functioning government, and a national identity, and weak states normally 
lack at least two of the above characteristics.”°>> When Syria achieved its independence 
from France in 1946, it epitomized Gelvin’s weak state diagnosis, which has relevance to 
the conflict today. The origins of its territorial boundaries were controversial, its central 


government was dysfunctional, and its national identity was weak. 


55 James L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford 
University Press, 2012), 73-74. 


19 


Syria had not consisted of defined boundaries in the Western sense prior to the 
conclusion of World War I. From 1516 until 1916, Syria was a province in the Ottoman 
Empire, but its borders were amorphous, as were all the territories under the empire. 
According to Ayse Tekdal Fildis, Ottoman Syria ranged from “Aqaba and the Sinai on 
the south, the Taurus Mountains on the north, the Syrian Desert on the east, and the 
Mediterranean Sea on the west—currently comprising Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon 
and Syria.”>° Thus, Ottoman Syria was more of a geographic entity, commonly referred 
to as “Bilad al-Sham” (Greater Syria), consisting of the entire Levant region where its 
heterogeneous population coalesced in relative peace compared to the conflict prone 


dynamic today. 


Prior to the end of World War I, Britain and France made a secret pact in 1916 
known as the Sykes—Picot Agreement to split the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire 
into areas under their control.>’ The territorial borders of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan 
among others are traced directly to Sykes—Picot. The controversy with the agreement was 
that Britain previously assured influential Arab leaders they would gain independence 
over Arab lands following World War I if they revolted against the Ottoman Empire 
through a series of diplomatic exchanges.°’ Throughout the discussions, the Arabs 
embraced self-determination and promoted the spread of Arab nationalism in the region. 
When Britain failed to live up to its end of the bargain and Sykes—Picot was announced, 
the Arabs understandably felt deceived. To this day, many Arabs consider the modern 
borders of the Levant to be a product of Western colonial ambitions and a symbol of 
betrayal. To illustrate the depth of their anger, Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville 
explained, “Every Syrian schoolchild is brought up to hate the Sykes—Picot Agreement of 


56 Ayse Tekdal Fildis, “The Troubles in Syria: Spawned by the French Divide and Rule,” Middle East 
Policy Council XVHI, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 1, http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy- 
archives/troubles-syria-spawned-french-divide-and-rule. 


57 Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. and Lawrence Davidson, “The Roots of Arab Bitterness,” in The 
Contemporary Middle East: A Westview Reader, ed. Karl Yambert (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010), 
46. 


58 The diplomatic exchanges took place from 1915 until 1916 and are historically known as the 
Husayn-McMahon Correspondence. 


20 


1916,” which ensures the memory of the event is seared into the minds of future 


generations.°? 


Following World War I, the League of Nations concurred with the Sykes—Picot 
Agreement and declared Syria a French mandate from 1920 until its independence in 
1946. The purpose of the mandate system was for “an advanced state ... to tutor a less 
advanced state in the complexities of democratic self-government until it was ready to 
rule itself.”©° However, the French had other plans. According to Fildis, France’s 
primary interests in Syria were to “preserve century-old ties with the Syrian Catholics, 
gain a strategic and economic base in the eastern Mediterranean, ensure a cheap supply of 
cotton and silk, and prevent Arab nationalism from infecting France’s North African 
empire.”©! Rather than develop Syria politically and economically for its eventual 
independence, France treated it as a quasi-colony and employed its infamous divide-and- 


rule strategy. 


To prevent Syrian autonomy and suppress Arab nationalism among the Sunni 
majority, France divided Greater Syria into administrative areas and disproportionately 
empowered minority groups. For example, France created Lebanon as a Christian-client 
state and granted the Alawites and Druze their own autonomous regions in modern day 
Syria. In exchange for their support, France relied heavily on the Alawites and Druze to 
fill key positions in the “Special Troupes of the Levant,” which France used to enforce its 
rule in the other areas that consisted of Sunni majorities and to subdue local rebellions.®2 
This dynamic significantly raised sectarian tensions and hindered the development of a 
united Syrian identity. When Syria gained independence in 1946, it had underdeveloped 


state institutions with no central authority and poor infrastructure for economic 


59 Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1989), 14. 


60 Fildis, “The Troubles in Syria,” 5. 
61 bid., 1. 


62 Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba ‘th 
Party (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 4. 


21 


development. It was basically “a geographic expression with no unified political identity 


or community.” 


B. POST-INDEPENDENCE: 1946-1970 


The legacies of France’s divide-and-rule strategy combined with seismic shifts in 
the region crippled Syria until 1970. Just two years after independence, Syria and its Arab 
allies were humiliated by their defeat in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which resulted in 
the creation of the state of Israel. Following the loss, Syria experienced its first military 
coup. From 1948 to 1970, Syria fell victim to 10 successful coups, which is a record high 
in the Middle East.6* Each successive government faced the same dilemmas: how to 


unify the country, how to effectively govern it, and how to produce a stable economy. 


With a population ranging in upwards of 75 percent Sunni, 13 percent Alawite, 10 
percent Christian, and 4 percent Druze, Syrian leaders promoted Arab nationalism as a 
political identity, which served two purposes.® First, it stressed ““Arabness” over an 
immediate sectarian identity and harkened back to the Greater Syria narrative when 
Syrians peacefully co-existed. Second, it gave Syrian leaders justification to outsource 
political and economic assistance from Arab neighbors. The United Arab Republic 


(UAR) is the most prominent example. 


From 1958 until 1961, Syria merged with Egypt to form the UAR. According to 
Eberhard Kienle, the UAR was “the only instance in which Syrians entirely surrendered 
their sovereignty, their power, and their freedom...to non-Syrians,” which exemplifies 
how desperate Syrian leaders became to find a solution for unity and stable governance.® 


While the UAR existed for only three years, it had a lasting impact because Egypt 


63 Housam Darwisheh, Syria and the Arab Spring: Unraveling the Road to Syria’s Protracted Conflict 
(Seoul, South Korea: the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, 2013), 2, http://en.asaninst.org/contents/issue- 
brief-no-44-syria-and-the-arab-spring-unraveling-the-road-to-syrias-protracted-conflict. 


64 James Gelvin, “Syria: Coup Proof?” History Today 8, vol. 61 (August 2011): 34. 


65 “The World Factbook: Syria,” Central Intelligence Agency, June 20, 2014, 
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html; M. Zuhdi Jasser, “Sectarian 
Conflict in Syria,” Prism 4, vol. 4, Syria Supplemental (2014): 61. 


66 Eberhard Kienle, “Arab Unity Schemes Revisited: Interest, Identity, and Policy in Syria and Egypt,” 
International Journal of Middle East Studies 1, vol. 27 (February 1995): 56. 


22 


instituted its brand of socialism and state-based economy as well as introduced elements 
of an authoritarian system of rule in Syria.’ For example, all political parties were 
banned in the UAR, which laid the foundation for one party rule under the Baathists. 
According to Steven Heydemann, the UAR was “the crucible within which many 


elements of the Baath’s political repertoire took shape.’’®8 


While minority groups such as the Alawites were favored during the French 
mandate period, after independence, the majority Sunnis excluded them from government 
positions for colluding with the French. As a result, Alawites had few opportunities for 
advancement in Syrian society aside from joining the military, which the more affluent 
Sunnis opted out of by paying a fee. According to Mordechai Nisan, “In the 1950s, the 
Alawites began to consolidate a strategy that combined upward mobility within the 
Syrian armed forces with membership in the politically radical Baath nationalist party.” 
This combination eventually placed Alawites in the center of Syrian power struggles. 
During the UAR period, the military committee of the Baath party with Alawite 
representation led the opposition to the Syrian—Egyptian union, and the same military 


committee led the Baathist coup in 1963.70 


Baathism as an ideology combines socialism, secularism, and Arab nationalism. 
Its appeal was obvious for Syria; it tapped into prevailing ideologies of the time and 
offered a framework to unify the diverse population. Once the Baathists seized power in 
1963, they expanded on the Egyptian socialist programs by initiating aggressive land 
reforms, which formally linked the rural peasants to the state. They also nationalized 
major sectors of the economy, which alienated the traditional merchant communities. The 
effect was a shift in the balance of power in Syria from the urban elite to a rural ruling 


class. After Syria and its Arab allies were defeated in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the 


67 Steven Heydemann, Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970 (Ithaca, 
NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 85. 


68 Ibid. 


69 Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression, 2nd ed. 
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2002), 120. 


70 Thid., 121. 
23 


Baath party split over the direction of its domestic programs, and Hafez al-Assad, who 


controlled the armed forces, led what would become Syria’s final coup in late 1970.7! 


C. THE RULE OF HAFEZ AL-ASSAD 


When Hafez al-Assad solidified his rule in 1970, he became the first Alawite 
president of Syria. As the son of a poor Alawite family, his rise to power was nothing 
short of extraordinary. The political acumen he developed by deftly maneuvering the 
complex political landscape as an Air Force officer served him well. Once in office, al- 
Assad undertook a process James Quinlivan from RAND refers to as “coup proofing,” 
which consisted of a series of steps to consolidate power and prevent future military 
coups.’2 Al-Assad’s strategy relied on three imperatives: the placement of Alawite 
family members and regime loyalists in coup-critical positions, the creation of a loyal 
Sunni business class, and the development of a parallel military and multiple internal 


security agencies./3 


One of the most common misnomers in Syria is that Alawites rule the country. 
Consisting of only 10 to 13 percent of the population, it is numerically impossible for 
them to hold every governmental position.’/4 As a result, al-Assad took a layered 
approach to appointing ministers and generals. He placed members of his immediate 
family in the most coup-critical positions such as the military units in charge of 
protecting the capital and the presidential palace. Next, he appointed members from his 
larger Alawite clan in positions of influence while also promoting other minorities such 
as Druze, Christians, and Kurds. In doing so, al-Assad was able to market his regime as 
the protector of minorities. Lastly, he hand-selected for key positions influential Sunnis 
whose loyalty to his regime was unquestionable and encouraged every family in the inner 


circle to intermarry. Al-Assad’s intent was clear: the future of the new ruling class was 


71 Line Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria: The Rise and Fall of Ba’thist Secularism (New York: 
Routledge, 2014), 34. 


72 James Quinlivan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,” International 
Security 2, vol. 24 (Fall, 1999): 133. 


73 Ibid., and Gelvin, “Coup Proof,” 35. 
ae Jasser, “Sectarian Conflict in Syria,” 61. 


24 


directly linked to his regime; if he fell, they fell. His efforts produced a highly cohesive 


ruling elite that remains intact to this day. 


While simultaneously leveraging familial, tribal, and religious divisions to create 
a choke-hold on positions of political and military power, al-Assad recognized the need 
to create a privileged business class whose success would be reliant on the regime. He 
acknowledged that early Baath officials had made a mistake with their radical reforms by 
alienating the traditional Sunni merchant class. As a result, al-Assad sought to create an 
equally cohesive business community that would be totally dependent upon the regime 
for privileged access to lucrative government contracts and political protection. In 
essence, al-Assad created a patronage network. Just as with the elite ruling class, he 
encouraged the business class families to intermarry with the government elites. The 
product of his efforts led to what Elizabeth Picard coined in the late-1970s as the Syrian 
“‘military—mercantile complex.”’> Despite granting favor to select families, al-Assad 
never forgot that the basis of the Baath mass mobilization was the peasants, which 
constituted the majority of Syrians. While establishing a business class, he remained 
committed to the rural farmers and never failed to provide them government support and 


subsidies. 


The final pillar of al-Assad’s coup-proofing revamped Syria’s military and 
security apparatuses. Before 1970, the military initiated most of Syria’s coups.”© As a 
result, al-Assad created a hand-selected military alongside his regular ground forces. For 
example, he established the Defense Companies, which were elite paramilitary forces 
tasked to defend the regime led by his brother. He also professionalized a Republican 
Guard force consisting of a 25,000 man mechanized division tasked with protecting the 
capital. Both of these units were predominately manned by loyal Alawites from al- 
Assad’s clan and their familial allies. The above units have merged and evolved, but the 


remnants still serve as the most loyal soldiers and perpetrated the most vicious 





73 Yahya Sadowski, “The Evolution of Political Identity in Syria,” in Jdentity and Foreign Policy in 
the Middle East, edited by Shibley Telhami and Michael N. Barnett (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 
2002), 141. 


76 Gelvin, “Syria: Coup Proof?,” 34. 
ZS 


suppression campaigns of the Syrian uprising. In total, the most loyal military units make 


up roughly one-third of the Syrian military.’”? They are the best trained and equipped. 


In addition to the military, al-Assad created an elaborate internal security 
apparatus. The generic term for an intelligence service in Arabic is mukhabarat, and in 
many ways, al-Assad turned Syria into a mukhabarat state that brutally crushed political 
dissent. According to David Lesch, there are a total of 15 internal security branches in 
Syria with an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 full-time security officers with roughly 
hundreds of thousands of part time workers, which equates to one security officer for 
every 240 Syrian citizens.’8 In total, all the security services account for $3 billion per 
year of Syria’s defense budget, which constitutes one-third of the overall budget al.- 
Assad used the security services in the same way his son Bashar uses them today—as 
instruments for state control. To fully quash political dissent, al-Assad issued overlapping 
responsibilities and granted the services autonomy to pre-emptively act when deemed 


necessary. 


Overall, al-Assad’s attempts to stabilize Syria were incredibly successful. As 
Lesch describes, he skillfully overcame Syria’s sectarian and political issues “through 
coercion, a pervasive spying apparatus, carefully constructed tribal and family alliances, 
bribery, and ... divide-and-rule tactics.””? He resurrected his own version of Syria’s 
merchant class that the early Baathists toppled in 1963 while maintaining a strong link to 
the rural peasants. Given Syria’s combustible political history, most were happy to have 
stability despite the authoritarian nature of the regime; however, this Faustian deal had 


limits, which were evident in the Syrian uprising. 


77 Holliday, the Assad Regime, 7. 


78 David W. Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 
2013), 65. 


79 David W. Lesch, “The Uprising That Wasn’t Supposed to Happen: Syria and the Arab Spring,” in 
The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East, edited by Mark L. Haas and David W. Lesch 
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), 84. 


26 


D. BASHAR AL-ASSAD AND THE SYRIAN UPRISING 


When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar inherited his father’s regime. 
Prior to his death, Hafez gave Bashar a crash course in the fundamentals of Syrian 
governance after his oldest son and heir apparent, Bassel, died in a car accident in 1994.89 
When Bashar took office, he evoked great promise from the Syrian people in his 
inaugural address. He expressed a desire for economic reform and spoke of the need to 
incorporate modern thinking into the state bureaucracy; however, change would prove 
more difficult than Bashar imagined.®! The basis of his father’s system was control and 
survivability; it was not a system that readily conformed. Bashar experienced the 
difficulties firsthand as he enacted aggressive reforms with disastrous consequences, but 
given the suffocating power structure in Syria, he and most experts around the world 


were stunned when the uprisings spread to Syria. 


During an interview with The Wall Street Journal at the end of January 2011, 
Bashar explained why the Arab Spring would not affect his country: “Syria is stable. 
Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the 
core issue. When there is divergence...you will have this vacuum that creates 
disturbances.”82 Al-Assad also offered an ironic warning to other Arab leaders in the 
region: “If you didn’t see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, 
it’s too late to do any reform.’’83 Al-Assad gave the interview approximately one month 
before the Arab Spring hit Syria; he clearly thought Syria was immune. Why then did the 
Syrian Uprising start in 2011? 


While a variety of factors made Syria vulnerable to the Arab Spring, socio- 
economic and demographic reasons are near the top. Using a plan drafted by the 
International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bashar introduced a series of aggressive economic 


reforms in 2005 to shift towards a more liberal economy by redirecting government food 





80 Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, 2. 
81 Tbid., 4-5. 


82 Jay Solomon And Bill Spindle, “Syria Strongman: Time for ‘Reform,’” Wall Street Journal, 
January 31, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB 10001424052748704832704576 1 14340735033236. 


83 Tbid. 
27 


subsidies and privatizing government assets.84 His intent was to transition from the state- 
based economy, introduced by Egypt during the UAR years and promoted by his father’s 
regime, towards a social market economy promoted by the IMF and Western countries. 


The results were catastrophic. 


When Bashar redirected food subsidies, he intended to promote capitalism and to 
teach rural farmers to rely less on the state through better farming techniques. As a result, 
he offered selective subsidies on food, fuel, and water. Unbeknownst to Bashar, the 
timing of the reforms could not have been worse. One of the most severe droughts in 
modern history hit Syria from 2006 to 2010. According to Brad Plummer, “75 percent of 
farmers suffered total crop failure.”®5 Under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, the government 
would have supported the farmers; however, Bashar unwisely decided to stay the course 
of his reforms. By doing so, he violated the social contract his father had with the rural 
peasants who bitterly lost their livelihoods. It is no coincidence that the Syrian uprisings 


began in rural areas hit hardest by the reforms and the drought. 


The second aspect of Bashar’s reforms was to privatize government assets. He 
sought to push the business class his father created from the public to the private sphere. 
Rather than foster capitalism and healthy competition, this exacerbated the cronyism that 
had long been established with the favored business class. Corruption and wealth spiraled 
to new heights in the hands of a select few such as the Makhlouf and Tlass families. 
Unfortunately, Bashar’s reforms were doomed partly due to issues native to Syria and 
partly to extenuating circumstances such as the global economic meltdown in 2008. The 
aftermath pushed 30 percent of Syrians below the poverty line as food prices 
skyrocketed.36 The people watched select individuals grow rich while the government 


subsidies they previously relied on were absent. 


84 Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 107. 


85 Brad Plumer, “Drought Helped Cause Syria’s War. Will Climate Change Bring More like It?,” The 
Washington Post, September 10, 2013, 
http://www. washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/10/drought-helped-caused-syrias-war-will- 
climate-change-bring-more-like-it/. 


86 Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 108. 
28 


In addition to economic woes, scholars such as Gelvin and Lesch have pointed to 
Syria’s demographic issues. Unemployment rates were exceptionally high for the youth 
under 25, which constitute roughly 60 percent of the population.8’ Additionally, 81 
percent of college graduates went on average of four years searching for a job, which 
further indicates that the struggling economy was unable to keep up with population 
growth.88 The economic and demographic troubles laid the foundation for a source of 
grievances among the majority of Syrians, but they still lacked a catalyst to mobilize— 
they did not have a collective identity hinged on a greater source of injustice. For 
instance, Bashar initiated the reforms in 2005. Why did Syrians not protest en masse prior 
to 2011? The answer lies in the wave of inspiration created by the Arab Spring combined 


with regime repression. 


The Syrian uprising began when the local intelligence service in the rural town of 
Deraa, Syria, arrested a group of school children who wrote “down with the regime” on a 
wall near their school.89 The children were sent to Damascus where they were reportedly 
interrogated and tortured despite the families pleading for their release.°° The moral 
outrage of the incident combined with the revolutionary fervor sweeping through the 
region was enough for people to take to the streets in protest in mid-March 2011; 


however, the situation was still localized. 


For example, the initial protest attracted a few thousand participants, but 
overwhelming regime repression escalated the situation when security forces opened fire 
to disperse the crowd. The protest increased to an estimated 20,000 people on the 
following day.9! In the span of a couple of weeks, the protests spread to other rural areas 
like a contagion. Just as in Deraa, the government responded with overwhelming violence 


to discourage others, but their tactics backfired: they formed the underpinnings of an 


87 Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 108; Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the 
House of Assad, 62. 


88 Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 108. 


89 Tbid., 103. 
90 Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, 56. 
9! Ibid. 


29 


oppositional consciousness among the Sunni masses who were inspired by their Arab 


brethren who toppled their own authoritarian regimes. 


In April, the catalyst for an increase in mobilization occurred when the local 
intelligence service in Deraa tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib. The 
incident sparked the rallying cry “We are all Hamza al-Khatib,” which was reminiscent 
of the “We are all Khaled Said” slogan from Egypt.?2 Al-Khatib’s death was a game 
changer for Syrian citizens who previously were not compelled to mobilize en-masse. 
“Days of Rage” spread across the country, and protests grew exponentially and more out 


of control as the regime responded with escalating violence. 


E. POLITICAL OPPORTUNITY EXPLANATION TO THE EMERGENCE 
OF RADICAL ISLAMIST GROUPS 


Throughout the early stages of the Syrian uprising, radical Islamist groups were 
conspicuously absent. Of the three main groups, Ahrar and JAN began to stand out in 
early 2012, and IS entered the mix in August 2013. In terms of collective action, all three 
are considered “late-comers” to the conflict compared to the secular opposition that was 
involved from the onset. The Syrian civil war itself changed the dynamic of the power 
structure inside the country—there was now room to mobilize. However, simply blaming 
the civil war for the initial radical Islamist mobilization is an over-simplification. More 
nuance is needed to understand the unique set of circumstances in the conflict that not 
only gave the radical Islamists space to mobilize but also what environmental factors 
contributed to the likelihood of their successful mobilization. The concept of political 
opportunity structures from social movement theory provides a useful analytical tool to 


narrow down specific elements. 


1. Political Opportunity Structures: An Overview 


According to Sydney Tarrow, political opportunity is defined as “consistent—but 


not necessarily formal or permanent—dimensions of the political environment that 


92 Sonia Verma, “How a 13-Year-Old Became a Symbol of Syrian Revolution,” The Globe and Mail, 
June 1, 2011, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/how-a- 13-year-old-became-a-symbol-of- 
syrian-revolution/article4260803/. 


30 


provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their 
expectations for success or failure.”93 Essentially, real or imagined structural changes 
occur in the external environment that directly correlate to enhanced opportunity, which 
tips the risk versus gain scale towards collective action. Political opportunity suggests 
that regardless of how organized or experienced a group is, it cannot mobilize 
successfully without the opportunity to do so.94 In the case of the early stages of the 
Syrian conflict, two specific developments altered the dynamic of the operating 
environment that significantly increased the potential for radical Islamist groups to 
mobilize successfully: the fragmented Syrian opposition and the al-Assad regime’s 


counterinsurgency strategy. 


a. The Fragmented Opposition 


A common misnomer of the Arab Spring is that citizens clamoring for freedom 
and liberty spontaneously took the streets to demand change. While that narrative has 
Hollywood appeal, the reality for Arab Spring countries such as Egypt that successfully 
toppled their regimes is various activist groups used prior events as opportunities to 
mobilize where they learned valuable tactics and organizational skills. For example, 
according to Joel Benin, up to four million Egyptian workers participated in as many as 
4,000 strikes between 1998 and 2010, which had the effect of “popularizing a culture of 
protest.”> It was also an important source of leadership, manpower, and discipline when 
Egyptians took to the streets. In Syria’s repressive environment, its citizens did not have 
the same level of experience that the Egyptians had. The biggest challenge facing the 
Syrian protestors was not the regime itself but the lack of protest experience and 
organization, which increased the likelihood of fragmentation. As the opposition grew, it 


became more decentralized, which made it susceptible to the Syrian regime’s 





93 Meyer and Minkoff, “Conceptualizing Political Opportunity,” 1459. 


94 Doug McAdam et al., “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes,” 
2 


95 Joel Benin, The Rise of Egypt’s Workers (Washington, DC: the Carnegie Endowment for 
International Peace, 2012), 3, http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/28/rise-of-egypt-s-workers. 


31 


provocations towards violence. Once violence erupted, it could not be contained, and the 


opposition split into numerous factions. 


Three general opposition groups emerged. Within Syria, local grassroots 
movements such as the Local Coordinating Councils (LCCs) formed to organize protests 
and spread the message of opposition on social media.9© Defected Syrian soldiers formed 
the FSA to defend Syrian citizens who were being attacked by the regime, especially in 
Homs, Syria. Outside of Syria, prominent exiled Syrian leaders formed the Syrian 
National Council (SNC) in Turkey to elicit international support for the opposition; 
however, the biggest problem among all the groups was communication and lack of 
leadership.?”? None were able to work successfully with each other. Furthermore, the 
outbreak of violence blurred the lines between peaceful movements and those advocating 
armed struggle. The opposition in Syria is an example of what happens when groups try 
to organize after mobilization has already occurred: without the foundation of agency and 


trust, a common collective identity is unlikely to form. 


The roughly 1,500 individual Syrian opposition groups took on the appearance of 
mini-fiefdoms as the chaos unfolded, and their ethnic composition tended to match the 
demographics of their local areas, which made sectarianism a visible component.%8 
According to Holliday, “the failure of the political opposition to present a united and 
viable alternative to the al-Assad regime has largely precluded meaningful cooperation 
between armed resistance and political opposition above the local level.’”9? Yet, the 
decentralized nature of the secular opposition also made it difficult for the regime to 
eradicate them. Al-Assad’s forces had to treat each area as separate pockets of resistance, 
which stretched his forces thin. This enabled the opposition to carve out rural safe 


havens, and for radical Islamists with access to funding, weapons, and manpower, the 


96 Asaad Al-Saleh, Dissecting an Evolving Conflict: The Syrian Uprising and the Future of the 
Country (Washington, DC: Institute for Social Policy and Understanding 2013), 5, 
http://newamerica.net/publications/policy/dissecting_an_evolving_conflict. 


97 Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 114. 
98 Blanchard et al., Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, 3. 


99 Joseph Holliday, Syria’s Armed Opposition (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2012), 
10, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/syrias-armed-opposition. 


32 


situation was more than ideal to mobilize unhindered by both the regime and the secular 


opposition. 


b. Al-Assad’s Counter-Insurgency Strategy 


At the beginning of the uprising in 2011, the regime responded with its norm for 
dealing with dissent: security forces acted pre-emptively and killed with impunity. Bashar 
was clearly caught off guard by how quickly the protests spread and seemed unsure how 
to respond. It took an entire week before he addressed the country, and his first public 
statements were surprising to some, but not to any student of Syrian history. He blamed 
the uprising on foreign agents and terrorists. He stressed that his regime would protect 
Syria at all costs: “my responsibility remains that I should protect the security of this 
country and ensure its stability.”!09 This response was in stark contrast to his interview 
with The Wall Street Journal roughly one month prior when he said, “the protests in 
Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen are ushering in a ‘new era’ in the Middle East” and alluded 
“that Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people’s rising political 
and economic aspirations.” !0! The dilemma for Bashar was his immutable regime had no 
paradigm for change or for capitulating to the demands of the protestors. Thus, he had to 
quickly mold and manipulate the situation into one more conducive with the regime’s 
existing repertoires. After offering limited political concessions mixed with repression, 
Bashar abandoned any notion of compromise and reverted to what Thomas Friedman 


referred to as the “Hama Rules” strategy. 102 


Prior to the conflict, the regime dealt with only one major rebellion: the 1982 
Islamist uprising in Hama. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, radical offshoots of the 
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood consistently harassed the regime with hit and run style 
guerrilla tactics and assassinations. Convinced they would be able to garner popular 


support, the Islamist decided to stand their ground in Hama in 1982. The regime 





100 Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, 76. 
101 Solomon and Spindle, “Syria Strongman: Time for ‘Reform.’” 


102 Syria ’s Mutating Conflict (Washington, DC: International Crisis Group, 2012), I, 
http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/s yria-lebanon/syria/128-syrias-mutating- 
conflict.aspx; Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1990), 104. 


33 


responded by sending its Defense Companies led by Hafez al-Assad’s brother. They 
encircled Hama and literally flattened the areas where the Islamists fortified themselves. 
Every building was destroyed, and an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people were killed.!03 
Holliday succinctly captured the “Hama Rules” strategy into three steps: deploy the most 
loyal Alawite led units, assemble a pro-regime militia to supplement the ground forces, 


and clear and hold opposition areas. 


Once the uprising began, Bashar unleashed the Alawite dominated units, 
specifically the 4" Armored Division, the Republican Guard, and the Special Forces 
regiments. They began to systematically attack the Sunni-led opposition, but this was 
different than Hama in 1982. Since his Alawite units only constitute one-third of all 
forces, he did not have enough soldiers to attack, clear, and hold territory concurrently. 
Fearing that his Sunni soldiers in the regular units would defect, as many did early in the 
conflict, the regime kept most in their garrisons and supplemented its combat forces with 


Alawite militias known as the shabiha. 


The shabiha are led by Bashar’s extended family, and its members are notoriously 
associated with Alawite criminal smuggling syndicates.!95 The regime began using the 
shabiha as shock troops to clear out Sunni villages in the countryside and to force ethnically 
mixed areas to homogenize through sectarian cleansing. The result was some of the worst 


atrocities of the civil war and caused a massive upheaval to Syria’s sectarian disposition. 


The Hama Rules strategy provides some insight to why Bashar labeled the 
protestors a terrorist movement from the beginning: it fit within the regime’s existing 
playbook. As a result, the regime’s entire response was contingent upon validating the 
terrorist conspiracy narrative. To achieve this, numerous scholars have detailed the 
regime’s efforts. Jenkins stressed that the regime began “intensive propaganda programs 
portraying the regime’s opponents as terrorists,” and O’ Bagy emphasized that the regime 


began releasing known radical Islamists from prisons knowing they would join the 


103 Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 77 and 128. 
104 Holliday, The Assad Regime, 10 
105 Jenkins, The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War, 6. 


34 


opposition.!°© Meanwhile, the moderate opposition bore the brunt of all the regime’s 
attacks, which weakened its ability to unite. The regime’s claims that radical Islamists 


were the impetus behind the opposition eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 


F. CONCLUSION 


This chapter provided the historical foundation for the remainder of the thesis and 
linked the origins of Syria’s traditional sectarian, political, and economic grievances to 
the current conflict. This shows that the Syrian civil war is not just a sectarian fight as it 
is often portrayed in the media; other factors such as rural-urban and socio-economic are 
just as important. Furthermore, the chapter illustrated how and why the Syrian regime is 
so resilient and provided some insight on where Bashar diverged from his father. 
Understanding the structural changes that made Syria susceptible to the Arab Spring 
uprisings and those that enabled the radical Islamist emergence is vital to differentiating 
why the current situation is different from other times in Syria’s history and provides 


insight to the relationship between the radical Islamists and their environment. 


From the perspective of the radical Islamist groups, they could not have scripted a 
better situation to exploit. Syria’s historical grievances offer an endless supply of fodder 
for propaganda. The radical Islamist groups also benefited tremendously by entering the 
conflict after it began. For all intents and purposes, the fragmented opposition functioned 
as early-risers in the conflict by upsetting the balance of power.!07_ This allowed the 
radical Islamists to mobilize openly and unconstrained for the first time in Syrian history. 
Additionally, while the basis of the regime’s counterinsurgency strategy was to fight 
terrorists, it pulverized the secular and moderate elements while intentionally leaving the 
radical Islamists relatively unmolested. While these dynamics shed light on factors that 
promoted the emergence of the radical Islamists, they do not explain why and how the 
radical Islamists thrived. The remaining chapters are dedicated to addressing the 


proliferation and success of radical Islamist groups in the Syrian conflict. 


106 Jenkins, The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War, 12; O’ Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 15. 


107 Reinoud Leenders, “Collective Action and Mobilization in Dar’a: An Anatomy of the Onset of 
Syria’s Popular Uprising,” Mobilization: An International Journal 17, no. 4 (December 2012): 419. 


a5 


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36 


Hl. IDEOLOGY 


By all accounts, radical Islamist groups have grown substantially since the 
outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011. From an ideological perspective, some have 
questioned the role of radical Sunni Islam as not only a cultural mobilizing factor but also 
whether the Syrian people are simply more attracted to it. A simple look at the religious 
demographics in Syria shows that Sunnis comprise roughly 75 percent of the 
population.!°8 However, it would be a reductionist and essentialist argument to 
arbitrarily link the rise of radical Islamist groups with the substantial Sunni population in 
Syria with no additional evidence. The presence of a Sunni majority is not a valid 
indicator alone that radical Islamism would flourish in the current conflict. Yet, there are 
no shortage of scholars and politicians that cite Islam in general as the root cause of the 
rise in Islamist groups as a whole around the world. This notion fits with Huntington’s 
Clash of Civilizations Theory, Lewis’ assertions in “The Roots of Muslims Rage,” and 
Juergensmeyer’s Cosmic War explanation.!09 Additionally, Hoffman and Jamal 
demonstrated that religion was an important rallying call during the Arab Spring 
uprisings, and Byman stated that religion is a vital component for legitimacy to 
insurgencies containing Islamist groups.!!0 Simply blaming Islam runs the risk of 
condoning “Islamaphobia” and grossly oversimplifying the Syrian conflict. Additionally, 
Islamist movements are highly diverse, and specificity is needed when singling out a 


particular strand. 


Within this setting, how then did the radical Islamist ideology in Syria proliferate 
and thrive in a conflict that began as a secular and nationalist struggle? How did radical 
versions of Islam prevail over moderate interpretations? After exploring the foundation 
of the radical Islamist ideology, I will use elements of radicalization theory and cultural 


framing from social movement theory as an analytical framework to examine the 





108 Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 102. 


109 Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?;” Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage;” Juergensmeyer, 
Terror in the Mind of God. 


110 Hoffman and Jamal, “How Islam Mattered in the Arab Uprisings;” Byman, “Fighting Salafi- 
Jihadist Insurgencies: How Much Does Religion Really Matter?” 


37 


ideological appeal of radical Islamist groups in the context of the Syrian civil war. I assert 
that a combination of the Salafi-jihadi ideology with a Sunni population polarized by 
indiscriminate regime repression presented a fertile environment for the framing 
strategies employed by Ahrar, JAN, and IS. This chapter is organized into two main 
sections. First, it will discuss the Salafi ideology, describe why the al-Assad regime is the 
“perfect enemy” for jihadists, and show how regime repression fostered an attraction to 
jihadist messaging. Second, this chapter will use framing theory to analyze the 


information operations (IO) strategies of Ahrar, JAN, and IS. 


A. SALAFISM AND THE ROLE OF IDEOLOGY 


David Snow and Scott Byrd define ideology as “a cover term for the values, 
beliefs, and goals associated with a movement or a broader, encompassing social entity, 
and is assumed to provide the rationale for individual and collective action.”!!! In the 
context of the Syrian civil war, Aron Lund highlighted that “Islam functions both as a 
ready-to-use ideological prism, a sectarian identity marker, and an effective mobilization 
tool in Sunni Muslim areas.”!!2 However, Sunni Islam is far from being monolithic: 
there are numerous ways to interpret its teachings. For Syria’s prominent radical Islamist 


groups, the foundation of their version of Islam lies in Salafism. 


Salafism is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that seeks to purge traditions and 
tribal customs from Sunnism that developed over the centuries.!!3 The concept of tawhid 
(the unity of God) forms the basis of the Salafi creed, and to protect tawhid, Salafists 
believe in strict adherence to the Quran and seek to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and 
his earliest followers in every way.!!4 Based on their literal interpretations of Islam, 


Salafists also believe in the necessity of establishing an Islamic state ruled by sharia 


111 David A. Snow and Scott C. Byrd, “Ideology, Framing Processes, and Islamic Terrorist 
Movements,” Mobilization: An International Quarterly Review 12, no. 2 (June 2007): 120. 


112 Aron Lund, Syrian Jihadism (Stockholm, Sweden: The Swedish Institute of International Affairs, 
2012), 11, www.ui.se/upl/files/77409.pdf. 


113 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 5. 


114 Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29, 
no. 3 (2006): 207. 


38 


(Islamic law).!!5 Global Salafi networks receive substantial spiritual and material 


support from Saudi Arabia, which represents the epicenter of the Salafi ideology. 


While Salafists agree on the necessity of tawhid, they vary significantly on the 
acceptable form of activism to achieve their goals and the subjective nature of how to 
apply Islam to modern issues. According to Wiktorowicz, Salafists are divided into three 
factions: purists who are non-violent fundamentalists who seek change through dawa 
(proselytizing), politicos who work within the existing political system to establish an 
Islamic state through reform, and jihadists who espouse violence (or jihad) as the only 
solution to achieve an Islamic state.!!6 Thus, the main source of intra-Salafi contention 
tends to be strategy, and the ultra-violent Salafi-jihadi movements such al-Qaeda (AQ), 
IS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia among others are minority fringe 
subsets of Salafism.!!7 Statistically speaking, the majority of Salafists try to reconcile 
their beliefs through non-violent means. Within this construct, Salafi groups in Syria fall 


somewhere on a sliding scale of contextual interpretation and ideological sophistication. 


Disaggregating Salafi groups in the context of an ongoing civil war such as 
Syria’s can be particularly challenging because the fault lines between political reform 
and armed opposition become blurred.!!8 Regardless, the vast majority of literature on 
Salafi groups fighting in Syria identifies Ahrar, JAN, and IS as being the most prominent, 
and each group professes jihad as being central to their efforts to topple the regime. For 


this reason, the groups are placed in the Salafi-jihadi camp for purposes of this thesis. 


Of the three groups, IS sits firmly in the most extreme end of the spectrum. It 


takes a binary position by violently opposing everyone who does not adhere to its 





115 Mare Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 
2004), 116. 


116 Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” 208; The word jihad is somewhat of a 
controversial term that has many meanings depending on the context. In Arabic, it literally means “to 
struggle;” however, when radical Islamists use the term, they most often use it to mean “holy war.” Thus, 
when some use the term, they may refer to jihad as an internal spiritual struggle to live in the path of God. 
When radical Islamists use it, they most often refer to jihad as an armed struggle against non-Muslims. For 
purposes of this thesis, the use of the term jihad will have a military connotation, and the term jihadis or 
jihadists are those who wage violent jihad. 


117 Tid. 
118 O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 18. 
39 


worldview, including other jihadist groups. JAN is technically extreme but not as extreme 
as IS. As the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, it adheres to al-Qaeda’s vision of establishing an 
Islamic caliphate but employs a pragmatic approach to garner popular support, rather 
than IS’s doctrinally pure approach.!!9 Ahrar is the least extreme of the three groups and 
seeks to be the moderate option. Just as Islam is not monolithic, neither are these jihadist 


groups. 


While ideology can rationalize and legitimize violence, many scholars are loath to 
accept it as a stand-alone explanation for radicalizing individuals towards collective 
action. According to Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, the jihadist threat “cannot 
be reduced to the prevalence of ... a radical form of Islam.” !2° Thus, more is needed to 
explain the resonance of the Salafi-jihadi ideology in the context of the Syrian civil war. 
Two factors are vital for explaining why the Syrian conflict is an ideal breeding ground 
for jihadists: the al-Assad regime represents the perfect jihadist enemy, and 


indiscriminate regime repression has validated the jihadist narrative. 


B. THE AL-ASSAD REGIME: THE PERFECT JIHADI ENEMY 


Prior to the Syrian uprising, Nibras Kazimi referred to the al-Assad regime as the 
“perfect enemy” for jihadists because according to their worldview, the regime represents 
a “tyrannical, secular, and heretical” trifecta.!2!_ Beginning with the “tyrannical” 
description that few could disagree with, the al-Assad regime began when Hafez al-Assad 
led his bloodless in coup in 1970 and coup-proofed the regime to solidify his rule. As 
Chapter IT explained, a consequence of Hafez’s efforts was that his regime ruthlessly 
crushed any opposition including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its radical offshoot 
the Fighting Vanguard in 1982 during the Islamist uprising. After the regime’s most loyal 
Alawite dominated units crushed the Islamist opposition in Hama, the Syrian Muslim 


Brotherhood was banned, and its members sought refuge in neighboring states, especially 





119 O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 7. 


120 Clark R. McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and 
Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 221. 


121 Nibras Kazimi, Syria through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution 
Press, 2010), 80. 


40 


the Gulf countries. Surviving members of the Fighting Vanguard also fled Syria and 
traveled to Afghanistan to wage jihad against the Soviets. While the Islamists were 
decimated, the civilian population was as well with an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 
civilian deaths at the hands of the regime.!22 The atrocities at Hama have been 
permanently seared into the memory of many in the Sunni population. While the regime 
is known for authoritarianism and repression, it is the memory of Hama that jihadists 


often cite today as an example of the tyrannical regime. 


The secular doctrine of the regime’s Baath Party is the second aspect that makes 
the regime the perfect enemy of jihadists. By definition, the Baath Party represents a 
combination of secularism, Arab nationalism, and socialism among other ideologies. The 
historical reasoning behind Baathism was to unite Syria’s diverse population. As a rule, 
all Salafis adhere to the principle of tawhid, and most jihadists adhere to Sayyid Qutb’s 
concept of hakimiyyat Allah (absolute sovereignty of God), which rejects man’s 
sovereignty over other men.!23 When combined, Baathism stands in stark contrast to the 


religious and political views of jihadists on multiple levels. 


The third aspect, which is perhaps the most powerful mobilizing tool during times 
of sectarian strife, is the presence of Alawites in key leadership positions in the Syrian 
regime. Alawites are considered an offshoot of Shia Islam; however, the Alawite 
religious faith also reputedly contains elements of Phoenician paganism and Christian 
trinitarianism, which adds a level of mystery surrounding their beliefs.!24 In a region rife 
with Sunni—Shia tension, the Alawites are an easy target for jihadist vitriol for being 
associated not only with Shia Islam but also representing polytheistic tendencies, an 


unforgivable sin in the eyes of jihadists. Thus, jihadists label Alawites as a heretical sect. 


The jurisprudential basis of jihadi opposition traces back to a 13th century fatwa 


(religious opinion) by one of the central figures and ideologues for Salafis, Taqi ad-Din 





1227 efevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 77 and 128. 


123 Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: 
Texts and Contexts from Al-Banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 131; 
Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” 208. 


124 Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression, 115. 
41 


Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah. According to his fatwa, Ibn Taymiyyah ruled that “Alawites are 
more heretical than the Jews and Christians, even more so than the polytheists. Their 
damage to the Muslim community... is greater than the damage of the infidels who fight 
against Muslims such as the heretic Mongols, the Crusaders, and others.” !25 He eternally 
condemned them as apostates and religiously justified killing them. Ibn Taymiyyah 
handed the jihadists of today a timeless blueprint and blank check to attack the Alawites 


without the burdensome necessity of religious justification. 126 


In addition to the aforementioned reasons, the al-Assad regime is also a staunch 
ally of Iran and Hizbullah, which are mortal enemies of Sunni jihadists. Thus, the regime 
represents everything jihadists despise and is the perfect enemy for them to vilify in their 
ideology. However, the presence of the regime is still not enough to explain why the 


Salafi-jihadi ideology resonates and thrives in the current civil war. 


C; SYRIAN SUNNI MORAL OUTRAGE 


Many prominent scholars on radicalization such as Wiktorowicz and Sageman 
provide insight into the process of how a person can become radicalized and join a 
jihadist group. Wiktorowicz promotes a linear model of radicalization that begins with 
the presence of a “cognitive opening,” which can be a crisis or experience dealing with 
discrimination, victimization, or humiliation that causes a person to be receptive to 
radical ideas.!27. Sageman agrees with the cognitive opening assertion but stresses that 
any cognitive event must be a “major moral violation” that elicits outrage.!28 In addition 
to cognitive openings, the presence of other environmental factors such as common 
threats, deep feelings of hatred, and deliberate actions taken by jihadist groups to recruit 


the disenchanted increase the likelihood of radicalization. 


125 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 21; Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 
65. 


126 Kazimi, Syria through Jihadist Eyes, 10. 
127 King and Taylor, “The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists,” 605. 


128 Marc Sageman, ‘‘A Strategy for Fighting International Islamist Terrorists,’ Annals of the 
American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 618, no. 1 (2008): 225. 


42 


According to McCauley and Moskalenko, “groups in conflict, especially if the 
conflict involves prolonged violence, become more extreme in their negative perceptions 
of one another.”!2? When one group is threatened or attacked repeatedly by another, it 
magnifies the awareness of “us” and “them,” and powerful emotions of hatred begin to 
serve as “an extreme form of negative identification” to facilitate mass radicalization. !30 
In the case of the Syrian uprising, there are numerous examples of regime brutality that 
constituted major moral violations on the Sunni rural population. The regime’s abuse of 
children, brutal sieges, and indiscriminate bombings greatly facilitated rural Sunnis to 


view the regime as illegitimate and coalesce under a sectarian identity. 


Few atrocities spark more moral outrage than those against children, and the 
Syrian regime set this unfortunate precedent from the onset. The Arab Spring protests in 
Syria began when schoolchildren in Deraa wrote “down with the regime” on a wall near 
their school. The regime responded by sending them to Damascus where they were 
reportedly interrogated and tortured despite the families pleading for their release.!3! 
Notwithstanding the country’s long-standing socio-economic and political grievances and 
the regime’s reputation for repression, the torturing of children is what motivated the 


initial protestors to take to the streets. 


The death of Hamza al-Khatib serves as another example. In May 2011, people all 
over the world reviled in horror when al Jazeera released clips from a video showing the 
mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib. Security forces in Deraa arrested him in 
April 2011 during a protest he attended with his father. After repeated inquiries from his 
family, security forces returned Hamza’s lifeless body in May. Sonia Verma described 
the damage: “His jaw and both kneecaps had been smashed. His flesh was covered with 
cigarette burns. His penis had been cut off. Other injuries appeared to be consistent with 
the use of electroshock devices and being whipped with a cable.”!32 It is difficult to 


quantify morale outrage, but despite all of the regime’s harsh tactics during the early 





129 McCauley and Moskalenko, Friction, 164. 

130 Thid., 161-71. 

131 Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, 56. 

132 Verma, “How a 13-Year-Old Became a Symbol of Syrian Revolution.” 


43 


phases of the uprising, none aside from the death of Hamza al-Khatib sparked “Days of 


Rage” across the country. 


The more the protests spread in rural Sunni areas, the more the regime’s responses 
began to take the form of collective punishment. The siege of the Baba Amr 
neighborhood in Homs and the use of barrel bombs in Aleppo exemplify the regime’s 
tactics. Once the uprising began in Deraa, it spread to other cities such as Homs. The 
neighborhood of Baba Amr was considered an opposition stronghold throughout 2011, 
and its inhabitants were exclusively Sunni. In February 2012, regime forces surrounded 
the neighborhood with an Alawite dominated force and pummeled the neighborhood with 
artillery fire.!53 By March, regime forces defeated the opposition, but the siege of Baba 
Amr was executed in a manner reminiscent of the Hama massacre in 1982, which 


brought the jihadi narrative closer to the grievances experienced by locals in Homs. 


In addition to Baba Amr-style sieges, the regime introduced a new tactic: barrel 
bombs. These munitions can be thought of as “flying improvised explosive devices.” !34 
They are large pipes or barrels stuffed with explosives and shrapnel that are dropped out 
of helicopters in opposition held areas where large civilian populations reside. The 
regime first introduced barrel bombs in Aleppo in 2012 and began using them in Homs 
shortly thereafter.!35 For local Sunnis, the effect of the barrel bombs was terrifying due 
to their indiscriminate nature, which again contributed to intense feelings of sectarian 


hatred towards the regime. 


There are plenty of other examples that sparked moral outrage such as the 
massacres conducted by the shabiha in the Sunni villages of Houla and Qubayr located 


near Homs and Hama respectively where the shabiha executed roughly 186 people 


133 Holliday, Syria’s Armed Opposition, 13. 


134 Wikipedia, s.v. “Barrel Bomb,” last modified January 25, 2015, 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_bomb. Wikipedia should be in italics. It is considered a dictionary or 
encyclopedia. 


135 Damien McElroy, “Syrian Regime Deploys Deadly New Weapons on Rebels,” The Telegraph, 
August 31, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/95 127 19/Syrian-regime- 
deploys-deadly-new-weapons-on-rebels.html. 


44 


including women and children.!36 All of the above events illustrate that the regime’s 
tactics reinforced sectarian cleavages. While the opposition initially emphasized secular 
values, religious narratives like the Salafi-jihadi narrative began to make the most sense. 
Syrian Salafis are staunchly anti-regime and anti-Alawite. They represent the polar 
opposite of everything the regime stands for. As Aron Lund explained, “Sunni fighters 
are drawn to Salafism not by the fine points of the doctrine, but because it helps them 
manifest a Sunni identity in the most radical way possible, while also providing them 
with a theological explanation for the war against Shia Muslims [Alawites], a sense of 


belonging, and spiritual security.” !37 


While this section helps to explain why the Syrian civil war has been a fertile 
environment for the Salafi-jihadi ideology to thrive, it does not explain how jihadist 
groups have maximized the situation. Framing theory offers insight into how radical 
groups have enhanced their ideology and a framework to analyze the information 


operations strategies of jihadist groups. 


D. FRAMING THEORY: AN OVERVIEW 


Douglas Snow defines framing as “the conscious strategic efforts by groups of 
people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate 
and motivate collective action.”!38 Dalgaard-Nielsen adds that framing is a way for 
groups to translate grievances into action by promoting “a specific version of reality and 
to make this version resonate with the worldview of potential recruits.”!39 In order for 
frames to be effective, they must resonate with the target audience by tapping into master 
narratives. Generally, framing strategies contain three core types: diagnostic, prognostic, 


and motivational. By using carefully crafted frames that diagnose specific problems, 


136 Stephanie Nebehay, “Most Houla Victims Killed in Summary Executions: U.N.,” Reuters, May 29, 
2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/29/us-syria-un-idUSBRE84S 10020120529; Jim Muir, “UN 
Monitors ‘Shot at’ in Syria,” BBC News, June 7, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east- 
18352281. 


137 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 10. 


138 McAdam et al., “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes - 
Toward a Synthetic, Comparative Perspective on Social Movements,” 6. 


139 Dalgaard-Nielsen, “Violent Radicalization in Europe,” 802. 
45 


proffer solutions, and motivate collective action, opposition groups make themselves 
more appealing to potential recruits, legitimize their actions, and foster an insurgent 


consciousness. 


In Syria, framing offers the missing link for what has facilitated aggrieved Sunni 
populations to cognitively align with the jihadists. Ahrar, JAN, and IS represent varying 
degrees of extreme beliefs, which is reflected in their frames. While it would seem that 
this could lead to ideological confusion, the opposite has occurred. The variance in 
Salafi-jihadi application expands the options for people to choose from within an 
ideology that most strongly opposes the regime. The result is that each group offers a 
jihadi-like buffet to choose from depending on a person’s circumstances or outlook. The 


next few sections will dissect themes from the framing and media strategies of each 


group. 


1. Ahrar al Sham: the Median Voter Option 


When Ahrar al Sham formed in late 2011, its leaders pursued two strategies: unite 
Salafist groups fighting in Syria and portray itself as the moderate Salafi-jihadi option. 
For example, Ahrar is a leading faction in the Islamic Front (IF), which is the largest bloc 
of Islamist groups. According to Lund, the IF consists of seven Islamist groups whose 
numbers range between 45,000 and 70,000, which is most likely exaggerated on the 
higher end for propaganda purposes.!4° Ahrar’s estimated strength alone is between 
10,000 and 20,000, according to The Economist.'4! Aside from the IF, Ahrar also 
regularly conducts operations with other groups, including JAN and the Free Syrian 
Army, but is embroiled in an intra-jihadi feud with IS, which has reportedly killed two of 
Ahrar’s prominent leaders (Hassan Abboud and Abu Khalid al-Suri). In the wake of IS’s 
extremism, Ahrar has maintained its commitment to bridging the moderate-radical gap. 
It can be thought of as the “median voter” option. According to Shadi Hamid, in order to 


expand popularity, some Islamist groups (whether radical or not) “deemphasize ideology 





140 Aron Lund, The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 1: Structure and Support (Washington, DC: 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2014), 
http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54183. 


14] “Competition among Islamists,” The Economist. 


46 


and move to the center where presumably the median voters” (or large segments of 


society) are located, which adequately describes Ahrar’s framing strategies. !42 


Beginning with diagnostic frames, which “elevate individual grievances into a 
systemic failure and identify whom to blame,” Ahrar has relied primarily on “targeted 
vilification” aimed at the Syrian regime and IS.'43 A common tactic among radical 
Islamists is to refer to their enemies as infidels.!44 In the Syrian milieu, there are ample 
historical examples of Alawites being indiscriminately framed as infidels. This label 
tends to resonate mostly with rural Sunnis who were hit hardest by the regime’s policies 
prior to the Arab Spring and have suffered tremendously at the hands of the regime 
during the civil war such as in Deraa and Homs. Rather than label all Alawites as 
infidels, Ahrar has taken a more nuanced approach by referring to the regime as “the 
criminal Nusayris,” which is a historical, derogatory term for Alawites used in fatwas by 
Ibn Taymiyyah.!45 The term is disparaging because it refers to the founder of the 
Alawite faith who was associated with the eleventh Shiite Imam, whereas the term 
Alawite stems from the fourth Caliph Ali Ibn Abu Talib whose death was one of the 
primary reasons for the Sunni—Shia split. Using Nusayri instead of Alawite is meant to 
imply that Alawites are a heretical offshoot of Shiism and not true Muslims.!46 Like 
Ahrar, JAN and IS also use the Nusayri label, but Ahrar tries to distinguish between the 
Nusayri regime and the Alawite minority population, which is meant to demonstrate 
concern for minorities while still vilifying the regime. Additionally, Ahrar typically 
refers to the regime as the criminal Nusayris, which places the emphasis on corruption 


and illegitimacy rather than a sectarian call against all Alawites. 


142 Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East 
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30. 


143 Doowan Lee, “A Social Movement Approach to Unconventional Warfare,” Special 
Warfare 26, no. 3 (2013): 30. 

144 Halverson, Corman, and Goodall, Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, 109. 
145 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 21 and 26. 


146 Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition (Washington, DC: International Crisis Group, 
2012), 11, http:/www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2012/mena/syria-tentative-jihad- 
syria-s-fundamentalist-opposition.aspx. 


47 


In regard to IS, Ahrar publicly calls them Kharijites, which refers to an extreme 
Islamic sect from the seventh century that radically used takfir (the process of one 
Muslim declaring another Muslim an apostate). Kharijites are widely despised in Islamic 
history, and the label is a derogatory term meant to invoke revulsion in Muslim 
communities. For example, when a suicide bomber assessed to be from IS killed Abu 
Khalid al-Suri in 2014, Hassan Abboud, who was later reportedly killed by IS, stated, “It 
seems he was killed in a suicide attack...at the hands of the Kharijites of this age.”!47 By 


referring to IS as Kharijites, Ahrar vilifies it while portraying itself as less extreme. 


Diagnostically placing blame is part of an effective strategy; using prognostic 
frames to offer a solution to rectify the problem is an equally important component. Most 
Islamist groups wield the jihad master narrative as the proposed solution, which is meant 
as a call to arms to defend Islam.!48 IS is indiscriminate in its application of violent 
jihad; Ahrar, in contrast, takes a more nuanced approach. Rather than indiscriminately 
and independently applying the label of jihad to the Syrian conflict, Ahrar has worked 
with leading Salafi scholars to promote jihad as a unified Muslim community. For 
example, Hassan Abboud was the only representative of any Islamist group in Syria that 
attended a conference in Cairo in June 2013 with numerous prominent Salafi scholars 
where all present called for the Syrian conflict to be labeled as a jihad.!49 The presence 


of respected scholars demonstrated Ahrar’s attempt at solidarity. 


Despite declaring Syria a jihad, the word “jihad” is conspicuously absent from the 
IF’s and Ahrar’s charter, which appears to be intentional. According to one Ahrar 
spokesman, the group does not want “Western opinion makers to base their information 
on [Islamic] stereotypes.”!5° While Ahrar wants to separate its interpretation of jihad 


from IS, it must retain its Islamic character. As a result, Ahrar still calls for a jihad in 


147 Aron Lund, Who and What Was Abu Khalid Al-Suri? Part I (Washington, DC: Carnegie 
Endowment for International Peace, 2014), http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54618. 


148 Halverson, Corman, and Goodall, Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, 13. 


149 Aaron Zelin and Charles Lister, “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front,” Foreign Policy, June 
24, 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/06/24/the-crowning-of-the-syrian-islamic-front/. 


150 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 20. 
48 


Syria and refers to its fighters as jihadis or mujahidin (holy warriors) in the media but 


tries to limit the application of it to distinguish itself from IS. 


The last type of frame employed by Ahrar is motivational, which is meant to 
inspire individuals to action. Through frame alignment, Ahrar links its goal of an Islamic 
state ruled by sharia with existing secular narratives that call for the overthrow of the al- 
Assad regime and a return to Syria’s former greatness. Secular leaders in the Syrian 
National Council (SNC) such as Burhan Ghalioun often use similar frames as a rallying 
call, but their frames lack specificity of what a new Syria would look like after the fall of 
the regime. Within this political void, Ahrar has pushed its vision of building “a civilized 
Islamic society in Syria, ruled by the law of God” where minority rights will be respected 
and “all Syrians will be equally blessed with the justice of Islam.”!5! While Ahrar’s 
vision of a state sounds rather utopian, its description lacks the harshness and barbarism 
exhibited by IS. Furthermore, Ahrar’s use of this frame emphasizes the regime, not 
sectarian tensions. Overall, Thomas Pierret best surmised the differences between 
Ahrar’s media and framing strategy compared to IS: “The political identity Ahrar al- 
Sham displays is nationalist Salafi—they claim they are Salafi, but they use Syrian 


national symbols...that’s a very different brand from the global jihadi one.” !52 


Ze Jabhat al Nusra: the Hybrid Option 


Like Ahrar, JAN formed in late 2011. Its leaders and core group of fighters were 
veterans of the Iraq War and were sent to Syria by the IS leadership.53 From its 
inception, JAN established itself as an effective, professional, and disciplined fighting 


force, and it grew in reputation and size in 2012. According to Brian Jenkins from 


131 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 22. 


152 Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith, “Syrian Rebels Driven by Religion, but on Their Own 
Terms,” Washington Post, August 9, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian- 
rebels-driven-by-religion-but-on-their-own-terms/20 12/08/09/a8c82468-e24 1-1 1e1-ae7f- 
d2a13e249eb2_story.html. 


153 Noman Benotman and Blake Roisin, Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing (London, England: 
Quilliam Foundation, 2012), 
http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wpcontent/uploads/publications/free/jabhatalnusra-a-strategic- 
briefing.pdf. 


49 


RAND, JAN’s estimated strength is 5,000 to 6,000.!54 In 2013, JAN had a public spat 
with IS when its leaders refused a merger, and in the aftermath of the jihadi drama, JAN 
swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Overall, JAN is not entirely exclusive—it will work with 
other groups on a case-by-case basis. JAN has been resistant to jihadi on jihadi violence 
even when provoked by IS. On the jihadi extremist scale, JAN is on the same end as IS, 
but its leaders have deliberately chosen a pragmatic strategy to avoid alienating other 
groups and to foster popular support. For this reason, JAN can be thought of as the 
hybrid option and arguably the most dangerous, because they agree with IS but 
deceptively appear more like Ahrar at times. JAN’s framing strategies confirm this 


assertion. 


JAN appears to be using a framing strategy advocated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian 
Peninsula that consists of proffering a “grievance narrative that is consistent with the core 
tenets of al-Qaeda’s ideology but infused with themes that resonate locally, increasing its 
salience, credibility, and audience acceptance.”!°>° JAN’s framing looks like Ahrar’s: its 
diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational frames are similar. JAN vilifies the regime and 
refers to Alawites in the regime as Nusayris while avoiding a damnation of all Alawites 
as a whole. JAN also calls for violent jihad and attempts to align its ideas of establishing 
a caliphate as being compatible with a return to greatness for Greater Syria. As expected, 


the differences between JAN and Ahrar lie in the nuances and strategic context. 


As an al-Qaeda affiliate, JAN is unique because it not only avoids alienating the 
local population but also actively tries to garner popular support. Its inspiration for this 
strategy is twofold. First, JAN’s core leadership fought with AQI in 2006 and witnessed 
the group’s loss of popular support during the al-Anbar Awakening.!5© JAN’s leadership 
felt the scenario could have been avoided if AQI had been flexible with some of their 
principles for the purpose of establishing deeper ties with the local communities. Second, 


JAN is heavily influenced by the teachings of the jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri who 





134 Jenkins, The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War, 9. 


155 Alistair Harris, Exploiting Grievances: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Washington, DC: 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010), 6, 
http://carnegieendowment.org/2010/06/08/exploiting-grievances-al-qaeda-in-arabian-peninsula. 


156 Benotman and Roisin, Jabhat al-Nusra. 


50 


stresses the importance of winning the hearts and minds while waging jihad by 
“providing services to the people, avoiding being seen as extremists, maintaining strong 
relationships with the communities and other fighting groups, and putting the focus on 
fighting the regime.”!57 Al-Suri’s teachings place military pragmatism above ideological 
purity while waging jihad; however, al-Suri and JAN are masking their true intent with 
pragmatism. JAN’s leaders are not opposed to IS’ harsh treatment of the population; they 


just think it is counter-productive. 


For example, JAN refers to Alawites as infidels as a diagnostic frame like all 
jihadi groups. However, rather than focusing on the regime, JAN has used it in an 
indirect manner by offering itself as an alternative to the regime by actively ingratiating 
itself in areas it controls. For example, JAN established a humanitarian wing that 
distributes relief items such as food, gas, and clothing.!58 Additionally, JAN’s media 
wing regularly explains that some operations were canceled due to concerns of civilian 
casualties and focuses the majority of video releases on direct engagements with the 
regime where collateral damage was minimized.!°? JAN’s use of an Alawite infidel 
frame coupled with community outreach and selective military operations have allowed it 
to take the focus off of its jihadi roots and present an illusion of working towards 


removing the regime with the rest of the opposition. 


From a prognostic standpoint, JAN like many others promotes violent jihad as the 
answer; however, it adds a different twist. JAN’s use of the violent jihad frame has been 
to focus on its own outward display of waging jihad to inspire others. In JAN’s 
propaganda videos, it has stuck to examples of its military prowess in attacking the 
regime as opposed to criticizing others for not waging jihad, which is consistent with al- 
Suri’s recommendations.!©° In essence, JAN’s disciplined military tactics romanticize 


jihad to Muslim youth outside of Syria who are seeking excitement and serves as an 


157 Hassan Hassan, “A Jihadist Blueprint for Hearts and Minds is Gaining Traction in Syria,” The 
National, March 4, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/a-jihadist-blueprint- 
for-hearts-and-minds-is-gaining-traction-in-syria. 


158 Benotman and Roisin, Jabhat al-Nusra. 
139 O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 37. 
160 Benotman and Roisin, Jabhat al-Nusra. 


51 


example to others inside Syria. The result is those who choose not to fight are meant to 
feel guilt and shame, and those who do fight are regaled with heroic jihad stories from the 
past and present. From this perspective, JAN tries to portray itself as waging an 


honorable jihad to defend the faithful against infidel aggressors. 


Like Ahrar, JAN has tapped into traditional Syrian narratives for motivational 
purposes to mask its long-term goals. JAN is acutely aware that its jihadist goal of 
restoring the caliphate is incompatible with many in Syrian society. JAN’s leadership 
made an early decision to soften public rhetoric regarding the establishment of a caliphate 
once/if the regime falls and the subsequent implementation of sharia.!6! As a result, JAN 
has taken a nuanced approach in propaganda videos. All public statements are carefully 
crafted to resonate on some level with the concept of Syria as Bilad al-Sham (Greater 
Syria), which is meant to be a historical reference to the early Islamic caliphates and to 
the region before Western powers divided it. For example, rather than focus on its 
desired end state to enforce its version of sharia law as IS has done, JAN stated that it 
wants to “bring the law of Allah back to his land” in its first video statement in January 
2012.162 While it may seem like semantics, leaving out the word “sharia” was 
intentional.!©3 While that is just one example, JAN has routinely softened any reference 
to its desired end state; however, JAN has still aggressively propagated its belief that the 
Syrian civil war is an Islamic issue supported by religious justification. Its media wing 
regularly distributes CDs centered on “the Quranic notion of jihad and the virtue of the 
people of greater Syria mentioned in the Sunnah.”!6* These messages resonate with 
jihadists and the disenchanted Sunni public. The CDs invoke a return to historical 
greatness and lead people to believe that they could be the ones to restore greatness to 


Greater Syria in the name of God. 





161 Benotman and Roisin, Jabhat al-Nusra. 
162 Thid. 
163 Tbid. 
164 Thid. 


52 


3. Islamic State: the Manichean Choice 


Of all the Syrian opposition groups, IS is the most extreme. Its message has been 
consistent from the beginning—it takes a binary position and seeks to crush anyone who 
opposes its worldview; thus, it represents the Manichean choice. From the moment IS 
fighters entered the Syrian conflict in 2013, they caused significant turmoil trying to 
strong-arm other groups, even Ahrar and JAN, and attacking them. In July 2013, IS 
rocked the jihadi world by announcing the formation of a caliphate based in Raqqa, Syria, 
and seems to be equally concerned with governance as it is with fighting. In this regard, 
IS is unique because it is doing what no other group has ever done: provide the world a 
glimpse of what a caliphate actually looks like. On the surface, it would be logical to 
assume that IS has little appeal due to its alienating tactics, but it is one of the largest 


opposition groups. According to the CIA, IS’s estimated strength is 20,000 to 31,500.!® 


As noted in the above sections, IS draws from the same general diagnostic, 
prognostic, and motivational narratives as Ahrar and JAN; however, IS’s versions are 
more extreme, immutable, and unapologetic. While JAN and Ahrar go to great lengths to 
maximize the appeal of their messages, IS takes a different approach by tailoring 
messages for recruits outside of Syria, relying on intimidation and coercion for those 


inside Syria, and revolutionizing its distribution of messages. 


A recent documentary exemplifies IS’s framing strategy targeting those outside of 
Syria. Vice News reporter Medyan Dairieh in August 2014, gained unprecedented access 
to life in Raqqa, where he spent three weeks embedded in the actual “Islamic State.” One 
particular scene epitomizes IS’s complex framing through visual cues loaded with 
symbolism and gestures. “We’ve broken Sykes—Picot,” shouted an IS fighter while 
standing on a destroyed berm that previously separated the Syria—Iraq border while he 
triumphantly raised his index finger in the air.!©© To a casual non-Muslim observer, the 


scene does not appear overly complex; however, to disenchanted Muslims, the scene is 





165 Barrett, The Islamic State, 10. 


166 “The Islamic State,” YouTube video, 37:12, from Vice News correspondent Medyan Dairieh inside 
the Islamic State, posted by Vice News, August 14, 2014, 
http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=AUjHb4C7b94. 


53 


rife with symbolism that taps into a historical grievance narrative while reaffirming IS’ 
ideology in two ways. First, the Sykes—Picot treaty is one of the primary historical “roots 
of Arab bitterness.”!67 For many, the treaty embodies Western attempts to place Arab 
lands under colonial rule. In the documentary, IS did not just destroy the berm, it 
ceremoniously used a bulldozer to level it to “open the route for all Muslims,” as one IS 


fighter explained.!68 


Second, when the IS fighter raised his index finger in the air, the purpose was not 
just to denote victory; it was meant to communicate a primary tenet of the Salafi 
ideology: tawhid. While tawhid is not an extreme concept, IS manipulates it to represent 
its Manichean ideology and the need to rid the world of apostates and infidels. According 
to Nathaniel Zelinsky, when IS militants display the tawhid symbol, they are reaffirming 
their uncompromising views against pluralism and non-fundamentalist regimes.!©? The 
tawhid gesture is rampant in almost every IS video. The effect is that tawhid is IS’s 
signature gesture, and the group has turned a well-known gesture in the Muslim world 
into a Nazi-like salute that reaffirms its violent ideology through a low cost action. Thus, 
in one scene of a documentary that was viewed over 14 million times in just four months 
on YouTube, IS demonstrated its diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational frames through 


words, gestures, and symbols. 


Christoph Reuter, Raniah Salloum, and Samiha Shafy have remarked on how IS 
goes to great lengths to target specific audiences: “For Western observers, they are cool, 
clean, and coherent. For locals, they are bloody, brutal, and fear-inducing.”!79 Reuter et 
al. analyzed a video from September 2014 that IS distributed among the Sunni masses 
living inside areas of its control. The video showed IS fighters massacring members of a 


rebellious tribe by brutally beheading them while laughing and joking. The video 


167 Goldschmidt Jr. and Davidson, “The Roots of Arab Bitterness,” 46. 
168 “The Islamic State,” YouTube video, 36:40. 


169 Nathaniel Zelinsky, “ISIS Sends a Message,” Foreign Affairs, September 3, 2014, 
http://www. foreignaffairs.com/articles/141956/nathaniel-zelinsky/isis-sends-a-message. 


170 Christoph Reuter, Raniah Salloum, and Samiha Shafy, “The Professional PR Strategies of ISIS in 
Syria and Iraq,” Spiegel Online, August 10, 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/the- 
professional-pr-strategies-of-isis-in-syria-and-iraq-a-9956 1 1 .html. 


54 


achieved the intended effect: the tribal Sheikh begged for mercy afterwards.!7! This is 
but one example of how IS relies on different types of motivation to garner support for 
those living in its purview: coercion, fear, and intimidation. Its message is clear: anyone 


who dares defy IS will be slaughtered. 


From a distribution standpoint, IS has embraced modern technology and 
revolutionized the spread of jihadi propaganda on an unparalleled level. Its media officers 
deftly incorporate most social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, 
YouTube, Instagram and SoundCloud among others to spread their messages. Ahrar and 


JAN also use the sites but not on the level of sophistication as IS. 


In a recent analysis of IS, Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group detailed the 
methods used by IS to distribute media through crowd sourcing.!72 For example, prior to 
posting the speech by the leader of IS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announcing the formation of 
the Islamic State in July 2013 on YouTube, IS’s media department tweeted still shots 
from the video to announce its pending release.!73_ The tweets were then re-tweeted 
countless times to maximize visibility before the video was uploaded. The re-tweets 
prevented any censorship from Twitter because shutting down the account of the original 
tweet made little difference since the message was already re-tweeted. By the time al- 
Baghdadi’s speech was posted to YouTube, IS could count not only on potential 
supporters viewing it but also most major news networks, which catapulted its messages 
to the global level. According to Barrett, “there is no precedent for this...in a 
counterintuitive move, the Islamic State has maximized control of its message by giving 
up control of its delivery.”!74 It is clear from IS’s consolidated media strategy that it is 
going beyond diagnosing problems, proffering solutions, and motivating collective action 
like the framing strategies of JAN and Ahrar—IS is marketing its own unique brand to a 


global audience. 





171 Reuter et al., “The Professional PR Strategies of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.” 
172 Barrett, The Islamic State, 51. 

173 Tid. 

174 Thid. 


35 


E. CONCLUSION 


There are no statistics available for Syria before or after the war began to 
quantitatively measure public opinion on radical Islamist ideology. Prior to the war, Syria 
was not known as a bastion of radical Islamist sentiment, but the evolution of radical 
Islamist groups from the fringes in 2011 to the largest opposition groups in 2014 
indicates that their ideology must resonate at some level. In order to understand why, the 
Salafi-jihadi ideology must be placed within the context of the Syrian civil war to 
examine its appeal: the al-Assad regime’s brutal tactics formed the underpinnings of an 


oppositional consciousness in the masses for the jihadists to exploit. 


At the group level, disaggregating the framing and media strategies revealed some 
important conclusions. Ahrar and JAN have successfully aligned their jihadi narratives 
with local grievances to achieve resonance through framing strategies. Ahrar is clearly 
trying to show moderation; however, it is still a jihadist group that emerged through 
violent conflict. Its moderation should not be mistaken for mainstream Islamism. JAN, on 
the other hand, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its core leadership consists of transnational 
jihadists who are engaging in a local conflict. Their framing strategies are forged through 
the crucible of war and are designed to downplay their true intentions. Their pragmatism 
is merely a diversion from their al-Qaeda affiliated goals. Compared to Ahrar and JAN, 
IS does not appear to be concerned with local resonance. Rather than compete at the local 
level, IS has scale shifted its media efforts to the global level. Its propaganda machine 
churns out a steady stream of motivational frames proclaiming the virtues and wonders of 
its caliphate, but those living in IS controlled areas are painfully aware of the truth. For 
all three groups, a potent mix of ideology, opportunity, and successful IO strategies have 
contributed to their rise and validates Brian Jenkins’ statement that “the jihadists have 


become the cutting edge of the rebellion.” !75 


175 Jenkins, The Role of Terrorism and Terror in Syria’s Civil War, 3. 
56 


IV. EXPERIENCE, ORGANIZATION, AND STRATEGY 


The rise of radical Islamist groups is rarely the result of a linear process or one 
simple factor, which is why I refer to their rise in Syria as a puzzle. The previous chapter 
provided an explanation for the ideological section of the puzzle, but ideological 
coherence does not correlate necessarily with military prowess or resiliency. Insurgency 
theorists, such as Paul Staniland, contend that understanding how a group organizes to 
wage an insurgency is a better predictor of military success and organizational outcomes 
than violent ideologies.17© Social movement theorists, such as Doug McAdam and 
Anthony Oberschall, add that a group organizes based on its available mobilizing 
structures and existing norms of behavior.!77 The implication of both assertions is that 
organizers of collective action are rational actors that draw from prior experiences. This 
chapter explores the institutional legacies of Syria’s radical Islamists and examines how 


the remnants of these legacies have impacted their mobilization and growth. 


Scholars such as Lefévre and Khatib diligently traced the revival of Islamist 
movements in Syria such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) since their 
decimation in Hama in 1982.!78 Both authors demonstrated that Islamist groups and 
radical offshoots have established both formal and informal networks throughout Syria 
over the past 50 years and received invaluable experiences in the global jihad movement 
in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to their conclusions, others such as O’Bagy, Lund, 
and Ibrahim cited the robust logistical networks built by al-Qaeda affiliates fighting in the 
Iraq war in the mid-2000s.!79 The combination of all these events touches upon the 
formative experiences of Syria’s radical Islamists. While all the aforementioned authors 


discuss the events, none trace exactly how the institutional legacies affected the 


176 Staniland, “Insurgent Organization and State-Armed Group Relations,” 38. 


177 Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd ed. 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 44. 


178 Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria; Line Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in 
Syria: The Rise and Fall of Ba’thist Secularism. 


179 OBagy, Jihad in Syria; Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents; Ibrahim, the Resurgence of al-Qaeda in 
Syria and Iraq. 


ay) 


emergence and rise of Ahrar, JAN, and IS. Analyzing the institutional legacies in the 
context of which networks and tactics Ahrar, JAN, and IS leveraged to mobilize provides 
the next section of the puzzle. In this chapter, I demonstrate that the earlier struggles of 
Syrian radical Islamists shaped the current repertoires of contention and mobilizing 


structures that Ahrar, JAN, and IS used to proliferate in the current conflict. 


After providing a theoretical overview of repertoires of contention and mobilizing 
structures, this chapter explores the evolution of the Syrian radical Islamist movement 
during three formative time periods: the Islamist opposition to Baathism from 1963 until 
1982, the radical Islamist exodus to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Iraq 
War in the mid-2000s. After reviewing each time period, I identify key personalities who 
transformed the tactics and strategies used by Ahrar, JAN, and IS. I also investigate how 
Syria’s local radical Islamist movement connects to the global jihad movement and how 
they established an indigenous network inside Syria. Lastly, I isolate the mobilizing 
structures that Ahrar, JAN, and IS leveraged and analyze how the preexisting networks 
impacted their emergence and growth. Since all three groups represent remnants from the 
same early struggles, there is overlap in the networks they used. As a result, this chapter 
applies the same general evolutions of strategy, tactics, and mobilizing structures to all 


and disaggregates them when possible. 


A. THE BENEFIT OF PREWAR NETWORKS: MOBILIZING 
STRUCTURES AND REPERTOIRES OF CONTENTION 


Both social movement and insurgency theorists agree that the existence of prewar 
networks is a vital component of collective action and insurgencies. These networks 
enable groups to mobilize and sustain operations through mobilizing structures. McAdam 
defined mobilizing structures as “those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, 
through which people mobilize and engage in collective action.”!8° For radical Islamists, 
these structures form the backbone of their mobilizing potential, which is typically 


through networks at the local, regional, and global levels. These networks provide 


180 McAdam et al., “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes,” 3. 


58 


leadership, manpower, and valuable resources such as financing and weapons. Prewar 


networks also facilitate social learning and shape repertoires of contention. 


According to Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani, repertoires are a “by- 
product of everyday experiences” that are “handed down and reproduced over time.” !8! 
Thus, the repertoires of contention used by radical Islamists stem from their prior 
experiences. Also, their decision to adopt certain strategies and tactics often depends on 
their proximity to previous movements or relational and nonrelational diffusion.!82 
Relational diffusion is the transfer of innovative tactics through the face-to-face 
interactions of those within activist networks whereas nonrelational diffusion is the 
transfer of tactics through non-personal means, such as publications and the Internet.!83 
In Syria, Ahrar, JAN, and IS learned extensively through both types of diffusion. Using 
mobilizing structures and repertoires of contention as a backdrop, the remainder of this 
chapter explores the origins and evolution of the networks and tactics Syria’s radical 


Islamists developed over time and leveraged in the current conflict. 


B. THE INSTITUTIONAL LEGACIES OF SYRIA’S RADICAL ISLAMISTS 


Three key periods formed the basis of the institutional legacies of Syria’s radical 
Islamists: the Islamist opposition to Baathism from 1963 until 1982, which culminated in 
the Islamist Uprising from 1976 until 1982; the radical Islamist exodus to Afghanistan in 
the 1980s and 1990s; and the Iraq War in the mid-2000s. Numerous scholars have 
exhaustively covered each time period from a historical perspective. As a result, the 
following sections focus on key individuals who shaped the repertoires of contention that 
Syria’s radical Islamists use today and the development of local, regional, and global 


networks. 





181 Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction, 2nd ed (Malden, MA: 
Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 182. 


182 Thid., 182. 
183 Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq, 23. 


59 


1, The Islamist Opposition to Baathism from 1963 until 1982 


Following the Baathist coup in 1963, Syria’s Islamist movement led by the SMB 
found itself in a difficult situation. Prior to the coup, the SMB represented a budding 
political force. It held parliamentary level positions in the government and also had 
considerable economic ties to the urban merchant class.!84 However, once the Baathists 
enacted radical socialist reforms, promoted secular policies, and banned the SMB in 


1964, its members lost their political influence and economic livelihood. 


The SMB also faced a leadership crisis at the same time. Its different geographic 
factions disagreed over how to respond to the Baath regime’s political repression and the 
role of religion in politics.!85 The Damascus wing favored a non-violent approach and 
believed the Syrian government should have Islamic representation.!8© Other branches in 
Aleppo, Hama, and Homs viewed armed struggle against the Baathists as a necessity and 
believed the government should be entirely Islamic; however, they disagreed over which 
methods of armed struggle to use.!8?_ The Damascus wing dominated the SMB in the 
1960s but gradually lost control of the more radical factions. Of the militant divisions, 
Hama represented the most extreme. Out of which, radical leaders like Marwan Hadid 
emerged and permanently changed the behavioral norm dynamics of the Syrian Islamist 


movement. 


To explain changes in norm dynamics, Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink 
developed a theory consisting of three stages: norm emergence, norm cascade, and 
internalization.!88 Their theory can be applied to radical Islamist innovators who created 
and molded the current repertoires of contention seen today. During the first stage of 


norm emergence, a norm entrepreneur introduces changes through an organizational 


1847 efevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 40 and 53. 
185 Tbid., xvi. 


186 | iad Porat, The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Assad Regime (Waltham, MA: the Crown 
Center for Middle East Studies, 2010), 2, http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/meb47.html. 


187 Thid. 


188 Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” 
International Organization 4, vol. 52 (Autumn, 1998): 896. 


60 


platform.!89 As the behavioral changes take root, networks supporting norm 
entrepreneurs facilitate the norm cascade stage by dispersing the new norms through a 
process of socialization.!9° After the new norms are accepted and institutionalized by a 
critical mass, the movement internalizes them.!9! For Syria, Hadid was the first radical 


Islamist norm entrepreneur, or jihad entrepreneur. 


a. Marwan Hadid: Syria’s First Jihad Entrepreneur 


In both life and death, Hadid has been an active force in shaping the Syrian 
radical Islamist movement. He came from a prosperous farming family in Hama and was 
an avid member of the SMB from an early age.!92 In the early 1960s, he studied 
agricultural engineering in Egypt and became a close associate of Sayyid Qutb who was a 
prominent ideologue and leader in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.!93 As some 
scholars have labeled Qutb “the philosopher of Islamic Terror,” his influence on Hadid 
was significant.!94 Qutb advocated the use of violence to overthrow regimes that 
violated the terms of Islamic law, and his immediate target was Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the 
then-president of Egypt. Qutb called for a top-down approach to revolution and preached 
that it needed to be initiated by a “vanguard” of believers.!9° Under Qutb’s tutelage, 
Hadid adopted the same immutable beliefs and was resolute that there can be no 
compromise between Islam and non-Islamic systems of governance.!9© Armed with 
Qutb’s ideas of revolutionary jihad, Hadid returned to Syria in 1963 convinced that 


violent action alone would accomplish political change. 


After the Baathist coup in 1963 and the prominence of Alawites in the Baathist 


ranks, Hadid and another radical SMB leader from Hama Sa’id Hawwa promulgated 


189 Finnemore and Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” 896-901. 
190 Thid., 902. 

19] Thid., 904. 

192 Umar F. Abd-Allah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1983), 104. 
193 Thid. 


194 Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” The New York Times, March 23, 2003, 
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html. 


195 Buben and Zaman, eds., Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, 132. 
196 Abd-Allah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, 104. 


61 


Qutb’s ideas while resurrecting Ibn Tamiyyah’s anti-Alawite sectarian fatwas.!°? The 
outcome of this potent ideological mix was groundbreaking for future radical Islamists. 
According to Bernard Haykel, the modern ideological origins of sectarian extremism 
today are traced back to this time period in Syria.!98 Hadid and Hawwa provided the 
blueprint for future generations of radicals in Syria and Iraq such as Abu Musab al- 


Zarqawi and the leaders of Ahrar, JAN, and IS to justify sectarian terrorism. 


While Hadid was initially a member of the SMB, he did not represent the 
movement. His small group of followers in Hama was on the fringes, and there is no 
evidence that they acted as a military arm under the explicit orders of the SMB in the 
1960s.199 Notably, the majority of SMB leaders disagreed with Hadid’s tactics and 
discourse, but they were unable to control him. Nevertheless, the Baathist regime held the 


SMB culpable for Hadid’s actions and exiled the SMB leader Issam al-Attar in 1964.29 


Hadid used al-Attar’s exile as an excuse to turn his words into deeds when he 
started the 1964 Hama riots, which lasted for 29 days.2°! During the riots, Hadid and his 
followers worked the crowds into a frenzy with sectarian chants while referring to the 
Baath party as the enemy of Islam.29? The riots quickly turned violent as Hadid tried to 
lead an armed insurrection that led to the brutal death of a local member of the Baath 
National Guard.293 The event ended when Hadid and his followers sought refuge in a 
local mosque and surrendered after being attacked by government forces. Those who 
were not killed were arrested and sentenced to death; however, their lives were spared 


after prominent leaders in the religious establishment intervened.2% 





197 Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 101. 


198 Bernard Haykel, “Chapter 9: Jihadis and the Shia,” in Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and 
Divisions within al-Qaeda and its Periphery, edited by Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (West Point, 
NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010), 206. 

199 Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 101; Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in 
Syria, 48. 


200 Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 93. 

20! Tbid., 45 and 101. 

202 Thid., 45. 

203 Seale and McConville, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle, 93. 


204 Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Oaida Strategist Abu Musab Al-Suri (New 
York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 38. 


62 


As Finnemore and Sikkink’s paradigm illustrates, a norms entrepreneur must have 
an organizational platform to initiate change. Hadid knew his actions were at odds with 
the moderate SMB leaders, and they would not support his military activities. As a result, 
he had to create his own militant platform. He and his followers left Syria in the late 
1960s and made contact with “the Godfather of Jihad” Abdallah Azzam with the 
assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.2°5 Azzam established a network of 
Palestinian military training centers for jihadist fighters in Jordan and welcomed Hadid 
and his contingent when they arrived. The exact details of the training Hadid and his men 
received is unknown, but according to Lefévre, he and his group returned to Syria after 
Hafez al-Assad’s coup in 1970 with renewed vigor and confidence in their military skills 


and ability to attract more followers.2 


Upon his return, the SMB distanced itself from Hadid’s activities. Based on a 
testimonial from Syria’s second jihad entrepreneur Abu Musab al-Suri, Hadid responded, 
“If the [SMB] throw me out the door, I will get in from the window, and I will drag them 
to jihad,” which is exactly what he did.2°7 Hadid aggressively recruited like-minded 
youths from the SMB and established cells in Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus.?9° In 1973, 
he activated his cells and began a vicious assassination campaign on senior Baathist 
security officials.299 In 1974, he broke ties with the SMB and, inspired by Qutbist 
principles, created Syria’s first radical Islamist group the Fighting Vanguard of the 


Mujahidin (hereafter referred to as the Fighting Vanguard).?!0 





205 Thomas Hegghammer, “Abdallah Azzam, the Imam of Jihad,” in Al Qaeda in its own words, 
edited by Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 
2009), 81; Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 141; Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in 
Syria, 49. 


206 Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 109. 


207 Jim Lacey, ed., A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab Al-Suri’s Islamic 
Jihad Manifesto (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 110. 


208 Tbid., 109. 
209 Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 102. 
210 Thid. 


63 


Hadid was arrested in 1975, and after significant torture, he died in prison in 
1976.21! His death sparked an unprecedented spike in radical Islamist violence and 
initiated an uprising that lasted until 1982. Hadid transformed Syria’s radical Islamist 
movement and has become a legend in jihadist circles. To illustrate his impact, Azzam 
personally wrote Hadid’s eulogy to celebrate his martyrdom and documented key events 


in Hadid’s life for future generations.?!2 


After Hadid’s death, the Fighting Vanguard brazenly stepped up its assassination 
campaign against Baathist officials. When its leaders attacked the Syrian military’s 
artillery school in Aleppo in 1979 and massacred 83 Alawite cadets, they brought the 
conflict to a new level.?!3_ According to Khatib, the attack represented a turning point in 
the Syrian regime’s response to Islamism.2!4 The regime used the attack as justification 
for extreme state repression against all Islamist factions, whether radical or not, and in 
1980, the SMB felt forced to formally declare a jihad against the Syrian regime.2!5 By 
1982, the leaders of the Fighting Vanguard and the SMB made a fateful decision to call 
for a mass uprising and confronted the regime in Hama.2!© Most were annihilated as the 
regime employed overwhelming violence by indiscriminately leveling the city. Those 


who managed to escape eventually made their way to Azzam for assistance. 


b. Impact on Ahrar, JAN, and IS 


It may seem somewhat tenuous to link Hadid directly to Ahrar, JAN, and IS, but 
his role as a Syrian jihad entrepreneur is undeniable. He fundamentally and indelibly 
altered the radical Islamist repertoires of contention at the macro level. He was the first to 
introduce Qutb’s concepts in Syria and melded them with Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwas, which 


placed a unique sectarian twist on revolutionary jihad. The sectarian rhetoric witnessed in 


211 Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria 

212 | efévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 215-217. 
213 Tbid., 105. 

214 Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria, 74. 

215 Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 109. 

216 Thid. 


64 


the region throughout the 21st century is Hadid’s legacy, and nowhere has it been more 


visible than Syria and Iraq. 


Hadid provided a baseline for the powerful ideology used by Ahrar, JAN, and IS. 
Currently, there are no other ideological alternatives in the Syrian conflict that provides 
such a polar contrast to Baathism, which is attractive for those in Syria that have been the 
recipients of state-sponsored repression in the current conflict. Additionally, the tactics 
Hadid introduced in the late 1960s, such as assassinations, car bombings, and small unit 
ambushes, provided an important historical context for the methods witnessed today.?!7 
According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Hadid’s publication entitled 


A Call to Muslims continues to be a popular text on jihadist websites.!8 


Aside from repertoires of contention, Hadid linked his local jihad with a regional 
network when he and his men trained in Azzam’s camps. The connections he forged not 
only catapulted his efforts in Syria but also provided a lifeline to the movement that most 
thought was destroyed in 1982. The regional network of supporters, fellow jihadists, and 
recruiters was paramount to the next critical time period for Syrian radicals. Overall, 
Hadid was the original pioneer of the Syrian radical Islamist movement and the paradigm 
he established became the launch pad for future innovations to take place. When Abu 
Musab al-Zarqawi unleashed sectarian warfare in Iraq, his rhetoric and tactics were 
reminiscent of Hadid and the Fighting Vanguard. It is also no surprise that numerous 
radical groups in the Syrian conflict today bear his name or some element of his legacy in 


their title such as the Marwan Hadid Brigades that are closely allied with JAN.2!9 


2: From Local to Global: The Radical Islamist Exodus in the 1980s and 
1990s 


While the Hama Uprising in 1982 represented a catastrophic loss inside Syria, the 


immediate aftermath prompted an expansion of Syrian radical networks at the regional 


217 O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 12. 


218 William McCants, Militant Ideology Atlas (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006), 
9 and 227. 


219 Adaki Oren, “Abdallah Azzam Brigades Launches Launches Rocket Attacks from Gaza,” Threat 
Matrix Blog, July 15, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat- 
matrix/archives/2014/07/abdullah_azzam_brigades_launch.php. 


65 


level. Those that survived fled to neighboring countries Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and 
others. They initially relied on the networks Hadid had established. Over the span of a 
year, the veterans of the Fighting Vanguard created new networks while trying to reignite 
the Syrian jihad.2?0 In 1983, the Fighting Vanguard regrouped, and as they infiltrated 
back into Syria, the regime captured the group’s most prominent leader, Adnan Uqlah.2?! 
Following Uqlah’s capture, the remaining members abandoned their local jihad 
temporarily and began to focus their ideological and organizational expertise on the 
global jihad movement. In 1984, Syria’s radical Islamists reached out to Azzam and his 
son-in-law, Abdallah Anas, for assistance in joining the Afghan Arabs to wage jihad 


against the Soviets in Afghanistan.222 


Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing through the 1990s, Syrian radicals 
found a home in Afghanistan and thrived in jihadist and al-Qaeda training camps where 
their military experience was a prized commodity.??3 Their Afghan exodus enabled the 
Syrian radicals to continue evolving. It also solidified an organic connection between 
them and global jihadists who would later form al-Qaeda such as Usama bin Laden and 
Ayman al-Zawahiri.224 However, despite shifting focus to a transnational jihad, the 
Syrian radicals kept their local ambitions alive. Of all the Syrians who traveled to 


Afghanistan, none rival the impact and legacy in the conflict today as Abu Musab al-Suri. 


a. Abu Musab al-Suri: Syria’s Second Jihad Entrepreneur 


“The most dangerous terrorist you have never heard of,” “the foremost jihadi 
theoretician,” and “the principle architect of al-Qaeda’s post-9/11 structure and strategy” 


are just a few of the labels used to describe Mustafa bin Abd al-Qader Sit Mariam Nassar 


220 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 52. 

221 Thid., 51. 

222 Thid., 73. 

223 Tbid., and Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 143. 


224 | efévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 138 and Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in 
Syria, 195. 


66 


aka Abu Musab al-Suri.22> According to Michael Ryan, al-Suri combines the rare 
combination of practical experience and strategic thought among jihadi strategists.226 
While Hadid was the first norm entrepreneur who created an organizational platform to 
introduce behavioral changes, al-Suri was the successor that socialized, advanced, and 
spread the norms through relational and nonrelational diffusion on an unprecedented 
level. His efforts were instrumental in not only internalizing new norms but also in 


spurring the evolution of violent mutations in jihadi repertoires. 


Al-Suri’s radical career started at the age of 21 when he joined the Fighting 
Vanguard in 1980.227 After participating in a series of raids in Syria, his cell was 
compromised, and he and surviving members sought refuge with Jordanian contacts 
Hadid and his successors had formalized.228 Between 1980 and 1982, al-Suri trained 
extensively in Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt where he underwent advanced courses in urban 
guerilla warfare, explosives, and weapons training.22? During each course, al-Suri stood 
out as the star pupil, and as a result, the Fighting Vanguard handpicked him to lead an 
Aleppo offensive in 1982, despite his young age.239 Prior to the offensive, the Hama 
uprising occurred, which mortally wounded the movement. Al-Suri and the remaining 
members scattered to neighboring countries and regrouped in 1984 to continue their jihad 
against the Baathists. Their efforts failed, and al-Suri relocated to Spain where he began 


his transition into one of the most infamous, globetrotting terrorists in the world. 


While Hadid’s legacy is rooted in his leadership, al-Suri’s greatest contributions 
are as an author, trainer, and connector of global terrorist groups. Al-Suri has become one 
of the most prolific authors on jihadi strategy. He has published countless articles in al- 


Qaeda magazines, like /nspire, and on prominent jihadi web forums, such as a/-Ansar, al- 


225 Lacey, A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad, xi; Paul Cruickshank and Mohannad Hage Ali, “Abu 
Musab al Suri: Architect of the New al Qaeda,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30 (2007): 1; Lia, 
Architect of Global Jihad, 8. 


226 Michael W. S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Oaeda’s Strategy; the Deep Battle against America (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 2013), 191. 


227 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 39. 
228 Ibid. 

229 Tbid., 40-46. 

230 [bid., 47. 


67 


Hisbah, and al-Ikhlas, but he is most known for two books: The Islamic Jihadist 
Revolution in Syria and The Global Islamic Resistance Call.23! For Syrian radicals 
fighting in the current conflict, The Islamic Jihadist Revolution in Syria is their 
manifesto. In the book, al-Suri carefully documented and analyzed the Syrian jihadist 
experience during the Islamist uprising in a 900-page volume.?32 He is the first and only 
member of the Fighting Vanguard to have done so. He critiqued their failure with brutal 
honesty. Based on his intense study of Western military literature and classics in guerilla 
warfare, he identified 17 reasons for their defeat and believed the most important was the 
lack of an overall strategy before starting the insurrection.233 His observations encourage 
pragmatism, and he places special emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of the 
people. His recommendations demonstrated how to mask Hadid’s sectarian, 
revolutionary jihad with elements of Mao Tse Tung’s and Che Guevara’s strategies and 


Machiavelli’s principles.234 


As important as The Islamic Jihadist Revolution in Syria is to Syrian radicals, The 
Global Islamic Resistance Call is just as, if not more, important to the global jihad 
movement. The book is al-Suri’s magnum opus and has become the most significant 
written source in jihadi strategic studies pertaining to al-Qaeda.?35 Al-Suri expanded on 
ideas from his Syrian writings and began articulating a new strategy for global jihad 
during his time in Afghanistan in 2000.736 According to Brynjar Lia, al-Suri advocates 
“a global terrorist campaign against the West that would rely on diffuse, decentralized, 
and non-hierarchical networks.”237 Basically, he was the first jihadi intellectual to 
promote a leaderless jihad or lone-wolf terrorism that is the scourge of security services 
around the world, and his ideological fingerprint seems to appear on everything. His 


works have been found on virtually every computer of captured terrorists, which has led 


231 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 7 and 13. 

232 Thid., 60. 

233 Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, 199. 

234 Thid. 

235 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 7. 

236 Cruickshank and Ali, “Abu Musab al Suri: Architect of the New al Qaeda,” 8. 
237 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 6. 


68 


some to accuse him of being the mastermind of all global terror. While it is impossible to 
be responsible for all attacks, it illustrates his impact on an entire generation of Islamic 
radicals, which is why experts such as Lia, Paul Cruickshank, and Mohannad Hage Ali 
refer to al-Suri as more of an architect than a direct, hands-on contributor to spectacular 


attacks.238 


The contributions of al-Suri’s writings fall into the nonrelational diffusion 
category, but his work as a trainer in jihadist and specialized al-Qaeda camps represent 
relational diffusion. From 1987 until 1992 and from 1997 until 2001, al-Suri shared his 
military knowledge on explosives, chemicals, hand-to-hand combat, and guerilla warfare 
as well as his intellectual pursuits directly with countless jihadists in Afghanistan.239 He 
served in the Sada, Zhawar, and al-Faroug camps during his first stint and the al-Ghuraba 
and Derunta camps during his second.2#9 He actually commanded the al-Ghuraba camp 
located in Kabul, Afghanistan, with the approval of the Taliban.24! Al-Suri’s classroom 
lectures became his laboratories to hone and refine his lethal trade, and the who’s who of 
the most infamous terrorists in the 21st century such as the 9/11 mastermind Khalid 
Shaykh Muhammad and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were trained at camps where al-Suri 


taught.242 


The last element of al-Suri’s role as an entrepreneur was his link between 
different terrorist groups and cells. By his own admission, he became one of the early 
members of al-Qaeda in the late 1980s, but he eventually had a falling out with Usama 
bin Laden over strategy.243 Just as al-Suri’s written word could be harshly blunt, his 
spoken word and straightforward demeanor caused friction at times with senior leaders 
like bin Laden. As a result, al-Suri became more of an independent and lobbied for global 


collaboration, which placed ideology above loyalties to any specific group. During the 


238 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 8. 

239 Thid., 79-88 and 229-313. 

240 Thid., 254. 

241 Thid., 252 

242 Ibid., 82; Lacey, A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad, viii. 

243 Cruickshank and Ali, “Abu Musab al Suri: Architect of the New al Qaeda,” 4. 


69 


1980s and 1990s, al-Suri relentlessly promoted a jihad in Syria and used his vast network 
of students to endorse other jihadist causes such as the Abu Dahdah cell in Madrid 
responsible for the 2004 train bombings and the Algerian jihad for al-Jamaah al- 
Islamiyyah al-Musallahah (known by its French acronym GIA).244 He was also the 
primary facilitator for bin Laden’s media interviews during the mid-1990s.245 Al-Suri 
attempted to create a Syrian group to be affiliated with al-Qaeda and lobbied for support 
from Syria’s exiled Islamist ideologues.24© To his dismay, he was unable to procure the 
support he needed to establish an indigenous infrastructure and opted for strategic 
patience rather than hasty action. Once the Iraq War began in 2003, it was many of al- 
Suri’s former students who seized the initiative to establish the vast foreign fighter 
ratlines throughout Syria, and despite their rage towards the Syrian regime, they patiently 


waited for the right time as al-Suri would have recommended. 


In late 2005, Pakistani authorities captured al-Suri in Quetta and reportedly 
transferred him to U.S. control in exchange for a $5 million ransom.?*’ After a stretch at 
Guantanamo Bay, al-Suri was reportedly transferred in 2006 to Syria.248 Since then, the 
Syrian regime reportedly released him sometime between late 2011 and early 2012.749 


He has not been seen since. 


b. Impact on Ahrar, JAN, and IS 


Regardless of his current whereabouts, al-Suri has had a major impact on Syrian 
and global jihadists. He took the platform that Hadid built and turned it into a latent, 
practical blueprint for success when the time finally arrived to assault the Syrian regime. 
From a strategic perspective, Ahrar and JAN (and IS to a degree) are lethal mutations that 


al-Suri influenced; their insurgent strategies are his legacy. 


2441 ia, Architect of Global Jihad, 118. 
245 Thid., 166. 

246 Tbid., 131-136. 

247 Thid., 346. 

248 Tbid. 


249 Q’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 15; Bill Roggio, “Abu Musab al Suri Released from Syrian Custody: 
Report,” The Long War Journal, February 6, 2012, 
http://www. longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/02/abu_musab_al_suri_re.php. 


70 


For example, JAN’s leaders publicly stated in 2014 on Twitter that they are 
basing their insurgent strategy on al-Suri’s recommendations, which helps to explain the 
success of JAN’s approach.2>9 It focuses on rural areas, masks its extremism, and fosters 
strong relationships with the people and other opposition groups. Despite being al- 
Qaeda’s affiliate, JAN’s al-Suri-inspired pragmatic strategy has been highly effective, 
which the United States witnessed firsthand in 2012 after formally designating the group 
as a terrorist organization.2°! Rather than isolate JAN from the opposition, the 
designation brought it positive media attention in Syria, and numerous rebel groups and 
members of the SNC publicly denounced the terrorist label.292 Additionally, 29 
opposition groups signed a petition supporting JAN and began using the slogan “No to 
American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”253 While it is relatively common 
for entities in the Middle East to reject U.S. designations of terrorism, the mass show of 
support that the secular opposition gave to JAN is unprecedented for an al-Qaeda 


affiliate, which is attributed to the successful application of al-Suri’s principles. 


Al-Suri’s influence on Ahrar is just as direct. Abu Khalid al-Suri who was one of 
Abu Musab al-Suri’s closest associates was a founding member of Ahrar.2°* Given that 
he and Abu Musab were inseparable throughout the 1990s, it is reasonable to assume he 
endorsed Abu Musab’s writings. Ahrar’s willingness to work directly with other groups, 
which will be discussed later in this chapter, and its attempts to portray itself as a 
nationalist Salafi organization to minimize the visibility of its radical inclinations is 


evidence of Abu Musab al-Suri’s influence. Additionally, Hassan Abboud, the most 


250 Hassan, “A Jihadist Blueprint for Hearts and Minds is Gaining Traction in Syria, “ 


251 “Us Blacklists Syrian Rebel Group al-Nusra,” A/ Jazeera, December 11, 2012, 
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/2012121117048117723.html. 


252 Tony Karon, “While U.S. Recognizes Syrian Opposition, It Designates One Anti-Assad Group as 
‘Terrorist,’” Time, December 11, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/12/1 1/why-the-u-s-has-designated-one- 
anti-assad-group-as-terrorist/. 

253 Ruth Sherlock, “Syrian Rebels Defy U.S. and Pledge Allegiance to Jihadi Group,” The Telegraph, 
December 10, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9735988/Syrian-rebels- 
defy-US-and-pledge-allegiance-to-jihadi-group.html 


254 Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, 189. 
71 


prominent Ahrar leader before his death in 2014, publicly stated that Abu Musab al- 


Suri’s writings have influenced his strategies.2°5 


Al-Suri also shaped IS’s tactics to a degree. According to Murad Batal al- 
Shishani, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, IS’s founding father, implemented some of al-Suri’s 
recommendations in his strategic planning for Iraq such as creating a centralized 
command and control structure, presenting a consolidated media campaign, and 
generating internal revenue streams rather than relying solely on outside support.2>° 
However, al-Zarqawi miserably failed to attract local support, which al-Suri cited was a 


mistake Syria’s jihadist also made in The Islamic Jihadist Revolution in Syria.2>! 


Additionally, when IS released its highly refined and polished propaganda 
magazine Dabigq, it explicitly stated that its insurgent strategy is a continuation of Abu 
Musab al-Zarqawi’s strategic vision for the region.2°8 According to Ryan, Dabig also 
contains influences by al-Suri: “Dabiq provides the first admission, albeit indirectly, that 
the Islamic State...has been following a strategy...informed by the teachings of Abu 
Musab al-Suri.”299 Despite traces of al-Suri’s teachings, he would most likely believe 
that IS’s overall strategy of clear, hold, and build is a recipe for disaster, and being tied to 
fixed territories will allow the United States and its allies to map, exploit, and attack IS 
eventually. While each of the main groups use different portions of al-Suri’s writings, the 
implication is clear: his works are a central component to their overall strategies, and his 
writings on Syria remain the only intensive studies conducted by a jihadist on the radical 


Islamist experience against the Syrian regime. 


255 Charles Lister, “Syria’s Evolving Salafists Suffer a Crippling Blow,” The World Post, September 
10, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-lister/syrias-evolving-salafists_b_5795682.html. 


256 Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Jabhat al-Nusra’s New Syrian Strategy,” A/-Monitor, January 14, 2013, 
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ar/politics/2013/01/jabhat-al-nusras-new-strategy-in-syria.html#. 


257 Tbid. 


258 Harleen K. Gambhir, Dabig: The Strategic Messaging of the Islamic State (Washington, DC: 
Institute for the Study of War), 7, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/dabiq-strategic- 
messaging-islamic-state. 


259 Michael W. S. Ryan, Hot Issue: Dabig: What Islamic State’s New Magazine Tells Us about Their 
Strategic Direction, Recruitment Patterns, and Guerrilla Doctrine (Washington, DC: The Jamestown 
Foundation, 2014), 
http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42702&no_cache=1#.VOjIDsarZ18 


ae 


In addition to innovating current repertoires of contention, al-Suri also helped 
establish the strong link of Syria’s local jihad to the global jihad movement. These 
transnational links are highly visible in the conflict today. According to Ken Dilanian, 
more than 20,000 foreign fighters from over 90 countries have traveled to Syria to wage 
jihad, and the primary recipients of these fighters are Ahrar, JAN, and IS.2©° They are 
using the vast global network of recruiters, facilitators, and methods that al-Suri and his 
Syrian radical brethren initially helped to materialize. While the global network of radical 
Islamists is bigger than any one person, al-Suri’s writings, his lessons as an instructor, 
and his global connections made him an important component in facilitating mass 


diffusion. 


The first two formative periods for Syrian radicals produced robust networks at 
the global and regional levels as wells as a virtual database of do’s and don’ts when 
fighting the regime. However, neither period produced the local networks for 
mobilization and support that al-Suri cited as a requirement for a successful jihad. It was 
not until the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2003 that an indigenous 


network took shape. 


3. The Iraq War in the mid-2000s 


Operation Iraqi Freedom was a boon for Syrian jihadists. They had a place to 
fight an external enemy (United States) close to their home country, and the Syrian 
regime opted to use them as an extension of its foreign policy.26! As long as the jihadists 


avoided attacks in Syria, they were granted passage to Iraq to fight the United States. 


Due to its unsecured, remote border with Iraq stretching more than 460 miles, 
Syria became the foreign fighter corridor during the Iraq war, especially from 2003 until 


2007.22 According to Aaron Zelin, roughly 4,000 to 5,000 foreigners traveled to Iraq, 





260 Ken Dilanian, “20,000 Foreign Fighters Flock to Syria, Iraq,” Associated Press, February 11, 
2015, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/02/1 1/20000-foreign-fighters-flock-to-syria-iraq.html; 
Richard Barrett, Foreign Fighters in Syria (Washington, DC: The Soufan Group, 2014), 8 and 22, 
http://soufangroup.com/foreign-fighters-in-syria/. 


261 Q’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 15. 


262 Bill Roggio, “US Strike in Syria ‘Decapitated’ al Qaeda’s Facilitation Network,” The Long War 
Journal, October 27, 2008, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/10/us_strike_in_syria_d.php. 


73 


and Lefévre estimated that 90% of all the foreign fighters traveled through Syria.2°3 Of 
all the foreign fighters, Syrian nationals represented the third largest contingent in Iraq as 


roughly 100 local facilitators in Syria coordinated their travel.26* 


In addition to the overall number of experienced fighters, one of the most 
important aspects for the current Syrian conflict has been the logistics infrastructure that 
facilitators meticulously developed to support the influx of fighters. Syrian radicals that 
the regime banned from entering the country were cautiously allowed in, and they 
brought their experiences to share with a younger generation. They established safe 
houses and robust networks in both rural and urban areas under the watchful eye of the 
Syrian regime. Given the regime’s vigilant reputation, one might assume the facilitators 
had direct contact with members of Syria’s security apparatus. If so, the entire experience 
gave Syrian radicals updated information on their perfect enemy: the regime. They also 


obtained institutional knowledge of how to traverse and operate in Syria.2®© 


In 2007, the Syrian regime began to crack down on the networks under 
international pressure led by the United States, but the damage had been done. The 
networks did not disappear: they simply deactivated until the right moment to engage. 
The radical Islamists demonstrated deliberate strategic patience by not attacking the 
regime during the Iraq war because they did not feel they were strong enough to confront 
the regime in civil war.2® As a result, between 2003 and 2007, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s 
network formed the nucleus of the foreign fighter ratline while smaller networks under 
the groups Ghuraba al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam contributed as well.2°’ When combined, 
these networks formed the basis of the radical Islamist mobilization in the current 


conflict. 


263 Aaron Zelin, The Return of Sunni Foreign Fighters in Iraq (Washington, DC: The Washington 
Institute for Near East Policy, 2014), http://www. washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-return- 
of-sunni-foreign-fighters-in-iraq; Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 148. 


264 Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 148 and O’ Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 15. 
265 Q’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 15. 

266 Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria, 196. 

267 Thid., 194-195 and O’ Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 14. 


74 


a. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Foreign Fighter Network 


Following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, radical 
Islamists from the global jihad movement lost their coveted Afghan safe haven. Many 
surreptitiously left the country to include a group from the Levant region who trained in a 
camp commanded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Herat, Afghanistan.2°8 Under al- 
Zarqawi’s leadership, the group traveled through Iran in 2002 and settled in Northern 
Iraq. According to Nomen Benotman and Blake Roisin, al-Zarqawi directed Syrian 
members of his contingent in 2003 to establish a logistics network inside Syria, which 
proved to be a highly prescient decision.26? Given Syria’s desolate border with Iraq and 
countless ancient smuggling routes, al-Zarqawi’s men seemed to have little difficulty 


establishing the necessary local ties in their home country. 


They were facilitated as well by fortuitous circumstances. According to Lesch, the 
presence of 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq worried the al-Assad regime that it could be 
next after Iraq became stabilized.2”” Considering Syria has been on the U.S. Department 
of State’s official list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979, al-Assad’s concerns 
seemed legitimate to others in his regime, and they welcomed the possibility of tying 
U.S. forces down in Iraq.27! As a result, Syria assisted al-Zarqawi’s nascent network by 
allowing facilitators and fighters to travel back and forth across the border unmolested. 
By 2004, the United States began to publicly question Syria’s role in facilitating the 


terrorists.272 


Between 2003 and 2005, al-Zarqawi’s network became more formalized. For 
example, a jihadist under the pen name al-Muhajir al-Islami published a manual titled 


The New Road to Mesopotamia that provided guidance and insight to those entering Syria 


268 Benotman and Roisin, Jabhat al-Nusra. 

269 Thid. 

270 Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, 14-55. 
271 O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, 13. 


272 “1J.S, Sees Syria ‘Facilitating’ Insurgents,” The Washington Times, April 20, 2004, 
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2004/apr/20/20040420-115628-71821r/?page=all. 


fo, 


to wage jihad in Iraq.273 Aside from general advice to include tips on dealing with Syrian 
security officials, the manual specified Iraqi crossing points and provided atmospherics 


such as relationships with local tribes and descriptions of the terrain.2/4 


During this time period, U.S. forces in Iraq actively targeted al-Zarqawi’s 
facilitators and identified Badran Turki Hisham al-Mazidi, aka Abu Ghadiya, as al- 
Zarqawi’s commander of the Syrian logistics network.27> Abu Ghadiya, originally from 
Damascus, traveled to Afghanistan in the late-1990s to train in jihadist camps.27© While 
there, he settled in Herat, became a close associate of al-Zarqawi, and was among his 
contingent that fled Afghanistan for Iraq in 2001.27” During the war, Abu Ghadiya made 
a name for himself leading foreign fighters in the Fallujah battles in 2004. Following 
Fallujah, al-Zarqawi promoted him to be the head of the foreign fighter network in 
Syria.278 Throughout this time period, Abu Ghadiya was high on the targeting list of 
U.S. forces, and he and all of his associates were carefully tracked.2”? He established his 
base of operations in the town of Albu Kamal, Syria across the border from al Qaim, Iraq, 
and appointed his brother and cousins to leadership positions under his tutelage.28° In a 
situation resembling a cat and mouse game, Abu Ghadiya spent the next few years 


crossing the border back and forth and evading capture. 





273 Bill Roggio, “The Ratline Manual,” The Long War Journal, August 2, 2005, 
http://www. longwarjournal.org/archives/2005/08/the_ratline_man_1.php. 


274 Ibid. 
275 United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Members of Abu Ghadiyah’s 
Network Facilitates flow of terrorists, weapons, and money from Syria to al Qaida in Iraq,” news release, 


February 28, 2008, 
http://web.archive.org/web/200803040303 1 7/http://www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/hp845.htm. 


276 “Profile: Abu Ghadiya,” BBC, October 28, 2008, 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7695913.stm. 
277 Ibid. 


278 United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Members of Abu Ghadiyah’s 
Network.” 


279 This is based on the author’s experience from multiple deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 
2007. 


280 United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Members of Abu Ghadiyah’s 
Network.” 


76 


On 11 September 2007, U.S. Forces gained unprecedented insight into the foreign 
fighter network when they targeted and killed “Muthana,” ISI’s leader of the border area 
between Syria and Iraq, in a raid near the town of Sinjar, Iraq.28! Aside from killing 
Muthana, the raid resulted in a treasure trove of documents containing over 600 
biographic records of foreign fighters who traveled to Iraq from Syria between August 
2006 and August 2007.282. The cache of documents has become known as the Sinjar 


records. 


In addition to detailed biographic information on the fighters, the Sinjar records 
provided incredible insight into how the foreign fighter network operated. For example, 
fighters documented the name of their Syrian coordinator and the physical description.783 
They were also asked to list how much they paid the coordinator, to specify the route 
they took once in Syria, and to rate their overall experience.28+ Based on analysis from 
the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the Sinjar records showed that the Syrian 
city of Dayr al-Zawr was the main logistics point, and the foreign fighter network relied 
on smugglers for assistance.285 The use of smugglers and criminal networks led some to 
question how extensive the network was, but the reality is the foreign fighter network 
was just as diffuse and undefined as most networks associated with the global jihad 
movement.28© Despite the use of smugglers, a network of safe houses and AQ-affiliated 
facilitators at some level had to have been formally established to facilitate the flow of 
4,000 to 5,000 fighters. Additionally, as the leader of the Syrian network, Abu Ghadiya 


more than likely had some degree of oversight of the process. 





281 Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda in Iraq Operative Killed Near Syrian Border Sheds Light on Foreign 
Influence,” The Long War Journal, October 3, 2007, 
http://www. longwarjournal.org/archives/2007/10/al_qaeda_in_iraq_ope.php. 


282 Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter, A/-Oaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: The First Look at the 
Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007), 3, 
https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/al-qaidas-foreign-fighters-in-iraq-a-first-look-at-the-sinjar-records. 


283 Ibid., 25. 
284 Ibid. 
285 [bid., 21 and 28. 


286 Fishman and Felter, Al-Oaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: The First Look at the Sinjar Records, 
27-28. 


VT 


In October 2008, U.S. forces received permission to cross into Syria to kill or 
capture Abu Ghadiya.287?_ Abu Ghadiya, his brother, and two cousins were killed along 
with a slew of other foreigners. While Abu Ghadiya and his lieutenants/family were 
killed, the network was not destroyed. According to Lund, the Syrian government tacitly 
agreed with the United States and the Iraqi government during the same time period to 
arrest those involved with the networks.288 Thus, Abu Ghadiya’s death coincided with 
most of his network facilitators, remaining fighters, and sympathizers being thrown in 
jail. The Syrian regime placed the majority of them in Sednaya prison with other former 
Islamist political prisoners located outside of Damascus, which would become an 
important mobilizing structure for Ahrar and JAN.289 Also in 2008, U.S. and Iraqi forces 
began to methodically dismantle ISI (now IS) and arrested many of the group’s foreign 
fighters. All were imprisoned in Camp Bucca located in Southern Iraq, and in 2008, 
Syrians constituted the highest number of third country nationals detained at Camp Bucca 
followed by Saudi Arabians and Egyptians.290 Just as Sednaya played an important 
mobilizing role for Ahrar and JAN, Camp Bucca did the same for IS. Despite the foreign 
fighter network losing its leader in 2008, Abu Ghadiya’s legacy continues today. His 
networks went dormant between 2008 and 2010 and were reactivated in 2011. In March 
2014, JAN demonstrated to the world Abu Ghadiya’s importance to its cause when it 
released a propaganda video announcing the formation of its new jihadist training camp: 


the Abu Ghadiya camp.??! 


b. Impact to Ahrar, JAN, and IS 


Of all the institutional legacies of the radical Islamist movement in Syria, the Iraq 


war and the foreign fighter network had the most profound impact on Ahrar, JAN, and 


287 Roggio, “US Strike in Syria ‘Decapitated al Qaeda’s Facilitation Network.” 
288 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 8. 
289 Thid. 


290 Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter, “Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar 
Records,” in Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout: Al-Qaida’s Road in and out of Iraq, edited by Brian 
Fishman (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008), 35-36. 


291 Bill Roggio, “Al Nusrah Front Names Training Camps After Top Al Qaeda Leaders,” The Long 
War Journal, March 17, 2014, 
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/03/al_nusrah_front_name.php. 


78 


IS’s ability to mobilize experienced leaders and fighters. For leadership, the importance 
of Sednaya prison and Camp Bucca cannot be overstated for the three groups. In their 
book Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, McCauley and 
Moskalenko referred to prisons containing terrorists as “prison universities” where 
terrorists obtain new skills, ideologies, and contacts.292 Using a similar analogy, Sednaya 
and Camp Bucca became jihad universities that served as informal mobilizing structures 


for leadership by linking individuals who were already committed to a common cause. 


Shortly after the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the al-Assad regime conducted a 
mass release of Islamist prisoners held in Sednaya. The regime claimed it released the 
prisoners under a general amnesty, but the common narrative is the regime wanted to 
portray the uprising as being led by Islamic terrorists.29> Its rationale was it wanted to 
force the international community to choose between the lesser of two evils: the regime 
or terrorists. It also tried to prevent an international force from intervening in the conflict 
like in Libya. The regime’s plan succeeded in stalling an international response, but it 


opened Pandora’s box. 


Beginning with Ahrar, the majority of its initial leadership was imprisoned in 
Sednaya and released together.294 Most were veterans of the Iraq war as well.29° Ahrar’s 
leaders also leveraged their Sednaya contacts to formalize alliances. When Ahrar’s 
former leader Hassan Abboud agreed to join forces with the largest bloc of Islamist 
groups called the Islamic Front in November 2013, it was hardly a surprise. Roughly half 
of the group leaders in the Islamic Front were imprisoned together in Sednaya reportedly 


in the same cell block: Zahran Aloush of Jaish al Islam, Abdul Rahman Suweis of Liwa 





292 McCauley and Moskalenko, Friction, 106-108. 


293 Justin Vela and Suha Maayeh, “Assad Regime Released Extremists from Jail, Says Former 
Intelligence Official,” The National,” January 21, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/world/syria/assad- 
regime-set-free-extremists-from-prison-to-fire-up-trouble-during-peaceful-uprising. 


294 Lund, Syria’s Ahrar al Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing (Washington, DC: Carnegie 
Endowment for International Peace, 2014), http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=56581; Herve 
Bar, “Ahrar al-Sham Jihadists Emerge from the Shadows in North Syria,” Agence France Presse, February 
13, 2013,  http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Feb-13/206284-ahrar-al-sham-jihadists- 
emerge-from-shadows-in-north-syria.ashx; Chris Zambelis, “Ahrar al-Sham: A Profile of Northern Syria’s 
al-Qaeda Surrogate,” Terrorism Monitor 7, vol. 11 (April 2013), 
http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1 &tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40695#. VOkHDsarZ18. 

295 Lund, Syria’s Ahrar al Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing. 


79 


al Haq, Hassan Abboud of Ahrar, and Ahmad Aisa al Sheikh of Sugqur Al Sham.29© The 
pre-existing ties of Ahrar’s leadership in Sednaya were the foundation for agency and 


trust and greatly facilitated not only its emergence but also its expansion. 


JAN benefited from Sednaya and other pre-existing networks in a similar fashion. 
According to Radwan Mortada, in mid-2011, Samir Abed Hamad al-Obeidi al-Dulaimi 
aka Hajji Bakr who was an Iraqi senior leader in IS until his death in Syria in 2014 sent 
nine Syrian members of IS to Syria to establish a jihadist organization.2?7 Abu 
Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of JAN, led the initial delegates from IS. Of note, Abu 
Maria al-Qahtani, one of the most prominent religious officials in JAN today, also 
accompanied al-Golani.298 Al-Golani’s IS crew filled his immediate leadership ranks, 
but according to Jennifer Cafarella, prisoners from Sednaya prison also joined his ranks 
as well as members of al-Qaeda that Zawahiri sent from Pakistan.29? The mix of ex- 
Sednaya prisoners, battle-hardened Syrian members of IS, and global terrorists from al- 
Qaeda propelled JAN to the forefront of the opposition almost immediately from a 
leadership and experience perspective. It also shows the overlap of local, regional, and 


global radical Islamist networks. 


While IS also capitalized on Sednaya for leadership, especially in Raqqa and 
Aleppo, Camp Bucca was one of its most important mobilizing structures. According to 
Barrett, nine of IS’s senior leaders spent time in Camp Bucca to include the head of IS 
Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.3°° While in Camp Bucca, 


IS leaders formed a bond with ex-Baathist military officers who had limited opportunity 


296 Lund, The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 1: Structure and Support; Sands, Vela, and Maayeh, 
“Assad Regime Released Extremists from Jail;” Jennifer Cafarella, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria (Washington, 
DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2014), 19, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/jabhat-al-nusra- 
syria. 


297 Radwan Mortada, “al-Qaeda in Syria: From Foundation to Fracture,” al-Akhbar, June 3, 2014, 
http://english.al-akhbar.com/print/20017; Barrett, The Islamic State, 12. 


298 Mortada, “al-Qaeda in Syria: From Foundation to Fracture.” 
299 Cafarella, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, 25 and Barrett, The Islamic State, 12. 
300 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 20. 


80 


for social mobility and absorbed them into their organizational structure.29! Currently, 
many of IS’s most senior leaders were ex-Baathists to include Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s 
deputies: Fadil Ahmad Abdallah al-Hayyali, aka Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, who is in 
charge of operations in Iraq and Abu Ali al-Ansari who is in charge of operations in 
Syria.302 Additionally, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has the ex-Baathists to thank for his 
appointment as the head of IS. According to Barrett, Hajji Bakr, an ex-Colonel in the 
Iraqi Revolutionary Guard who was al-Baghdadi’s former deputy and also a former 
prisoner in Camp Bucca, was instrumental in al-Baghdadi’s selection as the leader of IS 
after coalition forces killed IS’s two former leaders Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu 
Ayyub al-Masri in 2010. The combination of ties from Camp Bucca and the ex-Baathist 
military experience gave IS a significant competitive advantage over any secular 


opposition group in Syria. 


Aside from tapping into preexisting leadership pools, Ahrar, JAN, and IS also 
leveraged local, regional, and global networks for manpower. Of the three groups, Ahrar 
is the most inclusive of local Salafi groups and benefited tremendously from “bloc 
recruitment.” According to Mohammed Hafez, bloc recruitment is a situation when 
“once a few individuals make a commitment to a cause, it is difficult for those around 
them to stay behind.”393 For example, in early 2012, most Syrian activists considered 
Salafi groups to be on the fringes of the opposition.304 The more al-Assad tried to 
portray the opposition as being led by radical Islamists, the less the opposition wanted to 
work with the Salafi groups. Applying a lesson from Abu Musab al-Suri’s writings on the 
necessity of uniting like-minded groups, Ahrar’s leadership sought to be the glue 
connecting them all. Between mid to late 2012, Ahrar began calling for a Salafi 
unification, and in early 2013, Ahrar’s leadership was instrumental in forming the first 


Salafi alliance of 11 Islamist groups called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), which became 


301 Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt, “Military Skill and Terrorist Technique Fuel Success of ISIS,” The 
New York Times, August 27, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/world/middleeast/army-know- 
how-seen-as-factor-in-isis-successes.html?_r=0. 


302 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 28. 
303 Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq, 23. 
304 Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, 32. 


81 


one of the largest and most powerful factions in the opposition.3°5 Promptly following 
the formation of the SIF, Ahrar absorbed three of the groups: Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya 
from Aleppo, Jamaat al-Taliaa al-Islamiya from Idlib, and Kataeb al-Iman al-Mugatilla 
from Damascus. Regardless of whether all the members of the aforementioned groups 
agreed with Ahrar’s ideological position, once their leadership agreed to merge, the 
fighters went with them. Furthermore, the three groups are from different regions. The 
geographic spread facilitated Ahrar’s mobilizing potential. In late 2013, Ahrar pushed to 
dissolve the SIF and created a new alliance called the Islamic Front (IF), which included 
the remainder of Syria’s capable Islamist factions that previously allied with the secular 
opposition. The Islamic Front immediately surpassed the SIF in size and became the most 
powerful insurgent bloc; the total number of fighters is rumored to be between 45,000 to 


70,000, which is most likely exaggerated for propaganda purposes.30 


While JAN is not as inclusive as Ahrar, it uses similar methods. According to 
Cafarella, JAN takes a vanguard approach to the Syrian conflict, which is reminiscent of 
Hadid’s strategy.3°’ For its vetted members, JAN keeps its numbers lean at 5,000 to 
6,000 to ensure the quality and discipline of its fighters and its brand. Regarding other 
Islamist and opposition groups, JAN carefully fosters good relationships using a tier 
system described by Cafarella.398 For Islamist groups such as Ahrar and Jabhat Ansar al- 
Din among others that are ideologically aligned with JAN, the leadership of JAN places 
them in a tier one category. JAN cooperates closely with them and makes no attempt to 
dominate or take them over by hostile merger as IS does. Moderate Islamist groups are 
placed in a tier two category, and JAN conducts joint humanitarian and governance 
efforts with them as well as provides logistical support for attacks. In this manner, JAN 
identifies tier two groups with potential for tier one status and works to strengthen the 
relationship. JAN places other elements in the Syrian opposition such as the FSA in a tier 


3 status. JAN provides logistical and operational support to maintain good relations. 





305 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 3. 

306 Aron Lund, The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 1: Structure and Support. 
307 Cafarella, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, 25. 

308 Tbid., 15-20. 


82 


Thus, JAN leverages local networks throughout Syria for manpower without bloating its 
ranks. JAN’s strategy has been widely successful and is why many groups in the 


opposition view JAN so favorably. 


For manpower, IS relies on its global image for recruitment. Through its 
magazine Dabiq, it portrays itself as a utopian Islamic society for all disenchanted 
Muslims around the world, and based on the exceptionally high number of foreign 
fighters in its ranks, its recruitment campaigns are successful. According to Barrett, 
15,000 foreign fighters have joined IS since 2011.99 To place that statistic in historical 
perspective, IS has recruited more foreign fighters than both Afghanistan in the 1980s 
and Iraq in the mid-2000s combined.3!0 Aside from foreigners, IS has taken over local 
tribes and strong-armed any group in its territory. While their loyalties are questionable, 
they have added to IS’s growth. Regardless, without the presence of foreign fighters, 
scholars such as Barrett have asserted that IS would not be able to maintain its 
momentum.3!! Ahrar and JAN also benefited from foreign fighters but not on the level 


as IS. 


From the standpoint of repertoires of contention, the mobilizing structures for 
leadership and manpower brought new innovative tactics that complimented each group’s 
existing repertoires. For example, Ahrar has the advantage of numbers. It represents one 
of the largest groups in the entire opposition, which has emboldened it to partake in large- 
scale attacks that radical Islamist groups typically avoid. In February 2013, Ahrar overran 
an air base in Aleppo, and in December 2014, Ahrar with support from JAN captured two 


Syrian army bases in Idlib province.!2_ According to al Jazeera, an assortment of heavy 





309 Barrett, The Islamic State, 16. 


310 “Tt Ain’t Half Hot Here, Mum,” The Economist, August 30, 2014, 
http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/2 1614226-why-and-how-westerners-go-fight- 
syria-and-iraq-it-aint-half-hot-here-mum. 

311 Barrett, The Islamic State, 16. 

312 “Syrian Rebels ‘Capture Air Base in Aleppo,” al Jazeera, February 12, 2013, 
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/02/201321214119606560.html; “Syria Rebels Capture 
Key Idlib Army Bases,” al Jazeera, December 15, 2014, 


http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/12/syria-rebels-capture-key-idlib-army-bases- 
2014121512481 1678445 .html. 


83 


weapons was used in the attacks. Both of these examples indicate a more professionalized 


fighting force. 


As evident from the examples above, JAN also engages in large-scale attacks with 
its first tier allies. In addition, it is prolific in its use of suicide bombers, and through a 
deliberate and unique media strategy that Abu Musab al-Suri would endorse, JAN 
carefully packages its results to the outside world to preserve its relatively low profile. 
For example, according to the International Crisis Group, JAN prefers a slow release of 
its operations by reporting the results days after operations take place.3!3 JAN’s official 
statements often cover several attacks in different regions, and any documentation of the 
attacks is released on jihadi web forums first to prove its authenticity.3!4 JAN’s web 
followers then repost the material to social media sites. The strategy of JAN’s delayed 
media announcements is not immediately obvious, but it serves a purpose. Groups like IS 
and other fast-paced elements in the opposition have built reputations on their 
momentum. They attack, attack, attack. JAN, on the other hand, operates at its own pace 
and strikes when it decides the time is right. JAN does not have the burdensome problem 


of constantly maintaining a high operations tempo to maintain its credibility. 


Of all three groups, IS’s new tactics are the most surprising. In 2010, IS (then ISI) 
was a terrorist group masquerading as a state. When it changed its name from AQI to ISI, 
its attempt to rebrand itself fooled no one. The then-ISI was still the same struggling 
terrorist group known for guerilla, hit and run style tactics mixed with suicide attacks on 
sectarian targets. However, the infusion of military expertise from the ex-Baathist 
military officers such as IS’s senior leader Abu Muslim al-Turkmani who was reportedly 
a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Special Forces before the war dramatically altered 
IS’s repertoires.3!5 In 2014 when IS took over Raqqa, Syria and later Mosul, Iraq, it 
showcased its ability to lay siege to entire cities through command and control of its 


forces that seemed to be following a scheme of maneuver. According to Barrett, IS 





313 Tentative Jihad: Syria ’s Fundamentalist Opposition, 13. 
314 Thid. 


315 Ruth Sherlock, “Inside the Leadership of the Islamic State: How the New ‘Caliphate’ is Run,” The 
Telegraph, July 9, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10956280/Inside- 
the-leadership-of-Islamic-State-how-the-new-caliphate-is-run.html. 


84 


employs a strategy that combines terrorism with insurgency and conventional military 
operations.3!© IS typically begins its assaults with a series of strategically placed suicide 
bombings. Then, it tries to infiltrate the local population and steadily gain control of 
specific areas.3!7 Lastly, it unleashes a full frontal assault. This approach indicates a 


significant transformation from its previous tactics. 


C. CONCLUSION 


In this chapter, I demonstrated how the remnants of earlier struggles from three 
key time periods facilitated the mobilization and rise of Syria’s leading radical Islamist 
groups. The first time period produced Syria’s first modern jihadist leader Marwan Hadid 
who permanently altered the way radical Islamists fight the Syrian regime. His tactics and 
strategies were groundbreaking, and his efforts linked Syria’s local conflict to regional 
networks. The second period witnessed the maturation of Syria’s most important radical 
ideologue and practitioner Abu Musab al-Suri and solidified the link between Syria’s 
radical Islamists and the shadowy transnational networks of the global jihad movement. 
These networks not only enabled the survival of the Syrian radical Islamist cause but also 
provided a global platform to hone battlefield tactics and operational strategies. The third 
time period produced an organic logistical network inside Syria and formed the bulk of 
the mobilizing structures Ahrar, JAN, and IS leveraged for leadership and manpower, 


which also generated new repertoires. 


Despite having access to the same institutional legacies, Ahrar, JAN, and IS 
deliberately incorporated different elements into their insurgent strategies. All three use 
different variations of Hadid’s sectarian platform with Ahrar being moderate compared to 
IS. Also, all admittedly use different aspects of al-Suri’s writings by placing more 
emphasis in certain areas. For example, fostering positive relations with other groups and 
local citizens is a high priority for Ahrar and JAN while it is not for IS, which prefers to 
indiscriminately impose its will. All three use the same general mobilizing structures 


stemming from the Iraq war, but each group employs its fighters in different capacities. 


316 Barrett, The Islamic State, 36. 
317 Tbid. 


85 


The cumulative effect is Syria’s leading radical Islamist groups are highly dynamic and 
constantly innovating. Their institutional legacies are directly correlated with how they 
mobilize and fight and are part of the reason for the success and rise of Ahrar, JAN, and 


IS in the Syrian conflict. 


Conspicuously absent from this chapter is the question of resources. The same 
local, regional, and global networks facilitated the dispersal of money and weapons, but 
the bulk of it comes from external state and non-state actors in the Gulf region. While it 
overlaps some with Syria’s radical Islamist movement, it is a distinct element, and the 


complexities of it deserve its own separate chapter. 


86 


V. THE INFLUENCE OF EXTERNAL SPONSORS 


Two prominent themes undeniably occurred in the evolution of the Syrian 
conflict. First, sectarianism became more pronounced as the conflict became more 
violent. Second, as the conflict went on, Islamist groups in the opposition grew 
disproportionately to their secular counterparts. What external factors fueled the rise of 
the Islamists, and how did these factors affect Syria’s internal sectarian dynamic? In the 
previous chapters, I showed how the al-Assad regime intentionally stoked sectarian 
divides. I also illustrated how the institutional legacies of Syria’s radical Islamist groups 
gave them an advantage in leadership, manpower, and tactics, but materiel and financial 
resources are equally crucial components to initiate and sustain collective action. For 
Syria’s opposition movement, resources have been indelibly linked with outside 


involvement, which provides the next and final piece of the puzzle. 


Many scholars have indicated that donations from the Gulf countries at the state 
and non-state levels have strengthened radical Islamist groups in the Syrian conflict.3!8 
However, beyond making generic statements, few have identified exactly how.?!9 
Furthermore, few have provided comprehensive comparisons of the different types of 
Gulf support and how each type compliments or diverges from the other. Part of the 
reason why this gap exists is due to the paucity of primary sources. The majority of the 
literature available is reports from various news outlets that are difficult to validate. Thus, 
caution needs to be exercised in the analysis. Second, the continual shifts in alliances in 
the Syrian conflict and the multitude of donors make it challenging to link one group to 
exclusively one donor. Still, enough literature has been written, especially between 2011 


and 2013, to begin exploring the depth of donor support. 


318 Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, 10. 


319 William McCants, Thomas Pierret, and Elizabeth Dickinson are among the scholars that have 
addressed the affects Gulf sponsorship have had on the Syrian opposition; however, each provided varying 
degrees of specificity. Also, none comprehensively compared the sponsorship of different countries. 
Dickinson’s chronicle of private Kuwaiti donors titled Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for 
Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home is the most detailed study to date on any 
Gulf sponsor. 


87 


In this chapter, I fill the gap based on the literature available by examining how 
external Sunni sponsors have shaped the Syrian conflict and how they directly and 
indirectly facilitated the rise of radical Islamist groups. I assert that while geostrategic 
politics of the region incentivized sectarian identities, Gulf donors at the state and non- 
state levels disproportionately favored radical Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition. 
This chapter consists of three sections. First, I review the existing literature on external 
sponsors in insurgencies and civil wars. Second, I examine the Syrian conflict from a 
regional perspective to show how and why the Saudi-Iranian rivalry polarized sectarian 
identities in Syria. Third, I analyze the public and private support from Saudi Arabia, 
Qatar, and Kuwait and the corresponding effects their sponsorship had on the opposition 
as a whole. I will also specify how these factors facilitated the rise and growth of Ahrar, 


JAN, and IS. 


A. SPONSORS IN CIVIL WARS AND INSURGENCIES: AN OVERVIEW 


Social movement, insurgency, and civil war scholars agree on the negative impact 
external sponsors with differing agendas have on insurgencies and civil wars. When 
insurgent groups compete for external sponsorship, they often align their goals with those 
of the donor and use the resources in a manner consistent with the donor’s desires.329 If 
they do not, the groups risk losing valuable support. Without materiel and financial 
resources, collective action cannot be sustained, and groups cannot survive. Thus, 
external sponsors influence group behavior, such as ideology, strategy, and tactics, and 


the local causes of the conflict become intertwined with outside interests. 


External sponsors also cause group fragmentation.32! Insurgency groups with 
access to foreign resources have little incentive to unite with other factions. This dynamic 
leads to competition between groups in the same opposition movement, which 
undermines any semblance of command and control. In addition to promoting 


factionalism, foreign support in civil wars leads to longer and more violent conflicts with 





320 McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 55. 


321 Wendy Pearlman, “Understanding Fragmentation in the Syrian Revolt,” in The Political Science of 
Syria’s War (Washington, DC: The Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 41, 
http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


88 


more fatalities.322, One reason for this is that foreign support reduces the likelihood of 
peaceful negotiation since foreign donors have the luxury of not bearing the burden of 
violent conflict directly. This is why David Cunningham refers to them as veto players in 


conflict resolution.323 


Another common hazard of external sponsors is that they cannot guarantee 
control of their proxies as witnessed in the violent civil wars of Afghanistan and 
Lebanon.324 Groups are more likely to embellish details of operations or falsify atrocities 
to argue for more support. Additionally, a sponsor may lose control of a proxy when the 
group diversifies its sources of revenue and is no longer reliant on the sponsor for key 
resources.329 For example, IS has created multiple streams of revenue and does not need 
sponsors to sustain its activities.326 Thus, if IS’s early sponsors applied some degree of 
restraint on the group’s activities, IS was free to commit violent action as it saw fit once it 


became independent of the support that initially helped create it. 


Aside from the general concepts discussed above, dissecting the different types of 
sponsors and their support is vital for understanding external involvement in conflicts. 
Daniel Byman et al. have identified the following types of external support for 
insurgencies: state, diaspora, refugee, religious organizations, and wealthy individuals, 
among others.?2’ Generally, state support is regarded as the most important form, but in 
Syria, the combination of diaspora communities, religious organizations, and wealthy 
individuals has proven more valuable than state, especially since private donors are 
extremely difficult to track and hold accountable. Regardless, both state and private 


support have been instrumental in shaping the Syrian uprising. 


322 Christia, “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict,” 10; Patrick M. Regan, 
Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict (Ann Arbor: University of 
Michigan Press, 2002). 


323 Cunningham, “Veto Players and Civil War in Syria,” 26. 
324 Staniland, “Insurgent Organization and State-Armed Group Relations,” 38. 


325 Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: Ecco, 2004), 
268. 


326 Barrett, The Islamic State, 45. 


327 Daniel Byman, Peter Chalk, Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau, and David Brannan, Trends in 
Outside Support for Insurgent Movements (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), 3, 
http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1405.-html. 


89 


The scope of outside support varies considerably from critical to minor. Financial 
resources, political support, direct military support, and safe havens are the most critical 
forms.328 Valuable and minor forms consist of training, weapons and materiel, fighters, 
intelligence, organizational aid, and ideological inspiration.32? There are no shortages of 
safe havens in Syria, and aside from targeted air strikes against IS and JAN, there is no 
direct, large-scale military involvement from outside forces. Most prefer to let their 
proxies represent their interests. As a result, direct financial support and military weapons 


are the most critical needs for the Syrian opposition. 


There are three primary reasons why sponsors provide external support. 
According to Abdulkader Sinno, the top motivations are to weaken the targeted 
government, extend regional influence, and support ideological, ethnic, or religious 
kin.33° The first two motivations are normally linked with a desire to control a proxy to 
ensure maximum results. To increase the likelihood of control, the sponsor needs the 
proxy to have a centralized leadership.33! Therefore, sponsors with the most ambitious 
motivations theoretically should prefer to support proxies that are hierarchical and 


demonstrate command and control of its forces. 


In Syria, Islamist groups, both radical and moderate, have received more external 
support than secular elements in the opposition, which explains why they are often better 
equipped and financed.732 To analyze why and how, I utilize all the elements discussed 
in this section in the remainder of this chapter. Beginning with macro-level factors, 
specifically the Saudi—Iranian rivalry, the next section explores the impact of 


transnational identities on the Syrian conflict. 





328 Byman et al., Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements, 84-91. 
329 Tbid., 92-99. 

330 Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond, 79. 

331 Tbid., 79. 

332 Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, 32. 


90 


B. THE SAUDI-IRANIAN RIVALRY AND THE SYRIAN CONNECTION 


According to Curtis Ryan, Syria represents “the new Arab Cold War,” which is a 
historical reference to inter-Arab power struggles from the 1950s and 1960s where 
identity and ideological differences were challenged through proxy wars.?33\ The 21st 
century witnessed three traditional centers of power in the Middle East: Egypt, Iraq, and 
Syria greatly diminish in prominence while other regional players surged to the forefront, 
namely Saudi Arabia and Iran.334 Both are engaged in a Cold War like rivalry that 
contains a strong religious and ideological element pitting Sunni against Shia. The Arab 
Spring raised their interstate competition to new heights, and Syria has become the 
epicenter of their rivalry. Examining the Saudi—Iranian rivalry and linking it to Syria 
provides an initial reference point to begin analyzing the role and motivations of external 


sponsors in the Syrian conflict. 


While both Saudi Arabia and Iran are Islamic countries, they represent opposite 
ends of the spectrum. Saudi Arabia is the regional leader for Sunni Muslims. It espouses 
an ultra-conservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism, which is essentially the Saudi 
form of Salafism.335 It is named after its founder Muhammad Bin Abd al-Wahhab who 
lived during the 18th century.736 Saudi Arabia aggressively exports its Wahhabi ideology 
throughout the region. While Wahhabism is not inherently violent, its fundamentalist 
approach to Islam is at times controversial and generally hostile towards Shia 
Muslims.337 From a foreign policy perspective, Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally focused on 
preserving the status quo in the region.738 As an absolute monarchy, it abhors change 
and often uses revenues from its vast oil reserves to coopt potential adversaries, which 


formed the basis of the Saudi strategy inside the Kingdom in the wake of the Arab 





333 Curtis, “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria.” 
334 Tbid. 


335 W. Andrew Terrill, The Saudi—Iranian Rivalry and the Future of Middle East Security (Carlisle: 
Strategic Studies Institute, 2011), 3. 


336 Ahmad Moussalli, Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy (London, England: 
Conflicts Forum, 2009), 4, http://www.conflictsforum.org/2009/wahhabism-salafism-and-islamism/. 


337 Thid., 6. 
338 Terrill, The Saudi—Iranian Rivalry, 1. 


91 


Spring.739 Essentially, it bribed its local populace to reduce political discontent through 


generous government subsidies. 


As the leading non-Arab, non-Sunni country in the region, Iran is the de-facto 
leader of Shi'ites around the world. Many countries in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, 
Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Kuwait, contain sizeable Shia communities who have 
faced ongoing problems with discrimination, poverty, and unemployment, especially in 
the Gulf region. As a result, Iran sees itself as their benefactor to varying degrees, which 
causes friction particularly in the Gulf countries. However, sectarian distinctions are not 
the only reason for Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia; political differences are just as, if not 


more, important. 


The origins of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry trace back to the Iranian Islamic 
Revolution of 1979.349 During the revolution, Iranian citizens led by Ayatollah Ruhollah 
Khomeini overthrew their monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and established an 
Islamic Republic. The event was cataclysmic in the region as Iranian revolutionaries 
promptly called for the overthrow of the Gulf monarchies and the establishment of 


Islamic Republics in their stead. 


Saudi Arabia was one of the first to feel the reverberations. In late 1979, Saudi’s 
Shia community in its Eastern Province rioted while carrying pictures of Khomeini and 
denouncing the Saudi monarchy.34! The Saudi government violently squashed the unrest 
and blamed Iran for its inception, despite the long history of Saudi political repression 
against the Shia community. Khomeini responded with a steady stream of vitriol directed 


at the Saudi monarchy and consistently questioned its legitimacy to rule. 


Once the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, Saudi Arabia firmly backed Iraq and 
rallied financial support from the other Sunni Gulf monarchies. Within the region, Syria 


was the only Arab state to provide diplomatic and moral support on the Iranian side, 


339 Terrill, The Saudi—Iranian Rivalry, 30. 
340 Thid., 5. 
341 Thid. 


92 


which marked the beginning of the alliance today.342. While the Sunni—Shia split of the 
alliances is impossible to ignore, the dynamic cannot be reduced to sectarian loyalties 
alone. For example, many assume that Hafez al-Assad and his Alawite inner circle 
naturally sided with Iran because of the Shia connection; however, al-Assad was arguably 
motivated to side with Iran more out of hatred towards Iraq than to sectarian loyalties.343 
Different branches of the Baath Party led the governments in both Syria and Iraq at the 
time, and both were bitter rivals. Their animosity was political, not sectarian. Regardless 
of the nuances, violent conflicts in the region tend to amplify sectarian differences, and 


sectarianism becomes a powerful tool to rally support. 


In reaction to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran—Iraq War, Saudi Arabia 
consolidated its regional leadership in 1981 by forming the Gulf Cooperation Council 
(GCC), a regional alliance of Gulf Arab monarchies from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, 
Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.344 The headquarters of the GCC is in 
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and its purpose was to unite the interests of the Gulf monarchies in 
the face of regional turmoil.34> Currently, the GCC is the primary, regional political 


instrument through which the Saudi government attempts to maintain the status quo. 


Although the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has ebbed and flowed since the 1980s, it has 
never resulted in a direct military confrontation and probably never will.346 Rather, the 
rivalry is played out in the domestic politics of weak neighboring states through 
proxies.347_ The Saudi—Iranian dueling sectarian narratives represent their most potent 
weapon, not military power, and since 2000, Iran appears to be gaining the upper hand. 
Its political influence has expanded while Saudi Arabia continually tries to keep it in 


check. For example, Iran’s most important non-state ally Hizbullah is a dominant force in 


342 Terrill, The Saudi—Iranian Rivalry, 27. 
343 Thid., 27. 

344 Thid., 2. 

345 Thid., 14. 


346 R. Gregory Gause, Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War (Washington, DC: The 
Brookings Institution, 2014), 3. 


347 Thid. 
93 


Lebanese politics, and since the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Iranian 


influence within Iraq’s current Shia government has increased.348 


When the Arab Spring erupted in late 2010, the Saudi and Iranian responses fell 
in line with their established track records. The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali 
Khamenei was quick to portray the Arab Spring as an extension of Iran’s 1979 
Revolution and welcomed the change.**9 Conversely, Saudi leaders were horrified as 
Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled in Egypt, and Saudi’s responses to the Arab Spring 
gradually escalated from passive to active support. When protests began in Libya, Saudi 
Arabia and other GCC countries, especially Qatar, sent materiel and financial support to 
the Libyan opposition. However, when Bahrain’s Shia majority population began 
protesting in 2011, the Saudi government took a more proactive stance and sent 1,000 
soldiers at the behest of the Bahraini Sunni royal family to help suppress the protests.3>° 
Immediately following the crackdown, the Bahraini king publicly accused Iran and 
Hizbullah of fomenting civil unrest, which Iran promptly denied.25! However, the 
protests in Syria raised the stakes of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry considerably as their 


differing interests collided. 


Syria is Iran’s most important ally at the state level while Hizbullah is Iran’s most 
important non-state ally. For all intents and purposes, Syria represents Iran’s land bridge 
to Hizbullah. Syria is also a vital, strategic buffer separating Iran from its mortal enemy, 
Israel. Aside from the Syrian regime, Iran undoubtedly has the most to lose if Bashar al- 


Assad is ousted and replaced by a hostile Sunni government. 


When the Syrian uprising began to spread, Iran started sending riot-control 
equipment and advisors with expertise in breaking up anti-government protests.5>2 As 


the conflict expanded in 2012, Iran stepped up its shipment of military supplies to the 


348 “The Long Arm,” The Economist, January 24, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east- 
and-africa/2 1640382-iran-doing-better-its-rivals-expanding-its-influence-unstable. 


349 Terrill, The Saudi—Iranian Rivalry, 11-12. 
350 Thid., 22. 
351 Thid., 23. 
352 Thid., 32. 


94 


Syrian regime and sent members from its Qods Force, the special forces unit in the 
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to train Syrian Alawite paramilitary forces.>3 Iran 
and Syria also leveraged other Shia allies. According to Matthew Levitt, Hizbullah has 
sent as many as 5,000 of its fighters to Syria on a rotational basis, and Iraqi Shia militants 
from Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and Kataib Hizbullah have also sent up to 5,000 fighters.54 
While state and non-state external support from Syria’s Shia allies has uniformly 
supported the al-Assad regime, the Syrian opposition has not had the same consistency 


with its benefactors. 


C. SUNNI EXTERNAL SPONSORS 


Overall, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait account for the majority of all Sunni 
Arab materiel and financial support to the Syrian opposition as well as humanitarian aid 
to refugees. While it is difficult to quantify exact amounts, general trends have emerged. 
Saudi Arabia was a major donor from the onset of the uprising, but according to Roula 
Khalaf and Abigail Fielding Smith, between 2011 and 2013, Qatar provided the most 
materiel and financial support to the opposition totaling as much $3 billion.4>> Since 
2013, Saudi Arabia has surpassed Qatar.*5© Despite both countries being in the GCC, 
they have differed greatly over the type of support they provide and to whom, which will 
be specified in the following sections. From a humanitarian standpoint, Kuwait is the 


largest provider and is opposed to arming the opposition.357 


353 Michael R. Gordon, “Iran Supplying Syrian Military via Iraq Airspace,” The New York Times, 
September 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/05/world/middleeast/iran-supplying-syrian-military- 
via-iraq-airspace.html. 


354 Matthew Levitt, Syria Spillover: the Growing Threat of Terrorism and Sectarianism in the Middle 
East (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2014), 
http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/syria-spillover-the-growing-threat-of-terrorism- 
and-sectarianism-in-the-mid. 


355 Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding Smith, “Qatar Bankrolls Syrian Revolt with Cash and Arms,” 
Financial Times, May 16, 2013, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/86e3f28e-be3a- 1 1e2-bb35- 
00144feab7de.html#axzz3TfywwIzx. 


356 Mariam Karouny, “Saudi Edges Qatar to Control Syrian Rebel Support,” Reuters, May 31, 2013, 
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/3 1/us-syria-crisis-saudi-insight-idUSBRE94U0ZV 20130531. 


357 Elizabeth Dickinson, Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels 
Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2013), 3. 


95 


A plethora of non-state entities, such as members of Syrian expatriate 
communities, Salafi charities, and private donors, emerged in parallel with state support 
to the Syrian opposition. Quantifying their contributions is even more elusive than 
totaling state support, but Joby Warrick estimates it to be in the range of hundreds of 
millions of dollars.358 In addition to financial assistance, Salafi preachers and Muslim 
clerics have provided significant ideational support that is impossible to quantify. The 
sheer volume of state and non-state support to the Syrian conflict has been substantial. 
The combination of both has fundamentally altered the ideology, behavior, and 
organization of the opposition. Due to the complexities involved, the financial, materiel, 
and ideational support at both the state and non-state levels of each country will be 


addressed separately. 


if Saudi Arabia: Unintended Consequences 


Saudi Arabia’s initial support to the Syrian opposition epitomized how the Saudi-— 
Iranian rivalry directly affects neighboring states. Its initial motivation to back the Syrian 
opposition had little to do with supporting the democratic and nationalist desires of the 
first Syrian protestors. Rather, it aimed to facilitate the ouster of the al-Assad regime and 
deny Iran its key regional ally.3°? Furthermore, Saudi Arabia hoped that any new Syrian 
government would be Sunni and would look to it and the GCC for support, not Iran.3©° 
Within this context, Saudi Arabia was one the first Gulf countries to provide materiel and 
financial assistance to opposition forces. Its support demonstrated the destructive force 


foreign interference can have on a conflict. 


An initial challenge the Syrian opposition faced was uniting its heterogeneous 
factions. With the assistance of the government of Turkey, the opposition established the 


Syrian National Council (SNC) in August 2011, which was the first attempt to unite the 





358 Joby Warrick, “Private Donations Give Edge to Islamists in Syria, Officials Say,” The Washington 
Post, September 21, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/private-donations-give- 
edge-to-islamists-in-syria-officials-say/2013/09/21/a6c783d2-2207-1 le3-a358-1144dee636dd_story.html. 


359 Curtis, “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria.” 
360 Tbid. 


96 


interests of all Syrians opposed to the al-Assad regime.*°! The SNC is based in Istanbul, 
Turkey, and its initial goal was to present a united front to the international 
community.362 It consisted of a broad range of activists such as the Free Syrian Army 
(FSA), democratic and secular entities that included minority groups, and moderate 
Islamist groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB). From the onset, it was 
plagued by factional infighting. This dynamic gave the SMB an initial advantage because 
of all groups in the SNC, the SMB was the most organized.*63 Overall, Saudi Arabia is 
staunchly opposed to any element of the Muslim Brotherhood because Saudi leaders view 
the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of political Islam as the most organized and capable 
threat to their rule.364 As a result, Saudi Arabia was leery of the SNC and refused to 
work with the SMB. It began a pattern of backing specific groups within the SNC that 
were outwardly Islamist but were aligned with Saudi interests and its Wahhabi views. 
Qatar preferred the SMB to other groups, and the basis of a Saudi—Qatari rivalry in the 


Syrian conflict formed as they began backing different Islamist groups. 


In addition to the intra-GCC discrepancies over whom to support, the process that 
Saudi Arabia and Qatar initiated to deliver the materiel and financial resources in 2011 
thoroughly undermined the SNC. Rather than take a hands-on approach, both countries 
appointed middlemen in Turkey to distribute their support. According to Rania Abouzeid, 
Saudi Arabia chose the Lebanese politician Okab Sabr who is affiliated with the former 
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.36© The Saudis and Hariri had a preexisting 
working relationship in the region. Per Saudi guidance, Sabr identified a mix of capable 


groups between the FSA and various Salafi factions, and he offered Saudi support in 





361 “Syrian Council Wants Recognition as Voice of Opposition,” Reuters, October 10, 2011, 
http://www.reuters.com/article/201 1/10/10/us-syria-opposition-idUSTRE7993NF201 11010. 


362 “Guide to the Syrian Opposition,” BBC News, October 17, 2013, 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east- 15798218. 


363 Lefévre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, 188-189. 


364 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris 
Arming?,” Time, September 18, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/09/18/syrias-secular-and-islamist-rebels- 
who-are-the-saudis-and-the-qataris-arming/. 


365 Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” 
Financial Times, May 17, 2013, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f2d9bbc8-bdbc-1 1e2-890a-00144feab7de.html. 


366 Abouzeid, “Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels.” 
97 


exchange for pledges of loyalty.5°7 From the Saudi perspective, it wanted to avoid the 
mistakes it made during the Soviet War in Afghanistan by providing blanket support to 
jihadists such as Usama bin Laden who returned to Saudi Arabia after the conflict ended 
and directly challenged the Saudi government, which is why it wanted the specific 


pledges of loyalty. Regardless of Saudi intentions, its selective support bred favoritism. 


Rather than go through the SNC, groups were incentivized to adopt Saudi’s 
agenda. They began to display outward Islamist tendencies in hopes of attracting Saudi 
support. They also began videotaping attacks to prove their effectiveness on the 
battlefield, which promoted an escalation of violence in an already vicious conflict.368 
Furthermore, the methods used to disperse the funds were highly questionable. Sabr 
established contacts inside Syria and entrusted them to deliver the funds to groups that 
were unable to send a representative to Turkey.*°? There was often no way of knowing 
exactly who received the money and weapons at the end of the logistics chain. 
Additionally, the constant changes in alliances inside Syria and the uncertainty of 
knowing which groups were actually Islamist or not prevented a clear assessment of how 


to categorize the most active elements in the Syrian opposition. 


An excellent example of this predicament is the Faroug Brigade, which was the 
most effective fighting force in the FSA in Homs, Syria in 2011.370 Sunni defectors from 
the Syrian Army formed the core of the Farouq Brigade in response to the regime’s harsh 
tactics on the citizens of Homs. When it announced its formation, it presented a secular, 
nationalist agenda and appealed to all Syrians regardless of sect.37! After Saudi and 
Qatari money began to flood the opposition, the Farouq Brigade slowly changed its 
discourse in 2012. The group switched its logo to a black flag with crossed swords 


commonly seen among jihadist groups.3’2 Its leaders grew Salafi-style beards as they 





367 Chris Zambelis, “Royal Rivalry in the Levant: Saudi Arabia and Qatar Duel over Syria,” Terrorism 
Monitor 16, vol. XI (August 2013): 10. 


368 Abouzeid, “Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels.” 
369 Tid. 
370 Holliday, Syria’s Armed Opposition, 19. 
371 Lund, Syrian Jihadism, 11. 
372 Tbid. 
98 


appealed for Gulf support.373 According to Joseph Holliday, the new Islamist version of 
the Farouq Brigade proved to be highly polarizing in Homs.3”* It refused to coordinate 
with other opposition groups that it previously worked with and disrupted the FSA’s 


command and control to conduct joint operations. 


In 2012, the Farouq Brigade joined the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), an 
alliance of moderate Islamist groups.3’75 Saudi Arabia generally favored the SILF over 
the other Salafi alliance the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), which contained Ahrar among 
others and had close ties to JAN.376 Within the SILF, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar 
backed some of the most prominent groups, such as the Farouq Brigade, Jaish al-Islam, 
and al-Tawhid Brigade.3’7 To Saudi annoyance, Qatar also backed groups in the SIF at 
the same time.3’8 Adding more confusion and complexity to the matter, many of the 
groups in the SILF including the Farouq Brigade joined other alliances under regional 
military councils that were also receiving Saudi and Qatari funds. Thus, many groups 


learned that if they joined more alliances, they could double dip on external support. 


In 2013, the SILF dissolved, and many of the groups, including Suqur al-Sham, 
Jaish al-Islam, and al-Tawhid Brigade, joined the newly formed Salafi alliance the 
Islamic Front led by Ahrar.3/? The Farouq Brigade declined to join the Islamic Front 
alliance, which further brought its Islamist transformation into question. It is unknown 
whether the group actually believed in the Islamist platform or how much they were 
influenced by Gulf support, but the observation is impossible to dismiss. The strategic 


decision by the Farouq Brigade leadership to adopt an Islamist agenda coincided with 


373 Lund, Syrian Jihadism, 11. 


374 Joseph Holliday, Syria’s Maturing Insurgency (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 
2012), 27-28, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/syrias-maturing-insurgency. 


375 Abouzeid, “Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels.” 
376 Zambelis, “Royal Rivalry in the Levant,” 10. 


377 Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Insight: Saudi Arabia Boosts Salafist Rivals to Al Qaeda in Syria,” 
Reuters, October 1, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/01/us-syria-crisis-jihadists-insight- 
idUSBRE9900RO20131001 and Khalaf and Fielding-Smith, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian 
Revolution.” 


378 Zambelis, “Royal Rivalry in the Levant,” 10. 


379 “Syrian Rebels Form New Islamic Front,” BBC News, November 22, 2013, 
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25053525. 


99 


others in the opposition who were competing for Saudi and Qatari support. Additionally, 
when the Farouq Brigade adopted its Islamist persona, it stopped working with others in 
Homs, presumably because it no longer needed to rely on others in the opposition as a 
result of external support. With the infusion of money and weapons, the Farouq Brigade 


was able to carve out its own fiefdom and had no incentive to share power with others. 


In addition to demonstrating how external support can affect group ideology, the 
above example also reveals the unintended consequences of Saudi support as well as the 
fuzziness of opposition alliances. Saudi leaders backed the SILF to offset the momentum 
that some of the radical elements such as Ahrar were gaining through its SIF alliance. 
Furthermore, backing the SILF did not seem overly controversial, aside from further 
eroding the SNC’s legitimacy, because none of the groups in the SILF were considered 
radical. However, when half of the groups in the SILF that received Saudi and Qatari 
support joined the Islamic Front alliance the following year, they became directly 
affiliated with Ahrar and conducted joint operations with JAN. It is reasonable to assert 
that both Ahrar and JAN benefited indirectly from the prior support its new allies 
received from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is one reason why some in the media have 
accused Saudi Arabia of enabling radical Islamist groups, but there is no direct evidence 


that the Saudi government intended to do so.38° 


Overall, Saudi’s materiel and financial support to the opposition was 
opportunistic and contrary to the initial goals of the uprising. From the Saudi perspective, 
backing numerous individual groups increased the likelihood of Saudi influence in a post- 
conflict government. However, its middlemen did not seem to enact any safeguards to 
ensure Saudi money was not going to radical groups. The lack of self-correction despite 
all the warning signs is astounding to the outside observer. By late 2013, the variance 
between Saudi and Qatari support to the opposition was drastic. The international 


community grew increasingly alarmed by the rise of radical Islamist groups and 


380 | ori Plotkin Boghardt, Saudi Funding of ISIS (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near 
East Policy, 2014), http://www. washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/saudi-funding-of-isis. 


100 


pressured the Saudi government to centralize all Gulf funding.38! Both Saudi Arabia and 


Qatar agreed, but the damage was irreparable. 


At the non-state level, Saudi Arabia has been the most proactive of the GCC 
countries in curbing support from private, wealthy donors. It made private fundraising 
outside of official state channels illegal and banned its citizens from traveling to Syria to 
wage jihad.382_ Regardless, private citizens that want to donate to the conflict simply 
redirect their funds to other countries with lax financial laws such as Kuwait. Also, Saudi 
citizens that want to wage jihad in Syria seem to do so unencumbered. According to the 
website the Middle East Monitor, 7,000 Saudis have joined IS.383 Others such as the 
Soufan Group placed the number at 2,500.384 While each of the sources have different 
figures, both agree that Saudis comprise the largest non-Syrian contingent of fighters in 


the Syrian conflict, and most have joined IS. 


While Saudi Arabia has not directly backed radical Islamist groups, one of the 
most important supporters of Ahrar and the Islamic Front alliance resides in the 
Kingdom. Adnan al-Arur, a firebrand Salafi televangelist originally from Hama, emerged 
as a key ideational figure in the Syrian conflict due to his strong sectarian discourse and 
theatrical style in his weekly talk show aired by several Salafi affiliated channels.385 
Prior to the Syrian uprising, al-Arur had a small following. However, once hostilities 


erupted, his narrative and demands for armed insurrection against the al-Assad regime 


381 Karouny, “Saudi Edges Qatar to Control Syrian Rebel Support.” 


382 Robert F. Worth, “Saudis Back Syrian Rebels Despite Risks,” The New York Times, January 7, 
2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/08/world/middleeast/saudis-back-syria-rebels-despite-a-lack-of- 
control.html; Joby Warrick, “Private Money Pours into Syrian Conflict as Rich Donors Pick Sides,” The 
Washington Post, June 15, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/private-money- 
pours-into-syrian-conflict-as-rich-donors-pick-sides/2013/06/15/67841656-cf8a- 1 1e2-8845- 
d970ccb04497_story.html. 


383 «Saudis Most Likely to Join ISIS, 10% of Group’s Fighters Are Women,” Middle East Monitor, 
October 20, 2014, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/14758-saudis-most-likely-to- 
join-isis- 10-of-groups-fighters-are-women. 


384 Barrett, Foreign Fighters in Syria, 13. 
385 Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, 29. 


101 


transformed his show into one of the most popular in Syria among rebel fighters.38° He 
is known to criticize non-Salafi factions and once infamously “vowed to grind the flesh 
of pro-regime Alawites and feed it to the dogs.”387 While he has recently tried to reduce 
his anti-Alawite and anti-Shia rhetoric, his popularity undoubtedly adds to sectarian 
divides. Al-Arur formally backs a variety of opposition groups, but according to Lund, 
Lister, and Zelin, he is one of the most prominent publicly known donors at the private 


level based in Saudi Arabia to Ahrar and the Islamic Front alliance.388 


2 Qatar: Sponsorship Gone Awry 


When the Arab Spring began, Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, ambitiously embraced 
the changing environment. It viewed the uprisings as an opportunity to expand its 
regional influence and had no reservation about breaking ranks with its GCC 
counterparts, especially Saudi Arabia.389 For example, in Egypt, Qatar backed the 
Muslim Brotherhood while the Saudi government did not. In Libya, Qatar asserted itself 
as the most aggressive GCC country in providing weapons to rebel forces.399 However, 
Qatar’s Libyan support later became controversial when radical Islamists left the Qatari 
sponsored, relatively Western-friendly group Rafallah al-Sehati and formed the radical 
group Ansar al-Shariah that participated in the 2012 Benghazi attack, which resulted in 
the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.39!_ When the Syrian uprising 
began, Qatar reacted cautiously, like many others in the region, but as the violence 


increased in 2011, Qatar quickly became one of the most prolific opposition benefactors 





386 Nir Rosen, “Islamism and the Syrian Uprising,” Foreign Policy Blogs, March 8, 2012, 
http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/08/islamism_and_the_syrian_uprising; “The Charm 
of Telesalafism,” The Economist, October 20, 2012, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and- 
africa/2 15649 13-influential-rebel-preacher-who-needs-tone-things-down. 


387 “The Charm of Telesalafism,” The Economist. 


388 Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, 29; Zelin and Lister, “The Crowning of the 
Syrian Islamic Front;” Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 29. 


389 Zambelis, “Royal Rivalry in the Levant,” 11. 


390 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far,” The New York 
Times, September 7, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/world/middleeast/qatars-support-of- 
extremists-alienates-allies-near-and-far.html. 

391 Tbid. 


102 


of not only materiel and financial support but also humanitarian aid to refugees. Despite 


Qatar’s generosity, its sponsorship has been more controversial and divisive than Saudi’s. 


Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar began financing and arming opposition elements in 
2011 after the SNC was formed. Qatar used a similar process as the Saudis. It dispersed 
funds through its own middlemen in Turkey but differed with the Saudis on the 
recipients. For example, Qatar supported the SMB and its affiliated Islamist groups, but 
its decision to do so was more pragmatic than ideological.392 While funding the SMB 
ran counter to Saudi’s interests, Qatar recognized that the SMB was the most organized 
in the SNC and seemed to have established contacts inside Syria, which theoretically 
increased the likelihood of funding being delivered to local elements fighting the regime. 
Simultaneous to its SMB support, Qatar also provided funding to the regional military 
commands in the SNC to distribute inside Syria as well. Qatar did so to minimize 
favoritism, but their efforts led to more complications. In order to receive Qatari funding, 
groups under the regional commands had to submit lists of personnel to justify the 
quantity of funding. According to Rania Abouzeid, groups began inflating their numbers, 
which led to a different type of internal competition and muddled accurate assessments of 
the opposition’s strength.393 Furthermore, groups under the SMB’s and the regional 
command’s purview received double Qatari funding than those that did not, which 


encouraged groups to adopt Islamist agendas. 


Regardless, in 2012, Qatar appeared to abandon concerns of favoritism and 
drastically expanded its support to individual groups. Just as Saudi Arabia sought to 
hedge its position with potential winners in the conflict, Qatar did as well to increase the 
chances of having multiple points of influence within a new Syrian government. The 
difference is Qatar controversially provided extensive support to numerous Islamist 
groups, whether radical or not. However, it is exceptionally difficult to prove that the 
Qataris funded specific groups exclusively. Most were opportunistically obtaining 


support from Qatar as well as many other donors, but given the scope of the billions of 


392 Abouzeid, “Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels.” 
393 Tbid. 


103 


dollars Qatar provided between 2011 and 2013, it is a safe to assume that Qatar’s support 


was more influential than lesser donors. 


In 2012, Qatar’s fingerprint appeared on many Islamist groups. The 
transformation of the al-Tawhid Brigade provides an interesting example. The group 
formed in mid-2012 when a number of smaller Islamist groups affiliated with the SMB 
merged at the behest of Turkey.2°* The groups previously received financing from Qatar 
via the SMB.395_ When the SILF formed in 2012 as a moderate Islamist alliance, the al- 
Tawhid Brigade joined and collaborated with other moderate Islamist groups who also 
received funding from Qatar such as the Farouq Brigade.39© Meanwhile, Qatar was also 
providing direct support to Ahrar.397 When the SILF dissolved in 2013, the al-Tawhid 
Brigade and other prominent groups in the alliance joined Ahrar and other Salafi groups 
in the Islamic Front. Scholars such as Zelin and Lister have asserted that the evolution of 
Islamist alliances, such as the SILF, SIF, and now the Islamic Front, is the result of Qatari 
efforts to portray a more organized Islamist opposition.398 The dilemma is that it merged 
moderate elements with more radical Salafi factions, and the public statements and 


visible expressions of the al-Tawhid Brigade are evidence of the effects. 


The al-Tawhid Brigade transitioned from a moderate Islamist group whose 
fighters donned white headbands commonly seen with SMB affiliates to wearing black 
headbands normally worn by jihadists in extremist groups.399 Additionally, aside from 
being in an alliance with Ahrar, the al-Tawhid Brigade also began conducting joint 


attacks with JAN in 2013. Their relationship has progressed far enough that JAN has 





394 “The Story of Al-Tawhid Brigade: Fighting for Sharia,” A/-Monitor, October 22, 2013, 
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/10/syria-opposition-islamists-tawhid-brigade.html. 


395 Ibid. 
396 Khalaf and Fielding-Smith, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution.” 


397 David Blair and Richard Spencer, “How Qatar Is Funding the Rise of Islamist Extremists,” The 
Telegraph, September 20, 2014, 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/qatar/1 111093 1/How-Qatar-is-funding-the-rise-of- 
Islamist-extremists.html. 


398 Zelin and Lister, “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front.” 
399 “The Story of Al-Tawhid Brigade,” A/-Monitor. 


104 


allowed its fighters to fight under al-Tawhid leadership for large-scale attacks.40° While 
the example traces the metamorphosis of al-Tawhid, it also shows how Qatar’s funding is 
being leveraged indirectly by JAN. Given that Qatar supported Ahrar and al-Tawhid as 
well as other groups considered tier one level allies with JAN, it is inevitable that Qatari 


funding and weapons are being used by JAN and other radical extremists.40! 


In 2013, Qatar began to change its policies of supporting the opposition for a 
variety of reasons. First, accusations that Qatar was reckless with its funding grew louder 
and louder from the international community. Aside from charges that Qatar was 
facilitating the rise of radical groups and encouraging others to adopt more Islamist 
platforms, Qatar also walked a dangerous line with weapons. In 2012, the Obama 
administration directed all Arab allies not to provide heat-seeking shoulder-fire missiles 
known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to the Syrian opposition.402 
Understandably, the United States did not want the weapons to end up in radical Islamist 
hands. In defiance of the United States, Qatar provided a limited quantity of Chinese- 
made FN-6 MANPADS to unspecified FSA-affiliated groups.4°3 Videos emerged online 
soon after depicting FSA groups using the FN-6s to the dismay of Western officials.404 
While there are no indications that Qatar gave FN-6s to Islamist groups, the above event 


added to international alarm at Qatari support. 


Second, the Saudi—Qatari rivalry reached a boiling point in April 2013 when 
Qatari-backed rebel forces abandoned their post during the siege of the Wadi al-Deif 
military base.4° Their retreat enabled regime forces to escape and mount a counterattack 


that resulted in numerous opposition deaths.406 An after-action report revealed that the 


400 “The Story of Al-Tawhid Brigade,” Al-Monitor. 


401 Mark Mazzetti, C. J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt, “Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms 
to Rebels,” The New York Times, June 29, 2013, 
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/world/middleeast/sending-missiles-to-syrian-rebels-qatar-muscles- 
in.html. 


402 Thid. 

403 Thid. 

404 Mazzetti et al., “Taking Outsize Role in Syria.” 

405 Karouny, “Saudi Edges Qatar to Control Syrian Rebel Support.” 
406 Thid. 


105 


commander of the Qatari-backed forces was pocketing the funds from Qatar and left his 
fighters vulnerable. The international community expressed outrage over the lack of 
accountability of Qatari support. Reporter Mariam Karouny cited the incident as the 
“final straw” for Saudi Arabia and Qatar to centralize their support.407 Third, while other 
political factors were at play, a change in Qatari leadership facilitated shifts in foreign 
policy. In mid-2013, the ruling Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani 
stepped down and peacefully handed power to his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al- 
Thani. According to Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Sheikh Tamim wanted to reduce Qatar’s 
enhanced regional profile since the Arab Spring began.4°8 A combination of the above 
reasons led Qatar to reassess its Syrian position and fall in line with Saudi Arabia.409 
While their coordinated assistance should facilitate more effective external support, the 
damage that both did between 2011 and 2013 by backing different opposition groups is 


irreversible. 


Due to international pressure, Qatar ended its overt support of Ahrar in 2013.410 
However, Amena Bakr reported that Qatar has continued its support to Ahrar through the 
Islamic Front alliance but at reduced levels.4!! Aside from Ahrar, there is no evidence 
that Qatar has supported JAN or IS directly, but its private citizens have through 
fundraising efforts. According to the U.S. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial 
Intelligence David Cohen, Qatar has become a “permissive terrorist financing 
environment” for Ahrar, JAN, and IS.4!2_ Cohen explained that terrorist fundraising 


networks based in Kuwait have representatives inside Qatar to gather donations from 


407 Karouny, “Saudi Edges Qatar to Control Syrian Rebel Support.” 


408 Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Saudi—Qatar Rivalry Divides Syrian Opposition,” Reuters, January 15, 
2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/15/us-syria-crisis-qatar-idUSBREAOE1G720140115. 


409 Karouny, “Saudi Edges Qatar to Control Syrian Rebel Support.” 


410 Warrick, “Private Donations Give Edge to Islamists in Syria, Officials Say;” Spencer, “How Qatar 
Is Funding the Rise of Islamist Extremists.” 


411 Amena Bakr, “Defying Allies, Qatar Unlikely to Abandon Favored Syria Rebels,” Reuters, March 
20, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/20/us-syria-crisis-qatar-idUSBREA2JOWM20140320. 


412 United States Department of the Treasury, “Remarks of Under Secretary for Terrorism and 
Financial Intelligence David Cohen before the Center for a New American Security on ‘Confronting New 
Threats in Terrorist Financing,’” news release, March 4, 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press- 
releases/pages/j12308.aspx. 


106 


wealthy individuals.*!3_ The money is then transferred to Kuwait where it is routed to 


radical Islamists in Syria. The Qatari government has done little to stop it. 


For example, the U.S. Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on the Qatar- 
based al-Qaeda financier Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaymi in 2013. According to 
the Treasury Department, al-Nuaymi functioned as an intermediary between al-Qaeda 
and private Qatari donors.*!* He previously transferred as much as $2 million per month 
to al-Qaeda in Iraq (now IS) and, most recently, transferred $600,000 in 2013 to al- 
Qaeda’s representative in Syria Abu Khalid al-Suri who was also one of the founding 
members of Ahrar.4!5 Al-Nuaymi openly operates in Qatar and is a well-known 
academic and businessman. Despite the U.S. designation of al-Nuaymi as a terrorist 


financier, Qatar has yet to act against him.*!© 


Another form of assistance at the private level emanating from Qatar is ideational 
support from popular Muslim clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi who Thomas 
Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin refer to as “the world’s most influential Sunni cleric.”4!7 
During a rally in Qatar in May 2013, al-Qaradawi was the first Muslim cleric of celebrity 
status to label the Syrian conflict a legitimate jihad.4!8 He called upon any Sunni Muslim 
with the ability to fight to go to Syria and wage jihad against the al-Assad regime. 
Following his declaration, al-Qaradawi attended a conference in Cairo, Egypt in June 
2013 with Egypt’s most senior Muslim clerics and representatives from more than 70 


Sunni organizations.4!9 After the conference, the clerics called for all forms of jihad in 


413 United States Department of the Treasury, “Remarks of Under Secretary for Terrorism and 
Financial Intelligence David Cohen.” 


414 United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates al-Qaeda Supporters in Qatar and 


Yemen,” news release, December 18, 2013, _ http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press- 
releases/Pages/j12249 aspx. 
415 Tid. 


416 Spencer, “How Qatar Is Funding the Rise of Islamist Extremists.” 


417 Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Y. Zelin, “How Syria’s Civil War Became a Holy Crusade,” 
Foreign Affairs, July 7, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139557/thomas-hegghammer-aaron- 
y-zelin/how-syrias-civil-war-became-a-holy-crusade. 


418 Thid. 


419 Omar Fahmy, “Sunni Clerics Call for Jihad against Syria’s Assad, Allies,” Reuters, June 13, 2013, 
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/13/us-syria-crisis-sunnis-jihad-idUSBRE95C16U20130613. 


107 


Syria and encouraged those who cannot fight to send money and arms to the Syrian 
opposition.429 One of the founders of Ahrar, Hassan Abboud, was the only person from 
the Syrian opposition present at the conference.42! The significance of al-Qaradawi’s 
calls for jihad, the subsequent backing from other popular Muslim clerics, and the 
presence of Ahrar’s most publicly known leader cannot be overstated. An estimated 60 
million people watch al-Qaradawi’s weekly talk show on al Jazeera; he commands an 
incredibly large constituency.*22, Furthermore, the backing of other influential clerics 
adds more bite to his call for jihad, and the presence of Ahrar’s leader Abboud at the 
conference puts a face on the Syrian conflict, especially after Abboud gave personal 


interviews to various news correspondents.423 


While there are no statistics to quantify the impact of al-Qaradawi’s declaration, 
labeling the Syrian conflict a jihad makes it difficult to distinguish between extreme 
jihadists and those who are responding to the cleric to defend their faith. While Syria was 
teeming with foreign fighters before al-Qaradawi’s call to arms, it has since become “‘the 
largest foreign fighter destination in the history of modern Islamism,” according to 
Hegghammer and Zelin. Furthermore, al-Qaradawi and his associates blurred the legal 
lines of charitable donations. It is now religiously justified to donate money for jihad, and 


Ahrar positioned itself to monopolize the rewards. 


3. Kuwait: The “Epicenter” of Radical Islamist Financial Support 


Prior to the Arab Spring, Kuwait had a reputation as the most charity-friendly 
country in the GCC. Its lax financial laws, freedom of assemble, and lack of government 
oversight made it an ideal location for private charities to base their operations, especially 


in a region known for stifling political environments.42+ However, radical groups such as 


420 Fahmy, “Sunni Clerics Call for Jihad against Syria’s Assad, Allies.” 
421 Zelin and Lister, “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front.” 


422 David Schenker, Qaradawi and the Struggle for Sunni Islam (Washington, DC: The Washington 
Institute for Near East Policy, 2013), http://www. washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/qaradawi- 
and-the-struggle-for-sunni-islam. 


423 Zelin and Lister, “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front.” 
424 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 3. 
108 


al-Qaeda have taken advantage of Kuwait’s charity-friendly setting in the past. For 
example, in 2008, the United States blacklisted the Salafi charity the Revival of Islamic 
Heritage Society (RIHS) in Kuwait for financially supporting al-Qaeda.425 The RIHS 
still operates openly in Kuwait and was one of the first charities to begin arming Islamist 
groups in Syria in 2011.426 Countless Salafi charities like the RIHS exist in Kuwait that 
walk a fine line between promoting fundamentalist versions of Islam through charitable 
works and directly supporting radical groups. Furthermore, considerable overlap exists 
between public and private sector participation in Kuwaiti-based charities. The above 
dynamic makes it difficult to fully ascertain how compliant Kuwait’s government is with 


the vast charity work conducted within its borders. 


When the Syrian uprising began, Kuwait took a different approach than Saudi 
Arabia and Qatar. Rather than arming the rebels, Kuwait called for a political solution 
and pledged humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees.42”. Between 2011 and 2013, Kuwait 
sent more than $500 million in aid as proof of its commitment, which is the most of any 
GCC country.428 While the government focused on humanitarian assistance, Kuwait’s 
Syrian expatriate community of roughly 100,000 collected private donations for the 
opposition and transferred the modest funds through their vetted contacts inside Syria.429 
As the conflict intensified, the expatriates linked their efforts with professional 
fundraisers from experienced Salafi charities with access to wealthy Gulf donors.*39 The 
combination of both paved the way for private donors in Kuwait to make an immediate 
impact on the opposition. Between 2012 and 2013, Salafi organizations and professional 


fundraisers with radical leanings hijacked the local initiatives and transformed Kuwait 





425 United States Department of the Treasury, “Kuwaiti Charity Designated for Bankrolling al Qaida 
Network,” news release, June 13, 2008, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press- 
releases/Pages/hp1023.aspx. 

426 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 6. 


427 Tbid., 22. 


428 Ben Hubbard, “Private Donors’ Funds Add Wild Card to War in Syria,” The New York Times, 
November 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/1 1/13/world/middleeast/private-donors-funds-add- 
wild-card-to-war-in-syria.html. 


429 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 5. 
430 Thid. 
109 


into the rally point for illicit funding in the Gulf region. According to Cohen, by 2013, 


Kuwait was the “epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.”’43! 


Given the large amount of aid the Kuwaiti government has provided, its leaders 
have scoffed at the notion that private donations have equated to significant amounts. 
Yet, according to Elizabeth Dickinson and Joby Warrick, private donors based in Kuwait 
have sent as much as hundreds of millions of dollars, and a portion of the funds go 
directly to radical groups with no strings attached or government interference.432_ Ahrar, 
JAN, and IS, in that order, have been the primary recipients of the private funding from 
Kuwait’s biggest Salafi donors. The remainder of this section will dissect the major 


donors and analyze how they affected the opposition. 


Among all Kuwait’s Islamic organizations and networks, the Ummah Party and 
the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People have had the most influence in 
transforming the Syrian conflict. The Ummah Party is a Salafist organization founded by 
Hakim al-Mutayri in Kuwait in 2008.433 Since political parties are banned in Kuwait, the 
Ummah Party functions as an Islamic organization and represents a more potent Salafi 
version of the Muslim Brotherhood.*34 It has branches in numerous Gulf countries such 
as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and has been extremely 
active in Syria.435 Based on al-Mutaryri’s guidance, the Ummah Party quickly allied 
itself with the Syrian Salafist group Liwa al-Ummah that conducts joint operations with 
JAN.436 Additionally, according to Lund, al-Mutayri was one of the driving forces 
behind the formation of Ahrar in early 2012 and the establishment of the SIF.437_ He 


remains one of the biggest donors to Ahrar today. 


431 United States Department of the Treasury, “Remarks of Under Secretary for Terrorism and 
Financial Intelligence David Cohen.” 


432 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 19 and Warrick, “Private Donations Give Edge to Islamists in Syria, 
Officials Say.” 


433 “Kuwait Umma Party Formed,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 26, 2008, 
http://carnegieendowment.org/2008/08/26/kuwait-umma-party-formed. 


434 Thid. 
435 Warrick, “Private Donations Give Edge to Islamists in Syria, Officials Say.” 
436 Thid. 
437 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 30. 
110 


In 2012, al-Mutayri named the Salafi cleric Hajjaj al-Ajmi as his organization’s 
point man for Syria.438 Al-Ajmi is from a wealthy Kuwaiti family and is one of the most 
public and prolific fundraisers at the private level for Syria. He is one of the managers of 
the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People, which is a fund that collects 
donations around the Gulf.439 Along with al-Mutayri, he was also instrumental in the 
formation of Ahrar and various Islamist alliances.44° For example, Ahrar has gone as far 
as to publicly thank al-Ajmi for sending donations totaling $400,000 in 2012.44! The 
Islamist alliance the Syrian Islamic Front acknowledged receiving $600,000 from him in 


public statements.442 


Aside from al-Ajmi’s regional fundraising efforts through his fund, he has also 
employed savvy campaigns on Twitter. Prior to his account being suspended, al-Ajmi had 
roughly 475,000 followers.443 During crucial time periods in the Syrian conflict, such as 
sudden advances or attacks by the Syrian military, al-Ajmi would send urgent messages 
over Twitter with status updates, pictures of dead civilians from the attacks, and a phone 
number for his followers to donate. He also regularly requested that his followers spread 
the messages. According to Warrick, the technique has been incredibly successful, and 


opposition groups in Syria took notice.444 


In 2013, al-Ajmi and al-Mutayri reached new heights in their effects on the Syrian 
conflict after the following events. First, in either a show appreciation or to attract 


support, a Syrian rebel group named itself after al-Ajmi when its leaders posted a video 


438 Suhaib Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria,” al Akhbar, March 21, 2014, 
http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/unknown-role-kuwaits-salafis-syria. 


439 Warrick, “Private Money Pours into Syrian Conflict as Rich Donors Pick Sides.” 


440 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 29; William McCants, “Gulf Charities and Syrian Sectarianism,” 
Foreign Policy, accessed February 25, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/09/30/gulf-charities-and- 
syrian-sectarianism/. 


44] McCants, “Gulf Charities and Syrian Sectarianism.” 
442 Joby Warrick, “Private Money Pours into Syrian Conflict as Rich Donors Pick Side.” 


443 Miriam Berger, “Twitter Just Suspended Two Kuwaitis Accused By The U.S. Of Financing Terror 
In Syria,” BuzzFeed, August 7, 2014, http://www.buzzfeed.com/miriamberger/twitter-just-suspended-two- 
kuwaitis-accused-by-the-us-of-fin. 


444 Joby Warrick, “Private Money Pours into Syrian Conflict as Rich Donors Pick Sides.” 
AK. 


on YouTube proclaiming itself as the “Hajjaj al-Ajmi Brigade.”4*° While the event may 
have been nothing more than a publicity stunt, it serves as an example of how well 


known and influential al-Ajmi personally became within opposition elements. 


Second, when JAN and IS formerly severed ties in 2013, al-Ajmi immediately 
reached out to JAN contacts and promised to finance the group.*46 This was important 
because according to al-Jazeera, IS provided JAN with a significant portion of JAN’s 
overall budget.447 In exchange for al-Ajmi’s support, he requested JAN appoint a 
Kuwaiti jihadist, Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, as one of its sharia officials, despite Abu 
Hassan not having the necessary credentials.448 For a group like JAN that employs a 
strict vetting process for new members, its willingness to accept al-Ajmi’s request is 
another indication of how important he was as a benefactor.4#9 Third, as part of a public 
relations campaign, al-Mutayri rotated regional officials from the Ummah Party through 
Syria to take pictures with the rebels to facilitate fundraising efforts. During one of the 
trips in 2013, a sniper killed Mohammad Abduli, the president of the UAE branch.49° 
Following Abduli’s death, al-Mutayri took the unprecedented step of establishing a 
training camp inside Syria in honor of Abduli.45! It remains the only instance where a 
private Islamic organization purporting to be a charity of sorts formed an actual training 


camp inside Syria. 


Aside from al-Mutayri’s and al-Ajmi’s joint efforts, the Kuwaiti organization the 
Council of Supporters also has facilitated a tremendous amount of money to the Syrian 
conflict. Additionally, the Council demonstrates the links between Kuwaiti government 


officials and private funding networks. The Council was created in 2012 to lead 


445 Warrick, “Private Money Pours into Syrian Conflict as Rich Donors Pick Sides.” 
446 Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria.” 


447 “Tragi al-Qaeda and Syrian Group ‘Merge,’” al-Jazeera, April 9, 2013, 
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/04/201349 194856244589 html. 


448 Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria.” 

449 Thid. 

450 Warrick, “Private Donations Give Edge to Islamists in Syria, Officials Say.” 
451 Thid. 


112 


fundraising campaigns in Kuwait.452_ While the Council consists of numerous clerics and 
activists, a current member of the Kuwaiti National Assembly Mohammad al-Mutayri 
leads it as the secretary general.*93 To illustrate the Council’s ability, it was the main 
force behind a 2013 fundraising campaign that collected an estimated $30 million for 


Syrian opposition groups, according to Suhaib Anjarini.4>4 


While the Council supports numerous Islamist groups, it is a major backer of 
Ahrar and JAN.45° One of the Council’s board members Nayef al-Ajmi who was the 
Kuwaiti Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs in 2013 was featured on JAN fundraising 
posters. While being advertised in conjunction with JAN is not a definitive admission of 
guilt, al-Ajmi’s longstanding ties to jihadist groups and his activity on the Council was 
enough for the United States to levy accusations at him.45® In 2014, al-Ajmi resigned his 
ministerial post after U.S. Under Secretary Cohen used al-Ajmi as an example of how the 
Kuwaiti government does not appear fully committed to ending unregulated funding.*9>/ 
Overall, the Council, al-Mutayri, and al-Ajmi show why it is difficult to delineate exactly 


where official Kuwaiti support begins and ends with private charitable organizations. 


In addition to the above organizations and individuals, three other important 
personalities functioned as independent Kuwaiti fundraisers for Ahrar, JAN, and IS. The 
first is Shafi al-Ajmi who was one of the first Salafis to work in conjunction with the 
Syrian expatriate community in 2011.48 Al-Ajmi is a well-known academic, Salafi 
preacher, and expert fundraiser in Kuwait. Thousands of people typically attend his 


sermons in the mosque on Fridays, and his television show is one of the most popular in 





452 Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria.” 
453 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 10. 

454 Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria.” 
455 Thid and Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 14 and 16. 


456 United States Department of the Treasury, “Remarks of Under Secretary for Terrorism and 
Financial Intelligence David Cohen.” 


457 Thid; Sylvia Westall, “Kuwaiti Minister Accused by U.S. over Terrorism Funding Quits,” Reuters, 
May 12, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/12/us-syria-crisis-kuwait- 
idUSBREA4B0AX20140512. 


458 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 6. 
113 


Kuwait.459 Similar to Hajjaj al-Ajmi, Shafi al-Ajmi is also savvy with Twitter campaigns 
and had more than 300,000 followers before Twitter suspended his account for terrorism- 
related financing activities along with Hajjaj’s.4©° Shafi al-Ajmi is known for his strong 
sectarian rhetoric and frequently teamed up with other renowned fundraisers to maximize 
efforts. However, in 2013, rather than simply providing money to radical groups, he 


began funding specific operations that he wanted accomplished. 


For example, in August 2013, Shafi al-Ajmi and Hajjaj al-Ajmi along with other 
clerics such as Nayef al-Ajmi from the Council of Supporters conducted a joint campaign 
to fund an offensive in Latakia, Syria where many Alawites and Shia reside.46! Islamist 
groups, to include JAN, agreed to the operation and massacred at least 60 Shia civilians 
in the village of Hatla purely for sectarian reasons.462 According to Anjarini, following 
the attack, JAN proclaimed that it “cleansed Hatla of the Shia” while Shafi al-Ajmi 
exclaimed the Shia were slaughtered with Kuwaiti supplied weapons.*63 The Hatla 
massacre is an example of how out of control private Kuwaiti sponsorship had become. 
In response, the United States formally designated Shafi al-Ajmi, Hajjaj al-Ajmi, and 
Abd al-Rahman Khalaf Ubayd Juday al-Anizi, who will be discussed below, as key 
financiers of terrorism in 2014.46+ Of note, the Kuwaiti government has not taken any 


action against Shafi al-Ajmi or Hajjaj al-Ajmi. 


Two other prominent Kuwaiti financiers worth noting are Ghanem al-Mutayri and 
Abd al-Rahman Khalaf Ubayd Juday al-Anizi. Al-Mutayri keeps a low profile compared 
to Shafi al-Ajmi, but his efforts are no less noteworthy to supporting JAN. According to 


459 Zolton Pall, Kuwaiti Salafism and its Growing Influence in the Levant (Washington, D.C.: 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2014), 18. 


460 Berger, “Twitter Just Suspended Two Kuwaitis Accused By The U.S. Of Financing Terror In 
Syria.” 


461 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 16. 
462 Ibid., 16-17; Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria.” 


463 Anjarini, “The Unknown Role of Kuwait’s Salafis in Syria.” 


464 United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Three Key Supporters of 
Terrorists in Syria and Iraq,” news release, August 6, 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press- 
releases/Pages/j12605.aspx. 


114 


Ben Hubbard, al-Mutayri staunchly supports JAN and has amassed as much as $14 


million in donations from conferences he organized.*® 


While most private Kuwaiti donors like al-Mutayri seem to favor Ahrar and JAN, 
al-Anizi dedicates his support to IS. In 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department identified al- 
Anizi as not only a financier for IS but also a foreign fighter facilitator.46®° While his 
monetary contributions were not specified, his support to IS predates the Syrian conflict. 
He has operated out of Kuwait since 2008 and links Kuwaiti donors with IS-related 
networks in the region. Al-Mutayri, al-Anizi, and all the Kuwaiti donors mentioned 


above exemplify how extensive Kuwait’s private networks have become. 


While the government of Kuwait may be committed to humanitarian support, its 
private and public citizens have brazenly supported the most radical elements in the 
Syrian conflict. In addition to their financial support, the Kuwaiti donors have also 
reinforced sectarian identities and promoted just as much fragmentation as Saudi Arabia 
and Qatar. Due to intense U.S. pressure, Kuwaiti officials agreed to make terrorist 
financing illegal for the first time in 2013 and created a financial investigation unit (FIU) 
to identify violators.4°7 However, given the exceptionally high number of Kuwaiti 
private donors and organizations as well as their organized networks, it is doubtful the 
FIU will make any significant impact in the near term. Furthermore, separating charities 
that support extremists from those who partake in legitimate work will not be an easy 
task and will also require long-term efforts before any noticeable effects are observed. 
Lastly, one of the biggest challenges facing the FIU is the means by which Kuwaiti 
donors send their funds. Along with individuals hand-carrying bags of money into Syria, 
Dickinson noted that Kuwaiti private donors also use formal and informal exchange 
companies, which are incredibly difficult to track.468 Thus, the FIU will need to work 
closely with regional counterparts to stem the flow of private donations. 


465 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 9; Hubbard, “Private Donors’ Funds Add Wild Card to War in 
Syria.” 


466 United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Three Key Supporters of 
Terrorists in Syria and Iraq.” 


467 Dickinson, Playing with Fire, 2. 
468 Ibid., 12-13. 
115 


D. CONCLUSION 


In this chapter, I revealed the multi-faceted nature of external sponsors in the 
Syrian conflict. While the geostrategic politics of the region, specifically the Saudi- 
Iranian rivalry, incentivized existing sectarian identities, the rise of radical Islamist 
groups was not due to a larger existential battle between Sunni and Shia. Rather, in-depth 
analysis revealed that the most influential external factor that indirectly facilitated the rise 
of radical Islamist groups was intra-GCC competition, and the most direct external factor 


was private support from Kuwait. 


The Saudi—Qatari rivalry, not the Saudi—Iranian rivalry, favored the growth of 
Ahrar, JAN, and IS. The irony of the situation is both Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not 
intend for this to happen. With the exception of Ahrar, radical Islamist groups did not 
receive direct Saudi and Qatari support. Also, Saudi Arabia and Qatar would not 
intentionally arm any al-Qaeda affiliate, since groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian 
Peninsula regularly call for the overthrow of the Gulf monarchies. Radical Islamist 
groups benefited more as a consequence of the selective support from Saudi Arabia and 
Qatar than a deliberate strategic decision. Despite Kuwait’s decision not to arm the 
opposition, its unwillingness to rein in private donors who blatantly supported radical 
groups made it just as culpable as Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the dysfunction of the 
opposition, which still continues today. According to Warrick, when Saudi Arabia and 
Qatar agreed to work closer together in 2013, the direct and indirect state support to 
Ahrar and JAN was drastically reduced.4©9 However, private money from Kuwait has 


enabled both groups to seamlessly maintain their edge over others in the opposition.47 


To be fair, the GCC countries are not alone in their sponsorship. Other countries 
are involved as well, but Syria is the GCC’s backyard. If any regional alliance needs to 
accept responsibly, it is the GCC. Unfortunately, their eagerness to see the al-Assad 
regime overthrown blinded them to the danger of poor policy decisions. Their 


discrepancies in support further exacerbated the uphill challenges Syria’s opposition has 


469 Warrick, “Private Donations Give Edge to Islamists in Syria, Officials Say.” 
470 Thid. 


116 


faced since the beginning of the conflict. GCC support at the state and non-state level 
taught Syria’s opposition that the more Islamist and violent they act, the more funding 
they would receive. In this situation, groups such as Ahrar, JAN, and IS that are already 


the most radical and best organized stood to gain the most. 


117 


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118 


VI. CONCLUSIONS AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS 


In this thesis, I have demonstrated that each hypothesis represents a critical piece 
to a three-part puzzle that explains the rise of radical Islamist groups in the Syrian 
conflict. A combination of ideological resonance, institutional legacies, and external 
sponsors has given Ahrar, JAN, and IS a significant competitive advantage over the 
secular opposition. However, even more important than the three variables is how each 
group has leveraged them, which touches upon a prominent theme in this thesis. Despite 
all three radical groups being in the same general movement, significant differences exist 
between them, and an effective strategy to combat Ahrar, JAN, and IS requires an 
understanding of their nuances. I dissected each hypothesis in Chapters III, IV, and V to 
identify the limitations of each and to obtain specificity to proffer useful policy 
recommendations. In this final chapter, I systematically review each hypothesis, present 


conclusions, and derive policy recommendations. 


A. HYPOTHESIS 1: IDEOLOGY 


I addressed why the Syrian conflict presented a fertile environment for radical 
Islamists to cultivate their ideology in Chapter III. However, ideological resonance was 
not a given. Ahrar, JAN, and IS maximized the situation through effective diagnostic, 
prognostic, and motivational frames as well as media distribution strategies that linked 
them to potential recruits. The groups wisely tapped into historic grievances while 
weaving their ideological outlook into a comprehensive narrative, which diametrically 
opposed the Syrian regime on multiple levels. Yet the nuanced details of the strategies 
each group employed were not uniform. Disaggregating the strategies revealed 
fundamental differences, which gave potential recruits options to choose from on the 
radical spectrum. While some recruits may be attracted to whomever is the most powerful 
at a given time regardless of ideology, others may base their decisions on how a group 


portrays itself and how it frames the conflict. 


Understanding these differences provides crucial insight into the mindset of the 


recruits who have bolstered the ranks of Ahrar, JAN, and IS. Generally speaking, those 


119 


who join Ahrar for ideological reasons deliberately choose the median voter option and, 
most important, reject IS’s extreme version of an Islamic state. While Ahrar is still a 
radical group, its strategic messaging has become more moderate to separate itself from 
IS’s barbarism. For those concerned about the rise of radical Islamist groups in Syria, this 
is a welcome development. IS has what Herbert Haines refers to as a “radical flanking 
effect” on Ahrar and to some degree JAN.*7! The radical flank effect is caused when an 
extreme group affects the perceptions and actions of other groups, making them less 
radical.472_ The result is the previously unacceptable groups appear more moderate and 
mainstream by comparison. In the case of Syria, Ahrar has distanced itself ideologically 
from IS, which is reflected in its framing strategies. JAN’s leaders, on the other hand, do 
not disagree with IS’s doctrinal outlook; they simply think it is counterproductive. 
However, IS’s actions have forced JAN to better define its ideological position, which is 
aligned with al-Qaeda’s vision of establishing a global caliphate. This dynamic has made 


JAN more pragmatic, not necessarily more moderate. 


One of the most important lessons the secular opposition can learn from the 
radical Islamists is to be ideologically consistent in its messaging. Despite the variance 
among the radical Islamist groups, their actions are consistent with what they say. 
Furthermore, the radical Islamists reinforce their ideology by providing badly needed 
public services to locals in the areas they control, which gives them an added level of 
respect. Organizations like the SNC have tried to appeal to all Syrians. As Islamist groups 
with increasingly sectarian narratives have become more prominent, minority groups and 
secular Syrians have received mixed signals. Thus, the SNC appears ideologically 
incoherent. Additionally, the infighting among groups under the SNC’s purview prevents 
them from establishing any legitimacy at the local level. If the SNC ever hopes to unite 
its diverse constituency, it must reconcile these contradictions. It must offer equally 
effective framing strategies as the radical Islamist groups and more robust humanitarian 


outreach. The international community can help in this regard. 


471 Herbert Haines, “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights,” Social Problems 1, vol. 
32 (October 1984): 32. 


472 Ibid. 
120 


1. Policy Recommendations 


The conclusions from Chapter HI beg the question of how the international 
community can counter the radical Islamist narrative. Two initiatives can have an 
immediate impact in Syria. In many ways, the first is already occurring. There has not 
been a single prominent Muslim cleric that has spoken in support of IS. The more 
atrocities IS commits in the name of Islam, the more clerics have rallied against it. For 
example, when IS placed Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh in a cage and 
burned him alive in early January 2015, clerics around the Muslim world denounced 
IS.473 The international community needs to give these clerics a bigger voice. They have 
a credibility and legitimacy in Muslim communities that the United States and other 
Western countries will never have. Rather than give these clerics a global platform to 
condemn IS and directly challenge IS’s theological interpretations, the media tends to 


place more emphasis on IS’s rise, subsequent growth, and war crimes. 


Challenging the narratives of Ahrar and JAN is not as easy as challenging IS’s. 
Due to Ahrar’s and JAN’s willingness to show varying degrees of moderation compared 
to IS, an ideological counter will be difficult to formulate, and prominent Muslim clerics 
will not likely condemn them unanimously. Thus, the best way to erode Ahrar’s and 
JAN’s ideological legitimacy is to use one of Abu Musab al Suri’s strategies against 
them: provide better humanitarian support than Ahrar and JAN while offering an 


inclusive ideological alternative palatable to all Syrians. 


One of the ways Ahrar and JAN have ingratiated themselves into rural 
communities is by providing extensive humanitarian services while propagating their 
ideologies. This strategy has been extremely effective. Governance and humanitarian 
outreach is proven to be just as important during civil wars as weapons and ammunition. 
While SNC leaders in Turkey have been failing in trying to unite their diverse 
constituency, Ahrar and JAN have quietly expanded their support base by providing 


some semblance of normalcy to people traumatized by the realities of war. Syria’s rural 


473 Vivian Salama, “In Unison, Muslim Clerics Lash out against Islamic State,” Associated Press, 
February 6, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/jihadi-preacher-lashes-against-islamic-state-methods- 
095147477. html. 


121 


communities perceive Ahrar and JAN as honest brokers while those in the opposition 


resemble warlords carving out their own personal fiefdoms. 


While Ahrar and JAN have framed the conflict in religious terms, it was not 
religion or sectarianism that initiated hostilities. Rather, it was the al-Assad regime’s 
reprehensible actions against children. When the first crowds took to the streets in 
protest, no one clamored for the death of Alawites or the mass mobilization of Sunni 
Muslims. The crowds wanted freedom, dignity, and liberty while advancing a nationalist, 
secular agenda. As the situation escalated, it was long-standing political repression 
combined with economic frustrations that first bubbled to the surface, not sectarian 
hatred. To combat Ahrar’s and JAN’s ideological resonance, give the people want they 


originally wanted — better governance and access to basic services. 


B. HYPOTHESIS 2: EXPERIENCE, ORGANIZATION, AND STRATEGY 


I examined in Chapter IV how the institutional legacies of Syria’s radical 
Islamists shaped their current repertoires of contention and mobilizing structures. The 
remnants of earlier struggles presented Ahrar, JAN, and IS with a ready-made insurgency 
kit of leadership, manpower, and tactics. These same institutional legacies also provide 
insight into why the radical Islamists are so resilient. For example, between August and 
November 2014, the international coalition led by the United States conducted over 1,000 
air strikes against IS and JAN targets, yet both groups have maintained command and 
control over their fighters.474 While Ahrar has been spared from coalition attacks, it has 
been on the receiving end of IS’s wrath. According to Aron Lund, almost every notable, 
original Ahrar leader has been killed by IS.47> Nevertheless, IS’s decapitation campaign 


has not slowed Ahrar’s growth, its operational tempo, or its effectiveness. 


The main reason is that all three groups are just as rooted locally as externally. 
Each group entered the conflict with vast amounts of experience, and from the beginning, 


they worked to intertwine themselves into every level of society. Neither bombs nor 





474 Richard Sisk, “US, Coalition Executes More than 1,000 Airstrikes against ISIS,” Military.com, 
November 26, 2014, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/1 1/26/us-coalition-executes-more-than- 
1000-airstrikes-against-isis.html. 


479 Lund, Syria’s Ahrar Al-Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing. 
122 


decapitation campaigns alone can eradicate them. Applying Paul Staniland’s typologies, 
which I reviewed in Chapter I, Ahrar, JAN, and IS have all transitioned into the most 
effective type of insurgent group, namely the integrated group, which is marked by high 
levels of unity among the leadership, strong command and control of fighters, and an 
established presence in local communities.4/© These groups have strict compliance up 
and down the chain the command with minimal levels of dissent.477 According to 
Staniland, there are two pathways whereby integrated groups transition into weaker 
typologies. The first is through a counter-insurgency strategy that combines militarized 
state-building measures with decapitation campaigns.478 The second occurs when 
integrated groups grow too quickly, which results in mismanagement.47? While options 
for the international coalition appear somewhat limited to military strikes, other short and 


long-term solutions can help. 


1. Policy Recommendations 


In the short-term, the international coalition needs to continue precision strikes 
against IS. Taking out key leadership will eventually take its toll. According to the U.S. 
Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones, 6,000 IS leaders and fighters have been killed by 
coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.48° I showed in Chapter IV that one of the keys to 
IS’s blitzkrieg-style gains since 2013 were innovative tactics employed by former 
Baathist leadership with prior military experience. Killing them will severely degrade 
IS’s command and control processes. Furthermore, IS’s lifeline is its ability to function as 
a state; keeping its leaders on the run severely inhibits their capacity to issue orders and 


maintain the mechanisms of an integrated group. 


476 Staniland, Networks of Rebellion, 6. 

477 Thid. 

478 Staniland, “Insurgent Organization and State-Armed Group Relations,” 37. 
479 Tbid. 


480 «Air Strikes Killed 6,000 ISIS Fighters: U.S. Ambassador,” al Arabiya News, January 22, 2015, 
http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/01/22/Air-strikes-killed-6-000-ISIS-fighters-U-S- 
ambassador.html. 


123 


For Ahrar and JAN, coalition forces must exercise caution before unleashing air 
strikes. Both groups have positive relations within the opposition, and any coalition 
attack needs to be linked to a direct threat. A great example of when to strike was 
targeting the Khorasan Group and its leader Muhsin al-Fadhli in 2014.48! Al-Fadhli was 
a senior-level operative who was in charge of al-Qaeda’s Iranian network in 2012.482 He 
relocated to Syria in 2013 to join JAN and became the leader of the Khorasan Group, 
which was a JAN offshoot.483 The group was part of a larger al-Qaeda initiative to 
conduct spectacular attacks against the West.484 When the coalition killed al-Fadhli and 
other members in his group, it sent a clear message to JAN: if it tries to expand 
operations outside of Syria, it will be destroyed. Furthermore, when the coalition released 
information about the Khorasan Group after the attack, opposition leaders could not deny 


the necessity of dismantling the group. 


The last note of caution when employing military options against radical groups is 
carefully assessing the second and third order effects of any attacks. When a change 
occurs in the structural dynamic of the Syrian conflict, the shift in the balance of power 
often leads to a vacuum that is quickly filled by another group. Thus, weakening one has 
the effect of empowering another. If IS starts to lose control of its fighters, many will 
most likely attempt to join JAN or even form a more violent group. The international 
coalition and the Syrian opposition must be prepared for this development. Additionally, 
if IS abandons the areas it controls, the secular opposition needs to step in immediately 
and assist the locals with basic services. If these types of contingency plans are not in 
place, they need to be. All military strikes must be placed within a tailored strategy that 


accounts for the anticipated effects on the battlefield. 


481 Mike Levine, James Gordon Meek, Pierre Thomas, and Lee Ferran, “What Is the Khorasan Group, 
Targeted By U.S. in Syria?,” ABC News, September 24, 2014, 
http://abcnews.go.com/International/khorasan-group-targeted-us-syria/story?id=25700467. 


482 Thomas Joscelyn, “Report: Former Head of al Qaeda’s Network in Iran now Operates in Syria,” 
The Long War Journal, March 25, 2014, 
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/03/report_former_head_o.php. 


483 Tbid. 
484 Thid. 


124 


Additionally, coalition forces must aggressively increase intelligence collection 
on the leaders and fighters of the radical groups. I demonstrated in Chapter [IV how 
Ahrar, JAN, and IS are violent mutations of the global jihad movement. Their military 
prowess is an upgrade from the previous campaigns of their forefathers. Each group has 
used global, regional, and local networks to emerge and grow. Experienced jihadists who 
have forged relationships through battle-hardened experience constitute the connective 
tissue linking these networks together. The same jihadists fighting in Syria today 
represent the next generation of leaders in the global jihad movement. After the Syrian 
conflict subsides, some may go back to their lives, but history has shown that some will 
continue their jihadi struggles on a global scale. Documenting their background and 
connections now will pay dividends later to intelligence services around the world that 
are united in fighting the global terrorist threat. A comprehensive database of the foreign 


fighters in Syria as well as the who’s who in Ahrar, JAN, and IS is an absolute necessity. 


C. HYPOTHESIS 3: EXTERNAL SPONSORS 


I showed in Chapter V how the Saudi-Iranian rivalry incentivized sectarian 
identities on all sides of the Syrian conflict. I also demonstrated how Saudi and Qatari 
support to the opposition directly and indirectly facilitated the rise and growth of radical 
Islamists from a resources perspective. Last, I revealed how Kuwait’s private donors had 
the most direct impact in financing radical Islamist groups. The implication from Chapter 
V conclusions is regardless of whether it was intentional or not, all three countries 
undermined Syrian opposition unity by fostering group fragmentation and made the 
chance of negotiated settlement unlikely in the near term by disproportionately 
empowering the radical groups. In a typical sponsor—proxy relationship, the sponsor can 
force the proxy to the negotiating table, but on the surface, the Syrian radical Islamists 


appear immune to the influence of their sponsors. 


For example, the United Nations has repeatedly tried to persuade the Syrian 


government and the opposition to engage in peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland.485 Of 





485 Basma Atassi, “Explaining the Geneva II Peace Talks on Syria,” al Jazeera, January 19, 2014, 
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/explaining-geneva-ii-peace-talks-syria- 
2014118142853937726.html. 


125 


all the opposition elements, the groups most resistant to any discussion of peace are the 
radical Islamists. Ahrar informed al Jazeera that even if all sides agree to a peace deal, it 
would continue fighting.48° JAN provided a similar response while the Islamic Front 
alliance released a statement that all participants from the government and the opposition 
would be placed on a wanted list.487 Given that IS is the most uncompromising of all the 
groups, its leaders would absolutely reject any notion of peace. Civil war scholars such as 
Fotini Christia refer to the radical Islamists in this situation as spoilers for conflict 
resolution because they have no incentive whatsoever of ending the conflict and will do 
everything in their power to disrupt peace talks.488 However, scrutinizing how each 
group has responded to sponsor support between 2011 and 2013 provides a slightly 


different assessment of the situation. 


1. Policy Recommendations 


Ahrar, JAN, and IS have all displayed different types of reactions to the materiel 
and financial assistance from external sponsors. Ahrar has been the largest recipient of 
state and non-state level sponsorship from the Gulf countries among the radical Islamist 
groups. A major reason is that Ahrar took active measures to moderate its discourse and 
tactics to attract more external support. For example, Ahrar does not conduct suicide 
bombings that are the hallmark of JAN and IS.489 Scholars such as Lund have suggested 
that Ahrar’s leaders choose not to because they want to avoid angering important private 
donors, such as Adnan al-Arur who is staunchly opposed to the tactic.4°° Additionally, 
when Ahrar joined the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in late 2012, it released an 
organizational charter that avoided using the word “jihad” in it.49! According to a SIF 


spokesman, it was intentional: “We do not want Western opinion makers to base their 


486 Atassi, “Explaining the Geneva II Peace Talks on Syria.” 

487 Thid. 

488 Christia, “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict,” 10. 
489 | und, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 20. 

490 Thid. 

491 Thid. 


126 


information on [Islamic] stereotypes, or on people who portray us as radical groups.’’4%2 
The SIF’s and Ahrar’s decision to do so occurred during the same general time period 
when the United States designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. It is highly 
probable that Ahrar and its Salafi allies wanted to avoid the same label, which would 


have impeded their external support. 


Out of all three groups, Ahrar is currently the most reliant on external support to 
maintain its battlefield effectiveness. It has also been the most willing to adjust its 
behavior on the battlefield based on sponsor preferences. The inference is of all the 
radical groups, Ahrar would most likely respond to GCC sponsors if they demanded 
Ahrar negotiate. Thus, leveraging economic instruments of power through key regional 
allies would be more effective to influencing Ahrar’s behavior than direct military 


confrontation. 


Unlike Ahrar, JAN sought to diversify its streams of revenue to decrease reliance 
on external sponsors. Its leaders learned this lesson in 2013. Initially, JAN received half 
of its operating budget from IS; however, when JAN refused to merge with IS in 2013, 
IS’s financial support ended.*93 Private donors in Kuwait, such as Hajjaj al-Ajmi, 
provided much needed assistance following the JAN-IS split, but JAN also began 
searching for other sources of income. When the European Union lifted the Syrian oil 
embargo in 2013, JAN immediately began taking over oil wells in the Dayr al-Zawr 
region to sell the oil at cut-rate prices.49* The independence JAN gained by earning its 
own income coupled with money from private donors that contained no government 
interference enabled JAN to continue fighting the way it saw fit. Additionally, JAN’s 
military strategy of coordinating operations with groups funded by Saudi Arabia and 
Qatar meant it could still indirectly reap the benefits of GCC state-level support without 


being bound to Saudi or Qatari influences. 





492 Lund, Syria’s Salafi Insurgents, 18. 


999 


493 “Traqi al-Qaeda and Syrian Group ‘Merge,’” al-Jazeera, 


494 Ardan Zenturk, “The EU’s Misguided Decision To Lift Syrian Oil Embargo,” A/-Monitor, May 27, 
2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/05/eu-decision-lift-oil-embargo-misguided-syria- 
war.html. 


127 


Based on JAN’s response to the loss of IS funding, its leaders understand that 
they need resources to continue fighting, which is a weakness the coalition can target. 
Assisting Kuwait with stemming the flow of private donations to JAN will negatively 
affect the group. Additionally, working with the international community to improve 
oversight on oil sales from Syrian sources will further degrade JAN’s ability to self- 


sustain its operations. 


Of all three groups, IS is the least reliant on external sponsors to survive, and 
there is no external entity that controls it. IS initially used funding from private external 
sponsors the way an entrepreneur treats money from angel investors in a start-up 
situation.49> Once IS established itself in Syria, it created its own war economy to be 
self-sufficient and uninhibited to fight the way it wanted to, which provides some insight 
to its ultra-violent methods.49© According to Richard Barrett, IS brings in up to $3 
million per day through illegal oil sales and taxes it collects from those in its territory 
among other activities such as ransoms from kidnappings.49’ Thus, there are no known 


sponsors that can influence IS. 


Still, from an economic perspective, restricting oil sales originating from Syria 
and implementing oversight on who sells and purchases the oil will make it more difficult 
for IS to continue profiting at its current levels. One of IS’s biggest weaknesses, aside 
from its extreme actions, is it needs money for its governing initiatives. The more the 
international community can restrict the flow of IS revenue, the more difficult it will be 


for IS to govern, which is key to its legitimacy. 


All of the above analysis points to the same general conclusion—all external 
sponsors to the Syrian opposition need to coordinate efforts and work in tandem. The 


GCC has provided a staggering amount of materiel and financial support, but it has been 


495 Robert Windrem, “Who’s Funding ISIS? Wealthy Gulf ‘Angel Investors,’ Officials Say,” NBC 
News, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/whos-funding-isis-wealthy-gulf-angel-investors- 
officials-say-n208006. 


496 “Islamic State: Who Supports the Jihadist Group?,” BBC News, September 1, 2014, 
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29004253. 


497 Barrett, The Islamic State, 45. 
128 


irresponsibly applied. While significant damage has already been done, it is not too late 


to adopt a corrective path. 


D. FINAL THOUGHTS 


The Syrian conflict has been a tragedy of epic proportions. With more than 
200,000 dead and at least ten million people displaced, which accounts for half of the 
pre-war population, Syria is no longer the same country it was before the uprising 
began.498 Additionally, the al-Assad regime has lost its legitimacy to govern. Syria has 
become a failed state. Despite the opposition’s insistence that Bashar al-Assad step down 
from power, his removal will not change anything in the country. The opposition still 
appears hopelessly divided, and radical Islamists continue to grow. However, like all civil 
wars, the Syrian civil war will end, just not quickly. According to Barbara Walter, since 
1945, civil wars on average last roughly 10 years.499 Using Walter’s metric, Syria is in 
the middle stages of the conflict, which is a sobering reality. When the conflict ends, the 
international community must be prepared for the humanitarian catastrophe. It also needs 
to be ready for how to deal with the radical Islamists who have risen to their highest 


levels out of any event in modern history. 


The Syrian conflict transitioned from protest to insurgency to civil war. Thus, 
numerous theoretical frameworks applied in this thesis. I combined elements from social 
movement, radicalization, and insurgency theories as well as civil war literature to 
examine ideological, organizational, and resource-based hypotheses. My conclusions go 
beyond simply stating that all hypotheses apply. Rather, this thesis demonstrates how 
each is invariably linked to the rise of radical Islamist groups and how each hypothesis 
reinforced the other. This thesis also shows that understanding how each group and 
hypothesis relates to the Syrian milieu is more important for purposes of specific policy 


recommendations than a parsimonious assertion. 





498 “The War in Syria: Can Hell Be Frozen Over?,” The Economist. 


499 Barbara Walter, “The Four Things We Know About How Civil Wars End (And What This Tells 
Us About Syria),” in The Political Science of Syria’s War (Washington, DC: The Project on Middle East 
Political Science, 2013), 29, http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


129 


When I began this study a year ago, one of the biggest challenges was the Syrian 
conflict represented a moving target with an evolving landscape. The danger of 
proffering recommendations was the situation could change and render any conclusion 
irrelevant. However, I demonstrated that the rise of Ahrar, JAN, and IS in the Syrian 
conflict was not a spontaneous event: it was deliberate and carefully orchestrated. Each 
group has gradually built upon their original foundation. Thus, understanding their rise in 


the context of their operating environment leads to key insights to eventually defeat them. 


In conclusion, the rise of Ahrar, JAN, and IS in the Syrian conflict was multi- 
faceted. A dynamic approach must be used to defeat them. All instruments of national 
power—diplomatic, military, informational, and economic—must be leveraged. In The 
Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote of the necessity of knowing yourself and your enemy and the 
imperative of attacking your enemy’s strategy.°°0 This thesis provides a solid baseline to 
understanding the nuances of our current and future enemies as well as their strategies. 
The next step in this project is to formulate tailored strategies that combine lessons 
learned from battling radical Islamists in other conflicts with the unique attributes of 
Ahrar, JAN, and IS. Just as Syria’s current batch of radical Islamists represent violent 
mutations of the global jihad movement, our strategies to defeat them must be equally 


innovative and precise. 


509 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (London, England: Oxford University Press, 
1971), 77 and 84. 


130 


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