War-torn Syria has become a battleground for competing ideologies as much as rival militias. The ultra-extremist Salafi-jihadism of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been the loudest and most visible of these ideological contenders, but Syria has also seen the birth of a revisionist trend within Islamist militancy. This trend has emerged as a reaction to the worst excesses of Salafi-jihadism and has been championed by the rebels in Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Movement of the Freemen of al-Sham, usually just called Ahrar al-Sham). Ahrar al-Sham has by now emerged as not just a populist revolutionary force and the most powerful non-ISIL rebel faction in Syria, but also the vanguard of a revisionist school that is contesting the nature of the jihadist movement.
In interviews conducted in September 2015 over social media and messaging apps, several Ahrar al-Sham leaders and observers familiar with the group said Ahrar was originally something close to “Salafi-jihadist.” Many of its founders were alumni of the Islamist wing of Syria’s notorious Seidnaya Prison, jailed for joining or abetting international jihadist organizations that included ISIL’s precursor, the Islamic State in Iraq. Interviewees said the initial character of the group was a product of both biography and circumstance — like others taking up arms against the Syrian regime early in the revolution, they seem to have been reactivating old networks of fighters and financiers.
And yet Ahrar al-Sham’s founders and the group as a whole subsequently diverged from “Salafi-jihadism,” the extreme, exclusivist subset of militant Islamism that has given the world al-Qaeda and ISIL. The Salafi-jihadist movement has splintered as al-Qaeda and ISIL have turned on one another, but the movement’s various parts still draw heavily on a common intellectual legacy shaped by and concentrated in the persons of Jordanian-Palestinian theorists Abu Qatadah al-Filistini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Al-Qaeda branches like Jabhat al-Nusrah make no secret of their admiration of and intellectual debt to Abu Qatadah and, especially, al-Maqdisi. And though Abu Qatadah and al-Maqdisi have fallen out with ISIL — ISIL representatives negotiating with al-Maqdisi notoriously called him a “pimp” — many still argue that ISIL is essentially an outgrowth of al-Maqdisi’s merciless purism and narrow conception of the community of believing Muslims. Al-Maqdisi tutored ISIL’s top religious theorist and has himself said, “I am their [ISIL’s] sheikh, the one who taught them about the oneness of God.” Salafi-jihadism is still defined in terms of a single “manhaj,” the programmatic blueprint for applying religious doctrine that al-Qaeda and ISIL technically share.
This was the milieu from which Ahrar al-Sham’s founders emerged. Nonetheless, Ahrar later diverged in increasingly public ways from Salafi-jihadism, and recent interviewees were emphatic that Ahrar al-Sham is no longer Salafi-jihadist. Today it is not uncommon to see Ahrar leaders ranging from hardliners like Ahrar’s chief ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq (Nidal Hassan) to relative doves like Abu Azzam al-Ansari push back against al-Maqdisi and against Salafi-jihadist orthodoxy more broadly. And when political official Abu ‘Izz al-Din (Labib al-Nahhas) recently eulogized Ahrar’s founding leadership, he saluted them in part for “shatter[ing] the idol of the ‘manhaj.’”
Still, I would argue that it makes sense to think of Ahrar as part of a jihadist movement that is bigger than a specifically Salafi-jihadist subculture. Ahrar al-Sham is not “Salafi-jihadist” in the limited meaning the term has taken on. Yet at least in Arabic, it seems mostly uncontroversial to say that Ahrar al-Sham is part of a global Sunni “jihadist movement,” defined roughly as the constellation of Islamist groups and movements who have taken up armed action as their primary means of achieving political change. The “jihadist movement” in this sense includes Salafi-jihadists like al-Qaeda, but also non-Salafist but fundamentally militant groups like Hamas. In a recent treatise, for example, Ahrar ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq argued that an open, inclusivist program like Ahrar al-Sham’s is the way forward for the “jihadist movement” and how it can realize a “resurgence.” In a recent promotional video, Ahrar framed itself as part of a mostly militant Islamist continuum that includes Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and renowned Syrian Islamic scholar Ali al-Tantawi, but also radical theorist Sayyid Qutb, famed Arab Chechen foreign fighter Khattab, Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin, and father of modern jihadism Abdullah Azzam (more on whom below).
Some interviewees were leery at describing Ahrar al-Sham as “jihadist” or part of “the jihadist movement,” but perhaps for the sake of optics more than a substantive disagreement. Ahrar seems to be aware of the term’s problematic connotations, particularly for a Western readership that might treat “jihad” as a synonym for terrorism. There is also concern that the term is too reductive. One respondent acknowledged Ahrar was part of a broader jihadism but was reluctant to pigeonhole Ahrar in terms of armed jihad, emphasizing Ahrar’s parallel political efforts. Ahrar al-Sham’s founding leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Hassan Abboud) himself emphasized that the movement was a “mujahid” (religious warrior) movement rather than a “jihadist” one, as he thought the “jihadist” label would too narrowly define the movement and its members in terms of war and violence.
Within this broader jihadist movement, though, Ahrar has come to represent a countervailing trend we could term “revisionist jihadism.” (I’ve also seen it called post-Salafi-jihadism, which likewise seems apt.) It draws on some of the same historical experience that shaped groups like ISIL, but it serves as a critique of Salafi-jihadism from within the jihadist movement.
Take, for example, the initial defeat of the Iraqi jihad at the hands of the Sunni “Awakening,” which played a major role in shaping the off-the-rails jihadist trend now represented by ISIL. ISIL entered Syria in 2011 and 2012 with the working assumption that another Awakening was inevitable and that it therefore had to prepare for it and crush it. To that end, ISIL and its adherents embraced what William McCants characterizes as a toxic mix of apocalypticism and terrifying ultraviolence. It’s an approach that is brutal and deliberately elite-focused, aimed at energizing a hardcore vanguard that can, if need be, drag an ambivalent Muslim public along with them. It aims at subverting or demolishing all of society’s institutions so they might be rebuilt in ISIL’s image.
Ahrar al-Sham’s more critical take on the Iraqi experience, on the other hand, can be seen in a November 2013 treatise on Iraq’s Awakening written by Abu alek al-Shar’i (Mahmoud Teibah). Abu Abdulmalek was one of Ahrar’s original leading ideologues and was himself reportedly imprisoned in Seidnaya for his activism on behalf of the Iraqi jihad. Yet rather than embracing ISIL’s “destroy all enemies” paranoia and the inevitability of some traitorous local uprising, Abu Abdulmalek argued that Syria’s Islamist rebels could preemptively defuse and avoid a Syrian Awakening through restraint and political savvy.
He laid out a set of reasons for the Awakening that ranged from the (American) enemy’s machinations to quirks of the local Iraqi community, but, significantly, he also included the mujahideen’s extremism and other unforced errors. Looking forward, he argued the mujahideen should elevate locals among their ranks, cultivate relationships with community leaders, attend to civilians’ living conditions and service needs, and be maximally collaborative with other rebels. He acknowledged that there are factions that are “polluted,” but advocated for the mujahideen “working gradually to contain or neutralize them.” Abu Abdulmalek’s 2013 argument came before Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership had renounced “Salafi-jihadism” per se, and it sprung from a perspective closer to Salafi-jihadism — for example, he unsympathetically called the Awakening a “malignant disease.” Even then, however, Abu Abdulmalek and Ahrar’s thinking was clearly apart from and critical of ISIL.
More than the Iraqi jihad, however, it was the experience of the Syrian revolution and the 2014 break with ISIL that interviewees said had the most formative impact on Ahrar al-Sham and its political-religious thought. In particular, the eruption of war with ISIL seems to have prompted a more comprehensive ideological reckoning among Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership, including Abu Abdulmalek, Abboud, and fellow theorist Abu Yazen al-Shami (Muhammad al-Shami). Before they and the rest of Ahrar’s original first-tier leadership was killed in a mysterious explosion on September 9, 2014, they had gone a long way towards formulating the revisionist program that has survived them. “The thinking of Ahrar’s [original] leadership was the main reason for the development of Ahrar’s thought,” said one Ahrar al-Sham commander interviewed. “It remains a beacon that lights our way.”
Abu Abdulmalek had derided the “Awakening” in November 2013, but by August 2014 he had to grapple with extremists inside and outside ISIL who were characterizing the Syrian rebels fighting ISIL — even Ahrar — as a new apostate “Awakening.” “I don’t know of a single apostate faction on the Syrian battlefield,” he tweeted in August 2014, “except in cross-border fatwas that are disconnected from reality.” Abboud threw his credibility behind a unifying “Revolutionary Covenant” and fended off criticisms from hardliners in Jabhat al-Nusrah. Abu Yazen, meanwhile, angrily reproached Salafi-jihadism as a whole and, in the days before his death, dramatically apologized to God and the Syrian people for confining himself to the “intellectual prison” of Salafi-jihadism.
The revisionist or corrective trend that coalesced among Ahrar al-Sham’s founders was premised on the idea that an ISIL-style “elite” or “vanguard” jihad was doomed, particularly if that elite opened an omnidirectional war on all of Sunni society’s traditional leaders and institutions. Instead, this trend has aimed to create a jihad that balances between the ideological leadership of an elite vanguard and populist energy. (It does not seem to have been informed by what Khalil al-Anani earlier termed the anti-violence “jihadi revisionism” of Egypt’s al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyyah and figures like Sayyed al-Sharif.) A central idea of this school of thought is “al-hadinah al-sha’biyyah,” which translates literally to something like “popular incubator” but is roughly equivalent to our idea of “hearts and minds.” As an Ahrar leader said in an interview, the most important element of this revisionist thought is “cohering with our popular base, taking up the people’s concerns, and making [the people] one of our priorities.” Ahrar al-Sham is working to cultivate popular support and build a jihad that is effectively a mass movement, a front that is so broad it becomes immortal. And in practice, it looks a lot like the lessons Abu Abdulmalek drew from Iraq.
Much of the recent coverage of Ahrar al-Sham, including discussion of its September 12 election of “Abu Yehya al-Hamawi” (Muhannad al-Masri) as its new leader, has revolved around what observers describe as a split between the movement’s “dovish” and “hawkish” wings. The former reportedly support robust diplomatic outreach to regional states and the West; the latter are pushing for closer ties to unreconstructed jihadists such as those in Syrian al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusrah. Ahrar members themselves emphasize the movement’s internal diversity. They say it includes members who lean towards less orthodox Sufi Islam or the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that most of its foot soldiers are religious but not particularly ideological.
Still, in interviews, Ahrar al-Sham leaders said that most of its membership are in agreement on the shared religious-political program that is the legacy of their “martyred” founders. On this key balance of vanguardism and inclusive populism, there is little apparent daylight between Ahrar al-Sham’s hawks and doves. In his recent treatise, chief ideologue al-Sadeq argued that the jihad’s vanguard must join the people’s revolution, adopting the people’s concerns as their own while simultaneously working to popularize their own ideological program. “Victory is the people’s adoption and embrace of the elite’s message,” he wrote. “At that point, neither the East nor the West will be able to extinguish the Islamic character of the revolution, and both the elite and the people will be victorious, God willing.” At the opposite end of Ahrar’s political spectrum, al-Nahhas recently eulogized Ahrar’s leadership as having “balanced between the elitism of their leadership and the populism of their project.” “They were leaders of the revolution,” he wrote, “not just their faction.”
Ahrar al-Sham’s revisionism seems in some ways to be less a wholly developed intellectual trend than a return to the less-defined pan-Islamist jihadism that prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s. It is a sort of Salafist reformation within jihadism itself, casting off some of the accumulated mythology of Salafi-jihadism. In that sense, some have compared it to the big-tent, pre-Salafi-jihadist militancy of Abdullah Azzam — albeit filtered through the region’s newly charged sectarianism — a comparison with which interviewees agreed. In particular, they appreciated how Azzam had joined disparate Islamist trends when he had formed his mujahideen International Brigades, waging a pan-Islamist jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Azzam’s son Hudheifah himself argued recently that Ahrar al-Sham is the Syrian faction that best exemplifies his father’s thinking. Hudheifah highlighted the group’s original leadership (including Abboud, Abu Yazen, and Abu Abdulmalek), as well as other figures in Syria who sit somewhat to Ahrar al-Sham’s right but occupy a similar space in jihadist discourse, including dissident voices inside Jabhat al-Nusrah like Abu Mariya al-Qahtani (Maysar al-Jabbouri) and Saleh al-Hamawi. Ahrar al-Sham recently promoted eulogies of its founders by, among others, many of the heterodox Nusrah leaders Azzam named, including al-Qahtani and al-Hamawi. All the figures highlighted by Azzam have argued against what they see as the ultra-extremism and narrow partisanship that have grown out of al-Maqdisi-led Salafi-jihadism and have pushed instead for a more open and collaborative approach. (And of course, there is also a sort of symmetry in the fact that the modern standard-bearers of Azzamism will now likely have the chance to do terrible things to invading Russians.)
The extent to which Ahrar al-Sham’s revisionism is resonating with the Islamist and jihadist community outside Syria — and the extent to which the group is deliberately promoting its thinking abroad — remains unclear. It seems inevitable that Ahrar al-Sham and its reformist platform will have an impact beyond Syria’s borders, particularly as some Islamists who previously committed to electoral politics are suppressed so relentlessly that they begin shopping for a program of armed jihad. “There’s no doubt that the revisions of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders and the movement’s intellectual evolution have cast a shadow on Islamic trends around the world,” an Ahrar leader said. “Everyone is watching the Syrian battlefield.”
With the U.S. government now debating if and when to engage Ahrar al-Sham, it seems possible that the group may be among the most hardcore Islamist militant groups to ever sit opposite American diplomats. Even as Ahrar al-Sham has taken its revisionist turn and increasingly adopted a Syrian revolutionary character, it remains more politically and philosophically embedded inside pan-Islamist jihadism than most other American interlocutors in recent memory. Ahrar al-Sham will not be the malleable new “Awakening” for which U.S. policymakers are forever hoping. Still, as the United States is working to contain ISIL and to engineer some stabilizing end state for Syria, it is impossible to envision any possible settlement that does not involve Ahrar al-Sham. At the same time, the group has its own diplomatic priorities: “By playing a political role, we’re working to lessen the pressure [on our people] and arrive at our goal,” an Ahrar leader stated. “Only through politics can the jihad proceed straight.” Now we have to see if the United States and Ahrar al-Sham’s brand of reformists can arrive at some common ground.
Sam Heller is a Washington-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. He would like to thank Noah Bonsey, Aron Lund, Cole Bunzel, “North Caucasus Caucus” and others for their generous input on this article. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.