A Few Notes on Shi’ism in Syria and the Emergence of a Pro-Asad Shi’i Militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas)

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr  كرار عبد ألامير أبو أسدLiwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas “martyr” Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad: “We’re [all] Your ‘Abbas, O’ [Sayyida] Zaynab

-By Christopher Anzalone (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University)

July 26, 2013: Read my article, “Zaynab’s Guardians: The Emergence of Shi’a Militias in Syria,” CTC Sentinel (July 2013)  HERE.

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UPDATED MAY 22

A few initial notes/observations about Shi’i historical presence in Syria and the emergence of a pro-Syrian government militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Brigade of Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas/Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas; Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas)  in Syria:

(1) It is clear that the Iranian government has an interest on the part of the Iranian government and its regional allies in expanding their sphere(s) of influence in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries and among Muslim communities, Shi’i and Sunni.  While recognizing this desire and organizational, economic, and military support from the Iranian government to allied groups in countries such as Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, it is important to also understand the goals of these local actors in accepting such support.

Iranian government missionary activity and the emergence of Qum as the premier location of Twelver Shi’i religious education following the expulsion of foreign students and intensification of Iraqi Ba’th targeting of the Shi’i religious leadership and political activists in the late 1970s has allowed the Iranian government to expand its influence to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa as well as to Western Europe, West Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.  It is important to recognize, however, that the Iranian government’s goals are not shared by all Twelver Shi’is and the claimed religious authority of ‘Ali Khamenei is not universally recognized.  Critiques of the late Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni’s conception of wilayat al-faqih emerged the very year of Iran’s Revolution and have continued to be written to the present day.  The politics of Iranian government attempts to expand its sphere of influence and the local factors aiding and hindering such expansion are complex and should be considered in any analysis of Twelver Shi’i communities and political activism.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 1A photograph showing members of Liwa Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas with men who appear to have been performing one of the mourning rituals involving bloodletting during the Muharram mourning for Imam Husayn and his party.  Not all Twelver Shi’is perform these rituals and Shi’i mujtahids have taken different positions on the permissibility of such rituals.  Some have noted that none of the Twelve Imams, according to Shi’i tradition, performed such rituals, even in mourning for the Ahl al-Bayt.  The rituals are particularly popular among segments of the South Asian, Iraqi, and Afghan Twelver Shi’i communities as well as followers of the Lebanese AMAL party and adherents (Shiraziyyin) to the Shirazi family of religious scholars, a member of whom founded Damascus’ Zaynabiyya seminary (hawza).

(2) Individual motivations for joining groups such as Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas may differ from the reasons the Iranian government or other state or powerful non/quasi-state actors have for supporting, organizing, or backing such groups.  As Thomas Hegghammer has noted in his studies of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon, it is often very difficult to know exactly what the motivations were for specific individuals in becoming a “foreign fighter” since martyr biographies and accounts (martyrologies) released after their deaths often address/justify their decision and involvement in certain conflicts after the fact.  Thus, they are not always reliable in understanding the actual motivations, outside of hagiographical narratives.  There may (and in my opinion, likely are) personalized pietistic reasons (from the viewpoint of volunteers/recruits) at play in the decision of at least some of the individual Shi’is fighting under the Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas banner.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Ali in bullets)“[Imam] ‘Ali”

(3) It’s very important to note the deep-rooted reverence and love Twelver Shi’is have for Zaynab bint ‘Ali (Sayyida Zaynab), which, in my view, almost certainly has played a role in motivating at least some of the individuals who have traveled to Syria to, as they see it, defend her shrine and other important Shi’i shrines from destruction and desecration by some of the Syrian rebel groups.

Among her roles in Shi’i tradition, Zaynab is believed to have been one of the main reasons that the message of Husayn (Hussein, Hussain), the third Shi’i Imam, and thus Islam (according to the Shi’i point of view) was preserved even after his martyrdom at the hands of the Umayyad army of Yazid bin Mu’awiya.  Her defiant speech in front of the Umayyad caliph himself is particularly heralded in the Shi’i tradition, particularly during the annual Muharram rituals of ‘Ashura, which commemorate the death of Imam Husayn and many of his small party (including his half brother, al-‘Abbas, whose honorific “Abu al-Fadl”/”father of” denotes his eldest son, Fadl.)  His mother, Fatima bint Hizam al-Kilabiyya, was one of Imam ‘Ali ibn Talib’s wives and, according to Shi’i tradition, raised his sons by Fatima al-Zahra/Fatima bint Muhammad (the Prophet) as if they were her own.  Al-‘Abbas, to Shi’is, is one of the heroes of Karbala, of whom portraits are painted and nasheeds and mourning recitations (latmiyas) recited during Muharram.

Sayyida ZaynabSayyida Zaynab bint ‘Ali

(3) The neighborhood around Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine in Damascus has long been a center for a community of Twelver Shi’is and popular devotees to the Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet Muhammad’s family), both residential and scholastic (it’s been the site of a seminary, the Zaynabiyya, affiliated with the Shirazi family of scholars since the 1970s) as well as a center of Shi’i pilgrimage. Shi’i shrines, however, are also located in other areas of the city, such as that of Ruqaya bint ‘Husayn and Sukaina bint Husayn.  These shrines have benefited from Iranian and Syrian governmental funding of restoration and expansion projects, but their importance as local holy sites and the sites of pilgrimage for the region’s Shi’is predates the advent of Iran’s “Islamic Republic.”   These sites, however, have benefited from state patronage, which helped them become fully integrated as regular stops for Shi’i pilgrims from abroad (at least before the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Asad).  Before the Syrian civil war, it and other important shrines in Damascus were regular sites of Shi’i pilgrimage, often as part of pilgrimage (ziyarat) trips that also visited Shi’i shrines in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian and Syrian state support and promotion of the Syrian Shi’i shrines in the 1980s was a part of both countries’ shared opposition to the Iraqi Ba’th government, which had imposed itself on the Shi’i shrines in Iraq, going as far as to appoint its own officials to “supervise” the sites in cities such as Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.  Similarly, the Zaynabiyya hawza benefited from an influx of seminary students, including a number of Afghan Hazara Shi’is, from neighboring Iraq expelled by Saddam in the second half of the 1970s.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Wahhabis)“We’re coming, O’ Zaynab…Thirsty for blood of the Wahhabis (al-wahhabiyya)…BANNER: We Heed Your Call/are at your service, O’ Zaynab,” denoting the Salafi foes that, according to the few available sources, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas see themselves as fighting.  Pro-Brigade Facebook pages and Internet postings often include photographs of killed “Wahhabis” and members, the sites claim, of puritanical Salafi rebel groups such as the Al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq)-connected Jabhat al-Nusra.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas“We Heed Your Call/are at Your Service. O’ Asad”

(4) Shi’i presence and shrines have existed in Syria, including in the north, from much earlier periods.  Many of the Sunni rulers during the medieval period also had pro-‘Alid inclinations even if they themselves were not Shi’is.

(5) Syrian Sunnis (or some of them) also revere these figures. Salafis, due to their iconoclasm, oppose such shrines to varying degrees, the most extreme being actively targeting them for destruction.

(6) Some individual members and supporters are likely swayed by the claimed “axis of resistance” image heralded by the Iranian and Syrian governments as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon.  According to this worldview, support for the besieged Syrian government is a way of resisting what is seen as U.S. hegemony in the region and the broader world.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah & Bashar al-Asad)An Internet poster from a pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas Facebook page showing Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right) and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad.  The photograph of Nasrallah was taken after the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war and has clearly been edited to show light emanating from the book (presumably the Qur’an).  The same is true of the posed image of al-Asad.  Both are shown by the designer as pious (thus, presumably, deserving of support).

(7) The membership (and death) of a number of Iraqi Shi’is with Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas in Syria may have much to do with both the presence prior to the civil war of a large Iraqi expatriate community and contention in Iraq over who truly represents the legacy of the late grand mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.  Though one of his sons, Muqtada, leads what can be termed the “mainstream” Sadrist trend (Tayyar al-Sadr, al-Sadriyyun), which is composed of political, social, and paramilitary branches, he faces competitors from among those who studied or claimed to have studied (and excelled) with this father in the seminary.  These include movements with varying degrees of messianist outlook such as that led by Mahmoud al-Hasani as well as individuals widely considered (or who consider themselves) mujtahids or grand mujtahids such as Kazim Ha’iri and Muhammad al-Ya’qubi.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Qays al-Khaz'ali, Qais Khazali), Ali Khamenei, & Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr“Lion of the League [of the Righteous], Yahya Sarmud Muhammad al-Fayli,” pictured with the late Iraqi mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (top left), Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali/Qais Khazali (bottom right).

Others, such as Qays al-Khaz’ali (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq/League of the Righteous, which is believed to enjoy Iranian state support), have donned the turban (‘amama) in a bid for religious scholarly legitimacy, despite often questionable education credentials.  Though a number of the pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas videos, many which appear to have been made and uploaded by “fans,” include photographs of Muqtada, it is possible that intra-Sadrist (using the term “Sadrist” to refer very broadly to a number of different movements claiming at least part of their legitimacy from the contested legacy of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is considered a martyr at the hands of the Iraqi Ba’th, who assassinated him and two of his sons in February 1999) is also at play in the organizing of volunteers/recruits to fight in Syria.

Qays Khaz'aliQays al-Khaz’ali (seated to the right) in front of a picture of the man whose legacy he claims to be upholding, Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Qays al-Khaz'ali (Facebook)“His eminence, the Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the general-secretary of the Islamic Movement of the Righteous [People of Truth].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei, Qays Khazali)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left) pictured with Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top), Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali (far right).  There is also part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Saff (The Ranks): “Help from God and victory is near.”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 2 (Surah al-Kahf)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left and right) pictured with the logo of ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which includes a part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Kahf (The Cave), which reads: “Lo, they were young men who believed in their Lord and We [God] increased them in guidance! [We/God guided them].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr Muthanna Ubays Khafif‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq “joyful martyr” (al-shahid al-sa’id) Muthanna ‘Ubays Khafif (right) pictured alongside ‘Ali Khamenei.  Khafif is listed as having “self-sacrificed” (istishhad) in defense of the holy places (al-muqaddasat) on May 15, 2013.

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Given my research focus on martyrdom, the study of political Islam, and Shi’ism in the contemporary period, I hope to write more in both the near future on these topics as well as, probably, down the road for my dissertation.

Distinguishing Between Foreign Fighters in Syria

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It is well known now that there are indeed foreign fighters in Syria. It is not yet though a full-fledged foreign jihad and mainly a Syrian contest. Estimates are difficult to come by, but journalists and news sources suggest numbers are at the very least currently in line with estimates from the Bosnian conflict (~1,000) in the 1990s and have yet to reach the levels of Afghanistan in the 1980s (~5,000-20,000) or Iraq this past decade (~4,000-5,000). While the number of foreign fighters in Syria is relatively small compared to Iraq, the rate of the influx is much higher. Most have joined up only in the past 6-8 months. If the conflict in Syria drags on, it will greatly outstrip Iraq. Each conflict though is of course different and within them there have been differing types of foreign fighters that have joined up.

The Syrian Conflict and Limitations

The Syrian conflict has confounded some of the assumptions on foreign fighters regarding conflicts of the Muslim world from the past 30 years. This is because earlier paradigms focused mainly on different shades of Salafis that joined the fight since they were the overwhelming majority. In this way, with regard to Syria, there is a portion of non-Islamist and secular Muslims who are riding the wave of the Arab uprisings and therefore do not necessarily fit in previous schemas. These individuals fought their tyrants at home, some then moved onto Libya to assist in the fight against Qadhafi, while others only came to Syria as their first exogenous action. For instance, recently, a Libyan by the name of Firas told the AFP “in the Libyan revolution, many Syrians fought on our side, so it is now time to return the favor.”

In an overall sense, though, there are major limitations in capturing the percentages of foreign fighters from a variety of ideological and motivational categories. The very nature of tracking foreign fighters will always only provide a snapshot. War makes it difficult to distinguish differing actors since there becomes an overlap effect. A basic spectrum, though, can help provide a map to better under the differing trends.

Typology of Foreign Fighters

Tourists:

These individuals go abroad to help fight with their fellow Muslim brethren and are moved by altruistic motivations. Once the conflict ends they go home and continue their normal lives. This category is where many of the Arab youth of the uprisings fit in. More prominently, are the Libyans in Syria. They are most associated with the Irish-Libyan commander Mehdi Harati, formerly of the Tripoli Brigade in the fight against Qadhafi in Libya and currently the leader of Liwa’ al-Ummah in Syria.

Tribal:

These individuals go abroad because of familial ties that stretch borders. The cases of the tribes on the Syrian-Iraqi border are most notable. Tribesmen have now reversed the flow of their smuggling operations from during the time of the Iraq war.

Jihadis:

There are two main types of foreign jihadis within Syria: homeward bound revolutionaries and outward bound revolutionaries. The former is interested in overthrowing their local “apostate” regime. Homeward bound revolutionaries go to the areas of war to hone their skills and train fighters for their future battle against their state. The latter once the conflict ends will move onto another country where a non-Muslim military is occupying a Muslim territory. The end goal is to return all formerly run Muslim territory back to Muslims. Among these outward bound revolutionaries are a subset that are associated with al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview and are motivated by not only attacking the West and local apostate regimes, but setting up enclaves or emirates governed by their interpretation of the sharia and to eventually grow into a reestablished Caliphate.

There is only one known foreign fighter-dominated jihadi organization in Syria at this juncture: Fatah al-Islam, fighting under the banner of the al-Khilafah Brigade. Fatah al-Islam is the Lebanese-based organization, which is most known for its fight with the Lebanese military at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May and June 2007 and later moved to the Ain al-Hilweh camp as a base. While not all Lebanese foreign fighters are associated with Fatah al-Islam, its leader Abdel Ghani Jawhar died in April 2012 constructing a bomb in Syria. Fatah al-Islam has also taken responsibility for two major operations: killing less than thirty Syrian soldiers in rural Aleppo on July 18 and ambushing Syrian army tanks and killing more than thirty in al-Qastal on July 22.

While many news outlets have reported that al-Qaeda in Iraq has infiltrated the Syrian rebellion, there has yet to be any proof that they are currently operating there. It is possible that members in individual capacities have joined up in the fight, but organizationally this has yet to occur, but could happen in the coming months. There is one organization in Syria that has been carrying the flag for the global jihadi movement: Jabhat al-Nusrah, which was founded in January 2012. Currently there are no confirmed figures on how many members they have, but news reports suggest that they have a few hundred and some among them are foreign fighters including Lebanese, Jordanians and Iraqis. Foreign jihadis are also believed to be fighting with Kata’ib Ahrar ash-Sham. The jihadi forums have also announced more than thirty martyrdom notices for foreigners since the beginning of the year.

Implications

The first two foreign fighter categories are difficult to pin down currently because they are not organized in the same way as jihadis and far lower key in their efforts. This is also why many have had a difficult time ascertaining differences among foreign fighters and painting them all as hardcore jihadis. The concern in terms of counterterrorism is that the longer the Syria civil war festers there is potential for the overall radicalization of the rebel movement. It is also possible that as the rebels and foreign fighters get more radicalized they could become more susceptible to jihadi ideology that is sympathetic to the worldview of al-Qaeda. That being said, at this point, there is no evidence that jihadis are at the head of the rebellion – they are mainly force-multipliers insofar as experience and expertise in bomb making from past “jihads” procuring funding and weaponry through their networks, and in tactical skill in combat.

Recommendations

Distinguishing among the different types of foreign fighters is important for developing sound policy, especially when thinking about what happens after the conflict against the Assad regime ends.

It is thus crucial for Washington to begin working closely with its allies in Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad, and Amman to help locate any potential fighters with ill intentions when passing through their countries returning home or off to another conflict zone. At the same time, it is important to not make the mistakes of post-Afghanistan 2001 where some individuals were arrested and jailed without actually being associated with a terrorist or insurgent organization. The task will not be easy, but care needs to be put into place so as not to cause a further backlash.

In this light, Washington along with its European counterparts should encourage local governments of the region to provide amnesty to individuals that return in good standing and want to return to their past occupations or even enticing individuals by providing them with jobs in the military or local police force. Washington should also discourage the scenario that enfolded in Yemen when former president Ali Abdullah Salih used “Afghan Arabs” against his enemies in the south in the 1990s after they returned. The use of ex-foreign fighters for local governments’ own ends, as militias, should not be tolerated.

Additionally, Washington ought to continue its pursuit of further deepening intelligence ties with governments of the region to help stem any potential attacks within or originating from a particular country. This is crucial because as noted in “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous,” an August 1993 declassified report by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which examined the fallout from the anti-Soviet jihad, showed that the information passed and logistical and financial networks established in the crucible of the war helped spur new avenues for other fights in the Muslim world and the West once the Soviets left Afghanistan.

One potential area of concern and backlash is attempting to work with the current rebels and future government of Syria. As a consequence of not assisting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and many battalions, which are currently being helped by a contingent of foreign fighters as well as jihadi elements, the future Syria government might not be willing to work with Washington to rid the country of these individuals. At the very least, as the influx of foreign fighters continues, it is necessary for Washington along with its allies to start preparing to contain whatever fallout might occur in the aftermath of Assad’s fall.

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