Gatekeeper of the Jihad

Meet the Jordanian cleric who's sending young men to fight and die in Syria's civil war.

MA'AN, JordanAl-Qaramseh Center is a sparsely furnished meeting hall a short ride down a potholed road in the southern Jordanian city of Ma'an. We arrived at dusk, as the call to prayer rose into the darkening sky. Across the street from the center, a small group of men headed into a mosque for the fourth prayer of the day.

Stepping out of our car, we saw the unmistakable jihadist black banner declaring that "There is no God but God" hanging from the top of the meeting hall. We had made the three-hour drive south from the capital of Amman last month at the invitation of Mohammad al-Shalabi, a leader in Jordan's Salafist jihadist movement who is better known as Abu Sayyaf. He was so eager to be interviewed that he went out of his way to invite us to attend a funeral at this center. The event was not supposed to be a sad occasion -- rather, it was billed as a ceremony to "accept congratulations" for what we learned to be the suicide operation of Muhammad Monzar Abu ‘Aoura, a 25-year old Jordanian fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa.

Abu Sayyaf had invited us to his home as part of our research project to better understand Salafist jihadist groups, and the role of political Islam more broadly in the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Salafist jihadists are Sunnis who adhere to a literal interpretation of Islam that allows for the use of violence to establish the Islamic state. Their extremist ideas and dedication to violence has transformed them into a force to be reckoned with across the Middle East, and the ongoing upheaval in Syria and Iraq has only strengthened their hand.

Abu Sayyaf's perspectives on Syria's civil war, just a few hours to the north, offered a window into the men who are helping to define the battle lines of Syria's war -- and also shaping the worldview of hundreds of Jordanian youth who, enticed by his promises of battles to defend Islam, willingly go to die in Syria. In the eyes of many of his critics, Abu Sayyaf himself is not a learned scholar of Islam, but he nevertheless enjoys an alarming and thus far uncontested level of local influence over young men.

President Obama came to office keen on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and keeping the United States from becoming entangled in other military confrontations in the Middle East. The threats posed by al Qaeda's successors and other Islamist radicals, however, endure. As Syria's conflict rages, it has become a new rallying cry for a new generation of Islamist radicals. The experience these groups are gaining there and the space they have to operate poses new threats to stability in neighboring countries and beyond. More than a dozen years after 9/11, the ideology that drove al Qaeda lives on and has found new roots in the heart of the Middle East. Jabhat al-Nusra's own senior religious cleric is Sheikh Sami al-Uraydi, a Jordanian. It just may be that the next radical Islamist to grab the world's attention is currently building his support in a dusty city like Ma'an. 

During the drive to Ma'an the night before our interview, Abu Sayyaf called us to check on our status. He was eager for us to attend the funeral of the Jabhat al-Nusra suicide bomber, and direct and efficient in his instructions. This invitation was meant to demonstrate that Abu Sayyaf was actively involved in backing the foot soldiers in what has become the most dangerous conflict in the Middle East. 

Many signs along the road to the funeral employed a creative turn of the phrase "bridal procession" to describe the event, which was hailed as "the martyrdom of the hero Muhammad Monzar Abu ‘Aoura, who was martyred in a martyrdom operation in the Levant at a checkpoint against the nusayri military [an offensive term used to describe the Shiite sect from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hails]."

Despite these signs, the mood inside the center wasn't celebratory. The neighborhood's men sat quietly sipping on strong coffee with solemn faces, with some whispering quietly to each other.

As prayers finished, more young and old men filed into the halls and said "may God have mercy on him" to the deceased's family members, and sat along the sides of the large square room. A couple of men dressed in military fatigues came by to pay their respects.

The political and economic ties linking this corner of southern Jordan with Syria are far older than the region's current borders. Ma'an lies on the historic Hejaz Railway, which once connected the Syrian capital of Damascus with Medina in Saudi Arabia, the same railway famously bombed by Arab fighters led by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Ma'an has maintained its conservative cultural roots. The city is tribal and "East Banker" Jordan, the traditional heart of a country that is now majority Palestinian in origin, according to most estimates. It is also economically depressed and ignored by the center of political power: There are few job opportunities here, and we did not see a single policeman on our drive through the city.

The men gathered at the funeral were curious about our presence at this peculiar wake -- one asked: "Are you journalists with Al Jazeera?" Keen on checking our bona fides, one bearded man asked: "Are you on Twitter?" He found our accounts and began to scrutinize them as we talked about Abu ‘Aoura, the young man who lost his life in the Syrian jihad.

The jihadist was a high-school graduate, but when we asked what he did, someone said, "He was sitting at home." One of our hosts stressed that his unemployment wasn't the reason he became a suicide bomber. "Don't make the mistake that it is poverty that led him to Syria," he said. "He loved Islam and he wanted to defend his religion."

Through the decades, Jordan has seen its share of notable figures in radical Islamist movements. Jordanian analyst Hassan Abu Hanieh explained that al Qaeda's aim at the turn of the past century was to recruit more East Bankers in order to spread its ideology to Jordan's tribal areas. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was one product of that strategy. Abu Sayyaf was another. 

* * *

Like many Salafist jihadist leaders, Abu Sayyaf has a checkered past. Abu Hanieh, himself a former jihadist, said that before Abu Sayyaf fashioned himself a sheikh, he used to get into trouble with the law. "I remember Abu Sayyaf, we first noticed him in prison," Abu Haniya said. "But he was there for criminal reasons -- not jihad."  

Abu Sayyaf would later become a government-licensed imam, but he was sentenced to death after being accused of leading riots in Ma'an in 2002, which resulted in at least seven deaths. In 2004, he was convicted of plotting attacks on Jordanian bases hosting United States military trainers, but received a special pardon in 2007 that commuted his death sentence. In 2011, Abu Sayyaf was released from prison along with other militants under a special amnesty issued by King Abdullah to commemorate the 12th anniversary of his accession.

Abu Sayyaf was at pains to underscore what we had heard the night before: Muhammad Abu ‘Aoura had gone to Syria to defend Muslims. And he wasn't the only one from Ma'an to do so. We saw other banners inviting people to celebrate the martyrdom of other young men of the city.

In follow-up conversations on the phone and the Internet with Abu Sayyaf's assistant, we learned that three more men from Ma'an had lost their lives in Syria's civil war in the past few weeks: Mohamed al-Qaramsah, 24; Abdullah al-Qaramsah, 27; and Ouday Kreeshan, 23. Both Abdullah and Ouday were recruits in Jordan's Civil Defense Services, the country's civilian emergency and disaster relief corps. Abu Sayyaf claimed that "at least 1,800" men from Jordan have gone to fight in Syria, a figure of which he was immensely proud. 

Abu Sayyaf's number one priority was rallying support for the jihadist cause in Syria, whose civil war has sent at least 1 million refugees streaming into Jordan. He claimed that the Salafists had at least 10,000 members and supporters in Jordan. "The Syrian people -- the Sunnis fighting the Shiites -- called on Muslims for help, but all of the Muslims let them down except us," he explained.

Top Jordanian officials dispute Abu Sayyaf's figures for the Jordanians fighting in Syria and the Salafists in the country. Abu Sayyaf accuses the Jordanian government, in turn, of adopting a passive approach toward the Syrian war. "It never called on people to go fight jihad in Syria, but it left people alone to an extent," he said. "Those who would fight and come back wouldn't be punished."

While Abu Sayyaf is virulently anti-American, he is willing to accept the principle that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least temporarily. For that reason, he does not oppose American efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. "I said this before and some people opposed me. But we are with any power that removes the Assad regime," he said.

He was doubtful that the U.S. government would get involved in the Syrian conflict now, because of its hostility toward Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. The West will continue to support the Free Syrian Army, he argued, but they "won't support [Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamists] -- it is impossible for them to remove [Assad's] oppressive regime and bring in, in their view, a terrorist regime."

For now, just getting all the Syrian rebel groups to coordinate their efforts has proved to be a herculean task. Syria has become the new rallying cry for Islamist extremists of all stripes: These days, the media and government officials around the world use the broad label "al Qaeda" to describe a phenomenon that defies simple categories. This disarray is on full display in Syria: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front -- these are all different group struggling for preeminence in Syria's jihadist sphere. 

Abu Sayyaf tried to explain the differences between Syria's Salafist jihadist groups, saying that all of them essentially had the same creed (manhaj) but that their "political" outlooks differed. For example, a main point of contention between ISIL and other groups was on implementing punishment for violations of Islamic law. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front favored a gradualist approach, believing that people could not be punished without first being educated. "The Islamic State [ISIL] has a different point of view -- either you are with us or against us," said Abu Sayyaf.

He noted that Jabhat al-Nusra, the group with which he most closely coordinates when young Jordanian men go to Syria, is different because it has made a concerted effort to embed itself in Syria's social fabric. "It is interacting with society and using schools," Abu Sayyaf said. "If they see a mixed gender school, then they might isolate it. They do not immediately repress it -- they try to educate people and tell them what is halal or haram. They don't implement hudood [the strict criminal punishments of Islamic law] right away."

Abu Sayyaf held out the hope that Syria's various Salafist groups could reconcile and coordinate.  He believed that they all had the same basic worldview, after all, and this worldview wasn't all that disconnected from the ideology of al Qaeda. He blamed the open debate occurring in both physical and online space for the disorder. "Today we have the Internet ... you can listen to any sheikh you like

on the Internet."

In our conversation, Abu Sayyaf also lamented last year's coup in Egypt and dismissed the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a pipe dream. But his focus kept returning to Syria, which he sees as central in the battle to defend Islam from its enemies. In the jihadist "day after" scenario for when Assad falls, Abu Sayyaf envisions a Syrian Islamic state to which the world's jihadists and other Muslims would flock. Jihadists had a similar dream for Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal in 1989, but that country's remoteness meant that only the most dedicated would make the trek. For jihadist, Syria -- where they believe Armageddon will take place -- is both strategically and religiously significant.  

Abu Sayyaf's focus on Syria may have been fueled by ideological conviction, but it was also grounded in a pragmatic recognition of his constraints at home. He was quick to acknowledge that his movement was not ready to confront the political order at home. "I said many times before that the regime that rules Jordan is an apostate regime, a regime that we must remove," he said. "But doing this is tied with our ability and capacity. When we become capable, this regime will not be left alone."  

It's a threat that officials in Amman are taking seriously. Jordanian security officials we met with raised concerns that Islamist militants are gaining valuable experience in Syria and that this could poses a threat to stability in Jordan -- and they complained that several countries in the Gulf were playing a dangerous game in backing militant groups in Jordan.

But he also underscored to his American guests that he saw this fight in the context of a broader, global fight for Islam. "We hope to conquer the whole earth," he said. "But for now, to you your religion and for me, mine. In Islam, we offer non-Muslims the option of conversion, paying a tax, of fighting. Fighting is the last option."

ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images


Welcome to the People's Republic of Donetsk

Inside the occupied government building in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian protesters are trying to create a new country.

DONETSK, Ukraine — To get to the occupied Ukrainian government administration building in Donetsk, you must first pass through barriers made of tires and barbed wire -- the aesthetic of choice in Ukraine ever since the Euromaidan protests that toppled the country's former president, Viktor Yanukovych. After walking through the newly installed steel-reinforced doors, it's up the many flights of stairs, past several checkpoints and the broken glass and cigarette butts strewn across the floor. On the 11th floor, the newly established Council of the People's Republic of Donetsk is in working session. 

The room is in a state of excitement and chaos. Yulia Vikorovna is angry. "I'm resigning if I can't get an answer on this soon," she yells. "Resigning, you hear!" As the person in charge of sanitation for the new republic, Yulia Vikorovna has identified a particular problem with the toilets. "They've all been blocked with all kinds of crap, and nobody is listening to me or helping me clean up." She adds that there are also distressing problems concerning the electricity supply in the building. 

At this point, one of the council's leading figures, Vladimir Ivanovich, is summoned. He enters the room sporting a white beard and black Puma sports jacket, signature pieces with which he unexpectedly graced world news bulletins 12 days ago to declare the creation of the People's Republic. He exudes an air of authority. As he takes his place at the head of the table, the room goes quiet and a group of four convenes around him, to discuss the matter in private council. After a short conference, Vladimir Ivanovich turns to the other members.

"Colleagues, it is clear is that all work needs to be properly supervised. Work that is not controlled will never be done!" With this, Yulia Vikorovna leaves the room, apparently satisfied with the response. 

Next, a plump woman with wire-wool hair and few teeth motors up. "Our real problem is all these journalists! Because of them, people think there is drunken mayhem downstairs. They've been saying the place is dirty when it just isn't! No more telephones! No more cameras! No more provocateurs! We have to get rid of the provocateurs!"  

There are nods and mutterings of agreement around the room.

* * *

Largely unchallenged by local authorities, the wave of radical anti-Kiev protests has lost its fear factor. Six weeks of political games between Kiev, Moscow, and the local feudal baron Rinat Akhmetov -- Ukraine's richest man who has been in Donestsk brokering peace deals -- have left a power vacuum in which increasingly brazen separatist operations have flourished. In the last two weeks, a number of critical government buildings have fallen, and the occupation of the regional administration building is now entering its 12th day. More than 200 people are now manning the occupied compound in Donetsk, with a further 300-400 outside.

Developed largely on the back of the 1930s industrialization drive, the city of Donetsk owes almost its entire history to the Soviet Union. Even today, the prevailing mentality is, in essence, Soviet. A few moments standing in front of the occupied administration building immediately reveals the way that this identity is being invoked in the midst of this upheaval. For every Russian or Donetsk republic flag, there is at least one Soviet banner. Almost every hour, "The Sacred War" bellows out from the speakers. Written shortly after the start of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the song evokes strong emotions from Russians over a certain age. 

"Our huge country is rising/
is rising for the deathly battle/
Against the dark fascist force/
Against their cursed hordes."

"This is why I am here," says Eduard Alekseyevich, a 70-year-old army veteran.* He is with his wife Vera Ivanovna, surveying the barricades from a distance. "We're fighting fascists, but this time they are from Kiev. We're fighting because we, Russians, never give in." 

There's a difference between the protest here and the one in Kiev, he says: "Here we're with the people, there it was the street! The street removed a legitimate president!" He admits that yes, Yanukovych may have fled, but, he says, the former president was scared. "Understand me right," he says. "I don't like Yanukovych. He forgot about us. He stole from us. And he would have lost in 2015. But he was a legitimate president. Now we want Putin. He's frightened of no one." 

As the song ends, a man takes to the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, be careful! There are PRO-VOC-A-TEU-RS here! All provocateurs, leave now! Or leave dead!"

Back on the 11th floor of the administration building, the peoples' deputies return to discussing the matter of the upcoming referendum, which, if they get their way, will be held before Ukraine's national presidential elections, due on May 25. 

"How many questions are we asking?" asks Larisa Sergeyevna, an energetic woman in her mid-40s. She directs her query to Anatoly Ivanovich, a short man dressed in the ubiquitous working man's attire -- a black leather jacket and a sweater.

"We said yesterday that it would be just one, not seven," Anatoly Ivanovich answers. 

"If there is just one question, it should be for or against the Donetsk republic. In or out! People will be happy with that," Larisa Sergeyevna says, nodding. "If you ask them if they want to join Russia as well, you aren't going to get as many people voting."

"Are you saying you are against Russia?" 

"That's an inappropriate question, Anatoly Ivanovich. Inappropriate."

"Crimea had the Russia question." 

"Crimea was already a republic," says Larisa Sergeyevna. "Before a woman re-marries, she needs to get her divorce first. We need our divorce. Fewer people will come for a referendum if we talk about Russia."

The issue of whether the typical Donetsk citizen is "for Russia" or "for Ukraine" is a hotly debated topic here, but Larisa Sergeyevna's doubts speak to something larger and seem to fit in with the most recent polling. Independent research, conducted by Vladimir Kipen's Social Research Institute at the end of March and which surveyed about 500 Donetsk citizens just after the first demonstrations in March, reveals a whole series of established phobias -- of the Kiev government, of the criminal underworld, and of political radicals. But it also reveals a rather nuanced vision of national identity: While people do identify themselves through Russian language, less than a third express a pro-Russia position. A majority has no problem with the idea of Ukraine. What does vex citizens here, however, is the dire economic situation, which is deteriorating daily. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost roughly two-fifths of its value since the start of the year.

Ihor Todorov, an international relations professor at Donetsk National University believes that ethnic-linguistic tensions have been manufactured artificially. "Until this year, separatist demonstrations in Donetsk would attract perhaps 30-40 people," he says. "This was true in spite of a concerted effort to engineer pro-Russian sentiment by the previous [Yanukovych] government." But he says, the March 1 demonstrations were different -- there were many more of them and the crowds gathering in central Donestk were huge by comparison, bringing in as many as 3,000 people. "I've never seen so many flags," Ihor Todorov says. "These demonstrations were aligned exactly with a Russian Federation Council vote that allowed Putin to introduce troops into Ukraine. Do you think that's pure coincidence? I don't."

Indeed, even today, it is important to remember that the numbers involved in these pro-Russia demonstrations, which have been asymmetrically represented in foreign media, represent a clear minority. No more than a tiny fraction of the city's population of 1 million is involved in the occupation of the regional administration building, for example. And during this meeting of the People's Republic, the deputies seem genuinely concerned they might not get the votes they need in the referendum.

"This quorum thing, can you run it by me? If there is 60 percent, there's quorum, right? Am I right?" 

"Yes, Larisa Sergeyevna, that's right," confirms Sergei Petrovich, patting down an elegant cravat tie. A retired economist with nostalgia for the Soviet past, he is without doubt the best-dressed person in the room. 

"But if only 40 vote for... and 20 vote against, is that quorum?'

Sergei Petrovich replies that they need more than half, but he no longer appears quite so sure of his position.

The conversation goes back and forth, weighing the possible outcomes, but without reaching any serviceable conclusions. Several side conferences begin to compete for attention. What's happening in Kramatorsk? Where are all the other deputies? What is being done on the agitation front?

* * *

So far, the People's Republic has muddled through with a certain level of disorder and chaos. It's unclear, for example, whether the council has formal control of the irregulars downstairs, or whether it is the other way round. On April 15, however, this confusion was brought into particular focus, when a story broke in the Donbass News suggesting that the People's Republic had been distributing menacing leaflets outside the city synagogue. The text of the leaflet, reproduced on the Donbass website, was direct enough:

"Ukraine's Jewish leaders supported the Banderite junta in Kiev. All Jews living Donetsk are therefore required to register with the Donetsk Republic. The process will cost $50; failure to register will result in confiscation of property and forced resettlement." 

Located on a suburbanesque street at the other end of the city from where the People's Republic is now headquartered, the synagogue is about a mile-long walk along Donestsk's main street, just before a small square that sits under the imposing shadows of Rinat Akhmetov's metal rolling plant. On the evening of April 16, there were a few young couples around the square, locked in sweet embrace, all apparently holding their breath to avoid retching from the tannic smog. Locals say, it's the worst it has been for some time.

At the synagogue, a security guard confirms that "guys" in masks and sticks had indeed paid a visit on April 15, and that they had returned again the following day to further press their point. What is less clear, however, is whether the Peoples' Republic was indeed behind the move. Oleksiy Matsuka, editor of Donbass News, agreed that the pamphlets might be a fake, a front being used by criminals or provacateurs. But even still, he cautioned, "We should assume the synagogue can rely on nobody but themselves for protection." 

Oleksiy Matsuka knows the limits of law enforcement all too well. Today, he is in Kiev, having fled the region on Saturday evening following an arson attack on his car (the second such attack in recent memory). Oleksiy Matsuka's investigative work has made him lot of enemies over the years, but in this case, it seems, it's his pro-Ukrainian position and investigative reporting on separatist networks that was to blame. His story is one of personal and professional tragedy -- he's had to leave behind friends, colleagues, and family. "I wanted to stay," he says. "I wanted to build freedom of expression in Donetsk, however improbable or crazy you think that is. But they'll kill me and they'll kill my colleagues if I go back."

Though oceans separate Oleksiy Matsuka from the members of the People's Republic politically, there is something charmingly free that both share. How long the council will be allowed to demonstrate such qualities is, of course, another question. Rumors abounded about the imminent appearance of Russia's "little green men" in the administration building on April 16; and, even worse, that Viktor Yanukovych and his largely despised family might be returning to the city as early as this Easter Sunday.

*Correction (April 18, 2014): This article originally misstated the patronymic of Eduard Alekseyevich. It is Alekseyevich, not Alekseeva. Additionally, this correction originally misstated that Alekseyevich was the person's surname. It is the person's patronymic. (Return to reading.)

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