Islam's Lawyers in Arms

Syria's jihad is awash with religious jurists. No wonder there's as much arguing as fighting.

Syria's Islamist rebels unveiled a joint "Revolutionary Covenant" on May 17, a step meant to assuage fears of extremism among the international community and Syrian minorities. The document promised respect for Syria's multiethnic makeup and a "state of justice, law and freedom," albeit one bound by the rules of Islamic law.

The covenant, however, promptly provoked a backlash among Syria's jihadist wing, which was alarmed that the document didn't explicitly call for an Islamic state. Among those leading the charge was one of the jihadist groups' top shar'is -- essentially, in-house Islamic jurists and advisors. Sami al-Uraydi, a leading shar'i for the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, issued one of the covenant's most pointed critiques: "Life in mountains and caves under the rule of sharia [Islamic law] is better than life in mansions without it, and we have the Taliban as evidence of that."

Uraydi's criticism provoked an irritated response from Hassan Abboud, the powerful rebel commander who had read the covenant on Al Jazeera. "Doctor [Uraydi], instead of all this misrepresentation and one-upmanship, why don't you clarify what we did wrong?" Abboud tweeted. "There are those who style their jihad so that they end up isolated from their Islamic nation, cut off in forests and mountains; this isn't the point of jihad."

Abboud heads Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps the largest single rebel force nationwide, and is among the top leaders of the Islamist mega-brigade, the Islamic Front. That he would be drawn into a public back-and-forth with another faction's shar'i reflects both how seriously many of Syria's Islamist rebels take their religious credibility, and the unprecedented public status that the shar'is now enjoy in the Syrian rebel scene.

Rebel shar'is have played a key part in deciding who their brigades could fight and how. And while this operational role apparently has some precedent, the celebrity of Syria's shar'is does not. The most hard-line Islamist brigades in particular have seen shar'is become their most visible and active representatives. In March, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra named three top shar'is (including Uraydi) as official spokesmen. The al Qaeda affiliate's top shar'i, "Abu Mariya al-Qahtani," is personally sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. On Twitter, however, he has almost 60,000 followers, to whom he regularly (and prolifically) expounds on religion and war.

"You know how every company or organization has a lawyer consulted on legal affairs?" one Islamic Front fighter told Foreign Policy. "The shar'i is the same idea, but for Islamic legal matters."

Islamist rebels interviewed by FP via social media said that the shar'i is responsible for providing rebel fighters with religious inspiration, as well as consulting on issues with an Islamic or moral dimension. "The shar'i's role is, at base, the same in every group: religious guidance and fatwas [Islamic legal rulings]," said an Ahrar al-Sham shar'i in an interview. "But his authority differs from one group to another; in some, he has an authoritative role and a great amount of influence, whereas in others his role is limited to preaching."

In practice, a shar'i might be an advisor, a judge, or even a military commander who serves as a religious reference within the brigade. Some Islamist brigades might have a single shar'i, or none at all. Others, meanwhile, might have enough shar'is to assign them to individual rebel units; they might also feature sharia councils made up of the brigade's most senior jurists. They seem to have the most weight in the most conservative Syrian Islamist brigades, such as the Islamic Front, as well as in jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

"With the Islamic Front, the sharia council has binding authority on issues related to Islamic law," said the Ahrar al-Sham shar'i. "It's responsible for the judiciary, fatwas and dawa [religious outreach], and its members have a fair amount of influence among the fighters."

Shar'is and sharia councils can at times rule on pivotal issues. For example, the Ahrar al-Sham shar'i confirmed that the Islamic Front's sharia council approved the Revolutionary Covenant. The Islamic Front fighter, meanwhile, said that the front itself was the product of its jurists: The merger of its Islamist brigades, he said, began with an agreement by their shar'is to "work according to a unified Islamic program."

The fighter also said that the Front's shar'is were consulted on fighting ISIS: "The shar'is had a role in the planning, in whether it was permissible to fight ISIS or not, [and] what the conditions were for fighting them."

Shar'is are also sometimes involved in approving day-to-day matters or tactical decisions, which can range from fine-tuning religious language in a group statement to sanctioning controversial tactics. "With 'suicide' or 'martyrdom' attacks," said Khaled al-Hammad, commander of the mainline Salafist Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya, "there are some who approve of them in all cases, some who set conditions for them, and some who forbid them totally. That's why even the name differs."

In the most extreme cases, shar'is might rule that other factions are apostates or infidels, thus sanctioning their killing. As rebel-ISIS fighting escalated after January 2014, ISIS's shar'is were consistently accused of encouraging their fighters' worst behavior by excommunicating Muslim rebels, including members of the Islamic Front -- a position that ISIS's sharia authority confirmed and codified with a ruling on the front in May.

Shar'is ideally have degrees in Islamic law or expert knowledge of Islamic policy and jurisprudence, but this is by no means guaranteed. The scarcity of top-level qualified religious scholars or experts in Syria means that, while most shar'is are members of particular brigades, some brigades will also reach out for the opinion of outside religious scholars or sheikhs. "Consultation is open, as most of the brigades' shar'is are students of religion, and only a few can be called true experts," said the Ahrar al-Sham shar'i.

Though the term "shar'i" might be new, the concept itself is not. Jihadist groups elsewhere -- Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, for example -- have their own sharia committees or councils, even if their members may not enjoy the same high profile. And the position of the shar'i is, in many ways, an improvised alternative to a normal Muslim state's religious institutions. "In Arab countries, you have the mufti," the Islamic Front fighter said. "Of course, this isn't a great example, because Arab governments' muftis are basically a rubber stamp.... But now, because you're dealing with military groups, they call it a shar'i."

Syria's shar'is have enjoyed a new prominence thanks in large part to social media, but this celebrity might be a mixed blessing. Fighters and ideologues -- including Ahrar al-Sham commander "Abu Yazan al-Shami" -- have reproached some jurists for providing their brigades with publicity instead of guidance. Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya's Hammad said there was "no doubt" fame had negatively influenced some shar'is. It had encouraged them, he said, to "reproach others, and to show off their own status and knowledge." The Ahrar al-Sham shar'i also acknowledged that notoriety could be a double-edged sword, but one that the faithful can manage: "Only the biggest shar'is have become prominent, and their fame has affected them according to their piety and devotion."

It remains to be seen whether the Syrian shar'i phenomenon will represent a new paradigm for Islamist rebels and jihadists elsewhere or just a single, exceptional case. However, there is reason to expect that the role is here to stay: Foreign veterans of the Syrian war are already returning home to fuel domestic insurgencies, and they are bringing with them the skills they learned and the concepts to which they grew accustomed. Moreover, Syria's rebel and jihadist social media has shaped how a whole new generation understands how to wage jihad. At the least, we can expect the terminology to come into vogue elsewhere. "Yes," said the Ahrar al-Sham shar'i when asked if he thought the term might spread. "But only God knows."



Counting the Dead in Benghazi

The steady drumbeat of killings has left Libyans despairing about whether anyone can bring security to their war-torn country.

TRIPOLI, Libya — When I think of Benghazi, in my mind I am counting the dead: How many today, how many the week before, how many this year, how many since 2011? In my three years in Libya, this is one of my most depressing duties. The number of unlawful killings has been steadily increasing, and has now reached an average of one murder a day. The killers' brutality is also growing.

The failure of authorities to deal with the violence now threatens to bring about a total collapse of Libya's key institutions. In May, retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar took matters into his own hands, launching "Operation Dignity" -- an armed campaign aimed at fighting Islamist militia "terrorists," and thus ending the bloodshed. The operation began in Benghazi and has spread to Tripoli and elsewhere. At least 75 people were killed in militia clashes in Benghazi on May 16 and 17, and 140 were injured. On May 19, militias said to be from the western city of Zintan joined Haftar's campaign and attacked the parliament building in Tripoli, resulting in at least four dead and 90 injured.

The government's reaction -- declaring the operation a "coup" and calling for a no-fly zone over Benghazi -- did little to slow events. On May 28, the air force in Benghazi, which is aligned with Haftar, again targeted headquarters of Islamist militias, including the February 17 Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia. Haftar's forces renewed their airstrikes on Islamist militia bases on June 1, triggering clashes that injured dozens and resulted in the deaths of at least eight people. 

This latest spasm of violence is not unique. Benghazi is marked by near-daily assassinations and attacks on military and security posts. The eastern region, in and around the city of Derna, is notorious for the prevalence of Islamist militias.

The steady drumbeat of violence over the past three years has undermined the authority of successive governments, and laid the groundwork for Haftar's campaign. The earliest attacks were straightforward, targeting the Qaddafi-era state security forces and judiciary. But that has now changed: The victims now include journalists and activists who opposed former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi during the 2011 uprising, but who dare to criticize the militias, Libya's new masters.

I have heard dozens of judges, activists, and journalists in Benghazi express helplessness and fear of being next in line. Many have fled as a result. Some have also voiced concerns that inaction by authorities means acquiescence. "What are they [the government] waiting for?" one prominent former judge asked me. "Do they want us all to get killed before they respond?"

Popular protests against the militias have only led to more bloodshed. In November, a largely peaceful demonstration turned violent in Tripoli, as demonstrators marched to a neighborhood occupied largely by militias from Misrata and called on them to quit the capital. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Misrata militias were the first to open fire on the unarmed protesters. At least 48 people were killed in ensuing clashes, which have yielded neither an investigation nor any prosecutions.

Total figures of victims are hard to come by under the current situation of lawlessness. In January, a report prepared a Libyan parliamentary committee listed 643 killings in 2013. That same month, Libya's general prosecutor told me his office had files on 206 killings since the end of the 2011 uprising, but had not concluded any investigations. He blamed the police and Interior Ministry's lack of authority to conduct arrests for the stalled justice process, but assured us the investigations were "ongoing."

In Benghazi and Derna, HRW found that roughly 35 people have been killed in seemingly targeted assassinations each month, on average, from January to May of this year. The violence is also spreading: The capital has witnessed several assassinations and attacks on security forces, while the northeastern city of Sirte has also been wracked by violence.

In Benghazi, top state security officials and outspoken journalists and activists have been targeted for death. Miftah Bouzeid, the editor-in-chief of Burniq newspaper known for his vocal opposition to Islamist militias, became the latest high-profile victim when he was shot dead on May 26. Ibrahim al-Senussi Akila, head of intelligence for the eastern region, was gunned down in his car on May 8. On July 26, 2013, prominent political activist Abdelsalam Elmessmary, who had denounced the murders and criticized Islamist groups three days earlier during a TV appearance, was killed while walking home.

There have been at least 12 attacks against media headquarters in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Derna, in addition to dozens of threats, assaults, and kidnappings of journalists this year alone. For example, Hassan al-Bakush, a young journalist with a local TV station, survived two assassination attempts in Benghazi this month.

Foreigners living in Libya have not escaped the violence. An American schoolteacher, seven Egyptian Copts, a couple from New Zealand and Britain, and a French engineer have all been killed in Benghazi during the last six months.

The assassinations have been driven by revenge killings, score-settling, tribal feuds, religious disagreements, and ordinary criminal acts. However, families of many victims, as well as media outlets and commentators, often point the finger at Islamist militias -- particularly when the victims are members of state security forces and the judiciary.

Others accuse Qaddafi "loyalists" of responsibility. When I met then-Interior Minister Ashour Shuwail in February 2013, he blamed pro-Qaddafi "sleeper cells" outside Libya for stoking the violence. He said the interim government had entered into negotiations with "Islamist groups" about their presence and activities in Benghazi. However, the negotiations, such as they were, have not slowed the killing.

For all these crimes, there have been no real investigations, no known arrests (except of one man, who managed to break out of prison in May 2013), and no known prosecutions. The insecurity has also forced the closure of courts and prosecutors' offices in Benghazi and Derna. As a result, Libya's justice sector is teetering on the brink of collapse. And the growing impunity only fuels the violence.

Libyans are tiring of the chaos. A taxi driver in Tripoli told me recently he "hated Qaddafi," but wished for a Qaddafi to bring back some order. This nostalgic thinking is not unique, and could derail Libya's progress.

Ever since Qaddafi's fall, Libya's government has failed to afford its citizens the protections and security they deserve. The laws passed by the General National Congress (GNC), the first elected parliament, served to inflame a tense political environment: Instead of reforming a host of Qaddafi-era laws that violate Libyans' basic freedoms, the GNC simply pushed through a political isolation law, which fostered further divisions through its vague criteria excluding Qaddafi-era officials and government employees from public office. The GNC also failed to reverse a 2012 law that grants immunity from prosecution for acts "promoting or protecting the [2011] revolution," which in practice propagated a culture of impunity and selective justice.

But the international community -- and particularly those countries that participated in the NATO-led air campaign -- has also failed to make good on its repeated promises to help Libyans rebuild their country. The U.N. Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya in the name of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, and therefore has a special responsibility to address grave ongoing crimes, including crimes against humanity and mass unlawful killings. And yet despite its own resolution pledging to remain "seized" of the situation in Libya, it has tragically failed to do so. To send an unambiguous signal, it should add Libyan officials and militia leaders responsible for serious human rights abuses to the U.N. sanctions list, as envisioned in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970.

Instead of patting a weak government on the back, concerned countries should focus on Libya's fragmented justice and security sector. They will need a broader vision than what has so far been on display: The current crisis can't be fixed with only the usual post-conflict capacity-building and training workshops.

There is no easy answer to what happens next, and no magic wand. Libyan officials should make every effort to support the justice sector and keep the prosecutions ongoing -- and the international community should help them. Since security is a key factor, it is vital to significantly strengthen the judicial police, responsible for protecting prisons and courtrooms. Without a functioning legal system, the house of cards that is the Libyan state will collapse.