An anti-US, anti-al-Qaeda voice is silenced
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Abu al-Qaqa (34), a highly popular and charismatic cleric in Aleppo who is famed for his anti-Americanism, was gunned down while leaving a mosque in northern Syria last Friday. The Western media have accused him of being the main sponsor of jihadis illegally crossing the Syrian border to fight in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. Abu al-Qaqa was speaker of the Iman Mosque and director of an Islamic high school in Aleppo. He was the preacher who drew the
largest crowds and had the strongest, often enchanting, influence on his disciples. His assassin, described as "a man in his 20s" who had attended Abu al-Qaqa's sermons, apparently drove up to the mosque and fired at Abu al-Qaqa; one shot in the head, three in the chest. Several Iraqi men have been arrested.
Members of Parliament and the National Progressive Front, a coalition of leftist parties under the umbrella of the ruling Ba'ath Party, attended his funeral. Thousands took part, with young people wearing shirts with his image imprinted on it, carrying slogans that read, "The voice of justice at a time of silence." His coffin was draped with the Syrian flag, making the service a semi-official function.
Samir Abu Khashabeh, one of his companions, accused the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of killing him because "Abu al-Qaqa was an enemy of the American project in Iraq". But Abu al-Qaqa also had radical anti-al-Qaeda views. He accused the group of being a creation of the CIA, aimed at distorting the real image of Islam by carrying out terrorist operations against fellow Muslims.
He denounced al-Qaeda's campaign against Muslim Shi'ites, praised Hezbollah in Lebanon, and opposed the targeting of anybody in Iraq who was not part of the international coalition that is headed by the US. In short, he said that everything done by al-Qaeda since 2001 was a grave mistake that had backfired on the Muslim community at large. Websites sympathetic to Osama bin Laden snapped back, accusing him of being an imposter cleric and a creation of the Syrian government.
The charismatic cleric (sometimes referred to by his real name Dr Mahmud al-Aghasi) rose to international notice when young militants, believed to be his former students, were apprehended while trying to carry out a terrorist operation in the heart of Damascus on June 2, 2006. They were due to strike at Omayyad Square in downtown Damascus, were several important buildings stand.
Nobody at the time identified the exact target, but the failed attack led to the killing of two security officials and four militants. Footage of the killed terrorists was shown on state-run Syrian television and newspapers. The disturbing images were purposely displayed to end all speculation that the attack was fabricated by the government - as members of the exiled Syrian opposition were saying. Those who were killed and those arrested were carrying compact discs (CDs) with inflammatory speeches by Abu al-Qaqa.
On the CDs, Abu al-Qaqa is shown speaking to worshipers under the banner of a then-unknown group, Guraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria). This became the umbrella under which he operated, and whose name was imprinted on all of his CDs. On camera, he tells his followers, who are assembled before him at a mosque: "We will teach our enemies a lesson they will never forget." He then asks: "Are you ready?" Thundering chants respond affirmatively from his audience, who get worked up into tears as they listen, and he carries on: "Speak louder so [US President George W Bush] can hear you!" Their tears make him weep as well, as he gets impassioned with anti-Americanism and adds: "Guests have come to our land ... slaughter them like cattle. Burn them! Yes, they are the Americans!"
In an interview with al-Muharrir al-Arabi published on June 16 (a few days after the Damascus attack last year) Abu al-Qaqa denied any involvement in the Omayyad Square operation, blaming it on al-Qaeda. He claimed that all talk about him being behind it was actually targeting "the wise and civilized Islamic project in Bilad al-Sham [Greater Syria]". The entire ordeal was a "bitter event" he said, adding, "My stance on it is similar to my stance on criminal acts: total rejection."
As for the CDs found on the terrorists, the cleric pointed out he could not be blamed if those inspired by him were carrying his CDs. There were over 2,000 similar CDs, he noted, distributed across Syria. They were not proof that he had ordered the attacks, he emphasized. He added, "I challenge any person who can come up with proof of anything I have written or said that calls for illegal resistance or even hints towards blind violence against an Arab or foreign country." Abu al-Qaqa's alibi was accepted and he was allowed to live in peace in Syria.
Abu al-Qaqa was born into a Kurdish family in the village of al-Foz, north of Aleppo, in 1973. His father was a simple farmer and harbored no religious tendencies. The young Aghasi studied Islam at Damascus University and obtained a master's and doctorate from the Islamic University in Karachi, Pakistan.
He began to preach to the pious at the Alaa bin Hadrami Mosque in Aleppo in the 1990s. Loudly anti-American, he attracted a wide audience during the Iraq war in 2003. His reputation snowballed overnight and he became a phenomenon. This was at a time when religiousness was increasing tremendously in the Arab world due to the success of Islamic parties in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Hezbollah had recently liberated South Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Hamas was waging a war against Israel in Palestine and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was just rising in fame throughout Iraq, attracting hundreds of thousands to his leadership.
Abu al-Qaqa probably thought that he could do the same in Syria. Attending his sermons became a popular trend among the pious. While young, hip teenagers would boast: "I have just attended a
concert for [Lebanese singer and sex-model] Haifa Wahbe," an increasing number of others would boast, "I have just attended a sermon by Abu al-Qaqa."
His speeches began to sell like hot cakes in Aleppo, recorded on cassettes and CDs. One thing that made him popular was his anti-Americanism. He spoke words that the average Arab wanted to hear and was filled with scorn for the US invasion of Iraq. He represented the marginalized Syrian who was distressed with everything taking place around him. One person who has seen his sermons described him, saying, "He is an inflammatory speaker and possesses great oratory skills, in addition to being a master of dialogue." Another attraction is his mastery of the Arabic language.
Speaking to the Saudi channel Al-Arabiyya in June 2006, however, Abu al-Qaqa denied that he was calling on Syrians to go to war in Iraq. He cited an example: when he spoke at a youth festival shortly after the fall of Baghdad, attended by 15,000 young Syrian men, he advised them not to go to Iraq.
He admitted that he received thousands of Arab recruits who visited him in Aleppo and wanted to go to Iraq for jihad; due to Aleppo's proximity with Iraq, and the reputation of its clerics and their history of opposing the US occupation, it was a stop for many jihadis en route to Iraq. He convinced them, however, to return to their countries, saying that warfare at such a stage "harms the nation". This seemed to contradict what Abu al-Qaqa had been saying on the recorded CDs that were apprehended with the Omayyad Square terrorists. When asked to explain what he meant when saying "burn" and "slaughter" Americans, he replied that this applied only if the Americans came to Syria.
As long as he did not instigate violence against the government, the Syrians were fine with Abu al-Qaqa. Citizens at a grassroot level were becoming increasingly religious, and authorities knew that. If they became organized by several of the underground movements operating in the Arab world, then these Syrians would become dangerous.
Allowing political parties with an Islamic agenda to operate was off-limits and made clear at the Ba'ath Party conference in June 2005. But allowing seemingly harmless yet powerful clerics like these to operate, and recruit members into their orbit (offering them guidance and support), would certainly defuse rising tension in the Islamic street.
Additionally, arresting Abu al-Qaqa or exiling him would transform him into a hero in the eyes of millions. Abu al-Qaqa understood the situation well and sent signals to the government, saying: "The state and I are against what is wrong." He called for "unification of the security and religious apparatus in Syria". He explained this bizarre proposal: "Every believer must see that security is a positive action. The objective of a believer's religion is to prevent harm to human beings. This is done by the security services."
Abu al-Qaqa had authored a booklet entitled, The Rights of the Ruler, which was very popular among the religious youth in Aleppo. While most jihadis see the secular regimes of the Arab world as heretical, requiring overthrowing, Abu al-Qaqa had a totally different approach. He saw them as a better alternative to theocracies in the Arab world - which echoes the US stance. This is one of the main reasons why many veteran jihadis criticized Abu al-Qaqa, claiming that he was a regime creation.
In his booklet, Abu al-Qaqa said he was unrelated in any manner to al-Qaeda, claiming that the entire bin Laden/al-Qaeda tale was currently marketed by the US to create havoc in Iraq. He added that he was also unrelated to the Jund al-Sham group that emerged in Syria after 2003. He said, "We will be agents of construction, not destruction, for our country, even if we are oppressed or harmed." He said the status of the ulema (scholars) and the rulers (in reference to the Ba'athists) is untouchable, since if both are tarnished, "lost is belief and lost is sharia".
One argument says that Abu al-Qaqa was supported - not necessarily created - by the Syrian government to appease rising Islamic discontent in the Syrian street. Probably, however, as most likely in the case of the Omayyad Square episode, some of his followers deviated from his "moderate" path and charted militarized Islamic paths of their own.
These disciples were probably angered that he would not give them a free hand at striking at everyone and everything that angered them, and therefore decided to break away to pursue the jihad that they envisioned.
In April 2006, security forces fought with al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists in Syria. The fighting led to the killing of two assailants, two security officials and one bystander in the Naqqarin neighborhood of Aleppo. At the time, the sermons of Abu al-Qaqa were briefly stopped in Aleppo - a sign that his rhetoric was what had inspired the terrorist attack. Shortly after the Umayyad Square attack, others followed. In November 2006, a man blew himself up on the Syrian-Lebanese border. This came shortly after terrorists tried to attack the US Embassy in Damascus.
Despite testimony from ordinary Syrians who witnessed these events, many in the West (mainly the US media) refused to believe that they were authentic, claiming that Syria was exaggerating an Islamic threat to create common ground and show that it had a common enemy with Washington; an enemy that must be crushed otherwise it would overtake Syria.
Those living within Syria who know the nature of its government understand, however, that it would be impossible for Syria to fabricate such terrorist operations. Syria relies heavily on security and has worked very hard to establish it, telling everybody that security is a red line that will not be crossed just to win the US's favor.
This is why Abu al-Qaqa was so important during the critical period of 2003-2007. Despite what his critics say, he projected moderate Islam and was loyal to the Syrian government. Had he been any less charismatic or popular, he would have been no use to the Syrian government. But the fact that he was pro-government, anti-al-Qaeda and anti-American all at once made him an asset to the Syrians.
It is too early to judge who actually killed Abu al-Qaqa, but from where things stood in his relations with bin Laden, and given the terrorist godfather's record, it wouldn't be surprising if al-Qaeda were behind his murder.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
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