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The al-Nusra Front : From Formation to Dissension

The roots of the Salafist movement in Syria go back to the late 19th century, in what came to be known as “reformist Salafism,” a movement that largely mirrored the reformist Salafist movements that had emerged in Egypt with Sheikh Mohammad Abdu, in that it sought to combat the despotic and backward state inherited from the Ottomans. Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Sheikh Jamal al-Deen al-Qasimi, and Sheikh Muhammad Rasheed Rida were the main figures behind Syria’s reformist movement. Numerous branches subsequently spun off from this movement, and have played an important role in Syrian political life, giving rise to important associations, such as : al-Jamiya al-Gharra (the Radiant Assembly), founded in 1924, and Jamiyat al-Tamaddun al-Islami (the Association of Islamic Civilization), established in 1930 by Madhhar al-Adhma and Bahjat al-Bitar, a disciple of Sheikh Jamal a-Deen al-Qasimi. [1]

In contrast to this movement, the traditional conservative Salafist movement emerged under the lead of historical figures, such as Ibn Taimiya, Ibn Qayim al-Jawziya, and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abd al-Wahhab. Traditional Salafism in Syria owes its revival and re-activation to Sheikh Mohammad Nasir al-Deen al-Albani (1914-1999), [2] Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Arnaut, and his student Sheikh Mohammad Eid al-Abbasi, all of whom were active within the theological seminaries and focused on spreading the Salafist message without getting involved in politics.

The Jihadi Salafist movement in Syria, in turn, was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in Syria in the mid-1930s, and officially announced in 1945, when Mustapha al-Sibai was elected as their leader. Subsequent to the Hama Mutiny in 1964, Marwan Hadeed led a new offshoot of the Brotherhood based on the belief that Jihad was the only way to be rid of “a calamity such as the Bath Party”. Hadeed was influenced by Sayyid Qutb’s ideology while studying in Egypt, and aspired to transplant it to Syria. [3] This differed from the Brotherhood’s founders, who preferred peaceful political action.

Thus, Hadeed tried to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood to prepare for a confrontation with the authority and to form a military arm for the group. Failing to convince them, he began to prepare for battle by joining armed action with the Palestinian Fatah movement in the Shuyukh camps in the Jordan Valley from 1968-1970. There, he was able to prepare the first cohort of his Jihadist organization, [4] which he called “the Organization of the Fighting Vanguard”.

The Fighting Vanguard was the first Jihadist experiment in Syria to adopt armed struggle. Consequently, the 1970s and the 1980s saw armed confrontations between the Vanguard, later joined by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, and the Hafez al-Assad’s government, tragically leading to the massacre of Hama in 1982 and the fleeing of most Islamist leaders.

In many ways, the experience of the Fighting Vanguard paved the way for the birth of the Jihadist movement in Syria. Jihad Salafists today still consider Sheikh Marwan Hadeed the second most influential figure, after Sayyid Qutb, in the movement’s establishment. Moreover, the majority of them, who eventually joined global Jihad movements, were brought up within the Fighting Vanguard, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, who would later become the man behind Jihadist movements in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, and Syria. [5]

In the 1980s and 1990s, following the Hama massacres in 1982, the Syrian regime succeeded in curbing the presence of activist Islamism and Jihadists, a feat attributed primarily to the oppressive and coercive measures taken against Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. This took place alongside concerted efforts by the regime to encourage the formation of non-violent Islamic movements that stay out of politics, focusing instead on preaching, education, and social work. Proponents of such non-violent Salafism were figures such as Sheikh Jawdat Saeed, Sheikh Mohammad Saeed Ramadan al-Buti, who was a fierce defender of traditional Sufi doctrine in the face of the Salafism, and the Qubaisiyat group, which became very active after Bashar al-Assad’s ascension to the presidency.

In the 1990s, however, the emergence of the Arab Afghans, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Chechen War contributed anew to the revival of Jihadist thought among some Syrian youth. Inspired by these movements, small Salafist groups started to spontaneously form, though they had no organizational links between them. [6] Jihadist terror in Syria, however, was not witnessed until after the 1990s. Inspired as they were by global Jihadist thought, these groups failed to attract a popular base and social acceptance. Most of the members left Syria, joining the open fronts of Jihad in various parts of the world, such as Bosnia and Chechnya, especially after the creation of the “Global Islamic Front for Combating Jews and Crusaders” in February 1998. [7]

Since arriving to power, the Syrian regime has fought to keep Islamist movements under tight control and eliminate emerging Jihadist groups. With the first signs of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, Syria found itself working on all fronts to mobilize and prepare Jihadists to fight in Iraq, hosting them under all sorts of justifications, including the occupation of Muslim lands by the “infidel” West—a rhetoric that appeared most unusual for a fundamentally secular regime seen as having an aversion to the religious. On March 26, 2003, for instance, the late Syrian Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaro, called upon all Muslims for Jihad, and incited them “to use all possible means to defeat the aggression, including martyrdom operations against Zionist American and British invaders.” [8] Similarly, Sheikh Mohammad Saeed Ramadan al-Buti, in his Friday sermon on June 13, 2003, urged Muslims to perform “the duty of Jihad” and stated that “[…] the reasons that make (Jihad) mandatory have never been clearer than they are today, in this age, on the Islamic land of Iraq”. [9] During 2003-2005, Jihadist groups were able to establish bases of support and logistics in many parts of Syria, selecting areas with a social base that were likely to support them. Under the name “the Iraq Support Committees,” these groups semi-openly recruited Syrian fighters, facilitating the passage of fighting groups coming from outside Syria to Iraq, and collecting donations through charitable associations, and sometimes in rural mosques. [10]

The 2003 Iraq War led Syria to become a safe passage for Jihadists into Iraq. Much evidence attributes the Syrian regime’s positive view of the flow of Jihadists to their battle against the US forces, who were mired in the conflict against Jihadists and al-Qaeda in Iraq. The US, keen to achieve security stability in Iraq, was forced to open channels of communication and cooperation with the Syrian regime in order to stem the Jihadist tide.

From 2005-2008, the Syrian regime exploited the al-Qaida and Jihadists card hoping to curb the international isolation that was imposed on it. Limiting the movement of Jihadists, controlling the borders, and cooperating among intelligence agencies lessened US pressures on the Syrian regime, and led to a parting of ways between al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime. [11] In this way, the Syrian regime suddenly became an enemy of al- Qaeda, and one that needed tackling. On September 27, 2008, Damascus witnessed a suicide bombing that targeted a complex for security branches in the Qazzaz district ; [12] Syrian authorities accused a Jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda of backing these bombings [13]

Without doubt, Iraq’s experience has had important repercussions on the Jihadist movement in Syria, contributing to the creation of a new generation of Syrian Jihadists. During that particular period, several Syrian jihadists emerged, including Khalid Suleiman Darwish, aka “Abu al-Ghadiya al-Suri”. [14]. In Iraq, Syrians were the second largest group of foreign fighters, or 13 percent of all the Jihadists in the country according to some Jihadist statistics in 2007. The majority of these fighters returned to Syria after the Jihadist activity began to wane, and have to date played an influential role in the Syrian revolution. [15]


[1Al-Hajj, “Salafism and Salafist in Syria,” May 26, 2013.

[2Roman, “Salafism in the Arab Levant,” p. 1160. Muhammad Nasir al-Deen al-Albani was born in Albania in 1914, and immigrated with his family to Damascus in 1922. He was raised in a poor, religiously-conservative family that followed the Hanafi school. His Salafist vision began to crystallize after he began reading al-Manar, a journal that was issued by Rachid Rida.

[3Barout, “Syria : The Origins and Meanderings of the Struggle,” p.269.

[4Al-Mawla, Islamist Groups and Violence, p. 578.

[5Atwan, al-Qaida and the Secret Organization, pp. 326-329.

[6Al-Hajj, The State and the Community, p. 45.

[7Zaytuna, “Syrian Islamists and the seduction of Jihad,” p. 388.

[8Ibid., p. 340.

[9Al-Hajj, “Salafists and Salafism”.

[10Baorut, The Last Decade in Syria’s History, pp. 202-203.

[11For more on the subject, see : ACRPS Policy Analysis Unit, “The Recent Bombings in Syria : Do They Change Reality on the Ground ?,” the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Policy Analysis Paper, June 18, 2012, http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/e901287d-f551-4e70-929d-bbf2b3cc5059.

[12Suad Jarrous, “The Damascus Bombing : Explosive-laden vehicle attacked a complex for Syrian intelligence,” (in Arabic) al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 28, 2008,


[13.“Confessions of a Terrorist Attack in al-Qazzaz : The Fath al-Islam affiliation with the funding Future Current is among the funders,” (in Arabic) SANA, November 7, 2008,


[14Mohammad Abu Roman, “Al-Qaeda leader Suleiman Khalid Darwish, aka Abu al-Ghadiya, killed,” (in Arabic) Jordan’s al-Ghadd, June 25, 2005, http://www.alghad.com/index.php/article/27244.html

[15Al-Shishani, "Abu Musab al-Suri and the Third Generation,” p. 53.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.