This most interesting piece of reporting was published in today’s (Saturday February 8th) Belgian newspaper De Standaard. It was written by Joanie de Rijke, who accidently ended up in Northern Syria interviewing Shaykh Bassam al-Ayashi. The 68 year old Shaykh from Molenbeek (Brussels), Belgium, has been accused of recruiting fighters for Jihad worldwide. He is alledgedly one of Belgium’s main Jihadi recruiters. This text might shed some light on his true intentions.
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On the middle of the crossraod, the black flag of Jabhat an-Nusra waves. It’s the only evidence of who controls this area, there is nobody to be seen anywhere. Four narrow roads lead us through the hundreds of olive orchards, rooted in the red-brown earth of Idlib province in Northern Syria.
We are driving a Belgian ambulance – once transported here by a Syrian from Brussels – from the borderpoint at Bab al-Hawa to Hazzana, about 25 kilometers south. ‘Apart from some pockets, the region is liberated from ISIS. We rule here’
Shaykh Bassam al-Ayashi, known in Belgium as the extremist Islam preacher from Molenbeek, is at home in Idlib’s countryside. He lived there for a long time before ending up in Belgium and he still owns a house there, not that far away from the main city. His family fled. But al-Ayashi returned, last December. He couldn’t stand watching how Syria is been torn apart. The conflict took two of his sons, Abd ar-Rahman al-Ayashi and his adopted son Raphaël Gendron.
In September 2012 he left for Syria the first time. By mobile home, from Brussels to Syria. We were allowed to join in, reporting. We joined him and three of his twelve children. But the Shaykh was stopped by the Turkish police at the border. The night before we arrived, they received a message saying he wasn’t allowed to enter the country for a year. The reason why wasn’t mentioned. Heavily disappointed the family returned home.
This time the Shaykh succeeded. And for now he’s staying, maybe forever he says. ‘The situation in Syria is worse than ever. People don’t only suffer from the civil war, they have to sustain the terror of ISIS. They’re monsters, they steal, torture, behead. Everybody wants them out. The war on the regime is not their struggle, they mingled in, unwanted.’
They used a charm offensive to gain pouplar support, and it worked for a while, he says. ‘In Aleppo they organised children’s days, including clowns and other animation. But that stopped soon. ISIS doesn’t care about Syria. They have their own agenda: introducing a radical Islamic state, leaving no place for other religions, let alone non-believers. Everyone not following them is wrong’
ISIS and the others
Ahl al-Bayt, the Shaykh’s faction, counts about 500 men and operates only for, or in cooperation with, Suqur as-Sham. This group, one out of seven who united in the Islamic Front, is said to count about 70 000 to 80 000 fighters; they’re on of the more moderate groups. And this how the Shaykh describes his own branch. Their common goal: expel ISIS from Idlib.
[A paragraph explaining ISIS not being al-Qaeda, (a unicum in Belgian reporting)]
But the cooperation between the opposition is rather fragile, as we noticed just after we came back home in Belgium. International media reported that Suqur as-Sham and ISIS agreed an armistice on February 4th, three days after we were there. Both parties signed an official agreement, it says, promising to leave the other in peace.
Later that night al-Ayashi stated it is a false contract. ‘Ahmad Abu Issa, leader of the Islamic Front, has never heard of the pact. The declaration is signed by a guy he doesn’t know. And it is falsly dated. It seems this false contract was put together because of what happened on the previous day.’
Near Homs ISIS surrounded some Suqur as-Sham fighters. It was only after they promised to be “good Muslims (in ISIS norms)” that they were released. It is said that ISIS with this statement was just trying to improve its image. Al-Ayashi replied: ‘As for us, nothing changed, we want ISIS out of Idlib.’
Get the Dushka !
Because Suqur as-Sham rules Idlib, and the Shaykh joined them, it’s suddenly – completely unexpected, possible to pay him a visit. Because of the problems with ISIS and other internal strife, reporting from Northern-Syria is extremely dangerous the last few months. Journalists get abducted or killed by militias or local gangs.Some of them are being held by ISIS, who use abduction as a way to spread terror. Usually it isn’t even about ransom, ISIS just wants to proof that they rule in Syria and can do whatever they want. It is said they treat their prisoners in a worse way than the regime.
Us entering the country was definetely no the intention. But the Shaykh and the local commander of Suqur as-Sham, assure us we will be safe. At least for a few hours.
The Belgian ambulance that takes us to Idlib, is mainly used for transporting food and aid from Turkey, not for weapons. Although there is a great shortage, the Shaykh says. In the ambulance there are some other people from Brussels: the Italian wife of a fighter, dressed in niqab and a shy boy in his twenties, who barely speaks Dutch. He doesn’t say much, just that he is one of those responsible for transporting the aid. The woman tells us that she and her husband came to Syria to join ISIS. It was a great dissapointment and they left for the Islamic Front. She won’t tell us her name.
The other guy from Brussels is Hamza, personal bodyguard of al-Ayashi, completely dressed in black. He is from Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe. ‘The only Belgian fighter in my group’, the Shaykh says. ‘Most of them joined ISIS or Jabhat an-Nusra. Many of the Belgians in ISIS turned on me, they say I’m not radical enough. Other Belgians, want to join me, they got fed up with Jabhat an-Nusra or ISIS and are looking for a safe place. But I don’t want foreign fighters in my group, I’ve said so before. They can’t do anything here, we have enough men. For the Belgians in Syria I have two words: go home. If you do want to help out: send us powdered milk.’
The yellow ambulance stops. We are in Hazzana. The boy and woman leave us without a word. On the edge of the village we look over the sloping fields. Nothing here makes you believe there’s actualy a war going on.
‘Ten days ago, ISIS was still ruling here,’ al-Ayashi says, ‘The villagers and the Islamic Front fought hard to drive them off. ISIS is now seven kilometers from here. Regime forces are ten kilometers south, near two Alawi villages, Fua and Kafarya. We are surrounded by enemies.’
He himself has to be extremely cautious, ISIS threatens him. ‘Two days ago, I was in our training camp in the mountains when a sniper bullet barely missed me. Turned out there were about a dozen snipers in the mountains. We brought in the Dushka. They fled immediately.’
Not cutting of hands
With his white turban, long brown garment and old coat, al-Ayashi looks like the local cleric. But the handcuffs and grenades around his neck and his ‘cowboy-pistol’ – a piece of antique – tell us differently. Yet before he left he said he was going there for humanitarian aid solely? ‘Sometimes I join my Katiba on patrols, armed with a Kalashnikov, but at the age of 68 I am not an active fighter. As Imam and Qadi I have other obligations. A Qadi deals with civil and criminal matters – about anything really. I am the judge of marital disputes, theft, abducations, assaults, abuse and murder.’
Enough work here in this lawless area. There is always looting and killing going on. ‘We try to control that by implementing a legal system, although being it local,’ the Shaykh explains. ‘Some of my men act like police-offers; they have the right to arrest people. They then are brought to me. Some get punished by imprisonment, ranging from some days to several months. A while ago I ordered a man to be incarcerated for half a year, for abusing his wife. Two weaks later she stould before me in tears: she missed her husbands so much – couldn’t I release him? So I did.’
Prisoners have to pay to be incarcerated, for their accommodation and food. Not much, since most people here are poor. And we definitely do not cut of any hands, he firmly says. ‘That is not done in times of war, thieves are locked up in stead, sometimes they are condemned to caning. We now have a thief locked up who gets caned ten times a day. I don’t beat him, the guards do so.’
The most severe punishment the Shaykh ordered was hanging. A guy tried to rape a woman, ‘we caught him in her house – he was undressing her. But because he was so sorry and begged for forgiveness, I decided just to startle him by staging the hanging.’ The rope was so long he just hit the floor. The man was shocked and swore never to touch a woman again.
‘We also apprehended five Algerians fighting for ISIS. When I asked them what they were doing here, they started talking about an Islamic state. I told them the 5 000 of them were no match for the Syrian population of over twenty million. They didn’t buy it. They said the 5 000 of them were better people than all Syrians together. Utterly crazy.’
If al-Ayashi has a lot of influence in the region is hard to say. Everybody we meet, great him respectfully. We are invited for tea in the house of Khalid Muhammad, head of the community. One after the other neighbours start joining us. Proudly they tell us how they defeated ISIS. ‘We killed seventeen of them, one of them was a local commander, who used to work for the Mukhabarat.’
Khalid Muhammad believes a lot of ISIS-leaders are still working for the regime. ‘ISIS is full of infiltrants. They are responsible for the most extremist behaviour, exactly what Bashar al-Assad wants.’Not a single bad word about al-Ayashi: ‘We see him as the spiritual father of the Revolution.’ We tell them the Shaykh in Belgium is renowned as a godfather of extremist Muslims, they stare at us in disbelief. ‘For us he is a moderate man. He is a people’s man, disregarding their religion.’
Same works for Muhammad Salah, another famous Shaykh and a good friend of al-Ayashi. He wasn’t radical enough for ISIS, so they tried to kill him. After he survived the attempt on his life, he campaigns heavily against them. We meet Salah in a hide-out: a small, empty room in an unnoted house on the other side of Hazzana. He is wearing sunglasses, his eyes were hit in the attack. He points at his head, shoulders and back. ‘Full of shrapnel.’
‘ISIS wanted to establish a base here, but we gave them no chance. On one day they targeted me. I was on my way to the border, anticipating a food transport. On the go my car was shot at. Bullets all around. One of my men was killed and one of the guards at the checkpoint we just passed, didn’t survive. We were lucky to be saved by Suqur as-Sham. We captured the attackers, but ISIS surrounded us – there were more than a thousand of them – so we had to release the captives. In the mean while, they put a price on my head. But I will not be intimitaded by a bunch of criminals. I am fighting for a free Syria, with place for all: Sunni’s, Alawites, Christians, Druze and Kurds.’
The only foreign fighters with ISIS Shaykh Salah met were Tunisian or Iraqi. ‘As such, these boys have no bad intentions. A lot of them leave for Syria seeking adventure or to take part in the revolution. They really want to help out the people. Unfortunately they are heavily indoctrinated. As “Good Believers” they are killing a lot of people. Men, women, fighters, commanders of other groups, nobody is safe for them. They don’t respect anyone or anything.’
Shayks Salah keeps on raging about ISIS for over half an hour. But what is his idea about the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat an-Nusra, they are at least as extreme a ISIS? ‘For sure, but for them ISIS crossed a line. Jabhat an-Nusra started acting more moderate. Part of the population thinks they’re heroes.’
The end of an Era
On our way back to the reconquered village of Batabu we stop at a huge machine gun mounted on a truck. ‘We use this to shoot at planes,’ al-Ayashi says. Across the road we see some members of Jabhat an-Nusra dismounting a black car. They don’t like the sight of foreign journalists here. According to the Shaykh we shouldn’t worry, we’re safe when he’s around. Yet he tells us to get in the car, he doesn’t have to say that twice.
‘One Nation, One God’ it reads on the white front of the former ISIS headquarters in Batabu. They’re allegedly still in the vicinity; the Shaykh is getting nervous. ‘We have to go, they will close the border soon. If we are late they won’t let you pass.’
The sun is setting when we drive back. We ask him whether he thinks ISIS will be defeated any time soon. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be easy. If they leave, they’ll go to Iraq. And from there they will go to other neighboring countries. Their message remains: smoking is forbidden, women should be fully veiled, shops have to close during praying time – the list continues. Not a single Syrian asked for that.’
But the real battle is later. What will happen when al-Assad is defeated? ‘I am in favor of an Islamic State, but I want one the people approve of, one where everyone is welcome. Every village, every district should choose his own representative. A decentralised government with popular participation. God forbid we ever give too much power to a single man again. The Era of dictators is ending, look at Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia.’
After three years of pure misery Shaykh al-Ayashi expects it will last at least at last two more years before this will end. ‘Untill that time, I will stay here. Brussels? Don’t miss it a bit.’