In the course of al-Qaeda’s rebranding operation in Syria two weeks ago—the full implications of which are discussed here—the organization showed the face of its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, for the first time. Soon afterward it was revealed that al-Jolani’s real name was Ahmad al-Shara, originally from Deraa in southern Syria, who had lived in Damascus. A report in Al-Monitor has now added details that purportedly show the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in al-Shara’s path to joining the predecessor organization of the Islamic State (IS), from which he eventually split, and underlines the role the Assad regime has played in fostering the terrorism it now claims to be defending the Syrian population and the world from.
Al-Shara’s face was unveiled on 28 July when he changed the name of al-Qaeda in Syria from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. On 31 July, the Shaam Network produced a profile of al-Shara (translated by Hassan Hassan) that said al-Shara was originally from the village of al-Rafeed, had four brothers and two sisters, had spent time in Saudi Arabia where his father worked in the oil industry, and joined the jihad in Iraq at the onset of the invasion in 2003, before being arrested and sent back to Syria later in 2003.
Sources in Al-Monitor’s 8 August report confirm these details. A former member of Jabhat al-Nusra claims that after being returned to Syria al-Shara, then known as “Abu Muhammad al-Darawi,” “worked as a coordinator with a group in charge of smuggling mujahideen coming to Syria,” sending jihadists through Deir Ezzor and Hasaka into Iraq and arranging housing and food.
Al-Monitor speaks to two men, “Shalal” and “Amer,” who claim to have recognized the unmasked al-Shara because they worked in a supermarket owned by al-Shara’s family near al-Akram mosque in the Mezze district of Damascus. Amer agrees with the Shaam Network account that al-Shara has four brothers: Jamal, who ran the supermarket; Ali, who taught at the Faculty of Arts of Damascus University; another brother who is serving in the military; and a final brother who lives in Saudi Arabia, about whom neither Amer nor Shalal know anything.
Amer claims that al-Shara was instructed in religion at a school attended by one of the children of Mohammad Said al-Buti, who managed to be an esteemed Islamic scholar in his own right even while acting as a firm prop for the Assad regime. “Jolani’s family was on good terms with Buti’s family,” Amer says.
Another man who worked at the store, “Hamad,” is said to have gone with al-Shara to Iraq in 2003. Hamad says that al-Shara abandoned his studies in media at Damascus University to make the trip, something alleged by IS when they first released a profile of al-Shara in March. And here is where it gets most interesting.
According to Hamad, as relayed by Shalal, al-Shara was recruited and facilitated into jihad in Iraq by Mahmoud al-Aghasi (Abu al-Qaqa), a zealot cleric in Aleppo, who was an asset of the Assad regime’s intelligence services.
In his book, The Syrian Jihad (p. 32), Charles Lister records the testimony of one of the military-intelligence officers who set al-Aghasi up with a base at the Sakhour Mosque in 1999:
The man was dressed like a Pakistani and barely spoke a word. … [T]he officer spoke on his behalf. We were instructed to produce a local ID card, a driving license, and other documents for him, but without any registered address or other personal information. This was illegal in Syria, so we knew straight away … that we were dealing with someone important. It was only years later we realised who we had helped.
Al-Aghasi’s movement, Ghuraba al-Sham, established itself as a paramilitary, as well as a socio-religious force in Aleppo. After 9/11, al-Aghasi and his supporters staged a festival celebrating the attacks. In the wake of this event, which attracted foreign media attention, al-Aghasi was arrested for the one and only time—for less than twelve hours.
Al-Aghasi, of Kurdish origins and a graduate of Damascus’ faculty of shari’a, “succeeded in transforming himself into a notable of local Islam,” Thomas Pierret writes in Religion and State in Syria (p. 97-8). But al-Aghasi remained demonstrative of “the vulnerability of the local clergy to the manipulations of the mukhabarat.”
“The Mukhabarat’s relationship with [al-Aghasi] was hardly Syria’s best-kept secret,” Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (p. 105). (Indeed, in late 2003, al-Aghasi told a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor that he was “working with the government” to oversee an Islamic revival in Syria.) The authors record Muhammad Habash, a former Syrian MP who once headed the de-radicalization program at Sednaya prison, saying:
[Al-Aghasi] was preaching about jihad in a mosque situation in one of Aleppo’s most crowded neighbourhoods … [and] he not only preached about jihad, but he held military training for young people heading to Iraq. With a sermon like that, an imam would usually spend the rest of his life in prison, along with his family and relatives and those who attended the sermon.
Al-Aghasi, of course, was never punished.
The “ratlines” bringing foreign Jihadi-Salafists into post-Saddam Iraq through Syria were set up before the invasion began by IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), in collaboration with the Syrian intelligence services, which maintained this relationship beyond a shadow of a doubt until 2009.
Assad weaponized IS and other jihadists in Iraq for a number of reasons: to tie-down the Americans, preventing them coming after him; so could hold up the inferno in Iraq to the Syrian population as the inevitable result of democratic demands; to export an internal security threat (the Islamists); to extract concessions from the West with promises to turn off the pipeline of holy warriors and suicide bombers; and more broadly to continue the pretence of his regime as a regional power. For Assad, the ability to say the Americans were calling was itself considered a victory.
The evidence that a relationship of mutual interest persisted long after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq and IS ostensibly turned on Assad is extensive. For example, it is a simple military fact that IS was able to construct its caliphate by conquering parts of Syria’s territory with scarcely an airstrike against it, while the mainstream opposition was prevented from forming an attractive alternative governance structure as a matter of policy by relentless aerial bombardment.
Back to 2003. Hamad says:
We were around sixty people to meet in Damascus [and go to Iraq for jihad] during the invasion … under the pretext of going to a trip to Iraq. Our IDs were then collected and placed in an envelope, and the envelope was handed to a sheikh [al-Aghasi]. We then got on tourist buses heading to al-Bukamal in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. There were people with us communicating with the Syrian security forces and border guards (known as al-Hajana), who opened the way for us to enter Iraq.
This tallies very closely with reports from nearer the time of the invasion that al-Aghasi’s followers went “door to door encouraging young men to cross the [Iraqi] border. Volunteers boarded buses that Syrian border guards waved through”. Al-Aghasi was the key figure in the mass-recruitment of jihadists who were sent into Iraq during the invasion. Less than two weeks into the invasion, the Saddam Hussein regime itself admitted to having imported 5,000 jihadists—almost all of them crossing into Iraq through Syria, where British intelligence said 600 more foreign fighters were preparing to cross into Iraq. Many thousands more jihadists would cross from Syria into Iraq during the invasion, facilitated by the Assad regime’s provision of documentation, busses, and free passage through the border-crossings. In the aftermath of the invasion, the Assad regime would provide safe-houses, training, resources, and transport for many thousands more jihadists looking to war against the elected government in Baghdad, the Shi’a, and Western soldiers.
Alex Rowell, who first mooted the al-Aghasi link in al-Shara’s biography, also noted the potential that al-Shara was tied to another Jihadi-Salafi group used in the Assad regime’s foreign policy, this time in Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam, which is its own very long story.
In 2011, mere days into the Syrian uprising, Assad turned loose hundreds of Islamist prisoners, while continuing to arrest and kill the peaceful, secular demonstrators. The intention was to stain the uprising with sectarianism and terrorism, to pull the minorities and the urban elite around the regime and ward off international help to the opposition. Whether al-Shara was among those released at this time remains unclear, but it also makes little difference.1
If Al-Monitor’s source is correct, then al-Shara was once directly supported in serving Assad’s foreign policy goals; now al-Shara does it quite unintentionally and with no need for direct support.
 Al-Shara was arrested in Iraq shortly after the invasion, kept in prison for a few months, and then handed back to the Assad government in late 2003, which released him quickly. According to the Shaam Network profile, al-Shara was also imprisoned in Sednaya between 2004 and 2005. The claim by Shaam Network that al-Shara was released as part of the 2011 “amnesties” by Assad is likely mistaken. According to Iraqi officials, al-Shara was imprisoned in Iraq at Camp Bucca, shortly after returning to Iraq from Lebanon in the wake of al-Zarqawi being killed in June 2006, and was released in 2008. This tallies with the account given by the Islamic State, which says that al-Shara spent time in prison with Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), who was arrested in April 2006. It seems al-Shara was not deported to Syria upon release because the Americans mistook al-Shara for an Iraqi Kurd. Al-Shara resumed work for then-ISI in the Mosul area until he was dispatched into Syria with a half-dozen others in the summer of 2011 to create Jabhat al-Nusra.