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Sex Scandal Sparks Islamist Infighting in America

Originally published under the title "When Islamists Fall Out."

Nouman Ali Khan, one of the most influential Muslim preachers in America, has been disgraced by leaked illicit conversations with women (all marriage prospects, he later claimed) and a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The Bayyinah Institute, a Salafi religious training organization, has filed papers at the Dallas County District Court seeking at least $200,000 from Omar Suleiman, a prominent Salafi cleric and a former "instructor" at Bayyinah.

According to the petition, Bayyinah claims that Suleiman breached his contract and a number of fiduciary duties, stole trade secrets and carried out "business disparagement designed to destroy Bayyinah" by threatening and making "false, defamatory statements."

The main thrust of the lawsuit, however, appears to be about $166,446 paid to a Jordanian production company for a film project. Bayyinah claims Omar Suleiman "convinced the Jordanian company to refuse to deliver the film to Bayyinah as agreed and to refuse to return the $166,446.00 paid by Bayyinah."

Eventually, Instagram Islamists clash with the extremism or hypocrisy of their offline behavior.

Interestingly, Bayyinah's lawsuit was lodged just a week after a number of Muslim women claimed they had been sexually harassed by Nouman Ali Khan, the founder and CEO of Bayyinah.

In fact, Bayyinah is essentially just Nouman Ali Khan's personal project. The harassment claims caused a powerful scandal within the American Muslim community, and was even reported in Buzzfeed and as far away as Pakistan.

Facebook is abuzz with conversations among Western Muslim activists discussing both the accusations against Khan and the lawsuit about Suleiman.

A Georgia-based Salafi tears into Nouman Ali Khan.

Many believe the two issues are related. Islamist clerics are also divided, with many publishing social media posts defending or attacking Suleiman or Khan.

At Islamist Watch, we can only speculate on the harassment accusations and claims in the lawsuit. We can be certain, however, of Nouman Ali Khan and Omar Suleiman's extremism.

We have written about both these clerics on a number of occasions. Khan and Suleiman are Salafis with long histories of inciting hatred and even violence against women and homosexuals.

Khan argues that adulterers, prostitutes and pornographic actors should be whipped, justifies sex slavery, excuses violence against women, and denounces homosexuals.

Omar Suleiman, air-quoting something.

Rather similarly, meanwhile, Suleiman warns Muslim women, without condemnation, that if they engage in pre-marital sex or adultery, they risk being killed.

He describes homosexuality as a "repugnant shameless sin" and argues that sex slavery is good for society.

This intra-Islamist fighting reminds us of some crucial lessons: Sunni Islam is not homogenous; no cleric or organization can claim to represent all American Muslims; and eventually the Instagram Islamist clashes with the extremism or hypocrisy of his offline behavior.

Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

By Sam Westrop  |  October 22, 2017  |  Permalink

CAIR Exploits a Tragedy

Please click here to sign a Change.org petition calling on the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) to end its financial support for CAIR and other Islamist hate groups.

A new Islamist tactic: conning legitimate heroes to appear at publicity events.

In May 2017, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche was stabbed, along with two others, on a train in Portland, Oregon. Meche stepped in, along with several others, to protect two teenage girls - one of whom was wearing a hijab - from the violent tirades of a fellow passenger. Meche and another good samaritan were fatally stabbed, while a third was seriously injured. Authorities have since named the killer as a "self-proclaimed white supremacist."

On November 18, the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is hosting a banquet at which Meche will be posthumously named a "Champion of Justice." Meche's mother, Asha Deliverance, is due to accept the award on her son's behalf. She is described in CAIR's event flyer as a "peace and love activist."

The murders in Portland were horrifying. It is only fitting that Meche and the other victims of this hate-crime should be honored by someone. But that someone should not be CAIR.

There is no greater illustration of CAIR's duplicity and exploitation than the LA chapter's upcoming banquet.

CAIR is exploiting this tragedy to further its own political agenda. It has organized this event to further the deceit that CAIR works to fight racism and hatred, only to distract from its long history of promoting such racism and hatred. At the very event honoring Meche, in fact, CAIR has also invited one of American's most extreme hate preachers - a Salafi cleric named Siraj Wahhaj.

Wahhaj has advocated stoning adulterers to death, chopping off the hands of thieves and lashing people who drink.

He has warned Muslims: "Take not into your intimacy those outside of your race. They will not fail to corrupt you. Don't you know our children are surrounded by kafirs [non-Muslims]. I'm telling you, making the hearts of our children corrupt, dirty, foul."

Wahhaj has also encouraged his audiences to hate homosexuals, and noted that the Islamic punishment for homosexuality is death.

Siraj Wahhaj addresses the Philadelphia chapter of CAIR in 2012.

And in stark contrast to Meche's last valiant act, Wahhaj has called on Muslims to convert gang members in order to harness their capacity for violence: "They [inner city populations] need to get out of the street and into the masjid, learn Islam and then get [back] in the street because these people have guts and courage that a lot of Muslims don't have. Some of these people are ready to stand in front of anyone and fight." He has even added, "I will never tell anyone, 'Don't be violent.' That's not the Islamic way."

CAIR claims to be a civil rights group that advocates on behalf of American Muslims. But it is an unelected Islamist body, with little mandate from American Muslims. Because of CAIR's history of ties to extremism and terror, the FBI and Justice Department have, since 2008, banned outreach with CAIR. The Anti-Defamation League, meanwhile, has condemned CAIR for its promotion of anti-Jewish sentiment. And in 2014, the United Arab Emirates even designated CAIR as a terrorist organization.

Other speakers at CAIR's banquet on November 18 include Jonathan Brown, who has defended rape and sex slavery within Islam.

There is no greater illustration of CAIR's duplicity and exploitation than the Los Angeles chapter's upcoming banquet. Only CAIR could offer "peace and love" along with violence and hate in the course of a single dinner.

Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

By Sam Westrop  |  October 20, 2017  |  Permalink

Middle East Studies Profs Head to Turkey, Academic Freedom Be Damned

Although Turkey is among the world's largest jailers of academics, a recent conference in Istanbul attracted such professors as (clockwise from top left) Jonathan Brown and John Esposito of Georgetown, Flynt Leverett of Penn State University, and Richard Falk of the University of California–Santa Barbara.

"Turkey seemed like a natural home for me, especially with its current leadership." So declared Sami Al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor, of Turkey's Islamist and increasingly autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Al-Arian was deported to Turkey in 2015 by the terms of a 2006 guilty plea for his involvement with Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Given Al-Arian's Islamist proclivities, it's not surprising that he feels at home in Erdoğan's Turkey, nor that his like-minded U.S.-based Middle East studies friends joined him for the October 8-10 "International Conference on the Muslim Ummah" at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, where Al-Arian is director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs.

Naturally, conference sponsors included Georgetown University's Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) and participants, ACMCU director (and Al-Arian's son-in-law) Jonathan Brown and founding director John Esposito. The latter is a notorious apologist for Islamism, and Brown, a Muslim convert, openly espouses Islamist tenets, including slavery and concubinage.

Some U.S. academics fit in perfectly in Erdoğan's Turkey.

Other unsavory speakers were the fanatically anti-Israel Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, and Islamist in moderate's clothing Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University.

Worst of all? The inclusion of ACMCU senior fellow and George Washington University Ph.D. İbrahim Kalın, who since 2009 has been Erdoğan's senior advisor and spokesman. As such, Kalın has echoed Erdoğan's baseless contention that Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen was behind the 2016 failed coup attempt and thus should be extradited. Moreover, he has defended the subsequent purge of officers, teachers, school administrators, judges, and academics.

That American Middle East studies academics would agree to speak alongside Kalın, who supported the death of academic freedom in Turkey, and Al-Arian, who blames his deportation on "Zionists," speaks to the moral vacuity of the field. They are peas in a pod: shameless proponents of Islamism, grateful recipients of tyrannical regimes' largesse, and shills for dictators. They fit in perfectly in Turkey.

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at stillwell@meforum.org.

By Cinnamon Stillwell  |  October 11, 2017  |  Permalink

Turkey Accuses US, Germany of Arms Embargo

Turkish Minister of Defence Nurettin Canikli says "several U.S. and German companies" are implementing a "covered" [indirect] arms embargo on his country.

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey has officially accused the United States and Germany of imposing an arms embargo against the country.

Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli has said that "several U.S. and German companies" were implementing a "covered" [indirect] arms embargo on Turkey.

He said those U.S. and German producers were either halting shipments of spare parts of weapons systems to Turkey, or deliberately delaying them.

A senior Turkish diplomat dealing with NATO matters confirmed that some Turkish requests for systems and subsystems have not been addressed by the U.S. and Germany.

"These are systems we need in our fight against terror organizations," he said, without further elaborating.

A European industry source said that British and French manufacturers could be looking to replace U.S. and German companies in the Turkish market.

"Britain and France have a more pragmatic approach [toward Turkey] than the U.S. and Germany," the source said. "British and French companies may soon queue up to win Turkish contracts that the Ankara government finds difficult to procure from the U.S. and German companies."

Ankara has been at odds with Washington over U.S. support for Syrian Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey views Syrian Kurds as a terrorist group while the U.S. considers them allies in fighting radical Islamic militants in Syria.

Turkey's ties with Germany too have been badly stained this year after several rounds of allegations against Turkey over human rights violations. Germany advocates that the European Union should stop membership talks with Turkey.

Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

By Burak Bekdil  |  September 25, 2017  |  Permalink

MEF Spotlight: Erdoğan and the United States

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is determined to silence dissent against his Islamist regime even in America. On September 19, Turkish members of a NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation stormed out of a Middle East Forum-sponsored conference in Philadelphia when a Turkish dissident took the stage. As Erdoğan addressed a gathering of American Islamists in New York City two days later, his bodyguards pummeled protestors – the fourth such incident on U.S. soil. Meanwhile, his regime looks east, to Iran and Russia especially, for new alliances.

For more on these topics, see the selections at right.

To keep abreast of Turkey and other critical issues, sign up to the Middle East Forum mailing list.

I Taught NATO to Stand Up to a Dictator
by Daniel Pipes (Sep 21, 2017)

Turkey's Erdoğan Tries (and Fails) to Censor an American Think Tank
by Winfield Myers (Sep 21, 2017)

American Islamists Turn to Ankara
by Samantha Mandeles & Samuel Westrop (Sep 21, 2017)

Turkey Attempts to Stifle Free Speech at MEF-NATO PA Event
(Sep 19, 2017)

'Second Turkish Republic' Looks East for New Alliances
by Jonathan Spyer (Sep 15, 2017)

Erdogan's Traveling Goon Squad
by Burak Bekdil (May 28, 2017)

Turkey's Circus in Washington
by Burak Bekdil (Apr 12, 2016)

By  |  September 22, 2017  |  Permalink

The Fall 2017 Issue of Middle East Quarterly

With the new issue of Middle East Quarterly set to formally launch September 5, we're placing the content online now to give readers an advance look at the articles.

The Vatican Joins the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Throughout most of Israel's history, the Vatican abided strictly by its obligation under the 1929 Lateran treaty to remain outside of temporal conflicts, focusing its attention mainly on protecting its property interests and holy sites in Israel. Since the 2013 ascension of Pope Francis, however, the Vatican "is proving a more engaged political actor, tackling such issues as climate change, migration, refugees, and homosexuality," writes Leonard Hammer, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Rothberg International School.

Whereas in 1993 the Vatican had used the term "disputed territories and unsettled borders" to describe contested areas under Israeli control (not unlike language used by Israel's foreign ministry), in 2015 the Vatican abandoned neutrality by recognizing the non-existent "State of Palestine" and calling Israel's reunification of Jerusalem "unacceptable." The intent "seems to be a desire by the Vatican to wrest Christian holy sites from the control of Muslim and Jewish governing authorities with a view toward internationalization."

The Islamic State's Virtual Caliphate

Although the territorial collapse of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria is now a foregone conclusion, the group is likely to persist as a global terror threat for years to come, argues Mina Hamblet, an international relations student at the University of Virginia. ISIS has become "the foremost purveyor of jihadist indoctrination in the West," creating what she calls a "virtual caliphate" that is easily accessible and attractive to diverse audiences "in a manner al-Qaeda was never able to achieve."

Are Returning Jihadists a Major Threat?

As the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq crumbles, the group's surviving foreign fighters (tens of thousands joined) are desperately seeking to escape, many to return home. Thomas R. McCabe, a retired U.S. Air Force reserve lieutenant colonel and former Defense Department analyst, argues that most of the returnees, having "willingly joined an openly murderous organization," cannot be rehabilitated into society. Governments should therefore prevent their return by suspending their passports and, where possible, revoking their citizenship. Unfortunately, he says, they haven't done enough to identify and build profiles on citizens who travelled to the Middle East to fight with ISIS.

Is the Western Wall Judaism's Holiest Site?

F. M. Loewenberg, a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University, examines the history of the Western Wall's sacredness in Judaism, a "relatively late development" dating back to the capture of the Jerusalem by Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in 1517. While the Temple Mount itself was widely venerated by Jews for centuries, there is little mention of the Western Wall as a sacred site in the historical record until Suleiman announced that Jews had the right to pray there. Thereafter it became a focus of Jewish pilgrimages. While "there is no ancient Jewish tradition that designates the Western Wall as a sacred site," concludes Loewenberg, "it has become sanctified over time as Jews have increasingly utilized it for prayer."

Brief Reviews

Seven reviews of new books about the Middle East and related topics.

By  |  September 1, 2017  |  Permalink

Islamic Relief Chairman Seems to Hate Jews and Love Jihad

Please click here to sign a Change.org petition calling on the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) to end its financial support for Islamist Relief.

IR-USA Chairman Khaled Lamada displaying the Muslim Brotherhood's four-finger "R4BIA" sign.

Islamist Watch has uncovered further evidence of anti-Semitism promoted by senior officials of Islamic Relief, the largest Islamic charity in America.

Although Islamic Relief is a designated terrorist organization in the United Arab Emirates, it enjoys the support of governments and other charities all around the world, including $370,000 from the U.S. government in 2016, along with millions of dollars from the UN, European Union, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

As Islamist Watch has previously discussed, these public monies serve to subsidize Islamic Relief's funding of Hamas-linked organizations in the Gaza Strip. All across the globe, in fact, Islamic Relief branches are led by Islamists with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist causes. Islamic Relief's U.S. branch (IR-USA) is no exception.

The current chairman of IR-USA is Khaled Lamada, a prominent Egyptian-American, who has a long history of involvement with Muslim Brotherhood organizations. He does not, in fact, shy away from publicly expressing his support for Islamist causes. His social media accounts are filled with Muslim Brotherhood insignia, including the notorious R4BIA sign – exhibited by Muslim Brotherhood supporters since 2013.

Islamic Relief received $370,000 from the U.S. government in 2016.

Worst of all, Lamada appears to hate Jews and admire violence against Israel. Writing and sharing posts mostly in Arabic, Lamada has circulated text praising the "jihad" of the "Mujahidin of Egypt" for "causing the Jews many defeats." He has republished claims on Facebook that praise Hamas for inflicting a "huge defeat" against the "Zionist entity."

Further, Lamada has circulated videos that claim the current leader of Egypt, President Sisi, is secretly Jewish, and that he opposes the Muslim Brotherhood on the orders of the Jews. The video further claims that Jews are sowing division among Egyptian Muslims by encouraging sexual activities. Lamada's only comment about these anti-Semitic conspiracies is: "I hope this is not true." Lamada has even disseminated claims that America is controlled by a Zionist lobby, which is working to demonize Muslims and plan an invasion of Sudan and the Nile Valley.

Lamada is not the only anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist running America's largest Islamic charity.

Yousef Abdallah, east coast operations manager for Islamic Relief.

Last month, Islamist Watch uncovered anti-Semitic social media posts by another senior official of IR-USA, Yousef Abdallah, who published a story romanticising "martyrs" who provided guns to "kill more than 20 jews" and "fire rockets at Tel Aviv."

Abdallah's other posts included references to Jews as "stinking," and claims that "the Jews put the outside wall of Al Aqsa [the mosque in Jerusalem] on fire." Abdallah also 'likes' a comment on his Facebook post that calls on God to wreak "revenge on the damned rapists Zionists. O God they are no challenge for you. Shake the Earth beneath their feet and destroy them as you destroyed the peoples of ʿĀd, Thamud and Lot."

Another (former) IR-USA staff member, Omar Shahin, preached in 2002: "You will keep on fighting with the Jews until the fight reaches the east of Jordan river then the stones and trees will say: oh Muslim, oh (servant) slaves of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him."

That IR-USA's chairman and his staff appear to hate Jews is not particularly surprising. That this extremist, terrorism-linked, Jew-hating charity has enjoyed millions of taxpayers' dollars and dinners at the White House, however, is utterly perplexing.

Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

By Sam Westrop  |  August 11, 2017  |  Permalink

Another Academic Mangling of My Views on Islam

Originally published under the title "Academic Malfeasance: Another Mangling of Views about Islam."

Michelle Sandhoff, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has written a book titled Service in a Time of Suspicion: Experiences of Muslims Serving in the U.S. Military Post-9/11 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017).

In it, she interviewed 15 Muslim service members who, according to the publisher, "talk about what it means to be Muslim, American, and a uniformed member of the armed services in the twenty-first century. These honest accounts remind us of our shared humanity."

In the book's early pages, Sandhoff devotes a long, error-rich paragraph to describing two contrary ways of seeing Islam:

Among those who write and teach about Islam there are, broadly speaking, two camps. One side, exemplified by Karen Armstrong, presents a generally positive view of Islam and considers Islam to be a religion equivalent in scope and effect to other religions. At the other extreme are authors such as Daniel Pipes, who preach a doomsday scenario of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy the West. The latter camp often begin [sic] their discussion in terms of Islamism (a political movement), but quickly devolve into an association of all Muslims with fundamentalism, violence, and terrorism. This perspective takes the stance that Islam poses an existential threat; in his book Militant Islam Reaches America, Pipes writes, "The preservation of our existing order can no longer be taken for granted; it needs to be fought for." The form of this threat is often proposed to be "creeping sharia," the idea that religious accommodation and multiculturalism will lead inexorably to a world in which "sharia law" (i.e., Islamic law) dictates the behavior of both Muslims and non-Muslims. This perspective is also marked by the belief that all Muslims are suspect, and that profiling is a justified and effective technique to combat terrorism. Pipes writes, "All Muslims, unfortunately are suspect." Perhaps most troubling is the assertion from this camp that Muslims regularly practice taqiyyah, a form of deception believed by this camp to be pervasive. This allows them to dismiss any Muslim who speaks against them on the assumption that they are lying.

Problems abound in this paragraph:

  • Note that Armstrong just has views but I am at the extreme.
  • I reject the idea of "an Islamic conspiracy to destroy the West." Conspiracy implies some central agent making plans, which does not exist.
  • "Camp" is singular, so a camp begins. It's a good idea to get basic grammar right, especially when writing a book.
  • Not my Twitter account.

  • I do not associate "all Muslims with fundamentalism, violence, and terrorism." To the contrary, I am known for saying that "radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution" – and was quoted only yesterday to this effect in the Wall Street Journal. Nor is this view just an abstraction: I actively support anti-Islamist Muslims intellectually and financially.
  • I do not use the term "creeping Sharia."
  • I understand that taqiyyah is reserved for specific religious circumstances (such as Shi'a passing as Sunnis) and never deploy this concept to dismiss what Muslims say about Islamism.


I recently wrote an article on 9 errors about me in 3 pages so, even by American academic standards, 4 mistakes in 1 paragraph is impressive; What's ahead, 2 errors in as many words?

I keep wondering: are professors who disagree with me purposefully mangling my views or just not bothering to check what those are? Either way, the result undermines their only currency – a reputation for sound scholarship.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.

By Daniel Pipes  |  August 5, 2017  |  Permalink

Churchill, Hitler, and Islam

Churchill condemned Islam's "fanatical frenzy." Hitler saw it as preferable to Christian "meekness and flabbiness."

Winston Churchill disparaged the impact of Islam on Muslims in his 1899 book, The River War:

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy."

Adolf Hitler admired Islam, as quoted by Albert Speer in his 1969 book, Inside the Third Reich:

You see, it's been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?


(1) The arch-enemies of World War II agreed in their perception of Islam as a martial faith – except that Churchill rued its "fanatical frenzy" and Hitler admired its representing the opposite of "meekness and flabbiness."

Paul Weston arrested after publicly reading from Winston Churchill's The River War.

(2) These positions echo in the West today. Paul Weston, a right-wing candidate for the European Parliament, took a stand by reading publicly from of The River War, leading to his arrest. Fascists still admire Islam's perceived ferocity and want to ally with it: "I offer my most sincere best-wishes to those who wage holy Jihad against the infrastructure of the decadent, weak and Judaic-influenced societal infrastructure of the West" wrote August Kreis, an Aryan Nations leader, sounding like Hitler.

(3) Today's Left sees Muslims not as bellicose but as victims exploited by capitalism, tormented by Zionism, and victimized by "Islamophobia." This marks a new understanding, one with no World War II precedent.

(4) How Westerners see Islam and Muslims can say more about them than about Islam or Muslims. (July 24, 2017)

July 24, 2017 addendum: Churchill called Mein Kampf, "the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message." For details, see my 2008 weblog entry here.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.

By Daniel Pipes  |  July 24, 2017  |  Permalink

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki Splits from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki fighters prepare to behead an 11-year-old Palestinian boy accused of fighting for the Syrian regime last summer.

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki (The Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement: NZM) – an Islamist faction originating from Aleppo that once received support from the CIA's program of backing 'vetted' Syrian rebels that now seems set to be phased out – gained a widespread reputation as being representative of the 'not-so-moderate rebel' trend in Syria when a video emerged from Aleppo last year of some members beheading of a youth accused of being a fighter for the regime. While a beheading in itself is not so indicative of ideological 'moderation' considering how widespread war crimes and brutality are in Syria, a legitimate concern was NZM's close working relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which was probably a key reason why the group was cut off in 2015 from the program of support for 'vetted' groups.

The reputation of being 'baddie rebels' was compounded by NZM's subsequent joining of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham merger in January 2017, which came amid infighting in Idlib and Aleppo provinces that saw a number of factions join Ahrar al-Sham in seeking protection from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. NZM had been touting the idea of of a grand merger between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, but as became apparent from comments from Turki Abd al-Hameed, a member of NZM's political office, the support for a merger was not indicative of a supposed NZM ideological affinity with jihadism. Rather, the merger hopes came from a belief that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in particular was an effective military actor that in a merger initiative could help uphold the interests of the 'revolution' militarily and politically in a stage of crisis following the regime's recapture of Aleppo in December 2016. NZM's hopes were likely derived from the close working relationship it had developed with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Ahmad Hamamer of NZM explained to me the rationale for joining Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham as follows:

The necessity of the stage [of the 'revolution'/civil war] required the existence of a strong body in all its components, and Ahrar al-Sham was among those to merge but it withdrew in the last period before the announcement of the merger.

As for NZM, Hamamer insisted that "We were a revolution [faction] and continue to be so." Yet the idea that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in a merger initiative could help uphold what NZM perceived as the 'revolution's' interests was naive. Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, the leader of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and Hashim al-Sheikh, who headed a more hardline contingent of Ahrar al-Sham that unsuccessfully tried to push the whole group into a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, have come to wield the real reins of power and direction in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham as the military and general leaders respectively.

There are certainly questions to be raised about the nature of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's exact relationship with al-Qa'ida: the speed at which the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham merger took place suggests that al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, with whom correspondence takes considerable time, was almost certainly not consulted, even as the transition from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham through the official dropping of the 'external entity' affiliation with al-Qa'ida in July 2016 insisted Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qa'ida's leadership would remain an exemplar and that the general directives had been followed to carry out the rebranding. Further, although the idea of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham could fit in with an al-Qa'ida conception of embedding more deeply within the insurgency to advance the interests of the jihadist project, there is currently a sharp strategic divergence as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has sought to expand its administrative reach and power base, whereas Ayman al-Zawahiri, likely out of a realistic view of the current trends in Syria's civil war that have gone against the insurgency, advises a guerrilla approach that does not focus on controlling territory. A rapprochement here will probably require Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham being forced to pursue guerrilla tactics through loss of territory on account of a major offensive against it by a party pushing into Idlib from the outside.

Nonetheless, these questions of the relationship with al-Qa'ida do not alter the fact that on the ground, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has not softened its conduct, whatever overtures it might make towards the 'revolution' in its statements and rhetoric that al-Qa'ida loyalists and Ayman al-Zawahiri might consider to be nationalist dilution of the jihadist project. In fact, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's approach towards other insurgent groups and civil society in the form of local councils, as well as its treatment of the officially ex-Druze community in Idlib, have become more hardline. This probably reflects the dominance of the jihadists in the entity, and certainly the overall direction could not have sat well with many of the NZM members who had joined, even if they felt Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham could ultimately be the 'winning horse' – so to speak – for the 'revolution'. For example, Hussam al-Atrash, an NZM official who joined Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and wrote extensively on the backstories behind the rebel merger initiatives, caused considerable controversy within Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in suggesting through comments on Twitter that 'liberated' areas needed to be handed over to the interim government tied to the opposition-in-exile.

NZM leader Tawfiq Shahab al-Din

Internal tensions through the presence of NZM in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham have now developed into NZM's split from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in a statement from NZM's leader Tawfiq Shahab al-Din. The immediate context and cited causes of the split are a new round of infighting in Idlib between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, partly coming amid increasing talk of the possibility of a Turkish intervention into Idlib that may target Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Each side accuses the other of aggression, and an initiative emerged to resolve the conflict between the sides, to which Ahrar al-Sham agreed but Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham only under certain conditions, whereas Tawfiq Shahab al-Din himself had agreed to it.

What of the future for NZM? For now, Hamamer says that "God knows best" as to whether NZM will remain an independent group, with things depending on the circumstances. NZM's history does provide a lesson that the moral judgement of whether a group is ideologically 'moderate' – sometimes derived from mere observation of one event that gains media traction – is not always a useful measure for assessing why some groups shift affiliations over time. Ideological differences cannot be overlooked in the wider Syrian civil war, but in NZM's case, its relationship with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham was more driven by naivety and a bet on the supposed 'strong horse' to uphold what it saw as the interests of the 'revolution' (sentiments that had arisen from the close cooperation in the field with Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) rather than a newly found love for jihadist ideology.

Below is Tawfiq Shahab al-Din's statement translated in full.

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki had been a forerunner for the merger and unity projects in the Syrian revolution, and did not have regard for the deviant voices on the inside and outside that called to prevent that merger, even as all that was for the sake of unity of rank and finding an entity that could bring together the Sunnis in al-Sham to implement the ruling of God's law. But now the compass has deviated from its path and the rifle from its target, so:

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki announces its separation from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham for the following reasons:

1. Lack of applying the ruling of Shari'a for which we expended our lifeblood and what is precious to implement its ruling. That became manifest as follows:

a) Neglecting the fatwa committee in the commission [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] and the issuing of a statement from the Shari'i council without the knowledge of most of its members.

b) The lack of acceptance of the initiative that the virtuous 'ulama launched last Thursday night.

2. Neglecting the Shura council of the commission [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] and taking the decision to fight Ahrar al-Sham despite the fact that the commission's formation was built on the basis of not committing aggression against the factions.

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki pledges to the Syrian people in revolt to continue towards realizing its aims in bringing down the criminal regime and implementing the ruling of God's law on the Syrian lands.

Tawfiq Shahab al-Din

Published on 26 Shawwal 1438 AH/20 July 2017 CE.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi  |  July 20, 2017  |  Permalink

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