On one of its official Twitter feeds, Jaysh al Islam released this photo of Zahran Alloush, who was killed in an airstrike on Dec. 25.
Two of the most powerful jihadist groups in Syria, Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham, have issued eulogies for Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al Islam (“Army of Islam”). Alloush was killed in an airstrike outside of Damascus on Dec. 25.
Bashar al Assad and his allies have long considered Alloush and his men to be a major threat. Under Alloush’s leadership, Jaysh al Islam seized the Eastern Ghouta region, which covers much of Damascus’s suburbs. The group has thousands of fighters in its ranks and has reportedly received support from Saudi Arabia and possibly other nations in the region.
It is unclear whether Syrian or Russian jets bombed the location where Alloush and some of his lieutenants were meeting.
Either way, Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham honored Alloush as a “martyr.” Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Ahrar al Sham is an al Qaeda-linked group that is closely allied with Al Nusrah. Both of the groups’ eulogies were translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“We in [Al Nusrah] Front give condolences to the people of the deceased and his family and the mujahideen of Jaysh al Islam in particular and the mujahideen on the land of Sham in general,” Al Nusrah’s eulogy reads, according to SITE.
Alloush “was martyred,” Al Nusrah’s statement continues, “after years of giving and sacrifice, fighting and being garrisoned on the edges of Damascus, and waging jihad against the Nusayris [Assad regime] and the Rawafidh [Shi’ites] until he met his Lord.”
The al Qaeda branch asks Allah to empower Jaysh al Islam’s new leader, Essam al-Buwaydhani (also known as Abu Hammam), who was quickly appointed as Alloush’s successor.
In its eulogy, Ahrar al Sham describes Alloush as the “Syrian knight,” saying he “has dismounted as a martyr in the fields of jihad in the land of Sham.” Ahrar asks Allah to turn Alloush’s death into “a miracle,” because he was an “unparalleled commander.”
“[W]e congratulate the family of the deceased sheikh and specifically the honorable Sheikh Abdullah Alloush for the martyrdom of his son,” Ahrar al Sham’s eulogy reads, according to SITE. “We ask the Protector [Allah], glory be to Him, to preserve the leadership of Jaysh al Islam and its soldiers, protectors of the land of Sham, until the tyrants are overthrown and the extremists are defeated. Indeed, He is capable of that.”
The “extremists” mentioned in Ahrar’s statement belong to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Jaysh al Islam has often fought against the self-declared “caliphate.” Earlier this year, for instance, Alloush’s fighters emulated the Islamic State’s execution techniques by lining up a number of Baghdadi’s followers then shooting them. Jaysh al Islam’s executioners wore the same type of orange jumpsuit that the Islamic State makes its victims wear.
Although Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham are effusive in their praise of Alloush, they have not always seen eye-to-eye with Jaysh al Islam. In October, for example, the two groups established the Jund al Malahim (“Soldiers of the Epics”) operations room on Jaysh al Islam’s home turf in the Eastern Ghouta. At the time, Jund al Malahim’s founding members said the alliance was “necessary” so that “all of the loyal and honest people” could gather together to “repulse” the “attack on the land of Muslims.” Jaysh al Islam was not included in the coalition.
Al Nusrah has also been critical of the rebel groups that participated in a peace conference in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, told reporters during a “press conference” that the rebel gathering was an act of “treason.” Jaysh al Islam was one of the largest participants in the proceedings. However, Alloush’s organization threatened to withdraw from the Saudi-led initiative, saying a proposed final agreement ignored the issue of the Syrian state’s Islamic identity and did not go far enough in dismantling the Assad regime’s security institutions. (Ahrar al Sham briefly participated in the conference as well, but the organization ultimately rejected it.)
Despite their occasional disagreements, Jaysh al Islam has frequently cooperated with Al Nusrah and Ahrar on the battlefield.
In April, Alloush’s men helped overrun the city of Jisr Al Shughur in the northwestern Idlib province. Jaysh al Islam’s fighters participated in the battle as part of the “Battle of Victory” coalition, which was one of several alliances established by Al Nusrah and Ahrar. Jaysh al Islam has fought alongside the jihadist groups elsewhere in Syria as well.
On Dec. 15, a Twitter account attributed to Alloush posted: “Jaysh al-Islam stands alongside Ahrar al-Sham and all revolutionary forces that fight Assad and refuses ISIS’s takfiri mentality.” In this context, “takfiri” means extremist. Other rebel groups, including Al Nusrah Front, frequently use the term to describe the Islamic State.
Indeed, the rise of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization in Iraq and Syria allowed figures such as Alloush to portray themselves as “moderate.” But when compared to the vast majority of Muslims, there was nothing “moderate” about Alloush. His strict Salafist beliefs were well-known.
In a recent interview published by The Daily Beast, Alloush tried to distance himself from the Al Nusrah Front, which he had praised in the past. The interviewer pointed out that Alloush had said he doesn’t have “any differences with [Al Nusrah] Front, the al Qaeda franchise in Syria” and explained that Jaysh al Islam’s “Sharia [Islamic law] adviser does not disagree with the Sharia adviser of al Nusra.” The interviewer asked: “Does that mean that you have no ideological differences with al Qaeda?”
Alloush responded: “Back then, I was referring to Abu Maria al Qahtani, one of [Al Nusra’s] Sharia advisers. We saw that Qahtani was showing a moderate face and we wanted to encourage those efforts. Now [Al Nusrah] has different Sharia advisers, and ours have many disagreements with them, ideologically and intellectually.”
It may or may not be true that Jaysh al Islam now has “many disagreements” with Al Nusrah’s version of sharia law. But Abu Maria al Qahtani, the Al Nusrah official praised by Alloush, was never a moderate.
In his prolific writings, Qahtani has described Osama bin Laden as “our sheikh” and cited other al Qaeda officials, such as Abu Yahya al Libi (who was killed in June 2012), as authority figures. Qahtani has criticized Ayman al Zawahiri’s response to the rise of the Islamic State, but he has also praised Zawahiri at times.
In sum, Alloush used the Islamic State’s excessive brutality to portray himself as a “moderate.” But that was never an apt description for him.