Abu Muhammad al-Golani’s project carries significant weight in Syrian geography today, whether you agree or disagree with it. In this paper, we aim to discuss the Salafist foundations that contributed to the emergence of al-Golani’s personality and his project, leading him to become a prominent figure in present-day Syria and potentially in its future. We’ll explore how his intelligence played a role in the success of his project amidst the failures of other revolutionary Syrian projects, despite receiving support from regional and international powers. Al-Golani has managed to establish a quasi-state with its own geography and laws without international support. Then, we will unveil more about his personality in subsequent parts, discussing his ideology, opinions, and project. However, today we specifically address him through the lens of the contemporary Salafist origins, through the following points.
- The role of the Cold War in manufacturing contemporary Salafism!
- Why was contemporary Salafism manufactured? Why wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood relied upon?
- The three stages of manufacturing jihadist Salafism!
- The fall of the mask! Who is Abu Muhammad al-Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham?
- Abu Muhammad al-Golani’s father and his role in shaping his son’s personality!
- Al-Golani; childhood and upbringing!
In order to understand the personality and ideology of al-Golani accurately, it is essential to understand how contemporary active Salafism (jihadist Salafism) was established. Al-Golani is a manifestation of contemporary active Salafism, and therefore, before delving into his character, and to comprehend his decision-making process, it is necessary to understand the emergence of contemporary active Salafism (jihadist Salafism).
The Role of the Cold War in Manufacturing Contemporary Salafism:
During the peak of the Islamic Awakening in the mid-1970s, which was initiated by American orders to counter Soviet/communist expansion in Islamic countries, there was a concerted effort, in agreement and understanding with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, to cultivate an Islamic generation for this purpose. The political Islam, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, undertook this task, symbolized by their famous agreement with Sadat in Egypt, where they were released from prison after spending ten years incarcerated.
At the height of the fight against Soviet/communist expansion in the region, the Shiite/Iranian threat emerged, epitomized by the victory of the Khomeini revolution in the late 1970s. The most dangerous aspect of that revolution was its theory of “exporting the revolution,” which is still in effect today. At this point, supporting the Islamic Awakening became an American necessity to safeguard its interests from both the Soviet/communist threat and the Shiite/Iranian threat.
If the communist threat has inherent countermeasures within Islamic societies due to their fundamental belief and religiosity, the Iranian threat requires an ideology that matches its strength and counters it in direction. This can only be found in Salafism, the historical adversary of Shiism. Thus, efforts began to revive, support, and create a contemporary Salafism for this purpose, serving mutual interests between the West, America, and regimes in Islamic countries to confront the theory of exporting revolution.
Here, the work began to manufacture contemporary Salafism, which is different from the Salafism of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah. In other words, it is a Salafism with claws and fangs. This was achieved through the fusion of Ibn Taymiyyah’s creed regarding Shiites with Sayyid Qutb’s ideology. The result of this fusion is contemporary active Salafism (jihadist Salafism).
A questioner might ask: Why was contemporary Salafism manufactured? Why wasn’t reliance placed on the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its global organization, structure, and presence in every country in the world?
The answer to that is: The Iranian Revolution relied on the traditional Shiite heritage and the dynamism and ideology of Sayyid Qutb, the inspiration behind extremist Brotherhood thought. The current Iranian leader, Khamenei, is proficient in Arabic, and one of his first actions after the revolution’s victory was to translate Sayyid Qutb’s books into Persian, printing and distributing them. Khomeini even named some of Tehran’s main streets after Sayyid Qutb. Thus, it must be understood that Iranian Shiism represents the Shiite face of political Islam, while the Muslim Brotherhood represents its Sunni face. There is ample evidence of this, including Iran’s close relationship with Hamas in Gaza and its Iranian support. Negotiations held in complete secrecy in 2013 were mediated by Iran between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The theoretical foundation of active Salafism (jihadist Salafism) took twenty years from the 1970s to the 1990s. The theoretical/ideological foundation was led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh Zain al-Abidin bin Suroor. Operationally, it was led by one of the key pillars of the Qutbist Brotherhood, Abdullah Azzam, and his right-hand man Abu Musab al-Suri. Their original Brotherhood disciples were Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as acknowledged by al-Zawahiri himself in his famous book “The Bitter Harvest of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sixty Years” and his book “The Group”. In these works, he spoke about their fundamental connection to the Brotherhood and the role of Qutbist thought in their emergence.
Sheikh bin Suroor was deported from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait and then to Britain after the first Gulf War. He later settled in Qatar until his death in 2016, after transferring active Salafism both ideologically and behaviorally to the Syrian geography. He initiated Islamic polarization between Sunnis and Shiites through his famous book “And Now the Role of the Magi,” written under the pseudonym “Abdullah Muhammad al-Ghareeb” at the onset of the Iran-Iraq War.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was not Salafist; the majority were Ash’ari/Sufi. It was the teacher Essam al-Attar who introduced Salafism to the Brotherhood, specifically after the 1967 war when the famous dispute arose between the Salafi Sheikh Nasir al-Din al-Albani and the Sufi Sheikh Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti. Al-Attar sided with al-Albani against al-Bouti. Then, al-Attar innovated two issues within the Syrian Brotherhood wing: first, he transformed elections into allegiance in the Salafi manner, and second, he stipulated that every new member of the Brotherhood must be Salafist. This marked one of the most significant beginnings of divisions within the ranks of the Syrian Brotherhood.
The three stages of manufacturing jihadist Salafism:
The application of active Salafism (jihadist Salafism) went through three stages:
The first stage: The famous Afghan model known as the “Arab Afghans,” which was initiated by the Palestinian Brotherhood member Abdullah Azzam. Azzam traveled from Palestine to Jordan, then to Saudi Arabia, and eventually to Afghanistan. He brought remnants of the “Tanzim al-Thulath” (The Organization of the Thirties) from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, an organization established by Sayyid Qutb in 1965. It was known for its radical wing, commonly referred to as the “Strangers” within the Brotherhood.
The second stage: Post-Iraq invasion, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian/Palestinian origin. Al-Zarqawi capitalized on the anger and resentment towards the Americans for their invasion of Baghdad and handing it over to Iran. This period saw jihadist Salafism regain popularity among the general religious sentiment, attracting religiously zealous and anti-American youth.
Their reign in Iraq came to an end due to the imbalance against American forces and the support of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
The third stage: During the Arab Spring, manifested through various iterations, including the ferocious ISIS version, the Jabhat al-Nusra version led by al-Golani, and the Turkistan/ Uighur version, which found its haven in the chaos of Syria. However, there were three transformations within the third stage:
- Empowerment, akin to what the Taliban achieved in Afghanistan or what ISIS established in Iraq and Syria, creating the brutal state envisioned by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his book “Management of Savagery”, or what Jabhat al-Nusra is striving for today in Syria.
- Gang warfare, exemplified by the remnants of ISIS in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts.
- Negotiation for recognition and coexistence, as attempted by al-Golani in Syria today.
ISIS was eventually defeated through an international coalition, leading to the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and its leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani, who now leads a canton or quasi-state in Idlib.
The unmasking! Who is Abu Muhammad al-Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham?
He is Ahmed bin Hussein bin Ali bin Talib al-Shara, known as Abu Muhammad al-Golani, from the village of “Jibeen” located in the western corner of the countryside of Quneitra. This village is part of the dry valley that stretches from Azraq to Quneitra. He belongs to the Salamat clan of the Aneza tribe. This may explain his later defense of Saudi Arabia and his positive view of the strength and stability of the Saudi government. Abu Muhammad al-Golani was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 1981, where his father, with pro-Baathist tendencies, had fled from the Syrian regime.
The Role of his Father in Building Al-Golani’s Personality!
The role of Abu Muhammad al-Golani’s father, Hussein al-Shara, in shaping his son’s personality is crucial to discuss. Al-Golani inherited many political and intellectual traits from his father, which greatly influenced his stances on various political issues related to nationalism, as well as his astuteness in addressing economic matters.
Hussein al-Shara was born in the first half of 1946 into the Al-Shara family in Quneitra. This family is not related to the well-known Al-Shara family in Daraa, to which Farouk al-Shara, former Deputy President of the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, belongs. Hussein’s lineage can be traced through his grandfather, Talib, who was a representative of the western corner region in the Hauran Revolution led by Prince Mahmoud al-Fawwar, the leader of the Fadl tribe, against the French in the 1920s.
Talib belonged to the Salamat clan, which traces its roots back to the Aneza tribe. His opposition to the mandate led him to flee to Jordan, where he resided for a long period, a fact that his grandson Hussein proudly boasts about. Perhaps indirectly, this influenced his encouragement or lack of objection to his son’s journey to Iraq to confront the Americans in 2004. Thus, issues related to pride in ancestors and their struggle against invaders, along with satisfying their children with tales of their historical heroism, have played a significant role in the region in directing children towards stances that align with such a historical narrative.
Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s father studied economics at the University of Baghdad in 1964 until he obtained his master’s degree. He then returned to Syria and later became an economic expert, although his authored publications are not widely known despite their significance. He wrote them during his time in Saudi Arabia while fleeing from Hafez al-Assad’s regime.
Al-Golani’s father had right-wing Ba’athist inclinations and admired the Iraqi Ba’athist experience. However, he was not a Marxist but embraced Nasserist nationalist ideas, being influenced by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise in the 1950s.
He joined the Nationalist Wing of the Ba’ath Party during his years of study at the University of Baghdad and remained affiliated with this faction. After his return to Syria in the early 1970s, he avoided involvement in any of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party cells within the Syrian Wing due to fear of imprisonment. His heart remained more Iraqi than those associated with the Ba’ath’s right-wing. However, suspicions about his loyalty led to his dismissal from government work, prompting him to leave for Saudi Arabia.
In 1983 and 1984, he published three books: “Oil and Comprehensive Development in the Arab Homeland,” “Economic Development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Future of Development,” and “The Saudi Economy in the Infrastructure Building Phase.” His fourth and final book, “OPEC 1960-1985: Major Transformations and Ongoing Challenges,” was published in Damascus in 1987. Therefore, Hussein al-Shar’ is skilled in politics and economics, which may explain his son Golani’s economic successes in Idlib.
In 1985, it is mentioned by followers that he wrote an article with a long but clear title, as was his custom: “Towards the Renewal of the Call for Arab Nationalism after the Qatari and Sectarian Bankruptcy.” This fully expressed his father’s thoughts as a way to save the Arab nation from its current crisis. He did not hide his admiration for Saddam Hussein as a whole right-wing Ba’athist figure, and it is said that al-Golani was influenced by Saddam through his father.
He returned to Syria in late 1986 through the mediation of the then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Zuabi and was appointed as an advisor in the government. He was referred to as “Doctor,” as he preferred, but resigned from the position after a few years. Professor Hussein opposed the Assad regime and frequented the “Tuesday Economic Seminar” and then the “National Dialogue Forum” at the home of People’s Council member Riad Saeif. He became associated with the Damascus Declaration before differing with Riad Saeif on some directions, possibly due to Saeif’s drift towards the West.
He supported the Syrian revolution from the beginning and endorsed its armament on the condition that it be done in an organized framework through defecting officers as the leadership of organized forces closely linked to an active political opposition, with the aim of building a new democratic, unified, non-sectarian Syria, without an Islamic state. After his son’s rise to prominence, he disappeared from sight completely after having been residing in Turkey when it was the center of the Syrian opposition.
The childhood and upbringing of al-Golani:
His childhood was ordinary, but he was known for being firm and assertive in his opinions, and he possessed noticeable intelligence and a love for humor. No religious inclinations appeared in his childhood or early adulthood. When he returned with his father to Syria in 1987, he lived with him in the Mezzeh area of Damascus and was keen to learn about the geography of Damascus for reasons we will mention later.
Abu Muhammad al-Golani fell in love with a girl from the Alawite sect in his early youth (likely during high school), then he developed religious inclinations. He began attending the Grand Mosque of Mezzeh and studied under traditional Sufi scholars in Damascus, the most important of whom was Sheikh “Abu Al-Khair Shakri,” who later became a member of the Syrian National Coalition representing the Syrian Islamic Council. This was because he was a sheikh of the Golani family!
It is not known exactly when he shifted to the Salafist trend, but those close to him speculate that this occurred after the events of September 11th and his admiration for what al-Qaeda had done. It is also not known if he attended Damascus University; rather, he only completed high school.
After the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, he headed to Iraq as a fighter and joined the ranks of al-Qaeda. He emerged prominently as a leading figure known for sharp intelligence and practical dynamism, mastering the Iraqi dialect to the extent that he was no longer identifiable as Syrian or Iraqi.
He was arrested by American forces in 2004 and imprisoned in the infamous “Bucca” prison near Basra. During interrogations, he managed to convince investigators that he was Iraqi due to his mastery of the Iraqi dialect. The prison served as a major school for him, where he learned all the arts of politics, warfare, and the principles of Salafism as a result of the American forces gathering a large number of Salafist thinkers and fighters, as well as elements from Saddam’s former intelligence who had turned to al-Qaeda after the fall of Saddam’s regime.
This leads us to a constant question: Was the American behavior intentional or a result of chaos? Did American intelligence fail to realize that putting these individuals in one place would meld them into one ideological crucible?
The US forces released Ahmad Hussein al-Sharaa and did not hand him over to the Syrian authorities, considering him Iraqi since he convinced them of his Iraqi identity! Considering that he was not confrontational in prison but dealt cleverly with the prison administration. Upon his release in 2009, he quickly rose to prominence within al-Qaeda in Anbar, relying on the capabilities he demonstrated inside prison and the endorsement of al-Qaeda ideologues whom he met there.