INTERVIEW: Jordanian militant Islamist Abu Sayaf calls Egypt’s armed forces chief, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, an “apostate” and says jihad in Syria will continue even if the Assad regime is ousted.
“Realities differ,” says Jordanian militant leader Mohammad al-Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf, in an interview with HSI.
“The Afghani reality is different than the Egyptian, the Jordanian or the Syrian. Three years ago, there wasn’t any weaponry or armed jihad in Syria. The conditions did not allow it. Like in Jordan today, it would be an unsuccessful battle. But if the Jordanian regime is ousted by any means, even by the Facebook guys, we will not leave the battlefield. We will show we are in control.”
The rise of Salafi extremism has been a source of worry for Jordanian authorities and Abu Sayaf is known for his al-Qaeda sympathies.
During the interview, he speaks of growing support for the Salafi Muslim jihadist cause, although he claims he has no real, formal group. “Our organization is not hierarchical; we do not have leaders. We refuse to have a political party under the non-Islamic regimes in the Arab world. That is why we have been chased by security bodies for more than 20 years.”
Instead, he focuses on a long-term goal: Restoring an Islamic religious state, or caliphate, and says his movement “belong(s) to” al-Qaeda.
“We think Al-Qaeda represents the mainstream all over the world,” he says. However, he repeats his claim that “we’re not organized”.
Abu Sayyaf claims that jihad is primarily a defensive action, in which Muslims want the pen – or perhaps more like the spoken word in this case – to be mightier than the sword.
“Undoubtedly, jihad by the tongue surpasses jihad by the sword. As Muslims, we never attacked any person or any place unless we were attacked first,” he claims.
“In Palestine, for instance,” he adds, “when did we decide to eliminate the Jews? It was when they decided to eliminate Muslims. The same happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even in Sheikh Osama [bin Laden’s] letter – may Allah rest his soul – which he sent to America under the rule of Bush, he said: ‘We do not target you unless you target us. Leave our children alone and stop supporting Israel and we will leave you alone’.”
“Jihad by the tongue surpasses jihad by the sword and it’s the original jihad. However, we are in a conflict. Our jihad is defensive and it’s the duty of every individual Muslim as we defend ourselves. In Syria, for example, young people went to jihad when the regime attacked Syrians and they asked for help. Otherwise, the regime would have lasted, oppressing Muslims, raping women and terrifying children. Our response had to be tough. This is what is called defensive jihad.”
Abu Sayyaf also defines attacks in the United States and Europe as part of a “defensive jihad”.
“If the Americans do not interfere in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, we will not fight them,” he says.
Referring to Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), Abu Sayyaf calls the secretive Alawite sect – a Shiite Muslim offshoot to which Syria’s beleaguered president Bashar al-Assad belongs – “the worst disbelievers and apostates amongst all the Shiite denominations”.
“They are not ashamed of their corrupt doctrine,” he says.
“Some think that jihad will end with the ousting of the [Assad] regime. But I tell you that jihad will not stop unless Allah’s Sharia (Islamic law) is applied. Even if the regime is replaced now, jihad will go on. If the Free Syrian Army (a western- and Gulf Arab-backed armed opposition group) does not apply Sharia, the fight will between them and the jihadist groups,” says Abu Sayyaf.
“We hate the sins of the Muslim Brotherhood”
Abu Sayyaf also talked about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained influence in several countries following the Arab Spring of revolutionary demonstrations that began at the end of 2010. Abu Sayyaf says that Salafi jihadists like himself love some aspects of the group, yet “hate their sins”.
In Abu Sayyaf’s view, the Brotherhood running for and winning seats in the Egyptian parliament is as example of sin because “parliaments contradict the Sharia Law of Allah”.
“If we were in Egypt, we would not accept the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. We would revolt against them and fight them if possible. We consider them to be like any secular regime,” he says.
At the same time, the militant leader does claim to support the Muslim Brotherhood in the current situation, after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian Army in July 2013. According to Abu Sayyaf, Sisi has declared war on Islam.
“Sisi went in public and said he did not want Egyptians to back to the Dark Ages,” he says.
“That makes him an apostate,” Abu Sayyaf adds, using the term for someone who denies his or her religion.
ANALYSIS: Jihadist mindset