The Syrian war has had repercussions throughout the Middle East, including among its Islamist movements. While foreign Salafi-jihadi fighters are streaming into Syria from other Arab countries to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, they are also bringing the disputes and controversies of the Syrian jihad back home to be debated among their compatriots. In this way, the Syrian war is reshaping the radical Salafi-jihadi landscape of the Middle East.
Egypt, already in turmoil since the 2011 overthrow of then president Hosni Mubarak, is a case in point. The Arab Spring and the opening of the Egyptian political system have profoundly affected the Salafi-jihadi trend in Egypt, and the evolution of the national and regional order has forced it to confront new ideological choices. The already-shaky unity of the Egyptian Salafi-jihadi movement has been tested by the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood—particularly after the military-led ouster of then president Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013.
More recently, the Syrian jihad has exacerbated these divisions. While the Islamic legitimacy of the armed opposition to the Syrian regime remains uncontested among the Salafi-jihadi radicals, the decisive, dividing concern is simple: Which jihadi faction should the Egyptian Salafi-jihadi movement support?
The Nusra Front-Islamic State Split as Seen From Egypt
This debate is not a mere practical matter, nor is it only one of war tactics. Rather, it epitomizes the development of Salafi-jihadi ideology over the past few years and sheds new light on its future. It illustrates the transformation of al-Qaeda and the emergence of a new purist generation of Salafi-jihadis whose influence is being reinforced by the victories of their affiliates in Syria.
The divide between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an international jihadi group, and the Nusra Front, a Syrian opposition group with strong ties to al-Qaeda, is heavily debated in Cairo’s Salafi-jihadi milieu. These groups split from each other in April 2013 and have since emerged as clearly separate entities.
While the Nusra Front is now perceived as the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda, the relationship between the ISIL leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is fraught with conflict. Zawahiri tried to intervene in the dispute between the ISIL and the Nusra Front in May 2013, ordering both Baghdadi and Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani to remain in their countries of origin and cooperate across the border. But Baghdadi publicly accused the al-Qaeda leader of misunderstanding sharia, or Islamic law.
Since then, the two groups have followed slightly different trajectories, with the Nusra Front focusing on military affairs and collaborating with other Islamists in Syria only while the ISIL is attempting to establish itself as a de facto government in areas under its control in both Iraq and Syria (which has recently led to clashes with other Syrian rebel groups). At the same time, they have avoided clashes with each other, and both aspire to the same goal of an Islamic state in Syria and beyond.
Despite the apparent homogeneity of the Syrian groups’ ideologies, some Salafi-jihadis have turned the Nusra Front-ISIL divide into a fight for the purification of the Islamic creed rather than a mere struggle for leadership.
Purists Versus Pragmatists
One faction of Egyptian Salafi-jihadis, whose members are known as “purists,” is broadly aligned with the ISIL. These purists condemn the Nusra Front for focusing only on jihad and for relying on a weak aqida (creed).
They also blame the Nusra Front for welcoming all Egyptian volunteers, regardless of their political affiliations. For instance, they criticize the Nusra Front for accepting supporters of Egyptian lawyer and Salafi politician Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail, in its ranks, arguing that Abu Ismail’s support for a democratic process in Egypt is tantamount to heresy.
Finally, they accuse Golani of rebellion against al-Baghdadi as his legitimate commander, and they criticize his Syrian-centered agenda. The purists’ secession is not limited to the Syrian battlefield but extends in the general direction of al-Qaeda as well. These young Egyptian ultraradicals also reject the leadership of Zawahiri since they are opposed to his recent pragmatic positions.
Instead, they have lent their support to an emerging second-tier leader of the Syrian jihad, Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti, whose small faction of foreign jihadis is called the Group of Muslims (Jamaat al-Muslimin). It has mainly been based on the Syrian-Turkish border, near Atme and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The Group of Muslims associates itself with the ISIL, but it has gained notoriety for its excommunication of the Nusra Front—a step so confrontational and divisive that the ISIL leadership itself rejects it.
The other camp in the Egyptian Salafi-jihadi trend follows the position of more mainstream Egyptian and regional Salafi-jihadi ideologues. Its members oppose the division between the Nusra Front and the ISIL, argue for reconciliation among the Salafi-jihadis, and emphasize that fitna, or internal strife, should be avoided. They argue that ideological purism is not everything but that the focus of Salafi-jihadis should be on establishing an Islamic state and struggling against the Assad regime and rival secular factions.
A Generational Divide
This dichotomy between pragmatists and purists is not a new phenomenon in the Salafi-jihadi movement. Similar theological questions have been debated since the emergence of al-Qaeda, particularly during the Algerian and Iraqi civil wars.
What is different now is the centrality of Syria’s war in the development of Salafi-jihadi ideology. The older generation of more experienced and pragmatic ideologues, for instance the Pakistan-based Zawahiri and the Jordanian Palestinian Salafi scholars Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, are isolated from the battlefield and do not seem to exert much influence on the ground in Syria. Therefore, a new radical generation under the umbrella of the ISIL has taken the lead in formulating the doctrines of the Syrian jihad. Its influence is being strengthened by its material gains and by the support of a new generation of young individuals who socialize on the Internet and refuse the tutelage of the pragmatists.
In Egypt, this debate over theological purity or pragmatism within the Salafi-jihadi movement has yet to be settled, and recent events in Syria may also change matters. But for now, it is clear that the Syrian civil war, combined with the arrests of many pragmatic Salafi-jihadi leaders in Egypt, has begun to strengthen the radical purist faction.
Jérôme Drevon is a junior research fellow of the Swiss National Sciences Foundation who specializes in Egyptian militancy.