I once met a woman on the Syrian border who had spent several decades in Tadmor prison in Palmyra only emerging when ISIS had taken the town. I cannot verify her claim but she said she gave birth to her child in its dark dungeons underground, that child did not see the sunshine for seven years, and whilst she hated the Islamic State, she hated the Assad regime more. Nevertheless, for the region and the international community, Assad, is the better partner. He is a known quantity, better the devil you know as opposed to rebels with Jihadists in their midst. He can be dealt with using tried and tested policies of the past. In many ways, the Jihadis present themselves to be a greater conundrum in the region and indeed in the Muslim world as a whole. Assad is slowly but surely corralling the rebels and Jihadis into that province to finish them off. I doubt however, that he will, if the example of the Nigerian President Muhammad Buhari’s is anything to go by.
In 2015, Mr Buhari claimed that Boko Haram or the Islamic State in West Africa was ‘technically defeated’ but after three years, its fighters are still hiding in the borderlands of Niger, Chad and Cameroon, 27, 000 dead and 2 million civilians displaced. The lesson being that fighters are far more adept at surviving than civilians and they will most likely escape. These Jihadis will present themselves to be a greater problem not only for the international community but also for the Muslim world as a whole. Estimates of foreign fighters vary from four thousand to forty thousand foreign fighters in Syria. There will be security experts scratching their heads asking what comes next and what should one do? And I don’t mean to be pessimistic here, but I am not so sure there is a clear answer to solving the problem because the phenomenon of Salafi-Jihadism is part of a historical process that will have to be played out to its fullest extent. In many ways Salafi-Jihadis share similarities with the Jewish Zealots and Sicarii from fourth century BC; these Jewish extremists ignored established religious leaders, they were aggressive militarists unwilling to follow the Rabbis who were trying to come to a political solution with Rome. That sort of behaviour seems uncannily similar to Salafi-Jihadis. They seem to represent that strain of militancy within the Muslim world which is torn between coming to an accord with the West and resisting Western interference in its countries.
Admittedly, meeting Salafi-Jihadis fighting in Syria do have their peculiarities. In theory, they are meant to be absolutely devoted to their word, if they give you Amān, that is a promise of safety, then you are safe. In reality, they might just change their minds mid-way and then you’re screwed. Even if you convert to Islam your fate may just be the same. The conversion of Peter or Abdul Rahman Kassig didn’t prevent him from being killed. According to Jejoen Bontink, a former Belgian ISIS fighter, James Foley and John Cantlie, too had converted to Islam. How sincere their conversion was is irrelevant in the circumstances. In the Islamic faith as soon as one has uttered one’s profession of faith one is as sinless as a new born babe, and has full rights as a fully-fledged member of the Muslim community, the Ummah. One thing you cannot do is to test how much someone, especially new converts, believe. But clearly these hostages who had ostensibly pronounced the Muslim testimony of faith hadn’t been believed and were not granted those privileges that was incumbent on the Salafi-Jihadis. Instead they were tortured and executed brutally. From a Salafi-Jihadi perspective their lives should have been spared but this is when modern pragmatism intrude; they were white Westerners, fetched top dollar and would most certainly make the front pages; in such circumstances religious considerations could be fudged and put aside.