The gentle face of Syrian jihadism goes solo

The gentle face of Syrian jihadism goes solo
Egyptian-Australian Mostafa Mahamad, who joined Syrian rebel group Fatah al-Sham when it was part of al-Qaeda, has quit the group to pursue individual endeavors in the war-torn country.
3 min read
18 Oct, 2016
Fatah al-Sham announced it has defected from al-Qaeda in July
A media director for hardline Syrian rebel faction Fatah al-Sham has quit the group, according to a statement released by the media figure on Monday.

Australian-Egyptian Mostafa Mahamad was the face of Fatah al-Sham to much of the English-speaking world, giving interviews to the BBC and Sky News as the group's director of foreign media relations.

Mahamad - also known by the surname Farag - joined the group when it was known as al-Nusra Front, and al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria.

It separated from Aymen Zawahiri's group in July during a dramatic departure. Renamed Fatah al-Sham, it presented itself as a more moderate force than extremists such as the Islamic State group, but clashed repeatedly with Syrian activists.

Using the alias Abu Sulayman Muhajir, Mahamad was key to this transformation. He worked to convince Western journalists that the move was a genuine shift away from radical jihadism, and not just a superficial rebranding.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Monday, Cairo-born Mahamad, appeared to distance himself from the more militant activities of the group.

"My work thus far [with the group] has been focused around my fields of study: education and Islamic sciences. My intentions have been to provide assistance to Syrians and support a cause I feel passionate about," he said.

"I strongly believe that through a sound education, sincere moral guidance and a balanced approach, the goals of the Syrian revolution can be successfully achieved."

He said he resigned on 1 October, and will instead pursue a number of "independent projects" which will allow him to "best serve the Syrian people".

Mahamad was also quick to deny the resignation coincided with Fatah al-Sham's official split with al-Qaeda, a few months earlier.

"I would like to make absolutely clear that my resignation was not a result of the dissociation of JFS [Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] with al-Qaeda, which I believe was not only in the best interest of JFS, but also in the best interest of the Syrian people," he wrote.

"I hope that JFS will follow this decision with similarly wise choices in the future."

There has been speculation that his departure could have been influenced by the merging of Idlib-based "quietest" movement Jund al-Aqsa with Fatah al-Sham.

This came after Jund al-Aqsa waged a low-level war with rebel groups allied to Fatah al-Sham, and were suspected of having ties with the Islamic State group.
Mahamad said on Twitter his resignation came a couple of weeks earlier than the split. He had been critical of the jihadi group in the days before he announced his departure from Fatah al-Sham.

"[Jund al-Aqsa] should have never been formed... many of its policies have been counter-productive to the cause," he said.

"Isolationists who excommunicate sincere mujahideen & systematically accuse the honorable of treason have no place among the Muslims," he also wrote.

Mahamad was known to be among the intellectual strands of the Syrian group, and had a long history of involvement with Salafi groups in Australia.

He was said to have been among an elite group of al-Qaeda scholars sent to negotiate with the Islamic State group in 2013. This came as the then Iraq-based faction attempted a takeover of al-Qaeda in Syria.

The split between Nusra and IS led to a bitter war between the two jihadi factions, with Mahamad highly critical of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's group.

Despite Fatah al-Sham's bid for wider acceptance, its split with al-Qaeda has not been taken seriously by much of the West.

Russia has made constant warnings for Fatah al-Sham fighters to leave Aleppo or face more bombings, and there has been talk that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will try to convince other rebel groups to sever ties with the former al-Qaeda faction.