I wrote previously about al Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra's attempt to go mainstream courtesy of the Qatari-owned al Jazeera television network. Now Ahrar al-Sham, a Sunni jihadist group active in the Syrian civil war, is making a bid for recognition as a more moderate, inclusive Salafist group. This propaganda piece in the Washington Post is the latest attempt to re-brand violent Islamist groups as 'moderate' simply on the grounds that they haven't publicly given their allegiance (bay'ah) to Islamic State or al Qaida.
Articles like this reveal much about the group in question by what they don't say rather than what they do. The author notes that the group's name (Ahrar al-Sham) means 'Free Men of Syria', which sounds pretty moderate until one sees the UN version, which refers to the group's full name of HarakaAhrar al-Sham al-islamiyya, or Islamic Movement of the Free Men of ash-Sham (an historical reference to an area that encompasses much more than simply modern-day Syria). The author, Labib Al Nahhas, head of foreign political relations for the group, also says the group has been incorrectly accused of being part of al Qaida's organisational structure. He neglects to mention Ahram al-Sham's close operational support and personal links with al Qaida.
Ahrar al-Sham has been in an expansionist mood over the past year, initiating non-hostile takeovers of its former Islamist partners in the now-defunct Islamist coalition known as the Islamic Front. This has meant that Ahrar al-Sham is now approaching critical mass and potentially sees itself as a rival to Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). In contrast to JAN though, Ahrar al-Sham is not a proscribed organisation and therefore considers itself a candidate for external assistance, which will potentially allow it to position itself as the pre-eminent (and non-proscribed) armed Islamist group in Syria.
The timing of the piece is not coincidental. Washington's plan to identify, vet and train 'moderate' Syrian rebels as a counterbalance to the plethora of Islamist fighters is not going well. Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee was told that there are only 60 undergoing training. Ahrar al-Sham's not so subtle message is that it should decide who is moderate and thereby worthy of Western support, not Washington.
The fundamental Western misunderstanding of Islamist groups is ideological. Secular and liberal states consign religion to the private sphere. Islamist groups believe they are empowered to institute God's will (or their version of it) on earth. They are not variations of the European model of Christian Democratic parties, where religious beliefs inform social welfare or social justice policies only. Islamist parties by their nature are exclusionary, and this is an essential reason why such groups fail to gain traction in the secular, liberal West.