Earlier this month, the French daily Libération published an interview with Sheikh Louay al-Zouabi, a self-avowed Salafist imam from Daraa, Syria, who claims to have issued a fatwa that sparked the uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad.
A radical fundamentalist current in Islam, Salafism advocates the emulation of the Salaf: the earliest generations of Muhammad's companions and followers. It is the same form of Islam as that embraced by al-Qaeda, to whose ideas al-Zouabi has elsewhere unabashedly said he adheres.
Asked how the "intifada" in Daraa began, al-Zouabi told Libération:
[It began] with the arrest and torture of a dozen children – the oldest was twelve years old – who had written "The people want to overthrow the government" on the walls. The fathers of the children then wanted to negotiate their release with the security forces. They were told: "If you come back, you are going to be arrested and we are going to make your wives kiss our feet." A female lawyer who wanted to defend the children was put in prison and they shaved her head, which is more unacceptable than killing her. It was this that brought people out onto the streets on March 20.
According to al-Zouabi, security forces fired on the protestors, killing six. It was in response to these events, he says, that he issued his fatwa calling for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.
In a separate interview last November with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, al-Zouabi admitted to having fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia: two of the historical hotspots of jihad. An article in the English-language Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star notes, moreover, that he "lived in Sudan at the same time as former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden." Bin Laden moved operations from Afghanistan to Sudan after the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, before returning to Afghanistan in 1996.
In conversation with The Daily Star, al-Zouabi not only admitted to "sharing many of al-Qaeda's beliefs," but stated outright, "I am Al-Qaeda except that I am willing to talk [to Christians] and I oppose the killing of innocents." Al-Zouabi says that he opposed the 9/11 attacks, but supported the "resistance" against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Al-Zouabi, who was reportedly in prison in Syria from 1993 to 1998, told Le Nouvel Observateur's Sara Daniel that today he preaches a "new Salafism," which would be tolerant of other faiths. "I changed during the six years that I spent in Bashar's jails," he explained, "I reinterpreted certain verses of the Quran. Today, I no longer consider you an infidel." "Moreover," he added, "notice that I'm not requiring you to wear a veil. I'm just refraining from looking at you, as my God has commanded…."
In his recent interview with Libération, al-Zouabi called for international military support for the anti-Assad forces. "The peaceful movement is finished," he said,
We have the human capacity to fight, but what we lack are arms, materiel, logistical capabilities. And I want to communicate an essential idea to the West: once the revolution has won, we will respect international agreements and we want to have very good relations with the international community.
"And if the West wants to verify what I represent militarily," al-Zouabi vowed, "I'm prepared to carry out military operations in pre-arranged places."
The Obama administration has recently warned of al-Qaeda "infiltration" of Syrian opposition groups, which "may not be aware" of the presence of the extremists among them. But Sheikh Louay al-Zouabi's nonchalant "I am al-Qaeda" and his account of the origins of the anti-Assad rebellion suggest a very different scenario: that al-Qaeda has been at the forefront of the rebellion from the start.