"ISIS has been trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard," claims late Syrian rebel leader.
Just hours before an explosion wiped out the entire leadership of one of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria, the head of Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade spent four hours talking to Yvonne Ridley about his vision for the future. In an amazingly frank interview, this is what he told her.
Shaikh Hassan Abboud was normally upbeat during our conversations, even when visited by the darkest of times in his unrelenting war against Syrian government forces, while trying simultaneously to repel rear-guard attacks by the rogue group ISIS. During several of our discussions he admitted that it was difficult to make military progress because of infighting among the other groups. In addition, the astonishing rise of ISIS had caught almost everyone by surprise.
In our last conversation I noticed that he was more than optimistic, he was almost ebullient as he revealed how a key unity deal was being formulated among most of the rebel fighting groups on the ground in Syria. Only a handful were excluding themselves; ISIS was one of them.
To the frustration of many, the fight to bring down the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad has been thwarted constantly because of in-fighting among the rebels. At times they turned against each other when they should have been focused on overthrowing the Syrian regime. As a result, Assad was mired in a war he could not win while fighting an enemy that could not bring him down; both sides were deeply-entrenched, leaving ordinary Syrians as the biggest losers.
However, this time was going to be different, said Abboud; change was coming. He revealed that a loose coalition was about to be formed which would bring peace and unity among the majority of rebel fighting groups. The name of the coalition had not yet been formulated but would almost certainly include the words Supreme Council; it drew an ironic and uncharacteristic chuckle from the Shaikh when I suggested that it sounded very Iranian.
I asked him how this deal had been achieved after so many failed attempts. Through concessions and consensus, he replied. "We have had to focus on the things that unite us and accept each other's differences. We realised that we cannot change each other's principles and priorities but by focusing on the fundamental aims of each group we have been able to come together."
Without strategic change, he continued, neither the rebels nor Assad can win the war. "There are some foreign sides that want to exclude the Islamists from the rebel factions but jihad is something practiced by all of us and not just the elite."
Shaikh Abboud stressed that the factions are working towards achieving a harmonious council that gathers as many groups together as possible. "Quite simply, we need to unify and have the same agenda." Failure to do this will mean that the regime cannot be toppled. "This is the real message of jihad," he insisted, "not the one being promoted by ISIS." There is no room for self-secluded groups, added Abboud. "We have developed an initiative to reach this goal and many groups have already declared their approval. The problem is for those groups who have foreign fighters because they have a phobia about being organised locally."
What about the Syrian National Coalition? "We still don't approve or have the confidence of the SNC because it is supervised by a bunch of states which have their own agenda that does not serve the interests of the Syrian people."
According to Abboud, a group of the factions will be holding a preparatory meeting to form a revolutionary council where they will focus on mutual goals and set aside, "for the time being", those goals which cannot be agreed upon.
When I made my recent offer to ISIS to swap places with one of their Western hostages, Abboud called me to try to dissuade me. The leader of Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade told me: "They will kill you, without any doubt. The Islamic context of your offer will be ignored and if you travel to the region we will do everything in our power to prevent you, even if we have to kidnap you ourselves." He was deadly serious, but I seized the opportunity to ask him for his thoughts on ISIS. Where did it spring from, and what are its intentions?
He provided me with several hours of in-depth analysis, with some startling accusations thrown in, which included his claims that ISIS is:
- Not Islamic;
- Supported directly or indirectly by the Assad regime;
- Trained by the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards;
- Using Islam as a Trojan horse; and
- Conceived and funded by supporters of Assad.
Had these comments come from anyone else I would have dismissed them as a bit of hyperbole in a war where words are used as much as weapons to inflict maximum damage. However, in the few months that I'd come to know Abboud, who was also known as Abu Abdullah Al-Hamawi, he didn't strike me as the sort of man to indulge in wild speculation or deliberately misleading propaganda.
Our very first conversation had been about ISIS and he reminded me of it. "I told you then that ISIS does not represent Islam and its behaviour makes us all very sceptical because of the way it operates. There is something hidden from the rest of the world but for us fighting on the ground we know you cannot emerge and grow and develop without entering into a conflict with the Assad regime."
The Syrian government, he pointed out, has targeted many rebel groups but it seems that ISIS has not engaged in any frontline fighting with Assad nor has it ever been targeted by the president.
"For instance, even if there are three cars travelling in the countryside Assad's air force will strike them in the belief that it must be a convoy. Now you tell me, when movement is coming under such intense scrutiny how was ISIS able to move a convoy of 200 vehicles from one province to another and finally into Iraq without coming under one single attack or meeting resistance at any regime checkpoints?"
Indeed, as ISIS emerged in Syria, its forces attacked other rebel groups and as soon as areas were taken under its control a new administration would be introduced, including sharia courts, said Abboud.
"They refused to enter into any deals with other rebel groups," he explained, "and because they weren't engaged in fighting Assad's forces they also appeared to spend a great deal of leisure time with limitless resources and funds."
The group changed its strategy as ISIS developed, he said. It entered a new phase in the northern countryside around Aleppo and the coastal areas where ISIS tried to control strategic border towns around Idlib. "ISIS tried to smother the gateways used by Syrian revolutionaries."
Tensions reached a new high in January this year when ISIS kidnapped, tortured and killed Dr Hussein Al-Suleiman, who was a senior commander under Abboud. A gruesome photograph was circulated on the social media networks. "They disfigured his body in such a way that has not been witnessed outside of Assad's prisons. Ordinary Syrian people had seen nothing like this before. Those who held him and tortured him did some shocking things to him."
Abboud's group demanded that ISIS hand over those responsible for the torture and murder of Dr Al-Suleiman (Abu Rayyan) by pointing out that Shari'ah Committees had already been established in rebel-held areas to handle local disputes. The killing of Abu Rayyan was a turning point for Abboud who has, until now, restrained himself from criticizing ISIS publicly. In our interview, though, he unleashed his anger, regret and outrage over the group's actions.
At the time of Abu Rayyan's murder the mainstream opposition-in-exile, the Syrian National Coalition, also condemned the crime strongly and accused ISIS of being in league with the Syrian regime of President Assad.
"The coalition believes that ISIS is linked closely to the terrorist regime and serves the interests of the clique of President Bashar Assad, directly or indirectly. The murder of Syrians by this group [ISIS] leaves no doubt about the intentions behind its creation, its objectives and the agendas it serves, which are confirmed by the nature of its terrorist actions hostile to the Syrian revolution," said the SNC statement.
According to Abboud, the accusation that ISIS was working with Assad was not beyond the realms of possibility. "Ask yourself who benefits from ISIS. Assad has never engaged his forces against it and it's never fought on the frontlines against Syrian government forces."
He believes that the real Trojan horse is religion and the way that Islam is being abused by ISIS. "It has used Islam to sneak inside Syrian society but once we saw their behaviour nothing can convince us that they have the right ideology or the right practice. After the killing of Abu Rayyan there was a counter-revolution against ISIS that was launched by all manner of rebel groups and ordinary Muslims. ISIS then used the media to spread rumours about foreign rebel fighters raping Syrian women and started to target and brainwash teenagers to join the group and its ideology."
Apparently when its fighters captured a number of foreigners the intention of ISIS was not to slaughter or behead them but to use them as hostages to make money. "They even took Turkish diplomats in Mosul and there are talks going on now for a prisoner exchange." (The Turkish hostages have just been released, unharmed.)
"The beheading of people is a distinctive procedure used against the rebels and we've had hundreds of such incidents but only now is it being denounced by the UN Security Council because the latest killings involve westerners," said Abboud, who believes that the ISIS revolution in Iraq was nothing short of "astonishing" and made him question the lack of resistance put up by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's forces. "He lost control because the army has no military ideology," he claimed.
In conceding that the ISIS invasion and occupation of huge swathes of Iraq was nothing short of "military brilliance", Abboud made perhaps the most shocking of his accusations.
"I think it was all worked out and devised by Qasem Soleimani, the former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He is the one person who could have pulled all of this together. He wasn't able to stop the revolution in Syria but when ISIS arrived everything stopped and there was a turning point."
This is an accusation which will cause equal measures of outrage in the Shia and Sunni worlds but Soleimani's brilliance as a military strategist is heralded in both East and West. Towards the end of 2012 he led the Iranian intervention in the Syrian war as concern increased over the Assad regime's lack of ability to fight the opposition. With a base in Damascus he is co-ordinating the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militia and Iranian forces.
Abboud was insistent that only Soleimani could have devised such a military venture and said that this would explain why Al-Maliki's forces fell away without resistance when ISIS stormed into Iraq seizing territory on a scale and speed unimaginable to the former US occupiers. The leader of Ahrar Al-Sham added that the blame for the emergence and success of ISIS also lay with some of the Gulf states; its initial funding, he claimed, is thought to have come from the United Arab Emirates.
"We know that Jabhat Al-Nusra is funded from the Gulf but, before they took the oil and gas fields, ISIS was spending big money on the weapons markets. They would pay whatever price was being asked for weapons and didn't even both to negotiate. They had vast amounts of money to spend."
ISIS even has a scud missile in its arsenal, alleged Abboud. "The leaders show it to other rebel groups when trying to persuade them to join ISIS. I'm not sure where they got the scud from but they don't have the technology or equipment to fire it, it is there purely for display purposes."
Abboud acknowledged that there are many questions unanswered over ISIS. "Nevertheless, I do know that there is a real relationship between ISIS and the Syrian regime. And at the moment one cannot exist without helping the other. A monster has been created but this ISIS has many fathers."
I was looking forward to more detailed analysis but, sadly, Shaikh Hassan Abboud was never to see his opposition unity coalition realised. Hours after our final discussion he was dead along with dozens of other commanders who were killed in a massive explosion at a meeting house in Idlib on 9 September. While conspiracy theories abound over the cause of the explosion one thing is for sure, in terms of timing this was the worst possible scenario. Abboud was on the cusp of delivering a peace formula among the rebel groups which could have changed the course of the war.
His legacy is now in the hands of a new commander who has taken control of at least 20,000 fighters who form the main force in the Islamic Front alliance, which was created to counter ISIS, as well as to fight the troops still loyal to Bashar Al-Assad.
Ahrar Al-Sham seeks to have a state run on Islamic principles, which protects the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. It disagrees profoundly with the approach taken by ISIS. Abboud's untimely death came as the US government is seeking to unify the Syrian opposition and pull together its own loose coalition to act against the rogue "Islamic State".
I'm really not sure if Abboud would have signed up to the US venture as he was highly critical of what he called the "double standards" of the West. His ultimate goal was to establish Islamic rule, not democracy, in Syria and that would be at odds not only with the democratic West but also with the leaders of other regimes in the region.
After reading through my notes I sent a text message to Shaikh Abboud and asked him if he was sure that I could use his interview in full. The next morning a message was waiting for me in response: "You can attribute my analysis to me. I declare it."
It remains to be seen if his vision and legacy will live on.