While debates ramped up over the past two weeks among Middle East specialists over the efficacy of a possible Western intervention in Syria (see here, here, and here), earlier this week, on January 23, the online global jihadi forums posted — in jubilation — a new video message ”For the People of Syria from the Mujahidin of Syria in the Fields of Jihad” from a purported new jihadi group named Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) via its new media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (The White Lighthouse) Foundation for Media Production. Before this article discusses the video and reaction to it from Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian exiled in London, it is worthwhile to look deeper into the significance for why Jabhat al-Nusrah chose al-Manarah al-Bayda’ as the name of its media outlet. The answer is quite fascinating.
al-Fitan wa Ashrat as-Sa’ah
Although many do not look into it, there are many layers usually to why jihadis decide to choose names for their media outlets, forums, battalions, and titles for media releases. On many occasions they allude to historical figures, events, or places as well as allusions to Qur’anic verses and Ahadith. One area that is understudied is the role of millenarianism in jihadi thought. Ali Soufan covered aspects of it related to the black banners and Khurasan in his book The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. Indeed, the name of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda’ alludes to a Sahih Muslim hadith #7015, which deals with the end of times. The whole hadith is long so I placed the entirety of it at the bottom of this article, but here is the segment that mentions al-Manarah al-Bayda’:
He (Dajjal) would then call (that young man) and he will come forward laughing with his face gleaming (with happiness) and it would at this very time that Allah would send Jesus, son of Mary, and he will descend at al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (the white lighthouse or minaret) in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it. Every non-believer who would smell the odour of his self would die and his breath would reach as far as he would be able to see. He would then search for him (Dajjal) until he would catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and would kill him. Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to Tur, and then Allah would send Gog and Magog and they would swarm down from every slope.
The ad-Dajjal figure mentioned in the above quote of the hadith represents a false prophet that comes during the end of times. It is similar to the anti-Christ, but somewhat different at the same time. Islamic tradition states that there are several ad-Dajjal throughout history, but during the end times it is considered the “big” ad-Dajjal (false prophet). According to Jean-Pierre Filiu in his book Apocalypse in Islam, “Throughout the whole of human history, from Adam until the resurrection, no thing or person will have caused greater turmoil than ad-Dajjal.” Additionally, al-Manarah al-Bayda’ or as local Damascenes call it the “Jesus Minaret,” refers to the eastern minaret at the Ummayyad Mosque, also called the Great Mosque of Damascus.
Jabhat al-Nusrah does not directly mention anything related to the hadith and its significance in its video, but it is difficult for one not to wonder about the deeper meaning. As a result of the currently tumultuous situation in Syria and the centrality of Syria in the Islamic apocalyptic literature one would be remiss not to ponder that individuals involved with Jabhat al-Nusrah have the apocalypse on their minds. At the same time, it should be noted that millenarianism is often important for many religious hardliner groups. Without direct knowledge of why Jabhat al-Nusrah chose the name al-Manarah al-Bayda’ for its media outlet, it is difficult to ascertain its true intent. Understanding this extra layer, though, and its significance in Islamic traditional literature can hopefully provide deeper insights into Jabhat al-Nusrah’s state of their mind versus parsing the banal platitudes they actually discuss in the video.
The Video and Tartusi’s Take
The video Jabhat al-Nusrah released was around sixteen minutes and contained pretty high quality graphics showing that its media department (or one dude in a basement) definitely has some level of skills. For about 5-8 minutes of the video there is an individual named al-Fatih (“The Conquerer) Abu Muhammad al-Juwlani, Jabhat al-Nusrah’s spokesperson. More or less, al-Juwlani repeats the usual jihadi tropes. He also calls out and threatens the United States, the West, the Arab League, Turkey, and Iran for all aligning and collaborating with the al-Assad regime against the (Sunni) Muslims. There are multiples scenes of tens of individuals training with AK-47s in the woods and desert. They also take pose pictures together with large flags with the shahadah (Muslim testament of faith) on it along with either the name Jabhat al-Nusrah at the bottom or an area of operation, including Hamah. Dara is also mentioned by a small cadre pledging loyalty to the group. In a separate video that was released a few days after the official release from Jabhat al-Nusrah, a video was uploaded to YouTube that showed a small group of individuals declaring fealty to Jabhat al-Nusrah. They claim to be from Idlib and go under the banner of Kata’ib Ahrar ash-Sham (The Battalion of Free Syria). If the number of people in the videos can tell us anything, between the YouTube video and the official release there are probably at the low end twenty and at the high end forty individuals involved with Jabhat al-Nusrah.
Usually, when new groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah appear, some online grassroots jihadi activists are curious about the group’s program, legitimacy, and whether it is okay to support them. Although such questions haven’t been asked of Minbar at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s Shari’ah Committee yet, Abu Basir al-Tartusi was asked by several “brothers” about Jabhat al-Nusrah and its video message on his Facebook page al-Mu’ardah al-Islamiyyah l-l-Nizam al-Suri (The Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime). al-Tartusi responded by stating he had never heard of them, but had a few observations and reservations about the group. One of al-Tartusi’s larger critiques was the fact that the men in the video and specifically, the speaker, were all masked and did not show their faces, while Syrians have removed its fear of the al-Assad regime by defying the taghut (tyrant). al-Tartusi also reminds Jabhat al-Nusrah of what happened in the 1980s, which led to much bloodshed and that the mujahidin should be reassuring the masses instead of provoking fear by hiding behind masks. al-Tartusi understands that for the mujahidins safety some have to cover their faces, but a leader needs to show itself, which could hopefully help the masses sympathize with its cause. He also warns that they need to have patience, especially with the Syrians that are looking for international support. Therefore, Jabhat al-Nusrah must show kindness.
al-Tartusi also blasts Jabhat al-Nusrah for proclaiming war against “enemies East and West … it will not benefit the Syrian revolution.” It will only open the mujahidin up to more fronts and greater chance of failure. This harkens back to previous tracts by al-Tartusi on the Syrian uprising, which Joas Wagemakers touches upon at Jihadica. As Wagemakers noted: “What is clear from Abu Basir’s writings, however, is that he obviously cares about Syria. The tone of his work here is not one of fighting against ‘infidel’ rulers who fail to apply the shari’a but much more one of concern for his native land.” It appears al-Tartusi is still most concerned with the goal of seeking the al-Assad regime’s fall. Further echoing the above sentiment, al-Tartusi wonders why parts of the Jabhat al-Nusrah video is translated to English, who are they trying to speak to (al-Tartusi rhetorically asks): the US and the West or the Syrian people? Although he has many questions, al-Tartusi hopes his advice with be fruitful for the mujahidin and that they succeed.
As such, although Jabhat al-Nusrah does not appear to have large support yet, they are a group that one should keep an eye on, especially when thinking in the context of a potential Western intervention. There is much we do not know about Jabhat al-Nusrah, but again, as in other contexts of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, it has provided space for more radical elements to breathe as regimes attempt to hold on at the center while allowing the periphery to fall out of sight. Of course, that does not mean one should support these authoritarian regimes, but rather, one should be aware of the potential short and medium term consequences that citizens of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as policymakers in the West will have to grapple with in the coming years and decade.
Sahih Muslim 7015:
An-Nawwas b. Sam’an reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) made a mention of the Dajjal one day in the morning. He sometimes described him to be insignificant and sometimes described (his turmoil) as very significant rand we felt) as if he were in the cluster of the date-palm trees. When we went to him (to the Holy Prophet) in the evening and he read (the signs of fear) in our faces, he said: What is the matter with you?
We said: Allah’s Messenger, you made a mention of the Dajjal in the morning (sometimes describing him) to be insignificant and sometimes very important, until we began to think as if he were present in some (near) part of the cluster of the datpalm trees. Thereupon he said: I harbour fear in regard to you in so many other things besides the Dajjal. If he comes forth while I am among on, I shall contend with him on your behalf, but if he comes forth while I am not amongst you, a man must contend on his own behalf and Allah would take care of every Muslim on my behalf (and safeguard him against his evil). He (Dajjal) would be a young man with twisted, contracted hair, and a blind eye. I compare him to ‘Abd-ul-’Uzza b. Qatan. He who amongst you would survive to see him should recite over him the opening verses of Sura Kahf (xviii.). He would appear on the way between Syria and Iraq and would spread mischief right and left. O servant of Allah! adhere (to the path of Truth). We said: Allah’s Messenger, how long would he stay on the earth? He said.. For forty days, one day like a year and one day like a month and one day like a week and the rest of the days would be like your days.
We said: Allah’s Messenger, would one day’s prayer suffice for the prayers of day equal to one year? Thereupon he said: No, but you must make an estimate of time (and then observe prayer). We said: Allah’s Messenger, how quickly would he walk upon the earth? Thereupon he said: Like cloud driven by the wind. He would come to the people and invite them (to a wrong religion) and they would affirm their faith in him and respond to him. He would then give command to the sky and there would be rainfall upon the earth and it would grow crops. Then in the evening, their posturing animals would come to them with their humps very high and their udders full of milk and their flanks stretched. He would then come to another people and invite them. But they would reject him and he would go away from them and there would be drought for them and nothing would be lef t with them in the form of wealth. He would then walk through the waste, land and say to it: Bring forth your treasures, and the treasures would come out and collect (themselves) before him like the swarm of bees. He would then call a person brimming with youth and strike him with the sword and cut him into two pieces and (make these pieces lie at a distance which is generally) between the archer and his target.
He would then call (that young man) and he will come forward laughing with his face gleaming (with happiness) and it would at this very time that Allah would send Christ, son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damscus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it. Every non-believer who would smell the odour of his self would die and his breath would reach as far as he would be able to see. He would then search for him (Dajjal) until he would catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and would kill him. Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to Tur, and then Allah would send Gog and Magog and they would swarm down from every slope.
The first of them would pass the lake of Tibering and drink out of it. And when the last of them would pass, he would say: There was once water there. Jesus and his companions would then be besieged here (at Tur, and they would be so much hard pressed) that the head of the ox would be dearer to them than one hundred dinirs and Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would supplicate Allah, Who would send to them insects (which would attack their necks) and in the morning they would perish like one single person. Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would then come down to the earth and they would not find in the earth as much space as a single span which is not filled with their putrefaction and stench. Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would then again beseech Allah, Who would send birds whose necks would be like those of bactrin camels and they would carry them and throw them where God would will. Then Allah would send rain which no house of clay or (the tent of) camels’ hairs would keep out and it would wash away the earth until it could appear to be a mirror. Then the earth would be told to bring forth its fruit and restore its blessing and, as a result thereof, there would grow (such a big) pomegranate that a group of persons would be able to eat that, and seek shelter under its skin and milch cow would give so much milk that a whole party would be able to drink it. And the milch camel would give such (a large quantity of) milk that the whole tribe would be able to drink out of that and the milch sheep would give so much milk that the whole family would be able to drink out of that and at that time Allah would send a pleasant wind which would soothe (people) even under their armpits, and would take the life of every Muslim and only the wicked would survive who would commit adultery like asses and the Last Hour would come to them.