October 8, 2007 -- UNKNOWN gunmen murdered Muhammad Gul Aghasi - one of the key "theologians" of al Qaeda - at a mosque in northern Syria last month. Candidates for the fiery preacher's killing include rivals within his own radical group, agents of the Americans - and his Syrian hosts. Whatever the truth, this is bad news for the already ailing al Qaeda.
Born in 1973, Aghasi, who was of mixed Kurdish-Turkmen ethnic stock, studied Islamic theology in Damascus in the 1990s before traveling to Pakistan, where he established contact with the Taliban and al Qaeda. In 2004, having returned to his Syrian hometown, he created the Ghuraba al-Shaam (Aliens of the Levant), with the declared aim of recruiting, training and arming jihadists to fight against the new Iraqi government and the U.S.-led Coalition forces.
By 2006, Aghasi - using the nom de guerre Abu Qaaqaa (Father of the Hissing Sound of Swords) - claimed that his group had dispatched more than 2,000 jihadists from half-a-dozen Arab countries to Iraq. The group also boasted of providing jihadists in Iraq with safe havens inside Syria where they could rest, get medical care (even dental work!), retrain and even get married before returning to the battlefield.
Wearing Afghan-style clothes and the mandatory flowing beard, Aghasi was especially proud of the role his jihadists had played in fighting the Americans in Fallujah for more than a year. He claimed that his bulletproof, German-made limousine had been a gift from an Arab businessman for his role in the Fallujah battle. He had created an outfit called Office of Services for the Mujahedin in Iraq, handling millions of dollars collected from unknown benefactors.
The Syrian authorities, not normally known for their tenderness toward anyone operating outside lines fixed by the government, allowed Aghasi to do as he pleased. Damascus dismissed demands by Iraq and a number of other Arab countries (whose citizens Aghasi recruited) to curb the activities of the "Aliens" and insisted that Aghasi was only "a man of faith preaching his version of Islam."
Members of Aghasi's family claim that he had all along worked alongside the "legitimate authorities of the country" to further the interests of "Syria and Islam."
The Syrian authorities claim he was killed by two former jihadists from Iraq who had defected to the U.S. forces there. But it is rumored in pro-jihadist circles that Aghasi had worked for both the Syrians and the Americans. In this theory, the self-styled Sword of the Faith had started working for Syrian intelligence before getting a better offer from the Americans; when he switched sides, the Syrians decided to put him on the fast track to martyrdom.
Some experts have long maintained that al Qaeda no longer exists as a single organization and should be seen as a system of franchise used by a variety of groups, including many copycat outfits, across the Muslim world and beyond. Aghasi's story suggests an even more complex picture, since it shows that any individual or group could take the name of al Qaeda without referring to any central authority that issues the franchise. Al Qaeda's original leaders, including Osama bin Laden, assuming he is still alive, are only too happy to let others fight their fight while they huddle in their hideouts.
These are not happy days for the worldwide al Qaeda brand. Having focused most of its energies on fighting in Iraq, the movement has all but disappeared from the scene in other parts of the global jihad, notably the Caucasus, southern Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kashmir and the Arabian Peninsula.
The dream of defeating the American "Great Satan" in Iraq has also forced al Qaeda affiliated groups and individuals to cooperate with regimes that they had hitherto regarded as ideological enemies - including the Islamic Republic in Tehran and the Ba'athist establishment in Damascus. Two of Bin Laden's sons, Saad and Seif al-Adl, have been in Iran since 2002, along with at least six other al Qaeda leaders. The Iranians say all are under arrest and will be tried on unspecified charges. Aghasi's story, meanwhile, shows that al Qaeda couldn't have maintained its presence in Iraq without the tacit consent of the Syrian intelligence - a consent that may be withdrawn at any time when and if Damascus decides to repair its ties with Baghdad and Washington.
Al Qaeda had hoped that the U.S. Congress would hand it a victory in Iraq by forcing the Bush administration to withdraw American forces before the Iraqis were ready to defend themselves. But that hope vanished last month when it became clear that the United States will retain its military presence in Iraq for at least another year.
Al Qaeda took another hit last week when Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti and the most prestigious cleric in the kingdom, issued a fatwa against "traveling abroad for the purpose of jihad." Hours after the fatwa was issued, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed it as a "major step toward defeating al Qaeda in Iraq."
Inside Iraq itself, a new force of more than 30,000 volunteers is getting ready to battle al Qaeda in the two predominantly Arab Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninveh. Many of the volunteers are young men who had previously fought for Al Qaeda in Iraq. They decided to switch sides when Arab Sunni religious and tribal leaders realized that al Qaeda was merely using Iraq as a battlefield in its own war against the United States.
Even before Aghasi was gunned down, the flow of jihadists going to Iraq via Syria had slowed down. According to Iraqi official estimates, the number of foreign jihadists entering between January and July was down by almost 50 percent compared to the same period in 2006. This is, perhaps, one reason why the al Qaeda cyberspace is now full of desperate calls for more jihadists for Iraq. Despite the setbacks it has suffered, al Qaeda still sees Iraq as a make-or-break moment for its dream of world conquest.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.