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The Decline of Salafi-Jihadism in Syria Does Not Mean the End of Extremism

The era of wide-scale Salafist recruitment in Syria is in retreat, but their ideas of violence as a solution will linger.

From the beginning of the Syrian revolution against government forces, armed Salafist groups have attracted and influenced followers through religious discourse.

These groups used sectarianism to stimulate the emotions of the Sunni public, arguing that a regime dominated by Alawites was their centuries-old enemy. To attract followers in Syria, this discourse emphasized the notion that the Alawites are not Muslim and that Ibn Taymiyyah declared them to be outside of Islam.

These pronouncements were alluring to a group of youth who knew nothing about these ideas beforehand. The groups found in these youths a weapon to confront the repression of the Syrian security apparatus, while exploiting their frustration with peaceful change.

Likewise, the propaganda of jihadist groups emphasized the slogan of Shariah rule to gain followers and persuade them that land ruled by secular governments is not compliant with Shariah. Thus began the cohorts of youth flocking to Syria, convinced of these beliefs.

The power of the Salafist propaganda and the eloquence of its discourse pulled the rug out from under other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and others. Many youths had rallied to the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham and the Brotherhood, but they left them and joined Salafist groups and their attractive propaganda – freighted with religious emotion and the romantic dreams of past Islamic conquests.

This rhetoric was accompanied by other factors that contributed to the power of recruitment, such as the organization within Salafist religious groups, the clarity of their goals, their centralized power structure, the charisma of their leaders and their material capabilities.

The tide has turned

However, today, this ‘golden age’ of jihadist recruitment is over. The voices calling for followers are silent, while many youths – both foreign and local – have split from the religious groups, and recruitment is now limited to movement between factions. The discourse of these groups has changed from a propaganda of general ideas and goals to one of burnishing the group.

For example, the recently-formed Horas Alden faction can sometimes win over members affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) by showing the latter’s weaknesses and accusing it of cooperating with Turkey. Thus, this group, which is close to Al-Qaeda, is able to gain dozens of young men. Likewise, HTS has attracted members belonging to some revolutionary groups, such as Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, by presenting itself as the only group that did not enter into international bargaining and did not comply with regional agreements.

These issues demonstrate how recruitment propaganda has changed from having a global scope to a focus on a narrow, local circle limited to members of factions. This is contributing to the reluctance of many youths to join any of the factions, because of their disappointment in the transformation of the cause from a full and comprehensive project built on the ‘glories of the past’ into a factional competition based on pestering people to join them, like shopkeepers hawking their wares to customers.

The decline in Salafist recruiting efforts has led many youths to work in relief organizations and education, supported by Western organizations. In the past, this was seen as a major sin for these young people, but the spirit of defeat and failure surrounding the jihadist project has led them to search for a new way of living.

Likewise, the defeats suffered by factions like ISIS and al-Nusra weakened recruiting and in some cases drove followers from the ranks – many youths in Sunni areas defected to the Assad regime, attracted by its military successes. Similarly, Iranian propaganda has been cohesive and clearly-defined, in comparison with Salafist groups today. Recruiting is not purely sectarian – success organizationally and on the battlefield matters.

Legacy of violence

But despite the decline in Salafist groups, the conflict in local communities will contribute to creating a generation that believes in violence as a means of retaliation.

Although some youths have left Salafist groups to join the ranks of the regime, many are angry at the indiscriminate approach taken by the Syrian regime and its ally, Iran. Moderate factions in Ghouta, Homs and other places suffered greatly from the violence of regime forces and were forced to flee. This will nurture a thirst for vengeance among moderates and push them towards violent extremism.

All this means that the breakup and collapse of Syrian society will make it difficult to raise generations that believe in peaceful coexistence and sectarian compromise, especially while the wounds of this society remain fresh.


Sultan Al Kanj is a Syrian Journalist and researcher born in rural Aleppo. He studied Philosophy at University of Aleppo and worked as a journalist coveirng Syria since 2012. He writes for Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Arabi 21 and Al Jazeera blogs. He has experince in academic researchincluding philosophical research, history of religious groups, intellectual doctrines, and history of Islamic civilization.