Why are the Syrian rebels united against ISIS?

ISIS fighters in Syria.

Journalist and film maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem explains why Syrian rebels are united against the Al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

It was January 2013, and the Islamic groups headed at the time by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham had the Syrian regime on the ropes. Cities and towns were falling by the week and it seemed that no one was in a position to stand against the tide. A few more good battles and I believe the regime would have fallen.

Men, women, and children alike were praising the mujahideen, both foreign and local, for their heroic efforts and sacrifice. It was an atmosphere that you cannot imagine if you weren’t there – I was. It seemed as if it was no longer a matter of whether the regime would fall or not, rather when.

Fighters would literally beg their commanders to take them on the next raid and start to cry if they were turned down. Coming from the United States, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing grown men cry – I couldn’t believe it. Then suddenly something happened that brought all of that promising hope crashing down. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called his troops to split with Jabhat al-Nusra and created ISIS, now known as the “Islamic State”.


Bilal spent two years in Syria in areas under rebel control.
Bilal spent two years in Syria in areas under rebel control.

I spent a lot of time filming in Syria and I got to know members of ISIS who are now a part of the Islamic State stretching between Syria and Iraq. I’m a journalist but I’m also a human being. Due to the fact that I am Muslim and at the age of 43 I’m old enough to be the father of many of the fighters out there, which demanded a level of respect that many journalists didn’t have.

I saw many of the tactics that ISIS employed and I would encourage those whom I could not to join them. Some listened, others didn’t. However, I’m often asked why? People would send me messages on Facebook wondering why I’m not pleased that there is now an “Islamic State” to support.

Asking, what are the underlying reasons for the fighting between the groups? Have real attempts been made to bring the warring parties together?  I would like to try and answer some of these questions as best I can in this series of articles.

Some will think I’m biased, some will make takfir on me for speaking what I deem to be the truth, and others will just dismiss what I have to say.

Dr Hussein Suleiman

While this is not where the disputes began between rebel groups and ISIS, it is a good place to start, so you can begin to understand the atmosphere. I’ll start this brief journey by telling you about Dr Hussein Suleiman also known as Abu Rayyan. He was a senior commander of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most effective Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces. Last year there were a number of growing disputes between ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham, particularly in the area of Maskana village. Abu Rayyan was sent to ISIS to settle a dispute. What happened next is something that I feel every Muslim who has heard the name ISIS should know as this is just one of many stories of its kind.

Dr Hussein Suleiman (Abu Rayyan) was a senior commander of Ahrar al-Sham
Dr Hussein Suleiman (Abu Rayyan) was a senior commander of Ahrar al-Sham

In January this year, Abu Rayyan was detained by ISIS when he went to their headquarters as an arbitrator in a dispute that was growing between the two groups. When he didn’t return to base, Ahrar al-Sham contacted ISIS to inquire about his whereabouts. Initially, they denied knowing anything about him.

However, a few days later one of the prisoners who was in the same prison as Abu Rayyan was released, and informed Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Hassan Abboud that his commander was detained. ISIS was confronted with proof that Abu Rayyan was indeed detained by them. Subsequently, they admitted that he was their prisoner and was now accused of some “serious” crimes.

Hassan Abboud told them that he knew the charges were fabricated; after all, Abu Rayyan went to them and not the other way around. It was only fair that he be tried in an independent court and he would abide by their decision. After much discussion as to whom and where the case would be settled, the discussions bore no fruit. After 20 days of detention, Abu Rayyan’s body was sent to his family in the following condition:

– His right ear was cut off (forensic examination shows it happened before his death).

– Severe biting on both the bottom and top lip (signs of enduring intense pain).

– Broken left leg.

– His finger was broken as his captors tried to remove his finger with a knife (again before his death).

-Broken left wrist.

– Shot a total of 21 times: 10 in the head – One in the left arm (approximately 12 hours before death).


Shaykh Yusuf Al Ahmad attempted to mediate the affair after ISIS stated that there would be a judge from Ahrar al-Sham and a judge from ISIS to decide the matter. Shaykh Yusuf Al Ahmad suggested that this mode of judging would not produce an independent verdict and would not lead to a peaceful end. Therefore in a letter addressed to both Hassan Abboud and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he suggested that a group of representatives from the other groups fighting in Syria outside of Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS should come together and select a scholar to judge the matter.

Several respected scholars in the circles of Jihadi movement of Syria tried to intervene to have the issue investigated and the perpetrator brought to account.  ISIS refused to respond to their demands as their position has always been that they are the “Islamic State” and there was no need for an independent judiciary. This was considered a major act of treachery by Ahrar al-Sham and the other rebel factions fighting in the war as a refusal to appear in a Shariah court went against everything they were fighting for in Syria.

The previous images of al Baghdadi have matched his most recent images.
The previous images of al Baghdadi have matched his most recent images.

Additionally, Abu Rayyan was sent to them as a messenger and a person who was supposed to be under ISIS’ protection as customary for peace envoys in Islam. Furthermore, Ahrar al-Sham felt betrayed as torture was a key element of the Syrian regime, which they were fighting against.

This event was one the catalysts that sparked the internal fighting amongst the rebel groups allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra on one side, and ISIS on the other. None of the other Islamic groups supported and allied themselves with ISIS.

Rebel infighting

Ahrar al-Sham raised the issue that there was no referral to any court to try Abu Rayyan for his alleged crimes, only a summary execution. The FSA and other brigades banded together as well, as they all had issues and scores to settle with ISIS who they feel didn’t recognise the rights of any Muslim who opposed them and their ideology. Since then, ISIS has tried to show that this is a war of those who want Shariah (them) and those who want Democracy (every other group).

I have listened to first hand accounts of ISIS’ secret prisons, full of weak Syrians and muhajirs (foreigners) who were suspected of crimes and imprisoned without trial. Some have disappeared. The primary issue that most rebel groups inside Syria have with ISIS is that they have placed themselves above Shariah law which they claim to have established.

Respected jihadi scholars Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi and Abu Qatada have denounced ISIS for their actions and their continued refusal to appear before an independent Islamic court to settle disputes. ISIS feels that they are the “Islamic State” and issues of the state will be settled only within their state, within their courts and their judges.

It is incumbent upon Muslims around the world that is no longer willing to accept the existing status quo, to decide what will be their new identity.  Those who support, or are thinking of supporting the “Islamic State” must not cry foul when Benjamin Netanyahu slaughters Palestinians yet not press Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to respond to charges of imprisonment, torture, and murder of Dr. Hussein Suleiman.

A lack of accountability has created an atmosphere whereby leaders in the Muslim world are too used to deflecting questions, which are forwarded to them, if that doesn’t mean death, and this has become a trait within ISIS’ leadership.


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