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    Middle East
     Oct 2, 2007
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An anti-US, anti-al-Qaeda voice is silenced
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Abu al-Qaqa (34), a highly popular and charismatic cleric in Aleppo who is famed for his anti-Americanism, was gunned down while leaving a mosque in northern Syria last Friday. The Western media have accused him of being the main sponsor of jihadis illegally crossing the Syrian border to fight in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003.

Abu al-Qaqa was speaker of the Iman Mosque and director of an Islamic high school in Aleppo. He was the preacher who drew the

largest crowds and had the strongest, often enchanting, influence on his disciples. His assassin, described as "a man in his 20s" who had attended Abu al-Qaqa's sermons, apparently drove up to the mosque and fired at Abu al-Qaqa; one shot in the head, three in the chest. Several Iraqi men have been arrested.

Members of Parliament and the National Progressive Front, a coalition of leftist parties under the umbrella of the ruling Ba'ath Party, attended his funeral. Thousands took part, with young people wearing shirts with his image imprinted on it, carrying slogans that read, "The voice of justice at a time of silence." His coffin was draped with the Syrian flag, making the service a semi-official function.

Samir Abu Khashabeh, one of his companions, accused the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of killing him because "Abu al-Qaqa was an enemy of the American project in Iraq". But Abu al-Qaqa also had radical anti-al-Qaeda views. He accused the group of being a creation of the CIA, aimed at distorting the real image of Islam by carrying out terrorist operations against fellow Muslims.

He denounced al-Qaeda's campaign against Muslim Shi'ites, praised Hezbollah in Lebanon, and opposed the targeting of anybody in Iraq who was not part of the international coalition that is headed by the US. In short, he said that everything done by al-Qaeda since 2001 was a grave mistake that had backfired on the Muslim community at large. Websites sympathetic to Osama bin Laden snapped back, accusing him of being an imposter cleric and a creation of the Syrian government.

The charismatic cleric (sometimes referred to by his real name Dr Mahmud al-Aghasi) rose to international notice when young militants, believed to be his former students, were apprehended while trying to carry out a terrorist operation in the heart of Damascus on June 2, 2006. They were due to strike at Omayyad Square in downtown Damascus, were several important buildings stand.

Nobody at the time identified the exact target, but the failed attack led to the killing of two security officials and four militants. Footage of the killed terrorists was shown on state-run Syrian television and newspapers. The disturbing images were purposely displayed to end all speculation that the attack was fabricated by the government - as members of the exiled Syrian opposition were saying. Those who were killed and those arrested were carrying compact discs (CDs) with inflammatory speeches by Abu al-Qaqa.

On the CDs, Abu al-Qaqa is shown speaking to worshipers under the banner of a then-unknown group, Guraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria). This became the umbrella under which he operated, and whose name was imprinted on all of his CDs. On camera, he tells his followers, who are assembled before him at a mosque: "We will teach our enemies a lesson they will never forget." He then asks: "Are you ready?" Thundering chants respond affirmatively from his audience, who get worked up into tears as they listen, and he carries on: "Speak louder so [US President George W Bush] can hear you!" Their tears make him weep as well, as he gets impassioned with anti-Americanism and adds: "Guests have come to our land ... slaughter them like cattle. Burn them! Yes, they are the Americans!"

In an interview with al-Muharrir al-Arabi published on June 16 (a few days after the Damascus attack last year) Abu al-Qaqa denied any involvement in the Omayyad Square operation, blaming it on al-Qaeda. He claimed that all talk about him being behind it was actually targeting "the wise and civilized Islamic project in Bilad al-Sham [Greater Syria]". The entire ordeal was a "bitter event" he said, adding, "My stance on it is similar to my stance on criminal acts: total rejection."

As for the CDs found on the terrorists, the cleric pointed out he could not be blamed if those inspired by him were carrying his CDs. There were over 2,000 similar CDs, he noted, distributed across Syria. They were not proof that he had ordered the attacks, he emphasized. He added, "I challenge any person who can come up with proof of anything I have written or said that calls for illegal resistance or even hints towards blind violence against an Arab or foreign country." Abu al-Qaqa's alibi was accepted and he was allowed to live in peace in Syria.

Abu al-Qaqa was born into a Kurdish family in the village of al-Foz, north of Aleppo, in 1973. His father was a simple farmer and harbored no religious tendencies. The young Aghasi studied Islam at Damascus University and obtained a master's and doctorate from the Islamic University in Karachi, Pakistan.

He began to preach to the pious at the Alaa bin Hadrami Mosque in Aleppo in the 1990s. Loudly anti-American, he attracted a wide audience during the Iraq war in 2003. His reputation snowballed overnight and he became a phenomenon. This was at a time when religiousness was increasing tremendously in the Arab world due to the success of Islamic parties in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Hezbollah had recently liberated South Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Hamas was waging a war against Israel in Palestine and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was just rising in fame throughout Iraq, attracting hundreds of thousands to his leadership.

Abu al-Qaqa probably thought that he could do the same in Syria. Attending his sermons became a popular trend among the pious. While young, hip teenagers would boast: "I have just attended a

Continued 1 2 

Unveiling men in the Arab world (Sep 29, '07)

Neo-cons have Syria in their sights (Sep 30, '07)

1. A massive wrench in Putin's works

2. The man behind the madness

3. Anti-Iran hawks win partial victory

4. Myanmar's blogs of bloodshed

5. Unveiling men in the Arab world

6. The bin Laden needle in a haystack

7. Russia is far from oil's peak

8. How the 'gang of four' lost Iraq

9. The Iraq oil grab that went awry

(Sep 28-30, 2007)


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