AMMAN (Reuters) - A Jordanian Muslim preacher who encourages a flow of militants to Syria predicts an eventual showdown between Islamists and secular rebel groups should President Bashar al-Assad fall.
Mohammed Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf, said Islamist fighters with groups such as the Nusra Front, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization, had refused offers to join the rebel Free Syrian Army in return for pay and weapons.
If Assad is overthrown, he told Reuters, the Free Syrian Army, or elements within it ideologically hostile to the Nusra Front, would immediately order Islamist groups to disarm.
“Then there will be a confrontation between us and losses will rise, but I don’t want to pre-empt events,” he said.
Abu Sayyaf is a marked man, who has spent 10 years behind bars for militant activities including a plot to attack U.S. troops in Jordan, but seems unconcerned about surveillance.
Interviewed in his car outside the state security court in Amman this week, the Salafi jihadi leader said the Jordanian authorities were trying to stop young militants from crossing the border to join the battle against Assad’s forces.
“We have sat with the security forces and asked them what harm would come if they let us go to Syria freely,” said Abu Sayyaf, 46, a burly man with a flowing beard, dressed like a tribesman in a red chequered headdress and a white robe.
“You tell us we are troublesome, so let us get killed in Syria, leave us to meet our fate in this inferno,” he said he had told Jordanian intelligence officers when they called him in to ask him to restrain fighters bent on travelling to Syria.
“What they fear is that these youths will return like the ‘Afghan Arabs’ did. They fear they would come back one day and declare jihad and fight here,” he declared.
He was alluding to Arab militants who combated Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, some of them members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, which was supported at the time by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Abu Sayyaf, based in the volatile desert city of Maan, 160 km (100 miles) south of Amman, where he was involved in clashes with security forces in 2002, said at least 350 Jordanians were now fighting in Syria and nearly 25 had been “martyred”.
About 50 had been detained in Jordan before they could reach Syria and some were now facing trial at the state security court - although he said the authorities had softened their treatment of militants since Arab uprisings erupted two years ago.
Jordanian officials say the army and security forces are doing their best to control the porous 370-km (230-mile) frontier. “We don’t allow any weapons or fighters to cross from Jordan,” Information Minister Samih al-Maaytah told Reuters.
“We don’t take sides in Syria or interfere there,” he said. “At the same time it is evident that any control by extremist groups in Syria is a worry for the region and for Jordan.”
Maayteh recalled suicide bombings of hotels in Amman that killed 70 people in 2005, attacks claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq, then led by a Jordanian Islamist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Abu Sayyaf said Jordanian efforts to tighten border control after Syrian rebels captured some frontier areas had reduced the inflow of militants to Syria in the last four months.
“We don’t have an organization that sends youths in an organized way,” he said, adding that most entered Syria with the help of established drug smugglers in return for money.
Abu Sayyaf, juggling constantly ringing mobile phones, denied any direct ties between al Qaeda and the Nusra Front, which has emerged as one of the strongest rebel units in Syria.
“Trust me, there is no organizational link between al Qaeda and the Nusra Front, though they share the same views and methods,” he said, adding that these were based on the Koran.
He defended al Qaeda attacks such as those in the United States on September 11, 2001 as justified responses to Western or Israeli incursions into Muslim lands, and hinted that France could also become a target for its recent intervention in Mali.
“It’s France that has come to Mali, we did not go to your home territory,” he said of the French-led military action to regain control of northern Mali from Islamist militants.
Abu Sayyaf criticized Jordan’s King Abdullah for warning last week about the danger of a “new Taliban” arising in Syria, saying this reflected concerns of his Western allies about al Qaeda, which only masked worries about “true Islam”.
“So when the king spoke about this al Qaeda danger, it’s because they consider true Islam as the danger because if it arrives it will uproot these regimes and enforce Islam.”
However, he said that just as al Qaeda’s aims in Afghanistan were once aligned with those of the West during the Cold War, Islamist militants shared a Western interest in Assad’s removal.
“Because the removal of the regime matters to us, if the Americans or the British or any party helps us to get rid of this regime, we don’t have a problem.”
Editing by Giles Elgood