“They are like militia-group venture capitalists,” said McCants, director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “They are trying to pick winners, seeing which groups are growing and performing well. And they have a lot of money and no real restrictions.”
One group’s deepening ties
The Ummah Conference’s headlong dive into the Syrian conflict started with fundraising but quickly extended to the battlefield.
For this 12-year-old Islamist organization, which was founded in Kuwait and boasts chapters in a dozen countries, the Syrian conflict has served as a recruiting tool, idea laboratory and training academy, say U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts who have studied it. The group’s leaders have formed ties with a Syrian group of the same name — the Liwaa al-Ummah, or Ummah Brigade — while showering money on Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. Ummah Brigade fighters coordinate tactics with more radical groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The group’s ties to the conflict deepened in March when one of its leaders — Mohammad al-Abduli, a former United Arab Emirates army colonel and president of the conference’s UAE branch — was killed by a sniper while fighting in Syria. The organization has since established a military training camp in Syria named in his honor.
A video posted in May depicted two of the Ummah Conference’s regional officials — Saudi branch leader Mohammad Saad al-Mufrih and the new UAE leader, Hassan al-Diqqi — surrounding by gun-toting graduates of the newly opened Abduli Training Camp. Mufrih, the Saudi, appealed in the video for Muslims to aid the Syrian rebels “by any possible instrument, with money and with men.”
“There is no excuse for anyone,” he said.
Such rhetoric is not uncommon, but the group’s increasing involvement in the conflict has become a source of worry for Middle Eastern governments and Western officials. Some see the Ummah Conference transforming itself into a version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been tarnished by defeats in Egypt and perceived irrelevance in Syria.
Unlike the Brotherhood, the Ummah Conference’s leaders have shown little inclination to achieve their goals through long political struggles for domestic office, analysts say. While avowedly opposed to terrorism, the group in its charter denies the legitimacy of secular governments in Muslim countries and calls for the “Islamatization of all laws and legislation.” The movement’s Kuwaiti founder, Hakim al-Mutairi, recently praised former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as “the lion of Islam” and “an international Muslim leader” whose heroism will be properly celebrated once all Muslims are freed from secular rule.
Moreover, Diqqi, leader of the UAE chapter and a veteran of the Syrian conflict, has suggested that Islam’s true enemies lie outside the Middle East. He denounced the United States in a 2002 book as one of the two “most dangerous countries” in the world, the other being Russia. In a Twitter post in June, he described the Syrian conflict as an important step toward empowering Muslims to challenge U.S. influence in the region.
“The Muslim people will not be able to confront American terrorism without adopting a comprehensive strategy where politics and jihad intersect,” he wrote.
To current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials, such pronouncements have a distressingly familiar ring, inviting comparisons to the 1970s and 1980s, when radical Islamists throughout the Middle East rallied to the cause of Afghan Muslims waging jihad against the Soviet Union.
“Some of these groups have always held radical views, but before the Arab Spring, they had no active jihad, but only aspirations,” said one former U.S. intelligence analyst who worked extensively in the region. “Now they have a jihad. Now they are veterans.”