What does the establishment of a new judicial entity tell us about Nusra’s evolving disposition and its relationship with other rebel courts?
On Saturday, Sam Heller (@abujamajem) wrote a highly recommended post about a Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar jurist’s rebuttal to criticisms from pro-Islamic State (IS) figures that salafi-jihadis in other areas have not sufficiently established Islamic governance. In it, Heller details how the jurist, Mu’tasim Billah al-Madani, points to a new judicial entity, the Jabhat al-Nusra-linked Dar al-Qada – roughly translated as simply “the judiciary” – as an example of how jihadists in non-IS-controlled territory are in fact living up to their credentials and applying a form of unadulterated Islamic law, particularly through implementation of the hudud, harsh punishments such as stoning.
But what is Dar al-Qada? Below we see the judicial body’s foundational statement, released last month, which offers some insight into Nusra’s developing interest in governance and how it views its relationship with other rebel courts and judicial commissions.
Dar al-Qada first appeared to outside observers in August 2014 when a video was posted showing Nusra members lashing a man accused of cursing religion. The video identified Dar al-Qada as the source of the ruling and came out a month after Nusra announced its withdrawal from the Aleppo Shari’a Commission, a joint body that it had previously backed with Islamic Front factions, to form its own judiciary.
Since then, Dar al-Qada has opened a number of branches in northern Syria in areas where Nusra is strong. While it appears that the body is mostly linked to Nusra, al-Madani’s defense of the organization shows that other salafi-jihadi groups have shifted their support to the new, more ideologically “pure” project and away from other courts linked to the Islamic Front and other more nationalist-oriented factions. The statement also reveals Nusra’s specific grievances against judicial bodies it had previously supported.
Two points are worth highlighting. First, the group decries the institution of factional quotas in previous shari’a commissions, where armed groups that backed the commissions would stock them with a certain number of their own members. This system, according to Nusra, created a situation where the powerful factions did not subject themselves to the Islamic legal rulings that they claimed to be implementing.
Second, the statement obliquely warns that Dar al-Qada will not accept the support of western-backed factions, calling them “enemies of God.” It is not clear if the statement also refers to Islamist groups that have received support the G
ulf, as it only condemns “sellout” factions. In either case, it is clear that Nusra views the support of some factions for the Aleppo Shari’a Commission and other judicial bodies as polluting the purity of the law applied in them.
The statement tells us a few things. Mainly, it demonstrates how Nusra’s competition with IS is being expressed in the creation of new governance mechanisms and in the rupturing of relations with others. As the group has scaled back tactical cooperation with other rebel groups and ramped up criticism of its heretofore allies in the Islamic Front, so too it is carving out physical spaces and instituting mechanisms of control that exclude less “sincere” groups. The move, which is meant to head off the threat that its members will continue to defect to IS for its demonstrated “success” in establishing Islamic governance, is a tacit admission that battlefield success is no longer enough for Nusra to demonstrate its credentials or its relevance to both current members and potential recruits.
So, in contrast to IS efforts to build governance institutions, which were mostly established from a position of strength and have served as an important symbolic resource for the group, Dar al-Qada appears to come from a position of weakness and vulnerability
But the establishment of Dar al-Qada goes beyond the dynamics of competition between jihadis and IS. First, Nusra’s growing paranoia that other non-jihadi – and perhaps even other Islamist groups – will eventually turn on it seems to be an important factor.
Second, the establishment of Dar al-Qada reveals that doctrinal considerations may be important drivers of Nusra’s behavior in their own right. The group, or at least the part of it that has won the argument in favor of less cooperation with other groups, appears to be having serious reservations about its past inclusivity. These misgivings revolve around the extent to which Nusra has cooperated with “apostate” factions and allowed less committed groups to influence governance in rebel-held Syria.
Translation notes: First, I have translated the adjective shar’i as “legitimate.” The word is the adjectival form of the word al-shar’, or the totality of Islamic law. In its adjectival form, the word refers back to the parameters set by this Law. So any permutation of the word “legitimate” here should be understood in the religious sense.
Second, I kept term ahl al-sunna wal-jama’a, roughly meaning “the people of the tradition and the community [of the prophet Muhammad], as is. The term generally refers to any Sunni Muslims, but is used by salafis and jihadis to refer to each other and to emphasize their faithfulness to the example of the prophet and his companions.
The foundations upon which Dar al-Qada was established:
- Other factions’ previous experiments in establishing sharia courts and commissions are a lesson as we establish Dar al-Qada.
- In discussing the formation of an Islamic judiciary based on the foundations of ahl al-sunna wal-jama’a, it was necessary for the judges and the administration of the judiciary to enjoy religiously legitimate independence to make it an institution free from illegitimate constraints and so that there would be no authority over it except for the sharia.
- As such, the founders of Dar al-Qada determined that it could not be connected to any faction that is a sold itself out to outsiders and become loyal to the enemies of God. That said, Dar al-Qada accepts any qualified member of the aforementioned factions on the condition that he renounces and repudiates his factions’ illegitimate violations.
- Dar al-Qada shall not be based on the repugnant system of factional quotas, which have led to rulings being applied to the weak and not the strong, abandoning the principle of equality.
- We in Dar al-Qada determined to establish an executive force under the authority of the judiciary alone that enjoys an independent leadership.
- Dar al-Qada has a single banner upon which are written the words of the oneness [of God, in reference to the Muslim profession of faith, “there is no god but God”] with the words “Dar al-Qada” written below it.
- The flag is to fly above courts, prisons, headquarters, and equipment as well as the checkpoints that Dar al-Qada will supervise.
- God has granted Dar al-Qada a good group of religious scholars (ahl al-‘ilm) who interviewed all qualified candidates, from judges to investigators to clerks, and put them in the appropriate positions, working on the principle of putting the best qualified people where they can best meet the challenges (‘amalan bi-qa’idat al-amthal fal-amthal, a reference to a hadith about challenges prophets face).
- Dar al-Qada agreed with the factions that support the project to present 10% of their soldiers to Dar al-Qada to act as an executive force, emphasizing their complete separation from their original faction and their joining the administration of the executive force of Dar al-Qada.