There was always something paradoxical about Sheikh Mahmoud Gul Aghasi, better known as Abu al-Qaqa. Here was a radical young Islamist preacher, a Kurd, urging Americans to be "slaughtered like cattle" in Iraq, and daring to call for Syria to be governed under Islamic Sharia law. Normally, airing the latter of those two stands would earn anyone a lengthy term in Tadmor prison.
Yet Qaqa not only stayed out of jail, he was permitted to preach openly at al-Sahrour mosque in an Aleppo suburb. The reason, perhaps, could be found on a wall of his mosque. Inscribed in Arabic was the phrase, "No to explosions," beside a cartoon depiction of a bomb with a red line drawn through it. It was Qaqa's symbol of reassurance to the Syrian authorities that his support for jihad was confined to enemies outside Syria and would not be directed at the state itself.
Clearly, however, Qaqa had enemies of his own. He was shot and mortally wounded at the end of September outside his mosque. Like so many murky Middle East assassinations, there is no shortage of potential culprits. Did he fall victim to al-Qaeda followers who claimed he was an agent of the Syrian state? Was he killed by the US for allegedly facilitating the flow of volunteers from Syria to bolster the insurgency in Iraq? Or did the Syrian authorities believe that Qaqa had outlived his alleged usefulness?
Mahmoud Gul Aghasi was born the son of a Kurdish farmer in 1973 in a village north of Aleppo. He studied Islam at Damascus University, and in 2001 he gained a master's and doctorate from the Islamic University in Karachi. He founded his Gharaba ash-Sham - Strangers of Greater Syria - movement in the mid-1990s, and by the end of the decade he was earning a reputation as a passionate and fiery anti-American orator.
His version of a radical Islam, which was widely disseminated via video tapes and CDs, soon gained him a large following. According to a June 2005 report in the Guardian, Qaqa was arrested by the Syrian authorities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but quickly released. Qaqa organized festivals denouncing the US and Jews. Many of these festivals were attended
by Syrian officials, and some of Qaqa's followers grew suspicious of their leader. Those suspicions hardened when it was learned that Qaqa had delivered a list of Wahhabis in Syria to the state security agency. Was Qaqa playing a double game, preaching jihad while handing over jihadists to the authorities?
Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Qaqa's anti-American sermons took on a new resonance and helped galvanize hundreds of young Syrians to volunteer for the insurgency. The insurgency in Iraq was just beginning to take hold when I met Qaqa in Aleppo in September 2003.
He was a slim, bony-faced young man with a black spade-shaped beard which made him look older than his 30 years. He wore a pale blue suit and a yellow shirt buttoned up to the neck. He greeted his unexpected visitor warmly, with a broad smile and twinkling eyes. His institute housed a classroom and library, and was a short distance from his mosque. While we talked, a small group of his followers listened intently. All of them wore camouflage trousers and T-shirts, lending them a paramilitary appearance.
"It's a symbol," he said, "of our readiness to protect ourselves from any foreign invasion."
Qaqa believed his mission was to reverse the "inferiority complex" and "spiritual defeat" that he thought plagued the Islamic world, a general acceptance among Muslims that they were powerless to thwart the ambitions of powerful states.
"The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing but a small picture of the greater truth of America's superpower global control," Qaqa said. "The people have been emotionally affected by what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. But sooner or later, the emotional reaction will decline and they will adapt to the status quo as they adapted to the loss of Andalusia and the loss of Palestine to the Jews and those of the Islamic republics to the former Soviet Union."
Muslim anger at US policy, he believed, was superficial. "Our people still eat burgers, dress in jeans, smoke Marlboros, watch Hollywood movies, and their ultimate hope is to visit the US and the West," he said. "I do not see this anger as based on the reality of the situation, but just an emotional wave that will pass."
Muslims, he said, had to wake up to the reality surrounding them and take matters into their own hands.
"The means of confronting this reality [US dominance] are like the links of a chain. Part of it is through media, part of it through ideas, part of it political, part of it economic and part of it military through striking at American forces on whatever land they have colonized. This is a real and legal right to defend oneself. That is what is happening in Iraq, and it will multiply many times over in Iraq and Afghanistan. We encourage the resistance as any other Muslim or Arab. We are pleased by the American losses in Iraq. Our hearts are filled with joy whenever we hear about any resistance operations. We ask people to keep on praying for God to help achieve victory for Iraq against the US."
At that time, five months after US troops entered Baghdad, US-Syrian relations were steadily deteriorating, with Washington accusing Damascus of dispatching fighters into Iraq. Damascus denied that it was state policy to send militants to Iraq, while adding that the remote 600-kilometer joint border was hard to police, and it was impossible to stop everyone from crossing.
Qaqa echoed the official line, insisting that he spent much of his time dissuading would-be insurgents from traveling to Iraq. "I tell them that the Iraqi situation has enough fighters and men. Things are not clear over there. Let's persevere a little and wait, and maybe the Americans will leave without our help. It's not possible for us to give material support [to the insurgency] without the cooperation of the government. We believe the stand of the Syrian government has one of the strongest stands toward the Iraqi situation. When the government decides to start the targeted [direct military] support, we are ready."
Qaqa's conversation was a constant dance between the taboo and the acceptable. Jihad against the US was encouraged as long as it did not involve Syrians. Syria should be governed under Islamic Sharia law, but not by the version adopted by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Yes, I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria and that's what we are working on. We are calling for unity and comprehension, and the government is part of that. We are calling for, and working with, the government to cooperate together."
Syria's laws governing marriage were based on the Sharia, he said, "and we aim at making remaining judicial matters follow Sharia."
As for the use of violence, Qaqa said it must be reserved against occupying forces only. "We reject all forms of explosive attacks in Arab and Islamic states. Basically it's terrorism," he said.
He accompanied me down to the street and we shook hands. I never saw him again.
In 2005, a colleague at The New York Times said he spotted Qaqa in a Damascus café. The broad beard had been trimmed back, and he was wearing a leather jacket. According to Al-Hayat, Qaqa had issued a fatwa allowing his followers to trim their beards and adopt western clothing so as not to cause any "embarrassment" to the Syrian authorities.
A year earlier, I had spotted Qaqa's forbidding countenance on CDs of his sermons for sale in Baghdad. His CDs were also found on the bodies of four militants, apparently former students of his, killed in a gun battle with Syrian police in June 2006 in central Damascus. Qaqa denied any knowledge of the attack, and the matter was dropped.
For the Syrian authorities, Qaqa represented a useful - and safe - medium to channel rising Islamic sentiment away from violence against the state and to direct it against the US instead. Qaqa apparently accepted the arrangement, which allowed him to preach once-dangerous views on Islam in Syria, while maintaining strong support for the state.
In this vein, Qaqa was deeply critical of al-Qaeda, believing the organization acted as an agent of the West and had damaged the cause of Muslims. He told me that the wave of bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco in 2003 claimed by al-Qaeda was the work of "foreign invisible hands carried out under an Islamic cover." The goal, he said, was to discredit Islam and to give the West an excuse to invade and occupy Arab and Islamic lands.
Such sentiment earned him the hatred of al-Qaeda, which repeatedly denounced him on websites as a tool of the Syrian state and issued death threats against him.
On September 28, a gunman shot Qaqa four times in the head and chest as the cleric was leaving his mosque in Aleppo. He died later in the hospital.
Samir Muhammad Ghazal Abu-Khashabah, deputy to Qaqa, told Al-Hayat that the killer was an Iraqi and a follower of the Takfiri school, which brands non-Muslims and Shia as apostates. He said that the assassin had been arrested by American forces in Iraq three years ago, asserting that the gunman killed Qaqa on US orders.
"Otherwise, what could have motivated the assassin to get involved in the crime other than being a collaborator with foreign quarters?" Abu-Khashabah told Al-Hayat.
Thousands of Islamist supporters turned out for Qaqa's funeral, which was attended also by parliamentarians and the brother of the mufti of Syria. His coffin was draped in a Syrian flag and the affair had all the trappings of a state occasion – symbolic, perhaps, of the ambiguity of the Abu al-Qaqa phenomenon.