RAQQA, Syria – A pledge of full allegiance laden with religious connotations and made before the al-Nusra Front emir was enough to turn “Abu Acid” into a fighter in the front before being appointed as the emir of the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigades, which were posted in the province of Raqqa before "its liberation." This is how Abdel Basset Hussein, a mathematics teacher, activist, and protester, turned into an al-Nusra Front emir.
Hussein, also known as “Abu Acid,” had a dream that did not go beyond the confines of the school where he taught and his little family, which started to form only about a year before the revolution. When protests began in Raqqa, he was among the initial participants along with his wife and baby boy, who had yet to celebrate his first birthday. Yet, the boy was called in for questioning along with his father after security services filmed him on his father’s shoulders trying to shout in the protest.
Hussein’s arrest harmed his relations with most of his entourage in the neighborhood and at school. Indeed, students and their families were dealing differently with Hussein at that stage, viewing him as a threat to their security or – according to some supporters of the regime – a traitor. “Abu Acid” said that he was forced at the time to teach computer classes only in an attempt to avoid clashing with those around him at school. Students also withdrew from the special courses he used to teach.
Prior to the regime troops’ withdrawal from Raqqa, Hussein was on the Syrian security’s most-wanted list after the bombing of a bus that was transporting a group of Shabbiha, or regime thugs, owing to the fact that a friend who helped him make bombs had given a few of them to the party that carried out the attack. “Abu Acid” said investigations as to his whereabouts were carried out with his brother, and when the latter denied knowing his exact location, Hussein said the Syrian security services told him they would “send me back to my family cut out into four pieces if they ever catch me.”
Hussein originally joined the Free Syrian Army to become a fighter. He was no stranger to the use of weapons, as he had learned how to use guns at a student camp during his school days. The process of assembling, disassembling, and using a Czech assault rifle was but one of the many different military education lessons he received in elementary and secondary school.
Hussein went to the border and worked along with FSA members on helping Syrian refugees cross over into Turkey, and was tasked with going after smugglers. However, he felt a few days later that all he was doing was “to go after smugglers who are natives of that same area and whose job remained unchanged both before and after the revolution.” Accordingly, he did not stay there for more than fifteen days.
“Abu Acid” fought with several brigades, starting with the Suqur as-Sunna (Sunni Hawks) before moving to the Muaawiya bin Abi Sufyan Brigade, and then to the Osama bin Zayd Brigade, which is part of the Qassam Brigade. Hussein eventually became the emir of the hardline Islamist Khaled bin al-Waleed Battalion. He said: “Even before the revolution, I was a religious man and my joining hardline brigades did not change that fact. I still wish I could be with them because they are more honest than others. Most Islamist brigades set upf training camps and this is where the pledge of allegiance is made, knowing it is a choice which no one is forced to make. At the time, I pledged allegiance to the al-Nusra Front.”
Hussein fought many military battles against regime troops. When asked about his co-fighters, he said: “Most of them have no fear despite the circumstances and dangers. The only condition for youths to join the detachments for which I was responsible was to be committed to prayer, as lack of commitment to this pillar [of Islam] delays and weakens victory.”
After the liberation of Raqqa, “Abu Acid,” a bearded man in his thirties worn out by the use of weapons, returned to civilian life and established (along with other teachers) the Union of Free Teachers. “It is no longer necessary to carry weapons in the city after the liberation, as only thugs would do so in a liberated area. We have to resume our former roles at this stage,” he said.
Raqqa teachers, including “Abu Acid,” have established the Union of Free Teachers and are holding examinations in coordination with 24 centers in other "liberated" areas. Hussein noted that the Union includes male and female teachers “working as volunteers.” He added, “We will hold baccalaureate examinations soon, it is our duty as teachers to enable youths to continue their education despite the circumstances.”
The Union of Free Teachers cancelled military training and nationalism as subject matters and removed the “Assad family achievements” from history books under the supervision of a specialized committee of former teachers. The Union made amendments to the program, which was limited to the regime and its achievements. “Abu Acid” boasts about holding the examinations “despite all the difficulties we encountered, whether it was regime supporters who tried to scare people into not sending their kids to school […] or material amendments, though no one came to help us, not even the Syrian National Coalition.”
It’s difficult to predict whether Hussein’s example will mark a precedent, as others in Syria may be unwilling to relinquish the power of weaponry. Many may also not agree with him over the concept of the Islamic state. However, Hussein is living proof of a man who lived through all stages of the revolution, from peaceful slogans to a black turban, and to eventually resuming his civilian life. Even so, hardline Islamists, kidnappings and floggings, civil youth sit-ins against the al-Nusra Front and the state alike, as well as the lack of infrastructure support from parties (including the official political opposition) are all rampant in Syria. All of the above means that the outcome in Raqqa and other regions are anything but finalized.
This article is a translation of the original Arabic