The jihadist Abu Aisha opened his remarks on the United States with a verse from the Quran:
“We will surely test you with fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient / Who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah and indeed to Him we will return.’ / Those are the ones upon whom are blessings and mercy from their Lord. And it is those who are the rightly guided,” (Surat al-Baqarah, 155-157).
Abu Aisha reached Syria in early 2015 and joined Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a group that includes jihadist factions such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). He had also lived in the United States, where he believes Muslims face difficulties due to suspicions directed at women in hijab and men with beards, along with the fear inspired by every glance from a police officer. The above Quranic verse was his answer to the question: Do you fear for your life since Trump took power? “The man behaves badly. He even mocks women, the most sacred thing in the West,” he said. “If the president of a Muslim country behaved like Trump he would be accused of oppression and terrorism. Fear is a natural thing created in us by God, but I will not die until the day God has chosen.” He predicts that if America reaches a dead end, it could return to the days of the Wild West, with armed gangs robbing banks.
Abu Aisha spoke only briefly about the new president as he was preoccupied with a battle against the regime in Hama. But he said America’s bad image could be changed entirely if it prevented Russia from supporting Bashar al-Assad, who he called “the dictator of the age.” Asked why he had travelled to Syria, he cited an Islamic prophecy about judgment day, calling Syria the Land of the Gathering. “Trump, Obama, and Bush will be held to account for their crimes against Muslims,” he said. “Everyone who killed innocent people will be held to account here. I am here trying to protect the weak, children, and women.”
Abu Dujana al-Baritani, another jihadist who fought both the Islamic State extremist group and the Syrian regime, said in a Skype interview with BBC television: “I don’t agree with anything Trump does, especially his attempts to ban Muslims from entering America. His decision to ban people from some countries caused hassle even for migrants from other Arab and Islamic states, all because of the behavior of the new arrival in the White House.”
“His personality is straight out of Hollywood, as if he just stepped out of a Hollywood movie,” he continued. “He’s arrogant, he degrades women. He’s like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, who worked in Hollywood. That is happening again with Donald Trump, appeared in the media before he took office, as if someone set that up for him.” He described recent events in America as “a joke” and said Trump was not fit to manage his own company, let alone America.
US-led international coalition airstrikes in Syria are continuing to target Al-Qaeda leaders considered dangerous – but what about dozens of fighters coming from America? They all follow security measures to prevent them making deadly mistakes. They avoid social media and only access the internet in public cafes at random times. They are hard to capture and they largely avoid cameras. But many of them are opposed to the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), including Abu Dujana, who fought the group in 2015, and Abu Aisha, who was quick to back Tahir al-Sham against ISIS, which he describes as “the graveyard of jihad.”
Abu Khaled al-Faransi, another fighter battling alongside Omar Usman, said the current US President has “the mentality of George Bush Junior on military issues.” “He is not alone in making battle decisions, which are taken by arms and oil countries, nor is he the effective ruler of the United States – he is the puppet and the facade. He doesn’t think of the interests of his country. In any war against us we have faith in victory from God,” he said. He said Trump had turned America into a “stupid” rival against its enemies, a reference to China and Russia.
All three fighters believe any attacks against America will come not from outside but from domestic sources, due to pressures against Muslims, and that the situation will deteriorate in the future. They compared American policies on Muslims with those of Israel towards the Palestinians. They pointed to the ever-worsening treatment of Muslims in the US and said Trump’s policies had labeled everyone with a Muslim name as a suspected terrorist.
Abu Aisha attacked Munira Ahmed, a woman who wore a hijab in the colors of the American flag, in a picture that went viral and became a symbol of resistance to Trump. He cited the Quranic verse: “Never will the Jews nor the Christians be pleased with you until you follow their religion” (Surat al-Baqarah, 120). He said that despite her act she would still be viewed with suspicion in a country ruled by a president who degrades women.
Jihadists in Syria see the US as ever more involved in fighting Muslims, something they say will increase the level of animosity between the two. Even Turkey, which is seen as the closest Muslim-majority state to the west and is constantly criticized by Fatah al-Sham and others, is treated with suspicion and accused of extremism.
Jihadists based in the villages and towns of Idlib see dark days ahead after the Syrian regime decided to focus its efforts on retaking control of the province once it has finished off the opposition. This week’s chemical attack reflects its efforts to destroy the opposition entirely. Daesh will soon be finished and the international coalition’s next goal is to destroy Tahrir al-Sham, which includes dozens of foreign fighters from Europe, US, and Arab states. At the same time, the jihadists have not put in place a strategy for a war in which the entire world will be against them. Yet they insist and are convinced God will deliver them victory. They have lived a relatively normal life in recent months, but most of them are now fighting the regime in the Hama countryside.
Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.