If Jihad is not “Work,” Then What is to Be Done?

Ammar Mamoun

A foreign jihadist in Idlib wrote headlines by opening a sushi restaurant. How does that work? Where to buy wasabi? Is this a new phase for the Islamist-controlled region? From Kalashnikov to cooking pan? Is there life after jihad?

Abu al-Fida al-Dagestani arrived in Syria in 2015 “to wage holy war (jihad) and help the Syrian people.” He recently opened a sushi restaurant in Idlib in the northwest of Syria and has become a hot topic on news and social media sites. 

When direct fighting ended in 2019, Abu al-Fida was left without work. We do not know how he survived until opening his restaurant, which reportedly is a result of Abu al-Fida’s previous experiences: he used to go a lot to Asian restaurants during his past “activities.” 

Abu al-Fida said he “imports” everything he needs from Turkey in order to introduce Idlib’s residents to sushi. However, he stressed that having a restaurant does not mean he gave up on jihad

Abu al-Fida’s use of words like import, activities and travels is rather vague and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. For example, we lack info about his past work, his role as a fighter, and the whole process of importing, trading or smuggling between Idlib and Turkey.  

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It seems Abu al-Fida’s sushi restaurant is still a developing venture, yet headlines such as “From Jihadi to Wasabi” make it an intriguing, and quite ironic, topic. 

Certainly as the tale is set in Idlib, capital of the province under the same name, a region controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist islamist group formed in 2017 as a merger of several armed groups led by the Al Nusra Front, a former branch of Al Qaeda.

The HTS connection with Turkey goes beyond facilitating the passage of UN aid and importing wasabi and salmon. Sources suggest that HTS has numerous investments in southern Turkey, using cash to buy restaurants and real estate. 

The establishment of a sushi restaurant in Idlib coincides with HTS Commander-in-Chief Abu Mohamed al-Julani’s efforts to offer the territory he rules a new perspective. 

Al-Julani has launched a bit of a charm offensive of late. Not only has he stressed his pro-Western stance in the War in Ukraine, he also wishes to convey a positive message about Idlib and the governance system he has put in place. 

Idlib offers opportunities to invest, as demonstrated by the inauguration of a vegetable market in the city of Sarmada in 2021, which was supported by Qatar. The ultimate goal of these efforts is arguably to refute claims that the region is home to “the international jet set of global jihad.”

Rethinking Work 

HTS usd to attract recruits with salaries of some $100 to $300 a month. Yet, the status of jihadists today is ambiguous. For what exactly constitutes their “work” seeing the sharp decline in fighting?

Regarding the foreigners among them, It is unclear if HTS will arrest them, send them back to home or use them as a bargaining chip in future negotiations. In 2021, al-Julani still referred to them as “immigrant brothers who came to help.” 

Today, many of them have become part of society, as they established families and enjoy a “social life.” As the fighting has subsided, they must “make a living.” 

Now, disregarding qualifications as terrorist or jihadist, and HTS arresting a large number of people it associates with ISIS or al-Qaeda, there are still many foreigners in Idlib. Some have been detained, yet many others remain under HTS control and need to “work.” 

While opening a sushi restaurant may seem ironic, others have turned into “mercenaries.” One of them is Rustam Azhiev, who joined the Ukrainian forces as commander of The Caucasus Soldiers (Ajnad al-Kavkaz) to wage jihad against Russia. 

Due to the current HTS restrictions on foreign fighters, it is thought that members of the islamist Jund al-Sham movement led by Muslim al-Shishani may also join the Ukrainian combatants, along with fighters from the Abu Qatada al-Albani group.

“Work” after Jihad

We are worried about the large number of foreigners still in northern Syria. What will happen to them? 

Herein lies the significance of the tale of the jihadist opening a sushi restaurant. Although the situation in the Idlib region remains unclear, it may be a first signal of stability and a presence that is no longer temporary. 

Speaking of “work” and “restaurant” implies we are dealing with a civil life, not with jihadists from Al Qaeda hiding in mountains or those of ISIS squeezing through porous borders. It increasingly seems we are now dealing with a semi-political entity with international relations and a degree of local power. 

The term “stability” implies having “sovereignty” over the flow of time. A growing number of the “immigrant brothers,” as al-Julani used to call them, have developed a sense of belonging. 

Jihadi conduct is temporary, as it wagers on death rather than life. Working to earn a living and creating local relations are (more) permanent matters. Abu al-Fida’s profession has become “feeding” people, which creates relationships within the existing social fabric and earns him a livelihood away from the military formula. 

In short, the bet here is on supply and demand, work and hard-earned money, not on fighting and bloodshed. Yet, assuming that the jihadists’ core beliefs have not changed, we still face the issue of the jihadists’ return to their own countries. A return that is fraught with danger, as they could face imprisonment or execution. 

See the many foreign fighters, even European citizens, who have been left in prison to face their fate, alone, without any legal representation. In a way, political sovereignty has done away with these people under the excuse that reintegrating them into society is just too difficult. 

From Jail to Sushi

Regarding the HTS members who were not arrested, they were left to engage in non-jihadi work and activities, which is exactly what constitutes the consolidation of the de facto authority in northern Syria and creates a demographic problem … 

On the one hand there is the former landowner who lives in a refugee camp and is essentially jobless, and on the other hand there is the former foreign fighter who has a job and a permanent residence.

I recently interviewed someone who frequently travels to northern Syria. According to him, there are two types of foreigners there: Arabs and others.

The latter group is smaller yet the most problematic, as they are mostly stationed on the borders and, quite literally, “struggling” as their power is fading as a result of HTS restrictions. 

Foreign fighters are becoming less and less relevant. Some people accuse HTS of facilitating the return of foreign fighters to Europe under the pretext of going to war with Russia. Others are arrested and executed, while again others are domesticated by working in a restaurant, serving “exotic” food to the locals. 

It is a cynical approach to social inclusion, as the “immigrant jihadist” has only settled in his “host” country, since he cannot return to his homeland.

My source thought my hypothesis of job-related stability had some conceptual inconsistencies. In his opinion, jihad and warfare are more closely connected to the concept of “belonging” than the concept of “work.” 

By focusing solely on the business component of his work, Abu Al-Fida, the owner of the sushi restaurant will be compelled to take advantage of every commercial opportunity that presents itself. The labor is only a passing phase. It does not signify an ideological shift. 

Pushing back the notion of a jihadist becoming an entrepreneur, I dare recall the ironic notion of the “jihadi immigrant,” whose story is really rather similar to that of the conventional immigrant who, having offered his skills to  “host country,” cannot find a job or a way to settle down other than by working in a restaurant.

There is a certain sarcasm in contrasting these immigrants, jihadi vs. conventional, considering the fact that the sushi restaurant employs several former fighters as chefs. 

However, we were unable to find any other former foreign jihadists setting up shop, or a restaurant, to transition to a “normal life” in Idlib. 

So, perhaps the whole matter does not go beyond irony. It is an eye-catching story, which has allowed us to elaborate more than it deserves.  Or, perhaps, it is indeed the beginning of a new phase, in which Al-Julani pledges to domesticate the jihadists by turning them into sushi chefs. 

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