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Meet the Saudi cleric who's rallying Syrian rebels

Reclining on a drab, olive-colored couch wearing army fatigues and a checkered red-and white kuffiyah, Abdullah Muhaisini announced that “in a few hours, the greatest epic battle of the Syrian jihad” would begin. The Saudi cleric had risen from obscurity over the last few years to sit at the apex of the Syrian insurgency’s jihadi circles. 

As a wide array of Syrian rebel factions mustered late last week to bust the government’s siege of Aleppo city, Muhaisini rallied their men. 

“Where are those who want 72 gorgeous wives?” shouted Muhaisini in a YouTube video viewed by tens of thousands, his voice trembling as he spoke of the Hoor, the beautiful women with lustrous eyes promised to martyrs in Paradise in the Islamic religion. 

“A wife for you, O martyr in heaven, if she spits in the sea, the sea becomes sweet. If she kisses your mouth, she fills it with honey… If she sweats, she fills paradise with perfume.”

His voice warbled as it rose in pitch. Rebel fighters gathered around him and held their smartphones closer to catch his every word. 

“Then how would it be in her embrace? In hugging her? With her singing? Where are those who would be engaged to the Hoor?” 

It was the latest high-profile appearance for Muhaisini – surely one of the stranger figures to emerge from the Islamist-dominated opposition against Syrian President Bashar Assad.  

Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Suleiman Muhaisini, 29, is nothing less than a one-man jihadi superstar, the lynchpin of a media empire aimed at fulfilling the political, funding and legal requirements needed for an Islamist state on Syrian soil. 

A powerful presence on Twitter (one account has more than 355,000 followers), he also has a dedicated channel on the messaging service Telegram with more than 32,000 subscribers. 

He appears on a weekly online talk show called “Syria in one Week.” During the month of Ramadan, he was featured on “Daymah,” a program where he played host to clerics, military commanders and others — many of them Syrians whose Islamist bona fides were established well before Muhaisini came to the country.

He is also reportedly a masterful fundraiser. In March, the Army of Conquest, a loose alliance of hard-line Islamist groups that includes the Nusra Front, blitzed through the northwestern province of Idlib. Muhaisini boasted of raising the $5 million needed to buy arms and ammunition for the attack, according to the opposition-affiliated news outlet All for Syria. 

As the general judge of the Army of Conquest, he routinely adjudicates between the opposition’s frequently bickering factions, and even once tried to reconcile between the Nusra Front and its onetime ally turned nemesis, Islamic State. 

Perhaps the main reason for his success is that “he’s been right in the thick of things,” said Beirut-based Syria analyst Sam Heller in an interview on social media.

“He's inside Syria, not in Turkey or elsewhere. And he's on the front lines – he's been wounded repeatedly.”

Muhaisini’s upbringing and early career betrayed no sign of the international jihadist salafist leader he would become. 

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The son of a famed reciter of the Koran and wealthy businessman who is still posted at a mosque in Saudi Arabia, Muhaisini was born in the city of Buraidah in Saudi Arabia, once described by Sandra Mackey, author of “The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom,” “as a hotbed of fundamentalism even in the most normal of circumstances.”

The biography on his website says he began working toward his doctorate at the Um al-Qura University, where he wrote a dissertation on “The Treatment of Refugees of War in Islamic Jurisprudence.” 

But “the market of jihad had begun… so I would go to Syria for jihad and… supporting our brothers in the Nusra Front and Ahrar Al-Sham,” wrote Muhaisini. 

By 2013, he had become the face of a major fundraising campaign, “Perform jihad with your money,” aimed at supporting “Islamist brigades.”

Potential donors, who were given phone numbers in Qatar and Kuwait, could donate at the “Silver” level, enough to buy 50 sniper or 150 Kalashnikov rifle bullets. “Gold” level donors added eight mortar shells to a faction’s arsenal, while the “Diamond” level would go toward buying anti-aircraft defenses.

It brought him to the attention of the Saudi authorities, he claimed, who harassed him to stop collecting money and banned him from travel. Nevertheless, some time between August and October 2013, he was spirited out of the country to Syria via Kuwait and Turkey. (He eventually got his doctorate from ISR University, which, according to its materials, employs a “non traditional model of granting the degrees that is focused, self-paced and in very short period of time.”)

Some, however, question Muhaisini’s account of strained relations with Saudi Arabia. The pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper Assafir alleged in a 2014 report that Muhasini’s fundraising campaign, widely advertised in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere, was a front allowing the governments of those countries o support Islamist factions, including the Nusra Front.

The money, the paper said, was funneled to organizations headed by Saudi individuals close to the government, and had come through banks in the country. 

Whatever the source of the money, it has made Muhaisini immensely popular -- and a leader whose words are obeyed.

“We do not accept, when the battle begins, for any youth among you to return except either as a martyr or victorious,” declared Muhaisini in his address before the counteroffensive in Aleppo.

By Friday, the Russian military said more than 800 militants had been killed. The government-held western part of Aleppo is under threat of being cut off by the opposition, with devastating clashes between both sides.

The U.N., meanwhile, has desperately worked to bring a halt to the fighting.

"We have been in contact with various parties, we continue to talk to all the interested parties to make sure the cessation of hostilities is in place to allow us to move ahead," Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, United Nations deputy special envoy for Syria said in a press conference in Geneva on Thursday. 

"We have not given up hope, we cannot give up hope,” he said.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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