A “Mainstream” Imam in Australia
Thousands of citizens from the West travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for al-Qaeda and ISIS – often in breach of their own countries’ foreign fighter laws. Lately, the spotlight has been on followers of ISIS who await their fate following the collapse of the caliphate. Others may have broken laws by contributing to the conflict away from the battlefield yet received little or no scrutiny. Fedaa Majzoub, nominally an Australian, is a case in point.
A major and problematic player in the Syrian drama, he has been almost forgotten until this year, with the publication of an explosive Turkish police report linking top officials in the Erdogan administration with an arms trafficking network headed by an al-Qaeda associate.
Written in 2012 and published by the Stockholm-based Nordic Monitor in January, the police report claims the network funnelled weapons from Libya to Syria via Turkey.
It alleges that an otherwise-unidentified Fedaa Majzoub was a member of the network and was also connected with two of Erdogan’s senior advisors.
Fedaa Majzoub is a not-uncommon name and neither the police report nor Nordic Monitor identified Majzoub’s nationality or roles outside the alleged arms network.
The Investigative Journal can reveal that Fedaa Majzoub is a prominent Australian imam who worked as a university lecturer in Sydney before becoming official spokesperson for the Syrian National Council (SNC), a rebel political front based in Turkey.
The police allegations against Dr Majzoub indicate the supposedly moderate SNC worked with al-Qaeda operatives. The allegations also suggest the SNC may have served as a bridge between the al-Qaeda network and senior Turkish officials.
Today, Dr Majzoub lives in Istanbul as a low-profile lecturer in the faculty of theology at Marmara University, where TIJ contacted him. In our interview via email and WhatsApp, he denied any involvement in arms trafficking. His statements are the only public comment by any of the 14 people named in the police report.
A decade ago, Syrian-born and educated Dr Majzoub was a high-profile imam regarded as one of Australia’s leading Muslim scholars. He worked as an adjunct lecturer in Islamic studies at Charles Sturt University and served in the trusted role of prison chaplain.
Dr Majzoub, now 51, was known as an advocate of inter-faith dialogue who “built bridges” with local police. He was a member of the Australian National Imams Council’s Fatwa Board – which issues guidelines on Islamic law – and had a regular slot on Islamic radio tackling “contemporary issues and challenges facing Australian Muslims.”
Dr Majzoub’s comfort with contemporary Australian society was questionable, however. Though his family reportedly moved to Australia in 1985, when he was a teenager, he subsequently spent about 15 years studying and teaching at Islamic universities in Egypt, India and Syria.
In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of his father Hassan, who was educated in Saudi Arabia before serving as an imam in the Latakia region of western Syria, Dr Majzoub’s birthplace.
On returning to Australia, Dr Majzoub lived and worked in Sydney’s western suburbs, which hold Australia’s largest concentration of Muslim immigrants, and his English remains less than fluent.
His foreign religious studies may have equipped him with the knowledge and authority to preach at Australia’s mosques but he sometimes seemed out of touch with Australian values: In 2009, he described a Sydney drug dealer and gang member, involved in the theft of military rocket launchers, as a “good father, husband and citizen”.
In 2011, as Syria plunged into chaos and war, Dr Majzoub relocated to Turkey, which was turning into a support base for the rebellion against president Bashar al-Assad. Dr Majzoub soon emerged as spokesperson for the SNC, whose powerful foreign supporters initially included US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Emir of Qatar.
Erdogan also publicly backed the SNC while giving covert support to forces affiliated with al-Qaeda and later, ISIS. As former US vice president Joe Biden complained, Turkish authorities sent money and weapons to “anyone who would fight against Assad.”
Though the SNC presented itself as the moderate face of the Syrian uprising it contained a powerful Islamist component including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The SNC served as the political front for the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a label applied to a loose network of armed groups without a unified command structure.
Dr Majzoub shuttled between his home in Istanbul, rebel bases in northern Syria and peace conferences in the capitals of Europe. As the only Australian member of the SNC, he spoke at anti-Assad rallies in Sydney and Melbourne, where the Syrian president’s imminent overthrow was widely predicted.
A Sydney Morning Herald reporter who came across Dr Majzoub in northern Syria in 2012 said he was a regular visitor to rebel-controlled zones. He reportedly acted as SNC representative to FSA units and facilitated talks between rebel groups.
But by the end of 2014, Assad remained firmly entrenched, the SNC was a fractured, irrelevant spectator to the struggle and Dr Majzoub had disappeared from news coverage of the war.
The Turkish police report that has lifted Dr Majzoub out of obscurity – and challenged his reputation as a moderate – is said to have been written by officers of the Turkish National Police Intelligence Department.
Dated September 26, 2012, it includes barcoded attachments apparently produced by the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation MIT and dated August 6, 2012.
Dr Majzoub told this writer in February that he “utterly” denied any involvement with weapons trafficking “in Syria or anywhere else”. He called the report’s contents “lies and fabrication.”
Australian sanctions law has prohibited the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of weapons to Syria since 2011.
Dr Ahmet Yayla, director of the Center for Homeland Security at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and a faculty member of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, gave this writer a copy of the police report and backs its authenticity.
Dr Yayla served 20 years with the Turkish National Police Department of Counter-Terrorism and Operations and was counter-terrorism chief in Turkey’s Sanliurfa province, bordering Syria, between 2010 and 2013. He resigned from the police force in 2014 over the Erdogan administration’s facilitation of the so-called “jihadi highway” through Sanliurfa to Syria.
Dr Yayla cited the report in a May 2019 study of the IHH charity. He said he got it from a trusted former Turkish police officer. “It is definitely genuine,” he added.
Dr Yayla said the document provided to him was circulated for internal police information and discussion. It includes alleged wiretap transcripts and was based on the bugging and mapping of phone communications which “allowed the police to make a hierarchy of who is in touch with whom,” he said.
The report includes a relationship diagram connecting Dr Majzoub and four other men with Libyan citizen Abdaladim Ali Mossa Ben Ali.
Ben Ali is described as being involved in a plan by the Al-Qaeda in Iraq organisation – a predecessor of ISIS – to transport weapons from Libya to Syria via Turkey. Ben Ali was also “acting in connection with” the FSA, the document claimed.
The relationship diagram included the alleged roles and phone numbers of group members. Describing Dr Majzoub’s role as “weapons supply”, it listed his Turkish mobile phone number. Dr Majzoub used the same phone number to send WhatsApp messages to this writer.
The document claimed Dr Majzoub also had contact with Ali Musa Abdallah Al Jaburi “who was preparing to send weapons to the opposition in Syria”.
Dr Majzoub’s Denial
Dr Majzoub told this writer he never had any contact with Ben Ali, Al Jaburi or any other people named as part of the Ben Ali group. He said he believed he was named in the police report because he was a “well-known public figure” in the Syrian opposition and had “a wide range of contacts”.
However, weakening this argument, the report does not mention Dr Majzoub’s Australian identity or SNC connection. It provides Dr Majzoub’s name and phone number only.
Dr Majzoub said he believed the police report had only surfaced now because of the “current involvement of Turkish government in the Libyan conflict”. Turkey has sent Syrian mercenaries and its own troops to fight in Libya’s civil war.
Dr Majzoub told this writer he was “hosted and welcomed” as an SNC representative in Libya by its National Transitional Council – a short-lived de facto government – in 2012. He did not reply to questions about his trip to Libya, but hesaid foreign fighters and ideologies had proven to be “a destroying machine to the Syrian revolution… against Assad dictatorship. This is my believe (sic), and what I was warning Syrian revolution about.”
Dr Majzoub also did not reply to questions about the accuracy of a separate diagram in the police report showing eight men claimed to be his contacts. They included FSA deputy commander Malek Kurdi and senior officials of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked charity IHH, which reportedly helped to transfer Libyan weapons to Syria in 2012.
Also named as Dr Majzoub’s contacts were Ibrahim Kalin and Sefer Turan, senior advisors to then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been Turkey’s president since late 2014. Kalin is now presidential spokesperson and Turan is Erdogan’s chief advisor.
Abdullah Bozkurt, author of the Nordic Monitor expose describes Sefer Turan as a “very radical” supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“He speaks Arabic very well and has been the key figure in coordinating the traffic between Erdogan and Arab groups across the Middle East. He’s a VIP guy,” Mr. Bozkurt told TIJ.
Dr Majzoub also argued that parts of the report made no sense. In an email he asked: “Would the MIT – a very loyal body to President Erdogan – work against the president, his advisers and spy on them to the extent of criminalising them? Would it shoot itself in the foot?”
In fact, Erdogan’s advisers are named as Dr Majzoub’s contacts in the police report, not in its MIT attachments. Dr Yayla explained that MIT would sometimes provide police with details of “weapons movements and other terrorist activities even if MIT considers them friendly. If MIT doesn’t share intelligence, it can become a liability for them.”
Dr Yayla also pointed out that Erdogan did not consolidate personal control over the national police force until late 2014, after purging the top officers of key departments including intelligence, counterterrorism and organised crime.
Dr Yayla said the police report’s claim that al-Qaeda figures were “operating in connection with” the Free Syrian Army was credible. “The FSA was big and not well organised and did not receive any training,” he said. “When al-Qaeda showed up in the region they had the discipline and knowledge and were very well organised. So, it was easy for them to infiltrate the FSA and use them.”
Maybe Not So Moderate
In addition to his membership in the SNC, Dr Majzoub was the spokesperson for the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC) when it formed in 2014 with the goal of becoming the chief Sunni religious authority for the divided opposition to Assad. Four years later, around March 2018 the SIC issued a fatwa or religious decree justifying the killing of Kurdish fighters by Turkish-backed jihadists. They committed atrocities when they invaded Afrin in March 2018.
Dr Majzoub told this writer he no longer held the position of SIC spokesperson. He supplied a 2019 letter from a World Council of Churches official, Michel Nseir, praising his role in building “dialogue and cooperation” among Syrian Muslims and Christians “who share the values of democracy and human rights”.
Nevertheless, Dr Majzoub featured in several controversial incidents after casting his lot with the Syrian opposition in 2011.
He accused Australian authorities of compromising the security of his contacts inside and outside Syria when they searched and questioned him and his brother Sheikh Mustapha at Sydney airport on two occasions in 2012.
Mustapha became the first Australian known to have died in the conflict, in northern Syria in August 2012, and Dr Majzoub presided over his funeral.
Sheikh Mustapha was killed in a rocket attack while doing “humanitarian and charity work”, according to his family and an Australian Islamic community spokesman.
However, statements and Facebook posts by rebel supporters and Sheikh Mustapha himself suggested he probably died in combat. He was already “on the radar of security services as an extremist preacher” and was “a staunch recruiter for the Syrian rebellion”.
Though born in Saudi Arabia, where his father Hassan studied Islam, Sheikh Mustapha spoke better English and seemed more familiar with mainstream Australian culture than his older brother. Colleagues described Mustapha as a “highly respected and much-loved” teacher at a Sydney Islamic school.
However, in a speech at his son’s memorial service in Sydney, Hassan Majzoub said Mustapha’s “love of jihad” was due to the time they spent together in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Some of Sheikh Mustapha’s Australian lectures shared on YouTube cast the Syrian conflict in purely sectarian terms, asserting that non-Muslims (a reference to Syria’s secular regime) must not be allowed to rule over Muslims.
And in an excited Facebook post from Syria, he reported: “Allah Akbar Allah Akbar 72 from the shabeeha (loyal alawaite [sic] supporters) have just been captured in the Kurd mountain in Latakia. It’s going off everywhere here Allah Akbar.” One of his Facebook followers asked, chillingly: “Have they been slaughtered yet?”
In December 2013, Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi accused Dr Majzoub of involvement in the kidnapping of women and children during a rebel massacre of civilians in Latakia four months earlier.
Human Rights Watch found that rebels killed at least 190 civilians and seized over 200 — mostly women and children — as hostages in a “coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population” of undefended villages inhabited by members of the minority Alawite sect. The attack was launched from the town of Salma, near the Turkish border, where Mustapha Majzoub was killed the previous year.
Mr. Al-Zoubi claimed the Australian government was “well aware” of Dr Majzoub’s role in the incident but had “turned a blind eye and done nothing about it. This man is now present in Europe and working in Europe, and none of the European governments have done anything about it.” This may have been a reference to Dr Majzoub’s reported presence in Paris and London in preparation for the now-defunct, UN-backed “Geneva II” peace conference on Syria.
Al-Zoubi offered no evidence of Dr Majzoub’s involvement beyond a reference to his alleged use of “Australian telephone networks” during the Latakia offensive; Dr Majzoub denied any involvement. He was “the respected Aussie imam smeared by the Assad regime,” a newspaper headline declared.
However, 17 months after the massacre, Dr Majzoub appeared as a negotiator between the Syrian government and rebels who still held most of the kidnapped women and children. The pro-opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl said Dr Majzoub had been “accepted by rebels to bring the humanitarian tragedy to an end” by negotiating a prisoner swap.
Dr Majzoub also made a media appearance in relation to an attack on the Armenian-majority town of Kessab in northern Syria in March 2014. The rebel groups that assaulted the town and burned its churches included an al-Qaeda affiliate.
According to the government-controlled Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, which sympathised with Syrian rebels, Dr Majzoub organised the “evacuation” (Armenian sources called it kidnapping) of a group of elderly Kessab Armenians to Turkey, where they featured in Turkish government propaganda.
The paper quoted Dr Majzoub as saying:
“We captured the town as a part of our war strategy…We helped the old people and sent them to Turkey.”
Dr Majzoub did not respond when the author of this investigation asked if he was accurately quoted.
Confirmation that Dr Majzoub is the individual named by Turkish police is a significant development in an unfolding tale of arms trafficking from Libya to Syria via Turkey. It broadens allegations of involvement beyond al-Qaeda related extremists to include the “moderate” wing of the Syrian insurgency – and alleges collusion between both camps.
Dr Majzoub confirmed to TIJ that he travelled to Libya but did not answer questions about his activities there. He denied any involvement with arms trafficking or the Ben Ali group.
Dr Majzoub was the only person named in the police report as playing a role in the Ben Ali group while also being in touch with influential members of the Erdogan administration. It seems police were monitoring his phone calls with Erdogan’s aides. If not weapons transfers, what did they discuss?
These developments revive earlier questions over Dr Majzoub and the SNC’s relationship to rebel forces who, with cross-border support from Turkey, carried out atrocities against Alawite and Armenian civilians, among others.
With Turkish authorities implicated in all these events it is unlikely Dr Majzoub will be required to explain his role any time soon.
A Turkish police intelligence report, intended for internal circulation, revealed links between the members of Libyan jihadist Ben Ali group and then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Leader Ben Ali worked closely with Fedaa Majzoub, who was in touch with Erdoğan’s Chief advisors at the time İbrahim Kalın currently serving as presidential spokesperson and Sefer Turan now working as chief presidential advisor while arranging the movement of foreign fighters and the supply of weapons.
Theses classified intelligence documents reveal how the group of jihadist Ben Ali group led by Abdaladim Ali Mossa Ben Ali, a Libyan citizen with close ties to al‐Qaeda actively transferred foreign fighters and weapons from Libya to Syria through Turkey.
The police report included classified documents from the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) that revealed intelligence on al-Qaeda in Libya connections to Turkey starting from July 2012