Al-Monitor speaks to two men, “Shalal” and “Amer,” who claim to have recognized the unmasked al-Shara because they worked in a supermarket owned by al-Shara’s family near al-Akram mosque in the Mezze district of Damascus. Amer agrees with the Shaam Network account that al-Shara has four brothers: Jamal, who ran the supermarket; Ali, who taught at the Faculty of Arts of Damascus University; another brother who is serving in the military; and a final brother who lives in Saudi Arabia, about whom neither Amer nor Shalal know anything.
People like Al-Jawlani were openly recruited by Assad’s security officers from mosques and universities, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with some of them receiving brief training in army camps before being sent out to Iraq to fight American troops. Upon their return most were arrested and interrogated. The more ardent believers were sent to Saydnaya prison, the rest were released in spurts. Some of those released were used in 2005 and afterwards to play their small part in certain security operations in Lebanon that included the assassination of former PM Raafic Al-Hariri. Some, like Mahmoud al-Aghasi (Abu al-Qaqa), were liquidated to prevent any possible defection or leaks.
Meanwhile, Al-Jawlani was naturally among those sent to Saydnaya where they became part of an interesting experiment to that pitted Islamist Jihadi prisoners against secularist and moderate Islamist prisoners. The prison guard ended entrusting managing the internal affairs of the prison population to the Jihadis, and these Jihadis, including Al-Jawlani and the early leaders of other Jihadi factions, were released by the regime in the early weeks of the Revolution in a cynical yet successful attempt by the regime to turn the nonviolent protest movement into an Islamist armed insurrection – a move that would helped the regime consolidate its internal support and gain some international support for its stands. Indeed, regime troops have for long avoided any direct clashes with Jihadi groups focusing instead on moderate rebels. This policy and activities of these Jihadi elements facilitated the rise of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Of course, the involvement of Iranian intelligence services in this regard needs to be highlighted as well, considering that some of the Jihadi leaders that emerged on the Syrian scene were previously known to reside in Tehran under the watchful eyes of the Mullahs.