Ali Almanasfi, the Briton of Syrian heritage purportedly killed by a regime ambush in Idlib on 31 May is alive. He got in touch with me via Skype. We spoke for approximately an hour. I saw his face sporting a bushy beard, he looked well. His brother, Safwan Almanasfi, has told me that he has been in touch with the family. Ali had lost his passport a few weeks before the ambush occurred and it explains how the regime got hold of it. The grainy film of the body was filmed from an angle which made it difficult to identify him positively.
Ali confirmed that he had spent time with the Ahrar Shaam brigade, the free men of Syria, but was never a member of the group. Almanasfi apparently used his network of contacts to move from place to place all over rebel held areas fighting and helping out where ever he was needed. This is not unique amongst rebel fighters. Syrian fighters are usually well connected to other brigades and may move from one brigade to another spending considerable time with a unit other than his own. Ali said he had taken part in four major battles. Some of these battles had been in cooperation with other brigades
Ali Almanasfi wanted to correct facts given by the Daily Telegraph that he recited the Quran and lead the unit in prayer. Given the fact that Almanasfi did not know how to read Arabic in December 2012 how he had become so learned within a few months is improbable. The prayer leader, Imam, is usually the one who is the most knowledgeable in religious learning and memorizing the Quran- Ali was not.
Almanasfi said he wanted to fight with the most effective brigades and the most sincere in their mission to root out the brutal regime. It was clear that Ali considered himself a freedom fighter not a terrorist. He said it was his religious duty, fard, to aid his fellow countrymen preferring it even above the needs of his ailing mother. He rebuked me for suggesting otherwise.
Ali seems like the archetype religious nationalist described by Elizabeth O'Bagy in Jihad in Syria. Many of these fighters believe according to O'Bagy that "Assad's harsh repression has created the conditions for Jihad" consequently it becomes a religious duty to protect their Muslim Brethren.
Another source Abu Ousama has said that Ali was heavily involved in delivering aid in rebel held areas. He worked closely with ad-hoc local charities that have sprung up all over the country trying to get food supplies to the civilian population. I could not confirm whether this report was accurate with Ali because of the broken connection.
If true it seems that Ali has been playing a role not akin to older more experienced foreign fighters like Mahdi al-Harati the Irish national of Libyan heritage who fought in Libya before moving to Syria. Harati went to Syria to help Syrian rebels remove the Assad regime. According to O'Bagy he was there to act in a logistical role delivering humanitarian aid, communications and military support bringing his considerable experience to the uprising.
The fact that Almanasfi seemed to be performing a dual role shows how fluid the role of foreign fighters are in Syria. It is difficult to classify foreign fighters into Jihadis, radicals, nationalists or religious secularists, Salafi Jihadis or terrorists. As Aaron Lund's Syria's Salafi Insurgents makes clear Syrian Salafi Jihadis may not even be aware of the various strands of Islamist thought and could in reality just be conservative Sunnis. Ali could have been all of the above or none. One thing though is certain: generalizations must be avoided.
This also applies to brigades including the Nusra Front. In fact, the best way to approach these brigades is to abandon the Global War on Terror narratives that skew the situation and prevents one from understanding the motivations of foreign and Syrian rebels. Western policy makers need to dump the ideological baggage that comes with a Western understanding of Jihad and listen to the brigades on the ground according to the way they describe themselves. If one does that it will be easier to understand why the likes of Almanasfi is fighting in Syria now. Almanasfi's journey to Syria was motivated by a combination of religious duty, patriotism and conscience and in many ways share much with the American photographer Matt van Dyke who also took up arms against Gaddaffi and Assad for much the same reason.