U.S. authorities denied entry to a prominent Syrian humanitarian leader. So why did it allow in a member of a controversial Islamist rebel faction?
A senior figure from a Syrian rebel group with links to al Qaida was allowed into the United States for a brief visit, raising questions about how much the Obama administration will compromise in the search for partners in the conflict.
Labib al Nahhas, foreign affairs director for the Islamist fighting group Ahrar al Sham, spent a few days in Washington in December, according to four people with direct knowledge of the trip and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S. relations with Syrian rebels.
His previously undisclosed visit is a delicate matter for both sides – the conservative Salafist insurgents risk their credibility with even perceived ties to the United States, and the U.S. government risks looking soft on screenings by allowing entry to a member of an Islamist paramilitary force.
National security analysts say U.S. authorities likely knew of Nahhas’ arrival – intelligence agencies for years have watched his group’s interactions with al Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.
That suggests that authorities granted him entry at a time when U.S. immigration authorities face political pressure to block visitors with even tenuous ties to extremist groups. Four months after Nahhas entered the United States on a European passport, U.S. authorities denied entry to a well-known Syrian humanitarian leader who had been approved to visit Washington to receive an award from international aid groups.
“They’re treating Labib al Nahhas as an individual, and it’s also useful to have someone to talk to on the other side,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who said he’d known about Nahhas’ visit. “They could make, quickly, the decision that he’s persona non grata in the United States and yet they haven’t.”
A Syrian opposition official with knowledge of the matter said it shouldn’t have been surprising that he was allowed entry because Ahrar al Sham is not among U.S.-designated terrorist groups. He said Nahhas hadn’t planned meetings with any U.S. officials but wanted to speak with “third parties” who might be able to influence policymakers. He declined to elaborate on the “third parties;” others said the plan was to meet with lobbyists and Middle East researchers.
The State Department declined to answer whether any U.S. officials knew in advance or expressed reservations about Nahhas’s presence in Washington, or whether State Department officials had assisted his entry.
The Obama administration has considered slapping a terrorist label on the group, and Secretary of State John Kerry has lumped Ahrar in the same category as blacklisted groups the Islamic State, Nusra Front and Hamas.
Officials so far have held back on a designation, privately saying that they’ve calculated it would do more harm than good on the ground.
“They’re not al Qaida but they are Salafi jihadists – they’re just not transnational ones,” Itani said of Ahrar al Sham.
Given the State Department’s growing impatience with Syrian insurgents’ “co-mingling” with Nusra Front, it’s unclear whether Nahhas would be welcomed back to Washington.
“Straddling the jihadi-mainstream divide has served them very well earlier in the conflict,” Lund said of Ahrar al Sham, “but by now their inability to come down on one side or the other is starting to look more like weakness.”
One of those third parties he met with was very likely CAIR, the Hamas front group. As was reported here: US Muslim Brotherhood’s Political Party to Blitz Capitol Hill This Week
The Board of Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) is littered with Hamas leaders including…all of them. Dr. Jess Ghannam, Dr. Hatem Bazian (name familiar?), Tarek Alkadri, Mouffa Nahhas, and Khalil Meek. Alkadri, Nahhas, and Meek all openly served in various positions for Hamas in the U.S. (dba “CAIR”).
Are Labib Nahhas and MLFA/CAIR’s Mouffa Nahhas related?