GUEST POST: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Raqqah Governorate

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Past Guest Posts:

Hazim Fouad, “Salafi-Jihadists and non-jihadist Salafists in Egypt – A case study about politics and methodology (manhaj),” April 30, 2013.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi, “Perceptions of the “Arab Spring” Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” November 19, 2012.
Jack Roche, “The Indonesian Jamā’ah Islāmiyyah’s Constitution (PUPJI),” November 14, 2012.
Kévin Jackson, “The Pledge of Allegiance and its Implications,” July 27, 2012.
Behnam Said, “A Brief Look at the History and Power of Anasheed in Jihadist Culture,” May 31, 2012.
Jonah Ondieki and Jake Zenn, “Gaidi Mtaani,” April 24, 2012.
Joshua Foust, “Jihadi Ideology Is Not As Important As We Think,” January 25, 2011.
Charles Cameron, “Hitting the Blind-Spot- A Review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “Apocalypse in Islam,” January 24, 2011.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Why Jihadi Ideology Matters,” January 21, 2011.
Joshua Foust, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on Ideology,” January 19, 2011.
Marissa Allison, “Militants Seize Mecca: Juhaymān al ‘Utaybī and the Siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca,” June 9, 2010.

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

A couple of weeks ago I wrote on emerging signs of an apparent split in some respects between Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). What other evidence has emerged since then? Here I will just focus on the rebel-held city of Raqqah and the wider Raqqah Governorate.

For one thing, the nature of the channel ‘ash-Sham’, which has put out a number of videos purportedly showing members of ISIS, has now become clear. While its now-terminated Youtube profile gave the impression that ash-Sham is run by someone in the United States, the channel is actually based in the city of Raqqah.

Here is an advertisement board put out by ash-Sham in Raqqah, with the slogan ‘Together, let us spread our Shari’a.’ In effect, the channel is a media front for ISIS in Raqqah, and so ash-Sham’s Facebook page also uploaded a photo of the entrance to ISIS’s security office in Raqqah, together with a view of the interior of the office.

More generally, the presence of ISIS supporters can be observed in videos of rallies in Raqqah. For instance, in this video clip of a 24 May demonstration for Qusayr in Raqqah, an ISIS banner can be seen, though it should also be noted that some of the protestors are also waving JAN flags, alongside others who hold FSA flags and one demonstrator for Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI), which was the main group of rebel battalions that took over Raqqah in March.

Here is another video clip of protests in Raqqah on that day, again featuring an ISIS banner alongside an ISIS flag, together with HASI and FSA banners.  Note also this photo of one of the processions in solidarity with Qusayr with two ISIS flags in the background.

Further, on 31 May, a Friday protest was held in Sayf ad-Dawla street under the name of ‘Our Red Lines’ (alluding to the Obama administration’s shifting of the ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons in Syria). Here too one can observe an ISIS flag alongside FSA flags and white banners with the Shahada in black, signifying the realm of Islamic law.

Some inferences can be drawn here. First, whatever ideological differences the protestors and activists in Raqqah may have (and as I have noted before, there is a secular and anti-sectarian trend in the city), cooperation and accommodation rather than mutual hostility remain the norm at demonstrations, particularly those organized around common causes like solidarity with the rebels in Qusayr.

True, some activists in Raqqah have also protested against the rise in Shari’a courts, but to the extent that ISIS and other groups compete to win the support of locals, the competition for ‘hearts and minds’ is generally being pursued peacefully.

The second point to note is that the presence of JAN flags alongside ISIS symbols at demonstrations illustrates that posing an antagonistic JAN-ISIS dichotomy can be simplistic. Some of the activists aligned with ISIS and JAN may simply view each other’s names and banners as mere synonyms.

In a similar vein to JAN’s distribution of works by the likes of Abd al-Wahhab I have noted previously, ISIS is also offering study circles for the Qur’an and life of the Prophet at various mosques. Further, now that the presence in Raqqah has been established for some time, ISIS has taken upon itself to exercise jurisdiction over perceived criminals and regime agents.

The latter was shown with the widely-circulated execution video last month of three men accused of being officers in Assad’s forces, while an example of the former has recently come to light with ISIS’s arrest of a man identified as ‘Ahmad al-Assaf’, accused by ISIS of leading a gang responsible for stealing motorcycles and cars in Raqqah.

One further point suggesting continuity between ISIS and JAN in the Raqqah area and a relationship more or less along the lines of seeing the two there as synonymous is the issue of the northern border town of Tel Abyad. This town was the site of clashes between the northern Farouq Battalions and JAN at the end of March, most likely over control of border access points and resources.

Renewed clashes appear to have emerged in Tel Abyad at the end of May, only this time between Farouq (or the recently formed Liwaa Mustafa) and ISIS, with the latter then taking the initiative to distribute a notice with the ISIS insignia to residents on their right to report on and complain about misconduct by any of the mujahideen.

In short, the case of the city of Raqqah and the surrounding area is indicative of the complexity on the ground of the relationship between JAN and ISIS. In some places elsewhere in Syria, there is probably antagonism between those adopting the JAN label and others the ISIS symbols, but the picture in Raqqah and Raqqah governorate is one of continuity between ISIS and JAN.

Most importantly, the modus operandi of those identifying as ISIS- increasingly prevalent in Raqqah city rather than the banner of JAN- is not fundamentally different from JAN. Ultimately, it is ISIS’ actions on the ground that matter more than a name and flag.

Thus, I do not see a gradual shift to ISIS from JAN in the Raqqah area as having a significant impact for fighters and activists in sympathy with al-Qa’ida. Deeds- and not symbols or names- will decide their fortunes.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org. Follow on Twitter at @ajaltamimi