Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Deir ez-Zor and the wider east of Syria

NOTE: An archive of the Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad column can now be found here.

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Introduction

On account of the border with Iraq, one might infer through common sense stronger links in Deir ez-Zor and the east with mujahideen in Iraq fighting under the command of Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who announced the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in the first place. Thus, it might be predicted that ISIS has either taken over the eastern areas completely or is otherwise indistinguishable from Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), as is the case in Raqqah.

The city of Deir ez-Zor

An overview of the evidence demonstrates a more complicated picture. In the city of Deir ez-Zor itself, it would appear that JAN and ISIS are two separate entities. This can be shown by the fact that there is no overlap in claimed operations for the two groups.

Thus, the main source for ISIS actions in Deir ez-Zor comes from the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham, which put out a video of members of ISIS destroying a Shi’i mosque in Deir ez-Zor. Confirmation of ISIS responsibility is made clear by the fact that the opening speaker introduces those in the video destroying the mosque as members of ISIS.

Here is another video released by ash-Sham of ISIS gunmen executing two men in Deir ez-Zor, described in the video tag as ‘murtadeen’ (‘apostates’) and apparently guilty of crimes against Muslims. ISIS also appears to be playing a role in the ongoing battle for Deir ez-Zor airport between regime forces and rebels. Considering that those under the banner of the ‘Free Army/FSA’ are continuing to fight for the airport, it is likely that there is coordination in this operation between ISIS and other rebels.

JAN is also playing its own role in leading and coordinating operations with other rebels, despite what appeared to be a decline in evidence of JAN activity in Deir ez-Zor (contrasting with the western regions of the country) between Sheikh Baghdadi’s announcement of ISIS and Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s letter of compromise between ISIS and JAN.

Thus, on 15 June, some rebel outlets reported that JAN along with the ‘Jamaat al-Tawhid wa l-Jihad’ had taken over the military court in Deir ez-Zor. Ugarit News says that the operation was a joint one between JAN and those under the banner of the ‘Free Army’, with additional mention of a joint JAN-‘Free Army’ takeover of a Bemo Bank building. Neither of these operations has been claimed for ISIS, and vice-versa as regards ISIS actions in Deir ez-Zor.[i]

Abu Kamal and the Kata’ib Junud al-Haq

Outside of Deir ez-Zor- in particular in eastern towns freed from regime control- there is not really a clear distinction between ISIS and JAN. The best case-in-point comes from the town of Abu Kamal on the Euphrates that is right on the border with Iraq, making links with jihadis in Iraq perfectly logical. During the upsurge in claimed ISIS videos in mid-May, one emerged purporting to show ISIS’ presence in Abu Kamal, allegedly showing operations by the ‘Kata’ib Junud al-Haq’ (‘Battalions of the Soldiers of Righteousness’- KJAH) based in Abu Kamal and with claimed affiliation to ISIS.

Later that month, another video emerged of an ISIS training camp for youths in Abu Kamal. For instance, at 0:33 in the latter video, some of the ISIS cub scouts are seen holding the ISIS banner with the inscription ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Sham’ in Arabic and English.

The clip also includes teaching children to disarm opponents of their weapons at close quarters, marksmanship and using sniper rifles. Moreover, there is the chanting of slogans such as ‘God preserve the Muhajireen’ (3:52), suggesting that some foreign fighters- and in this case I would in particular suggest Iraqis from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)- have been involved in the running of the training camp.

The key to tracking developments as regards the ISIS-JAN relationship in Abu Kamal lies in KJAH, about which nothing in English has otherwise been written. A look at the group’s Facebook page is most revealing.  Originally, KJAH was set up as a front-group for JAN in Abu Kamal. This is apparent from their first logo that included the name of Jabhat al-Nusra underneath ‘Kata’ib Junud al-Haq.’

Furthermore, in March, a video was released purportedly showing dead Shabiha fighters in the town of ash-Shaddadi in Hasakah province. The speaker in the video mentions that the men were killed at the hands of ‘Kata’ib Junud al-Haq- Kata’ib Jabhat al-Nusra.’

Here is another video of the battalion coordinating operations with those identifying as the ‘Free Army’ in trying to take Kabajab from regime forces (in Deir ez-Zor province). Note that neither of these videos was released through al-Manārah al-Bayḍā, suggesting that like the JAN military council in Deraa, KJAH should in theory enjoy some degree of autonomy.

At the same time, KJAH’s sympathy- at the minimum- with Sheikh Baghdadi’s ISI was made clear with another emblem uploaded in March to mark a purported JAN offensive to take Homs. The name of Jabhat al-Nusra is inscribed as with the first logo but part of the ISI logo is incorporated, perhaps acknowledging KJAH’s debt to ISI (something that applies to JAN more generally).

A more glaring change came at the end of April- some three weeks after the announcement of ISIS- that saw KJAH drop JAN’s name from their logo entirely, making clear its affiliation to ISIS. Indeed, the impression of ISIS affiliation was strengthened by those two videos in May mentioned above.

The battalion also released a statement in mid-May- under its own name but openly claiming membership of ISIS- addressed to the people of Abu Kamal, notifying them that the battalion’s request for permission for students in Abu Kamal to sit their exams in Abu Kamal rather than in Deir ez-Zor had been turned down.

At the same time, the switch to ISIS name and imagery did not mean a rejection of or hostility towards JAN, as indicated by the fact the Facebook page uploaded a photo featuring JAN fighters and their logo on 10 May.

In any event, when Sheikh Zawahiri announced his compromise ruling in favor of maintaining JAN’s name, KJAH switched back to claiming affiliation with JAN, while maintaining on its Facebook page the logo adopted after Sheikh Baghdadi’s announcement of ISIS.

The most recent statement released by KJAH explicitly states affiliation as JAN’s wing in Abu Kamal, discussing a recent problem of residents of villages near Abu Kamal receiving weapons from regime forces in Deir ez-Zor.

KJAH is a good example of how defining the exact ISIS-JAN relationship in Syria can be difficult to describe in general terms. Certainly the changes in claimed logos and affiliations reflect the disputes at the leadership level of the jihad in Syria over the names of JAN and ISIS, but KJAH’s adoption of one or the other did not mean hostility to the other name or banner, regardless of the battalion’s composition.

Further, besides the praise of ‘Muhajireen’ being taught in the then KJAH/ISIS camp in Abu Kamal, one should note that some of KJAH Facebook postings appear to have been made in Baghdad, adding credence to my hypothesis of strong links between the mujahideen in Abu Kamal and Iraqi fighters, if not the presence of Iraqi mujahideen in Abu Kamal.

If that be the case, then Abu Kamal presents an example of how views on JAN and ISIS are not always predictable according to a foreign-fighter vs. native Syrian dichotomy. Even if one wants to posit the idea of just native Syrians in Abu Kamal who defected to ISIS and back, a challenge is still presented to distinguishing ISIS from JAN solely by positing a ‘foreigner vs. native’ division.

Abu Kamal continues to see demonstrations in solidarity with rebels fighting the Assad regime. Yet unlike the rallies in Raqqah seen until recently, ISIS flags and demonstrators are distinctly absent from the city itself.

Instead, FSA flags remain the norm, with rallies loaded with religious rhetoric about victory for the Muslims and the like. This suggests some distance between rally organizers in Abu Kamal and those in the city who support al-Qa’ida.

Al-Quria and al-Mayadeen

A somewhat contrasting picture turns up in viewing footage of rallies in other villages and towns along the Euphrates in the Deir ez-Zor area. A notable case-in-point is the village of al-Quria that is near the town of al-Mayadeen.[ii]  For example, here is a video of a 14 June rally in al-Quria, led by a boy said to be from Abu Kamal.[iii] Noteworthy is the presence of the ISIS flag alongside the FSA flags. Here is another video of the same Friday demonstration.

A week later, another video emerged of a Friday rally on 21 June in al-Quria, featuring two ISIS flags, some flags of jihad and FSA flags. In fact, the presence of ISIS flags in al-Quria rallies goes back at least into last month, with a photo uploaded by KJAH on 31 May featuring the ISIS flag in the background in an al-Quria demonstration. Meanwhile, in al-Mayadeen itself, we have a video of a 14 June rally featuring demonstrators with banners of all stripes: ISIS, Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya, and the FSA.

What can be made of the ISIS-JAN relationship in these areas? To begin with, it is worth noting that JAN has recruited fighters from al-Quria, such as the case of this martyr for JAN from al-Quria killed in fighting in the city of Deir ez-Zor back in March. In the previous month, JAN had played a leading role in reconciliatory meetings between people from al-Quria and the nearby town of al-Asharah. JAN’s role in al-Mayadeen is well-known too.

I would suggest that the situation in these two towns is rather like what has transpired in Raqqah. Namely, ISIS has become interchangeable with JAN, and it is also apparent that ISIS supporters in these places have reached a concord of understanding with those of other ideological inclinations. Of course, as in Raqqah too, that situation of concord could change somewhat.

JAN, ISIS and the case of ash-Shaddadi

In terms of ISIS being interchangeable with JAN, I would argue that the case of ash-Shaddadi offers a useful parallel to understand the situation in these eastern towns. JAN has had a prominent role in events pertaining to this town, having recently released a video via al-Manārah al-Bayḍā of its operations from back in January/February 2013,[iv] which led to the takeover of ash-Shaddadi by rebels (carried out by JAN in coordination with rebels under the banner of the ‘Free Army’).

In February, a video emerged of JAN in ash-Shaddadi executing a purported Alawite sniper for Assad forces. In April, just after Sheikh Baghdadi had announced ISIS, it was reported that JAN was managing the distribution of bread in ash-Shaddadi. Later that month, a video emerged from ash-Shaddadi of JAN members purportedly dispersing protestors with machine-gun fire.

By May, an important new development arose in ash-Shaddadi. Namely, a video emerged of those identified as JAN members forming a ‘Security Committee of the Muslims for the Oversight of the General Security’ in ash-Shaddadi.

However, the convoy of JAN is quite clearly seen with banners of ISIS, suggesting interchangeability with JAN in ash-Shaddadi as regards names and imagery. It is this situation, I would argue, that applies to towns in the far east freed from regime control- particularly along the Euphrates- where ISIS banners can be seen.

Conclusion

In sum, I would put forward the following principle of analysis when it comes to assessing the JAN-ISIS relationship in Deir ez-Zor and the wider east of Syria[v]:

Where fighting for control of areas in the east between rebels and regime forces is ongoing- as in the city of Deir ez-Zor itself- ISIS and JAN are operating as two separate entities. In places already free from regime control, the relationship is more ambiguous and blurred. If the two are not outright interchangeable with one another in said areas, declaring affiliation with one of the two does not necessarily translate to hostility/opposition to the other, as illustrated by the case of Abu Kamal.

On the ground in the east, therefore, one might say that for now the situation is as jihadi ideologues on forums have envisioned in light of the JAN-ISIS naming dispute. That is, to the extent that there should be rivalry between the two groups, it should only be in the sense of trying to outdo each other in fighting the enemies of Islam, rather than internecine struggle among the mujahideen.

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

Notes


[i] The importance of the point about lack of overlap in claimed operations in Deir ez-Zor for JAN and ISIS cannot be overstated. The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham on Twitter has recently taken a more hostile stance towards JAN, accusing it of ‘defection’ from ISIS. The channel further claims that JAN supporters are misrepresenting old operations as recent. On the other hand, ash-Sham’s own output of claimed operations elsewhere is mired in controversy.  For example, on Twitter it recently put out a list of purported ISIS operations in the Damascus area (now since deleted, likely because of inaccuracies) where at least one of these was claimed by JAN via al-Manārah al-Bayḍā. In this case, the best arbiter is Syrian state TV, whose footage shows the JAN banner (H/T: @troublejee).

[ii] To get some idea of orientation of the towns in the far-east along the Euphrates, see this map.

[iii] If the boy is actually from Abu Kamal, it might strengthen the notion of tension between Abu Kamal demonstrators and those of pro-ISIS/JAN inclination. Hence the latter may in part move out to other towns for the occasions of rallies.

[iv] Cf. This report from February on the ‘liberation of ash-Shaddadi.’

[v] The northeast with Qamishli, the city of al-Hasakah and areas north of the latter deserve separate consideration in a future post.