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 websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Hymnal Propaganda: A Closer Look at ‘Clanging of the Swords’

Nashīds are a prime example of the Islamic State’s efforts to combine old and new rhetorical features to promote and legitimize its violent ends

By Alexander Schinis

Part of the Islamic State’s (IS) claim to fame is its high-value media productions. Some of its most popular productions are its hymns, or anashīd, which have spread around the world in the past years. The hymns serve as a rallying cry to their listeners, a call-to-arms on behalf of the terror group’s military goals. More than just overt calls for war, though, anashīd serve the group as foundational and legitimizing texts. Coded within the works of IS-produced anashīd are clues about its efforts to cast itself as the leader of global jihad.

This article will examine some of the structural features of one of IS’s most popular anashīd. In addition to these features, an assessment of the martial lyrical content of the nashīd will follow. Analyzing these features together will reveal some of IS’s many strategies in legitimizing itself as heir to leadership over the Islamic ummah.

What is a nashīd?

A nashīd (plural: anashīd) is a vocalized chant, frequently polyphonic and often without any instrumentation. There is significant variation across genres of anashīd. The work of Behnam Said includes some of the most comprehensive research into the history and cultural relevance of these types of works (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2012).

The focus here is on the public-facing anashīd produced by IS. The qualities of these anashīd place the works somewhere between an exultant battle hymn and self-righteous national anthem.

One of IS’s most well-known anashīd, called Clanging of the Swords,” offers a compelling example of what such a nashīd looks and sounds like. This nashīd was retrieved from www.archive.org. Aymenn al-Tamimi offers one version of the English translation, linked here. Featuring the vocals of the munshid Abu Yaser, the nashīd made its debut in the video propaganda production of the same name in the summer of 2014.

Repetition in the nashīd

It will not take long for the listener to recognize how repetitive “Clanging of the Swords” is. Repetition is an integral part of many of IS’s anashīd. However, this should not be read as a lack of creativity on the part of their creators. Instead, the nashīd presents itself as a medium that enjoys a strong relationship with memory. Charles Hirschkind, in a study of sermons and the practice of “ethical listening” in Egypt, found that sermons could be easily memorizable because of their use of repetition (Columbia University Press, 2006). He points to Marcel Jousse’s theory of gesture and memory, which states that gestures, such as aural patterns, are predisposed to easy memorization. The nashīd’s use of repetition is likely a strategy used by IS to facilitate their memorization by its intended audience.

Repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” appears on a few levels. The first is its repetition of the chorus, made up of four lines. The hymn repeats this chorus of four lines seven times – sometimes back-to-back – in the period of the hymn’s approximately three minute run time.

The second level of repetition in the anthem appears in an echo-like effect for certain lines, immediately after their utterance. The hymn has three discrete stanzas, all of which demonstrate this pattern, and the last line of each stanza is repeated. Taking into account the repetition of its chorus, in this scheme, 34 lines of verse are repeated at least once. Of the hymn’s total of 40 lines, only six lines do not find repetition in the hymn. This makes the non-repeated verses outliers in the verse repetition scheme of the nashīd.

The third level of repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” is the reiteration of a number of themes and words. This is partly a function of the two tiers of repetition noted above. Across the chorus and stanzas there are specific words that appear several times. If the subject of the hymn is the listener, the object is “the enemy.” The anthem invokes the word “enemy” or “enemies” (in Arabic, عدو \ أعداء) “oppressors” (in Arabic, الطغاة) or “aggressors” more than any other object in the work. Other recurring words and phrases that appear across lines and stanzas are ideas of a righteous “path,” the notion of “sacrifice,” and references to “God.”

The extensive and multi-layered use of repetition, when taking into account the theories of Hirshkind and Jousse, serves the political aims of IS’s cultural productions by lending the works to quick memorization by the listener.

Monorhyme in the nashīd

Structural repetition makes this and other anashīd catchy and quick to commit to memory, but other features lend the nashīd deeper significance to certain audiences. One such feature in “Clanging of the Swords” is the use of monorhyme, i.e., the rhyming of each line of verse with all other lines.

Each line of the hymn is made up of two hemistichs, and in the original Arabic of the hymn, the last vocalization of each line’s second hemistich rhymes with an “a” sound. This is achieved with a few different schemes. One includes rhyming different letters with similar sounds. This is seen in the chorus, where the use of the taa’ marbuta (ة) in the words life (الحياة) and tyranny (الطغاة) are made to rhyme with the alif maqsura (ى) of the word echo (الصدى).

Elsewhere, a different strategy is to emphasize the vocalization of the “a” sound where it is found close to the end of a word, even if it is not the last letter. The word foreheads (جباه) terminates in a soft “h” sound; however, as a strategy to uphold the rhyming scheme, the vocalists omit the sound of the “h” altogether to ensure it is in keeping with the monorhyme.

Clanging of the Swords” is significant in its inclusion of monorhyme because it is an appeal to the poetic form of the qasīda. An educated Arabic-speaking audience might recognize the rhyming scheme; this is the creators’ intention. Bernard Haykel and Robyn Creswell, writing for The New Yorker, note that the use of classical Arabic forms, patterns, and meters in poetry is one way the IS jihadists attempt to co-opt the “special authority” that comes with the figure of the poet in Arabic literature. (The New Yorker, 2015).

This effort evidently extends past the genre of traditional Arabic poetry into the group’s corpus of anashīd.  The inclusion of monorhyme in “Clanging of the Swords” demonstrates that the authors of the nashīd understand the weight that these prosodic forms carry for educated Arabic speakers — and strive for the mantle of authority that comes with such knowledge.

Video Game Symbology

Some anashīd come paired with video productions and “Clanging of the Swords” is one such nashīd. The associated video, released in the summer of 2014, runs for over an hour and features this nashīd as background audio several times.

Two scenes stand out on account of their editing and framing. In both, a filmographer captures footage of a man sitting guard duty. The video then overlays a media effect similar to those seen in the popular video game franchise “Call of Duty,” superimposing the crosshairs of a sniper rifle over the guard. Gun fire from the direction of the camera subsequently kills the man in both cases, and “Clanging of the Swords” plays in the background all the while.

The footage is an example of the group’s efforts to incorporate new media forms like video games into its propaganda productions. Marcus Schulzke demonstrated how other Islamist groups used video games as a means to frame the narrative of the conflicts in which they were engaged. He notes that on a practical level, video game imagery “serves in [the war of ideas] both to intimidate opponents and to mobilize supporters” (Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2014).  

The conceptual framework of a videogame also stands as a familiar medium for a younger audience. It invites this audience to imagine themselves as a participant in the conflict, using the parallel between the active role of playing as a video game’s protagonist. The value of ISIS using this video game effect is likely an effort to match the outcomes that Schulzke highlights, possibly for the benefit of recruiting younger viewers.

Violence and the nashīd

Amid these rhetorical strategies sits the lyrical content of the nashīd. The lyrics of the nashīd reify the violence that made the Caliphate’s foundation possible. The primary function of IS’s invocation of violence is political – that is, its aims are not simply to make a statement, but rather to enforce and expand the area control bounded by the Caliphate.

The nashīd speaks to its audience, calling to the listener as a “brother” and speaking of “us” in the collective throughout. This call to community glorifies the battles that IS carries out serves to invite the listener to picture themselves in that same role, undertaking those same deeds, and earning for themselves that same glory. Its presumed listeners, speakers of Arabic, can join what the text portrays as a historic event, if only they make the sacrifices noted therein and join the Islamic State.

In spite of the images seen and described in mainstream media sources, such as immolating its captives alive or throwing its victims off of rooftops, the nashīd reflects a consensus within the terror group about what can be categorized as defensive violence. One need not look far back into IS’s history to find works explaining acts of brutal violence as necessary.

We can trace IS’s intellectual history and its relationship with violence to the the Al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji. Naji, in his treatise “The Management of Savagery,” links the need for twisted acts of violence to the time of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, in which the ummah was only just being conceived. “They knew the effect of rough violence in times of need,” writes Abu Bakr Naji, citing the value of brutalizing one’s enemies as a deterrent and a demoralizing strategy (Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2006).  At the time of his writing in 2004, he saw a grim period for the jihadist movement: “We are now in circumstances […] like that of which the believers faced in the beginning of jihad [in the time of the Prophet].”

It goes without saying that this interpretation of history is aberrant in modern society, and finds its home only in terror groups as fringe as IS. Resisting the aggressors, laying tyranny low, and walking the path of jihad in defiance are the highlighted examples of righteousness in violence in this nashīd. More than a heavy-hearted defensive response, though, “Clanging of the Swords” paints violence as a glorious means for necessary change.

Conclusion

The nashīd Clanging of the Swords” exemplifies a number of strategies that make it a complex text, serving not only as motivational work, but also as a legitimizing one. By capitalizing on the strategies discussed herein, this and other IS anashīd seek to bolster the marital aspirations of the terror group. Anashīd that use repetition are quick to memorize. They can call on tropes that invoke a sense of community for the listener. They can employ the “ennobling mantle” of Arabic poetry. These and other strategies, when paired with lyrics aggrandizing violence, help to legitimize the acts of violence for which IS is so infamous.

IS’s other anashīd further exemplify features that qualify them as noteworthy cultural artifacts. These anashīd, as well as other texts, merit our attention and deconstruction. By digging deeper into the texts produced by the group, we can determine other modes by which it attempts to create legitimacy for itself and its methods.

Alexander Schinis is a freelance writer and analyst. He holds a Master’s degree from New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

The Fitna in Deraa and the Islamic State Angle

By Aymenn al-Tamimi

International attention has justifiably focused on the recent Islamic State [IS] attacks in Brussels, but at the same time within Syria the most intense round of infighting among rebel factions in the southern province of Deraa has broken out. This fighting is said to be tied to the existence of IS cells and affiliates in Deraa, though IS itself has not said anything about the events on its official media channels, and to date there is no wilayat Deraa (‘Deraa province’) declared in the area. So who are the groups involved? And how far are they connected to IS if at all?

The most prominent aspect of the infighting is a continuation of the war in the southwest corner of the province between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade- LSY) and Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a leading player along with Ahrar al-Sham in a southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in imitation of the successful rebel alliance that expelled the Assad regime from Idlib province in spring 2015. The war itself traces back to clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and LSY in December 2014 on the grounds that the latter had links with IS.

Though there was widespread skepticism of that notion at the time, it is apparent from LSY’s own media output, discourse and actions since the initial clashes that it has open affinity with IS. Even so, LSY continues to deny in its own statements that it has links with IS, and on this basis many reports still characterize LSY as just pro-IS and/or a ‘wannabe.’ However, it is most likely that the LSY denials are encouraged by IS for fear of jeopardizing the project of building links and influence in Deraa. The reality is that LSY’s connections began around the summer of 2014, after the MOC operations command in Amman suspended support for LSY and IS announced its Caliphate. These first links were established online and through visits to IS territory.

A key figure in these initial interactions was the LSY Shari’i official Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, a veteran of the Afghan jihad who returned to southern Syria and eventually joined LSY. He was assassinated in November 2014. If one understands his role in establishing the connections between LSY and IS, it becomes clearer why Step News Agency described him in an obituary as “an important leader among the supporters of the Dawla organization in Deraa.”

More recently- and relevant to the latest developments- LSY announced the surprise appointment of a Saudi as its new amir: Abu Abdullah al-Madani. The move was unusual because the Deraa environment is much less welcoming than the north of Syria for muhajireen, partly because of local hostility but also because of the watchful eye of Jordanian intelligence and tight border controls.  In keeping with the public denial of an IS connection, LSY framed the appointment of Madani as the owing of allegiance to him. However, he was actually sent by IS on account of the poor administrative skills of Abu Obeida Qahtan: a Palestinian-Syrian veteran of the Afghan jihad who was among the founders of LSY and succeeded the original leader al-Khal following his assassination in November 2015. The reshuffling of the leadership can perhaps be tied to plans for the new offensive LSY has launched, capturing the localities of Tasil and Sahm al-Jowlan from Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels.

A group cooperating with LSY in the latest round of fighting is Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (Islamic Muthanna Movement- HMI). Whereas LSY, despite al-Khal’s radical background, was initially founded as an FSA-brand group, HMI was founded from the outset in 2012 as a Salafi jihadi group, headed by former Sednaya detainee Aamer Ayyub al-Masalama. That said, aware of local sensitivities and wishing to build popular support, HMI has always maintained a policy of rejecting muhajireen.

HMI is suspected by many of having links with IS- and for this reason has been on the radar of Israeli intelligence- but one does not see the open display of affinity that comes out in LSY. What may be considered as relevant evidence does not necessarily point one way or another. For example, a statement was issued by HMI in spring 2015 on the subject of IS: while HMI made clear it does not accept IS’ Caliphate declaration, the group praised IS for having fought “the states of kufr [disbelief] and their aides from the apostates,” and took a stance of neutrality on the fighting between IS and other factions, praying for an end to fitna. In addition, critics of HMI see IS affinities in its tactics of assassinations of rivals and running of secret prisons, which culminated in open clashes with a number of FSA Southern Front factions in January 2016, contributing to the fall of Sheikh Maskeen to the regime. HMI also rejects the authority of the Dar al-‘Adl, which is the main judicial authority among southern rebels, and has not participated with Jabhat al-Nusra and southern Jaysh al-Fatah in the war on LSY.

On the other hand, the group issued an internal directive in 2015 warning against reckless takfiri behaviour and was actually one of the first to clash with LSY in summer 2014 as LSY began establishing links with IS. Also, there is a degree of localization as regards HMI’s involvement in the latest fighting. For example, there are no signs of clashes between HMI and other rebels in Deraa al-Balad, the southern half of the provincial capital. The local outlet Naba’ media told me that this is because “members of al-Muthanna in the city have announced that they are only obligated to fight the regime.” As for the rejection of the Dar al-‘Adl, under which HMI initially worked but withdrew about a year ago, it should also be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra similarly rejects the body for its use of the Unified Arab Code, which combines civil and Shari’a law as opposed to jihadist groups’ vision of rule solely by God’s law.

Analytically, it is perhaps most appropriate to see a HMI as similar to Jund al-Aqsa, whose leadership rejects the IS Caliphate but insists one can only fight IS in strict self-defence, while some of its members sympathise with IS and have even defected. That said, the analogy is not exact because Jund al-Aqsa has foreign members in its ranks. Like Jund al-Aqsa, HMI’s approach as regards to dealing with rivals and implementing Shari’a should be seen as more hardline than that of Jabhat al-Nusra.  A pro-LSY source from the Yarmouk Valley in southwest Deraa described to me the stance of HMI on IS in this way: “The amirs of Harakat al-Muthanna are totally removed from the manhaj of the Dawla [Islamic State]. But there are some members who support the Dawla and adopt its manhaj…the problem is in the current amirs and Shari’i officials for Harakat al-Muthanna.” Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi, whose allegiance is to IS but has served as LSY’s deputy Hisba amir, said that the cooperation with HMI in the current fighting is a new thing, and that some Shari’i officials within HMI had previously defected to IS and went to Raqqa and al-Sham (i.e. IS’ formal territories in Wilayat Dimashq). From my own interactions with HMI members, it is clear to me they support a Caliphate project- not necessarily that of IS- but maintain an anti-fitna stance with regards to IS.

On this reading, one can perhaps interpret the cooperation with LSY, which has most notably involved blowing up bridges to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels from reinforcing lines, as local opportunism. Indeed, some days before the latest clashes, an unofficial Telegram account in HMI’s name announced the establishment of a Shari’i court in the western region of Deraa province. Could one perhaps see a fragmenting of HMI along regional lines within Deraa in the near future? The possibility should not be discounted. In this context, it seems possible that LSY will try to absorb the western Deraa HMI into its ranks, just as it absorbed the remnants of the Jaysh al-Jihad coalition in Quneitra that was destroyed by rebels last year on accusations of links with IS.

In fact, fragmentation is precisely what has happened to another group suspected of IS loyalties: Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya (The Islamic Bayt al-Maqdis Group- JBMI). Contrary to common image, JBMI is not a Palestinian group (an idea based on the Bayt al-Maqdis reference- ‘Holy House/Jerusalem’), but primarily draws on Syrians from Deraa and Quneitra with some muhajireen from Jordan, while its leadership base is in the Deraa locality of Jasim. Suspicions of IS links have primarily pointed to the group’s use of a flag similar to that of IS (the design is identical, except for JMBI’s name inscribed on the bottom). This line of evidence by itself is insufficient to demonstrate an IS link. That said, the group undoubtedly had at least some IS sympathisers in its ranks, one of the reasons for its recent fragmentation. Besides not coming to the aid of LSY or HMI in the latest fighting, around a month ago JBMI joined an operations room with a number of FSA factions, including Jaysh al-Yarmouk, Fallujah Hawran Division and Farqat Usud al-Sunna. According to a defector from JBMI who joined LSY, “When they formed the room we in Quneitra gave them a deadline of days to disavow this, but they rejected because of the Shari’i official Abu Omar al-Shami’s involvement in the leadership. So after that we decided to disavow the group.” Most of the defectors, according to this source, did not join LSY but have chosen instead to “sit in their homes,” and now only 60-70 members remain in JBMI.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that one of the first incidents in the latest round of fighting took place in the Deraa town of Inkhil. This involved the dismantling of an IS cell that was outwardly a group called Ansar al-Aqsa (Supporters of al-Aqsa). According to a source from the al-Furqan institute (an educational group) in Inkhil, the group was “an Islamic formation, the majority of whom had left Nusra and were saying that they were independent, but in the end it was established that they were connected with the [IS] organization.” The reason for leaving Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place was apparently because they rejected fighting LSY. In any case, the source added that the main factions in the town- the FSA Hamza Division and Mujahideen of Hawran Brigades- acted with assistance from Jabhat al-Nusra against the group and expelled it from the town. As for HMI, the source said it only has a small presence in Inkhil not exceeding 15 members. Pointing towards a worsening situation, a pro-IS post in which the media director for LSY was tagged on Facebook portrayed the Inkhil events as just the beginning for the rebel forces.

Looking forward, more rebel factions are now getting involved in the fight against the groups deemed to be IS cells within Deraa, but it is questionable how far they will be able to reverse LSY’s recent gains. Two things are likely though. First, there are likely to be further prominent casualties on both sides, with LSY, HMI and Jabhat al-Nusra each having lost at least one major military commander in the latest fighting. Second, IS itself will only officially announce a presence in Deraa/Quneitra if LSY can succeed in establishing a contiguous territorial connection with IS, and in that regard these southern holdings will likely be integrated into Wilayat Dimashq. In short, it is evident that IS is opening a much more active southern front against the rebels as it has otherwise failed to gain decisive ground in Syria for a many months now.

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

From Al-Shabab to the Islamic State: The Bay‘a of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Its Implications

By Christopher Anzalone

Note: These are not definitive conclusions but initial thoughts.

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On October 22 a poor quality mp3 recording was posted online of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to the amir of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and thus switching his allegiance from the Somali jihadi-insurgent group Al-Shabab to IS.  Mu’min, a longtime Al-Shabab preacher, ideologue, and leader, created a stir among jihadis and jihadi supporters online, particularly those supportive of IS, as well as analysts.  There is no doubt that his defection from Al-Shabab to IS is of major symbolic importance in the competition between Al-Qa‘ida Central (AQC) and its regional affiliates and IS, which has succeeded in attracting pledges of allegiance from a host of groups, from Jama‘at Ahl al-Sunna li-l-Da‘wat wa-l-Jihad (“Boko Haram”) in Nigeria and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai to a faction of the former unified Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan umbrella led by Hafiz Sa‘id Khan, the former TTP amir of the Orakzai tribal agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.  It is important, however, to keep Mu’min’s defection with a group of rank-and-file fighters from Al-Shabab’s Puntland branch in and around the Golis mountain range in perspective and not to exaggerate its immediate impact.  In this article, which is based on two long series of tweets posted a few days ago (see here and here), the symbolic importance of Mu’min’s bay‘a to al-Baghdadi and its potential impact will be examined in order to provide some additional context to the preacher’s role within Al-Shabab and shed more light on why his departure from its ranks is significant.

Mu’min, a onetime resident of London, returned to Somalia in mid-2010 and by the summer of 2011 had publicly emerged as a player within Al-Shabab, making great use of his status as a religious scholar (‘alim) and skilled preacher in giving the jihadi-rebel group an added aura of “religious” authenticity and support.  In the summer of 2011, he played an integral role in the insurgents’ outreach to local communities and clan elders at a time when Al-Shabab was facing a renewed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali federal government offensive.  Mu’min and other Al-Shabab officials, including the then-Shabab governor of the Banaadir region, Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, met with local community leaders, merchants, religious scholars (‘ulama), and poets in neighborhoods around Mogadishu in an attempt to win their support against AMISOM and the Somali government.  Mu’min was particularly active in making pitches to other ‘ulama in order to win their support.  In May 2011, Mu’min was one of the Al-Shabab officials chosen to speak at the group’s official memorial conference and ceremony for the late AQC amir Usama bin Laden.  Mu’min also was a featured speaker in February 2012 at another major Al-Shabab event, its official celebration in Lafoole in the Lower Shabelle region of the formalization of its affiliation with AQC.  

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The preacher’s symbolic importance also comes from the promotion previously by Al-Shabab and its media apparatus of his lectures, including a lengthy series of lectures of his oral tafsir of the Qur’an, featured roles in a series of official propaganda films, and the promotion of his recorded remarks and statements on its radio stations.  In 2012, Mu’min relocated to Puntland where he worked to further Al-Shabab’s goals of expanding in that region.  As part of this campaign, he continued to record interviews and statements that were broadcast on Al-Shabab’s terrestrial radio stations and in 2015 he was featured in a series of official films produced by the group’s Al-Kata’ib Media Foundation.  His most recent appearances were in a series of three Ramadan lectures filmed in the Golis Mountains released in July.  Up until mid-September, he was still participating in Al-Shabab’s media operations campaign.

The exact number of rank-and-file fighters from Al-Shabab’s Puntland branch who left with Mu’min remains unknown with any certainty.  The majority of initial reports placed the number at being between 20 and 25, though other sources claimed that a much higher number of fighters, perhaps the majority of the 300 or so strong Puntland branch, had also defected with the preacher.  Although the number is important, and a higher number of defections would more greatly affect Al-Shabab logistically since it is suffering from defections of fighters who have taken advantage of offers of amnesty from the Somali government, Mu’min’s defection is still a symbolic blow to the group regardless of the exact number.  This challenge, however, while important, is not necessarily insurmountable as of this time.

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Recent signs suggest that the central Al-Shabab leadership, including regional governors, are disposed to remaining loyal to AQC amir Ayman al-Zawahiri, though they have clearly been struggling for some time about how to react to the growing popularity of IS.  The late amir of Al-Shabab, Ahmed Godane, uneasily navigated this question and ultimately decided to remain loyal to al-Zawahiri.  His successor, Ahmad “Abu ‘Ubayda” ‘Umar, also quickly reaffirmed the group’s loyalty to the AQC chief upon taking over the rebel group.  Al-Shabab was also one of the first AQC-aligned groups to eulogize Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the founding amir of the Afghan Taliban.  After it was made public in late July that ‘Umar had died of natural causes in April 2013, Al-Shabab organized funeral prayers (salat al-janaza) for him and continued referring to him as “amir al-mu’minin” (commander of the faithful), a title also claimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  

Al-Shabab’s media, though it has always been attracted to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi and the late Islamic State of Iraq leaders Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, continues to speak respectfully of al-Zawahiri.  Al-Shabab’s senior leadership has not responded publicly yet to Mu’min’s defection, but his move has been criticized by Al-Muhajiroun, a group of Swahili-speaking jihadis aligned with the Somali insurgents and particularly Ahmad Iman Ali, the Kenyan jihadi preacher in charge of Al-Shabab’s Kenyan foreign fighters coming from the Muslim Youth Centre/Al-Hijra recruiting networks in Nairobi, Garissa, and the Swahili Coast.  It also took the Al-Shabab leadership some time to formulate an official response to dissident American foreign fighter Omar Hammami in 2012, with Hammami publicly announcing his break with the group and commencing with extensive online criticism of it in March but Al-Shabab not releasing a detailed response to his allegations until mid-December of that year.  IS has yet to officially accept Mu’min’s bay‘a, though there is little question that the group’s leadership will do so because it is an economical way of projecting an image of expansion and influence without having to make any significant initial investment of resources.  

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Ultimately, the medium and long-term impact of the defection of Mu’min and those Puntland-based fighters who left with him rests on future on-the-ground developments in Somalia and East Africa.  If the preacher is joined by other important figures and factions within Al-Shabab’s ranks, for example Ahmad Iman ‘Ali and significant numbers of Kenyan and other East African foreign fighters, who make up a significant number of Al-Shabab’s strength now, the balance could shift against the group’s AQC-aligned leadership.  If discord grows within Al-Shabab’s ranks, it may also enable the Somali government and AMISOM to woo away fighters disillusioned with internal infighting and violence.

Christopher Anzalone is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.  He has published articles previously on Al-Shabab, the Kenyan Muslim Youth Centre/Al-Hijra, Al-Qa‘ida, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,  jihadi media operations, foreign fighters, Islamist visual cultures, and the Islamic State.  You can follow him on Twitter and Academia.edu.

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

ISIS and the Hollywood Visual Style

By Cori E. Dauber and Mark Robinson

The slick production techniques ISIS uses in its propaganda are the reason people have written about their videos as “Hollywood quality” or “like Hollywood movies.” Obviously this is not, strictly speaking, true. When people write about ISIS videos being like “Hollywood action films,” they don’t mean that in a literal sense – Hollywood blockbusters, after all, cost on average several hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. But that doesn’t mean people saying that aren’t onto something. They’re seeing something in ISIS videos that is reminiscent of Hollywood films that they don’t see in the videos of other groups. Yes, ISIS videos are of far higher quality than are those of other groups – we would say they are, technically, a generation ahead of most others. But there’s something else going on here that people are cueing on. We would argue that, visually, ISIS videos mimic what could be called a “Hollywood visual style.” And this is being done so systematically and carefully that, while its entirely possible that it’s accidental, we find that very unlikely.

While there has been a great deal of work done on the way ISIS uses Social Media to distribute their materials, our focus is on the content of their output, specifically, on their visual material. We believe this focus is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the enormous amount of empirical research that argues that visual material, in many contexts, can actually be more powerful than textual. That is to say, the image can trump the word: it more effectively draws the viewer’s attention, it is remembered more accurately and for a longer period of time.

That’s all well and good, but what specifically does it mean to say that ISIS material is sophisticated in visual terms, or that their videos are done in a “Hollywood visual style?” While that’s a complicated question to get after, one can start by breaking it down in terms of the way ISIS makes use of some of the compositional elements of production to contribute to the persuasive power of their materials, in a way that other groups either cannot or simply do not. We’ll directly contrast some of their videos with some of Jabhat al Nusrah’s to make the point.

  1. What the viewer will notice first: the opening graphics package and the clarity of the image.

ISIS employs “industry standards” for video. That doesn’t necessarily mean standard for Hollywood, it might mean what you see in commercial video or advertisement, but its what we have become accustomed to seeing, what the eye has become accustomed to for anyone who watches a good bit of professionally shot and uploaded media. Neither of us can speak to what is standard outside of Europe and North America, but it seems worth noting that ISIS is systematically working to use visual standards that will give their videos an underlying professional look to someone whose eye is accustomed to a European or North American industry standard.

This is done through a variety of techniques: for example, through the way they deal with the colors in their videos, by adjusting the range of colors you see. They minimize the color palette that comes across on video so that, for instance, there are fewer variances, fewer “shades of red,” presented in their videos than there were in the physical world seen through the viewfinder when they were filming. The result is that the reds they do show you are more vibrant, brighter, higher contrast, and they come across looking sharper and clearer. Just look at how saturated the colors of the produce are in this frame from one of the Mujatweets Episodes:

01watermellon

This requires planning, both pre-and post-production. Many of their videos were clearly shot by a media team trained (and trained sufficiently) to execute in a “digital age” style. So you see this kind of color saturation, high contrast, and an emphasis on resolution. You also see a shallow depth of field – in other words, there is a tight focus on something or someone, but the rest of the visual field is intentionally out of focus. That’s a good example of what we mean by “Hollywood style.” It points specifically to a contemporary trend set by younger media professionals, but someone who had just randomly picked up a camera certainly wouldn’t know to do that. If you look at the most expensively produced Hollywood films of the 1970s or ‘80s, you won’t see a shallow depth of field, because it’s a fairly recent development. As an example:

When video is shot (and when someone prepares to share it via the web or phone) the video must go through a compression process. This makes the files smaller at the cost of lost resolution and visual impact. Most videos we look at are grainy in part because of this process. Another reason ISIS’ videos read as so crisp and clear relative to those of other groups is that they have been shot more carefully and compressed much more carefully.

In less professional videos, already compressed sequences are put together, then exported through a compressor. These lesser quality videos are thus compressed to a point that they appear amateurish, since they read as if the person who produced them didn’t know or, at least, didn’t care that the resolution drops significantly when videos are prepared this way. This is what creates the grainy, pixelated effect. Think about how you automatically can tell the difference between the professionally shot and prepared footage from a news network and the amateur footage that network pulled from some random guy who just happened to be there with a cellphone camera in his pocket when a newsworthy event took place.

IS videos that are crystal clear suggest that there was a crafting hand behind them, one that was trained and careful.

Earlier videos from AQ and the affiliates paid no attention to contemporary industry principles and standards. More recent videos from ISIS (and more and more from some other groups) mark a clear movement: they are being produced according to knowledge and execution of industry standard in the entire process, from pre- to post-production. It seems clear that their media teams are getting trained somewhere.

There is no question that the content of some of the most recent videos released by JN were substantially better than what had been their baseline. But as often seems to be the case with groups other than ISIS, these major advances do not then override, with the prior, weaker style disappearing. There is not a single, controlling visual style, so that even after videos of much higher quality are released, those videos will then be followed by others that look the same as earlier, weaker releases did.

In this JN video that was released recently, they didn’t really know what they were doing, so they were filming with a non-professional, handy-cam, while moving way too fast:

If we just take a still of the sign you can see why that footage appears to be of low quality. Look at the leaves around the sign, and you can see that the image is actually pixelating.

03pixelatedsign

As far as graphics are concerned, as software became available making it easier and easier to produce computer-animated graphics, not only did it become commonplace for these videos to begin with animations, they are often now relatively sophisticated even if the accompanying video is of very low quality. Still, ISIS is in a class by themselves here for several reasons: the consistency of the quality, the crisp resolution of almost all of the graphics they use, and, a key factor, the design. Many groups acquired the ability to incorporate animations, but not necessarily any ability to design ones that worked. Often they go on forever, they’re distracting, they’ve got so much going on, the eye can’t figure out where to focus, and so on.

On this measure, JN made enormous leaps forward recently:

It isn’t, by the way, only JN making these leaps. This one from AQAP is hard to miss: its eye-catching, attractive, and likely took several days of work by someone who really knew what they were doing:

But of course groups now insert graphics into the middle of videos, not just at the beginning.

And compare that to the way ISIS uses graphics in the Mujatweets series:

  1. Composition:

Most ISIS videos appear as if every frame of every shot of every scene has been carefully calculated, thought through, and laid out.

Just consider the stock piece of footage that they use over and over (and that some news networks use as a “visual metaphor” for ISIS): two rows of fighters, one in the black “ninja” outfit, the other row dressed in white, both marching in unison, shot in slow motion and from below. Keep in mind, it is a truism that what is filmed from below will appear larger, more imposing, more authoritative, and so forth. It’s stock footage for them because it came out so well.

Now consider the JN version by way of comparison. You hardly need a communication or media specialist to point out the differences – the outfits don’t match, the editing is jumpy, “professional” is hardly the word that leaps to mind here. But part of the reason it looks this way is that they are producing the zoom shot in a way that, again, is not industry standard, so to anyone who watches a great deal of professionally shot video the result is just disorienting. There is no way the videographer or editor of this footage have much (if any) training (and we’re being a little coy here rather than lay out a “how to” guide for terrorist filmmakers.)

When you look at this, by comparison, you have the distinct impression that you’re looking at fairly standard commercial video about the successful infrastructure projects underway in the Islamic State:

JN, on the other hand, has a history of putting scenes in their videos that are extremely poorly composed. They often frame the shot so as to cut off the heads of the people they’re filming. When they do that with a single speaker, one would assume that’s for security purposes, but they’ll do it, as here, with an entire crowd scene:

cropped_heads_IDOK

This is certainly not to suggest that JN isn’t putting time and energy into their videos. The cuts below involve edits that are intentional, and which would have required a decent current computer. MacBook Pros could have handled this kind of processing, but baseline Lenovos, for instance, might have been able to do the same work, but only after a great deal of effort and a very, very long time.

Some thought and planning, obviously, would have been required, but the technique does not exhibit sophistication or direction: they just shot video, it appears, without a particular script or plan for editing in mind as they did.

Going through this video very carefully, almost frame by frame, it becomes clear that it was filmed not during a pitched battle, but in a deserted area – the buildings being destroyed are empty. You hear gunfire but it is clear that it is staged, shots fired from the filmic perspective with no opposition report. In effect, this is JN’s equivalent of a Hollywood sound stage, and they still weren’t able to quite pull it off. That’s because aspects of the video craft suggest a naïve, amateur, non-professional production process: scenes are unrelated, composition is unconsidered, and while hand held cameras can produce powerful results (as in the walk through the market below) here the result is jerky and out of focus. The overall result is the precise opposite of “Hollywood visual style,” it reads as amateur, particularly given the weakness of the editing technique, which gives no understanding of time passing.

3. Camera angles

ISIS often uses camera angles in extremely sophisticated and subtle ways. One key example is the “subjective” or “first person” camera angle, familiar to everyone who watches movies or television as the way director’s communicate the perspective of a specific character: its what happens when the perspective shifts so that you are now “looking” through the eyes of that character.

ISIS is hardly the first terrorist group to use this in their videos: you’ll see it used in otherwise relatively primitive videos, when all of a sudden the perspective shifts as an IED or suicide truck bomb is being put together and you are looking right down at the hands preparing the bomb to suggest they were your own. ISIS uses that angle all the time, but they do it with great subtly –

We do not get an establishing shot but instead, immediate personal insertion into the market with an intimate camera shot, using a short depth of field.

JN will use this camera angle as well – their version can be recognized as a “First Person Shooter” shot, taken straight out of a video game, but they aren’t especially subtle about it, and often don’t execute it well.  They can’t seem to resist “breaking the spell,” so to speak, by injecting some kind of cheesy effect or graphic as an overlay on top of the shot.

Why is this so important? The whole point of the subjective camera angle is to put the viewer right into the scene. It literally invites the viewer to imagine him or herself there – and isn’t that the whole point of recruiting? While there is no empirical data on the reaction of target audiences to these videos specifically, here there is excellent proxy data: substantial work on the use of subjective camera angle’s effect on viewers of sports coverage. That research makes clear that the use of this camera angle creates a sense of physical presence that increases a viewer’s enjoyment, that this sensation is greater if the material viewed is more exciting, (as with the First Person Shooter example), and that the greater a viewer’s “fanship” the more pronounced this effect.

You also see evidence of ISIS sophistication in the cases when they have clearly used multiple cameras to film the same subject from more than one angle, as here:

By way of contrast, JN wants to accomplish the same effect here:

But it’s clear they’re doing it by moving a single camera to a second position, and the result isn’t nearly as effective – or as professional looking. It is definitely not “Hollywood style.”

4. Lighting

It can be difficult for a viewer to even make out the objects in a poorly lit scene, but well done lighting creates for the viewer the rhetorical effect the video producer wants: a subject can be made to appear happy, sad, a good guy or a villain, the scene can be made to appear frightening or safe, all through lighting. Look at the way ISIS lights this fighter as he tells others to emigrate to the Islamic State:

02lighting

Even in newer releases where the resolution is sharper, Nusra’s lighting is often either dark or muddy.

04lightcompare

JN’s quality is so uneven, their video’s can literally look as if two different teams produced them. Lighting is a good way to make that point; look at the difference in the lighting (and resolution) in the beginning of this video:

And compare that to the second half of the same video, where the family is professionally lit:

06familylightingcompare

5. Editing

Look how the exact same camera angle as in the Mujatweets video doesn’t work nearly as well when the footage is fuzzed out, and the editing is jumpy. It destroys the sensation:

Within the video, the sensation that is key to sustaining the audience’s suspension of reality requires a certain seamlessness, and that in turn requires high craft – again, it is that “Hollywood visual style” we’re discussing. Any break at all in craft, and the ability to sustain that suspension is broken, as the audience questions the work. When video reflects a higher craft in terms of story, editing, lighting, composition, and so forth, its possible for an audience to become more intimately involved in the work. This doesn’t mean that choices such as choppy edits, the use of handheld cameras, or high grain will never work: clearly they can be very effective, but they are effective when they reflect intentional choices artfully made, in which case they can be used to produce a visceral aesthetic. Our focal point is videos that are evidence that high craft is in use, which means that IS understands that the suspension of reality has rhetorical value and understands how to produce it even for audiences used to the industry standards of Europe and North America.

It isn’t that good editing is always smooth, or that quick cuts can’t be effective. Good editing is editing that contributes to the effect the video producer is trying to create. Rapid cuts, synched to music (or a voice over) can work very well, especially for a younger audience. The editing has to appear intentional, has to work to the overall effect.

6. Effects

Special effects can contribute to the persuasive effect of a video or, if overdone or out of place, become a distraction. There are points where ISIS uses effects with sophistication, even (on their own terms) wit:

Sometimes they use effects simply for purposes of making a particular video look more “professional,” thus adding to its credibility, for example:

Conclusion:

Our point here is this: there are a range of compositional elements that contribute to whether or not videos will look professional, whether they appear to have that “Hollywood visual style.” Other groups are certainly closing the gap with ISIS here, but ISIS’ visual materials aren’t just “slick” or “sophisticated.” They are making very specific choices that contribute to a very specific visual style. And while most consumers of Western media might not be able to discuss, for example, the virtues of a shallow vs. a deep visual field, they do know what it is they have become accustomed to, and they would most certainly notice it if they were watching media that failed to meet the standards they were accustomed to. By producing video products that largely meet industry standards ISIS is doing something no terrorist group we know of has ever done before.

Dr. Cori E. Dauber (@coridauber) is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS.)

Mark Robinson is the Director of the Multimedia Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

TTP Says That Baghdadi’s Caliphate Is Not Islamic—But Is Anyone Listening? 

By Dur-e-Aden

On June 15, 2015, the Taliban in Pakistan released a 66 page document in Urdu detailing why Baghdadi’s caliphate is not Islamic. While organized in the form of an academic paper, with a central thesis and scholarly citations, the document itself is hastily written and is an exercise in repetition. Nevertheless, it gives a glimpse into the strategic thinking of TTP, and indicates that they feel threatened enough by Baghdadi to release this statement.

The introductory paragraphs discuss the time of the Prophet, and contrasts Baghdadi’s actions against it. For example, when the Prophet was militarily weak in Mecca, he did not break any idols in the Kaaba since this would have opened up a war on multiple fronts. Moreover, he did not kill those hypocrites who claimed to be Muslims but were actually enemies of Islam, as people would have accused him of killing his friends and starting a civil war. In short, he was a pragmatic military strategist, and doing so didn’t entail that he was giving in to the kuffar (infidels). Today, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan see themselves as following this path by only fighting the occupying forces, while both Hanafi and Salafi Muslims reside on this land. However, ISIS’s actions against other Muslims, especially in the Nangahar province, from the Taliban’s perspective is benefitting the enemies of Islam.

The document then lists 24 reasons laced with religious references, both from the Islamic history of different caliphates, as well as the opinions of various Salafi and non-Salafi scholars. The central theme is that a caliph cannot be appointed without the consensus of the majority of the Umma. In the case of Baghdadi, neither the majority of the Muslim Umma, nor the majority of the Jihadi Umma, have pledged allegiance to him. The document lists examples of people such as Mullah Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Abdollah Mohsini, Abu Qatada al-Falasteeni, as well as emirs of Al-Shabaab, AQAP, and South-east Asian militant groups, whose lack of support has rendered his caliphate to be invalid. Finally, even if Baghdadi claims to be elected by a Shura of representatives, how can a caliph that is supposed to be the leader of Muslims worldwide be selected only by a regional Shura?

The document goes on to discuss certain responsibilities of a caliph that Baghdadi is not equipped to carry out. For example, a caliph is supposed to defend all Muslims and create conditions where they can live in peace.  However, considering that Baghdadi himself is in involved in war, how can he protect Muslims worldwide, from Xinjiang to Morocco, who are embroiled in different conflicts? Furthermore, a caliph has to be involved in the day to day affairs of his people such as resolving disputes, collecting zakat from the rich to give to the poor, and making people follow Sharia. Baghdadi on the other hand, can’t even appear in public. While talking about these issues, the document refers to a Prophet’s saying, which states that “Both me (the Prophet) and God curse him who forcefully imposes his rule without the consent of the Muslims.”

The final part of the document challenges specific interpretations of ISIS with regards to the primary Islamic sources. TTP argue that all the “misguided” sects throughout history have quoted the texts to justify their ideological positions. For example, Mu’tazila believe that Quran is a created book because God says in the Quran that “God created everything.” Similarly, Barelvis claim that Prophet is present everywhere because Quran mentions, “And among you is his Messenger.” However, the TTP argues, these interpretations are still wrong. Therefore, when Baghdadi quotes the hadith which urges Muslims to pledge allegiance to their caliph or they would die in ignorance, it does not refer to his caliphate. It only refers to the caliphate of a specific Imam who is appointed according to Sharia, and whose appointment fulfills all the conditions of the bayah. As we (the TTP) have shown, that is not the case.

But is this document going to be effective in persuading people to not join ISIS? It is very unlikely. As both Graeme Wood and Hassan Hassan have argued, one of the important characteristics of ISIS’s ideology is that it is anti-clerical. Hence, going against centuries of established Islamic traditions, and directly to the text of Quran and the Hadith gives them a certain purity. As a result, when others claim that ISIS is not Islamic, they are not only immune to this messaging, but actually enjoy it. ISIS refers to the Prophet’s hadith which states that during the end of times, there will be 73 sects of Muslims, and only one of them will be the true one. Seeing so many other Muslim sects united against them actually proves their point. Therefore, when it comes to the new generation of jihadists, even those in Afghanistan and Pakistan can get motivated by ISIS’s peculiar religious ideology, accompanied by a winning narrative, illusions of grandeur, and a promise to be part of an historical project.

However, because Pakistan in particular has a plethora of jihadist groups, their core members are unlikely to shift their allegiance to ISIS, especially if they have fought for a particular cause for a long time (e.g. against India, against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, against Pakistani state etc.), and that cause has become central to their identity. Being part of a coherent organizational structure increases the likelihood that those members are clearheaded of what their short term goals are, and being part of a worldwide caliphate doesn’t appear near the top of their lists.

Finally, while this is true that some of the defectors from these established groups, such as the TTP itself, have pledged allegiance to ISIS; it should be noted that those members defected at a time when they were dissatisfied with their positions in the existing organization, and the organization was going through infighting. In other words, there might be an underlying opportunistic motivation for their defection, as opposed to an ideological one. Not to mention that Taliban comes from a Deobandi tradition within Islam, which is distinctive from the Salafist background of ISIS. This can spell good and bad news for ISIS. The good news is that they have helped ISIS in establishing a presence in the Af-Pak region. The bad news is that opportunistic fighters are more likely to accelerate the divisions within ISIS’s ranks as well, as they compete for money and power (the reasons that they left their previous organizations for). Moreover, they are more likely to neglect or disobey ISIS’s orders over the long run, especially if the ideological commitment to ISIS’s cause is absent.

Therefore for now, as far as this document goes, TTP might be preaching to an already convinced audience.

Dur-e-Aden is a PhD student at University of Toronto where her research focuses on rebel recruitment within Islamist insurgent organizations. She holds a MA in Political Science from University of British Columbia, and tweets @aden1990.

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

The Syria Twitter Financiers Post-Sanctions

By Asher Berman

Introduction

A new type of financier supporting Islamist armed groups emerged during the initial years of the Syrian conflict. These Gulf-based financiers openly advertised their activities on social media, using the medium to attract donations from across the Gulf. In some cases, they publicly documented their successive trips to Syria and meetings with prominent Islamist rebel leaders, which made them celebrities in the Islamist Twitter scene. One particularly prominent network of financiers was associated with the Umma Party, a Salafist opposition movement that was started in Kuwait in 2008 and spread to other Gulf countries during the Arab Spring. Other financiers worked independently or banded together to form joint fundraising campaigns.

The international community moved slowly to neutralize these financiers, but in August 2014, the US government sanctioned two of the most prominent individuals, Hajaj al-Ajmi and Shafi al-Ajmi of Kuwait.i The UN also sanctioned Hajaj and Shafi, and Kuwait, through which most of the money was being funneled, passed laws designed to end the use of Kuwait as a weigh station for money moving to terrorist groups abroad.ii,iii,iv The financiers, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, have greatly curtailed their activities since August 2014 and have seen their celebrity diminished. Those who are still active use social media to fundraise for humanitarian projects in Syria and are no longer publicly supporting armed groups. The one exception is ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini, who is unique in that he left the Gulf and lives inside Syria fulltime. Although the sanctions announced in August 2014 did not target all of the individuals publicly fundraising for Islamist armed groups in Syria, it did create a new environment in the Gulf in which these activities are no longer being tolerated and seem to have stopped. The one exception, al-Muheisini, lives in Syria and is therefore not subject to the same governmental pressures as Gulf-based financiers.

The Financiers:

Hajaj al-Ajmi: Hajaj al-Ajmi was a relative unknown prior to the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, but he skillfully used social media to attract attention by documenting his successive trips to Syria, and quickly became well known in the Middle East. After the US announced sanctions targeting Hajaj, Twitter shutdown his account. Hajaj quickly created a new account and a hashtag was circulate called “#Campaign_for_a_million_followers_for_Hajaj_al-Ajmi” which helped him regain roughly 100,000 followers of the nearly 500,000 that he had pre-sanctions.v Hajaj, still an active social media user, seems to feel that the sanctions are unfair, recently complaining on Twitter that members of the Kuwaiti parliament continue to support the al-Assad regime without consequence, while he was sanctioned and can no longer engage in normal business activities.vi Hajaj appears to be struggling to adapt to life under sanctions. He told an interviewer that he is trying to work in the perfume business but cannot get the government to register a car or business in his name.vii His contacts in Qatar reportedly invited him to work with them, for which Hajaj expressed his appreciation on Twitter, but regretfully declined the offer due to an ongoing travel ban.viii

Although Hajaj was sanctioned by the US and the UN, sanctions did not target the charity that he ran and utilized to fundraise for armed groups in Syria, al-Haiah al-Sh’abiyah l-D’am al-Thawrah al-Suriyah (The Popular Commission to Support the Syrian Revolution), nor his partner in running the charity, Umma Party member Irshid al-Harji. The charity remains operational under al-Hajri’s leadership, but has changed its name to al-Haiah Zakat al-Sh’abiyah (The Popular Charity Commission).ix,x Despite the name change, the charity is using the same logo, Twitter account, and directs donors to the same address in Kuwait’s Aqilah neighborhood as prior to August 2014.xi,xii The organization now focuses on distributing relief in Syria, and recently delivered supplies to Syrians in Idlib and Lattakia Provinces in cooperation with the Umma Party’s Istanbul office.xiii

Muhamed al-Mufrih: Muhamed al-Mufrih was a Saudi-Arabian financier and head of the Saudi branch of the Umma Party, which formed in 2011 at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Saudi authorities, who do not permit organized opposition movements, quickly arrested the Umma Party leadership, but al-Mufrih was able to flee the country, surfacing in Istanbul. During the Syrian revolution al-Mufrih appears to have played an important role in the constellation of Umma Party-associated financiers, accompanying Hajaj al-Ajmi on trips inside Syria and dedicating an Umma Brigade training camp in honor of a United Arab Emirates Umma Party leader who was killed while fighting with Ahrar al-Sham.xiv,xv

Al-Mufrih died in December 2014 following a sudden and mysterious illness. Hakim al-Matiri, founder of the Umma Party, characterized al-Mufrih’s death as an assassination-by-poisoning, which was understood as an accusation aimed at the Saudi Arabian government.xvi The possibility of al-Mufrih getting assassinated was on the minds of the Ummah party leadership prior to his death in December 2014 due to assaults targeting al-Mufrih that occurred earlier in 2014 in Istanbul. The Umma Party responded to the preceding assaults by publishing a public letter to Turkish officials in May 2014 calling on the Turkish state to protect al-Mufrih from assassination.xvii

Al-Matiri’s eulogy for al-Mufrih provided greater detail on al-Mufrih’s role in financing Islamist groups in Syria. Al-Matiri cited al-Mufrih’s early involvement in the Syrian revolution, praising him for working with Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari in 2011 to support Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist armed group that operates alongside al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusrah, while it was in its formative stages. Al-Qatari was a veteran of the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s and was known for being close with Jabhat al-Nusrah. He founded and led Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadist group based in Idlib Province, until he was captured and killed in 2014 by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.xviii Al-Matiri also said that al-Mufrih stayed in Syria throughout 2012, spending parts of that year with the Umma Brigade.xix

Shafi al-Ajmi: Shafi al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti financier not associated with the Umma Party, raised money with a group of prominent sheikhs including television personality Nabil al-Awadi before being sanctioned in August 2014. These sheikhs operated through the Ithad Hamlat al-Kuwait (Union of Kuwaiti Campaigns), which appeared to stop functioning after Shafi was sanctioned. Shafi’s Twitter account was also suspended, though he established a new account and promptly used it to insult Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen, declaring that if Jesus appeared before Cohen, Cohen would accuse him of terrorism.xx Shafi has also been highly critical of ISIS, claiming that its mission is to destroy the Syrian revolution.xxi

Shafi became a highly controversial figure in Kuwait in 2013 when he declared his desire to personally kill Hezbollah members at a protest in front of the Lebanese embassy.xxii This was particularly problematic in Kuwait, which has a large Shi’a minority, and the government responded by forcing a television program starring Shafi off the air. After the sanctions were announced, Shafi’s opponents used the opportunity to attack him further and in January 2015, the Kuwaiti Interior Minister publicly called on the Minister of Education to remove Shafi from Kuwait University where he worked as a lecturer.xxiii It is not clear if he was in fact separated from the university.

Abdulman’a al-Ajmi: Abdulman’a was part of the Majlis al-Da’amin lal-Thawrah al-Suri (The Council of the Supporters of the Syrian Revolution), a collection of Kuwaiti sheikhs and political figures that fundraised for relief projects in Syria.xxiv Abdulman’a, apparently operating independently from the Majlis al-Da’amin, financially supported armed groups on the less extreme end of the spectrum.xxv Although the Majlis al-Da’amin appeared to end its work around August 2014, Abdulman’a is still sending relief to Syria under his own name,xxvi though he seems to have ended his public work with Syrian armed groups. Abdulman’a is also active internationally, carrying out humanitarian and Da’wah projects in places like Darfur, and Togo.xxvii,xxviii

Abdullah al-Moheisini: Al-Moheisini is a unique case in that he is still using social media to fundraise for armed groups post-sanctions. Al-Moheisini, A Saudi national, began living in Syria fulltime in 2013, allowing him to operate beyond the reach of the Gulf monarchies. Al-Moheisini continues to call for donations in tweets with hashtags like “Revenge_for_Duma,” (Duma is a suburb of Damascus that has been bombed extensively), and directs potential donors to Turkish phone numbers.xxix,xxx Al-Moheisini is more than just a financier, however. As a Salafi-Jihadist Sheikh not officially associated with any particular armed group, he has been able to position himself as an important mediator between Salafist armed groups.

Conclusion

The imposition of sanctions against two financiers who were advertising their work on social media seems to have effectively ended public financial support of Syrian armed groups by Gulf-based financiers. Although some of the non-sanctioned financiers remain publicly active in humanitarian efforts in Syria, the era of Gulf residents explicitly fundraising for Islamist armed groups on social media appears to be over. Al-Moheisini is an exception, although his decision to take up residence in Syria appears to be a key factor in allowing him to continue publicly fundraising for armed groups on Twitter. Although this one method of fundraising appears to have stopped, quiet financial support outside the control of states is likely still flowing from the Gulf to Islamist armed groups in Syria, although in smaller amounts than prior to the August 2014 sanctions.

Asher Berman is a Middle East analyst based in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @asher_berman. The above article was based exclusively on open-source research.

______________

NOTES:

i Treasury.gov, Treasury Designated Three Key Supporters of Terrorists in Syria and Iraq, 08 August 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2605.aspx

iiUN.org, QDi.338. Shafi Sultan Mohammed al-Ajmi, 23 September 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQDi338E.shtml

iii UN.org, QDI.328 Hajjaj Bin Fahd Al Ajmi, 15 August 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQDi328E.shtml

iv The National, Kuwait Faces Challenge in Curbing Terror Financing, 18 October 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/world/kuwait/kuwait-faces-challenge-in-curbing-terror-financing

v Twitter, @alhayahalshabyh, posted 14 August 2014, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/alhayahalshabyh/status/500005796525010945

vi Twitter, @Hajaj_Alajmi, posted 21 April 2015, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/Hajaj_Alajmi/status/590613303333892098

ix Twitter, @alhayahalshabyh, posted 17 February 2015, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/alhayahalshabyh/status/567727228767576064

xi Twitter, @alhayahalshabyh, posted 11 February 2015, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/alhayahalshabyh/status/565531365190295552

xii Twitter, @alhayahalshabyh, posted 21 January 2014, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/alhayahalshabyh/status/425700002535837696

xiii Twitter, @alhayahalshabyh, posted 02 April 2015, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/alhayahalshabyh/status/583679529148755968

xiv Twitter, @Hajaj_Alajmi, posted 19 December 2014, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/Hajaj_Alajmi/status/546033918676197376

xvi Watan.com, “Shahid.. Hakim al-Matiri: al-Sheikh Mohamed al-Mufrih Rais Hizb al-Ummah al-Sa’udi Ightiyal fi Turkiya,” https://www.watan.com/media-gallery/884.html

xvii Islamicommaparty.org, “Bayan b-Khasus Mahawalah al-Sultat al-Sa’udiyah Ightiyal Amin ‘Am al-Hizb al-Shaikh Muhamed,” 04 May 2014, http://islamicommaparty.org/statement/459

xix Dr-hakem.com, Ritha al-Sheikh Muhamed al-Mufrih .. Wada’an Akha al-Ahrar,” 17 December 2014, http://www.dr-hakem.com/Portals/Content/?info=T0RVMUpsTjFZbEJoWjJVbU1RPT0rdQ==.jsp

xx Twitter, @shafi_ajmi, posted 07 August 2014, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/shafi_ajmii/status/497404054889168896

xxi Twitter, @shafi_ajmi, posted 29 August 2014, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/shafi_ajmii/status/505351602308255744

xxii The National, “Sectarian Divide from Syria Extend their Reach,” 26 July 2013, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/sectarian-divides-from-syria-extend-their-reach

xxiii Ajialq8.com, “Wajir al-Dakhliyah Yad’u Wazir al-Tarbiyah Ila Fasil D.Shafi al-‘Ajmi Min Jam’ah al-Kuwait,” 16 January 2015 http://ajialq8.com/?post_type=videogallery&p=11669

xxiv Twitter, @w3tasimo, posted 14 July 2014, accessed 08 May 2015, https://twitter.com/w3tasimo/status/488755560464932864

xxv YouTube, “Suwarikh Ghrad l-Jabhat al-Sahel ‘an Tariq al-Sheikhayn al-Ajmi wal-Nasar,” posted 11 May 2014, accessed 08 May 2015

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWDs4Xos-b8&feature=youtu.be

xxvi YouTube, “Tuwazi’a Salal Ghadhiya b-Rif Hamah Muqadimah Min Ahl al-Khir bi-Ashraf al-Sheikh ‘Abdulman’a al-Ajmi 27/4/2015,“ 27 April 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc06w61h7pM

xxvii YouTube, “Taqrir ‘An Mukhayim ‘Alaj al-‘Ayun b-Darfur b-Tamwil Abi ‘Abf al’Ajij al-Sa’udiyah bi-Ashraf ‘Abdalman’a al-Ajmi,” 27 March 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3fRZlPUVuw

xxviii YouTube, “Bir S’ad Nasir al-Fathi Rahma Allah fi Jamhuriyah Togho ‘an Tariq al-Sheikh ‘Abdalman’a al-‘Ajmi, 12 December 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8BZ0TEjI0g

xxix Twitter, @mheisny, posted 10 February 2015, accessed 12 May 2015, https://twitter.com/mheisny/status/565259680981987329

xxx Twitter, @mheisny, posted 08 January 2015, accessed 12 May 2015, https://twitter.com/mheisny/status/552942729685368832

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

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Muhammad al-Amin on Ahrar al-Sham’s Evolving Relationship with Jabhat al-Nusrah and Global Jihadism

By Sam Heller

Below we have a translation of Muhammad al-Amin’s Facebook testimony on now-deceased Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Yazan al-Shami and the evolution of Ahrar’s relationship with Jabhat al-Nusrah and global jihadism.

Al-Amin seems to expand on some of what we already knew about Ahrar’s jihadist pedigree while also portraying an Ahrar that sharply diverged from hardliners in the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and, later, a more extreme iteration of Nusrah. The Ahrar al-Sham and Abu Yazan whom al-Amin describes were more deeply woven into international jihadism than has been previously understood, but nonetheless became progressively more alarmed as mostly foreign hyper-extremists crowded out Syria’s own revolutionaries. Al-Amin reports a more symbiotic relationship between Ahrar and Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Nusrah than has been reported, with veteran jihadist Abu Khaled al-Souri apparently serving as a key link. Provocatively, he suggests Ahrar somehow supported a gravely weakened Nusrah after the April 2013 announcement of ISIS led many of Nusrah’s most extreme members to defect en masse. Yet he also describes increasing alienation between Nusrah and Ahrar’s leaderships as Nusrah’s relative moderates were sidelined and it started to prioritize an ISIS-like “emirate” in Syria’s liberated areas; Ahrar, meanwhile, was by that time working to rejoin Syria’s revolution and restore the uprising’s popular character.

Al-Amin is reportedly a sort of independent spiritual figure who, although not an Ahrar member himself, was close to and in regular contact with the top echelon of Ahrar leadership that died in a mysterious 9 September explosion. He was apparently connected enough that his account of Ahrar’s internal debates and the evolution of Syria’s jihadist scene are worth taking seriously, if not entirely at face value. Al-Amin’s testimony echoes McClatchy correspondent Mousab Alhamadee’s personal recollection of Ahrar leader Hassan Abboud. Alhamadee held Abboud responsible for introducing international jihadism into the Syrian revolution – although, Alhamadee thought, Abboud ultimately came to regret his error.

Al-Amin’s narrative comes through the prism of his relationship with Ahrar’s old leadership, and Abu Yazan al-Shami in particular. Abu Yazan (Muhammad al-Shami) had been a commander in Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah, one of the predecessor brigades that merged to become Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah. Abu Yazan went on to be one of Ahrar’s top leaders, a member of its Shura Council and its Aleppo emir. (I actually translated Abu Yazan’s sharp rebuke of Salafi-jihadist theorists’ calls for jihadist purism just days before his death.)

There are reasons to view al-Amin’s account with some skepticism. His concluding description of a tumultuous meeting between Nusrah chief Abu Muhammad al-Jolani and Ahrar’s leadership immediately prior to the September blast is the biggest and most obvious red flag. The paragraph is apparently lifted at least in part from one of two sources: a 4 November Assafir article or a 26 November anonymous Syrian Media Center post, which itself plagiarized the Assafir article. If al-Amin’s friends and contacts in Ahrar were all wiped out simultaneously, of course, it makes sense that he might not have a first-hand account of their last days. In any case, at least that paragraph is worth discounting, and it’s difficult to assess if other press accounts have been woven in elsewhere. It’s also possible that al-Amin is guilty of a sort of jihadist resume-padding. Particularly as ISIS has derided other factions as “Sahawat” (Awakenings, basically Western stooges), many militant rivals seem to have felt the need to emphasize their jihadist bona fides in the fierce debate that has ensued, both to defend themselves and to position themselves to more effectively attack ISIS’s legitimacy. There is some chance, then, that al-Amin has played up Abu Yazan and Ahrar’s track record in order to cast their late break with Nusrah as even more dramatic and impactful.

Some Ahrar al-Sham leaders are, understandably, perturbed about al-Amin’s post. Below is Ahrar commander Khaled Abu Anas’s response:

Khaled Abu Anas: “To those asking about Brother Muhammad al-Amin, we say that he isn’t [an Ahrar al-Sham] shar’i or member. As for his opinions, he’s free to have them. We may agree or disagree with him, but we certainly don’t agree with his style.”

Ahrar has always been emphatic that its aspirations are local, that it seeks an Islamic state in Syria but does not aspire to the sort of global forever-war waged by al-Qaeda. Ahrar’s leaders seem to have mostly emerged from a global jihadist milieu but consciously declined to join al-Qaeda in its universal project, even if they maintained friendly relations with some jihadist fellow travelers. In the months before 9 September, moreover, Ahrar’s original leadership had grown progressively more critical of Salafi-jihadist orthodoxy and seemed to have made real steps towards revolutionary moderation. (Though the Ahrar leadership’s real control over the movement’s component brigades was and is an open question.) Throughout, Ahrar has always avoided being publicly linked with al-Qaeda, seemingly for both principled and pragmatic reasons. They’ve typically been keen not to say things like – to quote al-Amin – “Sheikh Abu Yazan’s relationship with al-Qaeda dates to before the Syrian revolution.”

Below we see an angry tweet from “Muzamjer al-Sham” – an influential, pseudonymous jihadist commenter who himself seems to be a well-connected jihad veteran – attesting to Ahrar’s independence:

Muzamjer al-Sham: “Among the things I heard personally from Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Hassan Abboud), may God have mercy on him, after he got out of prison (Seidnaya): ‘We will never, not for one day, be a part of al-Qaeda.’”

The tweet was prompted by (unfounded) September reports that the United States had designated Ahrar a foreign terrorist organization. These rumors have surfaced periodically, although so far they’ve come to nothing. (Of course, America does seem to have launched an airstrike on an Ahrar base in November, and Secretary of State John Kerry just floated the idea of a regional alliance against Ahrar al-Sham and three designated terrorist organizations.) Mostly, Ahrar’s critical role in the Syrian revolution and its sheer weight on the ground have obliged policymakers and Syrians themselves to grapple with how – or whether – to engage Ahrar and keep it firmly in the Syrian rebel camp. Ahrar’s hybrid identity means the question is likely to remain a thorny one.

 

Translation:

Facebook, “Al-Sheikh al-Amin,” 30 November 2014, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=371956529633047.

Sheikh Abu Yazan’s Opinion on Jabhat al-Nusrah

Sheikh Abu Yazan’s relationship with al-Qaeda dates to before the Syrian revolution. The sheikh, may God accept him, went to leave for Iraq, and he was supposed to be the mufti and chief judge for Da’esh (ISIS). He was surprised that they had requested that, and he said, “It’s evidence that they don’t have qualified people on hand.” But, in His mercy, God on high steered the sheikh away, and he was arrested hours before leaving.

As soon as he left prison, the sheikh maintained strong relations with the various jihadist trends. He knew many of those who founded al-Nusrah, and he would come to me with its news when it was a secret movement. He even expressed regret over Abu Basir al-Tartousi’s statement about them was issued, as that meant there was no longer room to advise al-Nusrah (even though [Abu Basir’s] criticism was correct). The commanders in al-Nusrah knew the sheikh, trusted him, and asked for his advice.

Then Abu Yazan came to Syria (lit., made nafir) and chose to join Harakat al-Fajr, which merged with Ahrar. At that time, I asked his opinion about al-Nusrah. He said that most of those in it were moderate Syrians, but he mentioned that most of the foreigners were extremist fanatics, especially the Tunisians. I asked him about [Nusrah chief Abu Muhammad] al-Jolani and [Nusrah’s former chief shar’i] Abu Mariya [al-Qahtani], and the sheikh praised both. So I said, “Then it’s a moderate organization?” And he said, “Don’t you know that in jihadist organizations, the moderates are assassinated, so the extremists rise to the top and assume control of the organization?”

We observed the situation with concern as the flow of extremist foreigners bearing takfirist thought increased. Then came the decisive moment. I was with [Abu Yazan] in the al-Sukkari School when the criminal [ISIS head Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi announced Da’esh. A number of Ahrar leaders met there in Abu ‘Omeir’s (Abu Khaled al-Souri) office to discuss this news. (They had known about it beforehand.) When al-Jolani rejected this announcement, Abu Yazan rejoiced and said that history will record for al-Jolani that this was a historic step in the history of the revolution.

The result is well-known, how most of the foreigners and extremists in the North left al-Nusrah and defected to Da’esh. Al-Nusrah did away with a heavy weight, despite the financial and military weakness that befell it. Ahrar bore this burden, at the direction of Abu Khaled and others. Abu Yazan’s relationship with al-Nusrah remained excellent. But al-Nusrah’s situation in the South was different, and, because of the siege, more extremists remained and didn’t defect in the Ghouta; likewise in Houran (Dara’a).

Al-Nusrah went through an intellectual confrontation with Da’esh, and Abu Mariya’s star shone; he was the one who most prevented the hesitant al-Jolani from returning to Da’esh. There started to be an intellectual review within Ahrar, especially among Abu Yazan and Abu Ayman [al-Hamawi], over whether to return to al-hadinah al-sha’biyyah (their popular base), and Abu Mariya walked this path. But there was a disaster that took place inside al-Nusrah, especially after the assassination of Abu Khaled al-Souri, who was the safety valve.

There were huge Da’esh battalions that joined al-Nusrah, especially in Idlib. They were a Trojan horse. They poisoned al-Nusrah’s thinking and spread extremism among its members. Then what Abu Yazan had feared came to pass: A series of quiet assassinations of moderate commanders, who were then replaced with Dawa’esh (ISIS members or fellow travelers). After Abu Mariya’s defeat in the East as result of the northern emirs’ failure to support him, he was quietly removed.

The operation to manufacture “Da’esh II” was carried out quietly and with cunning. The leaked recording of al-Jolani woke up Ahrar’s commanders to the fact that the process was complete. They asked to meet with al-Jolani. The meeting was stormy and on edge. Al-Jolani had made up his mind to imitate Da’esh’s model, and he announced that fighting apostates like [Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front head] Jamal Ma’rouf and Harakat Hazm came before fighting the regime. He described the battle with Da’esh in Aleppo, meanwhile, as a losing one. He said his model was the Somali courts (that is, dour al-qadaa [judiciaries] would be the basis of his emirate). And when the Ahrar leaders opposed him on that, he threatened that the war would be between him and whoever stood in his way. The meeting ended, and then Ahrar’s leaders were killed only days later.

If there was a man who never talked badly about anyone, it was Abu Yazan. I never knew him to curse anyone, even when he spoke with the prison guards who tortured him. So when he said about [al-Jolani], “The boy’s lost his mind,” Abu Yazan was at the height of his anger and pain over the fate of the Syrian revolution. Some were shocked by Abu Ayman’s description of [ISIS] as khawarij – Abu Ayman is the one who wrote al-Zarqawi’s announcement that he was joining al-Qaeda – but anyone who sees what happened to the jihad today realizes that the sheikh was, regrettably, right. There is no strength but in God – what he feared became reality.

Note: The last paragraph of this translation was subsequently revised for accuracy.

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.

Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s Social Media Activity in 2014

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Oren Adaki

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), the country’s foremost salafi jihadist group, has experienced a significant change in fortunes over the past year. A year ago it was able to operate legally in Tunisia, and concentrated primarily on undertaking dawa (evangelism) to win young Tunisians to its cause. However, a rise in violent incidents carried out by salafists caused tensions between AST and the state to spike. Relations between AST and Tunisia reached a point of no return in late July 2013, when in a five-day period secularist politician Mohammed Brahmi was murdered and salafists killed eight members of the security forces, five of whom had slit throats. The government cracked down on the group after those incidents, designating it a terrorist organization, banning its activities, and arresting its members.

AST has been an innovator among jihadist groups in its use of social media. Thus, as it attempts to recover from the blows inflicted upon it by the Tunisian state, its social media activities may provide some important clues. This analysis begins by examining AST’s social media activity related to events in Tunisia before turning to AST’s perspective on issues further afield, such as the Syria jihad. MEMRI has also produced a recent report on AST’s Facebook page that is worth noting.

Rejection of the Terrorism Designation

AST vehemently opposes its designation as a terrorist group by the Tunisian government. Its main line of argument is that the group has humanitarian projects and enjoys the widespread support of other Muslims. A tweet that AST sent from its official account on January 1, 2014 purported to show “what you don’t see in the media about Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia.” It linked to a video of AST’s community service projects, in which the group distributed medical supplies and repaired public infrastructure. The video emphasized in particular very young children (seemingly elementary or middle school age) tackling these service projects while wearing bulky orange vests identifying them as doing this work under AST’s banner.

In a similar vein, on March 10 AST asked in a tweet: “Does Ansar al-Sharia truly frighten the Muslims of this nation?” The tweet included a link to a different video on AST’s community service efforts, including testimonies from sick people whom AST helped. One blurry-eyed old man offering his testimony states that he has diabetes; the camera pans down to reveal that the toes on his left foot have been amputated.

Further making a bid to show the support they enjoy, on February 21 AST tweeted an invitation to participate in their campaign asking “who are my helpers in the cause of Allah,” with participants using the Arabic-language hashtag #Support_for_Ansar_al-Sharia_in_Tunisia.

 

 

AST social media article

A graphic promoting the “Who are my helpers in the cause of Allah” public relations campaign, tweeted February 21, 2014.

AST received support from a variety of circles, which the group posted to its Twitter feed. On February 25, it tweeted a photograph of a handwritten sign leaning against an automatic weapon, with a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the background. The sign reads: “Support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia from the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”

AST social media article

Another representative photograph posted as part of the campaign, on February 26, featured a handwritten sign held up in front of a Saudi mosque that read: “Support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” attributing this support to “your brothers from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” (For more coverage of AST’s “who are my helpers in the cause of Allah” campaign, see MEMRI’s report, referenced above.)

AST social media article2

Anti-Government Propaganda

Another aspect of responding to the crackdown has been disseminating anti-government propaganda. Some of this propaganda has been supplied by outside scholars, including Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who has longstanding and deep connections to AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. Abu Iyad spent time in the United Kingdom, where Abu Qatada was also based, during his exile from Tunisia. Some jihadist forums have portrayed Abu Iyad as Abu Qatada’s “disciple,” and one AST member described Abu Qatada as “probably the most influential” jihadist theorist who has the group’s ear.

On January 21, AST posted a message from Abu Qatada, titled “An Important and Urgent Message to Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” to all its social media platforms, including Twitter. Part of Abu Qatada’s message is devoted to attacking Ennahda, the Islamist political party that opted to work through electoral politics. Abu Qatada said that although Ennahda and AST seemingly share a common goal of “establishing Islam,” Ennahda moved in the “direction of the secularists,” and in the course of negotiations over the new Tunisian constitution accepted that sharia would not be the country’s source of law. According to Abu Qatada, Ennahda—which was in power when the crackdown on AST began—went even further astray “in their pursuing you [AST members] and attributing to you false actions that were used as an excuse to chase you and imprison you, and even to kill you.” Abu Qatada said that because Ennahda has allied itself with the secularists, it therefore shares in their judgment and fate.

AST social media article2

This graphic was tweeted on January 21, 2014,and includes excerpts about Ennahda from Abu Qatada’s message.

Thereafter, AST continued to press the theme that the Tunisian government had aligned itself with infidelity. On May 10, a tweet and accompanying graphic called on Muslims to fight the “leaders of infidelity,” and argued that Islam’s “powerful ability to protect itself” was the characteristic that would ultimately produce a victory.

AST social media article3

On May 20, AST posted a graphic titled “So that the nation will learn…” The accompanying text explained that “we do not label the tyrants infidels, nor do we repudiate them nor antagonize them and their friends due to their imprisoning, torturing, and persecuting us.” Rather, it explained that they label their opponents infidels “due to their imprisonment of monotheism and their detaining the sharia.” This statement reflects AST’s prioritization of its interpretation of sharia: it is unambiguously the most important value for which the group stands, and its suppression is more important to members, according to this statement, than even being subjected to imprisonment or torture.

These statements reflected AST’s understanding of both the general situation that it confronted as well as the clash of values between the group and the government. But some of its statements instead deal with specific incidents, such as “A Word of Truth and an Outcry in the Valley,” which was posted on April 15, addressing a recent raid in Rouhia in which security forces’ raid of a mosque resulted in the arrest of 40 salafists, reportedly including returnees from Syria. AST’s statement is one of solidarity with the arrested salafists, claiming that the group “follows what is occurring to you moment by moment, and we share in your pain and anguish.” Describing the Rouhia raid as one of the “crimes of the tyrannical Tunisian regime,” the statement describes a pattern of “harassment, intimidation, displacement,” as well as “the violation of the sanctity of homes and of women.” The statement calls on the people of Rouhia to hold fast to their beliefs and “be as one hand in confronting the taghut [any person or thing that is worshiped or obeyed instead of Allah, here referring to the Tunisian government] and its soldiers, and make them taste a cup of what they have made you taste.”

One possible AST strategy for winning Tunisians to its side is depending on the security forces’ overreaction to alienate the population, which is a technique often employed by militant groups. The statement on Rouhia suggests that AST has this precise route in mind, as it calls for the people of Rouhia to “open media outlets for yourselves on all available social networks” in order to “cover the attacks of the soldier of the taghut.” AST advises the audience to make haste in doing so, and warns them not to “wait for the media to sympathize with you.”

The Centrality of Sharia

As previously noted, one of AST’s major lines of attack against the government is that it stands against Islam, and has essentially apostatized itself—by agreeing to a constitution that didn’t enshrine Islam as the law of the land, and cracking down on AST. One genre of AST’s social media activity emphasized the importance of sharia and described how laws and governance deriving from anything other than sharia are illegitimate, and nullify one’s Islamic faith.

A January 25 tweet from AST asked: “A constitution made by man?!” It also contained a graphic stating that whoever places man made laws above those of Allah “is undoubtedly an apostate if he insists on doing so and does not revert to rule according to what Allah has revealed.”

AST social media article4

A February 22 tweet explored “the consequences of ignoring Allah’s laws.” The tweet included an attached graphic in which Arabic script written on a parchment scroll proclaimed that “a nation that is ruled by anything other than the law of Allah Almighty is a dead nation… The law of Allah gives us life, while the law of man is a deadly, killer poison.”

AST social media article5

This graphic, titled “Ignoring Allah’s Law,” was tweeted on February 22, 2014.

On March 1, AST tweeted a graphic titled “Why do they fight the Ansar?” The graphic included excerpts from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) theologian Ibrahim al-Rubaish. “Modern history has proven the intensity of the infidel’s war against those who want to rule by sharia, even if they desire this peacefully,” Rubaish stated. “Therefore the flag of tawhid [monotheism] is only raised upon the skulls of the monotheists, and the land will not be ruled by sharia till it takes its share of the blood of the supporters of sharia [ansar al-sharia].”

AST social media article6

On March 5, AST tweeted a graphic stating that “ruling by anything other than what Allah has revealed is infidelity that removes you from the religious community.” A statement by AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi posted on March 23 also advanced this theme. In it, Abu Iyad called AST “the guardians of Allah for this religion.” He summarized AST’s sharia platform with the statement that “it is either Allah and no other but Him, or Allah and others with Him, and this does not please Allah.”

AST social media article7

This image of Abu Iyad al-Tunisi was tweeted on March 23, 2014, along with a statement. The text reads “either Allah alone, or Allah and others with Him.”

The Syria Jihad

It is impossible to overstate the impact that the Syrian civil war will have on this generation of jihadists. Given the extremely high number of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, the Afghan-Soviet war appears to be a comparable event in terms of impact on militants. Both conflicts should be considered first-order humanitarian disasters, justifiably inflaming passions throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Because of the devastation wrought by both wars, the various violent non-state actors who showed up to defend Sunni Muslims against their antagonists gained legitimacy from the clerical class and popularity at the street level. Tunisia’s interior ministry has said that 1,800 Tunisians have now traveled to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Syria has been one of the recurrent themes in AST’s social media activity.

On January 14, AST posted Abu Iyad al-Tunisi’s “A Statement of Support for Our Brother Mujahedin in Syria.” Much of the statement was devoted to addressing the infighting between jihadist factions, which he referred to as a fitna. Abu Iyad urged his audience not to judge the primary players in the dispute because “awareness of the circumstances of the dispute is almost nonexistent, nay, nonexistent” given the observers’ “distance from the field.” He said that even for Syria-based jihadist groups who “fell into wrong practices,” that is unsurprising because that phenomenon occurred even in Prophet Muhammad’s time—and further, “the evil deeds of good people are flooded by their good deeds.” He urges his audience that concentrating on the mistakes of certain jihadist groups “and ignoring the good” is an injustice.

Abu Iyad called on respected jihadist figures to issue a ten-point statement to end “the fitna against ISIS.” The points he urged included postponing all arguments until the fitna ended, promising to establish sharia law, using force against “those who made the blood and honor of the muhajirun [meaning “the emigrants,” a reference to foreign fighters] permissible,” and renewing the intentions of jihad. The statement very purposefully explicitly avoids taking sides in the fighting among mujahedin factions, instead urging reconciliation.

In Abu Qatada’s aforementioned January 21 statement, he referred to Tunisians going to fight in Syria as a “blessed matter,” while acknowledging that Abu Iyad has expressed reservations about the phenomenon “so that Tunisia is not left without the call [dawa] and care.” However, Abu Qatada argued that “the goodness in you is much and is enough for both cases.” Abu Qatada also said that it bothered him that some of those who went to fight in Syria “are extreme because of the enthusiasm of youth.” Abu Qatada claimed that “the Ummah requires gentleness.” This appears to be a criticism of ISIS’s brutal tactics, which al-Qaeda’s leadership had spoken out against as a strategic matter; Abu Qatada would later issue more thunderous denunciations of ISIS following its expulsion from al-Qaeda.

On April 11, AST’s social media platforms (along with Shamukh al-Islam Forum and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya) announced the “Jihad Ummah Contest,” which was designed as a “jihadist contest for those unable to reach the land of jihad.” The victors, who would be selected based on being the first to post comments on a jihadist Facebook page, would “win” donations of weapons to mujahedin in “the lands of jihad.” The prizes included a G3 sniper rifle, a Kalashnikov, three hand grenades, and two Kalashnikov magazines.

AST social media article3

Conclusion

Though 2014 hasn’t been the most active year for AST’s social media, it has featured plenty of interesting indications of the group’s current outlook and strategy. Continued attention to the group’s social media activity will be worthwhile as it attempts to come back from the government’s crackdown.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy. Oren Adaki is an Arabic language specialist and research associate at FDD specializing in the Arab world.

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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Ayman al-Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

On April 18, a jihadist social media user tweeted links to two parts of an Al-Sahab Establishment for Media Production interview with al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Entitled “Reality Between Pain and Hope,” the interview’s first part was 54 minutes and 15 seconds, while the second part was 28 minutes and 45 seconds. Since the interview was first posted by a social media user rather than Al-Sahab, this appears to be a leak, similar to the recent leak of an unpublished Adam Gadahn video criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) following the death of al-Qaeda emissary Abu Khalid al-Suri.

Given analysts’ focus on recent jihadist infighting in Syria, it is worth noting Zawahiri’s comments on the matter, and on ISIS more broadly. ISIS was, of course, famously expelled from al-Qaeda in a pronouncement that the jihadist group issued in early February.

Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting

In the interview, Zawahiri is asked about infighting among jihadist groups in Syria. His response is thunderous yet non-specific about which individuals or factions are responsible for the problems. Zawahiri blames the infighting on “the control of whims, ignorance, and injustice over some people,” and further suggests that jihadist factions in Syria may have been infiltrated, perhaps by intelligence services or else just by “misguided advice” and “bad incitement among the mujahedin.”

Asked about al-Qaeda’s efforts to end the infighting, Zawahiri renews the organization’s demands for addressing these disputes. At the time ISIS was expelled from al-Qaeda, they had been ordered to undergo arbitration with other mujahedin factions. While paying lip service to the arbitration process, ISIS in fact refused to comply. Zawahiri renews his calls for arbitration, stating that jihadists should refer their dispute to an independent sharia commission capable of obliging the conflicting factions to submit to its rulings.

Zawahiri implies that there could be severe consequences for factions who refuse to submit to arbitration. He says that all mujahedin and supporters of jihad should “take a stance of promoting virtue and preventing vice against all those who delay the work of this commission, ignore responding to it, or do not abide by its decisions.” In referring to the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, Zawahiri makes clear that he is speaking of drastic measures: the withdrawal of legitimacy and financial and moral support from factions who fail to submit to arbitration. “Stripping off the legitimacy is a very serious thing,” Zawahiri says. He points to Algeria, where “the legitimacy was revoked from the militant Islamic group”: Zawahiri is referring to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which al-Qaeda played a role in helping the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) splinter group to supplant. After GIA’s legitimacy was stripped from it, Zawahiri says, “it vanished.”

Though Zawahiri’s words are clearly intended as a warning to ISIS, he denies that he is speaking of them. “I do not address here an organization in itself or a group in particular,” Zawahiri says. Instead, he claims that his statement is a general one meant for all the mujahedin and their supporters. Indeed, he includes himself among the emirs whose commands should not be followed if their orders transgress God’s dictates. “Neither al-Zawahiri nor al-Jawlani [Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader] nor al-Baghdadi [ISIS’s leader] will protect you from God’s punishment if you wage aggression against your mujahedin brothers,” Zawahiri says.

Zawahiri says that jihadists joined the fight in Syria to “make the word of God supreme and to make the word of the infidels humiliated,” and thus they should be wary of being used by commanders “in their disputes over powers, ranks, positions, or gains.”

Zawahiri’s comments on jihadist infighting point to possible approaches al-Qaeda may adopt in dealing with ISIS, including the potential for a strategy of delegitimizing its leadership and drying up its funding streams. There is evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has already been following this approach, but Zawahiri’s language and prioritization of arbitration and cohesion among the mujahedin also leaves open the possibility of a cooperative relationship or reconciliation with ISIS emerging. (Since a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering is occurring, my analysis in this piece doesn’t attempt to determine probabilities, but instead to understand the thrust of Zawahiri’s message.)

On the Split with ISIS

The interviewer asks Zawahiri about the justifications for al-Qaeda’s expulsion of ISIS. Zawahiri articulates two rationales. First, he notes that al-Qaeda is focused on the U.S. and its allies, while being cautious to shed Muslim blood. “We avoid the operations where impermissible blood may be shed in the markets, mosques, and residential areas and even among the jihadist groups,” Zawahiri says. He notes that the purpose behind al-Qaeda’s issuance of a general guidance for jihadist action was to unify the ummah, and taking Muslim blood can thwart that goal. “It is not possible to unify the ummah if we have the image of a tyrant and a usurper of its rights,” Zawahiri says, thus implying that this is ISIS’s image.

Zawahiri’s second rationale for expelling ISIS is that it failed to abide “by the fundamentals of teamwork.” Asked to explain this point, Zawahiri points to ISIS’s declaration of states without getting permission in advance and its failure to submit to the arbitration process.

Zawahiri emphasizes the need for al-Qaeda to maintain its image in order to propagate its message, describing the jihadist group as “a message before it is an organization.” Noting that al-Qaeda’s goal is to serve as a role model for the ummah, Zawahiri warns that the ummah won’t trust them if it “finds that we fight over spoils of war before achieving empowerment.” Further, al-Qaeda’s enemies will exploit such failures. As evidence of this, Zawahiri refers to Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s statement “in which he justifies fighting to support the criminal regime in the Levant” on the basis that Nasrallah “seeks to protect the people in the Levant against the crimes of the takfiris.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. The author or volume editor of thirteen books and monographs, he holds a Ph.D. in world politics from the Catholic University of America and a J.D. from the New York University School of Law.