NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Selling Sectarianism: Shia Islamist Groups & Maliki’s Anbar Offensive

By Phillip Smyth

As the Iraqi government offensive in Anbar continues to engage Sunni groups which are protesting the government (some have now taken up arms against the government) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), sectarian messaging by Shia Islamist groups which support the government and its offensive has also increased.

Coming after the operation against jihadi militants on December 23, 2013 and following protests by Sunni groups (including a number of tribes), on December 25 Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced an offensive against ISIS and “armed groups” in Iraq’s Anbar province. The offensive has been controversial regionally and within Iraq, with some accusing Maliki of engaging in sectarian politics.[1] Analyst Charles Lister even called the coordinated offensive, “one move too far”.[2]

Sectarian language explaining the Iraqi government onslaught has been utilized by all sides. Even Nouri al-Maliki called the operations, “a fierce confrontation between the supporters of Hussain and the supporters of Yazid”.[3] Shia Islamist groups, including Iranian-backed and possibly those claiming to back Iraqi Shia cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, have taken the opportunity to issue statements, upload photos, and produce music in support for the Iraqi government’s operations.[4] For these groups, the offensive was viewed as a golden opportunity to demonstrate their importance to the Iraqi Shia community and to demonstrate they were assisting the fight against jihadi-type organizations.  These groups also played upon sectarian sentiments to promote the Iraqi government’s operations and suggest that the Iraqi Army is a pro-Shia sectarian entity. There were also claims that some Iraqi Shia Islamist forces which had fought in Syria, returned to fight ISIS and other Sunni groups in Iraq.

Statements of Support

On December 28, Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni parliamentarian and protest leader, was arrested by Iraqi security forces. The raid against him resulted in the death of Alwani’s brother and a number of guards from his security profile.[5] Alwani was well-known for vitriolic anti-Shi’ite statements.[6] His arrest by Iraqi security forces was immediately praised by some Shia Islamist groups, particularly Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which praised the raid (see photos below). The day also saw a near simultaneous release of statements by Iranian-backed Shia Islamist organizations which are also fielding armed units in Syria.

Liwa’a Zulfiqar, a Syria-based Shia Islamist armed group, also announced its support for the Iraqi Army in its operations against ISIS and announced they would stand by them against, “racist Zionist terrorism”. This represents a continuance of the narrative that armed Shia Islamist groups (primarily backed by Iran) consider al-Qa’ida and its allied organizations as merely agents of Israel. On the same day, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, released its second publicly available official communique. The statement stressed their support for the Iraqi Army’s fight in Anbar. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also issued their own messages of support for the offensive against ISIS.

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Figure 1: An announcement of support for the Iraqi Army’s efforts in Anbar from the official Liwa’a al-Zulfiqar Facebook page.

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Figure 2: Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’s release in support of the Iraqi government’s offensive into Anbar.

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Figure 3: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s statement about their support for the Iraqi government and military against ISIS and armed groups in the country.

Main Messaging Themes:

  • National Institutions: Shia Islamist groups have claimed to fully support the Iraqi Army and present themselves as integral elements to the Iraqi military and police operations in Anbar. This theme coincides with other Iranian-backed organizations messaging, namely the narrative presented by Lebanese Hizballah and their claims of fully backing the Lebanese Armed Forces.[7]
  • One Army, One Sect: Photos and statements implying the Iraqi military and police are engaging in the fight against ISIS to defend Shi’ism. These themes are also combined with photos claiming to show members of the military and/or police showing support for certain Shia political leaders and clerics. This sort of rhetoric had gone on since the spring of 2013 during the initial announcements of foreign Shia fighter involvement in Syria. In one May 2013 photo, a soldier reportedly from the Iraqi Army is shown holding a Shia religious banner on top of what is claimed to be an Iraqi military armored vehicle (see below).
  • Two Fronts, One War: Tying the war in Syria to the fighting in Iraq involves extending the “Defense of the Sayyida Zaynab” (the defense of the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in southern Damascus is held as the reason for Shia Islamist fighters are in Syria) narrative which claims Shia Islamist armed groups are present in Syria to protect holy shrines/Shi’ism and stop jihadi-linked fighters. As a result, the engagements within Iraq which claim to also target ISIS and other organizations are grouped together as part of a unified effort to protect Shi’ism.

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Figure 4: A photo uploaded in mid-January with the caption, “We will not be defeated”. The photo reportedly shows an Iraqi Army soldier saluting a Shia religious poster.

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Figure 5: Photo claims to show an Iraqi soldier saluting a picture of martyred Shia leader, Imam Husayn. The photo was posted onto numerous social media pages catering to Shia Islamist fighters in Syria.

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Figure 6: This photo claims to show an Iraqi soldier holding an Imam Husayn flag in front of an armored vehicle. The photo was widely circulated on Shia Islamist social media pages.

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Figure 7: Photo purports to show an Iraqi soldier under a Shia banner following the, “Capture of Ramadi”. The photo was posted on Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq social media pages.

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Figure 8: This photo claimed to show an Iraqi soldier saluting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

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Figure 9: First uploaded to Shi’a Islamist social media in May 2013, this photo claims to show an Iraqi soldier atop an armored vehicle holding a Shi’a religious banner.

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Figure 10: An Iraqi armored personnel carrier (APC) flying flags for Shia Imam Husayn with a sign partially reading, “Welcoming visitors to Imam Husayn [mosque and shrine in Karbala, Iraq]”. While the context of the photo is probably more innocuous—It is likely this APC was simply part of a guard set up in Karbala and was used to welcome pilgrims—ISIS/Sunni Islamist activists and Shia Islamist groups circulated the photograph as proof of the Iraqi Army’s sectarian loyalties.

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Figure 11: Top photo: “This is how they kill us”. Bottom photo: “And this is how we treat them”. The top picture shows Iraqi soldiers executed by ISIS. The bottom references reports of Shia Muslims taking in Sunni Muslim refugees from Anbar.[8] The photo was not widely distributed, but could be found on pages and profiles catering to Iranian-backed Shia Islamist organizations (mainly Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq).

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Figure 12: This photo, spread on Sadrist and Sadr-splinter group social media, claims to show an Iraqi soldier reaching out to a Muqtada al-Sadr poster.

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Figure 13: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali smiles (right) while Iraqi Sunni MP Ahmed al-Alwani is detained by Iraqi security forces (left).

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Figure 14: Qais al-Khazali is portrayed as walking on the captured Iraqi Sunni MP Alwani.

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Figure 15: “Thus, we support you”. An AAH poster shows AAH leaer Qais al-Khazali looking down on Iraqi army soldiers and an Iraqi helicopter.

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Figure 16: Selfie Taunts: On the right an ISIS supporter holds up a picture near the Imam Husayn Mosque/Shrine complex in Karbala. The sign reads, “Qadimoun” (“We are coming”). As a response to the pro-ISIS message, (on the left) “We are waiting for those coming, [we] the young men of sacred Karbala Soldiers of Husayn”.

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Figure 17: Right Left (top) An edited photo shows deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Husayn emerging from a dirty sewer. Left (bottom) Alwani is shown following his capture. The photo was spread on Sadrist and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist pages. The image promotes a theme of “how the mighty have fallen.”  

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Figure 18: Another photo released on social media claiming to show Iraqi APCs flying Shia religious flags. The photos were shared online by ISIS sympathizers and Shia Islamist groups. The latter used the photos as a subtle way to suggest the Iraqi Army had Shia Islamic sectarian loyalties.

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Figure 19: Shia Islamist and Sunni supporters of the protests and of ISIS circulated this photo on social media (including Twitter and Facebook). The photo purports to show an Iraqi Special Forces/SWAT member wearing epaulettes reading, “Labayk ya Husayn” (“At your service, O Husayn”), a Shia slogan used to show support for the Shi’ism’s first Imam.

One video uploaded claimed to show Iraqi units assembling before heading into Anbar and flying Shia religious flags. Due to the lower quality of the images in the video, the claim could not be confirmed. Accounts affiliated with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also uploaded a response to the offensive against ISIS. In their clip, a man sets up a system for a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which then spots what can assumed to be ISIS positions. The ISIS positions are then destroyed. The clip was entitled, “A message from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq to Da’sh” (note: Da’sh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS).

Redeployments from Syria?

The charge that Iraqi Shia Islamist fighters who were initially placed in Syria, and that have returned to Iraq in order to fight ISIS and other Sunni groups, has been a reoccurring theme among fighters aligned with Shia Islamist groups, ISIS supporters, and those who back local Sunni groups. On social media a number of hints were left in posted images. One Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq profile claimed that an Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq had sent fighters (possibly those who had fought in Syria and rotated back to Iraq) to battle ISIS and other groups in Fallujah. Another image claimed fighters from the Rapid Reaction Force (a group of Iraqi Shia fighters who were some of the first trained units of Shia foreign fighters in Syria) were also redeployed to Anbar after operating around the Sayyida Zaynab mosque and shrine in Damascus.

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Figure 20: A January 8 post claiming AAH was deploying to Fallujah and wished for quick recovery (due to an injury) for one of AAH’s fighters.

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Figure 21: A January 28 post claiming the Rapid Reaction Forces which have been involved in fighting in Syria were returning to Iraq to fight ISIS in Anbar.

A Da’sh of Music

Musicians who could broadly be described as “Sadrist” and those who have supported Iranian-backed organizations have produced a number of songs with content calling out ISIS and demonstrating their support for the Iraqi government. These musicians have acted as additional amplifiers for the uploaded imagery, videos, and other material available online. Since their work is already known and exposed to those familiar with it, the circulation of the released material is at least guaranteed among a certain subset of Shia Islamists in Iraq and possibly those fighting in Syria.

Usama al-Salihi, a Sadrist performer, released a song called “Ya Da’sh” or “O Da’sh” in early January.

Ali Delfi, Ahmed Sa’adi, Ghassan al-Shami, Fadhl Hasan, and Malik al-Asadi teamed-up to create the “Operetta for [Our] Master and Precious One”, a song full of praise for Muqtada al-Sadr, which mocks ISIS. Fadhl Hasan, a poet/lyricist, claims to be a Sadrist and has published material supportive of Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada on his Facebook page. Al-Asadi is known for his religious songs. Delfi and Sa’adi (who have performed together) have a long history of making songs for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and praise the group’s actions in Syria.  Their music video featured Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud attacks against Coalition vehicles during the Iraq War (2003), footage of the Iraqi Army, and praise for Muqtada al-Sadr.

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Figure 22: A post for Fadhl Hasan’s page with Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Muhammed Sadiq Sadr in the center. The logos for Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud (top left), Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (top right), Kata’ib Hizballah (bottom left), and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (bottom right) are in the background.

Issa al-Fareeji, a Sadrist singer who has performed songs praising Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud (The Promised Day Brigades, a Sadrist successor group to Jaysh al-Mahdi which received assistance from Iran), released one piece with relative Hussam al-Fareeji. Their song, “La Da’sh” or “No ISIS”, was released onto YouTube in late January 2014.

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Figure 23: Usama Salihi posing with a picture of Muqtada al-Sadr (center), Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr (left), Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr (right).

Their song was one of a small wave of songs performed by artists who affiliate with Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Iranian-backed organizations. Since January 25, 2014 around ten songs praising the Iraqi Army and criticizing ISIS have been released online. Some songs have music videos while others are simply audio releases. All of the artists have had links with Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud or other Iranian-backed organizations.

Another song produced by a Shia Islamist performer and gaining in popularity on social media was performed by Ahmed Zarkani. Zarkani’s song, “Minu Da’sh” (“He is not Da’sh”—Note: This is Iraqi slang) also laces into ISIS and praises the Iraqi Army.

Zarkani is best known for his overtly sectarian latmiyat-type performances which have included a portion of tatbir, or the period of mourning which includes ritualistic self-flagellation for Imam Husayn ibn Ali.[9] At times during this mourning ritual there is the ceremonial cutting of one’s head with a sword (zanjeer zani). The cutting of one’s head is used to represent suffering by the martyred Imam Husayn.[10] Latmiyat, or sad spoken word poems are meant to commemorate loss (during Ashura many latmiyat are about Imam Husayn). These themes have found its way into a number of Zarkani’s works and underline the Shia-oriented messaging. His releases have often included the rhythmic sounds self-flagellation (often from hands slapping the chest) and have been popularized (and also been used for more militant and political uses) in recent years as an intrinsic piece of Shia identity (Islamist and non-Islamist).  Zarkani’s material has also praised efforts by Shia Islamist fighters in Syria and is often found as background music for propaganda videos showcasing the “Defense of Sayyida Zaynab” in Damascus.

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Figure 24: Zarkani (right) having his head cut with a sword during the practice of zanjeer zani.


[3] See: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/malikis-war-on-al-qaeda-is-tainted-by-sectarian-politics. Yazid, the first Ummayad leader is despised by Shia and is viewed as a representation of deceitfulness and oppression. On the other hand, Husayn, who was martyred by Yazid’s forces during the 7th century Battle of Karbala, is considered by Shia to be the first Imam and is a symbol of justness and martyrdom.

[4] It’s important to note that Muqtada al-Sadr issued statements of support for Sunnis protesting the government in January 2013. See: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138838/eli-sugarman-and-omar-al-nidawi/back-in-black?page=1.

[7] In 2014 Lebanese Hizballah began promoting the so-called “Army, Resistance, People formula” in terms of dealing with the Lebanese state and the military. See: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jan-15/244096-berri-says-committed-to-army-resistance-people.ashx#axzz2rxbrVjdG. In October 2013, Lebanese Hizballah also publicized the handover of their checkpoints to the Lebanese military. See: http://www.voanews.com/content/hezbollah-hands-over-checkpoints-in-lebanon-to-avoid-strife/1762098.html During the June 2013 battles in Saida, Lebanon it was claimed by reporters and commentators that Lebanese Hizballah actually fought alongside the Lebanese Army against fighters aligned with radical Sunni Salafi Sheikh Assir. See: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/06/28/195327/lebanese-army-threatens-media.html#.UflE1I2TiSo and http://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/hezbollah-using-laf-to-further-its-own-ends.

[9] This ritual is often performed during Ashura which takes place during the holy month of Muharram. Still, the ritual has been morphed into a form of identity expression.

[10] See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54PomCU9Txw. It is important to note that from 0.52-1.12 there is a segment in the music video showing a person dressed (and sporting a similar beard) to appear as a Sunni Salafi. The music video then shows the performers acting out their killing of him. This performance attempts to show the Sunni Salafi interrupting an important Shia ritual, but he is then struck down by a strong Shia Islamic hand. See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJC0Ro44KX4. This is another version of one of al-Zarkani performing a latmiya-type piece with zanjeer zani.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir: A New Shia Militia Operating In Aleppo, Syria

By Phillip Smyth (psmyth@jihadology.net)

Click here for a PDF version of this post

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Figure 1: The logo for Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir. The group’s name is stylized into a pattern which includes the Lebanese Hizballah/Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps style symbol of a fist gripping an AK-47. (In Gold) “Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir” (‘Ammar Ibn Yasir Brigade) and (in blue) “Al-Muqawama al-Islamiya” (“The Islamic Resistance”).

Since the first announcement of organized Iraqi Shia fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, their geographic displacement in the country was often matched with their propaganda statements. Both Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Liwa’a Zulfiqar have stated on their multitude of social media platforms, videos, and through photographs, that their primary area of operation is Damascus. In particular, the Saydah Zaynab Shrine features heavily in their propaganda and the groups are self-proclaimed “Defenders” of the Shrine.

However, with the creation of Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir (‘Ammar Ibn Yasir Battalion or LAIY), the “Defenders of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine” narrative is now encompassing an organization which—according to its statements and other sources—does not operate in Damascus or directly maintain a presence at the Saydah Zaynab Shrine. In fact, LAIY advertises the fact that it is operating in the areas surrounding the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. In videos released by the group onto YouTube, the films’ titles proclaim LAIY fighters are present in rural sections of Aleppo. While this could not be independently confirmed, it would appear the group is attempting to cast another narrative that LAIY is the pro-Assad Shia militia organization which handles combat operations in the Aleppo area.

The fact the group is announcing it is operating in Aleppo is very important when assessing the manner Iranian-backed Shia militias have been utilized in Syria. Initially, most analysts and journalists have acknowledged these groups have fought around the Saydah Zaynab Shrine in Damascus or, as with Lebanese Hizballah, fought at Qusayr. This represents a major departure from the accepted line and shows that Iraqi-staffed Shia militias are likely operating in other urban areas throughout the country.

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Figure 2: Since the creation of LAIY’s official Facebook page, the group has made attempts to demonstrate they are posting statuses from Aleppo.

Initially, LAIY announced their presence to the world through the creation of a Facebook page made at the end of May, 2013. The page only posted basic status updates including quotes from Lebanese Hizballah General Secretary and in a blatant display of their loyalty to Iran, postings of two photographs featuring Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The caption for one of the photographs read, “Labayka ya Khamenei” (“We are here for you, O Khamenei”). Other early photographs emphasized the same “Defenders of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine” narrative first promoted by Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Lebanese Hizballah.

The logic behind the continuance of the “Defenders of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine” narrative for a group not directly defending it, is likely a way to express that despite LAIY not directly defending the shrine, the very fact they are countering anti-Assad forces in other parts of Syria helps save the shrine. Extending the narrative in this way allows for later potential announcements addressing the presence of other pro-Assad Shia militia in other areas of Syria. The rhetoric also acts and as a blanket explanation for why the groups’ directly cooperate and back the regime of Bashar al-Assad. For LAIY’s messaging campaign, it is key to demonstrate that backing Assad on all fronts means the Saydah Zaynab Shrine and other Shia religious structures will be protected.

Off of the internet, LAIY made its presence known in the same way Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada did during the Spring of 2013; Via extravagant funeral cum demonstrations for fallen members of the organization. On June 4, a large funeral in Iraq’s Maysan was held for seven members of LAIY. Like Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, at the group funeral, representatives from the organization announced they would defend shrines, “All over the world”.[1]

LAIY has also exhibited a number of advanced messaging strategies. When the organization was announced, it already had its own song (posted below), a symbol, fighters dressed in similar combat fatigues, and a clear messaging strategy to address its presence in Syria.

LAIY’s Name

Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir takes its name from ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir. Described by historian Matti Moosa as, “one of Ali’s [considered by Shia to be the Islamic prophet Muhammed’s true successor for leadership of the Muslim community] most zealous companions and champions”, Yasir is revered by Shia for his loyalty.[2]

The group’s name also references the tomb of ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir which was located in Raqqa, Syria. The tomb was blown-up by Sunni Islamist rebels forces in March, 2013. These forces also recorded the destruction of the tomb and distributed their video online.[3] The video then made its rounds on pro-Assad media outlets. In terms of narrative development, the adoption of the name of a destroyed Shia shrine in Syria further underlines the line the group previously established as, “Defenders of shrines”.

Nevertheless, there have been no specific mentions of the destruction of ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir’s tomb via the group’s statements to the media or through their social media presence.

LAIY’s complete name is, Al-Muqawamah al-Islamiya fi Iraq Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir Hizballah al-Nujaba’ (The Islamic Resistance In Iraq ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir Brigade Hizballah Movement of the Outstanding). Adding further complication to the group, LAIY claims to be a part of Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’ or Harakat al-Nujaba’ (The Hizballah Movement of the Outstanding). This group, in and of itself, is also new. Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’ draws its name from the regularly used “Hizballah” term, a name found and utilized by a multitude of Iranian-backed organizations. It has also added that it is a “Harakat” or “movement”, most likely a way to appear as if it has greater numbers. The addition of the term, “al-Nujaba’” (plural for “The Outstanding”) references a term sometimes used in relation to the return of Imam al-Mahdi (for Shia, the Mahdi will return in a messianic form and establish a truly just earthly regime).[4]

LAIY’s Links, & Ideology

Based on the large amount of imagery, videos, and direct statements praising Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and repeated insistences where the group has said it is, “at Khamenei’s service”, LAIY does not hide its allegiance to Iranian leadership and ideology. The utilization of the exact “Defense of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine” narrative, honed by Lebanese Hizballah, Iran, and Iran’s many Iraqi Shia proxies—Many of whom have contributed fighters to the battle in Syria—also demonstrates a mirroring of larger Iranian strategies.

Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, a founder and leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed organization which has lost members in Syria, has also featured prominently in LAIY propaganda. Al-Kaabi has described as a “Leader” by the group’s Facebook page and on posters the group has issued. The link to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq further suggests LAIY and Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’ may be front groups for other existing Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia parties. Additionally, imagery used for martyrdom posters matches those found with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. These posters normally feature Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr and Iranian Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei with a dark background or one featuring the Saydah Zaynab Shrine (see: Hizballah Cavalcade’s Roundup of Iraqi’s Killed in Syria, Parts 1, 2, and 3).

The utilization of the phrase, “Islamic Resistance” has also been a hallmark for Iranian-created organizations and has made a strong presence among the multitude of groups under Tehran’s guidance. Lebanese Hizballah calls itself, “Al-muqawama al-islamiya fi lubnan” (“The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon”).[5] Both Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah have characterized themselves as the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq”.[6] Iranian-backed Iraqi groups have been utilizing the phrase more since May, 2013. In one Basra propaganda poster, the “Islamic Resistance” name was used by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. According to LAIY’s Facebook page, the group offers a self-description as “Al-muqawama al-islamiya fi suriya” (“The Islamic Resistance in Syria”).

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Figure 3: Two LAIY propaganda posters featuring Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi.

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Figure 4: A sign for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Basra from the “Islamic Resistance” (Photo Credit: Anonymous source in Basra). The poster was put up in late June, 2013.

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Figure 5: Underneath the dome for the Saydah Zaynab Shrine there is text reading, “Labayka Khamenei” (“We are here for you Khamenei”).  On the left, the Iran’s Supreme Leader strikes a forceful pose with masked fighters gazing up at him. The photo serves as the banner image for LAIY’s Facebook page.

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Figure 6: A LAIY spokesman, observed at the June 4th group funeral, is shown with the golden dome of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine, LAIY’s logo, with his remarks about how the organization will address those who engage in the “Demolition of graves”.

Pan-Shia Sectarian Themes

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Figure 7: A poster from LAIY linking the lynched Sheikh Hassan Shehata to Iranian ideologue and first Supreme Leader for the Islamic Republic of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iranian media outlets have regularly reported attacks on Shia shrines as part of a conspiratorial narrative where US and Israeli-backed Sunni Islamists have initiated a global campaign against Shi’ism.[7] When Egyptian Shia leader Sheikh Hassan Shehata and four other Shia were brutally murdered by a mob, Iranian propaganda covered the lynching as another example of “Takfiri extremists” targeting the Shia.[8] While this is not entirely false, their reporting of the incident was an attempt to link the event to the Iranian narrative on Syria. This line says that the West and Israel are backing “Takfiris” (note: All rebels are branded as “Takfiris”) in order to destroy Islamic unity and destroy the Shia. In a May 27th Facebook post, LAIY utilized the “U.S. and Zionist” conspiracy narrative to praise the success of “Jihadist media” (meaning Iranian-backed Shia jihadists) in the face of such opposition.

The attempt to draw Shehata as in some way ideologically or religiously related to Khomeini is also a way for the group to lump all Shia under the Iranian ideological umbrella. Additionally, it also attempts to show how Iranian-backed groups like LAIY are the only organizations defending Shi’ism.

LAIY took these concepts and produced a poster to commemorate Shehata’s murder and attempt to convey that they would defend against future incidents like his public lynching. For the increasingly targeted Middle Eastern Shia community, it is possible LAIY was attempting to play off of sentiments for the need to defend Shi’ism.

LAIY’s Martyrs

Reportedly, seven members of LAIY had a group funeral in Iraq’s Maysan province on June 4, 2013. While limited recordings of the funeral are available, not all of the dead could be positively identified. On July 3, 2013 another, older member of LAIY was announced as having been killed in Syria via LAIY’s Facebook page.

Interestingly, LAIY members who have been killed have been referred to (individually) as, “Shaheed al-Jihad” (“Martyr of the Jihad”) as opposed to the phrases “Shaheed al-Batal” (“The Hero Martyr”) or “Shaheed al-Mujahid” (“The Holy Warrior Martyr”). The latter two are commonly used by other Iraqi Shia groups who have lost fighters in Syria.

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Name: Hamid Abd al-Hasan ‘Ali

Death Announced: July 3, 2013

Notes: Hamid Abd al-Hasan was described in a few posts as a commander of LAIY forces. His older age may also indicate his role as some type of a leader for the group’s fighters in Syria.

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Figure 8: An announcement for the death of Hamid Abd al-Hasan ‘Ali. The deceased Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr looks on from the left side of the poster.

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Figure 9: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in a martyrdom announcement/poster with Hamid Abd al-Hasan ‘Ali.

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Figure 10: Both the Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei (left) and the late Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr (right) hold their heads in sadness. Hamid Abd al-Hasan ‘Ali is pictured in the middle in front of the dome for the Saydah Zaynab Shrine.

Name: Husayn ‘Abd al-Sadah

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 11: Husayn ‘Abd al-Sadah is shown holding an AK-47 type rifle with the late Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr (left) and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (right).

Name: Mustafa Muhammed al-‘Abadi

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 12: A photo of Mustafa Muhammed al-‘Abadi’s martyrdom poster taken in Nasiriya, Iraq. The poster claims he was a member of “Harakat al-Nujaba’ Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir” (“Movement of the Outstanding ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir Brigade”).

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Figure 13: A GMC Yukon was used as a hearse (his coffin was placed on the roof) for al-‘Abadi as it drove with other vehicles carrying other LAIY fighter’s bodies.

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Figure 14: A compilation of the June 4th group funeral photos posted by the group on June 5, 2013.

Name: ‘Abbas Fadhl

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 15: It would appear the same photograph which was used for Husayn ‘Abd al-Sadah had Fadhl’s head pasted into place.

Name: ‘Ali Husayn Jaber

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 16: A vid-capture of a larger martyrdom poster with Jaber’s face.

Name: Abbas Fadhl Qasim (al-Sudani)

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 17: A headshot of the bearded Qasim can be seen behind a LAIY spokesman and in front of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine.

Name: Hasan ‘Abd al-Sada Burhan

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 18: A vid-capture of a larger martyrdom poster with Burhan’s face.

Name: Husayn Jaber al-Maliki

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

*No photo available*

Name: ‘Alla’ Muhammed Salman al-Nasimi

Death Announced: June 4, 2013

Notes: Funeral was held alongside other LAIY dead during the group funeral in Maysan.

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Figure 19: A screen-capture of Nasimi’s martyrdom poster. As with posters for members of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas, Lebanese Hizballah, and Iraqi Shia groups, the dead individual’s head shot is placed in front of a photo of Damascus’s Saydah Zaynab Shrine.

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Figure 20: A shot of the LAIY honor guard at the June 4, 2013 group funeral. The first sign prominently displays, “Harakat Al-Nujaba’.”

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In videos of the funeral, those present chanted, “Labayka ya Zaynab” (“We are here for you, O Zaynab”). In two of the videos, LAIY’s official anthem can be heard being played by trucks carrying speakers. Posters with the late Iranian radical leader, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, his successor and Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and late Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr are present.

Combat Videos

Most of the major videos have come from a YouTube account by the name of, “Kata’ib Jaysh al-Mahdi” (The Mahdi Army Brigades). This name invokes memories of Iraqi religious and political leader, Muqtada al-Sadr and his Jaysh al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army). Thus far, Sadr has been reluctant to send fighters to Syria and has had a complicated relationship with Iran’s leadership.[9]

Due to the fact that LAIY claims to be part of Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’ (Harakat al-Nujaba’) and the prolific photographs and posters featuring Iranian leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei, it is more likely the group is utilizing general themes which would appeal to Sadrists to win greater Iraqi support.

Videos of LAIY engaged in combat first appeared in early July and were posted by two accounts and all of the videos were posted between late June and early July, 2013. In one of the videos, a captured Syrian rebel can be viewed tied-up while being questioned by a LAIY fighter, gunfire can also be heard. In another far more graphically violent video, LAIY fighters recorded Syrian rebels they killed.

It is interesting to note that LAIY fighters are wearing yellow ribbons on their clothing. This addition is often recognized by rebels as signifying these fighters are foreign Shia militants. Lebanese Hizballah donned the ribbons when they fought in Qusayr and it has been reported by some rebel sources that these ribbons are used by Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas in Damascus.

In two other videos, the poster of the clips claims to show LAIY fighters engaged in combat in the Aleppo area. One video is set to LAIY’s song and shows fighters firing a machine gun and carrying RPG-7s. In another video, also marked as having been from the Aleppo area, photos of LAIY members and video of LAIY members firing a machine gun, an RPG-7 from a roof, and holding RPG-7s can be viewed. Also, a photo LAIY fighters posing with a captured Sunni Islamist rebel jeep is present. The second video is also set the a song, “Support Those Who Defend Zaynab” (see the 4th music video from the bottom of the post), by Ali al-Delfi and Ahmed al-Sa’adi. The song directly praises Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas.

**Warning: Graphic Images**

 


[2] Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, (New York, Syracuse University Press, 1988), P. xix.

[4] An interesting example of this can be found here: http://www.alameli.net/books/?id=3453. The book discusses the Egyptian relationship with early Islamic leaders, including the Shia. This particular chapter discusses “Egyptian assistance for the Mahdi”.

[5] Hizballah proudly wears the “Islamic Resistance” title. See: http://www.moqawama.org/

[6] Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s original webpage used to be www.iraq-moqawama.com (“Iraq-Resistance”—Note how Lebanese Hizballah’s is Moqawama.org) and group leaders often refer to the group as the “Islamic Resistance Movement” or the “Ahl al-Haq Islamic Resistance Movement”. See the new Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq website: http://www.ahlualhaq.com/. Kata’ib Hizballah has also called itself “The Islamic Resistance Kata’ib Hizballah”. See: http://www.aletejahtv.org/ArticleShow.aspx?ID=32244. See also: http://www.abna.ir/data.asp?lang=2&Id=427805.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

The Songs of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas: Militant Iraqi Shia Music & Syria

By Phillip Smyth (psmyth@jihadology.net)

Click here for a PDF version of this post

Remember the war against Franco?

That’s the kind where each of us belongs.

Though he may have won all the battles,

We had all the good songs.

–        Tom Lehrer, “The Folk Song Army”, 1965.

*Note: The author has counted at least thirty different songs available online which have been produced to praise LAFA. Most of these songs were not included due to their lack of popularity in LAFA social media circles.

When journalist Nicholas Blanford first announced Iraqi Shia were fighting alongside the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, his main source for this assessment was a music video.[1] From a period extending from fall 2012-summer 2013, Shia Islamist organizations operating in Syria have released more music videos and have been actively using them in a complex messaging strategy.

The utilization of musical propaganda has been a key propaganda strategy used by radical Shia Islamist organizations.[2] Lebanese Hizballah has employed a number of bands to sing songs promoting the group’s narrative since the 1980s. In 2008, the Iraqi government found the songs made for Muqtada al-Sadr so threatening, they banned them.[3]

Due to Shia Islamist involvement in the Syrian Civil War, Iraqi Shia who favor Muqtada al-Sadr and pro-Iranian Shia parties, have produced a wide variety of songs praising Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). These songs are often overtly sectarian and offer blatant threats against the Syrian rebels.

The Iraqi-produced music videos, created to honor Iranian-backed Shia fighters attached to LAFA, also occupy a strange ideological gray-area. The singers often praise and or have praised Muqtada al-Sadr and the Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud (the Promised Day Brigade). However, Sadr has not publicly supported Shia militiamen fighting in Syria.[4] Some of the same musicians who sing for LAFA, have also backed organizations which have fought Sadr, namely Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).[5]

Other Iraqi influences are quite extensive in newly made music about LAFA, including the musical rhythm styles. Demonstrating that these songs are aimed at an Iraqi audience, they are often sung in the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. All of the singers and songwriters who have made these songs have also had extensive background experience singing for Shia Islamist organizations, performing religious songs, and have gained the majority of their fans from their online presence.

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Figure 1: ‘Ali al-Muwali poses for a picture which includes the Saydah Zaynab shrine.

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Figure 2: Muwali has not hidden his links to Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud. In his left hand, the group’s logo is visible.

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Figure 3: Muwali singing to Sadr supporters.

Released on September 5, 2012, the music video which first burst onto the scene carrying the message of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas was “Ya Zaynab” by ‘Ali al-Muwali. While the initial music video did not receive as much attention in pro-LAFA social media circles, a more popular edit of the song with a new music video quickly became well-known. Appearing on YouTube at the end of December, the new video and song soon became the anthem for LAFA.  It is clear from the song’s lyrics, music video, and time of release that its creation was timed to coincide with further announcements about the group’s existence.

While the initial music video was less popular than the re-edited LAFA video, the song clearly promoted a militant message. Prior to singing about LAFA, singer of “Ya Zaynab”, ‘Ali al-Muwali had made a number of songs dedicated to praising attacks against U.S. and Coalition troops in Iraq. These songs appeared to be created for Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud. Muwali’s personal Facebook page includes two “Likes” for Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud Facebook pages.

Another early song and music video utilized by Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas first appeared online in early February 2013. The song emerged on YouTube and in forums under a variety of titles. However, the primary title it was given was, “Liwa’a Abu Fadl in Syria Third Release”. It’s probable the singers and songwriters came from the same groups found in other videos on this post.

As with LAFA’s edited music video for “Ya Zaynab”, this song’s video showed footage of LAFA fighters engaged in combat and samples from a film about the Battle of Karbala. The song also featured threats against the Free Syrian Army and overt messages appealing to Shia-identity. “Liwa’a Abu Fadl in Syria Third Release” was later used as background music in a video showing members of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada inspecting dead Syrian rebels (see the first video on the post).

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Figure 4: Pro-LAFA Iraqi singer, Muhammed Abu ‘Azrael al-Karbalai.

Between April-May, 2013 a number of songs were released by Iraqis praising the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades. “Dedicated to the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Shia Brigade”, was released in mid-May by Pro-Muqtada al-Sadr singer Muhammed Abu ‘Azrael al-Karbalai on Iraqi Shia forums.[6] It warned the rebel Free Syrian Army, telling them “Do not cross the line…We will silence you” and also praised the Syrian army, “O Syrian army, focus and show them what you can do” The song also expressed fears of what would happen if the forces of Bashar al-Assad did not win, saying, “Oh, [Syrian] army, God knows what will happen if you fail!”

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Figure 5: Muhammed Helfi stands in front of a picture of Husayn, one of the most important figures in Shia Islam.

Another LAFA song, performed by Muhammed al-Helfi was called, “Zealous to Defend Saydah Zaynab”. Helfi, an Iraqi Shia and pro-Sadr singer (he has also performed with pro-Sadrist singer Laith al-Ruba’ie) adopted Shia identity messaging and delved into conspiracy narratives to explain the war in Syria. In the song, al-Helfi rehashes claims of a “Saudi and Jewish” conspiracy against the Shia. The narrative presented matches those produced by LAFA and other Iranian-backed organizations. “We are all for Zaynab”, Helfi sings, “we know the difference between precious and cheap…We get rid of the cheap…We Shia know our worth.”

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Figure 6: Abbas al-Khazali.

Another Iraqi-produced song was dedicated specifically to Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas on April 6. The song threatens Syrian rebels and praises Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. In fact, LAFA’s Sung by Abbas al-Khazali, the music video shows Shia fighters dressed in similar combat gear as LAFA and armed with M16A2 rifles. There is also a shot of these Shia fighter-cum-singers capturing and abusing what can be presumably Sunni Islamist or Free Syrian Army fighters. The theme of capturing and abusing “Enemies of Shi’ism” has been a prevalent theme in songs released by Iraqi singers since April.

On April 19th, a pro-LAFA song was posted to YouTube. Much of the footage used showed LAFA operations, but when the music video begins, the main messaging thrust is one of Shia power over Sunni enemies. Men (assumedly Shia fighters) storm a building and forcibly detain these enemies. Later in the song, the singer calls Saudi Salafist Sheikh Adnan Al Aroor, “Black” (i.e. holding a black ideology).

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Figure 7: An Ahmed Fatimi CD cover.

Ahmed Fatimi, another Iraqi singer, also sang a song in praise of the “Defenders of Zaynab”. The music video utilizes photographs of LAFA members and commanders first put online between the fall of 2012-spring 2013.

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Figure 8: Ali al-Delfi and Ahmed al-Sa’adi pose on the cover of one of their 2012 CDs.

One of the first LAFA songs to be released in 2013 (March 5) was made by Ali al-Delfi and Ahmed al-Sa’adi. The song immediately became popular on forums and Facebook pages devoted to LAFA and other Iranian-backed Shia groups in Iraq. Demonstrating the song’s reach, in of the few pieces of video footage taken of LAFA fighters in Syria, the song was played on one of the fighter’s phones while LAFA was setting-up a sniper position.

On May 5, 2013, Ali al-Delfi and Ahmed al-Sa’adi released a song entitled, “Operetta for the Righteous”. The song was dedicated to the Iranian-backed Iraqi group, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).  Pointing to closer links between some Iraqi singers and the organizations they sing about  the fact that new and unique footage was utilized for the music video. The music video featured short pieces of new footage showing Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq members engaged in combat in Syria and readying rockets.

By mid-June, another Delfi and Sa’adi song appeared showing new footage of LAFA combat activities. The song was dedicated to the “Martyrs of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas”.

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Figure 9: Khaleej Al-Thaqafiya’s logo. The logo can be seen on many pro-LAFA music videos produced by the company.

It is important to note that many of these pro-LAFA songs were produced by the Khaleej Al-Thaqafiya media company. Khaleej Al-Thaqafiya appears to promote Iranian ideologue and late Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, Lebanese Hizballah leader Sayid Hassan Nasrallah, pro-Iran cleric Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Hakim (assassinated in 2003) and Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr on their Facebook page. Also, on its Facebook, Khaleej Al-Thaqafiya posted a notice to “Remember Imad [Mughniyeh]”, Hizballah’s master terrorist killed in a 2008 explosion in Damascus.[7]. However, on its regular webpage and YouTube channel, songs praising Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas, and political content appear to be absent.

Since LAFA has built a portion of its group identity off of musical agitprop, there is the likelihood this material will be fully incorporated into an overarching narrative for the group.  Due to the propaganda effect of easily distributed musical performances online, it stands to reason that more musical propaganda praising the actions of LAFA and other Iraqi Shia operating in Syria will continue to appear online.


[2] Hizballah actually employs a number of solo singers, bands, and other musical acts. Most prominent among them is Firqat al-Wilaya, which has been described as the group’s “Official band”.

[7] “U.S. Official: World ‘Better Place’ With Death of Hezbollah Figure”, Associated Press, February 13, 2008, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,330525,00.html.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Breaking Badr: Is Iraq’s Badr Organization Operating In Syria?

By Phillip Smyth (psmyth@jihadology.net)

Click here for a PDF version of this post

Due to many public funerals, a number of Iranian-backed Iraqi organizations (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizballah, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada stand as prime examples) have been identified as supplying combatants to fight in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. However, the Badr Organization, an Iraqi group which has pledged its loyalty to Tehran, was absent from announcements involving Iraqis killed in Syria and has been rather murky on whether it is fighting in Syria.

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Figure 1: The Badr Organization Military Wing’s logo. Note its similarity to Lebanese Hizballah’s, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s, Kata’ib Hizballah’s and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ logos

In February, 2013, Hadi al-Amiri, leader of Iraq’s Badr Organization, said Turkey and Qatar were supplying Al Qa’ida and that this was a declaration of war against Iraq.[1] During a June 21, 2013 interview with Reuters, Amiri said the group was contemplating intervening in Syria and could not, “sit idle while the Shi’ites are being attacked”. [2] Regardless, after assessing posted material issued by the Badr Organization’s social media webpages, it is becoming clear the group may actually be involved in the fighting in Syria.

Beginning life as the Badr Brigade, the militia for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Badr Organization split from SCIRI and became its own political group.[3] In 2006, the Council on Foreign Relations reported the Badr Organization had upwards of 10,000 militiamen.[4]

Before and after the split with SCIRI, the Badr Organization received heavy funding, training, and equipment from Iran.[5] The group is also unabashed about its close links with Iran, especially Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian proxy groups.

Despite material which affirms the group supports the actions of Lebanese Hizballah in Syria, the official Facebook page for the Badr Organization makes no mention that its militiamen may be also operating in Syria. Nevertheless, there are hints of involvement on the group’s page for the Badr Organization Military Wing, the Badr Organization’s militia. Throughout the Spring of 2013, the Badr Organization increased the level of supportive rhetoric for Lebanese Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizballah, and Iran’s efforts in Syria.  A June 21, 2013 photo’s caption said the, “Badr Military Wing will defend Zaynab to the last mujahid”.

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Figure 2: Photo from the Badr Organization Military Wing’s Facebook saying the group will “Defend the Zaynab Shrine to the last holy warrior [mujahid]”.

Earlier, on April 22, 2013, The Badr Organization Military Wing produced and uploaded a song to YouTube. The song’s discription said it was, “A message from Badr to the unjust”and included the lyrics, “We will issue a death sentence against the Free Syrian Army (Jaysh al-Hurr) and no one will be able to defeat us.” The only images present during the music were those of a fighter armed with an RPG-7 in front of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine, the logo for the Badr Organization Military Wing, and the logo for the Badr Organization.

From May 5-9, 2013, a few photographs depicting Badr Organization fighters showing their “Soliderity” with members of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) appeared on various pro-LAFA, Badr Organization, and pro-Lebanese Hizballah websites. LAFA has acted as the main front for pro-Iranian fighters inside Syria.

Nevertheless, Badr’s symbols are not a pervasive presence on LAFA or Liwa’a Zulfiqar’s social media websites. Since the group reportedly did not suffer any killed in Syria before June, coverage of the organization’s possible involvement with LAFA or Liwa’a Zulfiqar was muted. The group’s social media posts appeared to do little more than offer visible support for the actions of other pro-Iranian Iraqi groups operating in Syria.

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Figure 3: The photo was first posted on the Badr Organization Military Wing’s official and mirror Facebook pages. The photo shows Badr militiamen armed with Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns (though, it’s possible these are Iranian copies) and AK-47 style rifles.

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Figure 4: A photo first posted on Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas’s Facebook page claims to show Badr Organization militiamen studying a map of Syria. Most captions to go along with this photo claimed it was a photo to express solidarity with the defenders of the Zaynab Shrine.

However, the Badr Organization’s public statements regarding Syria grew louder after May 20, 2013. Immediately following attacks on buses carrying Iranian pilgrims near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, the Badr Organization Military Wing announced they would adopt a more threatening posture. [6] The statement said the “Plotters” of the attacks were the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and “The Zionist Entity” (Israel), and that they would face a swift retaliation. It is important to note that the same compendium of enemies is blamed by Iran and its proxies operating in Syria for being behind forces opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Interestingly, notwithstanding the other, often more horrific bombings Iraqi Shia suffered, and other attacks launched by Sunni Islamists against Shia in Iraq, the Badr Organization appeared to draw a redline with the attack on the Iranians. It is also possible the targeted bus was not carrying Iranian pilgrims as reported, but Iranian advisors or fighters, which would further inflame a pro-Iranian proxy group like Badr.[7]

Based on the fact that other smaller Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia groups have sent fighters into Syria, it is possible the Badr Organization has also sent members. This possibility gained added credence on June 17, 2013 when the Badr Organization Military Wing announced a member had been killed “Defending the Saydah Zaynab Shrine”. Despite this announcement, it is still unclear whether the Badr Organization has committed sizable amounts of fighting men to the war in Syria.

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Figure 5: May 20, 2013 Badr statement threatening Saudi Arabia, Qatar, “The Zionist entity”, and the U.S.

The Badr Organization’s First Martyr In Syria?

Name: Yasin Muhammed al-Zayn (A.K.A. Hadi)

Death Announced: June 17, 2013. (He was declared killed on June 17, 2013). The Badr Organization Military Wing’s Facebook declared his death on June 18, 2013.

Notes: Only on the Badr Organization Military Wing’s official page was al-Zayn claimed as a member of the Badr Organization. On his martyrdom poster, it was claimed al-Zayn was killed in the Zayn al-‘Abideen neighborhood of Damascus while “Defending the Saydah Zaynab Shrine”. Other pro-Assad/pro-Iranian backed Shia organization Facebook pages did not mention his affiliation with the Badr Organization. Additionally, no footage of al-Zayn’s funeral could be located. A personal martyrdom page was also created (on June 18, 2013) for al-Zayn.[8] On the page, no mention of any Badr affiliations was made. Interestingly, his death was not claimed by Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas or Liwa’a Zulfiqar, the two groups Iraqi Shia have fought for in Syria.

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Figure 6: The Saydah Zanab Shrine’s golden dome features prominently in the background. No logos for the Badr Organization Military Wing were present on the martyrdom poster.

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The Badr Organization’s Imagry For Syria

The Badr Organization Military Wing has created a number of provocative online photos dealing with events in Syria. When compared to other Iranian proxies, they have exhibited the most blatant links to Iran’s Supreme Leader. It is possible the group may be setting-up a religious pretext for their [future] involvement in Syria by continually showing pictures of Khamenei. Khamenei had already given religious sanction for Shia fighters to engage in battle in Syria.[9]

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Figure 7: “Min Baghdad – al-Jadriat Labayk ya Zaynab” (“From Baghdad – al-Jadriya [a Baghdad neighborhood] We are here for you, O Zaynab”).

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Figure 8: A photo published by the Badr Organization Military Wing showing members of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. The image is attempting to convey that the Badr Organization has members within LAFA.

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Figure 9: Iran’s Supreme Leader waves and smiles as Badr Organization militiamen stand below him.

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Figure 10: This photo appeared on two pro-Badr Organization Military Wing pages on Facebook. Intriguingly, the photo is extremely blatant about the connection (logos from left to right) Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Lebanese Hizballah, the Badr Organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Kata’ib Hizballah share. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei looks out from the globe.

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Figure 11: Another online poster featuring the Badr Organization Military Wing and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The background is a photo of Lebanese Hizballah marching with an added golden hue.


[1] Michael Knights, “Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts Show Signs of Merging”, March 7, 2013, Policywatch 2042, Washington Institute For Near East Policy, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/syrian-and-iraqi-conflicts-show-signs-of-merging.

[7] Personal conversation with Michael Knights, June 24, 2013.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Liwa’a Zulfiqar: Birth of A New Shia Militia in Syria?

By Phillip Smyth (psmyth@jihadology.net)

Click here for a PDF version of this post

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On June 5, 2013, the same day Lebanese Hizballah declared victory at the Battle of Qusayr, a page for a new Damascus-based Shia militia group, Liwa’a Zulfiqar (LZ or the Zulfiqar Battalion), was created on Facebook. The group asserts it is, “Assigned to protect religious shines, especially the Saydah Zaynab [shrine]”. This claim is also held by Syria’s other main Shia militia, Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). However, Liwa’a Zulfiqar is not competing with Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. In fact, most of its members and leadership appear to have been drawn from LAFA. Furthermore, Liwa’a Zulfiqar does not hide the fact that it was created out of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Along with new photographs, the new group has repackaged older LAFA photographs and claimed them as representations of the new group.

LZ’s formation results in a number of questions: Is Liwa’a Zulfiqar a genuinely new organization? Could it be another front for LAFA? Was LZ’s formation representative of something else going on within the ranks of Shia fighters in Syria?

Based purely on social media data, it appears LZ is less of a new organization, and probably a LAFA front or part of LAFA. At best, the group could be a repackaging of LAFA fighters into a new group which serves the same functions and cooperates closely with LAFA and the Syrian army. At the same time, the group could be little more than a web-based propaganda vehicle. Since the creation of a new organization would generate the sense that larger numbers of capable Shia fighters are flooding into Syria, LZ’s propaganda function may also be aimed directly at rebel morale.

Using unnamed sources, Al-Hayat newspaper reported the majority of LZ’s fighters have come from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Liwa’a al-Yum al-Mawud (Promised Day Brigades), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hizballah.[1] The latter two groups have suffered casualties in Syria and have also been integral pieces of LAFA. If LZ is an actual organized entity, it has already established itself as primarily Iraqi Shia staffed. It is unknown whether the Iraqi make-up of the group is a deliberate measure to create a separate purely Iraqi staffed organization. However, based on LAFA’s history of having a membership of mixed nationalities, it is unlikely the group has been formed to suit such a purpose.

Still, new evidence about LZ’s origins may have come to light via a June 19th Reuters report.[2] Liwa’a Zulfiqar may instead be the outgrowth of infighting pitting Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas’s Syrian commanders, Assad militias, and trained Iraqi fighters who comprise a large chunk of LAFA’s membership. Citing claims by Iraq-based Shia militants, Reuters reported, “Two Iraqi fighters and three Syrian Shabiha died” in a short battle pitting local Assad’s forces against Iraqi Shia fighters. As a result, “divisions fester and Iraqi combatants have formed a new brigade, refusing to fight under Syrian command”. It is possible Liwa’a Zulfiqar is the “new brigade” mentioned in the report.

If Liwa’a Zulfiqar was established due to the infighting, it is highly probable that the old LAFA command and military apparatus has been replicated and simply given a new name. This would explain the repackaging of LAFA photographs and the claims that LAFA leadership now comprises LZ’s leadership.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that LAFA and LZ would still be reliant on the cooperation of Assad’s forces. Heavy weapons provided to them by the Syrian army, including tank and artillery support, will still be necessary for LZ to mount any offensive or effective defensive operations. Furthermore, supplies for the group need to be funneled through the Assad regime, so a working relationship with Assad’s forces would be necessary.

Importantly, LAFA does not appear to have an interest in heightening any split. LAFA’s official Facebook page even announced the creation of LZ and posted some of their photographs. Also, LZ does not hide their support for the Assad regime. If a split resulting in the creation of LZ really did arise, it appears it was mitigated to the extent that the discord did not spill into public spheres, namely social media.

Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas & Liwa’a Zulfiqar’s Shared Members

Since the creation of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas and the creation of multiple social media (primarily Facebook) pages to market the group and its goals, very few of the group’s members have been photographed or named. However, LAFA’s leadership were often photographed (without their faces obscured) and claimed as group leaders. This has also been the case for LZ, which has publicized the leadership element of the organization.

Demonstrating its extremely close links to LAFA, LZ’s announced commanders were and may possibly still be LAFA leaders. This further points to the possibility LZ is little more than a subgrouping of fighters who operate under the main header of LAFA. Then again, it could also demonstrate the organization is a replication of LAFA with more Iraqi leadership.

LZ claims Abu Shahed and Abu Hajar as acting as a commanders (ranks were not given). Yet, these two commanders are already well-known to those following LAFA. In fact, the two have both been presented as LAFA leaders.

  • Abu Jafar al-Assad (Abu Jafar): Often shown in LAFA’s photographs as a sniper. Abu Jafar is now named as a leading fighter for Liwa’a Zulfiqar. Photographs of Abu Jafar have been widely circulated on pro-Assad, pro-LAFA, Hizballah, and Syrian rebel websites. He’s most often affiliated with LAFA.
  • Abu Hajar: Originally claimed as “Al-Qa’id” for LAFA. Abu Hajar was prominently displayed on many pro-LAFA websites.
  • Abu Shahed: Originally listed as a “Mujahid” (holy warrior) for LAFA. Abu Shahed is now listed as a commander for LZ.

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Figure 1: A banner featuring (shown wearing camouflage fatigues) Abu ‘Ajeeb (left), Abu Shahed (center), Abu Hajar (right) are pictured together as the leadership for LAFA. The photo of the banner was first posted on Facebook on June 6, 2013, 24 hours after the announcement of the creation of Liwa’a Zulfiqar.

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Figure 2: Abu Hajar and Abu Shahed stand together in the Saydah Zaynab Shrine.

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Figure 3: Abu Shahed, shown in an April, 2013 LAFA photograph. In the picture he is wearing a desert pattern MARPAT style uniform. The photo has been reposted on LZ’s Facebook.

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Figure 4: Abu Jafar al-Assad takes aim with an M16A1 style rifle. Another LZ/LAFA militiaman also takes aim with an FN FAL. A Bashar al-Assad patch is fastened to Abu Jafar’s arm.

Symbolism

The creation of Liwa’a Zulfiqar and their symbol also coincided with the creation of a new symbol for Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. LAFA’s new logo was first adopted on the group‘s official Facebook page on May 31, 2013. Both logos include stylized images of crossed Zulfiqar-style swords. The dome of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine also features prominently.

It is important to note that both logos are quite similar in design. It can be assumed that this was not likely due to unoriginality, but instead was done to demonstrate common themes.  The adoption of these new symbols is a clear example of the both organizations attempting to capitalize on the fate of the Saydah Zaynab Shrine and on placing clearly Shia symbols as centerpieces of their respective organizations.

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Figure 5: Liwa’a Zulfiqar’s logo (Left).

Figure 6: Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas’s new logo (Right).

What’s In A Name?

As with Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas, Liwa’a Zulfiqar’s name has deep roots within Shia Islam.  According to Shia tradition, the Zulfiqar was a sword which originally belonged to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. According to Shia tradition, the legendary double tipped sword had immense strength and was passed on to Imam ‘Ali by Muhammed as he lay dying. For Shia, the handover of the sword connoted the passing of the mantle of Islam’s leadership to ‘Ali. The sword also formed a central facet for ‘Ali’s renowned status as a warrior.[3]

A popular traditional Shia saying, which invokes Imam Ali and the Zulfiqar says, “La fata illa ‘Ali, la saif illa zulfiqar” (“No victor like Ali, no sword except the Zulfiqar”).[4] Jennifer G. Wollock also notes the Zulfiqar’s near mystical qualities saying, “[Zulfiqar is] famous in its own right…[J]ust as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur or Roland’s Durandal…[I]n the West.”[5]

For Shia Muslims, the Zulfiqar and its significance did not simply disappear with the assassination of ‘Ali. It is believed the sword is the weapon to be wielded by the Mahdi, Shi’ism’s messianic figure who will usher in a time of justice and end oppression.[6] For Shia, particularly Twelver Shia, the Mahdi is the true ruler of earth—the final Imam—hidden by Allah and set to return. Contemporarily, the messianic theme of connecting the Zulfiqar to the Mahdi is also still popular with many Shia.[7]

Accordingly, the Zulfiqar’s powerful symbolism is being wielded by LZ to demonstrate power, commitment to the protection of Shi’ism, traditional Shia themes, messianic motifs, and as a military symbol.

The Fighters of Liwa’a Zulfiqar

Interestingly, LZ’s photographic posts for their fighters seem to include shots of them dressed in desert-pattern camouflage. LAFA members photos are more generally seen in woodland and urban themed MARPAT-style camouflage clothing. The emphasis on the desert pattern uniforms may be LZ’s attempt to posit a clear and visible difference from LAFA.

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Figure 7: The fighter’s white turban and beard indicate he may hold the status of a Shia religious clergyman.

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Figure 8: LZ/LAFA combatants hold  their rifles aloft as they pose for a photograph. A poster of late Syrian dictator, Hafiz al-Assad, hangs in the background.

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Figure 9: An LZ fighter takes aim with an M16A1 style rifle while Abu Jafar al-Assad observes. A poster of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad hangs in the background.

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Figure 10: Abu Hajar (in black wearing the fedora) rides in a bus with LZ/LAFA fighters.

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Figure 11: Abu Hajar and Abu Shahed engaged in combat manuevers.

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Figure 12: Abu Hajar flashes a “V for victory” sign. Another LZ/LAFA fighter sitting behind him holds a large axe.

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Figure 13: Liwa’a Zulfiqar/Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas fighters relax and pose for the camera. One of the fighters smokes an arguileh.

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Figure 14: An LZ fighter poses with a technical (modified armed pickup truck). The truck carries the flag of the Syrian Ba’ath Party (which is similar to the Palestinian flag).

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Figure 15: LZ fighters pose. Their armament includes an RPG-7 and a PKM machine gun.

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Figure 16: a photo of LZ fighters posted on LAFA’s official Facebook page.

Videos of Liwa’a Zulfiqar

Videos for LZ have been sparse. Generally, videos posted by the organization on their official Facebook page have been little more than picture slideshows. However, one video was released on LAFA’s official Facebook page and on YouTube and purports to show LZ and LAFA fighters celebrating a victory.


[3] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company INC., 2006) P. 37.

[4] Sayyid Jafar Reza, The Essence of Islam, (New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 2012), P. 121.

[5] Jennifer G. Wollock, Rethinking Chivalry and Courtly Love, (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011), P.49.

[6] David Cook, Messianism in the Shiite Crescent, Current Trends In Islamist Ideology, April 08, 2011 http://www.currenttrends.org/research/detail/messianism-in-the-shiite-crescent.

[7] See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PutU72XPNrE&feature=youtu.be. The clip claims to show the Zulfiqar emerging from the clouds, a sign of the Mahdi coming out of occultation.