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

Interview with the leader of Iraq’s Jaysh al-Mujahideen: Abd al-Hakim al-Nuaimi

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Jaysh al-Mujahideen- not to be confused with the Ikhwani Islamist/Salafist rebel coalition of the same name in Aleppo province- is one of Iraq’s older insurgent groups, now revived in the face of a renewed Sunni insurgency. The Iraqi Jaysh al-Mujahideen tends not to advertise itself openly on social media. However, like Syria’s Jaysh al-Mujahideen, this group stands out- together with Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- for its known tensions with the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS: I will translate the relevant statement from the group’s Shari’a Committee later). Yet unlike Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Jaysh al-Mujahideen has kept a low social media profile.

Recently (8 March), in light of the revived activity, some questions were put to Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s media committee, which were then directed to the group’s leader, whose tribal name suggests origins in northern Iraq (my own maternal lineage- from Mosul- is also Banu Nuaim).

Interestingly, ISIS is not mentioned once in the interview, but rather the interview suggests tensions with the Islamic Army of Iraq, even as the ideological outlook here is not unlike that of the mainstream Sunni insurgency in Iraq, such as belief in an Iranian conspiracy- in alliance with the West and/or Jews- against the Sunnis, and expressing solidarity with the rebellion in Syria. In response to this interview, the Islamic Army of Iraq’s media committee put out a statement denouncing Nuaimi’s claims of no Islamic Army of Iraq presence: “The fact that he doesn’t know of their existence means that he is not present in the field.”

Below is my translation of the interview, with some explanatory footnotes.

Q: What is your assessment of the situation in Iraq and the battle with the Safavids?

A: The battle in Iraq is not confined to its borders, for it is part of the battle that the Ummah is waging in defence of its religion and land in the face of the Safavid Majus [derogatory term for Persians] project. The Safavids are allies of the Jews and Crusaders in the war on Islam, and they have exchanged roles and coordinated plans one way or another. Their aim has been to exterminate the Ahl al-Sunna- the people of Islam- by breaking their courage, humiliating them, rendering them subservient, and preventing them from being able to establish the form of rule they want- the Shari’a of God, Mighty and Glorified is He- and this is what we have seen above all in the lands in which its people [the Ahl al-Sunna] have been able to revolt against their oppression and rule at the hands of the corrupt.

Therefore we are in confrontation with a Safavid regime and whatever forces of the East and West inimical to Islam that are behind it.

Our people and our tribes are convinced that there is no choice for them that protects their dignity, recovers their rights and liberates them from servitude to the Majus than to fend off the attacker and confront arms with arms: indeed it is an important issue for which God- Exalted and Mighty is He- has given them His blessing after the suspicious projects and fitna of participation in the political process were thrown upon them with their shadow. Thus the equation in Iraq has changed greatly during the past two months, and since the escalation of the armed confrontation with Maliki’s forces two months ago the Ahl al-Sunna has been able to achieve a lot, for the ranks between the tribes and their sons waging jihad have held together, while previously the enemy was able to fracture them.

And the Ahl al-Sunna has been able to humiliate Maliki’s army and inflict disastrous losses on them. They [the Sunnis] have also been able to organize their ranks such that they have begun fighting in an organized and coordinated manner. They have been able to free wide areas from the Safavid occupation. They have been able to widen the battle in their provinces.

It is impossible to dissociate what is happening in Iraq from the wider region, especially in Syria and other areas that are witnessing Majus aggression. The uprising in Iraq has participated in coordination with the Ahl al-Sunna in other areas, so the widening of the front in Iraq against the Majus has made them totter in Iraq, which was previously a passageway for them, open for their militias that are fighting in Syria, and providing financial support for Assad and others besides him. From the military perspective, the Ahl al-Sunna today is in a far better state than one or two years ago.

Q: How far are you united with the Iraqi Sunni tribes in this war?

A: If God Almighty wills, we will only be pious and sincere sons for our people, striving to protect them and defending their abode, and today we are as close as we can be to the hearts of our people. Our ranks have been nourished- thanks to God Almighty- as our Lord likes (“in a row as though they are one structure joined firmly”- Qur’an 61:4). Indeed we have said on many previous occasions, when we were urging our people to stand as one rank with their sons waging jihad against the Majus project, bear arms, and defend their honour and themselves. We have said to them many times that we want to be swords in your hands, using us to strike the enemy of God and your enemy and using us to defend your honor and land. Today we are carrying our what we promised them: we ask God Almighty to give victory to our people through us.

Q: Where is your activity concentrated?

A: We are present in every place of the battle and its divisions but there is a difference in the extent of the presence from place to another. There is no reason to divulge further details.

Q: Do you support the current shift in the battle from holding land and defending it?

A: The situation differs from one place to another, and we see that in some of the regions where it has been possible to keep hold and expel the enemy from them, [doing so] is an excellent thing, but spreading this state of affairs to other areas where the balances of force differ is a mistake into which we hope not to fall; so the majority has not withdrawn from the areas in a state where it is difficult to retain control and we see that attack and flight in them and exhausting the enemy are the best way to manage the battle in such areas. I ask God to free Iraq- all of it- urgently and not to postpone.

In any case, we must not- on seizing control of a place and expelling the enemy from it- make leaving a place concerning the seizure or the enemy’s seizure of it again be the end of the battle or a standard for victory or defeat. This is what makes us affirm [a policy] of not holding assaulted areas where matters concerning the field are difficult before an improvement in relevant circumstances because the enemy’s seizure of it again will weaken the morale of some people and make them think that we have been defeated and the enemy is victorious.

Q: What is your position on widening the extent of the fronts and battle in the present time and is this within the capabilities of the Sunni civilian people?

A: Widening the extent of confrontation with the Majusi enemy is a matter of utmost importance to reduce the pressure from other areas. In this [approach], we can confuse the enemy and disrupt their efforts especially if we know that they are not fighting from a viable position now except by means of elite brigades and forces as they cannot rely on the capabilities of other forces in their army.

Q: Do you have reservations about working and coordinating with other groups and do you participate in operations in the field with the Islamic Army group?

A: The battle today requires the Ahl al-Sunna to be one hand against their Majusi enemy. The battle today is greater than group and party, greater than clan, tribal and regional interests, but it is also greater than the Iraqi Ahl al-Sunna themselves, for if- God Almighty forbid- their courage were broken, that would be the key for evil against our people not only in ash-Sham and the Gulf, but also in other states that think they are safe from the Majusi project. For what we see from Safavid expansion in the Gulf and Yemen after Iraq and Syria is only the beginning, as expansion does not stop there in the incubation period and without potential for opening military fronts, as is the situation in Egypt, Sudan, the Arab Maghreb and other areas.

So we see a need for coordination among all the Ahl al-Sunna in this war- tribes and groups- and for them to cleanse their ranks of those bartering in their cause from the failure of the politicians and others besides them.

As for the Islamic Army, it saddens us that we have not seen any presence on their part and we had been hoping that they might have corrected the mistakes into which they fell, return from the paths they drifted into, and return to their integrity, but we have not come across that in the field and we don’t know of a presence on their part. There are some groups that originally abandoned working with them years ago and finance themselves from here and there. Perhaps some of their members are among those who are working without disclosing their affiliation for what they know of the lack of their being accepted among the groups and tribes. As for what has been publicized concerning their participation with us in some operations, there is no truth to such claims.

Q: What is your position on the ruling for arms in the conflict among the mujahideen in ash-Sham? And do you have any link with the Jaysh al-Mujahideen in ash-Sham?

A: Truly this matter is among those things that press on the soul of every Muslim zealous in his religion as it affects his Ummah, and God Almighty ordered us to render it to His Shari’a concerning disputation, for He said: “If you have a conflict over something, render it to God and His Messenger if you believe in God and the Last Day: that is best and better in interpretation” [Qur’an 4:59]. The direction of the mujahideen on that matter is a weakening for the Ummah and a free service for its enemies. The Ummah today is waiting for its sons waging jihad to unite their ranks, take vengeance on those who have violated its honor, spilt sacrosanct blood, assaulted the homes of the believers and dispossessed Muslims peoples; and to resist the attack of the hateful Safavids.

It is necessary for anyone who wants to defend himself from oppression with which he is acquainted to restrict himself to self-defense and not to broaden the extent of the conflict as far as he can. Just as it is necessary for all factions to unite in responding to the tyrant’s oppression so that is the most useful [course] for them and all Muslims.

We have no organizational link with any faction in ash-Sham- neither the Jaysh al-Mujahideen in ash-Sham or others besides them- but we have become near to or distant from them according to how far they have become near to or distant from the manhaj of righteousness, and we ask God- Almighty and Exalted is He- to make all agreeable to follow the manhaj of righteousness on which is the salf of the Ummah and to make them agreeable to what He loves and is pleased with.

Q: Why do you insist on your media politics that have made your followers not well-informed regarding your existence, your work in the field and the good deeds of your soldiers?

A: Of course these politics in them are of great harm to us as a group, but they [media politics] have been found to be costly by those seeking to advance claims that we have abandoned arms, or our work has been weakened, or other claims. It is cause for great regret that some of this talk comes from those who know us in the field and from those familiar with our work and the capabilities of our youth, but we have preferred [common] interests to our interest as a group and especially in this circumstance.

Q: What are your expectations and readings for the future of the current battle in Iraq?

A: Our expectations and readings must not be built on conceptions for a defined period, certain areas and apparent data alone. The battle is in its beginning, and an advance or setback here or there does not finish it. At the very least, the battle will not finish in isolation from ash-Sham and not in ash-Sham without Iraq. And the battle does not cease in the stage of broadening and because its sides have proliferated, or the participants in it have become numerous. For events there may happen and have an influence on the role of each side in it, just as events in Ukraine that came as a surprise to most have greatly affected the Russians, and in so far as they evidently support the Safavid regime in Iran and the Nusayri regime in Syria, so indeed the events in this war will have an influence on the Russian regime in this war, whether they like it or not.

We expect that the awareness of the Ahl al-Sunna will increase for their obligation to undertake their role in this war to protect themselves at least. We do not expect but are certain of God Almighty’s victory, but we do not know when from the perspective of time but rather we know when it will be realized from the state we must be in. The Almighty said: “Oh you believe, if you support God, He will support you and strengthen your feet” [Qur’an 47:7]. The Almighty also said: “And God will certainly support whosoever supports Him: indeed God is mighty and powerful” [Qur’an 22:40]. So the victory of God is a divine promise for whosoever support God: the condition for the realization of the divine victory being that we support the religion of God; that our role in this war be victory for God and His religion, not supporting the group, its banner and partisanship.

Victory may be delayed for error within us, or because we are noy ready for what comes next, or for the return of the Ummah to its Lord in a greater and more comprehensive form, for whenever victory has been delayed, we have clung to God and we have taken refuge with Him, and our worship of Him has become great, and our freedom is in entrusting ourselves to and turning for help towards God, and dissociating ourselves from our power and our force and turning to the power and force of God. We have grown in our conviction that we are not granted victory by numbers or equipment, but rather by God alone, so for this reason this generation will be the one that brings out from the womb of this freedom a generation competent to lead the Ummah. And they will be a people for victory and God knows best.

Q: Have your principles and objectives for which you bore arms since the beginning of your jihadi work changed?

A: No; our principles have never changed and will not change by the permission of God Almighty, and whatever may be a source of condemnation against us from the realm politics is in the scope of Shari’a politics and wisdom, and merely the use of reason [ijtihad] that does not affect our principles or objectives that God Almighty has laid down: jihad for its sake.

Q: What do you say to the Sunni tribes?

A: We say to our tribes and our people: Oh our people, we are your sons whom you have come to know in the arena of conflict, in defending you and your honor- which is our honor- it is not a preference or a blessing. And you make trial of us by considering us swords for righteousness in your hands, so you will only see from us- if God Almighty wills- what pleases God Almighty. Your noble stance in this battle will raise memory of you by God Almighty’s permission until the undertaking of the Hour and will raise your place on the Day of Judgment if you have fulfilled your purpose for God. So may God bless you, strengthen you and give you victory.

Q: What do you say to the jihadi groups?

A: Our brothers in the arena of conflict, there is no more appropriate time than this one to abandon group extremism and names, correct past error, for every side to look into what pertains to it concerning error, and to return to God Almighty from every injustice into which we have fallen. For God is God in your Ummah, and by God we see that victory just around the corner and nothing causes separation between our Ummah and it [victory] stronger than our faults and differences.

Notes:

[1] Despite not disclosing much detail, Jaysh al-Mujahideen is most notably operating in Anbar as part of the insurgents’ council that controls Fallujah and includes ISIS.

[2] Though Jaysh al-Mujahideen, like the Islamic Army of Iraq, also lost fighters in light of the rise of the Sahwa movement with the advent of the surge, it was the Islamic Army of Iraq that turned to the political process following the U.S. withdrawal with the establishment of the Sunni Popular Movement. It is this step away from militancy towards politics that the Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s leader is criticizing. In contrast, Jaysh al-Mujahideen never set up a political activist wing.

It should also be noted that despite the revival of the Islamic Army of Iraq, the group’s goals remain limited in that the goal is not to overthrow the central government as ISIS, the Naqshbandi Army and the Jaysh al-Mujahideen hope to achieve (whatever tensions may exist between these three groups). Rather, as an activist based in Baghdad for the Islamic Army of Iraq explained to me in an interview that the Islamic Army “supports the idea of a Sunni region together with the continuation of jihad to relieve oppression from all the Ahl al-Sunna.”

As for ISIS, the activist explained that ISIS suffers from “extremism, error in military operation, misfortune and problems with the majority of the Ahl al-Sunna,” and therefore the Islamic Army of Iraq refuses to have any relations with ISIS. Thus, we have here in the Jaysh al-Mujahideen and the Islamic Army of Iraq two groups sharing hostility towards ISIS but also at odds with each other. Even so, both groups co-exist with ISIS in Fallujah.

[3] Recently some video footage and statements have emerged bearing the Islamic Army of Iraq name and logo, following on from the leader’s call for defensive jihad that I documented in my reference guide to Iraq’s Sunni militant groups (see the link in the above note). On 23 February, the Islamic Army issued a statement claiming coordination on the previous day with the Jaysh al-Mujahideen in fighting government forces in the Albu Alwan area near al-Karma, Anbar province, downing aircraft in the process.

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

Comprehensive Reference Guide to Sunni Militant Groups in Iraq

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

As the overall Sunni insurgency has gained ground in Iraq, much discussion will naturally revolve around the question of which groups are the main actors in the insurgency. Here I will discuss those groups in-depth, and the relations between them.

Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS)

Intro: An al-Qa’ida affiliate?

By far the most prominent group in terms of wider media attention, ISIS in Iraq is almost universally described as an “al-Qa’ida affiliate.” However, it should be emphasized that the evidence for this characterization can only be described as ambiguous at best, and in truth, points to ISIS not being al-Qa’ida’s branch in Iraq.

Now, it is true that one can find evidence that may suggest ISIS is an al-Qa’ida affiliate. Most notably, in his interview with al-Jazeera Arabic, Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani of Jabhat al-Nusra- al-Qa’ida’s official Syrian affiliate- likened the existence of his group and that of ISIS to being members of “one house,” and that the issue of the disagreement over Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of ISIS had been raised with “our amir and their amir: Aymenn al-Zawahiri, may God protect him.” There is no reason to doubt that Sheikh Jowlani sincerely believes ISIS is part of the same al-Qa’ida family.

However, ISIS originated as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI): an umbrella group formed in October 2006 and composed of a number of insurgent groups, whose main component was probably the original al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) organization, but this AQI component was quickly absorbed into ISI. When new members joined ISI, the pledge of allegiance- bay’ah– was given to the commander of ISI, not necessarily requiring one to al-Qa’ida central’s leadership as well.

Indeed, by 2007, Sheikh Zawahiri of al-Qa’ida central declared: “First, I want to clarify that there is nothing in Iraq now by the name of al-Qa’ida, but Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn joined- by Allah’s preference- other jihadi groups in the Islamic State of Iraq.” While it would seem that in his ruling last year for the dissolution of ISIS, Sheikh Zawahiri assumed that Sheikh Baghdadi would defer to his authority, likely on account of Sheikh Baghdadi’s apparent history as a leading member in AQI who would not have forgotten his bay’ah to the central organization (just like Sheikh Jowlani, who was an AQI and ISI veteran), Sheikh Baghdadi’s rejection of the ruling indicates the true break between ISIS and al-Qa’ida central.

On the ground, some ISIS mujahideen accept this break as reality, and thus members in Syria like the British mujahid Abu Qaa’qaa explicitly reject identification as al-Qa’ida. Others I know express ambivalence: thus one native Syrian member of ISIS in Ghouta, Damascus province, said to me that he had pledged bay’ah to Sheikh Baghdadi but did not know if in turn Sheikh Baghdadi had pledged allegiance to Sheikh Zawahiri.

Also of relevance here is how ISIS’ commander projects himself and how the group projects its goals. Although the amir of ISIS for Idlib province has denied that ISIS’ overall amir considers himself a caliph, it is hard not to draw that conclusion from the title assumed: “amir al-mu’mineen” (“commander of the believers”- a traditional title of caliphs) in addition to claimed descent from the family of the Prophet Mohammed (“al-Husseini”) and the tribe of the Prophet (“al-Quraishi”). In addition, more so than any other group, ISIS places particular emphasis on the imminent establishment of a Caliphate (e.g. with the slogan “the promised project of the Caliphate”), and images of the world under the iSIS banner regularly appear in pro-ISIS social media circles.

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Figure 1: ISIS signboard from Azaz area: “The promised project of the Caliphate.”

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Figure 2: The entire world under the ISIS banner.

It should be noted that these aspirations of Caliphate and world domination are not so openly projected by ISIS within Iraq, as I have outlined before. However, that does not mean ISIS in Iraq has abandoned these goals. It is simply a matter of trying to take advantage of growing Sunni Arab disillusionment with the government and portraying itself as the upholder of their interests.

Perhaps the most explicit distancing yet of al-Qa’ida central from ISIS on the part of a senior jihadi comes from Sheikh Abu Khalid al-Suri: a supposed Ahrar ash-Sham official and al-Qa’ida central member who was appointed by Sheikh Zawahiri to mediate between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In light of the ongoing fighting between ISIS and various rebel groups in Syria, Sheikh Abu Khalid released a statement condemning ISIS’ conduct and decrying ISIS’ “crimes” being committed “in the name of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state, and being attributed to” figures like Sheikh Zawahiri and Sheikh Osama bin Laden [i.e. on account of media coverage calling ISIS an al-Qa’ida affiliate]. His statement added that these al-Qa’ida figures are “innocent of what is being attributed to them, just as the wolf was innocent of spilling the blood of Ibn Yaqub.” He concludes with a call for ISIS members to repent for their conduct.

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Figure 3: Statement from Sheikh Abu Khalid condemning ISIS.

Operations and Activities

Of all the militant groups in Iraq, ISIS stands out for having the most extensive financial resources (in large part deriving from the fact that in Mosul, from which the government ultimately failed to dislodge the group even during the surge, ISIS is the Mafia), manpower and range of operations, with the occasional ability to conduct attacks in the predominantly Shi’a areas of the soutb (e.g. Najaf, Karbala, Kut and Wasit). Similarly, coordinated bomb attacks in Baghdad can be reliably traced to ISIS: something other insurgent groups have so far proven themselves incapable of carrying out.

By province, ISIS is by far strongest in Anbar province, where the group operates clandestine training camps and has until this month maintained a rather shadowy existence, conducting some hard-hitting attacks over the past few months including a string of several suicide bomb attacks in a single day targeting local police in the town of Rawa.

Currently, the group remains in control of parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, following on from their entry with the withdrawal of the Iraqi army in the face of widespread Sunni anger at Maliki’s attempt to dismantle the Ramadi camp protest site. Some of the more recent operations in Anbar include firing mortar rounds at Sahwa leader Abu Risha’s estate and heavy fighting with security forces in a number of urban Anbar locations including Street 60 and al-Mal’ab quarter in Ramadi as well as the al-Khaldiya area near Fallujah.

To a limited extent, the group in Anbar has had a boost in manpower provided from eastern Syria, both with influx of muhajireen (as related on the testimony of Abu Qaa’qaa) and the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in the Deir az-Zor border town of Albukamal/Abu Kamal, along with Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya’s overall leader, entered into Iraq for much of 2013 to aid ISIS in the fight against government forces. The latter points were related to me by a Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya fighter, who also told me that his group like ISIS supports a Caliphate stretching first over Iraq and Bilad ash-Sham.

Outside of Anbar, the group has regularly conducted attacks on the Iraqi army in various districts of Mosul, has targeted the Shi’a Turkmen of Tuz Kharmuto with bomb attacks, and has various pinpoints of activity including the Baiji area of Salah ad-Din province, Jurf al-Sakhr in northern Babil province (just south of Baghdad), and the Tarmiya area of northern Baghdad province, where assaults have been regularly launched on “Sahwa” forces, culminating in a mass execution of 18 Sunnis suspected of being “Sahwa” in November.

Last year also saw the significant development of ISIS operations within Iraqi Kurdistan with the Arbil bombings in September, claimed by ISIS in retaliation for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s supposed support for the “PKK” in Syria. Indeed, ISIS in Syria has seen an infusion of some Iraqi Kurdish manpower that appears to be alternating back and forth between Syria and Iraq. In a major assault launched by ISIS on security forces in Kirkuk in early December, it emerged from ISIS sources that the leaders of the operation- all eventually killed- were Kurdish.

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Figure 4: Aftermath of car bombing by ISIS in Kirkuk as part of assault operation on intelligence HQ in early December.

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Figure 5: Two men from local security forces slain by ISIS in the Kirkuk assault.

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Figure 6: Abu al-Maqdisi al-Kurdi, one of the Kurdish commandoes behind the ISIS assault on Kirkuk.

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Figure 7: Abu Abdullah al-Kurdi, another of the ISIS Kurdish commandoes behind the operation.

As security has continued to deteriorate in Iraq and ISIS has increased its strength, ISIS is advertising its presence more openly with social media output, in particular from Salah ad-Din, Anbar, Ninawa and Diyala provinces.

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Figure 8: ISIS convoy in Salah ad-Din province. Photo released in late December.

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Figure 9: ISIS Toyota in Salah ad-Din province.

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Figure 10: ISIS mujahid detonates a bomb in Salah ad-Din province.

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Figure 11: ISIS mujahideen in Salah ad-Din province. Photo released earlier this month.

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Figure 12: ISIS mujahideen who assaulted the Iraqi security forces’ SWAT team HQ in Baiji, Salah ad-Din province, in December. They were all subsequently killed.

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Figure 13: Ahmad Hatem al-Bazi: a security official in Samarra- Salah ad-Din province- assassinated by ISIS.

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Figure 14: Moatesem Ahmad Khadr- a Sahwa leader in Salah ad-Din province executed by ISIS.

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Figure 15: Captain Marwan al-Qaisi: an assistant to SWAT team leader in Salah ad-Din province assassinated by ISIS, who killed him by blowing up his house (a common way ISIS targets those who work in the security forces).

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Figure 16: ISIS convoy in Mosul area, Ninawa province. Early January.

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Figure 17: Ninawa province is strategically important to ISIS as a base for extending operations from Iraq into Syria. This is an ISIS convoy heading into Hasakah province from Ninawa.

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Figure 18: ISIS mujahideen in the Abu Talha al-Ansari training camp in the Mosul area.

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Figure 19: Another photo from the Abu Talha al-Ansari training camp.

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Figure 20: Abu Mus’ab al-Maghrebi, a Moroccan martyr for ISIS, preparing bread in the Abu Talha al-Ansari training camp.

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Figure 21: Abu Mus’ab al-Maghrebi trains with his fellow ISIS mujahideen.

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Figure 22: ISIS mujahideen in the Anbar desert as part of “Operation cutting of heads: “The lions advance to roll down the skulls of the apostates.”

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Figure 23: The Abu Ibrahim training camp in Anbar, led by “Abu Waheeb,” the renowned “Nusayri hunter” who executed three Alawites on the Anbar highway in the summer of last year. Abu Waheeb’s real name is Shaker Waheeb al-Fahdawi, and he
appeared in a Fallujah demonstration in March 2013 reciting a poem.

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Figure 24: Abu Waheeb with ISIS mujahideen in the Anbar desert in the fall, advertising operation “Revenge of the Companions.”

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Figure 25: Abu Waheeb with burning vehicles of the security forces in Rutba, Anbar province. ISIS operations in these areas- including the assassination of army generals- led to the government announcing the wider operations against ISIS in December, which Maliki then used as a reason to target the Ramadi protest site even as the protests were dying down thanks to negotiations with Osama al-Nujayfi’s Muttahidun party.

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Figure 26: ISIS convoys with captured Iraqi army Humvee vehicles entered into Ramadi from the Anbar desert following the withdrawal of the Iraqi army in the New Year. ISIS fighters on Street 60 in Ramadi.

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Figure 27: Vehicle in ISIS convoy- hailed by the MSC pro-uprising activist network as the “Lions of the Desert”- entering into Ramadi in the New Year.

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Figure 28: Footage of ISIS convoy arriving in Ramadi on 1 January.

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Figure 29: As part of the ongoing campaign in Anbar, ISIS has been attempting to show how it can operate with impunity. Here is Abu Waheeb on Street 60 in Ramadi. The caption reads: “Be patient, o imprisoned Baghdad. For the sons of the Sadiqa Aisha- may God be pleased with her- have come.”

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Figure 30: Abu Waheeb reads government intelligence documents in Ramadi.

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Figure 31: ISIS attacks security patrols on Diyala province’s highways.

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Figure 32: Unofficial video footage of ISIS’ capture of al-Jowlan police station in Fallujah, with at least a dozen captured “apostates” of the local police force.

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Figure 33: Video footage from Ramadi’s protest square site in mid-November of ISIS mujahideen holding a parade. Initially during the Sunni protests of last year in Anbar, ISIS supporters tended to congregate in the Fallujah protest site, which became ‘extremists’ corner’ in Anbar. With the decline of protests during the course of the year, armed ISIS fighters would occasionally show up in Ramadi while the protest site was largely empty and hold parades to advertise their messages. However, this does not prove the government’s narrative that the sit-in square was a base for ISIS.

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Figure 34: ISIS supporters/members at a “Burning of Demands” demonstration in Fallujah in April.

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Figure 35: ISIS outreach in Anbar, as part of a new series entitled “The Greatest Epic Battles of Anbar.”

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Figure 36: Showing support from children has been a key part of ISIS messaging in Syria. This is also the case to a more limited extent in Anbar province, as here.

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Figure 37: Pamphlets distributed by ISIS in Anbar explaining the group’s ideology and political program. Note also in this context local Iraqi news reports of setting up of committees in Fallujah to enforce Islamic values.

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Figure 38: Indicative of its growing power, ISIS in Iraq is now using social media to demonstrate the same kind of outreach to locals it has practiced in Syria. Here, ISIS mujahideen in Ninawa province provide gifts and handouts of money for local children.

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Figure 39: ISIS outreach to locals in Ninawa province.

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Figure 40: ISIS statement in Fallujah refuting rumors that ISIS supposedly called for reinstatement of the district governor and local police under the authority of Maliki.

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Figure 41: ISIS in Fallujah establishing an Islamic virtue and vice committee.

Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI)

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Figure 42: Flag of JAI

Active since at least 2007, this group is the latest incarnation of Ansar al-Islam, which was an al-Qa’ida-linked group in Iraqi Kurdistan dismantled after the U.S. invasion, and Ansar al-Sunna, most active during the height of the insurgency in Iraq (2003-6). JAI- almost entirely Sunni Arab with perhaps a small remnant of the original Kurdish Ansar al-Islam component (hence JAI messages released in Kurdish on special occasions)- is primarily based in Kirkuk and Ninawa provinces, having put out a special video for Eid al-Fitr last year on “Protection of the Abode” in Ninawa.

Further, when it comes to military operations, JAI frequently claims attacks in Ninawa (the Mosul area in particular)- normally targeting the Iraqi security services- and Kirkuk. JAI has also carried out operations in Salah ad-Din and Diyala provinces and even in the Baghdad area, but no major points south. In addition, the group lacks a substantial presence in Anbar province. Also, despite the ultimate Iraqi Kurdistan origin in the Ansar al-Islam predecessor, it should be noted that the group claims no meaningful presence or operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, in contrast to the tendency for Kurdish media to initially blame “Ansar al-Islam” for any attacks that occur within the autonomous region.

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Figure 43: Formation of new JAI battalion in Ninawa plains: Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Battalion.

 

    Date of Operation      Location Type of Attack
2nd June 2013 Mosul IED attack on army; 2 officers, 1 soldier killed.
9th August 2013 Al-Ma’mun Quarter, Mosul Assault on the home of an “apostate” working for intelligence services (Mohammed Atiyeh al-Bajari): target assassinated.
19th August 2013 Al-Ma’mun Quarter, Mosul Assassination of “apostate” Mohammed Ayoub, working for intelligence services.
21st August 2013 New Mosul Assassination of member of federal police
18th September 2013 Al-Rashad Quarter, Kirkuk Assassinating army officer with machine gun fire
28th September 2013 Kirkuk-Tikrit Road 3 army soldiers killed in an ambush
9th October 2013 Al-Sakak Quarter, Samarra, Salah ad-Din Province IED attack on federal police
28th October 2013 Kirkuk-Tikrit Road IED attack, precise target unclear
28th November 2013 Near al-Daba’ airport, Kirkuk IED attack targeting army
29th November 2013 Al-Dujail, Salah ad-Din Province IED attack on local police (“Rafidite police”- Dujail being a Shi’i area).
1st December 2013 Samarra IED attack on “Rafidite police.”
6th December 2013 Kirkuk Bomb attack targeting “abode of Rafidites”
7th December 2013 Kirkuk Bomb attacks targeting “three abodes of an officer in the Rafidite army.”
8th December 2013 Al-Qadisiya Quarter, Kirkuk Bomb attack targeting a “Rafidite abode.”
9th December 2013 Jawla, Diyala Province Assassination of a Shi’i militia leader.
12th December 2013 New Baghdad, Baghdad Assassination of a member of “the Rafidite militias”
13th December 2013 Baiji, Salah ad-Din Province Targeting “cars belonging to the Nusayri regime” and carrying fuel.
5th January 2014 Al-Tanak Quarter, Mosul Targeting electrical company base affiliated with “Rafidite army” with 60mm mortar rounds.
7th January 2014 Mosul IED attack on a Humvee vehicle. “3 apostates” killed.
11th January 2014 Mosul Heavy clashes with the army at 10:45-11:00 p.m.

Figure 44: Table showing some operations claimed by JAI sources since June 2013.

While these operations are not insignificant, in frequency and scale they are simply dwarfed by ISIS’ capabilities for just one province in a single month. For example, see this list of ISIS Anbar operations for Sha’aban 1434 AH (11th June-9th July 2013), counting just over 100 operations. See also this list of ISIS Ninawa operations for Rabi’ al-Akhir 1434 AH (11th February-12th March 2013), counting 171 operations, and this list of 15 ISIS Ninawa operations over just three days this month.

Ideologically, there is little to separate JAI and ISIS. Like ISIS in Iraq, JAI projects an image of being the protector of the country’s Sunnis. Thus, in the “Protection of the Abode” video from Ninawa referenced above, the speaker makes clear that the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq battalion was formed “at this time to protect/support our Muslim brothers from the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaat…we ask God to bless our work, to bless our jihad, in support of our Muslim brothers oppressed in every place.”

The group’s discourse, like that of ISIS, is also strongly anti-Shi’i. As can be observed above, the references to the Shi’a as “Rafidites” is quite normal for JAI, and in the video, the speaker mentions: “And we [the Ahl al-Sunna] tell you [the Rafidites], we are advancing on you.” JAI is also quite willing to declare takfir on Sunnis who work in the security forces or otherwise cooperate with the government, as can be ascertained from Figure 44.

Most importantly, there is a transnational aspect to the group’s rhetoric and aims, tying the struggle against the Maliki government to the Syrian rebels’ fight against the Assad regime and accusing both of waging war on the Ahl al-Sunna. As for JAI’s long-term aim, both JAI supporters within Iraq and members have affirmed to me that JAI supports the establishment of a Caliphate, though JAI is not an al-Qa’ida affiliate.

The ideological similarities with ISIS notwithstanding, JAI is noteworthy for its tensions with ISIS. When I asked one ISIS fighter within Iraq how were relations between ISIS and JAI, he affirmed to me that while ISIS appreciates JAI’s efforts to overthrow the Shi’i-led government in Iraq, ISIS has a problem with the fact that JAI apparently does not support the “project of a Caliphate.” To be sure, not all ISIS members think of JAI in the same way: another fighter based in the Fallujah area in contrast simply thought that JAI had pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2009.

Conversely, all JAI supporters and members I know use the derogatory acronym da3esh (which has gained currency among Syrian rebels opposed to ISIS) to refer to ISIS. One member of JAI explained the problem thus: namely, that while ISIS are brothers who share the same creed as that of JAI, the fact that ISIS considers itself a “state” and behaves as such- rather than accepting that it is only a “group” like others- is problematic.

It should be noted that such a complaint is identical to what Syrian rebel leaders and fighters have said. Indeed, in reaction to the ISIS fighter’s claim that JAI does not support a Caliphate, a JAI supporter based in Mosul told me on 27 December: “Brother, this talk of da3esh has been applied to all jihadi groups in Iraq, and now they [ISIS] are doing the same thing in Syria” [emphasis my own].

For instance, Ahrar ash-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud in an interview with al-Jazeera Arabic complained of the fact that ISIS does not accept that it is a “faction among factions” and accordingly does not submit to higher independent authority in resolution of disputes. Similarly, note this statement issued by Revolutionary Military Council and other factions in the Aleppo provincial town of Manbij in late August (when ISIS was one of many groups in the town): “To our brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham….First: the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Manbij is to be considered a military faction like the rest of the factions.”

The statement goes on to make clear that ISIS should therefore not interfere in civil matters or the running of services, and should submit to the authority of the town’s Shari’a Committee (for example, on the question of detaining rival fighters: forbidden from doing so unless with the committee’s authority). For ISIS’ consideration of itself as a “state” predetermined to be sole rulers meant that the group had tried to seize a monopoly on services like bread production and had detained rivals arbitrarily.

The result of the tensions between JAI and ISIS has been frequent clashes, primarily in the Kirkuk and Mosul areas. For example, see this report relying on a local Kirkuk police source in September and published by an Iraqi outlet tied to Shi’a Kurds: though the report speaks of “Ansar al-Sunna,” it is actually JAI. Later that month, the National Iraqi News Agency reported that two ISIS members were killed just west of Kirkuk by unidentified gunmen, suspected of being JAI. In a similar vein, my pro-JAI contact reported to me on 27 December that over the past nine months, ISIS had killed around 40 members of JAI, including on that very day two members of the group, of whom one was a preacher and imam in a Mosul mosque.

To be sure, on occasion JAI has tried to downplay tensions with ISIS, such as in a JAI Mosul statement from June 2013 denying media claims that JAI had announced war on ISIS: “We- JAI’s Mosul leadership- announce officially that no decision has been issued by the JAI leadership on the organization of Jamaat Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiya in Mosul. Period…[The claim of war declaration] is completely divorced from the truth.” However, last month JAI’s leadership released a message of appeal to Sheikh Zawahiri, calling on him to restrain the excesses of his “division (Jamaat Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiya)” that were hindering potential cooperation between JAI and ISIS, including problems of detainees of JAI being held in ISIS prisons, and threats of fighting and takfir.

Note in particular the language of these official JAI statements. They refuse to refer to ISIS by the latter’s own name, but instead put it on an equal with JAI by calling it a ‘Jamaat’ (‘group/organization’) and align with Sheikh Zawahiri not only in rejecting the notion of ISIS extending itself into Syria but also in assuming ISIS as subordinate to Sheikh Zawahiri’s authority.

For the future, tensions remain set to continue, and JAI supporters and members have expressed to me pessimism about the ultimate course of the current renewal of the Sunni insurgency, not only in the belief that there are too many Sunni collaborators with the government, but also that ISIS will ruin it through its excessive conduct.

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Figure 45: Following target practice on Ariel Sharon’s photo, among others, JAI members have a picnic in the Ninawa plains, including shawarma on a rotisserie.

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Figure 46: Last year, JAI established a new training camp in Ninawa province, named after Sheikh Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a Pakistani Islamist cleric who ran the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, before the Pakistani security forces took it by storm in 2007.

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Figure 47: JAI members training in the Sheikh Ghazi training camp. Sheikh Ghazi’s photo in the top left-hand corner.

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Figure 48: Another photo from the training camp.

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Figure 49: JAI members practice martial arts.

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Figure 50: JAI mujahideen spar in martial arts.

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Figure 51: JAI mujahideen.

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Figure 52: More from the Sheikh Ghazi training camp.

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Figure 53: JAI mujahideen in the Sheikh Ghazi training camp.

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Figure 54: JAI mujahideen practice on the monkey bars in the Sheikh Ghazi camp.

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Figure 55: JAI group photo in the Sheikh Ghazi camp.

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Figure 56: JAI knight-rider in the Sheikh Ghazi camp.

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Figure 57: Despite JAI’s disapproval of ISIS’ conduct and rejection of the name of ISIS, JAI has nonetheless tied the cause against the Maliki government to the jihad in Syria, and has accordingly deployed fighters in Syria, under the name of “Ansar al-Sham.” Photo from September 2013.

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Figure 58: JAI mujahideen operating in Syria.

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Figure 59: As above with Figure 54.

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Figure 60: JAI fighters in Syria.

The Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI)

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Figure 61: IAI logo

One of the older insurgent groups, the IAI’s influence has greatly diminished since the days of the surge as many of its fighters joined the ranks of the Sahwa against ISI. Nonetheless, the group still has active members and claims operations. Below is a recent sample. It should be noted that IAI attacks are claimed as having been carried out in coordination with other groups (“factions of the resistance”- to use their own words; see next paragraph) and “sons of the tribes.” The IAI’s reliance on coordination- unlike both ISIS and JAI, which can generally carry out attacks on their own- illustrates the relative military weakness of the group.

The recent operations- to be found in most Sunni Arab areas- have often occurred during and after moments of new crisis (e.g. the massacre of protestors at the Hawija site in April 2013 etc.). Otherwise, prior to the U.S. withdrawal, most IAI operations- tied in with its membership in the Iraqi Resistance Council- were directed at the “American enemy.”

Date of Operation            Location Type of Attack
30th December 2013 Makishifa (northern Samarra) Attack on federal police with light and medium weaponry.
30th December 2013 Baiji, Salah ad-Din province IED attack on government forces.
31st December 2013 Ramadi, Anbar province Attack on Swat forces with light and medium weaponry on Street 17, including assault on governor’s building.
4th May 2013 Al-Qadisiya Quarter, Mosul Clashes with the “Safavid army” with light and medium weaponry
26th April 2013 Al-Azim area (between Diyala and Kirkuk provinces) Attack on “Safavid army” base.
26th April 2013 Makishifa Clash with “Safavid army” convoy
26th April 2013 Fallujah, Anbar province Attack on a federal police base with light and medium weaponry
26th April 2013 Al-Taji, Baghdad area Attack on Iraqi army with 2 RPG7 missiles
25th April 2013 Sansal, Diyala province Attack on army base with 82mm mortar rounds

Figure 62: Recent IAI operations, all carried out in coordination with other factions

The group’s ideology is Sunni Iraqi nationalist and Salafist- deriving from the growth of Salafism among Iraq’s Sunnis in the 1990s, partly abetted by the Saddam regime’s adoption of a somewhat Islamic face- but nothing indicates support for a transnational project akin to the visions of ISIS and JAI. As can be seen from the above, one of the main overlaps is in the use of the term “Safavid” in opposition to the government and army.

Besides this, the IAI has also appealed to “our people [i.e. the Ahl al-Sunna] in Syria” in a message dated 2nd June 2013 on the Battle of Qusayr between Syrian rebels and Assad forces backed by Hezbollah, advising the rebels how best to conduct warfare in this case. The IAI suggested to the rebels to engage in “dispersed warfare, by striking as far away as you can in all places, in order to disperse the force of your enemy and broaden the arena of the blazing battle.”

The IAI went on to characterize the fight for Qusayr in religious terms, describing it as a “religious battle, as the enemy are only hostile to you for your faith, and only resent you for your aqeeda [creed],” adding that “Iran has truly made from Syria an arena advancing its malice and its criminal enterprises attacking the Ummah of Mohammed (PBUH)…announcing its waging war in Syria with the support of Iraq, which it destroyed, and the militias of Hizb ash-Shaytan, which it trained; it has also recruited for that battle all the despicable elements from the sectarian militias in Iraq, and has sent its elite forces to manage the conflict, so that it will be a Sunni identity battle just as it is in Iraq…so we announced offering support in all forms and without exception to our brothers in Syria.”

The IAI is distinguished from JAI and ISIS in having an official political office and wing, identifying with the old Ba’athist flag of Iraq. Thus, its official media spokesperson is one Sheikh Ahmad Dabbash, who has interacted with the Sunni protest movement that arose at the end of 2012. Specifically, he has been involved in interactions with the Herak Six Provinces Movement, being interviewed in July on a meeting held by the “’ulama of the Ahl al-Sunna” on the situation facing the Sunni community in Iraq.

Also of interest in this context is a statement from the media committee of the IAI put out on the 30th December 2012 (just as the protest movement took off), which states that “the Sunni Popular Movement (al-Hirak ash-Sha’abi as-Sunni, a Salafist subsidiary of the Six Provinces Movement that has primarily had influence in Anbar) represents an extension of what the Iraqi Resistance, which ended the American military occupation, has implemented, just as it represents an anchoring for its vision in change and reform that the commander of the Islamic Army of Iraq- may God protect him- expressed in the speech of victory on 6th January 2012, where he called for work to restore Iraq’s Arab and Islamic identity.”

This is the most explicit evidence for the Sunni Popular Movement as an activist wing of the IAI. The Sunni Popular Movement- established at the beginning of 2012 soon after the American withdrawal- has called for a Sunni federal region in Iraq, indicating in turn the IAI’s national focus in contrast to ISIS and JAI’s support for a Caliphate.

It is therefore apparent that the IAI has tried to exert more influence through politics and protests, but with the renewal of the insurgency, the IAI’s commander issued a new statement at the start of this year praising the mujahideen in general, “the descendants of Omar bin Khattab” (the second caliph and an important figure in Iraqi Sunni Arabs’ expression of identity), and declaring that “defensive jihad is an obligation on all people.”

Even so, the Sunni Popular Movement maintains its existence, and its spokesman- Sheikh Farouq al-Zufuri– gave an interview at the beginning of this month in which he emphasized that Fallujah- where he is currently serving as a member of the governing Majlis al-‘Ulama– is in the hands of local tribesmen and that, contrary to media claims, there are no “terrorists” in the town, later making it clear that by this word he means “da3esh and others.” Note again the derogatory term used for ISIS- the same one used by JAI members- indicating that IAI is at odds with ISIS, and to the extent that IAI is playing a role in insurgent control of Fallujah, it is doing so in coalition with other groups and not ISIS. Further clarification of the ISIS-insurgents relationship in Fallujah will be given later.

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Figure 63: Just as the IAI’s amir placed emphasis on Sunnis as the “descendants of Omar bin Khattab,” so too this can be seen in photos released by the Sunni Popular Movement. This is from late December in the protest square in Ramadi: “We are all Omar.”

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Figure 64: Sunni Popular Movement leaflets for distribution in Ramadi.

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Figure 65: Reflecting the IAI’s message of support to Syrian rebels, the Sunni Popular Movement sometimes emphasized this theme in protests too where its activists played a part. FSA flag in Anbar province demonstration in mid-summer 2013.

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Figure 66: Sheikh Ahmad Dabbash on al-Arabiya. Note the identification with Iraq’s old Ba’athist flag, again pointing to IAI’s nationalist-Islamist outlook.

Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqat al-Naqshbandia (JRTN)

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Figure 67: JRTN logo. The above reads: “Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation” [SCJL], which is mostly synonymous with JRTN.

JRTN- whose name translates to “Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order”- has been and remains Iraq’s main Ba’athist insurgent group. It is headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was Saddam’s right-hand man during the Ba’athist regime. The adherence to the Ba’athist vision, with its ideal of a unified pan-Arab body, is made clear in the logo of Figure 63, featuring countries with Arabic as an official language as one entity, besides the use of the old Ba’athist flag (that said, historically the Iraqi Ba’ath did not actively work to realize such a goal). Douri also heads the SCJL, of which the JRTN is by far the main component.

However, the JRTN also places an emphasis on the language of jihad and, as its name suggests, the Naqshbandi brand of Sufi Islam. Thus, in a statement outlining its aqeeda, the JRTN declares its first principle to be “the definition of tasawwuf [a Sufi principle] and its importance,” pointing out that “tasawwuf has many definitions so the qadi Zakariya al-Ansari who said: ‘Tasawwuf is knowledge by which the circumstances of the purification of souls are known as well as the purification of morals’.”

The second principle is “the Naqshbandi path,” as the JRTN proceeds to outline the origin of this path, concluding that “our aqeeda is derived from the book and the Sunnah with an understanding of Salf and Saleh, so we do not declare takfir on anyone from the Ahl al-Qibla.” Even with judges who do not give precedence to the law of God Almighty, the JRTN affirms it will offer them advice and not declared takfir “unless they abandon the law of God Almighty in disdain and scorn or have disavowed anything from knowledge of the religion by necessity.” The affirmation and explanation of rejection of takfir contrasts somewhat with JAI and ISIS’ willingness to declare takfir.

Coming to the language of jihad, one finds a statement released on 21st April 2013 by JRTN’s military spokesman after the Hawija massacre. The statement begins by citing the Qur’anic verse traditionally invoked as a justification for armed defensive jihad: namely, 22:39. He addresses the “sons of the Iraqi tribes, believing, patient, waging jihad,” but the Ba’athist ideology becomes clear as he also called them “sons of our Arab Islamic Ummah.” He laments the occupation of Iraq over 10 years by a Zionist-Persian-American conspiracy, while attacking the current “sectarian government.”

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Figure 68: Renewed call for armed struggle by the JRTN’s military spokesman.

He goes on to speak of the protestors who showed up in the “squares of pride and dignity [the main sit-in squares] to turn towards their capital, Baghdad, demonstrate peacefully and demand the rights of the people…but the sectarian collaborationist government…prevented the people from [attaining] that…and has continued carrying out arrests, executions, followed by attacks on demonstrators and peaceful sit-ins in the demonstration and sit-in squares,” referencing clashes in Fallujah, Mosul, Diyala and Hawija. He cites the government’s actions as “evidence of its sectarianism,” and declares that the “peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins will not continue,” calling for a united front against the government.

It is important to note here that like the IAI, JRTN has maintained a political activist wing: namely, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq, which existed prior to the outbreak of the protests at the end of 2012. That Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq is a front group for JRTN is demonstrable on numerous counts. For example, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s social media pages routinely advertise new JRTN statements (and of no other militant group) as soon as they are released.

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Figure 69: Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq logo.

The discourses of JRTN and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq reveal several overlaps of themes, most notably the importance of reclaiming Baghdad. Thus in Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq protests, a common slogan has been “Qadimun, ya Baghdad” (“Coming, oh Baghdad!”), which is featured in a February 2013 protest in Diyala celebrating Naqshibandi presence in a village called Jalula. In a similar vein, there is a well-known JRTN nasheed entitled, “Ya Baghdad, jayna juyush jarara!” (“Oh Baghdad, we have come as huge armies!”), a refrain that has often been heard at Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq demonstrations, such as these two in Fallujah and Tikrit in February 2013. These slogans illustrate the revolutionary intentions of both JRTN and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq.

Also of relevance is the fact that just as JRTN called for an end to peaceful protests after the Hawija massacre, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s official spokesman- Dr. Ghazi Faisal- announced in an interview with the Saudi channel Wesal TV that the group was now abandoning the path of peaceful sit-ins and preparing to commit to armed jihad.

From late May 2013 until the end of December of that year, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq output almost entirely ceased, likely coinciding with a subsequent JRTN retreat into the shadows after an upsurge in insurgent activity after Hawija, as JRTN and their supporters, who dominated the Hawija protest site, came to regret the clashes with the Iraqi army in light of Kurdish attempts to take advantage of the situation and expand.

Coinciding with JRTN influence, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq tended to hold demonstrations in Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Ninawa provinces. In Anbar, the influence was less apparent, and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq supporters normally congregated in ‘extremists’ corner’ in Fallujah along with the ISIS supporters. One useful advantage of the existence of Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq was that, given its ties to JRTN, its own reports via social media (namely Facebook, though the original page has unfortunately been deleted) could be used to track JRTN-linked militant clashes (all deemed to be the work of “sons of the tribes”) with the Iraqi security forces, primarily tracing to the northern provinces.

This contrasts with the relative scant claimed attacks from JRTN’s official website, which gives occasional videos of missile and mortar strikes on claimed bases belonging to “the American enemy” (on the JRTN’s belief there is still an ongoing U.S. military presence and occupation). On other occasions, JRTN has sought to downplay accusations of conducting certain operations. Given JRTN’s Ba’athist ideology, it is naturally opposed to any notion of Kurdish autonomy, and has been accused by Kurds of planting car bombs in Kirkuk.
However, JRTN’s main official spokesman- Dr. Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi- denied these allegations in a statement in May commenting on a recent attack in Kirkuk, affirming: “Verily our Iraqi people in all its sects have known our army over the past 10 years for its jihad and resistance to the occupiers, and we are proud of it…and as for the explosions targeting the sons of our people [in Kirkuk] and the killing of them in these savage ways, this is not of our nature….and indeed the sole perpetrator of these explosions and the like is the Safavid sectarian collaborationist government…as it spills the blood of Iraqis and carries out bomb attacks in the south, north and center, against Sunnis, Shi’a, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen: against all sects and ethnicities of the Iraqi people.”

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Figure 70: JRTN statement denying responsibility for car bombings in Kirkuk.

Note the language of this statement in trying to appeal across sectarian divides, even though it is quite apparent that the worldview of the JRTN- and its activist wing Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq- is based on Sunni Arab sectarianism: also adopted by the supreme commander Douri. This dissonance reflects the ideological tension between the Sunni Sufi Naqshbandi religious face and the underlying Ba’athist ideology, which in drawing members of the Ba’ath party did not in theory discriminate between sect and would even draw in non-Arabs to espouse the cause (cf. Taha Yassin Ramadan, the Kurdish vice-president of Iraq under Saddam).

JRTN cross-sectarian messaging has occurred elsewhere. The most recent example is the case of the string of “Military Councils for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes” (MCRTs, though sometimes the word ‘tribes’ is omitted) that have sprung up in multiple areas since the start of this year. The origin of this phenomenon can be traced to the “Military Council for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes of Anbar,” which issued a statement emphasizing a role in defending the tribesmen against government aggression, while also stating “we do not accept any harm against any sect, school of thought or ethnicity.” Though the council, which is currently dominant in Fallujah, does use the old Ba’athist flag of Iraq, it is by no means the case that JRTN is the dominant faction.

Nevertheless, the subsequent military councils that have sprung up elsewhere are primarily a JRTN (or to cover more broadly, SCJL) phenomenon, while JRTN’s official website has since 1st January. Whereas the Anbar MCRT maintains its own Youtube channel, subsequent MCRTs have been announced via Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s channel, with social media pages from these other areas sometimes sharing JRTN graphics and others praising Saddam.

Note in particular the case of the announcement via Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq of an MCRT for Karbala province- featuring a portrait of Ali to emphasize a Shi’i identity. A parallel to this JRTN cross-sectarian messaging occurred in May 2013 when Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq featured a photo on its now deleted Facebook page showing a joint Sunni-Shi’i prayer in solidarity against the “Safavid” occupation of Iraq, highlighting for good measure those praying in the Shi’i manner with their arms by their sides.

The downside of the Ba’athist ideology and the cross-sectarian messaging is liability to arouse suspicion from both ISIS and JAI circles about whether the JRTN can ultimately be seen as a true ally for advancing the cause of the Ahl al-Sunna. In turn, JRTN and front components can have differing attitudes about the likes of ISIS.

Thus, while MCRT in Mosul can hail ISIS in Ninawa province- namely, as the “lions of the desert” who represent their “hope” in the fight against the government- JRTN-linked fighters in Fallujah– expressing their hopes to conquer Baghdad (a common JRTN theme)- and emphasize that they are not ISIS, using the derisive acronym da3esh to refer to ISIS. As for ISIS and JAI circles, one ISIS supporter in Iraq told me that “they [JRTN] use words by which you can know what is their manhaj [political program]: ‘nationality, Arab ummah, civilians.’ [So] of course [I have] no trust [in them].” In a similar vein, my JAI-supporting friend in Mosul dismissed the JRTN as a group standing for “mundane things.”

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Figure 71: JRTN statement released on 1st January 2014 with a renewed call for uprising, in particular urging local tribesmen in the local police, army and security forces of Anbar to turn against the Safavid sectarian occupation government. From this point onwards, new official JRTN output via its own site has ceased, and is instead being channeled through new partial/complete front groups primarily in the form of MCRTs.

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Figure 72: MCRT Anbar statement released on 2nd January 2014.

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Figure 73: Example of a pro-JRTN/Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq graphic in non-Anbar MCRT social media (in this case Diyala province), featuring familiar slogan “Qadimun ya Baghdad.”

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Figure 74: Another example of JRTN cross-sectarian messaging. Formation of a Turkmen MCRT in Kirkuk area, released via Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq on 22nd January. The speaker begins by citing Qur’an 61:4, then speaks in Turkmen and appeals to all sects- Sunni, Shi’a, Kurds, Arabs etc.- to unite in the uprising.

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Figure 75: MCRT for Karbala. Note the portrait of Ali to emphasize a Shi’i identity. Similar appeal as in Figure 70 to all sects.

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Figure 76: MCRT for Baiji, Salah ad-Din province, announced via Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq on 18th January. Note the Ba’athist Iraq army uniforms here.

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Figure 77: Parallel to the MCRTs is a new “General Leadership for the Regional Defense Forces,” headed by one Ba’athist Iraq army officer called Mustafa al-Zubaydi, whose face is obscured. The distinction between this new group and the JRTN/SCJL is not clear-cut, and I liken the situation to the various Iranian proxy Shi’a militias in Iraq that are really just mirror fronts for one another (cf. ISIS and some muhajireen battalions in Syria).

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Figure 78: Older photo of JRTN mujahideen.

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Figure 79: JRTN mujahideen training exercises: crossing a deep stream.

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Figure 80: Target practice for JRTN members.

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Figure 81: JRTN mujahideen practice martial arts.

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Figure 82: JRTN mujahideen: incapacitated, yet committed to jihad.

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Figure 83: JRTN fighters.

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Figure 84: JRTN weaponry on display.

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Figure 85: JRTN mujahideen spar in martial arts.

Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama (ADP)

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Figure 86: Logo of the ADP.

Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama, whose name translates to “Army of Pride and Dignity” (hence the “ADP” acronym used above), is a new group that first arose in Anbar at the very end of last year, with subsequent branches claimed in other Sunni areas under a supposed general leadership with an official media spokesman (Dr. Mohammed Naser al-Abdallah). However, it is by no means apparent that this group has a strict formal command structure, but is rather just a banner around which those wishing to take up arms can gather, and it should be noted that this name is not original and was used as a meme several times in the 2012-13 protests.

Here is an excerpt of the ADP’s first statement:

“Oh sons of our Islamic Ummah, oh sons of our great Iraqi people, falsehood has continued in its oppression and darkness, and its [falsehood’s] people have not ceased in what they have obtained from the bloodshed of our youth, forcing our people to emigrate, arresting our men, and violation of our dignity…and they committed aggression on our people in the province of Anbar with killing and violation of our taboos in the ugliest manner that the raiding armies do in another attempt by which they want to dispossess [us] of pride and dignity before dispossessing us of identity, entity and life.”

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Figure 87: First ADP statement.

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Figure 88: ADP statement claiming mortar round attacks on army bases in Diyala province. Note that it is signed by the “General Leadership.”

The next branch to emerge was in Mosul, with the speaker citing Qur’an 22:39 as a justification for a defensive jihad: “We are mujahideen from the sons of Mosul, we announce the formation Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama in Mosul,” while declaring solidarity with their “brothers” in Anbar against the aggression of Maliki and his “militias,” who are also said to be operating in Mosul.  Subsequent videos of ADP operations have emerged, including al-Mal’ab quarter in Ramadi, al-Karma in the Fallujah area, Agricultural Reform quarter in Mosul, and Samarra. In terms of the attitudes towards ISIS, there is no evidence of hostility, as the ADP hailed the “heroes of the revolutionaries of the tribes” [i.e. ISIS] for capturing members of the security forces in Ramadi.

Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sunna

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Figure 89: Logo of Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sunna

Like ADP, this group also seems to be primarily a banner rather than an organization like ISIS or JAI.

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Figure 90: Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sunna operation in al-Jami’a quarter, Baghdad, targeting local police. Video released on 8th January 2014.

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Figure 91: Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sunna targeting Iraqi army in al-Doura, Baghdad, with IED device. 12th January 2014.

Conclusion

This year represents a renewal of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. While 2013 with its upsurge in violence might be seen as analogous to 2003, this year could be seen as analogous to 2004 with the ongoing battle for control of Ramadi and Fallujah, two key cities of the insurgency a decade ago. However, it is clear that ISIS remains by far the most powerful in terms of financial resources and ability to conduct operations.

Further, the insurgency- given that Sunni Arabs remain a demographic minority, the government has established security forces, and the Sunni Arabs lost the Battle for Baghdad in 2006-7- remains unable to overthrow the government. Of the other groups, JRTN and its fronts remain the most viable nationalist alternative to ISIS for those wishing to take up arms, but it is by no means apparent, despite the apparent tensions between ISIS and JAI in particular, that the other groups can pose a viable challenge to ISIS militarily for now, preoccupied as they are with fighting government forces. Attitudes remain too diverse for a Sahwa 2.0, though an attempt at such an initiative may well happen if ISIS overplays its hand again.

Fault for the renewal of the insurgency- rather than fatalistic ‘spillover’ from Syria (in fact, the ‘spillover’ generally goes the other way round) primarily lies with the Shi’a-led government’s policies: not simply Maliki. Many commentators have pointed to the need for de-Ba’athification reform to conciliate the Sunni Arab population, but it is often forgotten that Maliki in cooperation with Sunni deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, who has since turned against the government and denounced the army as “sectarian,” did put de-Ba’athification reform legislation to the parliament last spring, which was then blocked by Sunni opponents of Mutlaq within the highly fragmented Iraqiya bloc and the Sadrists, despite the media narrative of Muqtada al-Sadr as someone who supports Sunni protest demands.

That said, Maliki’s own paranoia and overreactions were behind two key moves that gave boosts to the insurgency: namely, moving in on the Hawija protest site (resulting in a massacre; it is true that acting Defense Minister Sa’adun Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, also called for move, but he has no real power and is a de facto figurehead for Maliki’s monopoly on security and defense), and the move against the Ramadi protest site. In the case of the latter, a desire to win Shi’a support for the upcoming elections must be part of the explanation, as I observed Shi’a both in Iraq and in exile declaring support for the Ramadi blunder.

The timescale for quelling the current insurgency will require years of work, and not merely months, as the problem is no longer just one one of lack of local Sunni cooperation with the security forces, but people returning to take up arms. Some elements remain irredeemable: above all ISIS. Hence, military force cannot be excluded as a part of the solution. However, ultimately the Shi’a political blocs as a whole must understand the need for security forces- in particular the army- to be less heavy-handed towards Sunni locals and for political reforms to reverse aspects of de-Ba’athification that have essentially been de-Sunnification. In turn, Ayad Allawi of Iraqiya needs to appreciate that his bloc- to the extent that it can even be called a coalition- has been a total failure in trying to advance Sunni Arab interests, as he has spent most of his time in exile and has failed to prevent fragmentation of the bloc.

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

Muhajireen Battalions in Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

When it comes to discussing the dynamics of Sunni global jihadism in Syria, the tendency is to characterize Jabhat al-Nusra as the battalion for native Syrian fighters and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham [ISIS] as a group of primarily foreign fighters. This analysis is somewhat simplistic- as I have argued elsewhere- but it is true that the majority of Sunni muhajireen who have come into Syria have congregated under the banner of ISIS. However, there are also a number of other battalions under which muhajireen have congregated. Here I will explore the nature of these groups and what links, if any, they have with ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar [JMWA]

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Figure 1: One of the emblems used by JMWA

JMWA was originally under the leadership of Omar ash-Shishani, who, as media reports have recently documented, was a veteran of the Georgian army. In May, Omar was appointed northern amir of ISIS by Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, encompassing Aleppo, Raqqa, northern Idlib and Latakia governorates. Following this appointment, JMWA came to be a mere front-group for ISIS, with Omar ash-Shishani identified as “leader of the northern region for the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham” in multiple jihadi postings, such as this August news release from Kavkaz Center.

It might be asked what gain there is to have a front-group operating under a different name. The answer is that it can create the impression of a larger unified ideological front than what actually exists. One should compare with the Iranian proxy militias who operate under multiple banners but are normally just mirror fronts of one another. The approach can be very effective as an agitprop strategy: note for instance how the New York Times reported on the fall of Mannagh as though JMWA was a separate faction from ISIS.

There are multiple strands of evidence for JMWA as a front-group for ISIS during Shishani’s leadership. On jihadi forums and among other rebels, JMWA is identified as synonymous with ISIS during the time of Shishani’s leadership, as illustrated below.

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Figure 2: JMWA-released graphic identifying the group as synonymous with ISIS and showing Qur’an memorization study circles in the Idlib village of Salwa.

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Figure 3: A photo from the same series showing the teaching of Qur’an memorization to children in Salwa.

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Figure 4: Abdullah ash-Shishani: a martyr claimed for JMWA/ISIS during the mujahideen offensive on Alawite areas of Latakia in the summer.

From the testimony of other rebels, we have video put out by Liwa al-Fatah from the capture of Mannagh airbase in Aleppo governorate at the beginning of August, in which JMWA/ISIS played the leading role in bringing about the regime stronghold’s final fall. In this video, the Liwa al-Fatah speaker identifies one Abu Jandal al-Masri (an Egyptian fighter) as a member of JMWA, equated with ISIS. Abu Jandal was the leading JMWA/ISIS operative behind the capture of Mannagh airbase. Abu Jandal vows that the mujahideen will not leave a single Alawite alive in Syria.

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Figure 5: Liwa al-Fatah video in which JMWA and ISIS are identified as synonymous. The JWMA logo is included to emphasize friendship between the JMWA and Liwa al-Fatah.

However, a split subsequently emerged towards the end of November whereby those wishing to remain loyal to Omar ash-Shishani declared sole affiliation with ISIS, while those wishing to retain the JMWA label have now asserted independence and appointed a new commander: Salah ad-Din ash-Shishani. Below is a copy of the official JMWA statement detailing the statement.

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Figure 6: JMWA statement detailing the split with ISIS.

“JMWA was among the first of the armies fighting in Bilad ash-Sham…and Omar ash-Shishani- may God preserve him- was the previous commander for this army; and he has pledged allegiance with half of the army to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, so the Majlis Shura of JMWA held a meeting and decided on the appointment of Salah ad-Din ash-Shishani as the commander for this army. We ask God- Almighty is He- for success and fortune for all who fight so that God’s word may be supreme.”

One should also note that this declaration of independence is reflected in the social media circles, as JMWA pages no longer attach their own label to actions carried out by ISIS. Indeed, an “official” Facebook page for JMWA was featuring with a JMWA label images of ISIS’ execution of Hasan Jazra and other members of Ghuraba ash-Sham in the Aleppo town of Atarib, only for that page to be deleted overnight after the announcement of JMWA’s new independence and for all subsequent images of ISIS activity put out with no JMWA label on a new Facebook page.

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Figure 7: Photo from Atarib showing corpses of Ghuraba ash-Sham members executed by ISIS. Note the JMWA label, which is no longer being used by JMWA media output in documenting ISIS activities.

Thus, while JMWA and ISIS continue to share a similar ideology, a personal split has led to JMWA’s separation from ISIS. Omar ash-Shishani and the previous Shari’a judge for JMWA who joined Omar in declaring sole affiliation with ISIS also released a statement of their own indicating that those of the Caucasian and Ukrainian mujahideen who did not pledge allegiance (bay’ah) to ISIS refused because of their prior connection through bay’ah to Sheikh Abu Othman Duka, the Caucasus Emirate amir, together with a detachment of Arab fighters from “Jamaat al-Takhfeekh.” However, it should be noted that Omar ash-Shishani also claims support from the Caucasus Emirate amir for the bay’ah to Sheikh Baghdadi in an interview with a Russian mujahideen site.

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Figure 8: Statement from Omar ash-Shishani and the former Shari’a judge of JMWA clarifying reasons for the split within the organization.

Jamaat Jund ash-Sham

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Figure 9: Emblem of Jamaat Jund ash-Sham.

A battalion based in rural western Homs governorate, it was founded by Lebanese fighters and now consists of a mixture of Syrian and Lebanese fighters. Its ideological affinity with ISIS is illustrated in its emblem shown above. Further, the group’s Facebook page features the ISIS flag to indicate its ideological affiliation. In any event, an interview with via Twitter confirmed to me that the group supports a Caliphate and its ‘aqīda’ (“creed”) is the same as that of ISIS, though the evidence indicates it is not identifying itself as a mere front group for ISIS. Further, the group is not hostile to Jabhat al-Nusra, and has circulated images of Jabhat al-Nusra banners in support of the jihad in Syria.

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Figure 10: The battalion’s Facebook page. Note the iSIS banner to the right.

One should note that pro-ISIS Lebanese activist pages in Tripoli (subsequently deleted) regularly circulated media output from Jund ash-Sham, suggesting logical links between the Lebanese component of Jund ash-Sham and the Sunni population of Tripoli. Below is a selection of media output featuring the group’s activities and some claimed martyrs.

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Figure 11: Jund ash-Sham fighters amid ruins in western Homs countryside. Note the ISIS banners.

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Figure 12: Jund ash-Sham fighter does the Finger of Tawheed pose.

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Figure 13: Jund ash-Sham fighters in the Homs countryside.

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Figure 14: Abu Zaharā al-Ansari, a martyr for Jund ash-Sham whose death was announced on 1 October.

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Figure 15: Abu Khalil al-Ansari, whose martyrdom was announced on 4 December.

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Figure 16: Abu Abd al-Raheem, the deceased commander of Jund ash-Sham.

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Figure 17: Abu Muadh, another martyr for Jund ash-Sham.

The Green Battalion

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Figure 18: The current logo of the Green Battalion.

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Figure 19: First logo of the Green Battalion, bearing affinity with ISIS.

A battalion that first emerged in August, the group shares an ideological affinity with both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, but is in fact independent: something the battalion wished to emphasize in changing its emblem in mid-September. Led by Saudi muhajireen but also having a native Syrian component, the group’s independence from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra is rooted in personal problems.

However, the Green Battalion has conducted joint operations with the two factions in the Qalamoun area of Damascus province and- as part of a wider front including prominent factions like Jaysh al-Islam- in the recent offensive on regime-held zones of the desert areas of Homs governorate (e.g. the localities of Sakhna and Muhin, deemed part of “Wilayat al-Badiya”- “the desert province”- in ISIS discourse), where the Green Battalion claimed to have seized a number of different types of weapons from regime forces. Of recent relevance in this context is the joint operation with ISIS that captured the Qalamoun town of Deir Attiyeh (subsequently renamed Dar Ata’ by ISIS in light of the former name’s Christian connotations) from regime forces, only to see the locality reclaimed by the Syrian army in coordination with Shi’a militias.

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Figure 20: Armaments seized in mid-November by the Green Battalion in Muhin, Homs governorate.

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Figure 21: Mohammed al-Harbi- Abu Eid: a Green Battalion commander who was killed during the group’s offensive in early August on the weapons depots of Dahna in Qalamoun.

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Figure 22: Ahmad Raed- Abu Ibrahim al-Ansari- a native Syrian fighter for the Green Battalion killed in the same place as Mohammed al-Harbi.

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Figure 23: Ahmad al-Jahani- Abu Badr al-Muwahhid- a Saudi martyr for the Green Battalion killed in late August in fighting in the Qalamoun area.

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Figure 24: Abdullah al-Mahoos- Abu Khattab al-Najadi- a Saudi martyr for the Green Battalion killed in late September in fighting in the Qalamoun area.

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Figure 25: Ahmad al-Bariki, a Khaleeji martyr and military official for the Green Battalion who died in the local hospital in Deir Attiyeh in late November.

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Figure 26: Abd al-Hakeem al-Hadiri- “Hamza al-Najadi”- a Saudi martyr also killed in Deir Attiyeh.

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Figure 27: Abdullah al-Fantukh- Abu Ja’far al-Najadi- a Saudi martyr killed in Deir Attiyeh.

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Figure 28: Abu al-Laith al-Maqdisi, killed in Deir Attiyeh.

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Figure 29: Yasir al-Mustafa- Abu Ammar al-Diri- killed during the Syrian army’s offensive on Deir Attiyeh.

Like ISIS, the Green Battalion has been keen to demonstrate outreach to locals and implementation of Islamic law.

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Figure 30: Green Battalion provides sweets to children in Qalamoun on Eid al-Fiṭr.

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Figure 31: Green Battalion provides meat as food aid for locals in a number of Qalamoun towns for Eid al-Adha.

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Figure 32: In cooperation with a number of “Islamic battalions” (likely including Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS), Green Battalion clears out fields of hashish crop in Yabroud area, Damascus province.

Harakat Sham al-Islam

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Figure 33: Logo of Harakat Sham al-Islam

A group founded and led by Moroccan-muhajireen, Harakat Sham al-Islam, which first announced its existence in mid-August, participated in the Latakia offensive in the summer and has also cooperated with Jabhat al-Nusra in operations in Aleppo governorate, including a mid-October offensive on Aleppo central prison, in which ISIS did not participate.

During the Latakia offensive, the group lost an ex-Guantánamo detainee of Moroccan origin- Mohammed al-‘Alami, using the name Abu Hamza al-Maghrebi. The group also has the former Guantánamo detainee and prominent al-Qa’ida veteran Ibrahim bin Shakaran as its leader, who is known in Syria as Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir and delivered the funeral eulogy for al-‘Alami (see this article of mine for more information).

While Harakat Sham al-Islam is at first sight independent, it clearly has much closer affinity with Jabhat al-Nusra (which has increasingly adopted the name ‘Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad ash-Sham’ to signify loyalty to Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri) than ISIS on account of the long-standing, traditional al-Qa’ida central links of Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir.

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Figure 34: As part of the Latakia offensive, Harakat Sham al-Islam’s “assault on homes of the shabiha” in the Alawite village of Baruda.

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Figure 35: Alawite Sheikh Muwaffaq al-Ghazal, affiliated with the
Muqawama Suriya, captured by Harakat Sham al-Islam, and executed by Jabhat al-Nusra.

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Figure 36: A mujahid for Harakat Sham al-Islam observes smoke arising over the forested mountains of Latakia and suspects a poison gas attack by regime forces.

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Figure 37: Sheikh Abdullah al-Moheiseni (right, who made hijra to Bilad ash-Sham to fight jihad) meets with leader of Harakat Sham al-Islam Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir (aka Ibrahim bin Shakaran)

In the formation announcement, Abu Ahmad reiterated standard mujahideen discourse on the need to aid the Muslims of Syria, the problems facing the Muslim world at the hands of  “Zionist-Masonic” forces and “the traitorous collaborators, who have put their lives in the service of the enemies of the religion and the Ummah.”

One source- namely, the testimony of a muhajir who fought in Latakia- suggests that the purpose of Harakat Sham al-Islam is not primarily to contribute to the effort of establishing an Islamic state in Bilad ash-Sham as the beginnings of a Khilafa, but rather to use Syria as a training ground to return to the Maghreb at some point and wage jihad against the Moroccan regime.

Like ISIS and the Green Battalion, Harakat Sham al-Islam also makes a show of outreach to locals. The group also has its selection of martyrs, some of whom are not from the Maghreb.

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Figure 38: Harakat Sham al-Islam provides food aid for those in need in the Latakia village of Kafr Najah.

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Figure 39: Abu Imran Ibrahim ad-Darwi al-Maghrebi, a Moroccan fighter for Harakat Sham al-Islam who died during a recent assault on al-Kindi hospital in rural Aleppo governorate.

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Figure 40: Abu Faysal al-Kuwaiti, killed in late November in rural Aleppo province.

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Figure 41: Abu Imran al-Maghrebi, killed in late October during the offensive on Aleppo central prison.

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Figure 42: Abu Dera al-Qatari, a Qatari martyr for Harakat Sham al-Islam killed in assault on al-Kindi hospital in rural Aleppo governorate this month.

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Figure 43: Othman al-Samudi, a Moroccan martyr for Harakat Sham al-Islam killed in rural Latakia.

Suqur al-Izz

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Figure 44: Logo of Suqur al-Izz.

Like the Green Battalion, Suqur al-Izz was founded and is led as an independent formation by Saudi muhajireen, who have had some personal problems with both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, the use of the same banner as that of ISIS in its logo notwithstanding. In fact, the group’s leader emphasizes Suqur al-Izz’s independence by describing it explicitly as an “independent” battalion. However, it does not follow that Suqur al-Izz’s leadership is hostile to either of these two groups. Note for example the words of affection Suqur al-Izz’s leader has for one ISIS fighter Dr. Abdullah.

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Figure 45: Exhange between Suqur al-Izz leader and ISIS member.

Active since February of this year, the main front on which Suqur al-Izz has operated is Latakia, where it coordinated with both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra during the summer offensive on Alawite areas. In common with ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups, Suqur al-Izz attempts to show outreach to the local population.

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Figure 46: Suqur al-Izz photo of Latakia countryside covered in snow. Image released in March.

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Figure 47: Suqur al-Izz fighters pose in the Latakia countryside.

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Figure 48: Inside a Suqur al-Izz-run bakery in March of this year, as part of a program of distribution of bread to the poor of rural Latakia.

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Figure 49: Suqur al-Izz providing a local family with provisions for this winter.

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Figure 50: Suqur al-Izz, like JMWA, provides children with Qur’an recitation classes.

The group has claimed some martyrs, primarily of Arabian Peninsula origin but also with an Indonesian and native Syrian component. Many of these martyrs were claimed during operations in Aleppo governorate towards the end of November.

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Figure 51: Ismail al-Mohsen.

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Figure 52: Ibrahim al-Sahli

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Figure 53: Abu al-Bara al-Yemeni, a Yemeni martyr for Suqur al-Izz.

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Figure 54: Abu Mohammed the Indonesian.

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Figure 55: Ayad al-Shahrani, a Saudi martyr for Suqur al-Izz.

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Figure 56: Abu Mus’ab al-Ansari, a Syrian martyr for Suqur al-Izz.

Lions of the Caliphate Battalion

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Figure 57: Logo of the Lions of the Caliphate.

Based in Latakia and founded and led by an Egyptian (Abu Muadh al-Masri), this group of muhajireen has since become a front-group for ISIS after its leader confirmed bay’ah to ISIS in mid-November.

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Figure 58: Tweet from Abu Muadh al-Masri confirming Lions of the Caliphate’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS.

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Figure 59: Lions of the Caliphate fighters in rural Latakia. Photo from late October after an evening of training.

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Figure 60: Lions of the Caliphate fighters train on an October evening.

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Figure 61: Lions of the Caliphate fighters pose with the finger of tawheed in their Latakia training camp.

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Figure 62: Lions of the Caliphate mujahideen in rural Latakia.

 

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Figure 63: Lions of the Caliphate evening march through Latakia countryside.

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Figure 64: Another scene from the evening march.

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Figure 65: Another photo from inside the Lions of the Caliphate’s training camp.

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Figure 66: Abu Muadh al-Masri, the Egyptian leader of the Lions of the Caliphate.

Jund Allah Brigade in Bilad ash-Sham

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Figure 67: Logo of Jund Allah Brigade in Bilad ash-Sham

While not a battalion founded and led by muhajireen, this group, which operates in Idlib and Hama governorates, does have its own battalion component for muhajireen, which recently claimed a martyr.

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Figure 68: Abu al-Nur al-Muhajir, whose martyrdom for the Muhajireen Battalion of the Jund Allah Brigade in Bilad ash-Sham was announced in mid-November. He died fighting in Wadi al-Deif of Ma’arat an-Na’aman area of Idlib governorate.

Conclusion

It can be seen that the muhajireen battalions are by no means monolithic. While they generally share a common ideology of global jihad and the necessity of Khilafa, personal politics (most notably in the case of the split in JMWA) prevent a strictly united front. On the other hand, Jund ash-Sham’s inclinations show however that independence or affiliation one way or another need not imply hostility to other jihadi groupings. Indeed, it would seem that there is at least a desire to prevent open fitna between groupings, as Harakat Sham al-Islam tried to emphasize unity and the sanctity of Muslim blood in the face of conflict between ISIS and a rival battalion in Latakia (Katiba Hijra Ila Allah). I deem it unlikely that there will be internecine strife between any of these muhajireen groups and ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusra.

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Figure 69: Harakat Sham al-Islam statement in mid-November on infighting in Latakia.

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

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

The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Billboards in Raqqa

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Of all the areas in Syria where the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham [ISIS] has an established presence, the city of Raqqa arguably stands out for the nature of ISIS’ da’wah efforts, most notably in the form of billboards. What follows is a collection of those billboards and translation of their messages.

First, however, an update is needed on the ISIS situation in Raqqa. In previous posts on the subject in June I identified how the names and banners of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) were interchangeable. By the beginning of July, however, this was no longer the case as the ISIS commander in Raqqa- a local man by the name of Abu Sa’ad al-Haḍrami- defected from ISIS and decided to reaffirm a separate JN identity.

Haḍrami felt disillusioned with ISIS’ conduct in the city particularly as regards to detaining rival rebels, and believed that continuing the name of ISIS was counterproductive since it is in contravention of Sheikh Aymenn al-Ẓawahiri’s order to keep the Islamic State of Iraq and JN separate according to the realms of Iraq and Syria respectively while insisting that the two groups cooperate.

Haḍrami then went with his followers to the city of Tabqa, and in mid-September, the ‘return’ of JN to Raqqa was announced in a statement with relevant excerpts translated below:

“To our people in Raqqa, may God protect them, we inform you of our return to the town after we established a military camp according to Shari’a for the retraining of our mujahideen after the deviation in behavior norms and the differences among some of the brothers. We are obliged to you to work to serve Islam and Muslims and to fight the Nusayri regime….and we emphasize that there whosoever exploits the name of Jabhat al-Nusra again to carry out personal desires and interests, we reject that person wholly and individually.

And by God we disavow the acts of kidnapping, thefts and assassinations done in the name of anything deemed in the interest of that and a fulfillment for those pretexts, and so we have announced the following:

– No sending out of any patrol after 10 p.m. regardless of the circumstances and the seriousness of the reasons.

– We do not acknowledge any mujahid (masked, disguised or incognito).

[…]

– Any car not carrying the placards and banners of Jabhat al-Nusra is not affiliated with us and we are not linked to it.

– Anyone who takes upon himself to identify with the committee of our mujahideen or to speak in the name of Jabhat al-Nusra or to raise the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra on his car will be liable to the greatest punitive measures regardless of the reasons which called him to do that.”

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Figure 1: Jabhat al-Nusra local statement announcing a return to the city of Raqqa, first seen on 13 September.

As can be seen, this statement, in referencing the supposed ‘exploitation’ of JN’s name to describe implicit criticisms of ISIS’ conduct in Raqqa, corroborates my earlier analysis of JN and ISIS as interchangeable in Raqqa in May and June. The imprisonment of rivals as provoked small-scale protests in June whereby demonstrators could be heard denouncing the names of both JN and ISIS. Further, in initially pledging ba’yah to Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it does not follow that Abu Sa’ad al-Haḍrami was hostile to the name of JN or Sheikh Jowlani, and in rallies from the period JN and ISIS flags could be observed side by side.

Since JN’s return to Raqqa, Abu Sa’ad al-Haḍrami has reportedly gone missing. One claim is that ISIS is holding him hostage, and some activist networks in Raqqa have recently circulated a purported JN statement criticizing ISIS for the continued detention of a number of people, including Abu Sa’ad al-Haḍrami. However, the statement bears no JN seal or signature, and appears to be a forgery that is trying to exaggerate the level of fitna between JN and ISIS in the town.

It is true that a local dispute in the town led to a brief clash in which one member of JN was killed, but since then the JN-ISIS relationship in Raqqa has moved away from tension. This cooperation trend has most notably entailed joint Eid al-Adha celebrations and prayers- a phenomenon that has also been observed in Ghouta, Damascus area. Meanwhile, joint JN-ISIS military fronts (together with other battalions) are operating in Deir az-Zor and Sakhna (Homs governorate). This runs counter to the media narrative that tends to see JN and ISIS as being on staunchly hostile terms with each other.

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Figure 2: Joint ISIS-JN Eid prayers and celebrations in Raqqa.

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Figure 3: Joint ISIS-JN prayers from Raqqa.

As of now, therefore, the ISIS-JN relationship in Raqqa is one of separate entities but clearly cooperating and trying to bridge the problem of the disagreement between Sheikh Baghdadi and Sheikh Jowlani, even as some JN members undoubtedly harbor reservations over ISIS’ methods of dealing with rivals. In turn, ISIS appears to be more aware of the problem of resentment over its conduct and accordingly issued a statement to residents of Raqqa on their being entitled to submit complaints about members’ conduct. In any event, most FSA-banner remnants in Raqqa have now been absorbed by ISIS or JN, though FSA banners may still be observed alongside those of JN or ISIS at civilian rallies. In short, Raqqa today is under a triumvirate of JN, ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham.

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Figure 4: “The Engineering Battalion”- a local JN affiliate in Raqqa.

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Figure 5: Screenshot from a rally in Raqqa on 5 October featuring an ISIS banner alongside FSA flags.

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Figure 6: Recent ISIS statement to the people of Raqqa on how to submit complaints about ISIS members’ conduct if necessary.

Without further ado, here is an archive of the billboards put up by ISIS across the city of Raqqa as part of its da’wah efforts. The billboards primarily promote the importance of modest dress for women, the need for Shari’a as the sole source of legislation, and the importance of fighting jihad. They are always signed in the following form: “From your brothers in the da’wah office: Raqqa.”

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Figure 7: “Speak to the believing women as they lower their eyes, guard their openings and do not show their adornments except what has appeared from them.”

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Figure 8: “The Almighty has said: ‘But God hated that they were being sent, so he kept them back, and it was said: Remain with those who are remaining.” (Qur’an 9:46)

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Figure 9: “God’s law or man-made law?”

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Figure 10: “Perform your prayers; your life is sweet.”

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Figure 11: “My modesty is the secret of my beauty”- a billboard promoting the niqab/burqa.

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Figure 12: Alongside the billboard promoting the niqab/burqa, we have another ISIS billboard to the right reading “By Islam we build the land, and by education we ascend to Heaven.”

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Figure 13: A billboard promoting jihad: “The messenger of God- may God’s peace and blessings be upon him- said: ‘And know that Paradise is under the shade of swords’.”

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Figure 14: “Narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira: he said: ‘The Messenger of God- may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, said: ‘Islam began as a strange thing, and it will return just as it began: as a strange thing. So blessings be on strangers.’” Abu Huraira was a transmitter of ahadith considered reliable by Sunnis.

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Figure 15: “’And fight them until there is no more fitna and religion is God’s alone’ (Qur’an 8:39). The highest calling of religion is jihad against idolatry, so let us wage jihad or let life throw us out.”

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Figure 16: “The Almighty said: ‘So fight in the path of God, and do not hold [anyone] responsible except yourself.” Sura an-Nisā’, Ayah 84 (Qur’an 4:84).

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Figure 17: “Narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira, may God be pleased with him. He said: ‘The messenger of God- may God’s peace and blessings be upon him- said: ‘Whoever has died and did not fight [jihad] or think about doing so has died among the people of hypocrisy.’ Sahih Muslim.”

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Figure 18: “The Almighty has said: ‘Be helpers of God just as Jesus son of Mary said.’ Sura as-Ṣaff, Ayah 14 (Qur’an 61:14).”

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Figure 19: “The rule of God’s law: ‘Verily legislation is a matter for God alone, who hath ordered that ye worship only Him.’- Yusuf 40 (Qur’an 12:40).”

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Figure 20: “My hijab is my glory/might.”

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Figure 21: “And when I am ill, he heals me (Qur’an 26:80).”

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Figure 22: “Together let us spread our Shari’a under the shade of God’s law.”

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Figure 23: “Together and in the path of our Lord’s Shari’a, we build our sons’ future.”

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Figure 24: ”Oh son of Adam! You are [merely] days; when your day is gone, a portion of you goes.” This is a well-known Arabic saying emphasizing the value of time from a seventh century Muslim preacher called Hasan al-Baṣri.

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Figure 25: “Taghut (idolatry)? [Something] that wants to remove a part of your life and put it for something besides God.”

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Figure 26: “Oh people of Jihad in the land of ash-Sham: unite your rans under the banner: ‘There is no deity but God.’ And cling to God’s rope together and do not separate. For exalted is He who hath said: ‘Verily God loveth those who fight in His path in a row as though they are one structure joined firmly” (Qur’an 61:4- a verse commonly cited by mujahideen groups).

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Figure 27: “The constitution of a secular state is incompatible with the law of God,” followed by a quotation of Qur’an 3:83.

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Figure 28: Identical caption to figure 25 but note the ash-Sham channel media logo. This billboard was put up in May as ash-Sham channel, which is based in Raqqa but has been inactive in putting out new content for quite some time. Ash-Sham channel, it should be noted, was by the end of June expressing anti-JN sentiment with accusations of ‘defection’ and was the first pro-ISIS media outlet to demonstrate a real ISIS presence within Syria back in May. Ash-Sham channel was initially skeptical of reports of Abu Sa’ad al-Haḍrami’s defection.

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Figure 29: An ISIS billboard expressing hopes for the liberation of Jerusalem: “I and my Lord are breaking our enemy…and we coming by my Lord will cleanse [Jerusalem].” The sentiment of retaking al-Quds after the fall of the Assad regime is not confined to ISIS: it is also endorsed by Zahraan Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam, which is seen (erroneously, in my view) as a new formation to counter ISIS.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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

Bay’ah to Baghdadi: Foreign Support for Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Click here for a PDF version of this post

Over the past couple of months, jihadi media outlets have circulated numerous photos and statements indicating support from various places abroad for Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) as the group has expanded its influence in Syria and has experienced a resurgence in Iraq. Below is a selection of those gestures of support, and the analytical implications.

Saudi Arabia

The gestures of support from Saudi Arabia primarily take the form of anonymous individuals holding placards declaring admiration for ISIS. Note that the photos below are not in chronological order. The ideological inclinations of the placard-holders are made clear by calling Saudi Arabia ‘Bilad al-Haramain’ (‘Land of the Two Sanctuaries’- referencing Mecca and Medina).

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This photo, taken near the Kaaba in late July, celebrates the successful prison breaks orchestrated by ISIS at Abu Ghraib and Taji in Baghdad that resulted in the release of hundreds of detainees, including muhajireen who had been imprisoned since 2006/7. The placard reads: ‘Greetings from Bilad al-Haramain to the lions of the two rivers [Tigris and Euphrates] for the liberation of Taji and Abu Ghraib prison; for the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’.

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This photo comes from an unspecified location in Saudi Arabia. The placard reads: ‘We bless/congratulate Abu Bakr [al-Baghdadi] for the liberation of Abu Ghraib and Taji prison. The sons of Bilad al-Haramain.’

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Again with unspecified location in Saudi Arabia, and the handwriting is not entirely clear, but the first few lines can be discerned as follows: ‘From Bilad al-Haramain, I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…and my greetings to Abu Mohammed al-Adnani [ISIS’ main spokesman].’

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Perhaps one of the more bizarre demonstrations of support for ISIS from Saudi Arabia, a cake baked with the ISIS flag for the icing.  The dedicatory placard reads: “All thanks to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the heroes of the Islamic State. Your brothers…the free men of Bilad al-Haramain.”

An earlier image of an ISIS cake from Saudi Arabia had appeared with an accompanying explanation that it was baked to celebrate the fact that a Saudi family’s son was heading off to Syria to fight jihad. However, that image and the Facebook page that featured it have since been deleted.

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A photo released on a jihadi forum as part of the same set as the ISIS cake above. A young Saudi girl holds a placard with ISIS insignia. The first and relevant part of the placard reads: ‘How excellent you are, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and your heroic soldiers! Verily you have caused pain to the Safavids.’ In this context, the term ‘Safavids’ is a derogatory reference to the Shi’a.

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Two Saudi children hold placards celebrating the ISIS jailbreaks in Baghdad. The placard on the left reads: ‘We congratulate the Ummah of Mohammed for the liberation of some 600 prisoners from the prisons of the Rafidites [Shi’a]. Thanks to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Bilad al-Haramain.’ The placard on the right says: ‘Our amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…send us some of your soldiers to free our prisoners. Bilad al-Haramain.’

Testimony on the ground from northern Syria in particular suggests to me that one factor behind ISIS’ success in expansion is that the group has much more financial clout at its disposal than most other rebel factions, such that first-hand observers seem puzzled. Cross-border coordination with mujahideen in Iraq and limited oil revenues from control of some oil fields in Syria can partly explain the depth of ISIS’ financial resources. Yet I would also suggest that by conveying these gestures of support from Saudi individuals to ISIS, jihadi circles are implying that ISIS is receiving significant funding from private Saudi citizens who support ISIS.

Somalia

Somalia, home to the official al-Qa’ida affiliate Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), has also seen gestures of support for ISIS and Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The images below have been released through the end of July and into August by the pro-ISIS media channel ash-Sham, which is based in Raqqa, Syria. There have of course been rumors and anecdotes of Somali fighters in Syria. Somalia itself has also seen small demonstrations in support of the uprising in Syria.

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The ash-Sham channel’s logo is to be observed in the right-hand corner. The placard held by the HSM fighter reads: ‘And if I were in ash-Sham, I could only be a soldier in the Islamic State.’

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A child supporter of HSM stands besides a large ISIS/HSM banner, holding a placard that reads: ‘Greetings to the amir in the state of free men: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demolishing the walls.” Note that ‘demolishing the walls’ is in reference to the successful ISIS jailbreaks in Baghdad last month.

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Two HSM fighters show their support for ISIS. The mujahid on the left displays the same placard as in the first photo from this series. The mujahid on the right holds a placard that says, ‘An Eid gift to the lions of Tawhid in the Islamic State.’ The building behind the two HSM fighters has the Somali word ‘Xuuriye’ inscribed on it, meaning ‘freedom’ and borrowed from Arabic (in Somali writing, ‘x’ replaces Arabic ḥ in loanwords).

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Niqab-wearing supporters of HSM demonstrate their support for ISIS. The placard on the right reads, ‘Remaining [steadfast] in Iraq and ash-Sham.’ It should be noted that this slogan is a recurring theme in ISIS discourse, originating from Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s speech in June, in which he rejected Sheikh Aymenn al-Ẓawahiri’s insistence on separation between Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra. Since then, ‘bāqīya’ has even become the name of a pro-ISIS media outlet: Bāqīya Media, dedicated to putting out material on ISIS in Bilād ash-Sham.

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A Somali child holds the same placard as in the first photo in this series.

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HSM fighters hold the ISIS banner with the inscription ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ on it.

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Somali women in niqabs display ISIS banners. Note the one on the left with the inscription ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham.’

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Somali children hold the ISIS banner.

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Somali women hold placards in support of ISIS. The writing on the discernible placard on the far left is the same as the third one in this series.

Given HSM’s status as an al-Qa’ida affiliate, it is noteworthy that its members and fan-base have shown support for ISIS and Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while not indicating any similar appreciation for Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani and Jabhat al-Nusra.

This would seem to suggest that ISIS’ reputation is far greater than that of the latter two in many jihadist hotspots around the Muslim world- something that has no doubt been abetted by ISIS’ quick expansion across northern and eastern Syria in particular, along with ISIS’ leading role in recent rebel offensives like the capture of Mannagh airbase.

Despite Sheikh Ẓawahiri’s indication of the need to dissolve ISIS, not only are al-Qa’ida affiliates elsewhere acknowledging ISIS and Sheikh Baghdadi as the leader of the jihad in Bilad ash-Sham, but also official jihadi forums like Shamūkh Islām no longer appear to be deleting posts put out in ISIS’ name.

That said, al-Furqān media- the official outlet of what was Islamic State of Iraq- still avoids overt reference to the name ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ in its current video releases, even as it is becomes clear that ISIS’ jihad in Syria is being promoted (e.g. the interview with the martyred French convert and another with an elderly mujahid for the group).

In any event, it is clear that ISIS is more or less accepted in jihadi circles now as a reality on the ground, and Sheikh Ẓawahiri is unlikely to issue another directive calling for the disbandment of ISIS. As my friend Oskar Svadkovsky suggests, it is likely that Sheikh Baghdadi would simply reject the ruling again, and thus Sheikh Ẓawahiri would feel humiliated.

In effect, Sheikh Baghdadi has therefore extorted a concession from Sheikh Ẓawahiri, rather in the manner that Pompey the Great extorted a triumph out of Sulla in the late 80s BC after campaigning in Africa and Sicily against Sulla’s enemies. Both of these moves amount to a successful challenge to one’s political superior.

In any case, I would also say that Sheikh Ẓawahiri has decided on balance that the disagreement between Sheikh Jowlani and Sheikh Baghdadi is unlikely to spill into open conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS where the two groups are evidently separate entities (e.g. Aleppo city and its outskirts).

Tripoli, Lebanon

Tripoli- marked by sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Alawites– has long been known as an area of greater Sunni religiosity than other parts of Lebanon. For years, observers who have been on the ground (e.g. my friend and colleague Phillip Smyth) have noted the regular appearance of the black flag of jihad at rallies.

Further, the town saw violent riots during the controversy over the anti-Islam film ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ culminating in the burning of a fast-food restaurant. More recently, the town has seen indications of a growing contingent of support for ISIS and Sheikh Baghdadi. It is of course true that the banner of what is now ISIS existed in Tripoli before ISIS was announced, and so the more recent gestures of support can be seen as a natural outgrowth of the already existing pro-al-Qa’ida sentiment that is now being bolstered by ISIS’ overall advances in Syria.

At the end of July, a message was circulated in jihadi media circles addressed to ‘our lord Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, may God protect him’ from the ‘wounded Tripoli of ash-Sham.’

The message goes on to speak of ‘love of you and of your soldiers’ and praises Sheikh Baghdadi and his men for having freed the ‘Ummah of Islam’ from humiliation. Documenting the sufferings of Sunni Muslim youth in Lebanon, the message of support ends with a personal pledge to Sheikh Baghdadi to be his ‘faithful soldiers.’

In a similar vein, Facebook (FB) pages dedicated to the Sunni community in Tripoli feature the ISIS banner to indicate ideological affiliation, as can be seen in the photos below. Noteworthy are the thousands of likes these pages have received.

While it may be the case, as Diana Rudha ash-Shammary suggests to me, that many of these likes come from fake accounts or duplicates, the numbers must reflect in some way a significant support base for ISIS in Tripoli, especially when corroborated with other evidence.

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The FB page above is entitled ‘Lions of the Sunnah in Tripoli, Lebanon.’ Note the ISIS banner on the right-hand side.

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Another Tripoli-based FB page entitled ‘Bab al-Mankubis News Network, Tripoli.’ Note again the ISIS banner featured.

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Another pro-ISIS FB page from Tripoli: ‘Tripoli ash-Sham News Network.’ Note the use of the ISIS flag in the main logo and the identification of Tripoli as a part of ‘ash-Sham’ (‘the Levant,’ in this context), indicating the hope for the jihad in Syria and cause for an Islamic state there to be brought to Lebanon.

All of these pages regularly reprint statements from ISIS. Thus, for the recently failed Latakia offensive into Alawite territory that was launched by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Salafi groups, the second FB page featured a statement from ‘our lord Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (may God protect him): We are striving for there to be Eid prayers in al-Qardaḥa.’

This statement should illustrate what the ultimate purpose behind the Latakia offensive was. Far from being an area of vital strategic importance, the aim was instead to score a symbolic and psychological victory against the regime by aiming to capture the Alawite heartland and Assad’s ancestral village in particular.

In addition to this online material, videos have also emerged recently from Tripoli showing the ISIS banner.  For example, on 9 August, a video was posted on Facebook of a demonstration in Tripoli for Islamist inmates imprisoned at Roumieh prison in Lebanon- an issue that has been around for quite some time.

In the video, entitled ‘Victory march of the oppressed in Roumieh,’ demonstrators can be seen holding ISIS banners. It is quite possible that the inspiration for this demonstration comes from the ISIS jailbreaks in Baghdad the previous month.

This year’s Eid celebrations also saw the ISIS banner on display in Tripoli’s Sunni areas. Here is a video of an Eid al-Fiṭr sermon earlier this month in the open in Tripoli, featuring a preacher behind a large ISIS banner. The channel that uploaded the video entitles the sermon, ‘The thrones of the Rafidites and idolators have shaken.’

In the sermon itself, standard Sunni Islamist rhetoric abounds, with reference also to the struggles of ‘our brothers in Syria,’ denunciations of Hizballah as ‘Hizb ash-Shaytan’ (‘the party of Satan’). The sermon itself is likely to have taken place in the area of Bab Tabbaneh, which had large Eid prayers in the open under the ISIS banner, as seen in the photo below.

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Below is another photo featuring young ISIS supporters in Tripoli after Eid prayers. Note the gesture with their fingers (the ‘finger of Tawhid’) is a standard feature of these ideological circles:

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Had the ISIS-led offensive in Latakia succeeded, there would likely have been a flare-up in sectarian clashes in Tripoli. However, there is not even good evidence of large numbers of Alawites having been killed in the offensive despite the initial successes entailing the capture of a number of Alawite villages, as the inhabitants appear to have fled before they could be captured.

Observers would do well to keep a close eye on ISIS actions vis-à-vis Alawite areas of Syria and how future flares-up in violence in Tripoli, which are inevitable given the city’s status as a sectarian hotspot in Lebanon, might correlate with those events.

Other Areas: Ahwaz and Sinai

The data for Ahwaz and Sinai vis-à-vis ISIS are less extensive. This month, mujahideen in Ahwaz (Khuzestan: a part of southwestern Iran with a substantial ethnically Arab component) blew up an Iranian gas pipeline, and various outlets cited an anonymous activist from Ahwaz with the following message: ‘Our land is occupied and the Syrian people are living in the shadow of a dictatorial regime serving the interests of Iran in the region. When Bashar falls, so too will Iran and this is the motto of Ahwaz.’

The armed group that took credit for the attack- the Mohi ad-Deen Martyr Battalions– likewise accused the ‘Safavid state’ of being responsible for shedding the blood of the Ahwazi Arabs’ ‘Syrian brothers.’

Elsewhere, some pro-ISIS Facebook pages circulated a purported message of support and congratulations from mujahideen in Ahwaz to ISIS, though most of the pages hosting that message appear to have been deleted on account of censorship. Yet it has been preserved on a public Facebook page known as ‘Anṣār ash-Shar’īa in Ahwaz’ (see screenshot below).

Like other groups using the name ‘Anṣār ash-Shar’īa’ in the Arab world (e.g. Libya and Tunisia, both of whose local branches have indicated support for ISIS, besides the considerable number of Tunisian and Libyan mujahideen who have joined ISIS’ ranks), Anṣār ash-Shar’īa in Ahwaz uses the ISIS logo.

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The relevant part of the purported message of support from Ahwaz mujahideen to ISIS reads thus: ‘Message of congratulations from the mujahideen of Ahwaz to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham and its amir al-Baghdadi. May Allah prolong his life, strengthen him, and give him and the mujahideen total victory on this Eid Mubarak.’

One should not of course extrapolate too much from these rather limited data points. Indeed, attempting to determine numbers of Ahwazi Arab supporters of ISIS and the wider jihad in Syria would be a futile exercise. Nonetheless, one can say that there are indications of a growing more general trend of Ahwazi militants to tie their struggle to that of Sunnis in Syria and a part of that trend to identify with the jihad of ISIS and its efforts to establish a Caliphate.

As for the Sinai, the gesture of support for ISIS is limited to an image below doing the rounds on pro-ISIS social media pages, purporting to show jihadists in the Sinai pledging allegiance to ISIS.  In the grand scheme of the wider jihad in the Sinai since the coup that deposed Morsi, this photo and the purported explanation for it mean very little. Yet depending on ISIS’ long-term success, it would not be all that implausible if some ISIS muhajireen in particular eventually decide to bring armed struggle to Egypt beyond the Sinai with support from Sheikh Baghdadi.

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Overall Conclusions

From this survey, the main points of analysis are as follows:

1. In showing gestures of support for ISIS from Saudis in particular (as opposed to other areas of the Arabian Peninsula), pro-ISIS circles are likely indicating an important source of funding for ISIS- something that would help explain why the group has such great financial clout in Syria, even in light of cross-border coordination with mujahideen in Iraq and control of some oil fields in eastern Syria.

2. There are no comparable placards and other demonstrations of support for Jabhat al-Nusra and Sheikh Jowlani. As ISIS has become established as a reality on the ground in Syria and expanded its power, so its reputation has gained strength and acceptance among the international jihadi community and arguably eclipsed Jabhat al-Nusra.

Similarly, Sheikh Baghdadi seems to enjoy greater prominence than Sheikh Jowlani. In short, any hopes of reverting to the old status-quo of a separate Islamic State of Iraq appear to be dissipating. It could therefore be said that Sheikh Baghdadi has successfully challenged Sheikh Ẓawahiri.

3. Pro-ISIS sentiment appears to be growing in Tripoli, Lebanon in particular. This is cause for concern as regards the prospects of future and more intense outbreaks of sectarian violence in the city, depending on ISIS’ future progress within Syria.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org. Follow on Twitter: @ajaltamimi. All translations from Arabic here are his own.

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Since Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in April as a merger between Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and Islamic State of Iraq, one question that has arisen is the composition of fighters under the banner of ISIS. Some media reports- most notably the Reuters analyses by Mariam Karouny– have drawn a dichotomy of foreign mujahideen behind ISIS and native Syrians in JAN.

It is of course true that JAN is largely composed of native Syrian fighters (a point often missed in commentary, as my friend Charles Lister noted on Twitter recently). But how far is the notion of ISIS as a foreign force true?

It is my contention that the most useful way for an observer to look into this question is through examining the list of claimed martyrs for ISIS. Though it is only through self-reporting by jihadis so one shouldn’t conclude too much from it either since they could not want to report certain deaths. The title of this study- ‘ISIS Cavalcade’- is a tribute to Phillip Smyth’s ‘Hizballah Cavalcade’, which has in part given lists of fighters for Hizballah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Iraqi proxies of Iran killed in Syria, with helpful links to sources and insightful commentary.

The ISIS Cavalcade will take the following format: name, nationality, and further comments with sources and a photo where possible. Disputes as regards affiliation will be noted.

1. Name: Waleed Midawi al-Asiri (nom de guerre: Abu Dajana al-Azadi)
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)

Comments: According to a report by the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham, al-Asiri was responsible for the first martyrdom operation in the name of ISIS in the Latakia region, attacking a checkpoint and housing belonging to ‘Nuṣayri officers and their families.’ The claimed death toll of the operation- carried out by means of a car bomb laden with 4 tons of explosives- amounts to ‘at least 90 Nuṣayris.’

To an extent, ash-Sham’s account is corroborated by this Youtube video in which al-Asiri is said to appear- featuring him in a room with a banner on the wall entitled ‘Room of operations of the Mujahideen: Latakia.’ As a further point, I would note that the Latakia area has been an active area of operations for foreign fighters affiliated with the battalion Katiba al-Muhajireen (KAM).

If al-Asiri was also under the banner of ISIS, that would provide evidence for my contention that the relationship between KAM and ISIS is rather like that between Kata’ib Hizballah and Hizballah in Iraq– namely, that the two entities are not separate, but mirror fronts for one another.

Conversely, here is a purported JAN statement- dated 25 May, one day before ash-Sham’s report- claiming al-Asiri as a JAN fighter. The authenticity of this statement is strongly disputed by a forum user, while the original poster on said forum purports to defend it as emanating from JAN’s official channel al-Manārah al-Bayḍā. However, the fact is that the channel was officially offline during this period when Asiri’s martyrdom was announced and has only resumed recently. My overall judgment is therefore that Asiri likely belonged to KAM/ISIS.

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Figure 1: A photo of Waleed Midawi al-Asiri (source: ash-Sham)

2. Name: Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi
Nationality: Tunisian

Comments: The jihadi forum Ansar al-Mujahideen featured a post on 14 May containing a short biography of Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi. He is said to have ‘abandoned the contemptible world in the land of the West and returned to Tunisia. From there he migrated to the land of ash-Sham.’ He was killed in a fight with regime forces in the Aleppo area.

The original biography can be traced to the pro-Al-Qa’ida page Qaḍaaya al-Ummah, though no affiliation with ISIS is explicitly mentioned there. That claim goes back to ash-Sham, as well as several pro-ISIS Twitter users. In contrast, the outlet Tanit Press cites Tunisian Salafist sources to say that Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, as do a few other Twitter users.  There is thus a possibility that al-Tunisi was originally JAN but declared affiliation with ISIS after the latter was announced by Sheikh Baghdadi.

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Figure 2: Photo of Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi (source: Twitter and Facebook).

3. Name: Ali al-Qadhdhāfi (Nom de guerre: Abu Junaid)
    Nationality: Libyan

Comments: On 19 May, the Youtube user Abu Thabit al-Ansari uploaded a video of Alī al-Qadhdhāfi, featuring footage of him pictured with the ISIS banner, clearly indicating his affiliation with ISIS, which is further corroborated by the fact that on 11 May via Twitter, his death was reported to have taken place in Iraq rather than Syria. This particular martyrdom is important to note, for it still indicates the role of foreign fighters- and Libyans in particular- in the al-Qa’ida insurgency in Iraq.[i]

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Figure 3: A photo of Ali al-Qadhdhāfi (source: here).

4. Name: Hamoud Mohammed al-Bdaiwi (nom de guerre: Abu al-Yazin)
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)

Comments: The Facebook page ‘Kamishli’ (pro-regime) reported on 23 June that al-Bdaiwi was one of those behind attacks in the Damascus area on that day: specifically, in the neighborhood of Bāb al-Muṣallā, which- as authors George Atiyeh and Ibrahim Oweiss note- ‘constitutes the main part of Lower Mīdān.’

On the other hand, the Facebook page ‘Al-Ghurabā fī ath-thawra as-Sūrīya’ claims that he was killed in Aleppo. I remain agnostic as to the precise location of his death, but neither city is implausible, for ISIS has a presence in both Aleppo and Damascus.[ii]

The source for the photo of him given below goes back to the outlet Burydah News, which appears to have been the first outlet to report his death. However, no specific location within Syria for his martyrdom is given. As ever, the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham claims him as a martyr for ISIS, but no pro-JAN sources to my knowledge have claimed him for JAN. Further, ash-Sham describes the circumstances of his death as a ‘martyrdom operation,’ indicating that perhaps he died in a suicide attack.

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Figure 4: Photo of Hamoud Mohammed al-Bdaiwi

5. Name: Marwan bin al-Haj Saleh (Nom de guerre: Abu Ismail al-Tunisi)
Nationality: Tunisian

Comments: The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham reported on 24 June that he was killed in Aleppo. His affiliation with ISIS is proven by his appearance alongside ISIS banners in the photo of him given below. The Facebook page Qaḍāya al-Ummah gives more precise details as to the circumstances of his death: namely, that he was killed during the rebel assault on Mannagh airport- an operation in which ISIS is known to be participating in coordination with other battalions.[iii]

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Figure 5: Photos of Abu Ismail al-Tunisi, including poses with the ISIS banner (source: Qaḍāya al-Ummah).

6. Name: Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi
Nationality: Tunisian

Comments: The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham states that he was killed in the Duwerineh district of the Aleppo area. See my prior post at Jihadology on ISIS in Aleppo, which provides further video evidence corroborating the ISIS presence in this part of Aleppo in clashes with regime forces. It would appear that he is not to be confused with another Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi- a well-known Salafist figure in Tunisia.  As far as I know, the story of Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi the martyr of Aleppo is original to ash-Sham.

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Figure 6: Photo of Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi (source: ash-Sham).

7. Name: Rami al-Yahya (nom de guerre: Abu al-Mālik)
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)

Comments: He was killed on 23 June in the battle for Mannagh airport in the Aleppo area (see above). Here is a video of a speech he gave to fellow mujahideen. Only pro-regime sources have tried to claim him as a supposed martyr for JAN.

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Figure 7: Photo of Rami al-Yahya (Source: ash-Sham).

8. Name: Faiz bin Mut’ab al-Hamdāni al-Surhāni
    Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)

Comments: Like Rami al-Yahya, he was killed in the battle for Mannagh airport. The local Saudi news site Khabr al-Jawf (Arabic) adds that he was from Jawf Province in northern Saudi Arabia (bordering Jordan). He was 45 years of age and had entered Syria via Turkey.

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Figure 8: Photo of Faiz bin Mut’ab al-Hamdāni al-Surhāni (Source: aljouf-news.net).

9. Name: Omar al-Tunisi
Nationality: Tunisian

Comments: The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham has just released a video of Omar’s martyrdom operation against regime forces in Deir ez-Zor. Crucially, the video begins by noting that it is ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra.’ This illustrates not only that ISIS and JAN are two separate entities in Deir ez-Zor- as I emphasized in my previous post for Jihadology on Deir ez-Zor– but also that the two entities- even where separate- are quite capable of collaborating, contrary to a recent media narrative promulgated by Reuters that warned of looming open conflict between the two groups.

10. Name: Abu Muslim ash-Shishani
Nationality: Chechen

Comments: On 18 June, the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham announced his martyrdom- said to have been killed in the rebel assault on Aleppo central prison, in which ISIS is known to have participated.[iv] Chechens have a prominent role in KAM in northern Syria. The fact that ash-Shishani is claimed as a martyr for ISIS illustrates an earlier point I have made about the boundaries between ISIS and battalions like KAM not being clear-cut.

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Figure 9: Photo of Abu Muslim ash-Shishani (source: ash-Sham).

11. Name: Abu al-Hasan al-Urduni
Nationality: Jordanian

Comments: See this post to which I contributed and provided information at the Brown Moses blog. His martyrdom demonstrates ISIS is active in the Damascus area as I have noted above.

Overall Conclusions from the ISIS Cavalcade

1. There is truth to the idea that significant numbers of foreign fighters[v] have flocked under the banner of ISIS, which lends credence to an extent to Karouny’s reports of a foreign vs. native dichotomy in the question of ISIS-JAN relations.

However, I would also highlight my previous posts at Jihadology that note where ISIS and JAN are interchangeable and the fact that ISIS has native Syrian supporters. In any event, the disproportionate presence of Saudis and Tunisians in ISIS ranks corroborates stories of problems for Saudi Arabia and Tunisia in trying to stop or restrict outflow of jihadists to fight in Syria.

2. One cannot draw a definite distinction between ISIS and al-Qa’ida-aligned battalions like KAM.

3. Even where ISIS and JAN are clearly separate- as in Deir ez-Zor- the two entities are quite capable of cooperation. The same goes for the Aleppo area.

4. ISIS operations are particularly intense in the Aleppo area, in turn reinforcing my long-held point about a strong concentration of foreign fighters in the Aleppo area. However, the group’s presence in areas like Damascus, where one might think that JAN is the dominant banner, cannot be overlooked.

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

Further Notes


[i] For further evidence of continued Libyan contributions to insurgents fighting in Iraq, see this recent post on one Hassan Boubeiḍa– a member of Benghazi’s Ansar ash-Shari’a killed in Iraq at the beginning of June. As for al-Qadhdhāfi, I should note that he is not the only martyr claimed for ISIS within Iraq: cf. this post I wrote for the Brown Moses blog back in May.

[ii] For evidence of Damascus operations, see this video, which shows a rebel battalion in cooperation with ISIS raising the ISIS banner (aka the ‘banner of Tawhid/Islam’) over a mosque in Damascus. ISIS has also fought the Liwaa Abu el-Fadl al-Abbas in the Sayyida Zainab in cooperation with the battalion that helped raise the ISIS banner over that Damascus area (cf. here with fighters under the ISIS banner issuing a statement in late May on attacking Liwaa’s headquarters at Sayyida Zainab). Further note this video of ISIS in Damascus where the name is explicitly mentioned.

[iii] E.g. See this recent video.

[iv] See my Jihadology post on ISIS and JAN in Aleppo, linked to in the main piece.

[v] While not a martyr, this photo that has emerged of a converted German fighter for ISIS provides further interesting testimony on the matter (note his banner with the inscription of ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’).

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Introduction

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

The city of Deir ez-Zor

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

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

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

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

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

Abu Kamal and the Kata’ib Junud al-Haq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Quria and al-Mayadeen

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

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

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

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

JAN, ISIS and the case of ash-Shaddadi

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Notes


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

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

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

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

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

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

In a previous post for Jihadology I documented how looking at evidence from Raqqah Governorate basically illustrates that the designations of Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) are interchangeable in that area. The latest controversy that has emerged in the city of Raqqah itself further demonstrates this conclusion.

The controversy began with videos that came to light of a sit-in demonstration being held by some women in front of what the channel Aks Alser termed ‘the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham.’ The grievances focus on calls for ISIS to release close family members from detention, with one woman holding a placard entitled ‘I want a piece of my liver’ (i.e. an idiomatic expression for ‘I want my son/offspring’).

The woman who first speaks at length in the video holds a sign saying ‘Where is my son?’. The lady to her right holds a sign asking ‘Where is my brother?’ As for the speaker, she mentions how men from rival battalions like the Kata’ib al-Farouq[i] have been detained with no knowledge of their fate, with some having been held for up to a whole month now.

Similarly, another video [H/T: @Syrian_Scenes] emerged showing demonstrations ‘in front of the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra,’ where a young girl first appeared, crying about the fact that her father- himself a rebel fighter- had been detained with ‘that Jabha’ for more than a month. By ‘Jabha’ (‘front’), she is presumably referring to ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’, as she also mentions how they are ‘Islamiyeen’ (‘Islamists’). In her pleas for her father, the young girl was one of the figureheads for the protests.

To be sure, the protestors shown in this video are religious, but they clearly do not subscribe to a comprehensive Islamist program, and only the Free Syrian Army flag is to be observed here.

Some Arabic news channels like al-Arabiya seized upon news of these protests, prompting a response from activists in JAN and ISIS circles. Most notably, here is a statement released by a pro-JAN activist based in Syria who uses the handle @9amar_1.

She begins by complaining of the spreading of slanderous attacks on ‘the mujahideen of the Islamic State [of Iraq and ash-Sham][ii] and Jabhat al-Nusra, especially in light of what is transpiring from the protests in Raqqah in front of the headquarters of the Islamic State, by which also Jabhat al-Nusra has faced accusations- for general distortion- in the media,’ later singling out al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera in particular for incitement against the mujahideen.

She goes on to explain how the ruling of Syria by a ‘Nusayri regime’ has distanced the people from religion. As for those whom ‘the Islamic State has arrested,’ she justifies the detention by asserting that said prisoners ‘have exceeded the boundaries of Shari’a.’

One conclusion to note from this activist’s statement is the importance of not generalizing about the ISIS-JAN relationship in terms of what activists in these ideological circles. It is quite clear that @9amar_1 views ISIS and JAN as working for the same goals but the naming is a matter of personal preference and completely interchangeable.

In turn, it is clear that a conflation of JAN-ISIS in terms of the naming of the headquarters outside of which were protests and the faction against which the protests took place indicate how ISIS and JAN in Raqqah are essentially one and the same.

In Raqqah itself, further evidence of an ISIS-JAN unity became clear in the counter-demonstrations on the ground. Here is one such video, featuring several youths holding the banners of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya (which, to recall, was the main group of battalions responsible for the rebel takeover of Raqqah in March), ISIS and the general flag of jihad.

The video itself is entitled ‘Syrians’ response to the al-Arabiya report against Jabhat al-Nusra, Raqqah.’ In the video, the speaker sarcastically asks, ‘Where is the Arab Jabha?’- a clear retort to denunciations of JAN. He concludes by making clear that the only worthy slogan is the Shahada. Here is another video of a recent counter-demonstration, featuring the banners of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya, JAN and ISIS.

These videos form a marked contrast with footage of demonstrations from Raqqah before. While it is evident that the numbers in these rallies and counter-rallies are fairly small in comparison to the protests based on common causes like solidarity with the rebels fighting for Quṣayr, they mark for the first time a true demarcation based on ideology, whereas in earlier demonstrations I documented banners and factions from across the spectrum could be seen.

At the same time, it is apparent that ISIS/JAN in Raqqah does not think it can assert itself in the face of ideologically-opposed protestors by means of an armed confrontation. Notice how the demonstration outside its headquarters was entirely left alone, even as the group has made its show of strength clear with spectacles like the execution of three men in a public square, accused of working for the Assad regime.

However, if the rallies and counter-rallies continue, it may well be that no concord can be reached again whereby FSA and ISIS flags feature side-by-side in rallies, and instead a situation emerges as in Aleppo where ISIS and other sympathetic factions have their own separate marches.

The recent developments should also debunk the false dichotomy posed by some commentators of ‘Salafist nationalist’ Syrian Islamic Front [SIF] groups like Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya versus transnational jihadist groups (cf. my overview of statements put out by various factions on Sheikh Jowlani’s bayah to Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri).

To sum up, the recent wave of demonstrations in Raqqah only reinforces the point that in this part of Syria, ISIS and JAN are interchangeable. Further, it illustrates how groups like Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya of SIF can on the ground display more affinity with overtly transnational jihadist groups than commonly thought. The current tensions are unlikely to spill into overt bloodshed between rival battalions in Raqqah itself, but that could well change when such rivalries are on display in the border town of Tel Abyaḍ.

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

Notes


[i] Farouq Battalions in Raqqah Governorate have a long-standing rivalry with JAN/ISIS, centering on border control at Tel Abyaḍ. See my post here and Shami Witness’ article here.

[ii] In discourse within Syria, it is common to abbreviate ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ to just ‘State of Islam’ (literal translation here) or ‘Islamic State.’

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi


Introduction

The past couple of weeks has seen Hamas’ tensions with Hezbollah come to the forefront despite past cooperation as the former has urged the latter to withdraw from the Syrian conflict immediately. At first sight, one may be tempted to accuse Hamas of hypocrisy on the basis of widespread rumors of the group’s involvement in Syria in aid of the rebels against the Assad regime. But how far, if at all, is Hamas really participating in the civil war?

Mainstream Media Reports

The main basis for claiming Hamas involvement in Syria lies in a few reports in media outlets. Thus in April the British newspaper The Times claimed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam fighters were training rebels in Damascus- citing anonymous Western diplomats. In the same month, the Kuwaiti paper ‘As-Sayaasah al-Kuwaitiya’ claimed that Hamas was preparing to send a thousand fighters from Lebanon into Syria to take on Hezbollah.

More recently, Rania Abouzeid wrote a piece for The New Yorker on arming rebels of Syria where she claimed in passing that rebels in Idlib had produced projectiles resembling the Qassam rocket, attributing the production to the provision of know-how from Hamas. Abouzeid offered no source for the conveying this information to her.

The problem with these claims is that they are all second-hand in nature, and they have all been denied vigorously by Hamas, whose leadership stresses an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict, even as Hamas officials abandoned Syria out of alienation from the Assad regime’s harsh repression against the mainly Sunni Arab uprising.

Hamas and the Social Media of Jihadis and other Rebels

Outside of the scanty media report testimony, claims of Hamas fighters’ presence in Syria primarily come from pro-regime media. For instance, one video was circulated recently of a Syrian soldier beside the bodies of several men, whom the soldier claimed were Hamas fighters and showed a photo of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin that one of the men purportedly had as proof.

In contrast, one can find extensive first-hand evidence of Hezbollah involvement even from before the Battle for Qusayr, most notably through pro-Hezbollah social media (Twitter, Facebook and chat forums) featuring photos of Hezbollah ‘martyrs’ killed in Syria. Far more reliable evidence by any measure than rebel media circles. By the same standard, the only real way to ascertain a Hamas presence in Syria is through acknowledgement in rebel media organs, jihadist organs, and so on.

Yet such acknowledgement is sorely lacking. There are of course many cases of Palestinian martyrs killed in Syria while fighting for rebel forces, but they are of a Salafist orientation in line with the rebel-battalion coalition known as the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), rather than the Muslim-Brotherhood-alignment of Hamas.

From Gaza itself, I have counted only two martyrs via forums and social media. One of them- called Mohammed Ahmad Quneiṭa– had gone to Syria some months before his death, participating in battles and training rebels. He is said to have been a commander in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

There are also conflicting reports as to whether he was acknowledged by Hamas in Gaza as one of its own: here is one report from the pro-regime site ‘Syria Now’ that claims so, pointing to the alleged acknowledgement of Quneiṭa as definite proof of Hamas involvement in Syria, besides giving citations from a ‘Syrian military source.’ Here is another Arabic news report that claims Hamas acknowledged the fighter.

However, the pro-regime site Zanobia denies that Hamas acknowledged him. Zanobia claims that Quneiṭa went on to become leader of a Jabhat al-Nusra contingent in the Idlib countryside near the Turkish border, but Hamas did not support his enterprise and apparently tried to dissuade him from doing so.

On balance, I am inclined to go with Zanobia’s account, for there is nothing in pro-Hamas social media to corroborate the claim of the group’s acknowledgment of him. It is merely on the basis of Quneiṭa’s apparent senior connections within Hamas that Zanobia takes as proof of Hamas involvement in Syria on the side of the rebels.

It is also of interest to note that the authoritative jihadi news agency- Dawaa al-Haq- claims that Quneiṭa was dismissed from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades for going to Syria to fight jihad. The entire report is worth reading, with claimed citations of close friends of Quneiṭa that purportedly show that despite his membership in the Qassam Brigades, he was always more sympathetic to the Salafi circles at odds with Hamas, such that he had even been arrested a number of times.

The other Gazan martyr- Niḍal al-Ashi– was a Salafist fighter killed in the Aleppo area and was claimed by jihadi sources to have been subject to persecution by Hamas’ security services, including time served in Hamas prisons for firing rockets at Israel and involvement in a plot to assassinate the former head of the International Relief Agency in Gaza.

Salafis in Syria and Hamas

Indeed, the Hamas-Salafist rivalry in Gaza has not escaped the notice of the SIF or al-Qa’ida-aligned battalions like the Katiba al-Muhajireen, both of which have issued statements criticizing Hamas for alleged mistreatment of Salafist mujahideen in Gaza.

Neither acknowledges any Hamas contribution to aiding the uprising against Assad. The SIF in particular made its sentiment clear as its statement was released with a subheading ‘On Hamas’ betrayal of the Syrian revolution’. The SIF then accused Hamas of still being beholden to Iran, noting Hamas officials’ denial of involvement in Syria.

Summary Analysis

In short, we can say at most that to the extent that any Hamas fighters have been involved in Syria, they have been doing so without approval from the Hamas leadership, and either travel to the country from abroad out of their own accord- perhaps with Hamas in Gaza passively allowing this- or could be left-behinds from Hamas’ evacuation of Syria. This is quite far removed from the level of Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war.

In any event, attempting to infer a Hamas presence from rebel tactics can be easily explained by the fact that many Palestinian fighters of Salafist orientation were once Hamas-aligned and then defected.

Conclusion: Hamas, Syria and the Wider Region

Examining Hamas’ stance vis-à-vis Syria is important for analyzing the group’s wider position in the region. While it is conventional to talk of Hamas’ shift to the ‘Sunni bloc’, the reality is that the group is very much in a state of limbo, with all sides harboring some form of reservation towards it.

Iran- angered by Hamas’ withdrawal from Syria and abandoning of Assad- has drastically cut financial support for the group. Salafist factions in Gaza and Syria accuse it of collaborating with Egyptian intelligence to suppress true jihad against Israel. One particularly egregious accusation came from an Egyptian Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen commander in the Sinai, who claimed some Hamas military leaders fund takfiri terrorists.

Egypt, which has now given a green light for citizens to fight in Syria, has not been any more relaxed about border controls with Gaza, preoccupied with economic troubles at home and concerned about security threats posed by militants in the Sinai with links to Gaza.

Finally, Gulf states like Qatar have not been all that forthcoming on aid promises to Gaza, such that the Hamas government there faces its own financial crisis.

While Hamas’ popularity may flare up every time there is a conflict with Israel, the fact is that the group is more isolated than ever, with few reliable friends in the region. If Hamas is going to get more involved in Syria, then the Egyptian and Qatari governments in particular will at the minimum have to demonstrate a greater willingness to aid the Hamas government in Gaza.

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