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Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Raqqah: Demonstrations and Counter-Demonstrations
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
[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.’
Check out my new article with Charles Lister for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel: “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front”
Hezbollah’s victory in Syria in the Battle of Qusair was a wake up call for many pro-Islamist actors in the Arab world. In response, Qatar — through Yusef al-Qaradawi and Al Jazeera as well as key Egyptian Islamic leaders – has gone on the offensive. These players have publicized key Islamist factions, especially the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) as well as called for jihad as a necessary duty for all. Through these actions, one of the key winners has been the SIF, a Salafi umbrella formation, which is arguably the best fighting force within the opposition.
The SIF, led by its principal constituent force, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI), coordinates extensively with the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (and though skeptical of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, coordinates with it in Aleppo), but also with all other Syrian rebel groups. While it is more than willing to fight alongside groups loyal to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Coalition, it expressly rejects their rights to represent the entire Syrian opposition. The SIF’s insistence in a future Syria becoming an Islamic state ruled by sharia contradicts the objectives expressed by the wider moderate opposition. Although it has not issued any direct threats outside Syria, the SIF is opposed to any external intervention in Syria by any Western state and its leader has threatened attacks on any foreign military force entering Syria, supportive or opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
In the past two weeks, the SIF’s leader, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, has publicly appeared for the first time in an Al Jazeera interview, attended a conference of senior Muslim clerics in Cairo calling for jihad (the only Syrian rebel leader present), and spoke on the Egyptian Salafi TV station al-Nas. It appears that key players with vested interests in Qatar and Egypt’s clerical community are attempting to anoint the SIF as the leaders of the Syrian revolution.
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NOTE: An archive of the Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad column can now be found here.
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
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.
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
New statement from the Syrian Islamic Front’s Ḥarakat Aḥrār al-Shām al-Islāmīyyah: “Clarification on the Declaration of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām’ and Its Implications for the Domestic and Regional Arena”
UPDATE 5/6/13 1:36 PM: Here is an English translation of the below Arabic statement:
In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.
Praise be to God and prayers and peace upon the messenger of God.
We were surprised, just as many were surprised, by what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, released concerning the announcement the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We were similarly surprised by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s response, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, in which he pledged allegiance (bay’ah) to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.
Given that we are watching with interest the implications of the event – and what it means in terms of its large impact on the internal and regional arenas – we wish to record some important points that make our position clear on what has come out. We take the approach of offering advice (al-nush) and admonition (al-tazkir):
1: We in the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement are keen on concentrating efforts and unifying them in the battle to topple the aggressive Assad enemy, as nothing except for faith (iman) is more required and nothing comes before it.
2: God has set forth the legitimate norms (sunan) and universal laws to establish rightly guided states. Whoever breaches the laws is deprived of their consequences(note: this line was unclear to me). Religious leadership (al-imamah) over Muslims must have ability and authority to secure its interests. This does not exist among any of the factions and brigades on the ground.
3: The “emirate” is a method – enunciated in God’s law – to unify the message and the ranks, but it is not an end in itself. What al-Baghdadi announced did not unify the scattered groups and it did not reconcile conflicting factions, and this is what is called “corruption of the situation” among religious scholars. This is when what resulted from a ruling is the opposite of what is originally intended.
4: No one in this country – no religious scholars or sincere Islamists and FSA brigades working on the ground – was consulted in the announcement of the state. This opens up the field for anyone to announce initiatives on their own according to how they see fit
5: As such, the two announcements will drag parties into the conflict that do not serve – as we see it – the people’s revolution and Jihad. The principle is to not expand the scope of the conflict and to concentrate on fighting the Assad regime, undermining its pillars of support, and stopping its aggression.
Our wounded people. When we saw Jabhat al-Nusra’s dedication and valor in battle, their charity and their good treatment of the people, it was thought that they would continue being altruistic and serving the interests of the nation.
Based on what has preceded, we ask both parties to get a sense of the magnitude of the event, the danger of regionalizing the conflict in this way, and bringing in other parties. This is not based on arbitrary distinctions between members of the Islamic nation, but an objective reading of the situation. It is a presentation of what we see as being in the best interests of Muslims and their Jihad against the tyrant of Syria.
Lastly, we in the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement announce that the establishment of a rightly guided Islamic state that rules its subjects with justice is a goal that we strive to achieve through legitimate means. As such, we take care to heed the requirements of the situation and the state of the Islamic nation, which has concealed its religion for a half century. We ask God to guide us rightly in both thought and action and to grant our nation what is best. He is the protector and enabler, praise be to God, lord of the worlds.
Click the following link for a safe PDF copy: Ḥarakat Aḥrār al-Shām al-Islāmīyyah — “Clarification on the Declaration of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām’ and Its Implications for the Domestic and Regional Arena”
Check out my new piece for the Washington Institute’s Policy Watch: “The Syrian Islamic Front: A New Salafi Force”
The second half of 2012 saw increased radicalization of the Syrian armed opposition, particularly in the north and east. What began as a mainly secular force with the creation of the umbrella Free Syrian Army has slowly fragmented into Islamist splinter factions, including Suqur al-Sham, Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS), and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Designated a terrorist organization by Washington in early December, JN has received the most attention, but little has been said about KAS, another popular Salafi-jihadist group whose strength and support continue to grow in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere. On December 21, KAS announced the creation of a new umbrella fighting force called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). Given this group’s increasing prowess on the battlefield and ideological similarity to JN, Washington must develop a better understanding of its capabilities and reach.
WHO THEY ARE
In the statement and video proclaiming the SIF’s creation, spokesman Abu Abdul Rahman al-Souri declared that the group followed extremist Salafi doctrines and planned to topple the Assad regime and its allies, after which it would institute its interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). According to him, this would mean establishing institutions focusing on political matters, dawa (Islamic advocacy), cultural education, and humanitarian relief.
The SIF is made up of eleven brigades, including KAS (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kataib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaish al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jamaat al-Taliah al-Islamiyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Musab bin Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Katibat Suqur al-Islam, Kataib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin Abdul Mutalib. The latter five brigades have little to no battle record posted online, which suggests they are not real players on the ground.
At the end of its December statement, the SIF emphasizes that it is open to other Islamist organizations joining its cause, and the accompanying video shows the front’s fighters in action in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo, and Deir al-Zour, among other places. Since then, the SIF and JN have been at the forefront of several key battles, including the recent liberation of Taftanaz airport, a jailbreak in Idlib, and efforts to take Jisr al-Shughour.
The video also shows the SIF’s humanitarian relief efforts, such as paving new roads and clearing old ones, baking bread for the increasing number of needy Syrians, and supplying foodstuffs. Other soft-power efforts include Quranic recitation contests for children. In addition, the video highlights two of the main actors financing these efforts: the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO.
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