Jabhat Ansar al-Din: Analysis and Interview

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Logo of Jabhat Ansar al-Din

Jabhat Ansar al-Din [Supporters/Partisans of the Religion Front] is a coalition of four groups originally set up in July of this year, comprising Harakat Sham al-Islam, Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar, The Green Battalion and Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya. Of these groups, Harakat Sham al-Islam was set up by Moroccan ex-Gitmo detainee Ibrahim bin Shakaran, who died in the Latakia offensive this spring. Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMWA)- under Omar al-Shishani- was once part of what was then the Islamic State State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), but following Shishani and his followers’ break-off to join ISIS in November 2013, the group has effectively become the Caucasus Emirate’s wing in Syria. The Green Battalion was an independent group set up in the summer of last year by Saudi fighters who wanted to stay out of the Jabhat al-Nusra-ISIS dispute but has since pledged allegiance to JMWA, while an amir, Shari’a official and some fighters have joined ISIS’ successor the Islamic State [IS]. Finally, one should note Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya is a native Syrian, primarily Aleppo-based faction.

As per the ‘manifesto’ of Jabhat Ansar al-Din, the coalition defines itself as ‘independent’ and striving to implement a state-building project with the rule of Shari’a [Islamic law] in its totality, illustrating a broader trend of jihadi groups forming their own state enterprises as IS and the regime increasingly take up territory. As I have mentioned before, one may ask why the members of this coalition have not simply join Jabhat al-Nusra (which strives for the same goal) in line with the precedent of the one-time Saudi-led independent jihadi group Suqur al-Izz: I submit that this is due to power-politics tension in the sense of not wanting to lose autonomy and be subsumed under Jabhat al-Nusra. The case of Harakat Sham al-Islam in particular seems to be one of an al-Qa’ida front project under Ibrahim bin Shakaran’s leadership but a change in direction after his death.

In keeping with the general ‘anti-fitna’ stance of jihadi groups (including al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]) when it comes to perceived non-Muslim/’apostate’ forces fighting a jihadi group (regardless of the power-struggles), Jabhat Ansar al-Din issued a statement denouncing the U.S.-led coalition against IS as part of a war on Islam and Muslims. The statement cites common grievances such as the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the prisons of Begram and Guantánamo with torture therein, “America’s support and aid for the Jews in Palestine…the Jews’ occupation of the al-Aqsa mosque,” crimes committed against Muslims in Burma and the Central African Republic, and supposed U.S. siding with “Arab tyrants” in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia.

From these complaints, the statement affirmed that “the target of the Zionist-Crusader-Safavid alliance is Islam and Muslims in general and their mujahideen vanguard in particular.” Denouncing anyone who should enter into the alliance as guilty of apostasy, Jabhat Ansar al-Din concluded with a call for Muslim unity against “this oppressive intervention,” and asked God to “give victory to the mujahideen in Iraq, ash-Sham and every place.”

However, it is notable that unlike AQIM and AQAP (which admittedly tried to avoid the issue of whether al-Qa’ida groups regard IS as a state by simply referring to it as ‘the Islamic State’ rather than ‘the group of the state’ [jamaat ad-dawla]), Jabhat Ansar al-Din does not even refer to IS by name in the statement, which fits a wider pattern of non-al-Qa’ida-affiliated jihadi groups in Syria aiming to stay out of the al-Qa’ida-IS dispute as far as possible.

Indeed, to date, with the exception of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (which has fought IS in Iraq anyway), none of the global jihadi groups outside of Jabhat al-Nusra- including the few remaining stand-alone ones such as Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa- is known to have participated in actual fighting against IS. In the case of Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, the refusal to fight against IS sparked tensions with Northern Storm in Azaz and ultimately led to the group’s departure from Azaz. Corroborating the anti-fitna record is the fact that some of the components of Jabhat Ansar al-Din prior to the coalition’s announcement worked with what was then ISIS in early 2014 in besieging Kweiris airbase in Aleppo province under the initiative ‘And Don’t Separate’ (along with Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham).

Whether Jabhat Ansar al-Din can truly maintain this ostensibly ‘trouble free’ policy of relations with other jihadis in Syria- particularly IS and Jabhat al-Nusra- remains an open question.

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Reflecting Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s state-building ambitions, video of a Shari’a institute run by Harakat Sham al-Islam.

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Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s JMWA purportedly conducting anti-aircraft operations in Handarat, Aleppo province.

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Harakat Sham al-Islam da’wah efforts reportedly in Latakia countryside.

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JMWA da’wah efforts for children reportedly in north Aleppo countryside.

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Friday sermon reportedly given by a Green Battalion member in Idlib countryside.

Below is an interview I conducted with Abo Mo’atesem al-Shami, a Jabhat Ansar al-Din media activist based in the Aleppo area, corroborating the points I made above.

Interview

Q: Does Jabhat Ansar al-Din want a Caliphate?

A: Yes. [Among] our goals are the project of an Islamic Caliphate and the rule of God’s law in the land.

Q: But why is Jabhat Ansar al-Din independent and does not join Jabhat al-Nusra which also wants a Caliphate?

A: The problem is with them, not with us: we are prepared to work with all upright factions whose goals are like ours. It is not hidden from anyone that the goals of the majority of factions are like our goals.

Q: In your opinion has Jabhat al-Nusra made mistakes on the ground?

A: In my personal opinion indeed we all make mistakes…and perhaps in Jabhat al-Nusra’s point of view it is not necessary to establish a Caliphate while the gangs of Assad exist in Syria.

Q: In which areas does Jabhat Ansar al-Din operate?

A: We operate in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs and Latakia. In Aleppo: al-Ramousa, Sheikh Said, Aziza, Air Intelligence, Handarat, Sayfat, and in the southern countryside: the area of Jabal ‘Azzan, al-Wadihi, Mu’amal ad-Difa’. In Idlib: the village of Wadi al-Deif, al-Qarmeed military camp. In Hama: the countryside to the north of the city of Hama. In Homs: the countryside to the north of the city of Homs. In Latakia: Jabal al-Akrad, Jabal al-Turkoman and Kassab.

Q: How are your relations with IS?

A: We have no relation with IS (original: ad-dawla). We don’t fight them and they don’t fight us. But anyone who says that Jabhat Ansar al-Din is affiliated with IS is lying.

The White Shroud: A Syrian Resistance Movement to the Islamic State

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Logo of “The White Shroud”

I have previously written on Sunni groups created within Iraq to fight against the Islamic State [IS], but what about in Syria? Some attention has been devoted to the group “Al-Kafn Al-Abyad” (The White Shroud), but on social media I have seen some controversy as to the nature of The White Shroud. For example, people ask: is it Jabhat al-Nusra, or ‘FSA’?

To answer this question, one needs to bear in mind that The White Shroud is an anti-IS outfit originally set up in the Deir az-Zor locality of Albukamal on the border with Iraq (now declared part of IS’ ‘Euphrates Province‘ spanning the borders, including al-Qa’im just over the border with Iraq): indeed describing itself as “the brigades of popular resistance in Albukamal.”

It will be recalled from my prior work that the town of Albukamal originally had six factions, listed below with their wider affiliations where applicable:

- Liwa Allahu Akbar (SMC/Hayat al-Arkan)
- Kata’ib Allahu Akbar (Authenticity and Development Front)
- Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar (independent; one-time pro-Ahrar al-Sham)
- Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya (independent; pro-Caliphate, tied to seeing the Syria and Iraq struggle for Sunnis as one)
- Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna (independent; pro-Caliphate)
- Kata’ib Junud al-Haq (Jabhat al-Nusra; evolved from Katiba Junud al-Haq)

Note that there were other factions in the wider area that emerged over time with influence such as Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin which belonged to the now defunct coalition Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front, which had once played a role in the fight against IS in the northern Euphrates area in Syria.

Of the six main groups of Albukamal, Liwa Allahu Akbar became part of what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) after the November 2013 defection of leader Saddam al-Jamal (also known as Saddam Rakhaytah), who had clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra in September 2013. The Authenticity and Development Front is a Salafi coalition backed by Saudi Arabia that only conceives of Syria as an Islamic state within a national framework, while Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar did not have a political program beyond the fall of the regime despite the one-time affinity with Ahrar al-Sham that was subsequently disavowed in rejection of fighting ISIS at the end of January 2014. Kata’ib Junud al-Haq had defected to ISIS when ISIS was first announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but re-defected to Jabhat al-Nusra after Zawahiri’s call to annul ISIS.

It will be noted in the picture of the logo above (taken from The White Shroud’s official Facebook page) that members of three of the factions I have just mentioned are included within The White Shroud: Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, Authenticity and Development Front, and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya. Of the other factions, two other sources from Albukamal- one the former spokesman for the defunct Kata’ib Junud al-Haq- have told me that Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna members all became part of IS once the town fell under IS control (undoubtedly ideological overlap played a role), while no members of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq are known to have joined The White Shroud thus far. Some of course will have become part of IS (again something undoubtedly facilitated by ideological overlap), but others will have simply laid arms aside as part of declaring ‘tawba’ (‘repentance’) before IS and then returned to civilian life with acknowledgment of IS’ supremacy. Others too- even of those factions now part of The White Shroud- simply fled the Albukamal area to head to other fronts: this was the case for the leader of a local Albukamal Authenticity and Development battalion- Liwa Basha’ir al-Nasr- who fled to Qalamoun in Damascus province after the fall of Albukamal.

The operations conducted by The White Shroud, like those of the anti-IS Sunni resistance movements in Iraq, have mostly been small-scale claimed assassinations so far, but apparently the group has been trying to expand its activities in Deir az-Zor province, with a contingent supposedly now in Deir az-Zor city in a video released by the Authenticity and Development Front. It will certainly be of interest to see if The White Shroud develops into a broader umbrella front for a variety of former rebel factions in Deir az-Zor province of a variety of orientations.

Update and Further Note

My friend and colleague Alfred Hackensberger, drawing on his own sources, contends that The White Shroud is not a real group. I would disagree with this notion but a more general point needs to be made about real manpower and capabilities. In truth, I do not think The White Shroud at present has any more than a few dozen fighters. Indeed, it has to be remembered that the component battalions of The White Shroud lost significant numbers of members to an ISIS assault on the town of Albukamal in April. Not overstating manpower and capabilities also applies to other anti-IS resistance movements: if, for example, a Kata’ib Mosul component representative gives contingent numbers into the hundreds, it is a safe bet to downgrade the actual manpower by several factors. As far a operations go, nothing suggests the attacks on IS- even if successful- have truly damaged the group’s power base in the areas it controls.

Also in my own experience, though Abu al-Layth of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades affirmed to me that 250 fighters of his coalition had been sent to Kobani to aid the YPG in its fight against IS, he affirmed that this number had declined to 160 in a subsequent conversation. Meanwhile, a representative of the Sun of the North/Northern Sun Battalions- the contingent of Dawn of Freedom Brigades in Kobani- only affirmed the presence of some 70 fighters for the group in a 12 October conversation with me.

Joshua Landis on ISIS, Syria & the “Great Sorting Out” in the Middle East – Interview with Danny Postel

Joshua Landis on ISIS, Syria & the “Great Sorting Out” in the Middle East In conversation with Danny Postel of Denver University’s CMES This discussion is an elaboration of a short article, “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant,” that Elias Muhanna published on his blog, Qifa Nabki

Interview with Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali: Commander of the National Ideological Resistance in Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Following on from my previous post here at Syria Comment on the National Ideological Resistance in Syria (a ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ militia brand primarily based in Tartous and Hama governorates but also operating militarily at least in Aleppo province as well), below is an interview I recently conducted with the group’s leader: Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali.

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Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali, who is based in Tartous.

Some things to note in particular about this interview:

1. ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ brands at the grassroots level- whether or not actually set up by Hezbollah- with propagation of Iranian-aligned Shi’ism among Syrian Alawites predate the onset of the civil war in Syria, if the Sayyid’s testimony is true.

2. As ever, a contrast exists between what is stated here in this interview and what is propagated as open source social media advertisement. For example, in the case of extent of military operations, little from open source advertisement points to operations in Quneitra or Deraa.

3. It is interesting that the Sayyid says there is no connection with the Muqawama Suriya, even as the latter claims a media office branch in Masyaf (Hama province), for instance. This may indicate tension between the two despite the public advert ‘brotherology’ here (cf. his reference to Ali Kayali as ‘brother’).

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Muqawama Suriya: Masyaf Branch

Q: When was the National Ideological Resistance in Syria [NIR] established?

A: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. The NIR was established in the beginning in mid-2009 before the events in Syria, as a resistance movement from within the components of the Syrian people against the Zionist enemy: nationalist, of the people (ideological), and [established] without intervention or support from any state or any other faction. We began with a small, limited number [of members] and we undertook special training sessions to undertake martyrdom missions against the Zionist soldiers. But [because of] our very weak capabilities…we undertook a number of simple missions…and we continued lying in wait for any opportunity to be offered to us to undertake a mission against the Zionist soldiers, in any case. And before the beginning of the crisis in Syria we perceived the danger and visited some of the oppositionists in a number of provinces and our weapons were the freedom of speech we possessed and we always expressed our opinions even if they were against the government, and we did not fear the truth…

Thus we were before the events and thus we still are, and thanks to God, we managed to connect with some of those who thought that what is happening in Syria is a revolution and a number of them joined our ranks, either transmitting information to us or participating in battle. The resistance was established in the mosque of Sayyida Zahara’ (peace be upon her) in the village of Namriya in the Sheikh Badr region of  Tartous.

Q: How many ‘martyrs’ does NIR have?

A: We have 27 great martyrs of righteousness and men of our Lord the Companion of Time [Imam al-Mahdi] (peace be upon him). We also have, thanks to God, around 70 wounded…and the wounds among them are serious and light, thanks to God.

Q: Does NIR support Ayatollah Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih*?

A: With regards to your question about wilayat al-faqih, allow me to respond to your question with a question: are we able to be in the presence of one knowledgeable in religion to guide us? And why should we become confused in our matter so long as the sayyid and knowledgeable one is present? And we are the ones working for our Lord- the Companion of Time- to accept us in his army,** so as long as our work is pure to the face of God- Exalted is He- so it is obligatory for us to be bound by the program of the Commander of the Faithful and our impeccable imams. And we must embrace the original Islamic religion of Muhammad.

Q: What are your relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon?

A: On the question of our relations with the heroes and mujahideen of Hezbollah, we say with total pride that they are our model, whose manners, commitment, faith and power- which are from trust in God and Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (may God protect him)- we imitate. Their cooperation with us gives us power, constancy, and faith in the divine victory.

Q: What are your relations with the Muqawama Suriya led by Ali Kayali?

A: On our relations with the brother Ali Kayali, sadly we are not connected by any relation because we work on internal fronts in Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and Quneitra, but not in Latakia. So we don’t meet with them but in any case we respect all the honourable ones in this crisis and we are completely ready to cooperate with them within the ethical framework and direction of the Ahl al-Bayt [Muhammad's family revered by Shi'a in particular] (peace be upon them).

Notes

*- Iran’s ideological system of governance.
**- Whence NIR’s ‘armed wing’: Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi

Islamic State Officially Admits to Enslaving Yazidi Women

Matthew Barber 3by Matthew Barber

I first began tweeting about the Islamic State’s campaign to kidnap and enslave Yazidi women when I was in Iraq this past August. Though analysts were skeptical and online jihadists who defend IS vehemently denied my claims, I was communicating with the families of the kidnapped women and with those engaged in rescue efforts. I have even spoken by phone directly with kidnapped Yazidi women in captivity. One month ago, I sounded the alarm regarding the plight of the kidnapped Yazidi women for whom time is running out, detailing how an effective rescue operation would be possible. A number of journalists had written amazing stories, directly interviewing survivors—girls that had been kidnapped and placed into the homes of IS jihadists as slaves. These stories continue to emerge, TV interviews have taken place, and the UN issued a report on the kidnapping issue.

Despite the widespread doubt, I and the team I work with have been able to collect the names of thousands of kidnapped Yazidis—mostly women and girls, but also a number of kidnapped and imprisoned men that have been forced to convert to Islam. A month ago, our estimate of kidnapped Yazidis was below 4,000 individuals, but as we continue to gather data, our number now stands at almost 7,000.

Ongoing efforts to shed light on this crisis notwithstanding, the media hasn’t lingered on the issue. Evidence in the form of firsthand accounts of survivors gathered by credible journalists and academics wasn’t enough; skepticism seemed to reign in the absence of photographic evidence—something nearly-impossible to obtain. How would one snap photos of women distributed through private IS networks and placed into the homes of individual IS jihadists? Even a photograph of a Yazidi woman in an Arab home wouldn’t indicate that she was in fact enslaved as a “concubine.”

But today this controversy can be laid to rest. IS has just released the fourth installment of Dabiq, an official publication that they began to produce in July. This issue, called “The Failed Crusade,” contains an article entitled “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which details how IS fighters kidnapped and distributed Yazidi women as slave concubines. The article also provides their rationale for reviving slavery, which they root in their interpretation of the practice of the earliest Islamic communities. The Islamic State has now officially disclosed that it engages in the sexual enslavement of women from communities determined to be of “pagan” or “polytheistic” origin.

slavery Yazidi women

Several observations on this IS article:

1) The campaign to enslave Yazidi women is genocidal in that it is part of a greater effort to end the existence of the Yazidi people:

The article states that the existence of the Yazidis is something for which God will judge Muslims:

Upon conquering the region of Sinjar in Wilāyat Nīnawā, the Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in regions of Iraq and Shām. Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day, considering that Allah had revealed Āyat as-Sayf (the verse of the sword) over 1400 years ago.

The Islamic State also see the enslavement project as a means of forcing Yazidis to renounce their identity and convert to Islam:

Many of the mushrik women and children have willingly accepted Islam and now race to practice it with evident sincerity after their exit from the darkness of shirk.

Rasūlullāh (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Allah marvels at a people who enter Jannah in chains” [reported by al-Bukhārī on the authority of Abū Hurayrah]. The hadīth commentators mentioned that this refers to people entering Islam as slaves and then entering Jannah.

Abū Hurayrah (radiyallāhu ‘anh) said while commenting on Allah’s words, {You are the best nation produced for mankind} [Āli ‘Imrān: 110], “You are the best people for people. You bring them with chains around their necks, until they enter Islam” [Sahīh al-Bukhāri].

2) The Islamic State differentiates between a) People of the Book (non-Islamic religions receiving some rights and protection), b) religious groups that were originally Muslim but that have apostatized, and c) religious groups that were “originally polytheistic:”

Prior to the taking of Sinjar, Sharī’ah students in the Islamic State were tasked to research the Yazidis to determine if they should be treated as an originally mushrik group or one that originated as Muslims and then apostatized, due to many of the related Islamic rulings that would apply to the group, its individuals, and their families. Because of the Arabic terminologies used by this group either to describe themselves or their beliefs, some contemporary Muslim scholars have classified them as possibly an apostate sect, not an originally mushrik religion, but upon further research, it was determined that this group is one that existed since the pre-Islamic jāhiliyyah, but became “Islamized” by the surrounding Muslim population, language, and culture, although they never accepted Islam nor claimed to have adopted it. The apparent origin of the religion is found in the Magianism of ancient Persia, but reinterpreted with elements of Sabianism, Judaism, and Christianity, and ultimately expressed in the heretical vocabulary of extreme Sufism.

Accordingly, the Islamic State dealt with this group as the majority of fuqahā’ have indicated how mushrikīn should be dealt with. Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword.

3) The IS article justifies their enslavement of polytheist women through their interpretation of the practice of the early Islamic community:

The article invokes the practice of khums originating with the earliest battles of Islam in which 1/5 of the war booty was set aside for the Prophet Mohammed (i.e. the “state”):

After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums.

The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikīn were sold by the Companions (radiyallāhu ‘anhum) before them. Many well-known rulings are observed, including the prohibition of separating a mother from her young children.

From the Islamic State’s point of view, any Muslim who tries to interpret the practice of the early Islamic community in a different way, in order to condemn the practice of slavery, speaks in direct contradiction to the Qur’an and the Prophet and has therefore left Islam:

Before Shaytān reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffār and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and thereby apostatizing from Islam.

4) In the view of the Islamic State, reviving the practice of slavery is actually a desirable goal with tangible spiritual benefits. They believe that slavery helps men avoid sexual sin because it enables them to avoid prohibited forms of extramarital sex. They underscore that it is impermissible to sleep with a hired household maid (a widespread occurrence in some countries where maids who become pregnant are often punished/imprisoned), yet sleeping with one’s concubine (who will have the same duties as the maid) is permissible:

Finally, a number of contemporary scholars have mentioned that the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in fāhishah (adultery, fornication, etc.), because the shar’ī alternative to marriage is not available, so a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin. In addition, many Muslim families who have hired maids to work at their homes, face the fitnah of prohibited khalwah (seclusion) and resultant zinā occurring between the man and the maid, whereas if she were his concubine, this relationship would be legal. This again is from the consequences of abandoning jihād and chasing after the dunyā, wallāhul-musta’ān.

 

A Must-See Human Rights Watch Report

Coinciding with IS’ own admission of the practice, HRW has just released an excellent report on kidnapped and enslaved Yazidis that should be read in its entirety. A separate page has video footage containing extensive interviews with survivors, available with English and Arabic subtitles.