Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Saturday, September 27th, 2014
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
In a post for Jihadology in August 2013, I documented examples of foreign support for what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Signs of such support included anonymous placards and other gestures from ‘Bilad al-Haramain’ (Saudi Arabia), a rally in Somalia for ISIS, support for ISIS in Gaza, an apparent pledge of allegiance from jihadis in the Sinai area to ISIS, along with hints from Lebanon (particularly the Tripoli area) and support from the Ansar al-Shari’a movements in Tunisia and Libya, resulting in disproportionate representation of Tunisians and Libyans in the foreign fighter ranks of ISIS. Over the course of 2013 and into the start of this year, some of these trends solidified: the most notable example being statements of support shown for ISIS in the face of its fight with rebels in Syria put out by the Gaza-Sinai jihadi organizations Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia also advertised this year on its official Twitter feed a placard of support shown by an ISIS fighter in Syria.
However, a key shift now in the question of support for Baghdadi and his project is the fact that ISIS has now become the Islamic State (IS): a Caliphate demanding formal allegiance from all Muslims. The declaration at the end of June was of course partly designed to unleash a new wave of support for the group on the domestic and international level: at the former, there has certainly been some success when coupled with IS’ advances on the ground and displays of superior military and financial power. For instance, in Iraq, the jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- which has the same end-goal of a Caliphate but has rejected IS’ claim to be a caliphate/state in a dispute going back to IS’ incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq- has seen its presence significantly eroded in Ninawa province in particular as members have pledged allegiance to IS. The defections have undoubtedly been facilitated by ideological overlap.
On the international level, the Caliphate declaration has not quite proven as galvanising in the face of ongoing competition with al-Qa’ida. Most importantly, it needs to be stressed that having come out in support of what was then ISIS does not translate to being ‘IS-aligned’ now. Below, examples of support for and alignment with what is now IS will be examined by country and region.
Above it was noted that both Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen had come out in support of ISIS at the beginning of this year, arguing for the group’s right to ‘self-defence’ in the fighting with other rebels. However, neither group has declared allegiance to IS’ Caliphate, which is so even as Reuters reported contact between Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and IS with the latter providing advice on carrying out operations. The Egyptian press had circulated rumours of a supposed pledge of allegiance to IS by Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, but as I have documented previously, the sourcing was faulty and not going back to any actual source or authority within the group. It would thus seem that Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is trying to have it both ways: showing sympathy for IS while not subsuming itself under the Caliphate. In turn, IS does not seem to mind this position, as the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani hailed the jihadis in Sinai- without specific mention of any group- for their efforts against the Sisi-led Egyptian government. In addition, it should be noted that Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ statements and photos are advertised on pro-IS media, including forums such as al-Platform Media (al-Minbar al-‘Ilami al-Jihadi).
Of more interest is an obscure group called Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (‘The Group of Helpers/Supporters of the Islamic State in Bayt al-Maqdis’), whose official outlet is al-Platform Media. Also known as “Ansar al-Khilafa”, the group engages in da’wah activity for IS in Gaza and has sent fighters and specialists to join IS in Syria via Sinai. IS, it should be recalled, has a Gazan contingent known as the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Battalion. Thus it would be fair to characterize Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis as IS’ network in the Gaza-Sinai area. Though the group claims a West Bank coordinator, little evidence has emerged of meaningful activity in the West Bank. In any event, Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis should be borne in mind amid sensationalist Israeli media coverage that has often mistaken rallies for Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which rejected the IS Caliphate announcement) and simple black flags of jihad as indicating support for IS.
More recently, a statement was put out on jihadi forums with the announcement of a “Jund al-Khilafa bi Ard al-Kenana” (“Soldiers of the Caliphate in Egypt”), declaring a pledge of allegiance to IS. Pointing to the actions of the “dogs of the Rafidites- the agents of the Majus from the filthy Safavids, and the disbelieving Nusayris [Alawites]” against Sunnis in Iraq and al-Sham, and attacking the “dog of the Jews- the disbelieving tyrant of Egypt” Sisi, the purported new group pledged its allegiance to “the commander of the believers, the Caliph of the Muslims- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini (may God protect him).” A threat was also issued to the “enemies of Islam from among the Americans and the Cross-Worshippers,” making clear that their bases and embassies are legitimate targets. But perhaps most notably, affinity was declared with Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis: “We have not found from the ‘ulama of Egypt whom we reckoned sincere anyone who would make clear to the people what was ambiguous and clarify rulings except Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis: may God protect them and given them victory…” This illustrates the affinity IS supporters show for the group despite its lack of pledge of allegiance to IS.
Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia was known for its staunchly pro-ISIS stance last year, as one of its leading members had written a lengthy tract concluding that it was obligatory on members of Jabhat al-Nusra to switch allegiance to ISIS. However, the group has found the notion of IS as the Caliphate more difficult to accept, having shared on an official Facebook page al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s [AQIM] rejection of the Caliphate announcement. Despite this rejection, Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia’s leadership still wants to show appreciation for IS, extending tribute to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in its Eid al-Fitr message this summer, but it should also be noted that this message paid regard to Aymenn al-Zawahiri. This position is ultimately incoherent.
One problem that Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia may face is a disconnect between its leadership and rank-and-file ground members aligning with IS and then heading off to Iraq-Syria to become fighters for IS. One group dedicated to da’wah work that may be an activist front for Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia- namely, “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia”- continues to advertise IS material, at least going by social media pages bearing its name.
Similar to the previous photo: “Emirate of Kairouan: Islamic Tunisia.” It should be noted that Kairouan can refer either to a region in central Tunisia or Tunisia as a whole. The region of Kairouan is known as a hotbed of pro-IS sentiment, as will be discussed below.
A more concrete example is the case of a recent statement put out in the name of “Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi“- a joint insurgent project between AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia, as I have mentioned before. The statement- declaring support for IS- was not shared by any official outlets for Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia, which might serve as a grounds for skepticism as regards its authenticity. What seems equally possible if not more likely is that it is only reflecting a provincial contingent of Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi that has been a source for IS’ Tunisian fighters: namely, the contingent in Kairouan province. This conclusion, which I share with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, is in my view strengthened by one additional point about the statement: if it were reflecting the whole Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi, then it would have to be a pledge of bay’ah [allegiance] to IS rather than a mere affirmation of nusra lil-dawla al-islamiya [support for the Islamic State] that is essentially a re-statement of already existing pro-IS sentiment in the face of growing international action against IS. Here is my translation of the relevant parts of that statement (parts in italics my own emphasis):
“Kairouan Support for the State of the Islamic Caliphate,
Before the Ummah of Islam in general and the State of the Islamic Caliphate in particular lies an alliance of the proprietors of global disbelief and the forces of idolatrous tyranny of the Arabs and hypocrites, with their brawl against them [the Ummah etc.] and their coming together to wage war on them and break their courage and the courage of the Muslims…and in response to the command of God and His Messenger (God’s peace and blessings be upon him), the mujahideen brothers in the Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi from the land of Kairouan show support, help and aid for the State of the Islamic Caliphate, and urge it to continue moving forward in breaking the borders and smashing the thrones of the forces of idolatrous tyranny in every place, and we say to our brothers in the Islamic State: ‘Do not be in despair or be sad, for you are supreme if you are believers.’
Oh God, give victory to the Islamic State, raise its banner and unite the ranks of the mujahideen in every place…”
Like Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia, many of Ansar al-Shari’a Libya’s rank-and-file members have undoubtedly had IS leanings, translating to a Libyan fighting division within IS: Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, which played an important role in fighting in eastern Syria both in fending off rebel attacks on IS’ southern Hasakah province stronghold of al-Markadah and pushing into Deir az-Zor province in an ultimately successful bid to capture it. However, other Ansar al-Shari’a members had ties with the Katiba al-Muhajireen in Latakia that joined Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of 2013. In any case, there has been no formal pledge of allegiance to the Caliphate from Ansar al-Shari’a Libya. Of interest though is a statement from the Abu Mohjen al-Ta’ifi Battalion, which describes itself as “Tanzim al-Qa’ida in Libya.” For ‘Sha’aban 1435 AH’ (30 May-28 June 2014), the group issued a statement warning the United States against intervention in Libya, invoking a prior warning from the “amir [commander] of the Ummah” Aymenn al-Zawahiri, reflecting the group’s allegiance. Yet on 4 July 2014, after the Caliphate declaration, the group issued a statement offering “munasara” (‘support’) for IS but not explicitly affirming a pledge of allegiance and still calling itself “Tanzim al-Qa’ida in Libya”:
“From the amir of the Abu Mohjen al-Ta’ifi Battalion to our sheikh- the amir of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham- as-salam alaykum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuhu. We heard your recent speech about the Islamic State, so I ask the Almighty to bless your effort…and that the state should spread the spring of the land in its perfection. And I ask Him- the Exalted- to accept your blessed jihad. And thus, we have decided to send 50 mujahideen: among them the doctor, an oil engineer, someone experienced in military tactics, and suicide bombers. Accept this oh our sheikh…oh our beloved in the Islamic State…I ask God- Almighty and Exalted is He- to strengthen you on tawheed and jihad and to establish the Islamic State over the entire Earth and that its light may be accomplished at your hands.”
It would appear that this battalion is like Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia trying to have it both ways (i.e. showing support for Baghdadi while not formally subsuming itself under the Caliphate): on the one hand the group refers to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as ‘our sheikh’ but uses at the beginning of the statement IS’ prior name ISIS and does not mention the word ‘Caliphate’ once, which is now a fundamental part of the group’s image. There is also no renunciation of the prior reference to Aymenn al-Zawahiri as the ‘amir of the Ummah’.
Of note here is a pro-IS break-off from AQIM known as “Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir” (‘The Soldiers of the Caliphate in the land of Algeria’), which released a statement this month affirming a ‘renewal’ of allegiance to the Islamic State, criticising the “corruption” of the “manhaj [program] of al-Qa’ida.” This group, following on also from a pledge of allegiance in the summer by “Katiba al-Huda from the Islamic Maghreb,” is said to be under the leadership of one Khalid Sulayman. Invoking discussion of “the victorious sect,” the statement concluded with a vow to follow Baghdadi’s orders as the caliph, promising to help raise the banner “from China to Andalus” (i.e. accomplishing the more immediate goal of a Caliphate spanning the Muslim world). More recently, Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir has come to public attention for the beheading of a French hostage, as part of a “message from Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir to the dog Francois Hollande.”
In keeping with the alignment with IS, the group in a 22 September media release on the hostage taking cited Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s speech calling for supporters of IS to ‘defend’ IS and attack citizens of countries participating in the fight against IS, singling out in particular among Westerners the “hateful, filthy French.” In the media release, one of Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir’s members had announced:
“[…] The Almighty has said: ‘Indeed the believers and believing women are helpers of one another’ [Qur’an 9:71], for we are the soldiers of the Caliphate in the land of Algeria in compliance with the orders of our amir- the Caliph of the Muslims- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (may God protect him)- and on the tongue of the official spokesman Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (may God protect him)- we give a deadline of 24 hours from the issuance of this statement to the Hollande, the president of the criminal French state, to stop its aggression against the Islamic State; if not, the fate of their citizen will be beheading. If you want to preserve his life, you must put out an official statement making clear your aggression against the Islamic State will be ended…”
It is likely that the name of Jund al-Khilafa has served as the inspiration for the outfit just announced in Egypt using the same name. However, too little suggests that this AQIM break-off in Algeria has fundamentally hurt AQIM.
I noted above that there had been some show of support for ISIS in Somalia last year (specifically, note the photos released by the pro-IS ‘al-Sham Media’). Since the Caliphate declaration there has been no indication of pledges of allegiance: on the contrary, the al-Qa’ida affiliate Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM) reaffirmed its allegiance to Aymenn al-Zawahiri after the death of its leader Mokhtar Abu Zubayr.
However, an interesting statement was issued on 6 May this year by the “Rightly Guided Leadership for Jihad in Somalia” regarding supposedly one-time close relations between HSM under Abu Zubayr and ISIS. It should be noted that this “Rightly Guided Leadership for Jihad in Somalia” consists of al-Qa’ida-aligned critics of Abu Zubayr’s leadership of HSM deriving from the fact that Abu Zubayr had killed one of HSM’s founders Abu Bakr al-Zaila’ie (Ibrahim Haji Juma/Ibrahim al-Afghani) in June 2013 as he had been a long-standing critic of Abu Zubayr:
“Our brothers in God:
It has no longer remained hidden from anyone the truth of what has happened and is happening in Somalia as regards corruptions in the manhaj with killing and eviction for the mujahideen and their leaders just as the mutual affection between Harakat al-Shabab in Somalia under Abu Zubayr’s leadership and the group of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is not hidden.
And it is well known that Abu Zubayr’s leadership has previously shown through its media foundations, channels and broadcasts a great deal of courting and nearness to jamaat ad-dawla [‘group of the state’- standard AQ terminology now for ISIS and IS] that rebelled against the orders of its leadership in tanzim al-Qa’ida [AQC] and their instructions. The situation came to such a point that the publication and circulation of Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s speech and Sheikh Abu Azzam the American’s [Adam Gadahn] speech (may God protect them both) among the ranks of the soldiers of Harakat al-Shabab in Somalia were prevented.
But after the speech of Abu Azzam the American (may God protect him) in which mercy was extended to the leaders of jihad whose blood had been spilled at Abu Zubayr’s hands and he described whosoever killed them as tyrannical, and after many indications emerged that the general leadership in Khorasan had received a picture of the situation and the truth of what happened in Somalia without distortion and concealment and had thus begun to adopt stances critical of Abu Zubayr’s leadership that had deviated from the upright direction and become entangled in the bloodshed of the mujahideen, the leadership of Harakat al-Shabab began to turn over again but this time again against jamaat ad-dawla, for a general notice was issued not to publish anything relating to jamaat ad-dawla, including their nasheeds in their broadcasts, and described them as khawarij…And we announce here that the mujahideen in Somalia coming out openly with the truth are neither with extremism nor the aggressors as the criminal Abu Zubayr circulates: further they will continue coming out openly with the truth before the oppressors despite the wounding of us on account of misfortunes like killing, assassinations and arrests.
Some days ago, Abu Zubayr’s deputy…spoke before a gathering of the Muslims and described jamaat ad-dawla as khawarij, and that they are ‘the movement’ following Sheikh Aymenn (may God protect him) so the attendance said to him: “If dawla are khawarij, then you are like them, for you have killed and sowed corruption just as they have done but more so than they,” so the attendance was very angry.
If this statement reflects true developments, compare the apparent prior ISIS-sympathetic position of the HSM leadership of Abu Zubayr with the stance of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s [AQAP] Ma’mun Hatem, who showed sympathy for ISIS even after AQC had disavowed links with ISIS but remained in the fold of AQAP. In any case, this document also says the same HSM leadership eventually did a 180 degrees turn, and to this day the affirmation of loyalty to AQC remains.
There have been some indications of support for IS (and its prior incarnation ISIS) from some members of the jihadi group Abu Sayyaf: the most notable case being a bay’ah to IS by a senior Abu Sayyaf leader called Isnilon Hapilon, who emerged with a group of followers in a video pledging allegiance to the ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This fits in with an earlier release by the pro-IS media outlet al-Bittar Media, which in late June just prior to the announcement of IS had released a video entitled “Filipino Support for the Islamic State (in Iraq and al-Sham): Jamaat Abu Sayyaf,” featuring a speech by a purported member of Abu Sayyaf called Abu Muhammad the Filipino, declaring support for ISIS in the face of efforts against it by the group’s opponents, and so he affirmed that ISIS is in Abu Sayyaf’s prayers for success: “You are our brothers in religion and creed, so it is our obligation to support you.”
One should also note this video from some members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front offering bay’ah to Baghdadi.
Last year, I noted that the main place to watch for pro-ISIS sentiment in Lebanon was the city of Tripoli. This trend of support- extending into the period since the Caliphate’s announcement- has endured. Online, it is represented by an outlet calling itself “News of Tarabulus [Tripoli] of Sham” (reflecting the fact that Lebanon is considered a part of al-Sham).
During this summer, pro-IS sentiment has been reflected in the clashes in Qalamoun (Damascus province) extending into rebel incursions into Arsal in Lebanon. Though some months back, a Jabhat al-Nusra spokesman for the Qalamoun area in an interview with me had tried to downplay ISIS’ presence (contrasting with the earlier public vow to defend ISIS on the grounds of ‘same manhaj’), it is apparent that ISIS/IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in the Qalamoun area have been quite close for some time and work together, translating to cooperation in Arsal as well. Occasionally this closeness has been reflected publicly on social media.
More recently, in the wake of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on IS, combined with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra playing on sectarian tensions and local animosity in Arsal against Hezbollah, there was a pro-IS demonstration in Arsal after Friday prayers this week, featuring the slogan: “The people want the Islamic State.”
The examples of support shown for IS above are by no means insignificant but fail to show that ‘IS has eclipsed al-Qa’ida.’ All of al-Qa’ida’s affiliates at the highest level have retained their allegiance to Aymenn al-Zawahiri, and any defections that have occurred from within AQAP, AQIM and HSM have not split the organizations such as to damage them. It is also of interest to note that despite IS’ demand for allegiance that cannot really allow for any in-between stances, some within the global jihadi community are still aiming for an incoherent compromise position of showing support/sympathy for IS and al-Qa’ida. In short, I would say the overall trend is not definitely pointing any way just yet. I do not quite buy the notion that al-Qa’ida needs to carry out a large-scale attack on the West in the near-term to fend off competition for support with IS.
That said, projections into the future need to take account of current developments and possible scenarios. First, it still remains true that the majority of foreign Sunni jihadis who head to the Syria-Iraq arena join IS, primarily because it is easier to join than Jabhat al-Nusra and places emphasis on the Islamic state-building enterprise and its ultimately global scope: how the Arab world jihadis who end up returning to their home countries will affect local jihadi group dynamics needs to be considered. Further, in my view both IS and al-Qa’ida Central are vulnerable to loss of stature if the leader is taken out: IS has invested so heavily in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s image as a caliph- particularly with the lineage claims- and his accomplishments that it seems doubtful IS has a contingency plan for succession to the Caliphate in the event of his death. Meanwhile, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, one can legitimately ask if there is anyone in al-Qa’ida Central to replace Zawahiri in the event of his death.