“What’s at Stake in Kobani: Islamic State and Kobani Calculations,” By Carl Drott

What’s at Stake in Kobani: Islamic State and Kurdish Calculations
By Carl Drott (freelance journalist, visited Kobani in August-September)
for Syria Comment – October 9, 2014

The situation currently looks grim for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and others defending Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) from the Islamic State (IS). Still, it is conceivable that air strikes together with reinforcements and armaments could enable YPG to not only prevail, but go on the offensive again. While both IS and YPG would ideally want to see the other side utterly defeated, there are also more local goals. In the wider area around Kobani, the conflict dynamics and prospects for successful rule are also affected by the role of Arab civilians and anti-IS rebels.

Why Did IS Attack Kobani?

IS’ decision to attack Kobani in mid-September appears rational in the light of its somewhat crippled capabilities in Iraq and recent defeats against YPG in the Jazira area. Not only was Kobani the low hanging fruit, but it could be plucked quickly. IS understood that time was short before the coalition air campaign was extended into Syria.

Local Kurdish volunteers in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) gather in a ceremony to form new units. They will assist in the defence of the town against Islamic State (IS) attacks. (Taken by the author)

The Strategic Prize

Before the attack started, YPG controlled some territory between Shiukh bridge and Qara Quzak bridge along the eastern shore of the Euphrates. Even more importantly, YPG controlled a stretch of the main motorway east of Qara Quzak bridge. This territory has now been captured, which means significantly improved communications within the northern parts of the “caliphate.” Kobani town itself is relatively insignificant, but the survival of a YPG-controlled enclave would tie up military resources and constitute a security problem for IS in the longer term.

If the tables are turned at some point in the future, YPG will certainly look east towards Tel Abyad. The capture of this town would enable the isolated Kobani enclave to be connected with the much larger Jazira area that also borders the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (a successful attack would most likely come from this side). For IS, on the other hand, getting expelled from this area would mean losing all access to Turkey east of Jarabulus.

Another goal for YPG would be to capture the eastern shore of the Euphrates. Not only would this mean a huge security improvement, but it would also give much-needed access to water. A station near Shiukh used to pump water to Kobani, but IS cut the supply completely when it took over the area early this year. The Kurdish administration then connected deep new-dug wells to the water treatment plant in Qaraqoy. These facilities have now also been captured by IS, which means that Kobani’s only water supply comes from smaller wells inside the town itself.

Electricity from the Tishrin dam used to reach Kobani through a sub-station near Sarrin, which also supplies IS-controlled towns like Shiukh and Jarabulus. IS cut the supply to Kobani when the sub-station was captured in March, forcing the town’s population to rely solely on generators. Recapturing the sub-station might be a worthwhile objective for YPG, unless IS is prepared to cut off electricity to its own towns as well.

The Ethnic Map

With regards to the human geography, Kobani town and its environs are nearly completely Kurdish, and staunchly pro-YPG. Kurdish civilians fled their villages in anticipation of IS’ advance – and so will the remaining inhabitants of Kobani town if defeat appears imminent. IS will then be in control of substantial resources in the form of houses, businesses and farm lands, which can be distributed as “war spoils” to fighters and local collaborators.

There used to be a large Kurdish minority in Tel Abyad, but as a result of the ethnic cleansing campaign that was initiated last summer and lasted until the spring, the town is now entirely Arab-populated. The main Baggara tribe as well as smaller tribes like Assafah and Naem all support IS, according to a Kurdish former resident.

Tribal Divisions

Between Tel Abyad and Kobani as well as along the eastern shore of the Euphrates sit a number of Arab villages, interspersed among Kurdish and mixed ones. According to an Arab source within the Kurdish administration, there are no clear political divisions between the tribes along the Euphrates, although there are some general tendencies. Jawader, Jubanat and Awn are largely on YPG’s side; meanwhile Degarat, Jeth and Serezat tend to support IS. An official from the Asayish police force stated that the largest of these are Awn and Serezat.

According to a group of Awn tribesmen in Jadah, located by the Euphrates, the tribal leaders have little influence over the political allegiance of their members. As frontlines have moved back and forth and various groups have come and gone, local Arabs appear to have turned to “fence-sitting” (supporting no one), “hedging” (supporting both sides) and “coat-turning” (supporting the group currently in power). More substantial support will probably only emerge when either IS or YPG proves its ability to hold onto territory.

Local Calculations

According to several commanders, YPG never capture Arab villages unless requested by a local delegation. While there are also military needs and ambitions for territorial contiguity to take into account, YPG obviously holds no desire to rule over a wary or even hostile Arab population. There are some Arabs in YPG and the Asayish police force, but probably too few to successfully rule larger Arab population centres.

Ismet Hesen, the Defence Minister of the Kobani canton government, stated in late August that YPG forces were about to go on the offensive – and he appeared confident that local Arabs would welcome them. Two weeks later, the establishment of a joint YPG-rebel command centre was declared in an on-line video. Some of these rebels had previously fought against YPG, and only switched sides after they were driven out from nearby towns by IS. Despite such concerns, the new alliance probably raised the perceived legitimacy of YPG among local Arabs, and concerns about this might even have urged IS to strike first.

To conclude: If IS forces capture Kobani, their victory will be definite and irrevocable. If YPG manages to hold IS at bay, its forces will eventually have to take back enough territory to create sustainable living conditions. The scale of their ambitions will depend on what is feasible. In their very different ways, IS and YPG both have the capacity to govern these areas over time.

* Carl Drott’s previous work can be found on his homepage: http://carldrott.wordpress.com

The Yazidis Are Not Getting Support

The Yazidis Are Not Getting Support

by Matthew BarberMatthew Barber 3

with a translated statement from the Yazidi Prince, Mir Tahsin Beg

 

When the Islamic State attacked Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain range—home to the largest population of the Yazidi minority—on August 3, they arrived in only a few convoys, estimated to be carrying around 1,000 jihadist fighters. According to a new, private report by an Iraqi with military knowledge (yes, it will become public, hopefully soon), the mountain had a defense force consisting of 16,000 Kurdish Peshmerga and the 11th brigade of the 3rd division of the Iraqi army—led by a Kurdish general. None of the military leaders responsible for defending Sinjar were Yazidis, despite the mountain having a Yazidi majority population estimated at over 84%.

Yezidi Protection Forces

A Yazidi member of the Sinjar Protection Forces poses with a child whose family never left Sinjar. The family hid until local Yazidi defenders reached them and now remain under their protection.

Though vastly outnumbering the attacking jihadists—and maintaining the high-ground advantage—the Peshmerga defenders fled the IS attack without a fight. In mid-August, Christine van den Toorn documented this ignoble abandonment of perhaps the Middle East’s most vulnerable minority group, but only now are we getting a sense of the numbers of Peshmerga who could have successfully defended them and prevented the displacement of several hundred thousand people.

Though as many as 16,000 Peshmerga fled the IS attack on Sinjar—supposedly for not having adequate defenses against the more up-to-date weaponry of the vastly smaller IS force—a group of just 3,000-4,000 local Yazidis with no support has continued to defend a few parts of Sinjar until this very day—embattled but remaining unconquered by the jihadists.

Theories that verge on the conspiratorial circulate among Yazidis who believe the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) threw them under the bus in order to elicit greater US military support. Yazidis see Sinjar—an outlying area not contiguous with the three governorates that make up Kurdistan Province—as a sacrifice made by the KRG for longer-term political goals. Perhaps simple cowardice is a better explanation, though one that runs against the grain of the lionized Peshmerga’s popular reputation.

Regardless of why the Peshmerga forces didn’t remain to defend Sinjar against IS for even one day, all of the claims—by Kurds and Iraqis alike—that it would be soon retaken have failed to materialize. Even after two months of US airstrikes in Iraq, IS still maintains control of almost every area that they took from Iraq and Kurdistan, including Sinjar, Tel Afar, and the Yazidi and Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain near Mosul.

Kurds finally captured Rabia from IS this past week, but were unable to continue to Sinjar, and their offensive prompted severe retaliatory attacks from IS that continue today—against Yazidi targets in Sinjar.

One would expect that the US airstrikes would be conducted in coordination with Kurdish ground forces in order to retake important Yazidi homelands—especially since the refugee crisis is choking the Dohuk governorate so badly that schools cannot open, their classroom floors being the new homes for thousands of expelled Yazidi families. But the particular IS bases on and near Sinjar that Yazidis have repeatedly requested be targeted by US airstrikes remain untouched.

Yazidis have given up all confidence in the KRG, most now self-referring as “Yazidi, not Kurdish.” With almost no arms/munitions support from the Iraqi or Kurdish governments, local Yazidi defenders in Sinjar (calling themselves the Sinjar Protection Forces) are trying to stave off IS attacks into the few areas unconquered by the jihadis. Thousands of kidnapped women being held in locations near the mountain—whose presence is confirmed by the UN and whom Yazidi volunteers are keeping track of—could be liberated by the Yazidi Sinjar Protection Forces, if they could just get US airstrikes to hit the IS bases and provide cover for the fleeing women.

I’ve written and spoken on international media about this problem as have many journalists and others (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Yazidi representatives have begged the State Department and Department of Defense to work directly with local Yazidi defenders in Sinjar. Instead, a pattern of sporadic and occasional US airstrikes continues in Iraq, more than two months since IS began a genocidal campaign of forced conversions, massacres, and sexual enslavement.

Less than one airstrike per day is occurring on IS targets in Sinjar.

 

A statement from the Prince—the highest figure of Yazidi leadership

The Yazidi plight has become so dire that it has shaken the Yazidi Mir, or Prince—the spiritual leader of the community—from his usual sleepy state of towing the Kurdish political line. Mir Tahsin Beg has issued the following statement in Arabic, which we have translated into English, below:

 

An Urgent Call to the Iraqi Government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Government of Erbil

Since the 3rd of August our Yazidi people have been exposed to the fiercest campaign of genocide [that they’ve experienced] in this century which has taken the lives of more than 5,000 innocent people through the violence of the Da’esh [Islamic State] terrorist organization. More than 7,000 have been kidnapped—mostly women & children—and around 350,000 are now displaced and expelled into the Kurdistan Region, Syria, Turkey, and other countries, and living in very poor conditions, without access to the minimum requirements for basic human needs.

Despite the passing of more than two months of the Yazidi tragedy, and the IS occupation of Sinjar and other Yazidi areas such as Ba’shiqa and Bahzany, and the presence of a Yazidi resistance defending with a patriotic spirit the very existence of the Yazidis—which is simultaneously a defense of the existence of Iraq, of an integral part of Iraq, and its people, honor, and dignity—until now we haven’t seen any serious attempt to support this resistance in order to free Sinjar and other Yazidi areas, and to save those that can be saved from among the kidnapped and expelled Yazidis who are headed for an unknown destination, without the slightest concern of the central [Iraqi] and regional [Kurdistan] governments, as though the Yazidis were part of neither Iraq nor Kurdistan.

In the face of this horrific and catastrophic situation, we are filled with surprise at the Iraqi and Kurdish Regional Governments’ ignoring of our Yazidi tragedy as though this tragedy is not an Iraqi one.

A few days ago, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces announced the beginning of a battle liberate Sinjar via Rabia in coordination with Iraqi forces and with the support of coalition airstrikes led by the U.S., but these forces have not achieved as great an advance as had been expected. This has prompted the IS forces to start fierce attacks on more than one front in Sinjar to tighten the noose on the Sinjar Protection Forces [local Yazidi volunteer defenders] by closing in on them from all sides.

We call on officials of the central and regional governments to bear responsibility—national, political, humanitarian, and moral—for the deterioration of the Sinjar situation and the consequences of it. We urge them to carry out their national duties to our besieged people in the Sinjar mountains, ask them to support the Sinjar Protection Forces logistically and militarily, and to facilitate the prompt delivery of weapons, equipment, and supplies—immediately.

—Prince Tahsin Sa’eed Ali, Head of the Yazidi High Spiritual Council of Iraq and the World

 

The Dawn of Freedom Brigades: Analysis and Interview

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

10170699_303379346480109_5910036450092586700_n (1)
Logo of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades

One of the more noted recent trends in rebel dynamics in Syria is the weakening of the Islamic Front, widely noted last year as the most powerful rebel alliance in terms of manpower and fighting capabilities. However, the coalition was always weaker than it seemed at first sight, with one of the most pertinent questions being why the constituent groups never abandoned their own individual names and banners if they were really so united. This year, the Islamic Front has seen its constituents- particularly Ahrar al-Sham- hit by defections to the Islamic State (IS), assassinations of leaders, and fracturing on account of tensions between and within the coalition’s factions. The group Liwa al-Tawheed- previously considered one of the most powerful Aleppo factions- has suffered from internal fragmentation and manpower loss, with many of its local eastern Aleppo province affiliates having become defunct but now re-emerging as break-off groups, lacking any distinct ideological program equivalent to the Islamic Front’s “Project of the Ummah” that aimed for a clear assertion of the Islamic Front as a serious Islamist political force to be reckoned with.

The new rebel coalition Tajammu’ Alwiya Fajr al-Hurriya (‘Grouping of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades’) is a case-in-point. For example, one of the constituents of this coalition is Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal (‘Sun of the North Battalions’), whose official Facebook page ‘likes’ a page set up for the Manbij Martyrs’ Battalion, a one-time Liwa al-Tawheed affiliate in the town of Manbij that has since January of this year fallen under the exclusive control of the IS, having previously been a place where IS was merely one of a number of groups in the town including local Islamic Front groups’ affiliates. This points to the link between the Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal formation and the now defunct Liwa al-Tawheed affiliates it has come to supersede in the northeast of Aleppo province.

10422334_704663372902577_4681395975264181930_n
Logo of Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal: “The Free Syrian Army.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 00.23.35
The Facebook ‘likes’ of Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal, including the Manbij Martyrs’ Battalion.

The Dawn of Freedom Brigades coalition is of importance at the moment because it is a participant in the fight against IS in the Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) area (e.g. see this video, said to be in the countryside just to the south of the main town) that is one of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) self-declared autonomous cantons. The coalition is thus cooperating with the PYD’s armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This cooperation, as will be seen below, is something openly admitted: compare with this video* announcing the “Euphrates Volcano” joint operations room including Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal and the YPG for eastern Aleppo countryside to fight IS.

This pointedly contrasts with last year’s dynamics that saw the parent organization Liwa al-Tawheed work with IS against the YPG in Aleppo province, in part contributing to severe losses for the YPG in that area. Such coordination with IS- following on from the YPG’s expulsion of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra from Ras al-Ayn town in Hasakah province in mid-July- was also undertaken by other major rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham. It was justified by many rebels at the time as necessary against a perceived ‘regime agent’ but was also rooted in wider Syrian Arab suspicion of Kurdish autonomy or separatist agendas. Undoubtedly the cooperation between IS and these rebel groups against the YPG allowed IS to grow.

To be sure, relations somewhat shifted at the start of this year as infighting broke out between IS and rebel groups across northern and eastern Syria: limited cooperation, for instance, was in evidence between Liwa al-Tawheed and Jabhat al-Akrad- a front-group for the YPG- in the Azaz countryside, but there was nothing on a par with rebels helping the YPG to defend a stronghold under PYD control. The current Dawn of Freedom Brigades-YPG effort in Kobani needs to be tied to a broader trend of some FSA-banner figures coming to terms with past mistakes vis-a-vis relatons with the YPG: foremost embodied in one-time Aleppo FSA Military Council head Col. Oqaidi’s visit to the YPG in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Aleppo province in late August, reflecting a 180 degree turn from his defences of IS and anti-YPG stance in summer 2013, even as he goes on about the need for unity against the niẓam (‘regime’).

In my view, however, this cooperation is too little, too late to lead to substantial setbacks for IS, hindered as it is also by Turkey’s hostility towards the PYD on account of links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Western regard for such concerns. In the long-run too, there is a problem of differing agendas: the PYD has too little interest or resources to attempt to take the fight all the way to Raqqa city, for example, being more concerned with its own proto-state project in the territory it already controls.

Below is an interview I conducted with Abu al-Layth, one of the leaders of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades (see here for the Dawn of Freedom Brigades’ organizational structure).

Q: What are the factions in the Dawn of Freedom Brigades? Is it true that the factions used to be in Liwa al-Tawheed?

A: The majority of the military factions were sidelined from Liwa al-Tawheed and others beside it previously; and we do not fight with any side that has no firm decision-making on the ground.**

Q: What are your aims? Do you want a democratic state or a state in which Shari’a is the sole source of legislation?

A: We are not planning on anything for when Assad falls. We hope that there will be protection for all the peoples [of Syria] and that we will co-exist- all of the Syrian people. And it [the Syrian people] is the one that decides what it wants. We are with the Syrian people.***

Q: With protection for all sects?

A: The people decides and we came out because of the racism of Bashar al-Assad.

Q: Is there cooperation with the YPG in the Ayn al-Arab area against the IS organization?

A: Yes. We of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades- when IS launched the assault on Ayn al-Arab- sent 250 fighters to Ayn al-Arab to protect the Kurdish and Arab people in this area. And we have tried to protect the Suleyman Shah tomb**** but we will not be able to do so because of the paucity of our heavy equipment.

Q: In your opinion are the American airstrikes helping the effort against IS?

A: This is in God’s hands. We are against the coalition’s airstrikes because they do not target the regime which is greatly criminal. The two states [i.e. IS and the regime] compete as to who can destroy civilian life more.

Q: And is it a problem also that the strikes are targeting Jabhat al-Nusra that fights the regime?

A: No. Jabhat al-Nusra fights on all sides, but has also yielded on more than one of the fronts between it and the regime.***** Examples: the battle of Kassab; it and Ahrar al-Sham of the battle of Hama recently; it and the Islamic Front in the battle of the Industrial Area in Aleppo. I mean they have many bad things about them as well. And we as a Syrian people don’t accept any organization that is neutral or against our people.

Q: So the Islamic Front also withdrew from the Industrial Area in Aleppo?

A: The reason being the weakness of the two fronts [Nusra & the Islamic Front], so the regime seized the Industrial Area. Weakness and not withdrawal: I mean retreat.

Notes

*- Others mentioned in the video include brigades that have been working with the YPG for several months now following IS’ takeover of all major urban areas in Raqqa province, such as Liwa Thuwar Raqqa (ex-Nusra affiliate) and Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah (tied to the Western-backed SMC). The cooperation originates from the fact that many members of these groups sought refuge with the YPG west of Tel Abyad. The YPG would then help these groups to reclaim some villages from IS in return for power-sharing in those localities.

**- Referring to the lack of real unity and direction with the Islamic Front.

***- The mark of a non-ideological program, also contrasting with the “Project of the Ummah” of the Islamic Front from which the Dawn of Freedom Brigades coalition has emerged.

****- The site has been under the protection of Turkish troops and IS allegedly threatened an attack in March this year if they did not withdraw within 3 days, though even if the threat had been real, it was never acted on.

*****- cf. Aron Lund’s article on Jabhat al-Nusra, which notes also the consolidation of control of towns and territory in Idlib province that have followed on from at least some withdrawals.

Bay’ah to Baghdadi: Foreign Support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State (Part 2)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Introduction

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.

Gaza-Sinai

VOJlE5tW
The main online presence associated with Gaza-Sinai alignment with the Caliphate: “al-Nusra al-Maqdisia” (“Maqdisi Support”).

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.

Tunisia

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.

10355020_683036415102002_9932291717794969_n (1)
A “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia” logo

BwCoV3nCIAAsUza
A “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia” Facebook page advertising a pro-IS online initiative: “The Islamic State: Emirate of Tunisia: Islamic Kairouan.”

289
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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 20.06.01
Example of “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia” Facebook page advertising IS material.

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…”

Libya

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’.

Maghreb Area

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…”

itsirw (1)

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.

Somalia

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.

Philippines

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.”

BuSHtp7CQAAha1n
Advertisement for the al-Bittar Media release.

One should also note this video from some members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front offering bay’ah to Baghdadi.

Lebanon

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).

_VuhPep6
Logo of “News of Tarabulus al-Sham,” which recognizes on its Twitter page the “State of the Islamic Caliphate.”

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.

BuZFr7nCQAA_i_R
“The soldiers of Jabhat al-Nusra and the soldiers of the Islamic State side by side in Arsal.”

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.”

Conclusion

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.

The Suwayda village of Dama and Druze Militias: A Case Study

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously written about Druze militias in Suwayda province and other areas of southern Syria here and here. To summarize briefly the conclusion of those studies, it is clear that ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ (‘Army of the Monotheists/Unitarians’) and ‘Forces of Abu Ibrahim’ are banners for Druze militias of mainly pro-Assad orientation, working with regime forces via ‘Popular Committees’ that had been set up in coordination with the regular Syrian army; further, the boundaries are not always so clear cut between these militias/banner names and organized regime forces. Indeed, many of the localities where these Druze militia banners are advertised are also identifiable sources of recruits for the Syrian army and the National Defence Force (NDF: an evolution from Popular Committees). Unfortunately though, Wikipedia, in attempting to summarize my work, erroneously presents ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ as a coherent military group spanning localities.

In any event, I present the northern Suwayda province village of Dama as a new case study into the use of the banner ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ for Druze militias: around a month ago (16 August), the locality came under attack from rebel forces, subsequently being occupied by them. These rebels were purportedly from Jabhat al-Nusra, though it should be noted that the source for this claim is regime sourcing and so of course the attack will be ascribed to Jabhat al-Nusra, considering that there is no Islamic State presence in Deraa or Suwayda provinces. The locality was reportedly recaptured from rebel forces in less than 24 hours, albeit with some casualties among the Druze locals. A ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ activist source gives the following ‘martyrs’ list for the “Battle of Dama” (this list also contains ‘martyrs’ for a battle in a nearby locality called Deir Dama):

10606455_764193106970409_7279024415256051999_n

To translate, the names of the ‘martyrs’ for Dama are:

Sheikh Danial Yusuf al-Shabali (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Sheikh Yamin Sa’adu Hamsho (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Sheikh Ihab Salman Azzam (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Sheikh Rami Salam al-Khatib (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Nuris Sa’id al-Safidi (Popular Committees)
Milad Jayid al-Safidi (Popular Committees)
Adham Ammar Faraj (Popular Committees)
Naji Saleh Abu Shaqra (Popular Committees)
Adham Saber al-Jaramani (Popular Committees)

Here also are photos of some of those mentioned above:

10400033_679869622101048_6330347302772602683_n
Sheikh Yamin Sa’adu Hamsho

10584001_679870045434339_8333586711163394756_n
Sheikh Danial al-Shabali

1610803_679869282101082_2511669445206317333_n
Adham Ammar Faraj, said to be from the Suwayda village of Ghariya

10599527_680155745405769_8921724448842273712_n
Nuris Sa’id al-Safidi

10580095_510773889055487_7789897652745307805_n
Adham Saber al-Jaramani

Pro-regime TV claims a variety of forces who helped to recapture Dama from the rebels, including Popular Defence Committees, the Ba’ath Brigades and the Syrian army. Of interest though is the ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ graphic above that distinguishes ‘martyrs’ according to ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ or the ‘Popular Committees’. According to this source in an interview with me, the distinction made between the ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ and the Popular Committees is as follows:

“Jaysh al-Muwahhideen is composed of mashayakh [Druze sheikhs] protecting the land, honor and religion against every attacker- whoever he may be- and is independent. Popular Committees are composed of families supporting the army.”

This re-affirms a familiar line of the Druze militia narrative of strict self-defence and repelling anyone who infringes on Druze land- regime-affiliated or rebel. It should also be noted that on the day of the attack on Dama, Druze militias under a variety of names in Suwayda province (Jabal al-Arab) issued a statement under a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen umbrella banner:

“Jaysh al-Muwahhideen in Syria announces general mobilization and all targets in the line of its fire, and warns that any operations within Jabal al-Arab will be met with a severe response and without mercy.

- Saraya Sultan al-Atrash
- Kata’ib Abu Ibrahim
- Saraya al-Jabal
- Special Forces: Jabal Commandoes
- Saraya Souria al-Assad
- Kata’ib al-Tawheed”

What to make of the testimony relayed regarding the ‘Popular Committees/Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ distinction? It may make sense here at the local level of the village of Dama and the surrounding area: that is, perhaps Druze mashayakh in Dama have organized their own ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ militia intended only for local mashayakh and without help in the first place from the Syrian army. Yet in practice the distinction is meaningless, because there is no evidence of concern about the regime infringing on Druze land in Dama. The natural result is that there will be close coordination with regime forces- in the form of the Syrian army with the Popular Committees- to repel attacks on the area, which will for the foreseeable future be the work of rebels trying to bring Suwayda province out of government control. This translates to an Assad-aligned orientation, which is in fact apparent from the source I interviewed anyway. In short, the case study of Dama reinforces the conclusions from the earlier studies mentioned above.