The Islamic State (IS) and Pledges of Allegiance: The Case of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

With the rise of IS, it is of interest to examine how IS has secured pledges of allegiance (bay’ah) from other groups both on the domestic front (i.e. within Iraq and Syria) and abroad (e.g. in Gaza-Sinai and Libya). I would argue that the case of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (‘The Group of the Supporters/Partisans of Islam’) offers instructive insight not only into the factors that lead to pledges of allegiance but also the means of interpreting the available evidence.

To recall, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam is the latest incarnation of the al-Qa’ida-linked Ansar al-Islam of Iraqi Kurdistan that was destroyed in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Remnants then formed Ansar al-Sunna, which split two ways in 2007: Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, the latter of which has recently claimed some very limited operational activity in the south of Baghdad and issued a lengthy tract from its leader calling for unity among the ‘mujahideen of the Ummah.’ The main areas of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s presence in Iraq have been Mosul, Kirkuk province, and over the course of this year the Tikrit area and a more limited emergence in Anbar province. In 2011, one of the leaders of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir- expanded the group’s presence into Syria, setting up a camp in al-Hewel in Hasakah province on the border with Iraq. Calling itself ‘Ansar al-Sham,’ Jamaat Ansar al-Islam then spread its presence across northern Syria.

Though aspiring for the goal of a global Caliphate, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam has traditionally been a rival of IS and its prior incarnations- the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq- because it has not accepted the claim that IS or its predecessors constitute an actual state, let alone a Caliphate. This sparked multiple clashes in Mosul and Kirkuk province, with the targeting of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam-linked professionals and religious figures in the former in particular. In early 2013, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam had appealed to al-Qa’ida leader Aymenn al-Zawahiri to restrain what was then the Islamic State of Iraq, but to no avail.

The renewal of the wider Sunni Arab insurgency in 2014 brought problems between Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and IS to the forefront: the two appear to have worked together to bring about the fall of Mosul and Tikrit. However, IS very quickly began to crack down on the presence of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in both cities. Over the course of the summer, both before and after the Caliphate declaration on 29 June, IS advertised via its ‘Wilayat Ninawa’ provincial news feed two apparent waves of defections from Jamaat Ansar al-Islam to IS. The latter instance is of particular interest because around the same time there emerged a statement put out in Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s name claiming the dissolution of the organization in Iraq and its allegiance to IS:

“Indeed we give good news to the Islamic Ummah in the east and west of the land of the announcement of the dissolution of the group [jamaat] ‘Ansar al-Islam in Iraq’ and allegiance to the Commander of the Believers: Caliph Ibrahim (may God protect him)…This pledge of allegiance has come after sessions and meetings with the sheikhs of the Islamic State who showed to us the legitimacy of the Islamic State’s project via proof in tradition and thought. The last of these meetings was on 29 Shuwwal, in which we announced the bay’ah by group and individual membership, and before that, proof had been shown to us regarding the truth of the existence of the Islamic State on the ground as a state with establishments having weight in this environment of states.

It is also the one [state] that has defeated the Crusaders, broken the thorn of the Safavids, annihilated the apostate Sahwa forces, bloodied the nose of the secularist Kurds, opened up the abode of the Muslims, got rid of the artificially imposed borders among the land of the Muslims. It is also the one that has broken the bonds and freed the lions, and it is the one that has made God’s law the ruling authority, has implemented the hudud [Shari’a punishments], established offices and has been just towards the oppressed. Moreover, it has established security, cultivated order and protection, and provided support for the orphans and wayfarers. All that and more we have seen with our eyes and felt with our hands, so may God reward them best in the stead of the Muslims.

Let it be known that this statement of allegiance is the last one coming from Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, and any other statement following it, we disavow that statement…further, this blessed allegiance to the Dawla took place with the attendance of dozens of commanders and amirs of the Ansar…This has also led us to direct a forthright call to all factions and groups in the fields of jihad in the totality and the brothers of creed and ideological program [aqida wa manhaj] from the members of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam outside of Iraq [i.e. in Syria]…to pledge allegiance […]

Majlis Shura Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq 
29 Shuwwal 1435 AH
25 August 2014

This statement’s veracity was immediately denied in a statement put out on what was then Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s official Twitter feed, which I have translated here. At first sight, one might be inclined to go with my initial assessment, based on the issuing of the denial on the official Twitter feed, that Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq had not been really been dissolved after all, even if it had been significantly weakened by the allegiance pledges to IS (without quantifying exactly how far it had been weakened). However, it is now apparent that the statement above put out in the name of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s Majlis Shura, far from being a mere forgery, represented the overwhelming majority of the organization, and that whoever controlled the group’s official Twitter feed at the time only constituted a small remnant that had not pledged allegiance to IS and has subsequently ceased to exist for all intents and purposes as a distinct Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq on the ground.

Multiple lines of evidence corroborate this assessment. First, since the issuing of the denial of dissolution, the group’s Twitter account has disappeared and has not re-emerged. It is normal for jihadi groups to set up mirror accounts, unless Twitter is taking steps to ensure that all subsequent accounts are deleted promptly, which is what forced IS off Twitter in an official capacity. Second, there have been no new media releases of any sort: no new photos, videos or statements. For example, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq is supposed to release something every year in relation to Eid al-Adha (e.g. here in 2013, here in 2012, here in 2011, and here in 2010), but nothing this time around, even as Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Bilad al-Sham [Syria] put out photos in relation to the occasion.

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Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Bilad al-Sham: slaughter and distribution of meat for Eid al-Adha 2014.

Finally, we come to testimony I myself have gathered, this coming from one ‘Abu Bakr al-Iraqi’, one of those from Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq who has not pledged allegiance to IS. When I asked him about the lack of any new media releases from Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, he explained that “the group came to an end 3 months ago as around 3000 of them pledged allegiance to the Dawla, which constitutes a ratio of 90%.” Despite his own lack of pledge of allegiance, Abu Bakr al-Iraqi is sympathetic to/understanding of those from Jamaat Ansar al-Islam who defected to IS, tweeting recently: “Whoever attacks our brothers the soldiers of Ansar al-Islam who pledged allegiance to the Dawla, I say to them: ‘Be aware of God, for they have not abandoned their arms. Whereas we have remained seated, they are in their place. This is better than [what] we [are doing.]'” It will also be recalled that Abu Bakr al-Iraqi, despite his misgivings about IS’ conduct in brutally crushing the Shaitat tribal rebellion in Deir az-Zor province, had nonetheless expressed approval of the beheading of James Foley, and characterized the coalition against IS as part of a war on Islam (a discourse that goes beyond Iraq’s jihadi groups: cf. the Islamist nationalist 1920s Revolution Brigades in a recent statement).

In sum, what we have here is a case of pledges of allegiance arising not only on account of IS’ assertions of wealth and power but also strongly facilitated by ideological overlap. After all, if one is aspiring for a Caliphate, then there is certainly some allure in pledging allegiance to a group that already claims to be a Caliphate and has the real trappings of a state entity, unlike IS’ predecessor the Islamic State of Iraq. In this process of rapid pledges of allegiance, IS has effectively destroyed Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s project to spread through Syria and Iraq as one battlefield, as the group’s Syrian branch is now isolated in Aleppo and Idlib, having been cut off from Iraq on account of IS’ control of Raqqa province as well as most of Deir az-Zor province and all parts of Hasakah province not controlled by Kurds or the regime.

I also mentioned in the beginning of this article that the case of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam offers insight into how we interpret available evidence. Just because a statement put out in a group’s name is not issued via that group’s official media channel, it should not automatically follow that this statement is a mere pro-IS forgery of no meaning or value. On the contrary, as my friend and colleague Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has commented in relation to IS and securing pledges of allegiance outside of Syria and Iraq, one aspect of IS’ strategy appears to be to have those ready to declare their allegiance within a particular group to issue a statement in that group’s name regardless of any disapproval at the official level. What then follows of course depends on circumstances by case. To illustrate this point, one can look at Egypt’s Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (JABM) for comparison. As happened with Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, a statement was put out in JABM’s name claiming a bay’ah to IS, which was then circulated in the Egyptian press and in a Reuters story. The statement was then denied on JABM’s Twitter feed the next day, but then days later an audio was released on that same Twitter feed affirming bay’ah to IS.

Though not exactly analogous, it would seem that in both cases the initial event of a statement in the group’s name claiming allegiance was probably the result of IS encouraging those willing to pledge allegiance- at that point the majorities in their groups- to put out a statement, which would force loyalists unwilling to lose their groups’ distinct identities to respond in some way. With JABM, the difference (as opposed to Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s traditional rivalry with IS) would appear to be that most of the reluctant remnant controlling the official media channel was trying to have it both ways in being sympathetic to IS without actually pledging allegiance, which might explain the rather odd tweet denying the initial pledge of allegiance while referring to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the ‘Caliph of the Muslims.’ Thus, this remnant was compelled to issue a pledge of allegiance days later to preserve credibility, while any others still unwilling to pledge (as allegedly existed in the Nile Valley area) would disband and perhaps join other groups (e.g. Ajnad Misr?).

Admittedly, the above as regards JABM is somewhat speculative, but that such experiments in thought seem necessary should point us to the most salient lesson that jihadi groups are never monolithic in alignments and approach, whatever apparent uniformity might be conveyed by official statements.

Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz: A Caucasus Emirate Group in Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Relatively little news comes out these days from northeast Latakia province, which remains outside of regime control despite the recapture of the Armenian town of Kassab in June. However, it is important to observers of jihadi groups as what I would call ‘the muhajireen’s hangout’. For example, the Moroccan group Harakat Sham al-Islam- now a part of the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din- engages in da’wah outreach to locals in the area. It is also where the group Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham (led by Abu Obeida al-Masri) headed after being forced to leave the locality of Azaz in northern Aleppo province by the Islamic Front. The continuing importance of northeast Latakia as a place for muhajireen groups to congregate is illustrated by the emergence of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz (‘The Caucasus Soldiers’ Group’).

Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, as confirmed to me in an interview, is affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, which also counts Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar of the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition as among its affiliates. However, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz also claims to operate independently and not to be part of Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. It is an interesting question to ponder why that is so. As my colleague Caleb Weiss of The Long War Journal suggests to me, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz’s operating status may have to do with the Caucasus Emirate’s encouragement of group independence. In keeping with the general trend of an anti-fitna (i.e. anti jihadi infighting) stance on the part of non-Islamic State [IS] and non-Jabhat al-Nusra [JN] muhajireen groups, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz officially claims to have no problems with other jihadi groups.

Thus, to quote from my interview with a media representative: “We don’t have a [formal] link with anyone [in Syria] but we work with all- thanks to God- and we have no problems with any of the other jihadi groups like [Jabhat] Ansar al-Din, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.” Note the reflection of the anti-fitna stance in referring to IS as simply ad-dawla al-islamiya [‘The Islamic State’] rather than JN’s disparaging ‘jamaat ad-dawla‘ [‘group of the state’]. Concomitant with such official anti-fitna posturing is the group’s stated aim on its Facebook page:

“Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz is a Caucasus mujahid group aiming to gather the Caucasians in the totality under the banner of jihad against the enemies of Islam in the totality. It operates in Latakia.”

I suspect though that were my interviewee to leave Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz and become completely independent, he might express a much more negative view of IS, which had rejected outreach attempts by Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar’s Salah ad-Din ash-Shishani. Indeed, my interviewee for Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Abu Mo’atasem al-Shami- once affiliated with Jabhat Ansar al-Din sub-component Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya- has since resigned from Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s media office, and has conveyed to me his desire to set up an outlet to document and expose the crimes of the regime and IS (now referred to by the derogatory Arabic acronym Da3esh).

In the context of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, it is also notable that the group’s Facebook page has advertised JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani’s recent interview (see below), but does not similarly advertise media content from IS, hinting that in practice, relations are closer with JN than they are or ever can be with IS.

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Below are some photos put out by Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz of its presence in Latakia province.

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Two Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters in Latakia: on left, Abu Obeida al-Sharkasy [the Circassian]; on right, Abu Sewar al-Abkhazi [the Abkhazian].

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Training for Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters, purportedly Circassians.

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Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters in the Latakia forest.

Update (24 November 2014)

Another member of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz got in touch with me today and offered some more specific information about the group:

1. It is not incorrect to say the group is affiliated with Caucasus Emirate, but one must also note that Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz has given bay’ah [allegiance] to Abd al-Hakim ash-Shishani, who is not only part of Caucasus Emirate but also leads his own group: Jamaat al-Khilafa al-Qawqazia [‘The Caucasian Caliphate Group’].

2. The group’s membership currently totals 32, and the majority of its members- while ethnic Circassians- were not born in the Caucasus area, but rather Syria [specifically, the Golan Heights area] and Jordan. In this regard, this member of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz characterizes the group’s activities thus: ‘Our jihad is in Latakia and the Golan Heights.’ 

The Factions of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Media attention has somewhat focused away from the city of Kobani as the intense wave of coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) first helped to slow down the group’s advance into Kobani. That said, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s project of an autonomous canton centred Kobani has been destroyed, and IS, in spite of the setbacks, still remains within the southern and eastern parts of the city (specifically in the latter, the industrial quarter), which IS has renamed Ayn al-Islam. At this point, for IS to capture the actual city would be little more than a symbolic victory to bolster the reputation of ‘baqiya wa tatamaddad’ (‘remaining and expanding’). Ideological belief in the ‘final victory’, so to speak, among IS members is best reflected in the comments of IS member Abu al-Yaman al-Shami, who tweeted on 18 November: “[We will be] victorious in Ayn al-Islam. We expect victory more than any time. For we have perceived their weakness and seen their propensity to defeat. So nothing has remained except victory. Indeed the victory of God is near.”

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IS graphic from media wing al-Itisam Media: “Inside Ayn al-Islam [Kobani].”

At this stage, it becomes pertinent to ask which factions are present and active in Kobani to push back against IS, besides the PYD’s “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) and Peshmerga fighters brought in from Iraq: that is, the interest here is in which ‘rebel’ factions, if any, are still operating in Kobani. Most broadly, the rebel groups in question fall under the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ umbrella that was announced on 10 September (prior to the major IS assault on Kobani later that month) between the YPG (together with its female wing the YPJ/’Woman’s Protection Units’) and the following claimed select rebel groups to push back against IS in northeast Aleppo province: those groups were named as Liwa al-Tawhid (eastern section), Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades coalition, Saraya Jarabulus, Jabhat al-Akrad, Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah and Jaysh al-Qasas.

However, at least two of these groups denied being part of the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ initiative. Thus Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah (aligned with the opposition-in-exile):

“Statement from Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah on the subject of the formation of a joint operations room recently in the eastern region of the Aleppo countryside as well as Raqqa and its countryside under the name of ‘Euphrates Volcano’ on 10 September 2014. The brigade’s leadership announces the following:

We reject joining the joint operations room for a number of reasons, the most important of them being:

1. We were not consulted about the joint room and for reasons of being alone in the opinion of the region’s leadership.

2. There was no preceding coordination with us and we were not informed of all the details.

3. The lack of existence of an honorary charter detailing all the rights in the area between the commanders.

For the record, Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah has had and continues to have as a fundamental aim fighting the criminal regime and Baghdadi’s mercenary gang [Da3esh] on all the territories of the region until the realization of victory.

We wish the joint operations room all the best.”

Similarly Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa denied participation in ‘Euphrates Volcano':

“Statement from Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa on the subject of the formation of a joint operations room recently in the eastern region of the Aleppo countryside as well as Raqqa and its countryside under the name of ‘Euphrates Volcano’ on 10 September 2014. The brigade’s leadership announces the following:

We reject joining the joint operations room for a number of reasons, the most important of them being:

1. We weren’t informed about the issue of the joint operations room and not all the necessary conditions in the region have been fulfilled.

2. We were not made aware of all the details put forward at the joint leadership table in the region; and there was no coordination.

3. And most importantly, lack of existence of an honorary charter detailing all the rights in the area between all the present commanders.

Also we have not ceased to be loyal to the revolution and we will remain loyal by God’s permission in steadfast word and deed; and our arms will always be directed against the tyrant Bashar the criminal and his troops and mercenary hirelings from the gangs of Da3esh in every place in our precious land.

We entreat God to bless this operations room that was formed with what He loves and is pleased with: that is, what is best for the land and the servants [of God]. And God is the guarantor of success in every matter.”

We can therefore rule out Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa and Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah as participants in the fight against IS in Kobani. Of the other groups of ‘Euphrates Volcano’, the ones consistently mentioned according to multiple sources as present in Kobani are Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and Jabhat al-Akrad. The last of these three is merely a front group for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from which the PYD derives, and the YPG to act as a liaison group with the rebels: were the tide of the civil war to turn decisively in the rebels’ favour, one would find that the Jabhat al-Akrad brand would become much more prominent.

Thus, the two most important rebel groups in Kobani are Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal- part of the Dawn of Freedom coalition that developed out of Liwa al-Tawheed and other local Islamic Front affiliates in north Aleppo province after localities such as Manbij were seized by what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) at the start of this year- and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (led by one Abu Eisa), an ex-Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate that had sought out allegiance with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate to protect itself from the encroachments of ISIS during the summer and fall of last year. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa tried to move against ISIS in January but ended up being expelled from the city (and from Jabhat al-Nusra), being forced to seek refuge with the YPG to the west of Tel Abyad.

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Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal leader in Kobani- Abu Layla- with Peshmerga fighters. Photo from Abu Layla himself: 11 November.

Clearly having a close working relationship, the combined numbers of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal can be put at 150-250 fighters at most. While one of Dawn of Freedom’s leaders (Abu al-Layth) had put the initial contingent of his own coalition that went to Kobani at 250 fighters, it was notable, as I have mentioned previously, that the numbers steadily went down over time, from 160 fighters in a subsequent conversation down to 70 in an interview with a local representative for Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal. In a later conversation (28 October) with the Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal representative in Kobani, manpower numbers were put at “approximately 180 fighters with all the crews” (“taqrīban 180 muqātilin ma kulli l-ṭawāqim”), likely in reference to the rebel groups working together.

Two more rebel factions can be identified as having operated or still operating in Kobani at this point, minor in significance even in comparison with Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal. The first of these is Saraya Jarabulus (‘Jarabulus Brigades’), formed out of rebel remnants from the town of Jarabulus which became an ISIS stronghold in June 2013 after being seized from the local rebel group “The Family of Jadir.” Rebels from a number of factions including the Islamic Front tried to take Jarabulus from ISIS in January this year but failed as ISIS regrouped and killed dozens of rebels in the own using a local suicide bomber named Shadi Jassim on 15 January.

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Shadi Jassim prior to his life as an ISIS suicide bomber. Photo reportedly in Beirut.

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Emblem of Saraya Jarabulus

According to a media representative for Dawn of Freedom (not in Kobani), Saraya Jarabulus is a very small independent faction. The Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal representative in Kobani subsequently clarified to me that Saraya Jarabulus was initially operating in the city but now it has no presence.

Jaysh al-Qasas is in origin a rebel faction from Deir az-Zor city, some of whose members took refuge with the YPG as IS(IS) gradually took over Deir az-Zor province, having consolidated its control over all rebel-held territories in the province (including within the city) by July of this year. On 3 November, the group announced that three of its fighters had been killed in Kobani fighting IS.

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The three reported fallen fighters of Jaysh al-Qasas against IS in Kobani: Nader Rawayli, Uqba al-Manfi and Ammar al-Mustafa

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Emblem of Jaysh al-Qasas

On a final note, one should comment on the initiative announced by Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi [aka Abu Muhammad]- a one-time touted leader of the ‘FSA’ in Aleppo province- to send in 1300 ‘FSA’ fighters to Kobani to push back against IS. This gesture should be taken with a pinch of salt, partly rooted as it is in Oqaidi’s regret at having worked with and defended ISIS last year and partly in Oqaidi’s desire to make himself still look like a relevant rebel figure even as he spends the majority of his time in Turkey. There is indeed a contingent present in Kobani representing Oqaidi but its presence is symbolic. As a Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal representative put it to me, “Oqaidi’s group only eats and drinks.” As of now, Oqaidi’s small following remains the only external rebel contribution outside of Euphrates Volcano: claims that Islamic Front groups like Jaysh al-Islam were planning to send fighters to Kobani have proven unfounded.

In short, an overview of the rebel factions operating in Kobani at the present time shows that YPG-rebel cooperation is still local and exceptional in nature, and does not point to a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the conflict. More generally, ultimately conflicting goals, widespread rebel dislike of the “Kurdish parties”-with suspicion of cooperation with the regime* and a separatist agenda to divide Syria- and the practicalities of being able to send fighters to Kobani (it can only be done via Turkey) inhibit notions of a wider, more coordinated YPG-rebel alliance for the foreseeable future.


Note

*- The very first airstrikes that were reported in the Kobani area by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights were likely the work of the regime, whatever denials might come from PYD media. In light of the ineffectiveness of such airstrikes against IS, there was a turn to the international coalition for help. It would appear that the PYD had initially reached out to the regime via Muqawama Suriya leader Mihrac Ural (hat-tip: Ceng Sagnic)- an unsurprising intermediary choice (if we go with Ural’s testimony on 20 September), as Ural had facilitated contacts between Hafez al-Assad and the PKK. Despite Ural’s apparent negative feelings about the PYD’s autonomous administration project that has come at the expense of regime authority in areas like Qamishli city, he has been keen to portray himself as a figure standing in solidarity with Kurds against the IS threat.

“What Motivates European Youth to Join ISIS?” by Loretta Bass

What Motivates European Youth to Join ISIS?
By Loretta E. Bass, University of Oklahoma

“Push” Factors Helping ISIS Recruitment

Western governments are concerned about stemming the wave of foreign fighters flocking to join ISIS’s ranks. They worry that fighters, who hold Western passports, will return to their native or adoptive lands and commit acts of terror. Some 15,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have gone to Syria. Of these, some 5,000 are believed to be young people of immigrant descent from European Union countries2. Bernard Cazeneuve, Frances’s Interior Minister, estimates that 36 French citizens have died fighting for ISIS and another 930 are either currently a part of ISIS or trying to join the IS effort in Syria and Iraq3. The numbers from other Western countries are also worrying: 800 from the United Kingdom, 300 from Germany.

Aftermath of 2005 Riots in Suburbs of Paris

Although the media is slowly picking up on this threat, there has been little analysis or insight into the motivation of these recruits, aside from attributing some mystical marketing skills to ISIS. In fact, research suggests that there is a significant “push” factor providing a conducive context for ISIS recruitment in Europe. ISIS has been able to capitalize on the lack of social integration of young people of Muslim immigrant descent in Europe, who are often victims of discrimination and stymied from full participation in European labor markets and societies. The “elephant in the room” is in fact Europe’s inability to welcome fully and integrate its immigrant populations. The irony is that many recruits are Westernized second-generation immigrants, who grow up having a non-Western, “immigrant other” status thrust upon them. This may arise by virtue of physical characteristics such as skin color or ethnic background, or by having a name such as Mohammed or Abdoulaye, or because they practice Islam in public. The failure to integrate immigrants creates a translocal phenomenon by which individuals raised in a local context (say, a working class neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris or London) are pushed into adopting a transnational identity and association not truly their own. This explains why ISIS recruits are so varied in terms of background, culture, education, and even class.

The danger of ISIS fighters returning to Europe has already been felt in France, and a recent headline in France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, even publicly asks what the Islamic State is capable of in Europe.4 A current example of this danger can be found in the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French citizen and second-generation immigrant, who was arrested for killing three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May of this year. It is believed that he fought for ISIS in Syria in 2013. Nemmouche grew up in Roubaix, a city in northeastern France with a substantial immigrant population and limited economic opportunity.  His profile was by no means unusual. An immigrant mother reported that she and her family live in “another France” where they experience a lower economic level and an immigrant typecast due to their physical characteristics that mark them as outsiders.5 If one is perceived to be both Muslim and immigrant, there is a compound effect that carries a stigma resulting in an entire array of lower life chances.

France represents a bellwether in its effort to integrate non-Western immigrants compared to other European countries. In October 2005, three weeks of rioting erupted within the immigrant community in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris to demonstrate against unequal treatment. The violence spread to 300 urban areas in France and, to a lesser extent, to immigrant communities all over Western Europe. France has the largest immigrant population and the largest Muslim population proportionally and in absolute numbers in Europe. Immigration accounts for 25 percent of the annual population growth rate, and immigrants and second-generation children represent 19 percent of the total French population, or about 11.8 million people.6 Among immigrants, 67 percent come from overwhelmingly Muslim countries in North Africa, the Maghreb and Turkey, and another 20 percent come from West African countries with substantial Muslim populations.7 Muslims are estimated to be 7.5 percent of the French population today and anticipated to reach 10.3 percent by 2030.8 Overall immigrant integration, and particularly the incorporation of Muslim immigrants, remains an important challenge for French society and other European countries. Not meeting this challenge has meant recurring protests in France’s immigrant suburbs in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Although France has seen the worst of such demonstrations, other European countries generally have developed rather rigid policies as a response to Muslim immigrants’ cultural differences. As notable examples, Switzerland and Austria put laws into place since 2009 that eliminate the construction of mosques with minarets9, both France and Belgium have passed laws banning the wearing of a full-face veil in public, and at the city and regional levels in Spain, Switzerland, and Italy, laws banning face veils have been adopted.

Policies such as these are both examples and symbols of hostility toward immigrants that inform a whole range of treatment and outcomes, from missed educational opportunities and joblessness to discrimination in housing. The result is that second-generation immigrants growing up culturally similar to their local French, British, or German neighbors come to inhabit a translocal space where their identities are defined not by their own assimilation or even varied immigrant roots but the expectations of the majority population treating them like a generic Muslim “other.” As an example, the Brighton, England 19-year-old black youth, Ibrahim Kamara, the son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone, joined ISIS in February 2014.10 His biography illustrates a path to recruitment that could have been diverted. He endured a childhood punctuated with racial abuse and name calling in the white-majority residential area where his mother rented their home. A product of public schools, Ibrahim struggled at school and failed from his computer engineering program in 2013. He then switched to an easier course of study that would lead to fewer career opportunities. It was in this context that he became radicalized in his local neighborhood and through ISIS internet recruitment materials. Ibrahim was killed in Syria in late September. His bewildered mother learned of his death on Facebook.

In France, young people of both North African and Sub-Saharan descent talk about being, “French on the inside, African on the out,” because even though they have taken on “French” values and ideals, they still are perceived and treated by the larger society as outsiders. Sayad10 describes this ambiguity:

I am Algerian despite my French papers; I am French despite my Algerian appearance…I was not born in Algeria, I was not brought up in Algeria, I’m not at home in Algeria (or I don’t have Algerian habits), I don’t think like an Algerian…but I feel Algerian all the same.

For young people who are citizens of immigrant descent, growing up as an “other” in society, especially when combined with insults, discrimination, and joblessness, can push them to seek a home where they belong and feel respected and valued. It is in this context that ISIS finds susceptible recruits.

The reasons for ISIS’s recruiting successes are likely as varied as the recruits themselves, including youth unemployment and globalization itself. But clearly many European recruits are pushed toward joining ISIS by their failure to be assimilated, accepted, and respected by their adoptive countries. The challenge for Europe going forward will be to change its treatment of immigrants even as it rightfully recognizes the danger some within those ranks pose.

* Loretta Bass’ most recent book is, African Immigrant Families in Another France (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014). Loretta can be contacted at: lbass@ou.edu and is presently on sabbatical in Frankfurt, Germany.

References:

  • CNN, 2014, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency data, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/11/world/meast/isis-syria-iraq/
  • IJR, 2014, International Journal Review, “Meet the Youngest Jihadists in ISIS: The Little Girls Being Recruited by Islamic State to Wage War,” by Kyle Becker (9/17/2014) http://www.ijreview.com/2014/09/176894-young-jihad/
  • The Economist. “French Jihadists Self-service,” Pp. 28-9. October 11, 2014.
  • “De quoi l’Etat islamique est-il capable en Occident?” Le Monde.fr 23.09.2014, http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2014/09/23/quelles-menaces-fait-peser-l-etat-islamique_4492250_3218.html?xtmc=l_etat_islamique_nemmouche&xtcr=8
  • Bass, Loretta E., African Immigrant Families in Another France. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques [INSEE] (2008) National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies [French census data], http://www.insee.fr
  • Gbadamassi, F. 2009, Solis Conseil, published in Afrik.com, “Les personnes originaires d’Afrique, des Dom-Tom et de la Turquie sont 5,5 millions dans l’Hexagone,” http://www.afrik.com/article16248.html
  • Pew Research Center, 2011, “The Future of the Global Muslim: Population,” Projections for 2010–2030, http://pewforum.org/The-Future-of-the-Global-Muslim-Population.aspx
  • A 2009 referendum passed by 57.5 percent of the Swiss population amended the constitution to eliminate the construction of mosques with minarets at a time when there were four minarets in the Switzerland. A similar law bans minarets in two Austrian provinces. Simcox, R. 2009, “The nativist response to the Swiss minaret ban – The Centre For Social Cohesion,” Socialcohesion.co.uk.com, 2014, 27 Sept., “Bewildered Fury of the Brighton Mum Whose Teenage Son Ran Off to become a Jihad,” http://www.abreakingnews.com/world/bewildered-fury-of-the-brighton-mum-whose-teenage-son-ran-off-to-become-a-jihadi-he-should-have-been-at-college-but-this-week-ibrahim-was-killed-by-a-us-bomb-in-syria-h234609.html
  • Sayad, Abdelmalek, 2004 [1999], The Suffering of the Immigrant, English translation of A. Sayad (1999) La double absence, Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra: A Looming Grand Jihadi Alliance?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The international coalition- led by the U.S.- against the Islamic State [IS], with additional American airstrikes targeting the ‘Khorasan’ al-Qa’ida group in Syria (in reality just al-Qa’ida veterans from the Afghanistan-Pakistan embedded with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra [JN])- has prompted media speculation of a wider truce, alliance or even merger between IS and JN. For example, on 28 September, Martin Chulov of The Guardian cited a “senior source” claiming “war planning meetings” held between JN and IS leaders.

More recently, a report in The Daily Beast cited “senior Syrian opposition sources” claiming merger talks between JN, IS and ‘Khorasan’, with further allegations, also claimed by the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, that IS provided military assistance to JN in the recent JN moves against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF], Harakat Hazm and other perceived Western-backed rebel groups in Idlib province, noting that this development was supposedly the result of an agreement struck just west of Aleppo between IS and JN in a meeting overseen by ‘Khorasan’, attended also by the independent, anti-jihadi infighting group Jund al-Aqsa, and some members of Ahrar al-Sham. Finally, a report for the Associated Press has just come out, citing an ‘FSA’ commander in Aleppo province and an opposition official, claiming an agreement between IS and JN to end infighting and cooperate to destroy common enemies, including the Kurds and SRF. Present at the meeting, as in the Daily Beast report’s claims, were ‘Khorasan’, Jund al-Aqsa and some members of Ahrar al-Sham.

Are these reports credible? In a word: No. The following should be noted:

– The rift between JN and IS is too great to heal at this point beyond the highly localized alliance between IS and JN in Qalamoun that reflects an exceptional situation where neither group can hold territory alone and both contingents are geographically isolated from members of their groups elsewhere in Syria, in addition to being preoccupied with constant fighting with regime forces and Hezbollah. At the broader level, IS still believes that JN is guilty of “defection” (‘inshiqāq) from IS in refusing to be subsumed under what was then the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] back in April 2013. The zero-sum demands of IS have only solidified with the claimed Caliphate status since 29 June demanding the allegiance of all the world’s Muslims.

In turn, JN refuses even to recognize IS’ claim to be an actual state, let alone a Caliphate. This was made apparent in JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani’s recent official interview on the “White Minaret” in which he made constantly referred to IS as jamaat ad-dawla (“the group of the state”), which can only be interpreted as an insult by IS, even as Jowlani made clear he believes the international coalition is intending to destroy both JN and IS.

In this context, a careful distinction needs to be made between the situation on the ground and attempts by al-Qa’ida branches elsewhere to engage in some form of solidarity outreach to IS in the face of the international coalition as a supposed war on Islam. Thus, contrasting with Jowlani’s constant use of ‘jamaat ad-dawla’ to refer to IS, both al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] simply refer to IS as IS refers to itself: ‘ad-dawla al-islamiya’ [‘The Islamic State’]. However, such attempts at jihadi solidarity are ultimately incoherent ideologically: will AQAP and AQIM actually be willing to extend recognition of the Caliphate if pressed on this issue? Indeed, in the very same areas where AQAP and AQIM are operating, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his al-Furqan Media speech released yesterday rejoiced in new pledges of allegiance to IS in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sinai, Algeria and Libya, calling for the annulment of any separate group identities and the creation of new wilayāt [‘provinces’] of IS. Will AQAP and AQIM be willing to lose their names and merge with these wilayāt? Nothing suggests any development of this sort.

– The nature of the sourcing and content of the ‘JN-IS alliance’ reports is highly suspect. Chulov’s first report in particular is to be noted for its incoherence. While he has a source claiming war planning meetings between JN and IS, a “senior al-Nusra figure” is also mentioned as having told The Guardian that 73 members of JN had just defected to IS. What sense would there be in holding joint conferences to discuss war strategy if members of JN are at the same time leaving JN to join IS? As for the Daily Beast and Associated Press reports, the degree of overlap in the content of the two pieces- such as which groups are attending the supposed merger talks/alliance discussions- strongly suggests they are relying on the same sources. When one looks at these sources, linked as they are to the opposition-in-exile, it is clear they have an agenda to play on Western concerns about dangers of ‘Khorasan’ and the possibility, however remote, of some kind of unification between JN and IS in order to insist on the urgency of more Western support for ‘FSA’ groups to push back against jihadi forces.

On further examination, details of how this agreement between JN and IS is supposed to work come across as impractical, to put it mildly. For example, how would a joint front against Kurdish forces be opened? Would JN and IS participate in a joint offensive on Afrin? But IS is still not even in the vicinity of Afrin, and needs to retake its former border stronghold of Azaz to get there, or at least secure an access agreement through Azaz. Yet the local group that controls Azaz- Northern Storm- is currently affiliated with the Islamic Front, of which Ahrar al-Sham is still a part. Will members of Ahrar al-Sham now send a request Northern Storm to provide access to IS and cease working with other rebels to fight IS for control of Dabiq and other northern Aleppo localities? As for the other two main areas where there is a Kurdish military presence to fight- Kobani and north-east Hasakah province- there is no JN presence whatsoever, having disappeared in the vicinity of Kobani last year as members of JN in nearby towns such as Jarabulus defected to what was then ISIS, and having disappeared in Hasakah province after being subjugated under what was then ISIS at the start of this year.

On the subject of alleged JN-IS cooperation in Idlib province against SRF, there is no evidence whatsoever beyond hearsay to substantiate the claim, with any supposed photos of an IS presence in this case being the result of photoshop manipulation on social media. More importantly, the Dawn of Freedom Brigades- an ex-Liwa al-Tawheed/Islamic Front grouping primarily based in northern Aleppo province and Kobani but which also had an Idlib contingent- has denied to me the claims of IS military assistance to JN in Idlib, as IS withdrew from the province in the face of infighting with rebels at the start of this year. There might be IS sleeper cells intended to conduct sabotage operations against its rivals, but that does not satisfy the need for reliable evidence for active and open IS assistance to JN as is being claimed.

Interestingly, Dawn of Freedom had initially hoped to push back against JN for its moves against SRF and other Western-backed rebels in Idlib, originally intending to issue a 72-hour deadline for JN to withdraw from Jabal Zawiya or face war. However, realizing it was too weak to confront JN militarily, Dawn of Freedom has instead intended to focus its efforts on north Aleppo province, even as its members have now been targeted there too by JN on accusations of being Western-backed. Nonetheless, the group is not playing up any notions of a supposed new JN-IS alliance.

– In questioning the veracity of these reports, I do not intend to imply that there has been no outreach to IS by non-IS affiliated jihadis. As I have outlined previously with respect to the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din , ‘neither IS nor JN’ jihadis have generally tried to avoid fighting with IS as far as possible and have tried to avoid getting into any specifics of the JN-IS rift. It would not be surprising if members of these groups and coalitions might try- most likely on their own initiative or perhaps on an unofficial request from some members of other groups- to seek some outreach to and truce with IS on behalf of non-IS jihadis in Syria on the basis of working with IS on the grounds of common ideological end goal or enemies. However, all evidence shows that these initiatives have invariably failed (cf. Muheisseni’s failed ‘Ummah Initiative’ in January and the ‘And don’t separate’ joint jihadi offensive on Kweiris airbase that quickly collapsed), rooted in IS’ absolutism which seeks recognition of IS as the sole authority. This was so even when IS was just ISIS and ISI, which, as members of rival jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam have noted, consistently insisted on its status as a state and superior authority over others.

In short, the recent reports of supposed merger and alliance talks between JN and IS need to be taken with a pinch of salt as rebel disinformation. From JN’s perspective anyway, an alliance with IS would be strategically disastrous in the long-run, as IS will seek to subjugate it. That JN, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, al-Qa’ida branches and even more mainstream Islamists in general might see the international coalition as a war on Islam is only to be expected, and is certainly relevant to the question of whether the U.S. can build an effective local Sunni fighting force against IS in Iraq, for example. But this debate needs to be distinguished from sensationalist talk of IS-JN mergers and the like that fails to understand IS’ self-perception and how it relates to its interactions at the grand level with other groups.