The Assassination of Sheikh Abu Fahad al-Bal’ous: Context and Analysis

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Last month at this site I profiled the main new Druze militia factions that have emerged in Suwayda province and how they are competing for influence: on the one hand, the clearly pro-Assad Dir’ al-Watan led primarily by Sheikh Jerbo and Nayef al-Aqil, and on the other hand Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous’ faction Rijal al-Karama, whose aim could be characterized in short as critical of the regime but not desiring to overthrow it, seeking instead islah (‘reform’) of the system. Until now, both sides have continued to court locals in various parts of the province in a bid to build support, with Dir’ al-Watan working alongside already existing pro-regime factions in Suwayda such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The main backers of Rijal al-Karama have been Druze living in Israel and the Golan, though connections with the state of Israel are denied. Neither Rijal al-Karama nor Dir’ al-Watan appears to have given any credibility to Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has continued to urge the Druze to join the uprising against the regime.

One of the last known media releases featuring Bal’ous (from 1 September), with members of pro-Bal’ous militia Bayraq al-Basha.

On 4 September, a bomb attack in Suwayda assassinated Bal’ous and a number of others, killing more than 25 people. Identifiable names and persons thus far are given below:

1. Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous
2. Sheikh Fadi Nu’aim
3. Ali Mas’ud
4. Talal Hassan
5. Anwar al-Warhani
6. Ghazi Zaidan
7. Ahmad Shahoud
8. Badi’ Abu Marra
9. Nizar Khadaj
10. Abir Khadaj
11. Samir Nu’aim
12. Wa’el al-Quntar
13. Jamil Nu’aim
14. Rasha Nu’aim
15. Deyaa’ Nu’aim
16. Muhannad Delal
17. Basil Shaqrani
18. Saher Yunis
19. Nasif Abu Ras
20. Fadi Zain al-Din
21. Fadi Nu’aim’s wife and children
22. Hussein al-Shariti’s wife, her daughter and grandson.
23. Tha’ir Nu’aim

The immediate question raised by the bombings is the identity of the perpetrators. One suspect is clearly the regime and its supporters in Suwayda, many of whom undoubtedly resented Bal’ous and the noticeable growth in his influence over the past few months, as an increasing number of Druze militia groups congregated under his personality and banner, such as Bayraq al-Basha, Bayraq Al Nu’aim (Bayraq al-Nidal) and Bayraq al-Haq. As far as names of the victims go, there can be no doubt the targets were political: that is, aimed at Bal’ous and some of his key followers in the province. Note for instance how many of the names are from the Nu’aim family. Sheikh Fadi Nu’aim in particular is to be noted for his role in Bayraq al-Nidal/Bayraq Al Nu’aim (‘Banner of al-Nidal/the Family of Nu’aim).

Fadi Nu’aim: in my previous article, note his appearance in the photos featuring rallies of Bayraq Al Nu’aim and similar militias.

Fadi Nu’aim in front of his militia’s banner.

However, at the present time, no significant pro-regime personalities in Suwayda are celebrating the bombing, but rather condemning it as a terrorist attack- a clear attempt to cool tensions and prevent fallout. Thus, Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi, who is also an important figure involved in Dir’ al-Watan, issued a condemnation, affirming that “the targeting of peaceful innocents comes from the nature of black terrorism that has no homeland and religion and has no affiliation with state and human principles and laws, except the culture of killing and destruction.”

Prior to the bomb attacks, Suwayda has most recently witnessed anti-corruption protests, with anger directed at the governor of Suwayda Atef al-Nadaf, including chants like “The people want the downfall of the governor.” For example, one popular grievance in Suwayda involves corruption in the smuggling of oil and other related products, as well as poor provision of basic commodities and public services like bread and electricity.

From the protests, featuring a placard complaining of bread and electricity provision.

Though none of the protests could be interpreted as truly revolutionary in the sense of wanting to overthrow the regime system itself in Suwayda, the province experienced an Internet blackout that reportedly lasted more than 2 days and a cut-off of electricity for more than 10 hours. This provoked resentment even among some pro-regime Suwayda media outlets, such as ‘Suwayda Pulse’, which wrote on 3 September in a message to government officials and the Suwayda governor:


“What are the reasons for the cutting off of the Internet from Suwayda province for more than 2 days and the cutting off electricity for more than 10 continuous hours after citizens came out in peaceful demonstrations raising the Syrian Arab flag, and their slogan in the sit-in: the bearing of any types of weapons is forbidden?


Were it not for Suwayda, Syria would have been a French colony. Were it not for Suwayda, Syria would have been Da’eshi [i.e. wholly taken over by the Islamic State]. We are with the homeland and with the Syrian Arab Army and under the Syrian Arab flag possessing green eyes. So don’t test the patience of Suwayda because the people of this province are a people of nobility, manhood and hospitality who do not accept humiliation or bowing down to any person, whoever he is. We request that no order be implemented to enrage the citizens and the street in Suwayda because the citizen body has reached the end of its patience and has not been able to re-secure the most basic of things for daily life and livelihood. Was the Internet cut off out of desire to prevent the arrival of photos and the events that happen in the sit-in for expats of the sons of Suwayda province or social media sites? We hope this problem will be resolved as soon as possible with as few losses as possible if God wills.”

Other pro-regime pages whose raison d’etre has been opposition to Bal’ous accused Bal’ous and his followers of orchestrating the demonstrations as part of a prior agreed plan to destroy the regime in Suwayda through collusion with foreign intelligence and Jabhat al-Nusra, as per below (though the page in question, entitled “All of us together against Bal’ous” has since been deleted following on from his assassination). Amusingly, a rather excited professor from King’s College London proclaimed to me in July how the King of Jordan was privately boasting of plans somewhat similar to what this page claims against Bal’ous: that Druze sheikhs had reached an agreement via Jordanian mediation to overthrow regime authority in Suwayda and allow the opposition to take control, which would allow the King to send Syrian refugees in Jordan to Suwayda.


So what next? To begin with, it should be noted that Rijal al-Karama vows to continue operating on the ground. In a statement from the main page representing the faction, the following message was written today:


“The Rijal al-Karama continue. The existence of Rijal al-Karama will not end with the martyrdom of Sheikh Abu Fahad but on the contrary the martyrdom of Abu Fahad will be a more powerful motive for us to continue the route on the path that he outlined for us. And let all know that there are leaders and men who were the strongest support for Sheikh Abu Fahad in his life and they are continuing after him. We ask you not to be rash, to keep Suwayda safe and that we remain under the opinion of the our mashayakh and learned ones in the province. #TheRijalalKaramaRemaining.”

This is to be contrasted with more excited calls and pronouncements from opposition supporters that the ‘revolution’ has somehow come to Suwayda. The groupings aligned with Rijal al-Karama are known by name and so far there is no reliable indicator of calls from Rijal al-Karama and its constituents to overthrow the regime in Suwayda. The foremost problem with envisioning such a goal is that the clearly pro-regime factions in Suwayda are still present and cannot be done away with overnight. Were calls for escalation to come about, it could lead to the worst case scenario of a full-blown, bloody intra-civil war in Suwayda province, leaving the region even more vulnerable to encroachments of the rebels from the west and the Islamic State from the east and north. The situation remains tense, and the regime may be forced to concede even further autonomy to Suwayda province, but one needs to consider what a call to taking up arms and ‘revolution’ would actually mean in this context.

Overview of some pro-Assad Militias

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

At this site I have previously profiled several pro-Assad militias, such as the Muqawama Suriya, the Coastal Shield Brigade and Dir’ al-Watan. Below are profiles of five more pro-Assad militias.

Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra


Emblem of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra: ‘Quwat Dir’ al-Watan’ (Homeland Shield Forces).

Translating to ‘Quneitra Falcons Brigade’, this formation appears to comprise local pro-Assad militias to support the Syrian army in the remaining regime-held parts of Quneitra governorate, such as al-Ba’ath city. The existence of this force is acknowledged in pro-regime media outlets like Sama TV, issuing reports on the continued defence of al-Ba’ath city against the rebels. The origins of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra trace back to its most famous ‘martyr’: Fadi al-Haj, also known as Abu Sakhr, depicted in the graphic below.


The pro-regime site ‘Damascus News Network’ gives a profile of him, his two main associates (also deceased), and his Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra in an article published on 21 April 2015:

“Yesterday Fadi al-Haj, his brother Ali, and his comrade Rabi’ al-Khabi departed. They departed after an honourable undertaking of defending the land and honour. Indeed they are martyrs of Popular Defence, Quwat Dir’ al-Watan, Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra […]

In the beginning

They are sons of Quneitra who bore arms since the beginning of the war in Syria and their arms were against all who wanted to enter their villages from all sides, even the state, but then the terrorist threat to the area intensified and terrorist factions entered, supported by Israel. They rejected coordinating and cooperating with them, and asked the Popular Defence leadership to incorporate them into their forces to defend Quneitra.

They participated in all the battles and were at the head of the lance up to the fence of the occupied Golan. They formed Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra and called on the youth of the area to enlist and train to fight. And indeed hundreds joined among fighters and supporters. The Syrian Arab Army leadership armed them with different types of weapons- light and heavy- including anti-tank missiles and rocket launch systems.

Deeds of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra

The Quneitra Falcons have participated in the war against terrorism in Quneitra governorate. And since they are sons of the land, they have managed to carry out military penetrations within the ranks of the terrorists, and have infiltrated to the hearts of their areas and carried out precise operations.

They have formed a well-fortified fortress around al-Ba’ath city, Khan Arbaneh and the secure zones in Quneitra, and among their military successes:

– Resisting the terrorists’ attack on Tel al-Qab’a from the side of the locality of Ufania.
– Participating in the liberation of the locality of Deir al-Ads in the Quneitra countryside.
– Blowing up and dismantling a number of terrorist sites and bases through intermittent stages in time, according to their expertise in the nature of the land of the battle in all that is the surrounding of the village of Umm Batina, Mashara and Tel Karum- Jaba.
– Destroying the dangerous terrorist Abdo al-Qarfa’i who led a terrorist cell in Kafr Nasij.
– Targeting the terrorist groups on a daily basis in the village of Mashara, the village of al-Hurriya, the village of Shabta, and al-Hamidiya.
– Assaulting the village of al-Ajraf, dismantling and blowing up the terrorists’ dens.
– Resisting the terrorist groups’ attack and destroying their vehicles in al-Hamidiya.
– Seizing weapons’ caches and ammo including American-made anti-tank missiles.
– Seizing the village of Rasm al-Baghal in the Quneitra countryside.
– And yesterday they resisted a great terrorist attack on al-Ba’ath city, routed and caught the attackers in a counter-attack on their dens in the locality of al-Samdaniya al-Gharbiya, aided by all of artillery, missiles and tanks.”

In this Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra video, the group’s insignia can be seen on the vehicle.


The above photo is of Muhammad Haymoud, announced as a ‘martyr’ for Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra on 31 July 2015. The story of his death according to Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra in a post dated 2 August 2015 is most interesting: “He was killed at the hand of an armed group from the Ba’ath Brigades [another pro-Assad militia] as the group set up a treacherous ambush while he was moving from Khan Arnabeh to al-Ba’ath city when the group struck his car with two RPG rounds and after that light gunfire on his car in front of the eyes of the people. Although a number of people tried to provide first aid to the martyr, it was not long before he stammered that live gunfire was unleashed on these people, forcing them to move away. And the leader of the group is called Jaber al-Khalid and his brothers. This is the truth of the assassination of the heroic martyr.”

The fighting in Quneitra province remains at an overall stalemate as rebel forces including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham fail to take any more regime-held areas, including most notably the staunchly pro-Assad Druze village of Hadr. Local support for the regime arguably remains the most crucial factor in holding back the rebels. At the same time, the regime lacks offensive capability here even when backed by foreign forces, as was the case with the failed Deraa-Quneitra offensive earlier this year that featured heavy involvement from Iranian-backed militias including the Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatemiyoun and the Iraqi Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’.

Liwa al-Quds


Liwa al-Quds Emblem

Liwa al-Quds- ‘The Jerusalem Brigade’- is a Palestinian Syrian pro-regime militia operating in the Aleppo area. The pro-regime site al-Hadath News explains in a profile from March 2015:

“A new organization has appeared alongside the Syrian army in Aleppo fighting the armed takfiris, for after the entry of Hezbollah onto the line of  battle and the appearance of ‘Quwat al-Ridha‘, which is considered the core of Syrian Hezbollah, in addition to the National Defence Forces and the Iraqi military formations, a Palestinian faction has appeared fighting under the banner of the Syrian state.

Information indicates that the new formation adopted the name of the Palestinian capital al-Quds as its banner, while it is formed of Palestinian fighters who have lived and live in Syria, having expressed their support for the Syrian state and its army.

The formation, which was established in October 2013 by the engineer ‘Muhammad al-Sa’id’ who is considered its real leader, held the bond of silence and thus its activities were not advertised in media, until the recent battles of north Aleppo countryside where an important military role for them became apparent. This is also clear on the ‘al-Nayrab’ camp front where through frontline duty the formation’s fighters face the takfiri fighters who are besieging the Palestinian camp.

The formation’s fighters who call themselves the ‘Syrian Arab Army Fedayeen’ are distributed on the periphery of the camp and south of al-Nayrab military and civil airport. They are also present in Aziza village, Sheikh Latfi, and around the Air Intelligence building and the Greatest Messenger mosque. They are also greatly active as a strong force on the first al-Rashadeen front ablaze in west Aleppo. This front is considered among the most dangerous and difficult fronts, with protection of this front entrusted entirely to Liwa al-Quds.

In addition to these fronts, the brigade is present in the village of Haylan, and west of Aleppo central prison, around Handarat camp, and in a number of areas south and east of Aleppo, as well as in Jama’ia al-Jud south of the two besieged villages of Nubl and Zahara.

The brigade is composed of three main battalions, which are: Lions of al-Quds Battalion, which operates in al-Nayrab camp and its surrounding as well as in southern and eastern countryside; the Deterrence Battalion, which operates in the north Aleppo countryside south of the villages of Nubl and Zahara; and the Lions of al-Shahba’ Battalion, which operates on the fighting fronts inside Aleppo city.

According to information, among the brigade’s successes are protecting al-Nayrab camp, ‘the only camp that has not been penetrated’, protecting the civilian and military airport, as well as the missiles base south of the camp. And on the walls of the camp the victories of ‘Liwa al-Tawheed’ have been broken and its defeat has begun.

A commander in the brigade estimates the number of wounded since the beginning of the events at more than 400, and the number of martyrs at more than 200, the majority of whom have fallen on the blazing fighting fronts, which are considered to be the air intelligence building front as the most prominent. Meanwhile he estimates the number of battles Liwa al-Quds members have waged alongside the Syrian Arab Army since its establishment until now at more than 140 battles.”

To be sure, pro-regime militia activity in the al-Nayrab camp was not unknown before the formation of Liwa al-Quds. Already the familiar Popular Committees had taken root there, with the first ‘martyr’ reportedly being Hussein al-Masri, who was killed on 26 September 2012. In any case, a number of ‘martyrs’ have been advertised officially by Liwa al-Quds, as per the photos below.

Omar Qarmazi, whose death was announced in August 2015. He died of his wounds from fighting in the Zahara’ area.

Kamal Yusuf As’ad, originally of the al-Raml camp in Latakia: his death was announced in June 2015. Before dying in Mahambal in Idlib province, he most notably fought on the Handarat front.

Muhammad Nadhir al-Junaid, who died on 29 May 2015 apparently from drowning in tidal waves in Latakia, where he had been dispatched on assignment by the leader of Liwa al-Quds. He had previously fought on the first al-Rashadeen front.

Nu’aim Muhammad Dib bin Taha, who died fighting on the Zahara front. Two of his brothers (Muhammad and Basil) died fighting for the Syrian army in the Aleppo area.

Ahmad Khalid Dirbas: killed in July 2015. Note his Liwa al-Quds insignia.

Besides military operations, Liwa al-Quds also engages in social outreach and offers military training sessions. On the former, from May 2015, note the invitation below to attend the final of a soccer tournament in the Nayrab camp.

“In relation to Martyrs Day on 6 May, under the supervision of Liwa al-Quds, we invite you to the final round of the al-Nayrab Camp Youth Heroes Soccer Cup : Liwa al-Quds vs. Palestine Stars. And that will take place in the Youth stadium (al-Nabhan) on Monday 25 May, at 6 p.m. General Invitation. The Media Office.”

As for military training, note the advertisement below put out by Liwa al-Quds in April 2015.

“The Liwa al-Quds leadership announces the opening of a military session: physical fitness, military tactics, martial arts and self-defence, blitz. The length of the training session is 30 days. All who wish to register from age 15 and above should head to the Liwa al-Quds base in the al-Nayrab camp and register from 6 p.m. till 9 p.m., beginning from Wednesday 24 April. All who are subjected to the session of the blitz teacher should head to the Liwa al-Quds base.”

Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini

Emblem of Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini. On top: “Martyrdom or Victory.”

Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini is the ‘Palestinian Liberation Army.’ This militia in Syria is led by one Muhammad Tariq al-Khadra’, who characterizes the civil war in Syria as follows: “The vicious barbaric international conspiracy against Syria and the Arab nation aims to redivide and repartition this nation to form weak madhhabist, sectarian and racist entities in conflict with each other, to justify the establishment of the racist entity on the Jewish foundations of the Zionist state, dominating over the Arab nation.”

Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini has fought in a variety of engagements over the years, such as in Adra in the Damascus area and more recently (April 2015) in northern Suwayda province, where the group lost 13 fighters. Other recent battles include Darayya in the Damascus area, Tel al-Sawan on the peripheries of Douma in the Damascus area, the siege of Moadhamiya al-Sham, and perhaps most controversially, the ongoing assault on rebel-held Zabadani, as per the screenshot from the video below.

“From the heart of Zabadani: the road of al-Quds. The Men of Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini.”

Indeed, Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini claimed last month a ‘martyr’ in the Zabadani battles: Muhammad Ali Saba’i, originally of the Handarat refugee camp of Aleppo province. In total, according to the same report, an opposition advocacy group for Palestinians in Syria has documented 142 Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini ‘martyrs’ in Syria.

Nusur al-Zawba’a

Emblem of Nusur al-Zawba’a

Nusur al-Zawba’a translates as ‘The Whirlwind’s Eagles’, referring to the whirlwind/vortex logo of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Of all the militias documented here, Nusur al-Zawba’a seems to have fought in the largest number of engagements, spanning the range of western Syria. The SSNP’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has already been documented to a considerable extent before. For instance, the SSNP has built noteworthy support bases in Homs’ Old City, the Christian villages of Wadi al-Nasara area and Latakia. It also works alongside other pro-regime factions in Suwayda province. This is so even as strictly speaking, the SSNP’s Greater Syrian nationalism is not compatible with Ba’athist Arab nationalism. Sometimes, there is overlap between the SSNP and the regular Syrian armed forces. This entry on Nusur al-Zawba’a explores some sample ‘martyrdoms’ and the manner of characterization.

An invitation from the SSNP, the family of the ‘martyr’ Nasri Estefan Injil and others to attend departure prayers for the ‘martyr’ at 11 a.m. on 29 August 2015 in the Mar Yohanna al-Ma’amadan church in the Wadi al-Nasara locality of al-Qalatiya, with further condolences to be offered from 30 August-1 September 2015. The opening quotation at the top is from the Gospel According to John (11:25): “Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, shall live.” The SSNP has made particular shows of solidarity with Christians, so its appeal should not be surprising, particularly in western Syria where it seems to offer the only alternative to Arabism, whereas in the northeast of Syria non-Arab Christian-specific identities- most notably Assyrian and Syriac- have established a much stronger foothold.

Raymun Suleiman Sam’an, of the Christian village of Rabla near Qusayr. According to the poster above, he died fighting in Slanfeh in Latakia on 23 August 2015. Account of funeral proceedings here.

From the funeral proceedings.

The Nusur al-Zawba’a announcement of Raymun’s ‘martyrdom’ differs slightly in putting the date of his death on 24 August 2015 in Jabb al-Ahmar, Latakia. As this graphic puts it: “He was martyred in the battles of heroism and resistance in confrontation with the internal Jews.” The phrase “internal Jews” (yahud al-dakhil) deserves comment here. As my friend and colleague Carl Yonker notes, this language is tied to SSNP founder Antun Sa’adeh’s argument that the Jews could not constitute a part of the Greater Syrian nation, as Zionism posits an independent Jewish state in the Israel-Palestine area, while SSNP Greater Syrian nationalism requires these lands to be part of Greater Syria.

Ala’ Khayrat al-Khatyar, who according to this Nusur al-Zawba’a announcement also died fighting the “internal Jews” in Jabb al-Ahmar, on 23 August 2015. His biography states that he was born in 1988 in Bayt al-Haj, Tartous. He joined Nusur al-Zawba’a in 2012, and participated in a number of battles, “from Kassab [Latakia province], to Homs, al-Zara [Homs province], Sadad [Homs province], Mork [Hama province], Taldara [Hama province], Sahl al-Ghab [Hama province], Tallat Khattab [Idlib province] and others besides these.”

Tha’ir Ahmad Bala, who according to this Nusur al-Zawba’a announcement died on 18 August 2015 in Zabadani. According to his biography, he was born in Latakia in 1978 and joined the SSNP in 2003. His most notable engagements include Kassab, Sadad, al-Zara, Quneitra, Saidnaya [Damascus province], Ma’loula [Damascus province], Mork and finally Zabadani.

Abd al-Aziz Muhammad al-Hilal, declared to have been killed in Jisr al-Shughur on 31 May 2015. His biography states that he was born in 1993 in Kharufia Kabir, which is in the Manbij area of Aleppo province currently controlled by the Islamic State. His most notable engagements include Kessab, Mork, Hisn [Homs province], al-Nabk [Damascus province], Sadad, al-Zara & finally Jisr al-Shughur.

Katibat al-Jabal

Emblem of Katibat al-Jabal: “National Defence: Latakia: Nabi Yunis Summit.”

Katibat al-Jabal means “The Mountain Battalion” and a division of the National Defence Forces in eastern Latakia province. Nabi Yunis lies to the north of Slanfeh. As its affiliation suggests, its role is defensive in nature, to prevent further rebel and jihadist pushes into Latakia province- a prospect that increasingly looms large with the regime losses in Idlib province.

Members of Katibat al-Jabal pose in front of a mural of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad, which bears the inscription “Katibat al-Jabal”. Alongside this uploaded photo, Katibat al-Jabal offered a message of solidarity to Jabal al-Arab [Jabal al-Druze in Suwayda province] in June 2015, as both Suwayda and Latakia provinces faced the threat of rebel and jihadist encroachments.

Poster from 2014 dedicated to the ‘martyrs’ of Katibat al-Jabal.

Photo released by Katibat al-Jabal during Ramadan 2015. The picture of Imam Ali on the wall and the inscriptions of “Ya Ali” (Oh Ali) should make clear the group’s Alawite membership.

ISIS: A Caliphate of Torture and Rape

Laila Khoudeidaby Laila Khoudeida

Originally from Sinjar, Iraq, Laila Khoudeida is a social worker and mental health specialist, currently serving on the board of Yazda, an organization she helped found in 2014 that responds to the needs of Yazidi victims of IS ethnic cleansing.


I recorded this Sinjar survivor account in my notebook as it was related to me by “FA,” a Yazidi woman who managed to escape ISIS captivity late last year. She wanted to share her story with the world but chose not to share her name.

Originally from a town called Tel Ezer in the Sinjar region, FA is a 23-year-old Yazidi woman from a very large family. Her neighborhood was home to thirteen other families who were closely related to her—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends. On Aug. 3, 2014, when FA heard the news about ISIS entering nearby Yazidi towns, she did not realize how quickly she would be forced to become the slave of one ISIS militant after another. After learning the frightening news, she and her family members gathered themselves so that they could head for the mountains.

Notebook with account of Yazidi survivor

My notes of FA’s story. Photo: Syria Comment

But they were too late. The ISIS militia had already beheaded countless Yazidi men and destroyed many nearby towns. She became very scared and held tightly to her mother and sisters as the gunshots continued. When ISIS reached her house, she was pulled by the hair with a gun pointed at her head as she along with her family were herded along to join other Yazidis who were gathered into groups.  There, she witnessed her father and four uncles collapse to the ground as each was shot in the head. She said:

“I wanted to die; I wanted to be the next one to be shot in the head, because I did not want to see any more of what was to come.”

She would live to witness much more cruelty.

Another 200 men were shot and the survivors, including her, were taken to Seba Shekh Kheder, a town located south of Sinjar. There, they separated women and put them in different groups according to their age and beauty. This was the last time she would see her mother. The children, including infants, were forcibly taken from their mothers to be raised by ISIS, where they are now being taught the Caliphate’s religion so they can grow up to become future jihadis.

FA said that while in Seba Shekh Kheder:

“I wanted to know where my mother was taken and if I would ever see her again. I kept looking around but I did not see anyone her age, there were only women close to my age and younger, including 9-year-olds.”

They were ordered to walk single file to Baaj. She said, “At this point, I did not understand where they were taking us, but I noticed that we were moving farther away from my town.”  After arriving in Baaj, she noticed the ISIS militants changing their minds; it seemed they did not feel safe having all of the captives there. She said:

“I was exhausted and could not cry because I felt numb; I felt like this was a nightmare that I would soon wake up from.”

They sat on the ground where the little girls clung to the older ones and one of them whispered to FA, “I am thirsty.” FA said, “That’s when my heart ached and I started crying.” They could not ask for water because the last one to do so, a 70-year-old woman, was struck across the face with a weapon.

FA said that around 12 pm they were ordered to start walking again, towards Mosul.

“We walked from 12 pm to 3 am and throughout our journey we walked over dead bodies and past destroyed homes. We would see vehicles pass by with black flags hanging out and men with long beards saying “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” as they passed us (meaning “god is the greatest”).”

The ISIS men never addressed each other by their first names, intent on keeping the captives from learning their true identities. Once moved to Mosul, they remained there for 11 days, and during this period, she was forced to “marry” one of the men.

“I resisted and was beat in the stomach and head until I became unconscious. When I woke up, I watched other women, including my sisters, go through the same experience.”

Her face was so bruised up that she no longer drew the men’s attention, as they sought out good-looking women.

“I watched my sister bang her head on the wall as one of the militants dragged her to his car.”

FA later learned that her sister was sold off to someone in Syria and was taken to live with his family. The family didn’t believe that a Yazidi woman should live in a Muslim household, so they took her to the local shari’a court (perhaps to have her officially convert). The people saw her as an infidel who should be punished. That was the last she knew of her sister.

FA was again grouped with about one hundred other women and they were ordered to walk back to Baaj.  This time they stayed in Baaj for 8 days, at which point she was sold for about 10 dollars to someone in Tel Banat.

“He did to me what he desired, then sold me to someone in Tel Qasab after two days.”

In Tel Qasab, FA was tortured badly, raped multiple times a day, and beaten after each instance of rape. She was made to cook for the militant and clean his house, but since she did not look good enough for him after staying with him for two days, he brought her back to where the other women were being held.

FA added that they were very exhausted and many of the girls did not care whether they lived or died because they saw how they were being used as sex objects and at any point could be killed, if they were to resist the militants’ sexual demands.

“At three in the morning I felt a splash of cold water hit me in the face; I felt the pain of the wounds on my cheeks and head and could barely open my eyes.”

When she woke up, she saw that some women were being ordered to stand up in a line and take their scarves off.

“I felt a wire hit me hard in the back and I slowly stood up.

I did not know where my scarf had fallen off, but they were looking for women who satisfied their taste in looks.”

FA’s brother’s wife and cousin were two of many who met this desire and were taken. They were screaming and trying to find a way to escape, but they could not. Her brother’s wife still had her son with her and he looked very ill—her nephew looked dead.

“My sister wanted to come and give me a hug because she knew that that would be the last time we would see each other. But she was dragged to the vehicle.”

Her brother’s wife is still held in Mosul today, but she doesn’t know much about her sister, or whether her nephew is still alive.

The next day in the evening two women hung themselves from the ceiling fan in the building; one of them was the wife of her neighbor, a very young and beautiful woman. She had told FA that she would kill herself before they touched her, and she did so.

“I wanted to do the same, but I was too weak, and I felt the little girls needed someone to be with them. So I resisted every time they would come to sell me, and I managed to stay with the girls. Because they had found out that I could cook, one of them, their leader, bought me for a thousand dollars from the previous person who still claimed that I was his wife.

The leader ordered me to cook and bake for them and the Yazidis who had been forced to convert.

I cleaned the girls so they could be sold for better prices, and I would tell them…. ‘just do what they tell you until we find a way out of here.’

One of the girls did not follow orders when she was called to meet the man who had come to choose a girl (sabya) to be his wife,  so to punish us, they mixed gas with water and forced us to wash ourselves with it.”

Continuing her tragedy, FA said that one day a 9-year-old girl was called to go into the leader’s room. The girl was so terrified, she started vomiting.

“So I fixed the 9-year-old child’s hair, and she was sent to the leader’s room. Soon after she was in there, I heard the loudest scream a nine-year-old can make.”

After about half hour, she came back out. He had raped her. Waiting outside was another man to whom she was sold before he returned to Syria.

She would not be the last. The leader would keep them until he had raped them, then they would be sold. “There were so many of us that it was very easy for him to get another girl to rape.”

FA said that one by one all the little girls that she had taken care of had been sold except for three. One of these was a 13-year-old and the other two had already been sold to ISIS fighters and were therefore considered “married” and were waiting for the ISIS men to come back from a mission in Mosul. They did not have the courage to try to run away.

“One day, the guard who was watching over us came to the kitchen and started touching me in different areas, but I pushed him each time… He pulled out a piece of paper, it was a marriage certificate.”

This man had made FA his wife in the shari’a court without informing her; he told her that he would send her off to Saudi Arabia if she didn’t comply.

“I was very scared, and the next day, I went to the leader and told him about the situation with the guard.”

FA by this time had become a prized commodity because she cooked and baked for all of them, so the leader put the ISIS guard in jail for one day before he was released. She said this man wanted to kill her, but he couldn’t because he was afraid of the leader.

The next day, the guard told his friend that he wanted him to take her in a vehicle and send her off to Saudi Arabia and kill her there. When FA heard this, she knew she had to find a way to escape.

That night, airstrikes targeting one of the ISIS bases prompted the militant leader to abruptly get in his vehicle and drive off.

“I looked to see if the guard was around, and when I didn’t see him, I told the girls that this was our chance to run away. The two who had been sold were too scared to come because the last time one of us tried to run, she was brought back, and her legs were cut off.”

The two girls did not want to go through the same experience, but FA was determined to run that night because she did not want to end up in Saudi Arabia.

The 13-year-old girl agreed to go with FA, and they started heading toward the mountain. On the run for three days without food or water, they hid behind buildings and bushes during the day and moved at night. By the time they came close to the road near the mountain, the 13-year-old girl couldn’t walk, so FA began to carry her. Because they were so dehydrated, she picked up two small rocks and gave one to the girl to place in her mouth to help with the thirst, and placed the other in her own mouth.

Once they had passed the danger zone and drawn close to the mountain, Yazidi fighters spotted them and ran to them with water. Qasim Shesho, a Yazidi leader, told his men to drive them to Kurdistan.

This woman is one of thousands of Yazidi women who have been enslaved since summer of last year. She now lives in a tent in a refugee camp that houses many other Yazidis with similar stories.


See this video for amazing interview footage with Yazidis in the camps of Dohuk, obtained by Dr. Hawar Moradi.

Recent articles on the Yazidi crisis:

ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape – NYT – Rukmini Callimachi

Kidnapping and Sex Slavery: Covering ISIS’ Religious Justification for Rape – NYT – Erika Allen

Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi repeatedly raped US hostage Kayla Mueller and turned Yazidi girls into personal sex slaves – Independent – Judit Neurink

The dramatic escape of Yazidi women from ISIL ahead of being sorted into ‘pretty’ and ‘not pretty’ – Richard Spencer – Aug. 17, 2015

The Fight To Document The ISIS Massacre Of The Yazidis – World Post interview with Christoph Wilcke

Meet the woman who quit her job, paused her studies and left Sweden to help Yazidi women and children fleeing Isis – Independent

Kayla e le 3000 yazide: schiave del Califfo – Corriere della Sera – (Italian)

One Year on From the Sinjar Massacre, Yazidis Blast Lack of Action Over Hostages – Newsweek

Berlin subway honors Sinjar on first anniversary of Aug 3 genocide

The Berlin subway honors Sinjar (“Shingal” in Kurdish) on the first anniversary of the Aug. 3 genocide

How to Understand Those 60 Trainees

by Joel Veldkamp


“I can look out at your faces and see you had the same reaction I do, which is that that’s an awfully small number.”

So said American Defense Secretary Ash Carter in testimony before an incredulous Senate Armed Services Committee on July 7, explaining that the $500 million American project, announced over a year ago, to train and arm a new Syrian rebel army to bring the Islamic State to its knees and force a political settlement on the Syrian regime simultaneously has, to date, trained just 60 fighters.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on behalf of the Iranian nuclear deal recently brokered by the Obama Administration in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2015. Carter was joined by Secretary of State John Kerry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, U.S. treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. DoD Photo: Glenn Fawcett (Released)

Photo: Glenn Fawcett (Released)

It’s been 53 months since the Syrian uprising started, 48 months since President Obama called for regime change in Syria, 29 months since the Islamic State took over northeast Syria, 14 months since they took over northwest Iraq, and 11 months since Obama promised to destroy them, and the entirety of the U.S.’ publicly-announced ground strategy to dislodge the Islamic State from Syria and end the war there is embodied in five dozen “trained” Syrians in Turkey somewhere.

The weeks following Carter’s testimony would bring no more reassurance. On July 29, reports emerged that Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, had captured a group of fighters from Division 30, a rebel group U.S. officials had earlier claimed was among those participating in the train-and-equip program. What would happen when the U.S.’ chief nemesis crossed the U.S.’ handpicked fighters? Division 30 responded by issuing a statement asking its “brothers” in JAN to release the fighters for the sake of the opposition’s “unity” and refused to fight JAN. The extent of the Pentagon’s response was to vigorously deny that any of the captured Division 30 fighters were themselves recipients of U.S. training.

It’s easy to understand the consternation of the senators at the Carter hearing. How could the U.S. foreign policy establishment possibly be so incompetent?

To move beyond incredulity and consternation, we need to put this training project in context. Over four brutal years of civil war, the U.S. has announced a succession of programs to aid “moderate” anti-government fighters in Syria – all similarly modest, even embarrassingly so. But U.S. rhetoric about these programs has been jumbled and self-contradictory, and has had only the most tenuous connection to events on the ground – and to the true scale of U.S. involvement in Syria. The wide gulf between rhetoric and reality evinces a deliberate public information strategy to conceal the nature of that involvement.

The U.S. and Syria’s Rebels – Rhetoric

Starting in March 2012, a year into the conflict, officials at the White House and the State Department began claiming that the U.S. was directly aiding the Syrian armed opposition with “nonlethal aid,” such as communications gear and medical supplies.

A year later, after the outgoing Pentagon and State Department chiefs Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton embarrassed the administration by making internal disagreements over Syria public, the incoming Secretary of State John Kerry announced that President Obama was going to begin “direct assistance” to the Syrian armed opposition, “though nonlethal,” including “food and medical supplies.” The Associated Press hailed this non-announcement as “a significant policy shift.”

Four months later, in June 2013, responding to mounting reports of regime chemical weapons use and the fall of the strategic city of Qusayr to regime forces, American officials told the New York Times that “the Obama administration…has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition.” White House Advisor Ben Rhodes, however, would only speak of “direct military support” to the opposition: “He would not specify whether the support would include lethal aid, such as weapons.” Since this was the third time direct nonlethal support for the armed Syrian opposition had been announced “for the first time,” we can sympathize with the journalist who complained at the next day’s State Department press briefing, “I have to say – I hope I’m not alone in this – there is still quite a lot of confusion.”

The amounts of “nonlethal” aid that the opposition was said to receive were always small. By May 2014, it totaled just $80 million, and included “552,000 MREs, 1,500 medical kits, vehicles, communications equipment, generators, and over three tons of surgical and triage medical supplies.” Spread out over two years and a battlefield the size of Syria’s, these figures are only marginally more impressive than Carter’s 60 trained fighters.

Occasionally – usually at moments of pressure to “do something” – American officials let it be known that the U.S. was actually sending “lethal” aid to the rebels as well. In September 2013, after President Obama was forced to back down from his threat to bomb Syria after the Damascus countryside chemical weapons massacre, the Washington Post reported that, “according to U.S. officials,” arms shipments from the CIA, “limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked” had begun “arriving in Syria.” The Post described this as “a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.”

In April 2014, after the breakdown of peace talks in Geneva and several months of regime successes in retaking lost ground, U.S. government officials leaked the news that the U.S. had provided rebels in Syria with twelve 20-year-old antitank missile launchers – news that was given exhaustive coverage by the Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Brookings Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies, among others.

Mostly, however, U.S. officials maintained the line of “nonlethal aid” in public. In December 2012, a “senior administration official” told reporters, “until we understand how these arms promote a political solution, we do not see how provision of arms is a good idea.” In April 2013, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones reaffirmed, “We do not believe that it is in the United States or the Syrian people’s best interest to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.” Asked about the possibility of sending arms in February 2014, a senior U.S. official told the BBC, “We already, as you know, provide non-lethal aid.”

Three days before Mosul fell to the Islamic State, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated publicly, for the first time, that the U.S. “is providing lethal and non-lethal support” to the “moderate, vetted opposition” in Syria. In reporting this statement, the staff of the Israeli daily Haartez noted, “Rice gave more details than are usually provided by Obama administration officials.”

With so much contradictory information, it is little wonder that confusion reigned on this point, not only among the general public, but among American media organs and policymakers. Thus, after the fall of Mosul, the New York Times claimed that the city’s fall had increased “scrutiny” on “the decision by the Obama administration not to arm moderate Syrian rebels at the outset,” and Hillary Clinton was quick to note that she “pushed very hard” for arming moderate rebels. This past June, outgoing Daily Show host Jon Stewart ruthlessly mocked various Republican figures for proposing arming rebels in Syria, and implicitly praised Obama for not doing so. In criticizing the current nuclear deal with Iran, the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “The U.S. could have armed the Free Syrian Army to defeat Iran’s allied Assad regime in Damascus” to get a better deal.

These statements reveal the widely-held assumption that the U.S. has avoided engagement in the Syria conflict, but these statements can only exist in blissful denial of publicly-available information about the reality of the U.S.’ role in Syria since 2011.

The U.S. and Syria’s Rebels – Reality

Among the publicly-reported details of that role:

  • January 2012: According to the New York Times, three and a half months before the administration first announced “nonlethal aid” to the opposition, a secret CIA-assisted airlift of arms to the rebels began, which by March 2013 would comprise 160 flights and “an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment.” The CIA helped “Arab governments shop for weapons,” and “vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive.”
  • June 2012: The New York Times reported that the CIA was in Turkey helping U.S. allies in the region decide which Syrian rebel groups should receive “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” which were “being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
  • August 2012: Reuters reported that the CIA was helping to “direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents” from Turkey, under the authority of an intelligence finding from the president earlier in 2012, which “broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad.”

In January 2013, Scott Stewart, an analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, concluded based on an examination of weapons seen in opposition-released videos that “the current level of external intervention in Syria is similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.”

All of this predates the announcement of John Kerry’s “significant policy shift” to provide “food and medical supplies” to the opposition. It also predates the State Department’s April 2013 affirmation that, “We do not believe that it is in…the Syrian people’s best interest to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.”

The scale of the material aid reportedly delivered to the armed Syrian opposition by the U.S. and its allies through these operations dwarfs anything discussed in the government’s public statements. In February 2014, the Abu Dhabi daily The National reported that Gulf states, with logistical help from American intelligence, had delivered $1.2 billion in weapons and supplies to rebels in Syria since July 2013 alone:

“That amount is set to rise to as much as $2bn, with Saudi Arabia, which oversees the fund according to rebels, seeking to put in between $400m and $800m in additional money over coming months.”

All such numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, but the scale of Syria’s insurgency makes the figure credible.

In addition, while the U.S. loudly trumpeted its worries about inadvertently supporting “extremists” in Syria, its coordination with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in this period – now well-known – belies this commitment. At one point, the U.S. publicly suspended its “nonlethal aid” program to “moderate rebels” after their warehouses in northern Syria were seized by “extremists.” The demonstration would have been more convincing if the “extremists” in question had not been from a group known as the Islamic Front, widely acknowledged to be bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A December 2013 report from the Brookings Institute looking at funding from Gulf countries for extremist groups in Syria claimed that “The U.S. Treasury is aware of this activity…but Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug.”

These reports of U.S. involvement in facilitating the arming of the opposition have never been refuted, or even denied. They are simply ignored, and lost in the confusion created by the landslide of contradictory public statements. The fact that leading newspapers and public figures now reprimand the Obama administration for not arming the rebels demonstrates the success of this apparent public information strategy.

The New Plan

This history should inform how we view U.S. government claims about its current doings in Syria.

In the public eye, at least, the effort to aid existing opposition groups in Syria has been replaced by a plan to create a new Syrian rebel army from scratch, training and equipping them in a neighboring country. But all the evidence suggests that this effort is no more serious, and no more central to the U.S.’ real plans in Syria, than the “nonlethal aid” program that consumed so much attention and public debate while American intelligence, with American regional allies, was organizing massive arms shipments to the opposition.

Obama first announced this new train-and-equip program June of last year. Congress approved funding for it in September. By November, recruitment for the new army still had not begun. By January, a host country for the program still had not been chosen, despite offers from four countries. In February, Turkey and the U.S. finally signed an agreement to begin training the force in Turkey, with Turkish and U.S. officials giving contradictory answers about whether the force would be allowed to fight the Assad regime. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently claimed that the Islamic holy month of Ramadan was slowing the training process because, “there’s a lot of folks that are interested in being with their families during that period” – a problem no other fighting force in Syria seems to have. In a devastating post-mortem published in July, Jamie Dettmer of The Daily Beast observed that the original plan called for training 15,000 soldiers by 2018, and asked “whether Syria would even exist by the time the envisaged force was at full strength.”

If this program were truly central to the U.S.’ Syria strategy, it is difficult to believe that this level of delay and recruitment failure – and now, attacks from Jabhat al-Nusra – would be tolerated. No doubt the military and intelligence officers tasked with its implementation are working sincerely. But for the U.S. foreign policy establishment as a whole, this program likely serves the same purposes as the State Department’s 2012-2014 initiatives to deliver MREs, radios and med kits to fighters in Syria: to demonstrate that the U.S. is involved, to create a public impression of an involvement so limited that it does not saddle the U.S. with any responsibility for the human catastrophe in Syria, and to consume media and legislative branch attention that might otherwise be directed at the main activities of the U.S. and its allies in Syria.

While this new training program spins its wheels, events on the ground in Syria are moving rapidly. Following the death of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have set aside their former squabbles and are cooperating in a renewed push to overthrow the Assad regime. This cooperation is manifest in a new rebel alliance, the Jaysh al-Fatih, led by al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. If U.S.’ actions during the first three years of the conflict are any guide, this new joint initiative was not organized without American input or support.

Jaysh al-Fatih may be contributing to the U.S.’s stated goal of regime change in Syria. It may be contributing to an unstated U.S. goal of continuing a war that is very costly for Iran, on whose compliance with the U.S.-brokered nuclear agreement a great deal now rests. Jaysh al-Fatih may now be seen as a crucial counterweight to the Islamic State. It would be irresponsible to assign motivations to the U.S. policymakers from the outside, but unless they have had a recent change of heart, Jaysh al-Fatih’s al Qaeda links and its human rights violations (including violence against Christians and Nusra’s threat to forcibly convert Alawis) are unlikely to be an overriding concern for them. As the Brookings Institute’s Charles Lister writes, “The vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012,” and the U.S. was helping to arm the Syrian insurgency since early 2012.

It has been necessary throughout the conflict, however, for the U.S. to distance itself from these troubling facts, by conveying the impression that its involvement in the conflict is limited to “nonlethal aid” – or, since last June, a small training program in Turkey.

Why does the U.S. only have sixty fighters to show for its $500 million, year-old training program? Because it reinforces the narrative – nurtured by a raft of previous hopelessly inadequate, publicly-announced and -debated programs to support the opposition – of the U.S. as a helpless bystander to the killing in Syria, and of President Obama as a prudent statesman reluctant to get involved. While the Senate berates the Pentagon chief over the program’s poor results, the U.S. is meanwhile outsourcing the real fight in Syria to allies with no qualms about supporting al Qaeda against their geopolitical opponents – unless the U.S. is, as before, cooperating directly or indirectly in that support.

Whereto Now?

Once it is recognized that the “helpless bystander” narrative is false, and that the U.S. has been deeply involved in the armed conflict almost from the start, it becomes both possible and necessary to question that involvement.

The U.S.’ direct cooperation with Turkey and Gulf states in arming the Syrian insurgency, combined with its refusal to engage in sincere peace talks (as expertly detailed by Hugh Roberts in The London Review of Books), virtually guaranteed that the war would continue without conclusion. The present crisis – 200,000 dead, over half the population driven from their homes, much crucial infrastructure destroyed and Syria’s territory fractured into multiple de facto statelets that will probably never reunify – is the result. Considering the Syrian people’s welfare, it is difficult to imagine a worse policy outcome. A refusal early-on to interfere in the conflict or countenance regional allies’ cooperation with extremist groups, or a genuine attempt at peace talks later in the conflict, or a full-fledged humanitarian intervention of the sort requested by many opposition figures – almost any policy alternative would have been better.

At this stage, it may well be too late to save Syria, but if U.S. policymakers want to try, a good place to start would be to make ending the violence – without preconditions and without regard for their preferred political outcome – the overriding objective in U.S. diplomacy and covert action. In a multi-religious country like Syria, that must entail restraining the ambitions of openly sectarian militant groups like Jaysh al-Fatih. It will mean walking away from a publicly-declared commitment to regime change in Syria. It will likely also mean straining relations with regional allies already discomfited by the nuclear pact with Iran. But to end the conflict, the policies and positions that have been perpetuating it must be changed.


Joel Veldkamp is an MA candidate at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle East Studies who has previously lived in Damascus, Syria. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelman42  Parts of this article are adapted from a paper presented at the 2015 Middle East History and Theory Conference at the University of Chicago: “Narrative and Reality in Direct U.S. Aid to the Syrian Armed Opposition, 2012-2014

Syrian Rebel Leader Subhi al-Refai on U.S. relations with Ahrar al-Sham

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

Subhi al-Refai is a leader of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a coalition of Syrian revolutionary factions formed in December 2014. He has been kind enough to provide me with the following statement, presenting his personal analysis of a question that is on the mind of many in both Syria and the United States at this moment.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently penned a piece for the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, together with the Beirut-based Middle East analyst Ali El Yassir. In the text, they argued that the U.S. needs to overcome its resistance to working with Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria’s largest Sunni rebel factions.

The first foundations of Ahrar al-Sham, whose full name is now “the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement,” were laid in 2011, after the start of the Syrian uprising. Most of its founders and leaders were former political prisoners who had been jailed for advocating Islamist causes or for involvement with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Having formed networks and built trust among each other in the Seidnaia prison north of Damascus, where Islamist prisoners were assembled in a special section, they were released on presidential amnesty in the early months of the uprising and promptly went underground to create militant cells. The groups they formed to fight President Assad’s regime were gradually expanded and connected to each other, first in the Idleb-Hama region, which remains the group’s main stronghold. Ahrar al-Sham then grew through clever alliance-building among the Syrian rebels until it reached its present size and shape. (As a legacy of the latest of those coalitions, Ahrar al-Sham also operates under the “Islamic Front” brand, which refers to a now essentially defunct coalition in which Ahrar al-Sham gradually absorbed most of the minor members.)

Often characterized as a salafi group, it is an ideologically committed Islamist organization that seeks a Sunni religious state in Syria. It has proven itself militarily strong and hardy and has survived years of fighting, and—no less impressive—has held together through the merciless backbiting and internal rivalries of Syrian rebel politics. In September 2014, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was wiped out in a mysterious explosion, but the group defied expectations and managed to survive this setback, electing new leaders and carrying on the struggle. Most powerful in northern Syria, it has established what appears to be a strong working relationship with the Turkish AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and recently endorsed the Turkish-American bid for a ”safe zone” in northern Syria.

The question of whether or not the U.S. should work with Ahrar al-Sham in its bid to put pessure on Bashar al-Assad’s government is controversial, not least because some members of the group have been connected to global anti-American jihadi factions including al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham itself claims to be a fully independent group and it does not engage in armed action outside Syria. It has at times been critical of al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, but—like many other rebel factions, particularly the Islamist groups—it works closely with the Nusra Front on the battlefield.

Recently, the Ahrar al-Sham leadership has been on a charm offensive, pushing back against Western views of it as a dangerous jihadi faction. Its foreign relations official Labib al-Nahhas, alias Abu Ezzeddin al-Souri (who I interviewed here, before his group merged into Ahrar al-Sham), recently penned editorials in The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph arguing that his group should be considered a moderate and centrist faction in the uprising and is deserving of international support and acceptance.

But the group still remains committed to its ideology and the idea of a Sunni theocracy in Syria, and it continues to play to Islamist opinion in ways that are clearly at odds with U.S. strategy (whether one agrees with that strategy or not). For example, Ahrar al-Sham recently released a public euology of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar that included praise for the Taliban movement’s fourteen-year long war against the U.S. army in Afghanistan, as well as Ahrar al-Sham’s best wishes for his successor, described as “the Mujahed Brother Mullah Akhtar Mansour.” I’m sure that played well within the group and among its Islamist allies in Syria and abroad, but I can’t imagine it will do much to improve Ahrar al-Sham’s image in Washington.

That Robert Ford, as a former ambassador and policymaker on Syria, has taken such a strong position in favor of working with Ahrar al-Sham has of course drawn attention both in the U.S. and among Syrian rebels. Now, the RCC leader Subhi al-Refai—who is not a member of Ahrar al-Sham, although the group is involved with the RCC—joins this debate with his own analysis of the chances of a collaborative relationship between the American government and Ahrar al-Sham.

What follows is the statement provided to me by Subhi al-Refai, in my own translation from the original Arabic.

–Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

Analysis of Mr. Robert Ford’s comments about the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement

An initial analysis of Mr Robert Ford’s positive view of the Ahrar al-Sham faction, and of the necessity of opening relations with it, points to the existence of a significant school of thought inside the White House that pushes for working with the movement.

However, I believe that this is an attempt to widen the gulf between the two differing schools of thought that exists within Ahrar al-Sham, in order to destroy it from within.

The first of these schools is striving to be more open towards the West and to restore the Umma Project to the National Project, as expressed by the late Abu Yazen.

The second school of thought remains committed to the Umma Project, which transcends Syria’s borders, and it views the Free Syrian Army as a Western project that they must refrain from trusting or working with.

Of course, it is possible that I am wrong in my analysis! But what could it be that has encouraged the American government to move towards working with a faction that is so forcefully supported by parties whose goals completely contradict its own? In particular, we must consider that taking this route would complicate relations with these other parties even more than today. In addition, the chances for success of this new relationship are very slim, for two reasons.

The first reason is that Ahrar al-Sham is incapable of taking a decision to open up new relations that could harm the interests of a fundamental ally of the movement.

The second reason is the strength and control that the school of thought opposed to relations with the USA exercises within the movement. In addition, a not-insignificant proportion of the movement’s components lean towards the ideology of Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact that stands between the leadership of the movement and this (adventurous) step in the direction of the Americans.

Therefore, we find that, for the most part, Ahrar al-Sham’s foreign policy takes the path of hidden relations, in so far as these relations concern the West generally or the United States in particular.

Perhaps some serious thinking on how to change the politico-military map of northern Syria has finally begun!

Subhi al-Refai

President of the Executive Office
Revolutionary Command Council

Notes by Aron Lund:

The Umma Project, Mashrou’ al-Umma, is a slogan that has been used by Ahrar al-Sham to describe its ideological and political foundations. The word Umma can be translated as ”nation,” but in this context it specifically refers to the Islamic nation, i.e. the global community of Muslims inside and outside Syria. In contrast to Umma, the term Watan— which can be translated as ”nation,” ”homeland,” or ”country”—signifies a more narrow focus on Syria and Syrian interests.

Abu Yazen al-Shami was an influential leader and religious ideologue within Ahrar al-Sham, who was killed alongside most of the rest of the group’s historical leadership on September 9, 2014. He has posthumously been identified as a leading light among the ”reformers” in Ahrar al-Sham, who were shocked into a reappraisal of politico-religious principles by the rise of the Islamic State. Before his death, he had begun to argue against hardline jihadi purism in favor of a more pragmatic albeit still unambiguously Islamist stance.


For an interview with Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, alias Abu Abderrahman al-Souri, a leading member and co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham, click here.

For a previous interview of mine with the RCC’s Subhi al-Refai, click here.

Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya: Recruiting the Shi’a of Damascus

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya: “The Ja’afari Force: The Islamic Resistance in Syria.”

The rallying call of Shi’a jihadi groups to defend the Sayyida Zainab shrine in the Damascus area is well known, but it is not the only religious symbol used in the justification of shrine defence in Syria. The Damascus area is also home to the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, the daughter of Imam Hussein who was taken captive at the Battle of Karbala and died in captivity in Damascus. She is also known as Sakina/Sukayna.

Shi’a militia formations sometimes have played up the importance of the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine as a means to recruit fighters and present new ‘martyrdoms’. For example, this summer, an Iraqi Shi’a militia called Kata’ib al-Muqawama al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq (The Islamic Resistance Brigades in Iraq) put up an advert for recruitment on social media to fight in Syria, urging those interested in defending the Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Ruqayya shrines to get in touch via calling the listed phone numbers or using Facebook and Twitter messaging. Earlier this month, the Assad Allah al-Ghalib Forces in Iraq and al-Sham- previously Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib– announced a new ‘martyr’ who died defending the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine: Manar Muhammad Abu Sha’ar.

Manar Muhammad Abu Sha’ar

The existence of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya- seemingly linked most closely at present to Iraqi militia and Iranian proxy Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ that first emerged in Syria in 2013- fits into this trend, though undoubtedly Hezbollah has had a role in cultivating the militia too. Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ is one of several Iraqi formations that have an active presence in Syria despite the Iraq crisis, alongside Harakat al-Nujaba’ (which, to be sure, exaggerates its capabilities in parts of Syria: most of the fighting to repel the Islamic State from Hasakah city was done by the Kurdish YPG, which as a result has taken over areas previously held by the Assad regime), Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, the Assad Allah al-Ghalib Forces, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and the Rapid Intervention Regiment. The latter four formations have very close links/overlap with each other and Aws al-Khafaji’s Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces.

To be sure, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya’s existence can be traced back well before this summer. For example, as part of its coverage of the ongoing Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ presence in Syria that has seen the group participate in the unsuccessful Deraa’ and Quneitra offensives in the late winter and spring to push back the rebels, the al-Anwar TV 2 channel featured a video of “Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya/Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.” Note the distinct “al-Sayyida Ruqayya” armpatch below.


Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya is to be noted for its recruitment of native Syrian Shi’a from the Damascus area. This ‘Syrianization’ via recruiting of natives has already been seen extensively in Hezbollah formations like Quwat al-Ridha, which has recruited from Syrian Shi’a villages like Umm al-Amad in Homs province. Fighters from the Idlib Shi’a villages of Kafariya and Fou’a- the focus of negotiations for a ceasefire/exchange between Iran and the rebels represented foremost by Ahrar al-Sham- have also died and been advertised under the Hezbollah banner.

Hashim Ismail Jehjah, originally from Kafariya: died fighting in Aleppo. Death announced at the beginning of July 2015.

The Sakif [also spelled Askif] brothers, from Fou’a by origin. One can read a lengthy eulogy to Muhammad (right) here. He supposedly took up arms after his younger brother Ali (left)- born in 1990- died fighting on 7 April 2014.

Muhammad Sakif.

In the case of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, the recruits mainly seem to come from places in Damascus such as Zain al-Abidin and Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq areas (Hawsh al-Salihiya and al-Jura respectively) that are known for their Shi’a populations, the latter being right beside Bab Tuma. The Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada link and question of areas of recruitment are most clearly demonstrated in the case of recent ‘martyr’ Hassan Ahmad Kan’an, also known as ‘Abu Ali Nibras’ and originally of Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood. His death was announced in late July and declared as follows:

“The people of Imam Zain al-Abidin and Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhoods, the al-Amin neighbourhood and the families of the Sayyida Zainab area, and the Islamic Resistance in Syria in all its factions and Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (The Ja’afari Force) present to the Master of the Age and Era the news of the martyrdom of the mujahid martyr leader Hassan Ahmad Kan’an: (Nibras) Abu Ali.”

Hassan Ahmad Kan’an: note the insignia of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.

Procession for Hassan Ahmad Kan’an.

More from the procession for Hassan Ahmad Kan’an: note the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ flag.

More generally, a graphic has been uploaded featuring the ‘martyrs’ of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya also bearing the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ emblem, as per below.


Below are some of these ‘martyrs’ declared for Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya. Note though that at least some of the earlier ‘martyrs’ appear to have been presented at the time under different brands. For comparison, some of the Quwat al-Ridha fighters who were killed in Homs were presented as National Defence Force [NDF] ‘martyrs’ at the time:

Ala’ Mohsen Kuwayfati, originally of Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood. Note the insignia including one of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ in the middle photo. He was killed on 14 June 2014 in al-Mleha. His daughter is pictured as a baby (middle) and visiting his tomb (right).

Ahmad al-Nihas, who was actually killed on 14 August 2012 and was reputedly one of the first to die defending Sayyida Zainab.

Ahmad Halawa al-Buni, featured here in an official NDF video.

Hussein Ala’ al-Din and Ahmad Halawa al-Buni: “Guardians of Sayyida Ruqayya: The Ja’afari Force.”

Ala’ Zahwa: besides his “Guardians of Sayyida Ruqayya” insignia, note the “Liwa Ansar al-Hussein” insignia too, illustrating overlap of brand names.

In sum, the existence of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya attests to the common phenomenon of overlap among Shi’a militia formations and the ongoing internal Sunni-Shi’a polarization as Syrian Shi’a are recruited to these militias espousing other notions of Shi’a shrine protection concomitant with defending Sayyida Zainab. Nor should Hezbollah alone be seen as cultivating and developing this phenomenon: all the Shi’a militias of foreign origin with deployments in Syria are likely playing a role.

The New Druze Militia Factions of Suwayda Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

As the Syria civil war has progressed with both rebels and the Islamic State [IS] encroaching on the territory of Suwayda province from the west and northeast respectively, more distinct militia factions centred on particular personalities have emerged competing for support among the predominantly Druze population: a picture quite different from 1-2 years ago when Druze militias were primarily known by generic brands such as ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ or the familiar pro-Assad Popular Committees. This post looks in-depth at these factions.

Dir’ al-Watan



Translating as ‘The Homeland Shield’, Dir’ al-Watan is the most recent major pro-Assad faction to have emerged in Suwayda province. It should be noted that Dir’ al-Watan is a name and brand used by other pro-Assad formations in the country, such as the Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra (Quneitra Falcons Brigade) out to the west near the border with Israel. The concept of ‘shield’ forces has also been taken up by newer militias like the Coastal Shield Brigade affiliated with the Republican Guard in Latakia.

One of the founders of Dir’ al-Watan in Suwayda is Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo, one of the leading pro-Assad figures in Suwayda. In an interview in June, Jerbo affirmed: “Our protection is through the Syrian state…our protection is the Syrian state and our rule of law is the Syrian regime.” Tying Suwayda’s protection to other parts of the remaining regime rump state, he added: “Protection of Suwayda is protection for Damascus, Damascus countryside and Deraa.” On the formation of Dir’ al-Watan, he affirmed: “The establishment of a force called Dir’ al-Watan has become an urgent necessity in view of the latest threat that the province has witnessed from the Islamic State, and the attempt [to penetrate] by fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra organization.” Dir’ al-Watan was also said to be under the leadership of retired Syrian army officers, with a rationale for its existence being that the Syrian army has been fighting for some 4 years and cannot defend every area at once.

Since its inception, one of the main activities of the Dir’ al-Watan has been to engage in outreach and visits to localities across Suwayda province. For example, in the photo below from the village of Barik, including Jerbo and Syrian army brigadier general Nayef al-Aqil, the latter of whom, according to pro-opposition media outlet All4Syria, was already reportedly in charge of forming pro-Assad ‘Hashd Sha’abi’ forces in Suwayda earlier in 2015. This Suwayda version of Iraq’s ‘Hashd Sha’abi’ (Popular Mobilization) that is a brand name for mostly Shi’a militia formations is in reality identical with Dir’ al-Watan.

On left: Sheikh Jerbo. On right: Nayef al-Aqil.

Dir’ al-Watan outreach to the village of al-Janina to the northeast of Suwayda city. Note the portrait of Bashar al-Assad.

Of interest in this context are the ties between Dir’ al-Watan and a local Druze militia in the area to the northeast of Suwayda city known in full as “Burkan al-Jabal Al Nu’aim” (‘Volcano Mountain: Family of Nu’aim’). Like Dir’ al-Watan, Burkan al-Jabal has demonstrated firm loyalty to Assad. On 10 July, the Tel Fara area near al-Janina village came under attack from IS, which was repelled at the cost of three fallen fighters for al-Janina: Osama Muhammad Saliha, Qasi Saytan al-Sahnawi, and Iyad Majid al-Sahnawi.

Sheikh Jerbo and Nayef al-Aqil with Burkan al-Jabal militiamen

Burkan al-Jabal militiamen with Ba’ath Party officials

Iyad Majid al-Sahnawi and Qasi Saytan al-Sahnawi

Another notable area of outreach by Dir’ al-Watan has been the town of Salkhad, featuring at the end of July the whole array of main figures involved with Dir’ al-Watan: Sheikh Jerbo, Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi, Nayef al-Aqil and Mamdouh Malak (another Syrian army figure). The meeting led to a newly formed local militia and ‘social faction’: al-Zaghaba. In its founding statement, the group warned of the “dangers, conspiracies and sources of strife agitating to shake the security of our region and our proud mountain [Jabal al-Arab/al-Druze],” affirming that “what concerns us is waging war on those sources of strife and protecting the security of our land and public possessions that are for all its sons rather than the differences in their opinions, desires and political and thought stances, and [what concerns us is] protection of land and honour, for we have found today that this region is exposed to danger from anarchic, barbaric groups that have no religion and creed except the Shari’a of the jungle and slaughter, and have no political or reform aim but rather their aim is destruction, kidnapping and maltreatment.” Therefore, “our opinions and points of views agreed to form a faction from the youth of this town recruited for service, and this faction is armed with what types of weapons are available to it.” Though officially denying affiliation with any party, its alignment with Dir’ al-Watan is clear from the sequence of events that culminated in its founding.

From the meeting in Salkhad: Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi.

Notice the man in Syrian Social Nationalist Party [SSNP] clothing besides Hanawi. The SSNP is another active pro-Assad faction in Suwayda whose affinity has been advertised with Dir’ al-Watan in social media, as per the graphic below. The SSNP in Suwayda has played an active role in fighting, most notably claiming two ‘martyrs‘ in June in fending off the rebel assault on Tha’ala airbase, and has claimed multiple other ‘martyrs’ from Suwayda province before, some of whom appear to be jointly claimed by the Syrian armed forces and the SSNP.

Pro-Assad factions of Suwayda, including Dir’ al-Watan and the SSNP.

Maher Ghassan Hamoud, originally of Suwayda province. Note the SSNP logo on this poster for him. His ‘martyrdom‘ was announced on 28 July 2013 and presented by the “general administration for the army and armed forces.”

Thus it can be seen how closely intertwined Dir’ al-Watan is with already existing pro-Assad factions in Suwayda province, undoubtedly pushing back against the rise over the past year of Sheikh Abu Fahd Waheed al-Bal’ous, about whom more below.

Rijal al-Karama

Translating as “The Men of Dignity,” Rijal al-Karama refers to the following of Bal’ous, who first emerged in early 2014 as a dissident sheikh within Suwayda province. Notable for his fiery rhetoric that seemed to imply overthrowing the regime, Bal’ous then went quiet for a time but has since re-emerged in public, commanding support both on the ground and on social media. However, it must be said that there has been a good deal of mischaracterization of what Bal’ous and his faction are actually pushing for. It is true that Bal’ous and his supporters have attracted the ire of recognisable pro-Assad Druze figures and social media, but there seems to be a conception that they are pushing for the downfall of regime authority over Suwayda province, either creating his own separatist Druze administration or striking a deal with ‘moderate’ rebels to take over.

In reality, Bal’ous’ earlier bellicose statements were just rhetoric (in this assessment, I am agreeing with my friend Tobias Lang, who focuses in-depth on Syrian and Middle Eastern minorities). In reality, no one can seriously advocate the downfall of regime authority over Suwayda province, because there does not exist a viable alternative to it, with provision of jobs, public administration, and so forth. Handing over administration to opposition factions in particular would be unthinkable, as there is no model of rebel administration in the south to go by and there is no guarantee that the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra could be kept out. Indeed, one should not overlook the impact of the forced conversion of the Druze in Idlib to Sunni Islam at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact still generally omitted in media and reports and about which many rebel factions and opposition supporters remain in denial.

What Bal’ous can push for though is his own political influence within the remaining regime rump state, focusing on greater autonomy for Suwayda province and more management over security placed in his hands, while reinforcing refusal for conscription in far-away fights that have no favourable outcome. This is quite different from overthrowing regime authority in Suwayda province. To begin with, as will be seen below, it should be noted Bal’ous and his supporters on social media still use the flag of the Syrian regime, and refer respectfully to the “Syrian Arab Army” and the “Syrian Arab Republic.”

The best sense of Bal’ous policy can be gathered from the relevant parts of this document, an apparent set of notes of a conversation between Bal’ous and the “Men of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous” page (the only claimed official page for him), beginning with the classic Druze narrative of strict self-defence. Interestingly, there is claimed support from Druze in “Palestine” [i.e. Israel], but cooperation with the Israeli state is rejected:

“Our arms are not directed internally but rather at anyone who attacks us and the lands of the mountain, and our disagreement with the corrupt one in the homeland is general, not with a particular side…The project of arming the mountain is among the principles we work upon and we have begun this work through what has come to us till now from our monotheist [Druze] brothers in Palestine, but we reject arming from Israel, this Zionist state that dispossessed our people in Palestine and is an enemy of the Arabs and this is what signifies it is our enemy. And we affirm to all that we have reached the time at which opposition and loyalty have come to an end, and we want to protect what remains of this homeland and encourage the hand of all who are trying to rebuild Syria.”

From “The men of Sheikh Abu Fahd Waheed al-Bal’ous”: “We are not loyalist or opposition, but human nationalists of the people.” Note the Syrian regime flag.

From the same page as the above graphic. This time here in support of the staunchly pro-Assad Druze village of Hadr in Jabal al-Sheikh that has been attacked multiple times recently by rebels: “Hadr of heroism and manliness: joy of victory of the men of Hadr and the Syrian Arab Army.”

In practice Rijal al-Karama could not manage Suwayda security wholly on its own, accordingly cooperation and an anti-fitna stance must be stressed even with pro-Assad factions: “The National Defence, Popular Committees, Ba’ath Brigades, Syrian Arab Army, Factions of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql and Rijal al-Karama: hand in hand to defend the land of the mountain.” Note that the “Factions of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql” refer most likely to Dir’ al-Watan and its associates, which are endorsed by the three main mashaykh al-‘aql in Suwayda (Jerbo, Hanawi and Hikmat al-Hijri). The same emphasis on cooperation has been affirmed with regards to defending Tha’ala airbase.

Ayan Nayef al-Awam, a ‘martyr’ for Rijal al-Karama. Note the Druze insignia on his weapon and clothing.

However, his ‘martyrdom’ poster has the Syrian regime flag on it.

None of the above in graphics and photos is to gloss over differences between Rijal al-Karama and the likes of Dir’ al-Watan. Though respect is paid to the Syrian flag and it is used as appropriate, on the field Rijal al-Karama certainly places much more emphasis than the pro-Assad factions on the use of the Druze flag. This is also apparent in the other Druze militias claiming affinity with Bal’ous and Rijal al-Karama.

Rijal al-Karama and aligned mashayakh in Shaqqa to the northeast of Suwayda city.

One of the new Druze militias aligned with Rijal al-Karama and visited by Bal’ous: Bayraq Al Nu’aim (Banner of the Family of Nu’aim: cf. Burkan al-Jabal Al Nu’aim), which renamed itself in July Bayraq al-Nidal, named after Syrian army brigadier general Nidal Mu’adha Nu’aim, who was killed in Khanaser in Aleppo province on 10 July 2013 while trying to dismantle IEDs.

Bayraq Al Nu’aim fighters: note their distinct armpatches. The militia has been involved in defence of eastern Suwayda localities like Qeisemah against potential and real IS threats and al-Tha’ala to the west against rebels.

Bayraq al-Haq, linked to Bayraq Al Nu’aim. Both groups also extended condolences to two army soldiers killed in Tellat al-Sheikh Hussein in Deraa.

Bayraq al-Basha, another Rijal al-Karama aligned militia, taking its name from historic Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. Bal’ous has visited this militia in the village of Mughayyir. The militia also has influence in the southern Suwayda village of al-Ghariyyeh (near the border with Jordan).

Quwat al-Fahd/Bayraq al-Fahd (named for Bal’ous): an apparent unifying banner for the Rijal al-Karama militias advertised this month.

Quwat al-Fahd Emblem


The dynamics of Druze militias in Suwayda province have shifted considerably and grown in complexity over the past two years with the rise of Bal’ous in particular, but it would be a mistake to characterize these changes as a strict pro/anti regime dichotomy or as marking the verge of the downfall of the regime in the province as some excited observers and commentators wished to propose. Rather, the developments reflect the same trend as in other remaining parts of Syria held by the regime whereby actors beyond the regular armed forces exert influence as militias and attempt to stake out their claims in the political landscape of what is left of regime-held Syria. To an extent, the regime has already conceded to the likes of Bal’ous with the entrenchment strategy that focuses on defending vital areas. As of yet, the opposition still lacks a convincing alternative for the Druze of Suwayda, and so the framework of politics in Suwayda operates on the assumption of continued functioning of regime authority and administration.

Quwat al-Ridha: Syrian Hezbollah

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Quwat al-Ridha graphic: “Special Missions school: Quwat al-Ridha: the Islamic Resistance in Syria. Dedication: the men of God in the locality of Umm al-Amad [in Homs province].”

The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war and its deployments of fighters from Lebanon are basic facts of the conflict. Less explored is the development of Hezbollah as a native Syrian force and brand. At this site, we previously profiled one such group- the National Ideological Resistance– and interviewed its commander. Founded in Tartous governorate and primarily operating there as well as Hama and Aleppo provinces, the National Ideological Resistance cooperates with Hezbollah. However, it is not the only Syrian Hezbollah group around. This piece looks at Quwat al-Ridha, another such force.

Quwat al-Ridha’s name translates as “Al-Ridha Forces”- al-Ridha being a reference to the eighth Shi’a Imam. Indeed, Quwat al-Ridha sources sometimes refer to their group more fully as “Imam Ali al-Ridha Forces.” The pro-regime site al-Hadath News offers an overview of this group in an article from May 2014:

“Quwat al-Ridha is considered the core nucleus for ‘Hezbollah in Syria’- the organization that has appeared recently operating military in clear form, under the leadership and supervision of Hezbollah in Lebanon: this wing has placed before its eyes fighting ‘Israel’ in the Golan, and similarly the takfiris within.

Quwat al-Ridha is composed, as we have said before, of native Syrian young fighters, Shi’a and Sunni, the majority of them from countryside areas (Homs, Aleppo, Deraa and Damascus countryside). There is no official survey for the number of these forces, but they have come to be considered essential, for they have participated in a number of the greatest battles, decisive on the Syrian battlefield.


According to available information from al-Hadath News, units of these forces have participated in the Qalamoun battles, especially the battles on the principle fronts (Yabroud, Rankous), and it was among the number of forces that were at the head of the advance and assault operations. A fighter from Hezbollah who participated in the fight describes the performance of Quwat al-Ridha as “distinguished and learned from the fighting methods of Hezbollah,” adding that they “enjoy important military strength as well as solid ideology and organized operation, making them among those distinguished on the battleground in which they operate.”

During the Rankous assault, Quwat al-Ridha units participated with effectiveness, according to al-Hadath News information derived from field sources, for the al-Ridha fighters advanced towards Qalamoun from the side of West Ghouta in vehicles and centred to the east from Rankous, and at the arrival of zero hour- the hour of the decisive assault upon it- they advanced in parallel with the advance of the other units, while they distinguished their day with clear desert military uniforms and the ‘Green Marines’ shield that showed their identity. They were the first to reach and penetrate east Rankous after the fall of the hills.


In neighbourhoods of Old Homs they had a footprint as well. There they participated in the final battles in these neighbourhoods. A number of martyrs fell for them (around 12). In the announcement of their deaths in Syria they were mourned as National Defence Forces, but they were buried in their villages draped with the banner ‘Hezbollah in Syria’ and the Syrian flag, pointing to their true affiliation.

Aleppo and East and West Ghouta

In Aleppo as well as East and West Ghouta they had and still have a presence. Sources do not conceal their participation in the Ramousa and Khanaser battles as well as the eastern countryside front from the city. Further they have participated in groups in the operations to advance towards the central prison, while other units have concentrated in the villages. The sources also do not conceal the role of these units in the West Ghouta and South Damascus battle, and currently their participation in the Darayya battles, while West Ghouta has become a military base for Quwat al-Ridha in the field, and the Aleppo front the practical military field framework.


Quwat al-Ridha have entered into Southern Syria too: the Quneitra and Golan areas. In the Deraa countryside al-Ridha fighters are found participating in the Busra al-Harir and Busra al-Sham and the connected expansion will occur towards Quneitra and the furthest south of Syria under the wing of the Syrian army to support it in resisting the assault of opposition forces.”

It is of interest to compare these remarks with the testimony of a media activist for Quwat al-Ridha who spoke to this author. According to this source, the recruits for Quwat al-Ridha primarily come from the Homs area, with a more limited number from other areas such as Aleppo and Kafariya and Fou’a (the latter two are the Shi’a villages in Idlib currently under assault from Jaysh al-Fatah). This seems to be corroborated somewhat by the known ‘martyrdoms’ for Quwat al-Ridha. At the same time, it should also be noted that the media activist sought to downplay connections with Lebanese Hezbollah, portraying Quwat al-Ridha as an independent “Syrian resistance” force. Such formal distancing ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, the leader of Quwat al-Ridha during the important stage of development for the militia in the battles of Homs city was Lebanese Hezbollah commander Hamza Ibrahim Hayder (Abu Mustafa), who was from Kafrdan in the Beqaa Valley and died fighting in al-Khalidiya in Homs on 29 June 2013. The actual connections with Hezbollah also explain why Quwat al-Ridha’s primary recruitment base seems to be Homs province, particularly in and around Homs city. For on account of the area’s proximity to the border with Lebanon and its importance to Assad regime interests, it is a natural and logical place for Hezbollah to project influence into the remaining Syrian rump state as a native Syrian force.

Below are some notable ‘martyrs’ of Quwat al-Ridha. The most notable developments since the al-Hadath News report partly translated above are the multiple ‘martyrdoms’ declared in Idlib province and Palmyra. This might undermine the initial impression of the fighting in Idlib province and Palmyra, which have seen rapid losses for the regime, that the regime forces were largely conventional and not backed up by irregular forces (as opposed to e.g. Aleppo). The Syrian Hezbollah presence in the Idlib fighting in particular is also corroborated by Jabhat al-Nusra media output for the Idlib offensives, which found Syrian Hezbollah insignia left behind among the routed forces. In these ‘martyrdoms’, note the distinct Hezbollah in Syria flag, as well as the use of the familiar Hezbollah/Shi’a militia slogans and motifs of defending Sayyida Zainab whose shrine is located in Damascus (e.g. “Zainab won’t be taken captive twice”- i.e. preventing the shrine from falling into rebel/jihadi hands and being destroyed). Note also Quwat al-Ridha announced a fallen fighter on 14 July 2015: Mustafa Hamada Hamada, who was originally from Homs province and died fighting in the al-Ghab Plain in north Hama countryside.

Some Martyrs of Quwat al-Ridha

Name: Ali Muhammad Ali al-Muhammad
Birth and Residence: Al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1997
Marital Status: Unmarried
Education Status: Secondary School
Date of Martyrdom: 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Sha’ar Field (Homs province)

Name: Ahmad Bassam Karabij
Place of Birth: Kafariya
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1998
Marital Status: Unmarried
Educational Status: Secondary School
Date of Martyrdom: 26 June 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Palmyra

Name: Ali Mousa Dari’
Place of Birth: al-Bayada, Homs
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1996
Marital Status: Unmarried
Education Status: Preparatory School [just before university]
Date of Martyrdom: 25 May 2014
Place of Martyrdom: Douma, Damascus Countryside

Name: Mustafa Ali Kunyar
Place of Birth: Umm al-Amad [Homs province]
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1998
Marital Status: Unmarried
Educational Status: Secondary School
Date of Martyrdom: June 2014
Place of Martyrdom: Jabburin [Homs province]

Name: Ayad Ha’il Alloush
Place of Birth: Umm Jabab [Homs province]
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Date of Birth: 6 October 1988
Date of Martyrdom: 23 April 2013
Place of Martyrdom: al-Khalidiya, Homs

Name: As’ad Muhammad Hussein
Place of Birth: Umm al-Amad [Homs province]
Date of Birth: 25 June 1979
Date of Martyrdom: 29 April 2014
Place of Martyrdom: al-Abbasiya, Homs (killed in the Jabhat al-Nusra bomb attacks that day)

Name: Muhammad Hassan al-Abrash
Residency: al-Thabitiya [Homs province]
Age: 20 years old
Marital Status: Engaged
Educational Status: University student at the Petrol College
Date of Martyrdom: 1 March 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Bashkawi, Aleppo province

Name: Hayder Fu’ad Douman
Place of Birth: Umm al-Amad [Homs province]
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Place of Martyrdom: Palmyra
Date of Martyrdom: 10 June 2015 (announced)

Name: Basil Ali al-Nu’ama
Place of Birth: Umm Jabab [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Jisr al-Shughur
Date of Martyrdom: 9 May 2015

Name: Fawaz al-Saddam
Place of Birth: Tel Khazneh [Hama province]
Place of Martyrdom: Ariha, Idlib province (killed during the fall of the town to Jaysh al-Fatah)

Name: Mustafa Abbas Alouesh
Place of Martyrdom: Idlib province

Name: Ali al-Hajji
Place of Martyrdom: Palmyra

Name: Hayder Ibrahim Abbas
Place of Birth: Albu Waydah [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Aleppo province
Date of Martyrdom: 23 May 2015

Name: Mahmoud Hassan Omar
Place of Birth: al-Hamudiya village
Place of Martyrdom: Sha’ar Field [Homs province]

Name: Mustafa al-Ahmad
Place of Birth: Tel Khazneh [Hama province]
Place of Martyrdom: Idlib province

Name: Hassan al-Hajj
Place of Birth: Umm al-Tin [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Idlib province

Name: Muhammad Yusuf al-Tufaili
Place of Birth: al-Thabitiya [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Ariha, Idlib province (killed during fall of town to Jaysh al-Fatah)

Name: Dawud al-Omar
Place of Birth: al-Hamudiya
Place of Martyrdom: Harasta (Damascus province)

Names: Faris Muhammad Abada, Hayder Nur al-Din Abada, Muhammad Tamer Taha
Origin: Quwat al-Ridha, Homs province
Date of Martyrdom: June 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Jurud Falita, Qalamoun

Name: Muhammad Mehdi Ali al-Hayek

Funeral procession for Quwat al-Ridha fighter Hayder Abbas.


The development of Quwat al-Ridha and Syrian Hezbollah as an important irregular actor should pose a challenge to those who might see war-weariness in Lebanese Hezbollah and no benefit to its intervention in Syria. Rather, it is apparent that this phenomenon fits in with what Matt Levitt deems the transformation of Hezbollah into a major “regional player,” projecting power beyond Lebanon and potentially influencing the political landscapes of its zones of intervention in important ways. The media activist for Quwat al-Ridha may downplay the question of political ambitions for Syrian Hezbollah, saying there is no political wing “but the state” and affirming a goal of “popular defence formation only,” but that only conceals the reality of political fragmentation in what remains of regime-held Syria as different actors carve out their own spheres of influence on the basis of contributions to the war effort and defence of vital areas. A similar trend is happening in Iraq with the growth of the different Hashd Sha’abi factions and their competing affiliations.

The Coastal Shield Brigade: A New Pro-Assad Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of the Coastal Shield Brigade. On top: “Coastal Shield Brigade.” In middle (with portrait of Bashar al-Assad): “Republican Guard. Knights of Assad.” On bottom: “Syrian Arab Army.”

As the Syrian civil war has dragged on with no recent decisive breakthroughs for the Assad regime and the loss of many peripheral territories including all major towns in Idlib and Palmyra, the problem of avoidance of conscription into the regular armed forces has only become exacerbated. Thus, at this point, a strategy of entrenchment and defence of vital areas seems most reasonable to ensure the regime’s survival, having locals recruited instead to focus on defending and retaking territory within their own provinces. For example, this approach is now well in evidence in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda, which has remained under regime authority but is now threatened on two fronts by the Islamic State to the northeast and the Deraa insurgency to the west, with many Druze refusing to serve in far away fronts to no avail.

The formation of the Coastal Shield Brigade (Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel) for Latakia province is part of the same trend. Indeed, Latakia also finds itself under increasing threat with the Idlib losses, and even some of the Iraqi Shi’a militias deployed in Syria, such as Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, have played a role in contributing manpower and fighting in Latakia province in recent months.

As is apparent from the Coastal Shield Brigade’s emblem and other media output, it is a local front militia for the elite Republican Guard. The militia first announced the opening of its doors for recruitment in late May this year:


“The Republican Guard announces the formation of the Coastal Shield Brigade accepting those who desire recruitment contract for two years, or permanently, and in reserve and compulsory service, as well as for the sorting out of affairs for those who avoided the reserve and compulsory military service call and deserted before 1 January 2015. Salaries will be paid with monthly remunerations reaching up to 40,000 Syrian pounds. To join and inquire, head to the Republican Guard centre opposite the Naval College, School of Arts in al-Qardaha.

Phone numbers: 0988293892/0936713408/890353/825805.”

It should be noted in particular that the potential salary on offer here amounts to more than $200 a month, which is not only much higher than the salaries of regular army conscripts but also of many rebel fighters. For comparison, it is some 2-3 times higher than the salary of an average Northern Storm fighter from the Azaz area. Wishing to extend its recruitment further, the Coastal Shield Brigade put up another notice in June, pushing forward the cut-off date for draft-dodgers to widen the recruitment pool and emphasizing local service:


“The Republican Guard, Coastal Shield Brigade, is accepting those who desire recruitment contract for two years, or permanent, and required for reserve and compulsory service. Commission is accepted for employees in government foundations and offices. Sorting out of affairs for desertion and those who avoided service before 1 March 2015. Ages from 18 to 45 years. Service on the Coast [Latakia]. To submit applications and for any inquiry, head to the Jableh Republican Guard Centre/al-Qardaha Naval College/School of Arts.

Coastal Shield Brigade
Lions of the Republican Guard.”

On 20 June, the Coastal Shield Brigade reiterated the advertisement for recruitment, announcing that the doors for recruitment would be closed soon. But on 28 June, some clarifications were noted: first, by order of the Defence Minister, the issue of ‘sorting out affairs’ would only apply now to those who deserted from the ranks of the Republican Guard, on account of the supposed large number of recruits and applicants to the Coastal Shield Brigade. Second, the recruitment contract of two years would take into account compulsory military service. As far as required documentation goes, one should submit a personal photo and ID photo.

So far, evidence of significant operations for the Coastal Shield Brigade has been somewhat limited, but on 9 July the militia announced its first fallen fighter in one Ibrahim Makana, who died fighting in the Kherbat Sulas area towards the north-east of Latakia province, which continues to remain under insurgent control.

It remains to be seen how effective the Coastal Shield Brigade will be as a fighting force as there has been no major insurgent offensive to push deeper into Latakia province since spring 2014 when a variety of groups spearheaded by jihadists seized the Armenian Christian border town of Kessab (desecrating the churches there despite rebel media attempts to downplay this) and reached the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian army, bolstered by the elite Desert Falcons and irregular forces in Latakia province such as the Muqawama Suriya, eventually retook all the lost ground, but the process was sluggish and dragged out until June of that year. Further, the Muqawama Suriya’s own effectiveness was put into doubt with the rapid losses of Idlib city and Jisr al-Shughur in the spring of this year, as the group had a notable presence in both places. Meanwhile, the Desert Falcons failed to prevent the loss of Palmyra and other towns in Homs desert to the Islamic State. These developments besides the potential high salary may add to the attractiveness of the Coastal Shield Brigade as an alternative local defence force that at the same time purports to counter the problem of breakdown of regime authority on account of proliferation of irregular armed groups.

“The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi,” By Tam Hussein

What happened to ‘Man like Fatlum?’: The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi
By Tam Hussein
(All Street scene photos by author others public)
July 21, 2015

This is the back story of Abu Musa al-Britani, a young British suicide bomber who blew himself up in Iraq. He grew up in Ladbroke Grove, the area that I worked and grew up in as a youth worker. We also went to the same school. My essay seeks to answer the question as to why such a popular young man went to Iraq when he had planned a trip to Spain two weeks earlier. What compelled him to go, it also seeks to explain why the like of him and Jihadi John came from the same area. What are the factors that lead to their choices?

It is clear that neither foreign policy nor ideology are solely responsible for motivating European youth to go on Jihad. My essay argues that the reason many of these men went to Syria and join specifically ISIS is due to the subtle interplay between religion, foreign policy and gang culture and modernism. … [quoted from Tam’s email to me]

Tourists and bohemians love rummaging through the stalls on Portobello Road with its shimmering trinkets and shaggy clothes fit for an art student. To the locals it’s a “joke ting , a skank to bring tourists from all over the world to sample the latest authentic “efnik” fad. Down the road on Golborne road, a stones throw away from David Cameron’s Notting Hill, young British Moroccans feast on  platters of seafood on Hassan’s Grilled Fish stall laughing at the antics of their respective football teams.

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Fatlum with Mohammed Nasser.

Some wear the latest garms others wear the trademark white thobe, full length beard, trousers above the ankle and Nike trainers like many Salafis do. Across the road Lisboa Patisserie is packed with locals and Moroccan old timers chomping on the best custard tarts in London talking about their worries, the way they might do back home. Here on the Golborne Road, West London, the Roadman rubs shoulders with the affluent city banker and never do their worlds meet, unless the Roadman is invited to a party to dispense a bit of coke. This is where Trellick towers estate sits easy with the bohemian Portobello Road. You wouldn’t expect a young native of these parts to cancel his ticket to a Spanish holiday resort, and instead end up a thousand miles from home and hearth, fighting in Iraq on behalf of ISIS.

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Fatlum in school uniform, note the Westside gang sign he makes.

This is the story of Fatlum Shalaku, or Abu Musa al-Britani; the one who raised his index finger to the sky testifying to the oneness of God and rammed a truck laden with explosives into an Iraqi army position in Ramadi. The twenty year old Zayn Malik lookalike, handsome and muscular; popular with the ladies broke the Golden Division. The US trained special forces unit had been holding a defensive line for fourteen months and suffering heavy losses. His actions forced them to abandon the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Word in Ladbroke Grove got out pretty soon. “Heard about Fatlum?” said one, “madd ting.” On the following Friday, we sat on the floor listening to the Imam at Ladbroke Grove’s Al-Manar mosque talking about how to prepare for Ramadan. I doubt the Imam had heard about the news, for if he had perhaps he would have addressed it. Fatlum’s friends didn’t quite know what to make of it and might have appreciated a talk on this issue coming from an Imam who was quoting the very scholar that ISIS revered; Ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century Syrian scholar, the progenitor of the Salafi movement. But instead, he reminded his worshippers about the virtues of Ramadan; about the tendency to over eat during the holy month, the tendency to smoke shisha in cafes as people wait for the dawn prayer, the tendency to sleep well into the afternoon, and generally not benefit from the abstemiousness which should enrich the soul. But to some of the younger worshippers there was a need to make sense of his death. They talked about it with a sense of surprise and stupefaction. “I used to see him at the gym; lovely guy” said one, “can’t believe what he did.” In the estates around the mosque the young knew he had gone to fight in Syria but few expected him to go out like that. Another friend said, “Fatlum’s world view was twist but I know his heart was pure”. There was begrudging admiration for the young man who walked the walk even though he hadn’t talked much about it. A former school mate put it differently to ITV news: it is sad, we have to ask ourselves why a person full of dreams and possibility and potential …would…blow them selves up.”[1] Everyone seemed to say what happened to man like Fatlum?

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Golborne road North African shop

Outside of Ladbroke Grove, little is known about Abu Musa al-Britani. He didn’t have a large social media footprint. Fatlum had deleted his Facebook account before leaving for Syria according to his friends. He came from a Kosovo Albanian family and attended Holland Park School. Fatlum enjoyed his time there and was described as “popular” and “friendly.” The school population reflected the diversity of the area and had a large British Moroccan and Somali community from Shepherds Bush, Latimer and Ladbroke Grove since the Nineties. Many like Fatlum, who grew up in North Kensington, were brought into the British Moroccan cultural orbit, after all nearly sixty percent of the UK’s British Moroccan population settled in North Kensington in the 70s and 80s.

Reminders of the home country

Reminders of the home country

Some say that Fatlum was intensely moved by the Syrian conflict, but that is simply not true. When the Syrian revolution broke out as one friend of Fatlum said, “every one was gassed” about Syria. These young men were profoundly affected by the images coming out on social media. After all this is the most mediated conflict that the world has ever seen and anyone with beating heart would find it hard to bear witness to the despicable acts carried out by the Syrian regime.  As a cousin said of Mohammed Nasser, a fighter and friend of Fatlum who was killed in Iraq:

“…[Nasser] was angry about what was happening in Syria…like Iraq and Palestine. I  don’t think he was radicalised, he understood what radicalisation was and what extremism was…”

Fatlum knew of a mysterious convert, not unlike Ras in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who packed up his bags and joined ISIS. This Ladbroke Grove Ras, rootless, charismatic and confrontational had gathered around him a group of young men in Ladbroke Grove who would eventually follow him. These young men recruited others through whatsapp and other messaging services. It was chain migration in reverse. Rumours has it that he was killed by Jaish al-Fath, a rebel faction that has made recent gains in Idlib. Speaking to a local, Elias, not his real name, the fact that there was a recruiter, was something the British security services must have been aware of in the Ladbroke Grove area. They were showing locals pictures of persons of interest.

Trellick towers next to Al-Manar mosque

Trellick towers next to Al-Manar mosque

But Fatlum wasn’t that hyped about fighting in Syria or swayed by this ‘recruiter’. Like his family, Fatlum was not religious and lived a relatively secular lifestyle like many Kosovo Albanians whose parents had experienced Communist rule. He was close to Mohammed Nasser and also knew Hamza Parvez, all ended up fighting for ISIS. One theory has it that Nasser influenced him to go to Syria. Nasser had found Islam after his father died; he has been described as a charismatic and passionate young man who influenced those around him. In contrast, Hamza Parvez was described by a family member as being “lazy” and a bit of a drifter, more interested in Krispy Kremes than fighting. He followed Nasser to Syria. Usually when a close circle forms around one or two charismatic individuals who are motivated to go, others are more likely to follow, irrespective of income or socio economic background. Those who are less wedded to aspiration and the good life, might have little to lose and a lot more to gain by going. Especially as the promise for them is either paradise or ghanima, war booty. Hamza Parvez may have fitted that type, but Fatlum didn’t. Speaking to his friends it is difficult to ascertain how much of an influence Nasser was on him. In fact, Fatlum left for Syria before Nasser. According to a cousin, Nasser “was a good guy and he knew right from wrong and he had compassion. He went to uni, played football…he wasn’t the sort of guy who argued about the caliphate. I never ever suspected he would go.”

A friend told me: “If any one influenced him it must have been his older brother, Flamur. They were close and Fatlum looked up to him. He rediscovered his faith a year into his degree at uni.” Flamur was a talented young architect whose work had been showcased by the Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. His transformation, according to another school friend, was overnight, going from someone who could “be seen socialising and drinking with friends” to someone who was assiduous in worship. He was often seen at Ladbroke Grove mosque attending the congregational prayer there. It was Flamur who drew his younger brother into discussions that led the latter to confront his own perceptions about life. But whilst Fatlum might have considered the big questions, two weeks before his departure to Syria, he was still interested in the usual stuff that the Ladbroke Grove mandem were interested in. Had it not been for his older brother talking him out of his Spanish holiday, Fatlum would have larged it with the ladies.

And yet, Fatlum’s decision to fight in Syria was not just a whim, but perhaps the flotsam and jetsam of various currents that coursed through the Ladbroke Grove area.

Religious Currents in Ladbroke Grove: The influence of the Salafi-Jihadis

Inside Manar Mosque

Inside Manar Mosque

One of these currents was the religious element in Ladbroke Grove. As Raffaello Pantucci noted in ‘We Love Death as You Love Life,’ London had seen a religious revival long before Syria and long before 9/11. Ladbroke Grove in this regard was no exception. The Muslim community’s gradual confidence and religiosity found expression in the opening of Al-Manar Islamic Centre on Acklam Road in 2001. The airy mosque complete with school and sports facilities, with a hint of North Africa, was jammed in between Westway recreational grounds and a council estate. It was also an expression of the Moroccan community’s self-confidence. Now, a few decades on, and it sees about twelve hundred worshippers every Friday from all walks of life and counted amongst its congregation ISIS fighters likes Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, Hamza Parvez, Mohammed Nasser, Flamur Shalaku, Choukri Elkhlifi, Mohammed El-Araj, and Aine Davies, who all prayed there from time to time.

Inside Manar Mosque

Old Timer praying in Manar Mosque

The area was not unique in that diverse Islamic strands and traditions coursed through it. There was the traditional Islam brought over from Larache, Morocco. It was a mix of Maliki jurisprudence, scholarship and Sufi traditions. These traditions are found amongst the old timers who sit reading the Quran after the evening prayer at the mosque. Sit down with them and you will sense the rich scholarly tradition of Fez and Marrakech. The way the old timers taught Tajweed, the art of Quranic recitation to the youngsters is reminiscent of the master student relationship still alive in their home land. They come from a rich tradition of learning that had been distilled over centuries with a great deal of nuance. The student has to master Arabic, philology, grammar, Quranic exegesis, jurisprudence and moral ethics amongst other things and only then, would the teacher grant him an Ijaza or permission to teach. That sort of profound study takes more than a few years of an Islamic studies BA in any modern Islamic university. Few in Ladbroke Grove, least of all Fatlum, had time to go down that route.

Alongside this, you also had the competing modernist Salafi tradition inspired by Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahab, a revivalist scholar of eighteenth century. His movement called for strict monotheism and rejected the adherence to a school of jurisprudence, mysticism and precepts that appeared to be cultural additions. This view, believed that over-reliance on blind imitation or Taqleed of scholars was misguidance, and sought to connect the layman directly to the sources of religion and thereby get him closer to God. Salafism’s appeal was its simple call to authenticity. As one worshipper put it: “Islam is simple, all you need is Quran and Sunnah”.

But occasionally its adherents fell into a trap of interpreting the texts with out having the prerequisite skill-set. Salafism disliked ‘blind imitation’ as it was disparagingly known, or taqleed of a scholar. To the born again devotee on the Golborne Road in search of religious enlightenment, he didn’t need a religious specialist, he could just open up the Quran and take the canonical sayings of the Prophet as his guide; no middle man was required to distil that seemingly contradictory mass of Prophetic sayings and Quranic verses. To Salafism’s detractors though, this was exactly the problem. These novices were akin to a thirsty rabble drinking straight from the vast salty ocean instead of allowing the scholar to making the seawater potable. Drinking straight from the ocean would result in madness or at the very least hubris. This was something a family member complained about when Hamza Parvez found his faith:

“This was last year. He used to wear the thobe and he’d pray and what annoyed me most was when he started telling his mum what to do. It kind of gave him this superiority because he thought that she didn’t have any knowledge.

And certainly the answers and scribblings on the tumbler pages, and Ask FM answers of some these ISIS fighters appear as if they were fatwas, or religious legal rulings.

Another offshoot of the Salafis in Ladbroke Grove was the Salafi-jihadi movement. As Jonathan Birt notes in Radical Nineties Revisited: Jihadi Discourses in Britain[2], the fact that many of these radicals and Salafi-jihadi ideologues were allowed to operate in the 90s so freely meant that the conditions were in place for it to flourish by the time Fatlum encountered it. As one young Imam who grew up in the area, told me West London has always had a strong Salafi-jihadi tradition. So disturbed was the young Imam that he decided move away from the area. The Salafi-jihadi movement in a nutshell, believes that only through Jihad can the Muslim global community restore its dignity and power; in some respects it is Fanonesque in conception. It is as Abdallah Azzam, one of its icons and the father of the Afghan Jihad put it, “Men need jihad more than the jihad needs men.”  Salafi-jihadi thought was a response to the centuries-long decline of Muslim power on the world stage and the incursions of the West into Muslim societies.The communities in Ladbroke Grove through a mixture of faith and heritage were profoundly connected to the affairs of the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in Salafi-jihadi thought having a greater resonance in the community especially amongst the young. Fatlum’s older brother was certainly an adherent to the ideology and though Fatlum may not have been, in the company of his brother and like minded individuals he certainly became one.

Gang Culture and Religion’s subtle interplay

Skateboarding on the West way in Ladbroke Grove

Skateboarding on the West way in Ladbroke Grove

But Fatlum also grew up in a milieu where there was a subtle interplay of religion and gang culture. In amongst the affluence of North Kensington, gang subcultures flourish. On the estates youth workers fight a constant uphill battle, not against radicalisation but the normal problems that most inner city communities face. The predominantly Moroccan community in the area face huge challenges in North Kensington. Myriam Cherti notes in Paradoxes of Social Capital: A Multi-Generational Study of Moroccans in London, in 1998, Golborne Ward fell under the 1 percent of the most deprived wards nationally[3], this situation changed little by 2012, when it was was ranked as the second most deprived in London[4]. The same author noted in a study for the Runnymede Trust, British Moroccans: Citizenship in Action, that poverty and disadvantage was “endemic in the area”. The youth workers I met were constantly trying to get young people to channel their energies into more positive activities. One of the bolder youth workers, Khaled, not his real name, told me, “I fork out money out of my own pocket; buy them chicken and chips and then they come to the sessions.” but with funding cuts these youth workers were struggling. Khaled complained that other youth clubs were receiving funding from different funding streams but those available to Moroccan communities were mainly through Prevent funding, the governments controversial anti-terrorism policy. This cynicism is not something recent. As early as 2009 the Runnymede Trust study states that: “smaller organisations complained that the Council discriminated in their funding practices, favouring certain projects whilst blocking others’ opportunities to develop.Khaled explained that the bigger problem in the area is still drugs, knife crime, gang fights, teenage pregnancies and civil engagement rather than terrorism and radicalisation. To this youth worker, it didn’t matter that five young men had left the area to join ISIS, he had to scour the streets to stop “Kids stabbing each other over a mobile phone. Every young person is touched by gang culture around here”.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 9.55.40 AMWith marginalisation comes social problems. Drugs and criminality had always been a facet of Ladbroke Grove since the 90s. Golborne Road was the best place to pick up skunk and hash in West London. Anyone who grew up in the area knew that Ladbroke Grove had cornered the market. You could drive up in a car and some dealer would shake your hands drop the punk and walk off in his joggers. Any undercover would have a hard time finding this ghost disappear into the estates. But as time passed these men, coming mostly from the close knit Moroccan community, felt the impact of religion in their lives. Their parents were getting old and becoming increasingly devout. They started their own families in the area and with the profundity of having one’s own family they too began to consider the deeper meanings of life. “Once a man holds his own kids in his arms” said one, “he starts thinking about their future, you can’t help it. That’s just God’s way”. A few decades on and these same dealers who had shot the stuff to willing punters, were sporting beards and praying five times a day looking for ways to atone themselves. These men raised in the school of hard knocks found that Salafi-jihadism fitted their temperament just like perhaps a creative temperament might prefer a Sufi understanding of Islam.

Despite the prejudice faced by the Moroccan community in North Kensington political engagement has always been high especially at local level. However, as the Runnymede Trust study found, there was also political discontent especially in the second generation. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 being the main boon of contention. The punishing decade of sanctions that preceded it with over half a million children dead and Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, quipping that the price “was worth it” jarred. To many in Ladbroke Grove, the Iraq war wasn’t a L’Oreal advert. Long before the area produced AQ adherents like Bilal Berjawi and Ramzi Mohammed, there were rumours that some old skool British Moroccans were expressing their political disenchantment by adopting Salafi-jihadi ideology and even trying to join the insurgency in Iraq. There was always talk of ex-Ladbroke Grove criminals suspected of a string of crimes in and around West London to fund their Jihadi activities. These criminal acts, it was said, were justified by the legal fiction that they were living in Dar al-Harb or ‘House of War’; a classical Islamic term developed by a body Islamic Jurisprudents during the medieval period to denote the lands that the Muslim world was at war with. Jihad as any jurisprudent will tell you was an all encompassing term referring to warfare that was nuanced, localised and differed according to time and place. So for instance, if the enemy mutilated your dead, you were not allowed to mutilate their dead because it was considered unjust and in direct contravention of God’s injunctions. Some of those rulings, albeit a minority, allowed for repaying the invaders of Muslim lands with the same treatment in extreme circumstances. That understanding allowed that everything was permissible, fraud, robbery, even enslaving women and so on. One worshipper told me, on condition of anonymity, that one “Grove man” had the audacity to rob a security van, and then turned up to offer Asr prayer at the mosque with the money box next to him, and after finishing casually walked off home with it. It was also rumoured that some of these men joined the smaller battalions within Syria’s splintered rebel factions like Katibat al-Khattab and Sham al-Islami brigades; the latter drew predominantly from North African participants.

Golborne Road with trellick towers

Golborne Road

But one thing these Ladbroke Grove Salafi-Jihadis were not; unlike many of the younger generation of Jihadis; they were not blatantly Takfiri in outlook in the way ISIS adherents were. Although there were some exceptions, most refrained from making Takfir or excommunication. Compare for instance the latest comments made by the late AQ spokesman Adam Gadahn, regarding the execution of Alan Henning and ISIS’ position. The latter considered it a sin. Like it or not, Salafi-Jihadism does have a theological discourse, with its thinkers, scholars and traditions. Usually the older fighters from Gadahn’s generation kept to within that framework. They looked at the West as an oppressive colonising infidel power that needed to be opposed, those Muslims who took a different view, were not declared automatically infidels en masse. This type of Salafi Jihadi still had respect for tradition and the sanctity of Muslim blood, even if they had none for UK law. But nevertheless as one Imam who knows Ladbroke Grove and those that adopted that opinion, told me, “is it victory at all cost that these men wanted? By adopting such an extreme opinion, they essentially did away with any ethical considerations of the Sharia, did the Companions and the Prophet do any of these things they did? No of course not, what they did do was open up the flood gates for the next generation where they could do anything they wanted.”

Despite the obvious problematics of Salafi-jihadism within Islamic intellectual discourse as well as outside of it, the newly emerging strain of Salafi-jihadis was hard to grasp by the older generation. The old skool jihadists were now criticising Fatlum’s generation for spiralling out of control. In fact, most recently the Jordanian Salafi jihadi cleric Abu Qatada, one of its main ideologues, criticised young Westerners coming to Syria with no religious training killing Islamic Jurisprudents with years of religious learning. The new generation they said lacked tarbiyyah or sound upbringing; their sincerity was not enough. There was clearly a generational disconnect. In many ways the conflict between Nusra Front and ISIS is also a reflection of this conflict between Old Skool Jihadis versus the New Skool. This new strain of Salafi-jihadism was seen as even more radical, virulently takfiri; they cared nought for any tradition that would ground them, nor for scholarship, and any kind of normative except their own. This idea seems to be confirmed by Thomas Pierret, Lecturer at Edinburgh University and author of Religion and State in Syria: the Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution, in a post on Facebook he says of the older generation Jihadis they were:

“motivated by the will to defend fellow Muslims against oppression. Their propaganda was a never-ending complaint about the plight of Muslims across the world. ISIS-generation of foreign fighters are completely different. Their Propaganda and behaviour suggests that not only are they totally indifferent to the plight of the Syrians, but they’re happily imposing upon them a ruthless form of oppression as part of their narcissistic settler-colonialist utopia[5]

It is true that young Ladbroke Grove Jihadis like Fatlum were different. According to a friend, Fatlum was “extremely Takfiri” in outlook, but he didn’t proselytise it the way other ISIS fighters did on social media. But to him the sacred and the profane was photoshopped with pop culture. These young men, in typical post-modern style comfortably mixed iconic images of Jihadica with Call of Duty. Sitting in an Italian cafe, Ali, a student who grew up in and around Ladbroke Grove told me even more bluntly what he thought the problem was; “There’s more to it, you have a high percentage of Roadmans who don’t know anything about the faith and they discover Anwar Awlaki on Youtube and it’s a disaster. On top of that everything they watch from Lord of the Rings to 300, to Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down everything about the Western culture celebrates heroism and self sacrifice. Some of their fathers also fought in Afghanistan, they have a fighting mentality because of the streets and once you put religion into it; which says helping the weak and oppressed is good, you got a Jihadi Roadman. It’s so predictable. Notice that most of these Roadmans joined ISIS; the rest with any sense of the faith didn’t.”

Fatlum’s friend Mohammed Nasser was a case in point; going through his twitter feed you notice that Grand Theft Auto Five is mentioned in the same breath as martyrdom, even though GTA is probably the most antithetical to the Islamic moral ethic. On his twitter feed. He flitted from talking about his friends to messaging Pro-ISIS disseminators like Shamiwitness[6]. The connections they were making, the culture they were creating was one particular to their generation. They had their own terminology, they wore their Salafi-Jihadism on their robes, blended it with rebellious Roadmannism, garnished it with a bit of Anwar Awlaki, Quran,Sunnah and a bit of thug life. They could yearn desperately for forgiveness and paradise, and in their youthful ardour want a sense of belonging and adventure. West-side hyperbole turned into “the land of the Muslims have to be defended.” The new generation Jihadi Roadmans short circuited the Salafi-jihadi tradition for just Team Muslim-no matter what; the response was not un-similar to the American patriot who cried Team America: no matter what. These men no doubt sincere in intention had become a law unto themselves and could wreak havoc and go against well established Islamic principles. These men joined ISIS.

Flamur’s artwork brother of Fatlum

Flamur’s artwork brother of Fatlum

When Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, 23, from Maida Vale, held out a decapitated head and declared to his tweeps that he was: [8]‘Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.’ To many it contradicted traditional concepts of chivalry and everything that Jihad represented. “No one is saying that war is a walk in the park, its ugly and nasty, but the whole point about Jihad is that when man has license to be at his most brutal, most callous, he doesn’t give in to his baser nature. It is easy to be clement, merciful and civilised in our everyday lives, but in war a man can actually show his true nobility, by being merciful, clement, and chivalrous, even when he has been wronged and his instinct is telling him to be brutal and unforgiving. And this is something that many fighters in ISIS have forgotten” said one Imam who asked to be anonymous.

A cursory glance through Medieval literature on famous Muslim warriors shows them to be cultured both in war and also the humanities, the autobiography of Usama bin Munqidh a 12th century knight during the crusades and Ibn Shaddad’s biography on Saladin for instance is testimony to that. Both are able to show magnanimity towards their enemies. Read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, a novella declared by the literary critic Harold Bloom to be “sublime” and you notice Tolstoy’s deep admiration for a Muslim warrior. A Jihadi   who refused to give in to the demands of the world, least of all Tsarist Russia. Fast forward to the twentieth century to Abdullah Anas, a veteran of the Afghan Jihad and the son in law of Abdullah Azzam, and find a man disgusted by the antics of these young fighters who kill men and upload it on twitter. As he told me in his office in North London:

“Prisoners have full rights. We fed them the same food, gave them the same clothes and the same quality of life. After several months, many of the Soviet troops started to believe that they weren’t prisoners because we were on such good terms with them.  Through our conduct we showed them we were not bloodthirsty people. Some of them became Muslims, others remain our friends to this day[9].”

To the veterans the Abdul Barys of this world were just expressing Roadmannism found in every day Ladbroke Grove, only the location was different. So what had happened in-between the period between Old Skool Jihadists and the modern day Jihadist who joins ISIS? According to Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American Muslim convert and freelance journalist who spent a considerable time in war torn Syria it seems to be a case of a ignorance and loosing one’s moral compass. Sitting in a cafe sipping a latte and relishing a chocolate chip cookie, he told me that some of these fighters “are extremely sincere in their intentions but because they don’t know the basics they attach themselves to a group who they think will take them to God, so they get played…I couldn’t believe it…we were inside a car once and they were discussing whether it was permissible to target women and children, I’m like brother, why are we even having this conversation?! Islam doesn’t allow that. That’s how ignorant they were.” Fatlum’s knowledge of Islam was at the time of leaving, described by friends as basic but continued under Islamic State proselytisers.

When Fatlum left it wasn’t just faith and the International community’s inactivity that pulled him there. There were complex factors at play, the influence of individuals, the interplay of Salafi-jihadi thought, Roadman culture, identity, or simply a need for adventure and atonement that made him get on that plane to Turkey. In spring 2013 the brothers went to Turkey transiting off a European country.

To their father, Muhamet, the news came as a complete shock. The brothers had kept their faith secret from the family. Once they were in Syria contact with family was intermittent. They told the parents that they were doing aid work. Fatlum’s mother fell into deep depression. Although the parents did not report the two missing immediately, their disappearance did not go unnoticed, the police were aware that they had left. The father said that special branch had visited them and taken their computers away. He perhaps naively, believed they would help to retrieve them. The officers were particularly interested in the two following the revelation of the identity of Jihadi John.

In Syria, what had started as a true revolution began to resemble 12th century Andalusia during the age of the Muluk at-Tawa’if or the Party Kings. Each emir of Andalusia’s fractured principalities, supported by various Christian kings, made war on each other for hegemony of the Spanish Peninsula. Many foreign fighters who had come to fight Assad, instead found themselves embroiled in this intra-rebel infighting. Abu Layth al-Khorosani, or Anil Khalil Raoufi from Manchester, for instance died fighting the Free Syrian Army instead of Assad. When the fighting broke out between ISIS and Nusra Front, to the surprise of one friend, the two brothers did not get involved in the internecine Jihadist infighting that broke out in January 2014. Fatlum made his choice quite early on. Contrary to reports, the two brothers did not defect from the Nusra Front but rather after they had finished their training with Katibat al-Muhajireen (KaM) led by Georgian national Omar Shishani and his former deputy Abu Mus’ab al-Jazairi, they joined ISIS. It is not clear why the two brothers left Katibat al-Muhajireen for Islamic State. Perhaps they followed Omar Shishani as he made his oath of allegiance or hoped to join a group that would take them to Paradise, it is hard to tell. Nevertheless their aloofness from fighting their former comrades earned them the respect even of their enemies. This may have been one of the reasons they ended up in Iraq, precisely because they wanted to avoid fighting their ex-comrades. Instead they preferred to fight the Shi’ites and the Kurdish YPG, the former who Salafi Jihadis consider to be heretics, and the latter who they view as godless Atheists due to their secular or communist beliefs.

Abdullah Anas in middle

Abdullah Anas in middle

Flamur Shalaku or Abu Sa’ad as he was known, was killed in March of this year in Iraq. His father, Muhamet received a phone call where a distant crackly arabic voice spoke in broken English and said: “Everything is good with your son”. The father was not devout, he didn’t quite understand what that meant. He came to see me one rainy night in Whitechapel, to see if I could locate him. I didn’t know how to break it to him, his red nose with delicate red veins hinted at a man who liked Jack Daniels, I told him that the Grapevine said that Abu Sa’ad had been killed.

He stumbled, he woke up, his eyes watered up, his lips quivered for a moment. I wanted to give him a hug. I felt like a scumbag. But he didn’t let me hug him, he composed himself. He told me about the phone call. I explained what that meant.

“To Islamic State death means martyrdom. For them it’s good news”

“I don’t know what to tell his mother” he said as if Flamur was still alive. “Is there anyway we can get Fatlum back? I need to tell him to come back? If we lose him, we are finished you know? Finished. I will not tell anything to the mother for now.”

A month later I called him to ask about Fatlum’s death.

Perhaps Flamur’s death made Fatlum want to join his brother, by this time he had lost Mohammed Nasser and now his brother. And so he stepped into a truck laden with explosives and stuck his index finger out for the camera and drove towards his target. He blew himself up hoping to be flung in to paradise. Whilst his friends in Islamic State rejoiced in his self-annihilation, the reverberations of the explosions were also felt in Ladbroke Grove. Friends and locals were shocked by the fate of such a popular young man. Some of the younger ones rated him for dying for his beliefs, “he was a man of action y’get me- he talks the talk and walks the walk. To the old timers there is a sense of foreboding that the spotlight will once again fall on a community that is afflicted by far greater problems than ISIS.





[5] Facebook post on 7 July 2002





* Tam Hussein is an award winning investigative journalist and writer. He speaks five languages and holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His work appears in the Guardian, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Sharq Al-Awsat, etc.