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While many focus on the fighting between rebel forces and the Assad regime as well as rightfully the continuing humanitarian tragedy that is wrecking havoc on the daily lives of many Syrians, there have been key organizational changes behind the scenes within the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). The SIF is a Salafi-jihadi conglomeration of brigades that banded together to create an umbrella organization in late December 2012. After its formation, the combined force of the SIF has become one of the key rebel factions in the battle against the Assad regime. The consolidation of the SIF’s power through mergers and acquisitions will help solidify its growing role in the opposition as a force that has reach throughout the country and is united unlike many other rebel factions that have fractured over time.

The SIF is an organization that calls for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia based on its Salafi creed after the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, to playing an increasingly important role on the battlefield, the SIF has also been involved in some social welfare through its relief committee where they distribute aid from the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO. Their charter has also gotten the stamp of approval from the Syrian jihadi ideologue Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who is allegedly affiliated with the SIF. Tartusi also recently spoke with al-Hiwar Channel explaining he was helping advise the creation of sharia courts in “liberated” areas of Syria.

When the SIF was first announced it was made up of eleven brigades, including Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kata’ib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa’ al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaysh al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. It has since shrunk through two larger-scale mergers among some of the eleven brigades and one acquisition from outside its fold. This has helped strengthen the organization through the consolidation of ties and centralization of authority.

First, on January 31, three of the groups (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah, Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah, and Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah) merged into Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). The four now go under the name Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (HASI). This move can be seen as a victory for KAS’ hardliners, over elements in the group that wanted to join the Supreme Military Council (SMC), an armed affiliate of the U.S.-supported National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) because groups that merged like Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah are seen as more radical. Further indication that rumors of KAS joining the SMC has likely been quashed, the SIF released a statement on February 6 rejecting the SOC president Mu’az al-Khatib’s recent call for talks with the Assad regime.

Second, on February 2, Damascus-based groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib joined together to become Kata’ib al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. Prior to this formation, they had little to no battle record posted online, suggesting were not key players on the ground. It is possible that they joined forces better position themselves on the ground. Since then, the SIF has posted some attacks from this new formation, potentially signifying that the merger was a precursor to a more active plan going forward. The SIF might have also encouraged this due to a new offensive planned by rebel forces in Damascus and its countryside dubbed “Support for Daraya.”

Lastly, on February 5, the Hama-based fighting group Liwa’ al-Iman, which has an online footprint going back to late September 2012, left the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), an Ikhwani and Salafi umbrella group, and joined HASI within the SIF. This solidifies the SIF’s foothold in Hama since none of the original eleven were based there. It also highlights the strength the SIF is projecting to other rebel forces in contrast to the non-unified SLF, which is viewed as unorganized with a lack of coordination because of the number of large players like Suqur al-Sham and Kata’ib al-Faruq.

As a result of the consolidation, the SIF now stands at six fighting forces. These maneuvers over the past week have helped solidify its organization. It would not be surprising if other mergers and acquisitions occur in the near term because of their prowess on the battlefield as well as their ability to be organizationally disciplined and unified. More than anything, the actions of the SIF illustrate that they are planning for the long-term and will continue to play a key role in the fight against the Assad regime and attempting to shape the post-Assad state of play.

From December 5, 2012 to January 29, 2013, al-Qaeda’s top-tier forum Shamukh al-Islam was down (with a brief return for a few days after December 17). The suppression of the forum is likely the work of an intelligence agency, but no claim of responsibility has been announced. It has also accelerated an already growing trend: the migration of jihadi propaganda from web forums to social media.

In response to the blackout, many jihadi groups, media outlets, and individuals created new accounts on Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook). Others have likely migrated to popular second-tier forums like Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (AMAF), which occurred the last time the al-Qaeda approved forums went down in late March/early April 2012. During that period, I was in the middle of collecting and analyzing data (from February 1, 2012 to April 31, 2012) on a number of jihadi forums spanning multiple languages and Twitter accounts for a New American Foundation paper, which showed empirically for the first time that lower-tier forums did indeed fill the vacuum created by the main forum’s absence.

Both of these forum takedowns — in March and April, as well as in December and January — exposed the limits of al-Qaeda’s official online media procedures, which are headed by its distribution network al-Fajr Media. Al-Fajr is responsible for coordinating between al-Qaeda Central (AQC), its affiliates’ media outlets (As-Sahab Media for AQC, al-Malahim for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Furqan for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Andalus for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)), and the forum administrators. In both takedown cases, al-Fajr could not deliver content from the al-Qaeda affiliates, at least in an official capacity, to the online masses.

Media outlets, groups, and ideologues that, while not expressly affiliated, are inspired by al-Qaeda’s worldview have not been hindered by this process, and therefore have not evolved mechanisms for releasing their content. Previously, popular online jihadi essayists like Abu Sa’d al-Amili wrote articles when the forums when down, encouraging readers to be patient and to understand that the forums would persist and would not be defeated. On December 23, 2012, however, Abdullah Muhammad Mahmud, a writer for the jihadi news agency Dawa al-Haqq Foundation for Studies and Research, which is disseminated via a WordPress blog, provided guidance to online jihadi activists. Mahmud told his comrades that going forward, it was legitimate to use Twitter and Facebook as sources of information for jihadi-related issues. This advice was in a sense revolutionary, as jihadis had previously emphazized the importance of the forums as a method for authenticating materials, to prevent forgeries of official group content. At the same time, though, many grassroots activists had already been active on online social media platforms for a few years on an individual basis.

Click here to read the rest.

The second half of 2012 saw increased radicalization of the Syrian armed opposition, particularly in the north and east. What began as a mainly secular force with the creation of the umbrella Free Syrian Army has slowly fragmented into Islamist splinter factions, including Suqur al-Sham, Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS), and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Designated a terrorist organization by Washington in early December, JN has received the most attention, but little has been said about KAS, another popular Salafi-jihadist group whose strength and support continue to grow in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere. On December 21, KAS announced the creation of a new umbrella fighting force called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). Given this group’s increasing prowess on the battlefield and ideological similarity to JN, Washington must develop a better understanding of its capabilities and reach.

WHO THEY ARE

In the statement and video proclaiming the SIF’s creation, spokesman Abu Abdul Rahman al-Souri declared that the group followed extremist Salafi doctrines and planned to topple the Assad regime and its allies, after which it would institute its interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). According to him, this would mean establishing institutions focusing on political matters, dawa (Islamic advocacy), cultural education, and humanitarian relief.

The SIF is made up of eleven brigades, including KAS (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kataib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaish al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jamaat al-Taliah al-Islamiyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Musab bin Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Katibat Suqur al-Islam, Kataib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin Abdul Mutalib. The latter five brigades have little to no battle record posted online, which suggests they are not real players on the ground.

At the end of its December statement, the SIF emphasizes that it is open to other Islamist organizations joining its cause, and the accompanying video shows the front’s fighters in action in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo, and Deir al-Zour, among other places. Since then, the SIF and JN have been at the forefront of several key battles, including the recent liberation of Taftanaz airport, a jailbreak in Idlib, and efforts to take Jisr al-Shughour.

The video also shows the SIF’s humanitarian relief efforts, such as paving new roads and clearing old ones, baking bread for the increasing number of needy Syrians, and supplying foodstuffs. Other soft-power efforts include Quranic recitation contests for children. In addition, the video highlights two of the main actors financing these efforts: the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO.

Click here to read the rest.

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The second half of 2012 saw the radicalization of the Syrian rebel opposition. What started as a mainly secular force with the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) slowly fragmented into Islamist cleavages with groups like Suqur al-Sham, Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, among others fighting independently outside the banner of the FSA. While much due attention has been given to Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in early December, little has been discussed on another popular Salafi-jihadi group: Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). On December 21, it announced the creation of a new fighting force that brought together small jihadi factions under the banner of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).

Click here to read the rest.

Jihadist groups are emerging as a major threat in Egypt because of three developments: the permissive atmosphere for Islamist mobilization in general since Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s tolerance toward its fellow Islamists, and the weakness of the Egyptian state. To help inhibit violence by such groups, Washington should approach Cairo with a mix of economic inducements, diplomatic pressure, and intelligence sharing.

KEY JIHADIST GROUPS AND FIGURES

Following the 2011 revolution, the military junta that replaced Mubarak granted amnesty to many Islamists, including individuals with blood on their hands. Many of these figures renounced violence, and some established political parties, but others remain completely unreformed. These latter jihadists are radicalizing Egypt’s domestic political scene and threatening U.S. interests.

Two Egyptian “Ansar al-Sharia” groups, whose names echo those of other regional jihadist organizations, are particularly worth noting. Gamaat Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt (ASE), which was founded in mid-October 2012, focuses on internal “reform,” including application of sharia, compensation for the martyrs of the revolution, purging the judiciary and media, allowing bearded officers, and not relying on riba (usury) in financial transactions. Similar to the Ansar outfits in Tunisia and Benghazi, Libya, ASE runs local community services such as distributing sheep for ritual slaughter during the Eid al-Adha holiday and providing food for the needy.

By contrast, al-Taliah al-Salafiyah al-Mujahediyah Ansar al-Sharia (TSM), which was formed this month but officially declared in mid-November, is more internationally focused. Run by former members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who post their press releases to al-Qaeda-affiliated online forums, it emphasizes liberating foreign-occupied Muslim lands, supporting foreign mujahedin, resisting the foreign ideologies of liberalism and communism, repelling the implementation of secular laws from Europe, and stopping the “Christianization” of Egyptian education. Unlike ASE, TSM does not publicize any social services that it provides; much of its public profile since Mubarak’s ouster has been in the form of articles, books, and fatwas regarding the Egyptian transition.

Meanwhile, the emergence of former EIJ figure Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman, has given these groups a public face. Zawahiri was released from prison in March 2012 and has since promoted the global jihadist worldview through local and international press interviews. While he denies being an al-Qaeda member, he agrees with its ideological outlook and, through Twitter, instigated last year’s September 11 protests outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo that culminated with the breaching of the compound’s walls and desecration of the U.S. flag. He also cooperated with TSM’s Ahmed Ashoush to plan Salafi jihadist participation in an early November demonstration in support of sharia. And in December, he catalyzed a boycott of the constitutional referendum, criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood’s “sharia sins” and arguing that the new charter was insufficiently Islamist.

While these groups and figures have only small followings — as evidenced by the unimpressive turnout at their occasional Tahrir Square sharia protests — there is substantial risk that they will gain followers in the coming months. The relative openness of post-Mubarak Egypt has afforded them unprecedented opportunities for proselytizing. Moreover, they will likely draw followers away from Salafist political parties, whose members may become disillusioned with a political process that they already view as a “necessary evil.”

Egypt’s declining internal security will give jihadists ample recruitment opportunities as well. Instability in the Sinai could also provide them with new training grounds, allowing them to return to their Nile Valley communities with newly developed skills for attacking civilians or the state. In addition, instability in northern Sinai and attacks against Israel could jeopardize the bilateral peace treaty.

Click here to read the rest.

On January 11, in yet another sign that the Assad regime is increasingly giving way, an assortment of Islamist/jihadist fighters captured the Taftanaz airbase in Syria. While good news for achieving Washington’s seventeen-month-old (and counting) goal of forcing Bashar al-Assad to “step aside,” the capture of the base and its weapons stockpile by groups opposed to U.S. interests comes at the expense of the mainline opposition Supreme Military Council (SMC), an armed affiliate of the U.S.-supported National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC). To accelerate Assad’s departure and dilute the political and military impact of the Islamists, Washington and its allies will need to boost support for the SMC and other mainline nationalist groups while removing obstructions to urgent humanitarian aid amid an unusually harsh winter.

MILITARY IMPLICATIONS

Taftanaz was an important victory for the opposition and a clear defeat for the regime. The rebels succeeded because they were able to concentrate adequate forces, coordinate their actions, bring heavy weapons to bear, and sustain the siege for months under regime air attack. This indicates an improvement in their performance, at least for the units involved. It also repeats rebel successes in taking defended regime positions elsewhere in the country, including Aleppo province, Deir al-Zour, and the Damascus countryside.

The victory brought some important direct gains for the rebels:

  • They destroyed or captured fifteen to twenty helicopters at the airfield. Most of these were Mi-8/17 utility helicopters, some of which had been equipped with rocket pods for an attack role. This represents approximately 20 percent of the regime’s prewar active inventory of a much-relied-upon type of aircraft.
  • They captured additional heavy weapons and large quantities of ammunition. Coupled with the freeing up of rebel forces, the equipment gains should boost the opposition’s ability to assault other regime positions in the north and perhaps bring them under their control sooner. The battle will also be a huge boost for rebel morale, showing they can take even a major defended position.
  • The regime was unable to prevent loss of the base, one of several such failures in the past few months. Damascus did not appear to make any serious attempt to reinforce the airfield or relieve the siege. The number of troops involved in the defense seemed relatively small, and they largely relied on heavy weapons and air power — a regime pattern. In addition, at least some of the defenders were irregular soldiers from the pro-Assad “popular committees,” not regular combat troops; some reports even indicate that officers were evacuated by air before the base fell.

WHO FOUGHT AND WHAT IT MEANS

Three rebel factions took part in the fight: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), and the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF). All three are outside the structure of the SMC, a grouping of provincial military council leaders and battalion (katiba) and brigade (liwa) commanders formed in December. The council’s purpose is to unite Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, implement command and control, funnel SOC support to armed units, and keep weapons out of the hands of extremists.

Jabhat al-Nusra, an independent faction that is not part of the FSA, is a global jihadist group that follows al-Qaeda’s worldview. According to the State Department’s December announcement designating it as a terrorist organization, JN was established as a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq nearly a year ago. Over the past few months, it has gained prominence as one of the country’s best fighting forces, conducting more than 600 suicide bombings, assassinations, improvised explosive device attacks, and strikes on regime checkpoints and security/military buildings, in addition to regular battlefield action. Although JN is capable of attacking most parts of Syria, the majority of its operations have occurred in Aleppo and Idlib, and to a lesser extent Damascus and Deir al-Zour. The group’s ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state in the entire Levant as a starting point to reestablishing the Caliphate.

The Syrian Islamic Front is a conglomeration of eleven “brigades” outside the FSA. Formed last December, it lacks JN’s coherent structure. Ideologically, the SIF can best be described as a collection of locally focused jihadists with no known connections to al-Qaeda. Three of the brigades took part in the Taftanaz battle: Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (the SIF’s leading unit), Jamaat al-Taliah al-Islamiyah, and Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyah. Like JN, the SIF’s goal is to establish an Islamic state based on Salafi interpretations of Islam, but only within Syria proper. The video announcing the group’s creation indicates that its funding comes from the Qatar Charity Organization and Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), which supports U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as Hamas.

The Syrian Liberation Front is another grouping of so-called brigades outside the FSA, founded last September. The smallest faction involved in the Taftanaz operation was Liwa Dawoud, one of the eight battalions within Suqur al-Sham, a leading SLF brigade. Ideologically similar to the SIF, the SLF hopes to establish an Islamic state in Syria; its members are a mix of Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists and Salafists who are less radical than those in the SIF and JN. The SLF is believed to receive funding from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and wealthy Persian Gulf donors.

Given their demonstrated fighting prowess, these Islamist forces have earned much respect from Syrians. Unlike some FSA groups, which have increasingly been accused of corruption in places such as Aleppo, JN, the SIF, and the SLF are viewed as fair brokers that do not take advantage of the downtrodden. Unless something changes, Islamists are likely to play a significant role in northern Syria following the regime’s departure.

Click here to read the rest.

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A month ago, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Benghazi (The Supporters of Islamic Law; ASB), on its official Facebook page via its official media outlet al-Rayyah Foundation for Media Production uploaded a poster (see above) promoting a demonstration on Sunday December 16 in Tripoli and Benghazi. The demonstration is in support of Libyans currently imprisoned in Iraq. In the past few months there have been other protests in support of Libyans in Iraq, too. Similarly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) has also held demonstrations in the past for Tunisians that are imprisoned in Iraq. What’s fascinating in this case is that the promotional poster contains names of ten individuals. At the suggestion of the blogger/tweeter that goes by the name of Around the Green Mountain I cross-checked these names with the Sinjar Records to see if there were any matches.

For background on the Sinjar Records see the Combating Terrorism Center’s description in their report that first analyzed these records: “In November 2007, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point received nearly 700 records of foreign nationals that entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007 … The records contain varying levels of information on each fighter, but often include the fighter’s country of origin, hometown, age, occupation, the name of the fighter’s recruiter, and even the route the fighter took to Iraq.  The records were captured by coalition forces in October 2007 in a raid near Sinjar, along Iraq’s Syrian border.”

When the raw data was checked, four out of the ten names were a match (or had a part of the name): ‘Adil Jum’ah Muhammad al-Sha’lali, ‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi, Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad, and Muhammad Saqr Muhammad. Some information about them:

  • All created their own kunyas: Abu ‘Umar, Abu Umar, Abu al-Qa’qa, Abu Hudayfah (listed in same order as regular names above)
  • Three were from Darnah while the other did not list a city of origin;
  • Three listed date of birth: 1981, 1982, and 1985;
  • Two of them mentioned when they arrived in Iraq: October 2006;
  • The same two brought with them 500 and 300 lira respectively;
  • And a different set of two of them stated the work they wanted when joining the Islamic State of Iraq: martyr (which has not obviously come to fruition yet)

Two of the individuals also contained pictures in their Sinjar application for the Islamic State of Iraq. Below, you can see a comparison of the application photo from 2006 on the left and what I am assuming is a relatively recent photo of the same individual in Iraqi custody, which is from the above flier. There are slight differences due to aging and likely poor conditions in Iraqi prisons and the second picture looks closer in similarity to the before and after than the first one. For those reading, what do you think (leave a comment below)?

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‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right) 

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Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right)

It is likely that the other six individuals that ASB is calling for their release were also fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq, but joined at a different time period or were not part of the registration/orientation in Sinjar. Reports from the official Libyan news agency LANA suggest that after the most recent protests, Baghdad has been in negotiation with Tripoli to return the prisoners and have them serve out their time in Libya. Based on the current security dynamic in Libya, if these prisoners, among others I’m sure, are returned can their sentences in prison be preserved? There is a good chance that due to the unstable nature swirling in the country that these individuals could be broken out of jail or even worse are let free once back on Libyan soil due to the weakness of the government in the face of Islamist militias. Time will of course tell.

The above highlights that although some parts of the history of the jihadi movement and US understanding/interaction with these sources seems somewhat dated, as Leah Farrall always notes ‘what’s old is new again.’ In other words, trends/older players return to the fore even if forgotten by analysts. This is especially the case in the post-Arab uprising societies where individuals from the 1990s scene have once again gotten back on the stage. All of this of course illustrates the importance in understanding the history, context, and evolution of the jihadi movement. Only focusing narrowly on the most recent developments will rob many of appreciating how and why events are occurring or repeating themselves.

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