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al-Qaeda in Iraq

Earlier this morning, the Islamic State of Iraq, the front name for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), claimed responsibility for a March 4th attack that killed 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. This was the first confirmed case of AQI announcing its involvement in what is now the greater Syrian conflict. As Syrian jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which according to the US government was originally established by AQI, continue to consolidate their hold onborder posts and regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is likely that more cross-border incidents could occur. This attack also highlights the potential for a more permissive jihadist corridor of open coordination between western Iraq and eastern Syria, the zones where jihadists are strongest in each country.

It is unsurprising that the Syrian-Iraqi border would start to heat up. There is a history going back to the US-led Iraq war last decade that connected eastern Syria to the jihadist front in western Iraq. At the time, the Assad regime turned a blind eye to the staging ground that AQI used in eastern Syria for facilitating training, weapons and fighter trafficking, and document forgery. In other words, eastern Syria was a key hub for the lifeline of AQI’s efforts. Not until 2007 did the Assad regime start cracking down on these networks.

This is also one of the reasons for the rapid rise of JN last year. Unlike other groups, they were not completely starting from scratch. Many of the Syrians that lead JN previously fought with AQI during the height of the jihadist insurgency last decade. Further, according to the US Treasury Department’s designation of JN, in the fall of 2011, AQI sent two senior leaders Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab to help establish and prepare the groundwork for the creation of JN in January 2012. Therefore, while JN is majority Syrian, there are past and present links between it and AQI.

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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.

President Barack Obama’s administration is reportedly planning to designate the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Support Front”) as a terrorist organization. The group, which was firstannounced in late January 2012, has become a growing part of the armed opposition due to its fighting prowess — perhaps no surprise, as many of its fighters honed their skills in battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra has carved out an important niche in the fight to oust the Syrian regime even as it remains outside of the mainstream opposition.

The U.S. administration, in designating Jabhat al-Nusra, is likely to argue that the group is an outgrowth of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). While there is not much open-source evidence of this, classified material may offer proof — and there is certainly circumstantial evidence that Jabhat al-Nusra operates as a branch of the ISI.

There’s no denying that Jabhat al-Nusra is deadly: It has claimed responsibility for more than 500 attacks since its creation, including a series of suicide bombings. Unique among rebel groups operating in Syria, it has also earned the legitimacy of top global jihadist ideologues, who have called for grassroots supporters across the world to help fund or join up with the group. And foreign fighters have answered the call: Based on data from al Qaeda’s online forums, of the 46 individuals for which the forums have provided “martyrdom” notices and announced their group affiliation, 20 fought with Jabhat al-Nusra. Since Oct. 1, almost all of the notices that mention affiliation have reported that the fighter was aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra.

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This past Thursday, on February 16, a group of around twenty individuals claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), released a video message to YouTube announcing the formation of a new battalion named the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. It should be noted that during the Iraq war, al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) also named one of their battalions the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. There is no definitive proof that the new battalion established by the FSA is connected with the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq networks. That said, one should be cognizant of the expansive facilitation networks there were for foreign fighters attempting to join the Iraq jihad in Syria.

There are many layers to unpack from the video itself as well as the name chosen for the martyr brigade and its potential illusions.

With the recent revelations that al-Qa’ida was allegedly behind a series of suicide bombings in Syria over the past few months, along with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent video giving support to the Syrian “mujahidin;” much worry has risen over the specter of al-Qa’ida influencing and/or hijacking the opposition movement in Syria that hopes to topple Bashar al-Asad and his current regime.

The Flags

Many will point to the flag in the background used in the above video as a sign that these individuals are indeed al-Qa’ida since it looks strikingly similar to the one used by al-Qa’ida’s Islamic State of Iraq (For more background on al-Qa’ida’s use of flags and its context in Islamic history read here):

FSA background flag

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Indeed, it is a worrying sign. At the same time, one should also note that in the above video, they also bear the old Syrian flag:

As such, for any student of al-Qa’ida and jihadism, the use of a Syrian flag shows direct support of a nationalist project, which is contrary to al-Qa’ida’s worldview. This is because the nation-states carved out were established not by God, but rather by the British and French. From this, one could posit that the al-Qa’ida looking flag used in the above video has become popularized to a broader audience then just a global jihadist one. More specifically, “the Che Guevara-ing” of the flag insofar as it has just become a symbol of resistance than necessarily a sign that the group has allegiance to al-Qa’ida. At the same time, the name used for the martyrs brigade (as AQI did, too) may abrogate or disprove this potential theory.

Who is al-Bara’ ibn Malik?

Prior to discussing the significance of the name of the martyrs brigrade in the context of al-Qa’ida, it is worthwhile to delve into the figure al-Bara’ ibn Malik to try and better understand why the FSA (and AQI) would invoke this figures name. Ibn Malik was one of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s sahabah (companions) and considered an ansar (supporter) from the tribe of Banu al-Khazraj since they established relations with Muhammad’s nascent movement of mu’minin (believers) following the hijra to Medina (originally Yathrib). Ibn Malik is the brother of the famous sahabi Anas ibn Malik, an aide to Muhammad and who is one of the major narrators of hadith.

al-Bara’ ibn Malik originally took part in the Battle of Yamamah, which was part of the Riddah (apostasy) wars following the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. After the ascension of Abu Bakr as-Sadiq as the first Caliph some tribes and individuals apostatsized from Islam and attempted to return to their original religious practices. Abu Bakr called for war against them leading to a series of battles in 632-634 CE/11-13 H. The Battle of Yamamah is most famous for the deaths of a large portion of Qur’anic reciters, which led Abu Bakr to start the codification of the Qur’an into a written mushaf, since beforehand the Qur’an was recited orally. In the latter part of the Battle of Yamamah, when the opposition forces led by Musaylimah (referred in Islamic historiography as al-Kadhab or the Liar) were beginning to lose the battle they hid behind a gated garden. Prior to launching an assault on the garden, al-Bara’ ibn Malik stated: “يا أهل المدينة، لا مدينة لكم اليوم، إنما هو الله، والجنة” or “Oh People of al-Madinah, there is no al-Madinah for you after this day. There is only Allah, then Paradise.” Ibn Malik was hoisted upon a fellow soldiers shield to try and jump over the gate, which he succeeded. He sustained wounds, but was able to break open the gate allowing the rest of the Muslim army to defeat Musaylimah’s men. The episode would later refer to the “Garden of Death.” Although Ibn Malik had injuries, he recovered and later fought and was “martyred” in the Battle of Tustar against the Persian Empire in 640 CE/19 H.

There are three key points that should be highlighted from the above description of al-Bara’ ibn Malik: (1) he had an important role in defeating “apostates;” (2) his quote from above shows his willingness for martyrdom in the face of tough odds; and (3) he fought against the Persian Empire, which although Persians were not Muslims or Shi’a for that matter at that time one can imagine the symbolism of Ibn Malik fighting against the Persians. Jihadis today describe Shi’a (many being Persian) today as rawafid (Dissenters/Defectors/Deserters), which is a derogatory term, and do not believe they are true Muslims.

Contextualizing al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades Today

Returning to the modern context, in both cases (AQI and the FSA), the name of the martyrs brigade fits and alludes to the three points made above regarding the biography of Ibn Malik. Regarding the first point, in both Iraq and Syria the fighters believe they are fighting apostate regimes. In Iraq against the ascendent Shi’a Mahdi Army and newly formed majority Shi’a Iraqi government and in the case of Syria al-Asad’s Alawite regime (seen as a sect of Shi’a Islam and viewed as heretical by even non-jihadi Sunni Muslims). As for the second point, it is quite obvious that they are martyrdom brigades and are therefore willing to sacrifice themselves in the face of great odds. And thirdly, the Iranian government was viewed in the Iraq war as assisting the Shi’a militias, while in the current context in Syria, the al-Asad regime is a known proxy of the Iranian regime. As such, in a round about way, in both the Iraq and Syrian versions of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades they would be fighting the “Persian Empire” similar to Ibn Malik himself.

General Concluding Remarks About the Current State of Jihadism in Syria

The establishment of the FSA’s al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade should give pause to talk of blindly arming the FSA as an alternative to the failed resolutions in the UN Security Council. That said, it is believed the FSA is a loose confederation without much centralization and therefore this battalion is most likely independent and doing its own thing. With the news of the potential release of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, the creation of a new local jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and reports of a foreign fighter from Kuwait being killed in Syria, it is clear Syria has become another important front in the jihadi war. The penetration of al-Qa’ida in Iraq into Syria and potential of foreign fighters arriving, should be watched closely. At the same time, ones support for the uprising to defeat the authoritarian al-Asad regime should not be looked at completely through the prism of al-Qa’ida nor should it preclude or discredit any attempts for supporting some elements within the opposition. There are certainly risks involved, but identifying and vetting elements within the Syrian opposition is something that needs to be further acted upon in a precise manner versus providing weapons haphazardly just because of horrific scenes of slaughter on YouTube that one views without fully thinking through the potential second and third order consequences.

Since last month’s free and fair elections in Tunisia, much of the focus has been on Ennahda’s victory, the formation of a new constitution-writing Constituent Assembly, and how to rebuild the shattered economy. Yet these important matters threaten to obscure another significant challenge to the country’s nascent democracy: Salafism. Although the extremist ideology has not yet taken root to the same degree as in Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, the new openness in Tunisian society has allowed Salafi elements to widely propagate their message — one that undergirds the intellectual foundations of jihadism and, as such, poses a potential danger to the country’s stability. To counter this threat, Washington should consider engaging Tunisia’s new government on appropriate deradicalization and training efforts.

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

One of the Salafi groups that has benefited from the country’s new openness is Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). Founded in late April, a few months after the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the group is headed by spiritual leader Sheikh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi. It also takes religious advice from popular Tunisian Salafist Sheikh al-Khatib al-Idrisi, who was imprisoned for several years during the Ben Ali era. AST is especially active in the working-class Bab al-Khadra neighborhood of Tunis, with members attending al-Kambes and Malik bin Anas Mosques and becoming involved with the local mosque committee.

Similar to the youth revolutionaries who led the Tunisian uprising, one of the key aspects of AST’s dawa (Islamic propagation) activities has been its ability to bypass the mainstream press and harness social media to bring its message to the masses. AST runs a blog and also has two Facebook pages, one for the group proper and the second for its media apparatus, al-Qairawan Media Foundation (QMF). Since April, when AST announced its presence online, the number of its postings has grown each month, as has its number of “friends.”

AST’s largest advocacy project has been raising awareness of the plight of Muslim prisoners, most notably Tunisians who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during its height in 2005-2007 and remain in Iraqi jails. The group has also demanded the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind religious leader of Egypt’s al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah who was convicted and imprisoned in the United States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Abu Qatadah al-Filastini, al-Qaeda’s European spiritual leader currently serving time in Britain. In addition to holding peaceful sit-ins outside the Iraqi embassy in Tunis, AST has demonstrated in front of the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to call for the release of a handful of its “brothers.”

The group also reveres Yosri bin Fakher Trigui (a.k.a. Abu Qadamah al-Tunisi), who was captured in Iraq in 2006 and executed last month for his role in the bombing of the Shiite tombs at Marqad al-Imamain al-Hadi and al-Askari. In fact, AST’s media outlet portrays him as a martyr, creating Photoshopped images of him overlaid with symbols glorifying his death, including the logo of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” AQI’s successor group. Additionally, AST’s Facebook page posted a music video placing Trigui among two other illustrious “martyrs,” Usama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And when his body was returned to Tunisia on November 23, the group played a prominent role in the funeral, which was attended by more than a thousand people, many of whom carried banners and placards with Islamic slogans. In a further indication of Trigui’s status, the premier online jihadist forum Shamukh al-Islam featured custom photos extolling his “martyrdom” on its front page for two weeks.

Against the Elections

Unlike the Salafi groups in Egypt that have decided to take part in elections, AST is far more doctrinal and purist in its interpretation of the Quran. As such, it opposes engaging in parliamentary politics and has not established a legal party. Indeed, in the lead-up to last month’s elections, it distributed literature warning Tunisians against voting, which it depicted as an infringement on God’s sovereignty. For example, one of the brochures, “The Idol of Democracy,” implicitly referred to engagement in democracy as a polytheistic act. And the day before the vote, AST wrote a stern warning to Islamists participating in the election, declaring that they would regret their actions on the Day of Resurrection.

In addition, the group tried to deter potential voters by reposting fatwas and videos from popular Salafi-jihadist sheikhs arguing against democracy. For example, it highlighted an edict by Sheikh Abu al-Mundher al-Shanqiti — a member of the sharia committee of Menbar al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (The Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad), the premier online resource for Salafi-jihadist intellectual materials — proclaiming the un-Islamic character of democratic elections. It also highlighted Shanqiti’s fatwa against Ennahda, characterizing the Islamist party’s program as a violation of tawhid (monotheism), describing its secretary-general Rachid Ghannouchi and his “ilk” as heretics, and declaring that Ennahda’s positions on jihad, dhimmis (protected peoples e.g., Christians and Jews), kuffar (infidels), women, and music all “pollute” Islam.

Nonviolent Jihadists?

Although AST has not engaged in violence, it clearly sympathizes with al-Qaeda’s worldview. In addition to posting content from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and prominent online adherents such as Hani al-Sibai, the group has also explicitly promoted the terrorist network’s jihadist cause. For example, during last month’s Eid al-Adha holiday, AST released a statement congratulating the “mujahedin” of the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamic Maghreb Emirate, and “loved ones” in Somalia. The group also asked God “to grant victory to the mujahedin, raise the word of Islam, and bring together Muslims and rout the enemies of Islam, like the Jews, Christians, atheists, and apostates.”

Indeed, AST’s program is similar to those of al-Muhajiroun in Britain and Revolution Muslim in the United States, insofar as they promote a radical interpretation of Islam without explicitly endorsing violence. Yet actions such as attacking secular students and taking the dean of the University of Manouba hostage on November 28 for banning the veil suggest that Tunisia’s Salafis are becoming more brazen in their attempts to change the country. In the coming months, then, the new government will need to begin the process of containing Salafism alongside the tasks of writing the new constitution and reviving the economy. Left unchecked, Salafist trends could destabilize the nascent transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

For Washington, this challenge provides an opportunity to engage Tunis on security and deradicalization in the context of a democratic Arab state. It also provides a good barometer for determining the extent to which Ennahda is willing and able to transform into a truly moderate Islamic political party.