1. Eid al-Fitr Promotional Videos: Islamic State vs. Jabhat al-Nusra

    Two Eid al-Fitr promotional productss were released this week from competing jihadist organizations. It would seem that each was created to target a Western audience. One was far more superior than the other. Here’s my analysis:

    The first was released by Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. The video shows Abu Hurayrah al-Amriki, an American of Palestinian-Italian origin, who carried out a suicide operation in Mount al-Arba’een in Idlib. The video was released on July 25th through Jabhat al-Nusra’s al-Manara al-Baydha’ Media Foundation.

    Here’s a clip from the 17 minute video:

    The video shows Abu Hurayrah detonating a truck laden with 16 tons of explosives at the al-Fanar restaurant, which the group regarded as “one of the most important stationing points of the Nusayri army”.

    Yesterday, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) released a follow up video, this one a 31 minute monologue by Hurayrah.

    Watch the monologue here:

    The Islamic State also released a new promotional video yesterday, titled, “On the Path of Prophecy.” It was released by the al-Furqan Foundation.

    It’s a 36 minute video filled with celebratory parades, military operations, drive by shootings, destruction of Shi’a tombs, and Pieter Van Ostaeyen states, “above all executions,” the “last 2 minutes made me think of Khmer Rouge.”

    Here’s the thing: al-Furqan’s video obliterates both videos released by Jabhat al-Nusra. As Aaron Zelin, puts it, it’s “not even a competition.”

    There are several reasons why this is true. Let’s begin with Jabhat al-Nusra’s decisions. First, the two videos focus solely around an individual, Abu Hurayrah, who speaks very shaky Arabic and was better suited for a straight jacket than a suicide vest.

    A few analysts who’ve watched the video note how deranged he seems to be. SITE Intel Group notes that he “speaks in fragmented sentences—often ending his thoughts midway and starting new ones.”

    Another factor is Abu Hurayrah’s isolation. In the first video chronicling the actual suicide operation, Hurayrah is seen smiling and happy, but there are very few people with him. It gives the impression that either 1. his mission wasn’t important enough to garner support from a large number of fighters or 2. perhaps Jabhat al-Nusra’s forces are depleted. Either way, it isn’t a good look.

    The final important note is that Jabhat al-Nusra chose a singular act instead of an overarching story. The video focused on an American’s journey to Syria and his subsequent “martyrdom” operation. As far as recruitment goes, it only delivers a message of glory through death, with no real alternative rewards.

    The Islamic State’s newest video has slick editing, stylized graphics and excellent camera work. The video provides a variety of things for which prospective Western audiences could get excited over. The video opens with a montage of parades in which huge numbers of fighters roll through cheering crowds in massive armored vehicles, both showing strength of force and appreciation from the masses.

    What follows are a number of battle videos, including one in which a sole Chevy truck sprints towards a large group of enemy forces with a gunner in the truck bed firing away. It gives the impression of the bravery of the Islamic State soldiers, as well as a look into strategy and tactics.

    The drive by shootings and the destruction of Shi’a mosques really only amplify the notion of the Islamic State’s power. It also implicitly tells Western audiences that as far as sectarian violence is concerned, almost anything goes. Sectarian tensions are a major reason for muhajireen in both Syria and Iraq.

    The end of the video is a montage of executions committed by the Islamic State. I see this included less for Western audiences and more for the group’s enemies as a psychological attack. The horrifying images do their part.

    The difference in the videos from the two groups is just another example of the widening chasm in overall marketing strategy between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

     

  2. A Year of Dismissing the Islamic State: Why Perception Change is Needed

    Roughly a year ago, I read a report by Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on Iraqi jihadist groups and specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Published on Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment website, the report analyzed then recent advances made by ISIS. The conclusion of Tamimi’s report wasn’t necessarily a warning; perhaps an illumination is more appropriate.

    “ISIS is clearly not a force to be dismissed as marginal without any real support on the ground, even as its presence is undoubtedly sparking backlash in many areas. Above all, these recent developments as regards ISIS’ expansion vindicate to an extent my prediction in March in a guest post for Syria Comment about the emergence and establishment of jihadist strongholds in the north and east of Syria.”

    This report came out on July 18th, 2013. Not very many people knew about ISIS at that time. The group was confined to Aleppo and Idlib governorates. The main storylines coming out of Syria relating to rebel groups mainly dealt with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). People who followed the Syrian conflict knew about ISIS, but the group was just a piece of a muddled picture where geographical location often meant more than group affiliation.

    Four months later, Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, claimed ISIS was a major player in northern Syria because of its “capability to exploit superior levels of financing and resources — essentially, to spread itself thinly enough to exert influence and/or control, but not too thin as to be overpowered by rivals.”

    Reports of the group’s brutal tactics in Raqqa overshadowed a more disturbing fact – ISIS was creating a fully functional bureaucracy. In November 2013, images from social media showed ISIS-run schools in Jarablus, Raqqa , Hasakah , and Aleppo. Images from social media showed ISIS headquarters in Raqqa and Azaz. Images of ISIS-controlled police stations, courts, and public transportation were also posted to social media sites in November 2013.

    What had happened in the four-month period since Tamimi’s report? How had ISIS gone from an overlooked group to a power player? It began in April, when ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the group had merged with JN. Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of JN, was non-committal to Baghdadi’s claim and followed up by publicly pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda central’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.

    The back and forth arguments continued until early June, when Zawahiri ruled that JN was the sole al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and that the two groups should operate independently. Baghdadi replied on June 15th, with an audio message that dismissed Zawahiri’s orders. One JN soldier said at the time, “Defying the orders of Zawahiri is a black dot on Baghdadi’s career,” a prediction most agreed with. And why not? Al-Qaeda had been the most influential terrorist organization for over a decade.

    In his June 15th message, Baghdadi said, “It remains, and we will not compromise; we will not give up […] until we die”. I bring this up because on July 22nd, 2013, ISIS carried out raids on the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons on the outskirts of Baghdad. They failed at Taji, but succeeded at Abu Ghraib, where somewhere between 500 and 1,000 inmates, including some senior al-Qaeda members, were able to escape.

    The attack made headlines around the globe. It was sophisticated. It required precise coordination, expert strategic planning, and several willing suicide bombers. Al-Monitor, a prominent Middle East news outlet, claimed the attacks required “recalculations…to evaluate al-Qaeda’s capabilities.”

    Up until that point, ISIS was just a group that the media often confused with JN. Reports on ISIS invariably tagged the group as an “al-Qaeda affiliate”. Baghdadi’s June 15th message didn’t make it enemies with al-Qaeda or JN, but it was evidence of autonomy.

    Since then, forces in Syria joined efforts to remove ISIS from Syria. For a few days in early January it seemed this coalition was succeeding, forcing ISIS to retreat. Yet, from its stronghold in Raqqa, the group eventually began to expand again. In February 2014, al-Qaeda completely disavowed ISIS, though it didn’t seem to affect Baghdadi’s vision.

    All of this brings me to June 29th, 2014. A year and two weeks after rebuking Zawahiri’s ruling, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, the spokesperson for ISIS, announced the group had removed “of Iraq and Syria” from its name, and in doing so declared its occupied territory a new caliphate, wherein Baghdadi was named the Caliph.

    This occurred after the group displayed its power by capturing the city of Mosul in Iraq. But even so, many analysts thought the announcement unwise and predicted an imminent collapse.

    Critics asserted that the global Muslim community would reject the Islamic State and unify against it. And there were many who rejected the new caliphate. But there were also a surprising number of groups who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. There were even members of al-Qaeda branches who gave their support, including a few of the leading members of JN.

    Critics claimed that because the group now controlled large areas of Iraq and northern Syria, they had bitten off more than it could chew. Yet, these critics forgot two very important characteristics of ISIS strategy. The first, as Lister stated, is their ability to find a balance when spreading themselves thin. The second, which was alluded to in a recent New York Times article, is that the Islamic State has a concrete vision of creating an actual state.

    The evidence has been available on social media for the past year. Media scoffed at the group’s public relations events. There were laughs when ISIS ice cream parties hit the newsstands. I’m not criticizing those who found it ridiculous; it’s a stark contrast to the barbaric executions the group also commits.

    Yet, the group also constantly releases videos and photos of public service events- fixing roads, delivering food, and distributing Zakat- that are rarely mentioned. Again, these acts in no way make up for the brutal terror waged by the group; the point is to show that ISIS is providing rigid and efficient bureaucracy that has long been absent in the areas it now rules over.

    When Baghdadi and ISIS were criticized back in June 2013 for the way they handled arbitration with Zawahiri, the group didn’t respond by apologizing and making amends. They followed with audacious attacks on two of the most secure prisons in Iraq.

    Criticism following the June 29th announcement of the caliphate is proving to affect the Islamic State in the same way it did a year earlier: it’s not. Instead, the group pulled off operations on July 23rd, 2014, that, in light of their scope, may be even more ridiculous than the raids that took place almost exactly a year before.

    The major operation occurred in Raqqa, the capital of the new caliphate and the group’s guinea pig of governance. Several hundred Islamic State fighters attacked the Division 17 base just north of the city. The base is nearly a third the size of the city itself and is strategically vital to the Syrian regime because it provides Syrian forces with the ability to bomb Raqqa from the ground.

    The group announced today that they had succeeded in capturing the base, though so far photos only indicate the southeast section of the base is under their control. However, what is more significant is the operations simultaneously taking place elsewhere.

    In the Salahhudin province of Iraq, the Islamic State carried out several operations in Dhuluiya, Samarra, and Tikrit. In Anbar there were further operations in areas of Hit, al-Karma and Ramadi. In Diyala there were multiple operations in Jalawla. In Mosul the group captured the State Company for Drug Industries and Medical Appliances.

    Operations also took place just outside of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Once again, the group attempted to raid the Taji prison, and once again they were denied. However, explosions were heard throughout the city overnight, and the group carried out two car bombings the following morning.

    Other than the major operation at Division 17, this isn’t a unique day for the Islamic State. On any given day the group claims responsibility for between 20 and 40 attacks throughout Syria and Iraq.

    Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran at the U.S. Department of State, recently testified at a House Foreign Affairs Committee, claiming that the Islamic State can no longer be considered a terrorist group in the traditional sense, but instead is a full fledged army. This, taken with the New York Times’ article on the group’s legitimate state operations, are eerily similar recalculations of the reality and potential of the Islamic State that emerged following their attack on Abu Ghraib prison a year ago.

    A year ago, Tamimi was stating that ISIS should not be dismissed as marginal. No one would dismiss the group as marginal now, but too many continue to underestimate the group’s capabilities. Too many continue to describe the group’s “sudden” rise as if the group had just been formed. If people want to stop being surprised by the Islamic State, they need to change their perceptions of what a terrorist group is capable of achieving.

     

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  4. I will be posting from a new venue, over at Storify

    Storify is allowing me to more easily compile events from around the world. Please check out my storify page if you are interested in my research:

    https://storify.com/davreg37

     

  5. Denouncements of the Islamic State Are Not Stopping Its Success

    In a recent article for the National, Hassan Hassan deftly noted the seriousness surrounding the Islamic State’s (IS) announcement of a Caliphate. Many suggest that the announcement will be the downfall of the radical Islamist group.

    There are certainly many jihadist organizations in Syria opposed to the move made by IS. Yet, those who claim this is because of IS’ harsh tactics - beheadings, torture, strict shari’a law - miss some of the underlying reasons for such opposition. Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is one of nine groups that declared IS’ announcement null. JN, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has many reasons to denounce a new caliphate, none more so than its own legitimacy.

    For, as an IS fighter Abu Omar summarized in an online chat with the New York Times, “Al Qaeda is an organization and we are a state. Osama bin Laden, God have mercy on him, was fighting to establish the Islamic state to rule the world, and — praise God — we have achieved his dream.”

    Of course, one fighter’s words do not reflect the actuality of the situation. However, Hassan Hassan notes that Baghdadi, the leader of the caliphate, provides the most radical challenge since the emergence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As The Boston Globe: reported, IS has created a clear—and to some, compelling—idea of citizenship and state-building in a region almost completely bereft of either.

    It is compelling to certain people because IS has provided a clear outline of its intentions. A 16-point communique signed by Baghdadi encouraged individuals to look at the failures of the past: “People tried secular forms of government: republic, Baathist, Safavids,” ISIS declared. “It pained you. Now is time for an Islamic state.” The underlying point here is that nowhere in the modern Middle East has there been a place that has constructed a true national identity. IS’ message appeals in particular to Sunni Muslims. As the Globe states, IS has “enlisted [Sunnis] in a project to assert the power of their religious community over the Shia, who currently dominate the territory from Iran to Lebanon.”

    Still, those who dismiss the announcement claim that it is only an idea. This is, of course, correct. It is an idea long held by Islamists, and as the IS fighter Omar said, it was the goal of Osama bin Laden. Critics claim that there simply isn’t enough support, or that those who sympathize with the movement do so passively. This unfortunately disregards the effects that social media has on such a movement.

    The New York Times recently quoted Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements, who stated that, “It is clear that the first and second generation that started Al Qaeda, most of them are supporting Zawahri, but the new generation is more radical and closer to ISIS.”

    A new generation may be more radical, but perhaps of more importance is their ability to connect with one another in cyberspace. As Spiked recently reported, “The online jihadist community is not confined to a few hundred hardcore militants. It embraces a far wider audience of passive supporters who at least emotionally identify with their active brethren.”

    Yes, the article uses the word ‘passive’, but here another point needs to be made. The IS announcement has shifted the way Muslims regard such jihadist activity. As Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution expressed following the announcement, “People don’t have to like it, but they have to respond to it…Now that there is an actual caliphate with a caliph, a lot of Muslims are going to have to talk about what that means, and there is going to be some sympathy.”

    Hassan Hassan would agree. He states that “The whispers of support to a caliph in Afghanistan are now replaced by clear words and acts, amplified by social media. Jihadism has evolved significantly. It is no longer limited to narrow “elitists” who travel to distant countries to wage jihad. Today’s jihad is more sophisticated and individualised and can be waged everywhere.”

    Today’s jihadists all have a Facebook page, says Paris journalist David Thomson. “Many speak European languages. And they can instruct recruits exactly how to come - down to what plane and bus to take and where to cross the border.”

    Days after the announcement of the new caliphate, Baghdadi released a speech in which he called on “Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty,” he said in an audio recording released on a website used by the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”

    It was released first in Arabic, but translations in English, French, Russian, German and Albanian quickly followed. These translations show that IS understands the problem that has long plagued organizations such as itself; how to spread your message to the West when the majority of the world cannot understand Arabic. Furthermore, it underlies the fact that IS knows what areas are prone to its messages.

    The French government estimates between 700 and 800 French citizens have gone to fight or are now fighting alongside jihadists in Syria since the uprising began there three years ago. Omar al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym FSB, said last October that about 500 militants from Russia and hundreds more from other ex-Soviet nations are fighting in Syria. Officials at the Bavarian state unit of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the agency responsible for monitoring extremist activity in Germany, say they have identified jihadist handbooks recommending the recruitment of fellow prisoners and that they have observed Salafist prisoners trying to convert other inmates.

    And though it is true that many groups have denounced the IS announcement, it is also true that groups in Syria, Iraq and all over the world have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and the new Islamic State. Videos and statements have emerged from the Philippines, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have defected and thrown their support behind IS. Smaller factions in Lebanon and Syria, as well as many tribal groups in Iraq have also pledged allegiance. Some may argue that small factions don’t matter, but in a region where infighting between rebel factions is rampant, a declaration for a polarizing group like IS says a lot.

    To be fair, it is unclear what the future holds for the Islamic State and those involved in its audacious plans. However, a failure to take the groups’ statements seriously is irresponsible. For a group that controls large areas in both Syria and Iraq, IS has proven that it can back up its talk.

     

  6. Jihadist Media Collection: 7/2-7/3

     

  7. Compilation of Jihadist Operations in Syria and Iraq 6/29-7/2

     

  8. Jihadist Media Productions 6/30-7/2

     

  9. Jihadist Organizations’ Reactions to “Islamic State” Announcement

    On June 29, 2014, ISIS released an audio statement in which spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph, and that the group will now simply go by the “Islamic State” (IS). Since then, reactions from various jihadist organizations have appeared across Twitter.

    Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadists in the region, stated that,

    "On the whole, it seems that IS [the "Islamic State"] is so far not succeeding in winning over global jihadi opinion. A substantial number of influential clerics have come out against it, while IS has only a few lightweight figures to show for thus far."

    Still, I think it is important to know which groups have pledged Baya’a, because it could have future implications on the size and strength of rivaling organizations.

    I’ve taken a couple of these reactions from Hegghammer’s blog, and I’ve placed an ‘*’ next to those. The rest come from my own social media sources.

    *Locals in Raqqa began to celebrate:

    al-Furqan media published a profile of Sheikh Abdullah Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, aka Abu Bakr al-Quraishi al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, in which they discuss his connections in Sammarah and Diyala, his military expertise, and his ability to connect various tribes through pledges of allegiance. 

    Here are screenshots of the profile:

    image

    image

    image

    Memri put together a great compilation of supporters in the West, which you can view here.

    Dr. Saad Al Omari , a Sheikh from Saudi Arabia, has pledged allegiance to IS:

    image

    He also tweeted that those close to him in Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen have also pledged allegiance to IS.

    *Elsewhere outside the Levant, pro-ISIS supporters in Libya cheered the announcement.

    Sheikh Bilal Chaouachi (Ansar al Sharia, Tunisia) allegedly called on Muslims to give Bayah to The Islamic State:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BrYi7aDCUAAcZUU.jpg

    Sheikh Abu Bara ‘al-Shami, the Emir of Jaish al-Sahaba, has also pledged allegiance in a statement posted today. This is a very small group.

    The Free Sunnis of Baalbek announced its loyalty to IS.  

    “We announce our allegiance, with all pride, to the [ISIS chief] Mujahid Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph of the Muslims,” a statement posted on the group’s twitter feed read.

    “We also announce our full support for what [ISIS] is doing for Islam.”

    The statement added that it was “the duty of all Muslims to work towards finding a caliph who can set up rule by sharia law.”

    Hizb-ut-Tahrir, came out against IS’ Khilafa announcement.

    A Sheikh in al-bab, Aleppo issued a fatwa that God won’t accept fasting of those who don’t love IS.

    image

    *A faction of al-Qaeda’s Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) also announced its allegiance:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BrXfh8xIYAAJw8q.jpg

    Mujahideen of East Indonesia have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and IS:

    Here is an image from the video:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BrczWNACEAAd15Q.jpg

    There are reports that the Albu Fahd clans pledged allegiance as well. However, this would conflict with previous military operations by the tribe that fought against the then Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

    Nine groups, all of which have long been opposed to the Islamic State, have all rejected the announcement in a statement presented this afternoon, in which they state, "the announcement by the rejectionists [the Islamic State] of a caliphate is null and void," both "legally and logically."

    According to The Long War Journal,

    The groups include the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel coalition that includes the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham, and the Majlis Shura al Mujahideen (MSM) in Deir Izzor. The MSM is an alliance of groups, including the Al Nusrah Front, that is opposed to the Islamic State in eastern Syria.

    In a series of tweets in both English and Arabic, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a top sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, sharply criticized the Islamic State’s announcement. While using the hashtag #Khilafah_Proclaimed in his tweets, Abu Sulayman argued that the Islamic State’s failure to consult jihadi leaders before making the announcement “is a clear breach of Islam.”

    "The situation has not changed at all here," Abu Sulayman said in one tweet, referring to Syria. "Only difference I see is there is a stronger ‘Islamic’ justification for them [the Islamic State] to kill Muslims." The Islamic State has long justified the killing of other rebel fighters and leaders by arguing that it is the only legitimate authority in Iraq and Syria.

    Abu Sulayman, who is from Australia, served as a mediator during al Qaeda’s early attempts to reconcile the ISIS with other jihadist groups in Syria. When those efforts failed, he became a vocal critic of the ISIS and is now a staunch opponent of the Islamic State.

    Here is an image of that statement:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BrZvQA3IUAApW8I.jpg:large

    Ansar al-Islam, an jihadist group in northern Iraq, pledged allegiance to IS, in a surprise move that came after a previous periods of violent armed conflicts between the two sides about the influence and resources.

     

  10. 17 Articles on the #Islamic_State (#IS), #Iraq and #Syria 6/30

    This article gives an intimate background of the Islamic State’s (IS) background, including a detailed breakdown of operations in various regions of Iraq.

    This article discusses the implications of IS’ announcement of a new Islamic Caliphate.

    This article gives three reasons why officials believe IS to be the most dangerous threat out there.

    This article lists alleged violent plots in Europe involving Syria returnees since October 2013.

    This article gives a background on the SCUD missile seen in images coming from an IS parade in Raqqa today.

    This article discusses how  IS jihadists have locked down the Syrian city of Raqqa and are shipping in new weapons, including missiles from Iraq.

    This article examines how IS is overshadowing al-Qaeda for global leadership of the jihadist movement. 

    This article looks into how opponents of IS have taken to social media to combat the group’s online presence.

    This article (released on the 28th) examins how groups like IS attain their funding.

    The Institute for the Study of War released a map/graphic on the 27th of the current situation in Iraq.

    This article reports on how IS has assigned a man identified as Abdel Salam al-Ordoni as the organization’s “prince,” i.e. leader in Lebanon.

    This article examines how IS’ recent influx in cash and weaponry may affect the battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria.

    This article discusses what IS’ declaration of a Caliphate actually means.

    This article reports on how IS may have captured over $500 million worth of weaponry that was recently imported into Syria.

    This article, by the brilliant Aaron Zelin, discusses Syria’s significance in the future of jihad because of the potential for foreign fighters to export their experience back home.

    This article provides analysis on how the US can guard itself from IS or other jihadists attempting to infiltrate the country.

    This article provides a detailed report on foreign fighters from the Western Balkans who are currently fighting in Syria.